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Actor Kelcey Watson fills role of a lifetime on short notice in Blue Barn production of “Six Degrees of Separation”

July 9, 2012 2 comments

What actor Kelcey Watson did a few years ago in taking on the lead role in a play only eight days before the curtain went up doesn’t quite rise to the 42nd Street legend of a chorus girl replacing the leading lady on opening night.  But considering the part and the script were demanding and the world famous playwright would be in attendance Watson pulled off a minor miracle in not only learning his lines but giving a performance that made it appear as if he’d been rehearsing for weeks or months, not days.  He performed his feat in service of a Blue Barn Theatre (Omaha, Neb.) production of Six Degrees of Separation and its author John Guare witnessed the actor’s spot-on work and praised him for it.  Director Susan Clement-Toberer found herself in the uneviable position of replacing the actor originally cast as Paul slightly more than a week before opening night.  And as my story explains she was about to bring in someone from out of town when Watson, who had shined in a Blue Barn staging of Minstrel Show (by Max Sparber) called offering his services.  It all worked out better than anyone could have imagined and my story puts the pieces together of how this conspiracy of hearts made it happen with so short a lead time.  Watson from time to time does work at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha.  This blog contains numerous stories I’ve written about the theater and its namesake, actor John Beasley.

 

 

 

 

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Kelcey Watson, ©photo by Max Sparber

 

 

 

Actor Kelcey Watson fills role of a lifetime on short notice in Blue Barn production of “Six Degrees of Separation”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

On April 11 Omaha actor Kelcey Watson got wind a lead part was coming available with only eight days before the Blue Barn Theatre opened John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Director Susan Clement-Toberer replaced the actor originally cast as Paul — the axis around which the farce revolves. She was about to bring in someone from out-of-town when Watson called. She took it as fate.

The two met the 11th. She knew Watson, a veteran actor who won strong notices for his role in Minstrel Show at the Blue Barn last year. He’s a member of the Omaha Magic Theatre troupe.

Watson had never seen Six Degrees on stage or on screen, much less read the script.  He only knew the story’s premise of how a young, homeless black man (Paul) insinuates himself into the lives of white Fifth Avenuers.

Watson got the pivotal part after assuring Clement-Toberer he was cool having to kiss a man on stage and learning a role full of intricate dialog in a week. Oh, by the way, she added, John Guare will be here opening weekend. Gulp. Serious pressure.

She began working with Watson that same day. It was a crash course of blocking and intentions and memorizing and running lines. Lots of notes and discussion. When it would all get to be too much, they’d cat nap on the set’s pair of red vinyl sofas. Then he joined the cast for a 6 to 10 p.m. rehearsal. They did a full run-through the very first night. He followed that same schedule for a week.

Before he knew it, preview night arrived on the 18th. “It was like, whoosh, and I was there…a whirlwind of nicotine and caffeine and play reading,” Watson said. His motivation was “not failing the cast. These people had worked hard for weeks and I just happened to join in. They were really welcoming toward me. They made it kind of easy to fall into the work.” He used whatever nerves he felt to inform his part. He said, “The stakes were so high. I infused that anxiety into the character. The hardest part was getting it word perfect. It was a lot of complex verbiage to kind of eat and take in and digest.” For him “the mountain” was mastering “the thesis speech” in which he delivers a manifesto about schizophrenia, imagination, the human need to connect and Catcher in the Rye. “I knew I had the part down cold if I could do this speech.”

He’s nailed it enough to earn accolades. He couldn’t have done it, he said, without Clement-Toberer, whom he calls “a very gifted and giving director.” Of their rapport, he said, “We really did have this link that was very earnest and very sensual in some ways.” As she puts it, “We became fast and furious buddies in those eight days. I knew pretty quickly I had made the right decision. He was able to memorize his lines so rapidly and to inhabit the character and fill him out.” She said the way he brings Paul to life is “beautifully done.”

She’s never had an actor have to learn so much so fast. “It’s a helluva role and to have to jump into it in an eight day rehearsal period was a pretty intense process,  but also exhilarating. I think Kelcey worked really well under those circumstances. He really rose to the occasion.”

Why did he want the part badly enough to put himself through all that, not to mention risk being unprepared with the play’s author looking on?

“I really, really wanted to do this,” the 29-year-old said. “It really was a rare opportunity that something like this comes up.”

On a deeper level, he identified with Paul. Watson calls Paul “a lost soul” and he said the character’s desperate search for acceptance paralleled his own a few years ago. In 2001 the Omaha native, Benson High grad and former ska band lead singer left to follow his acting dream in New York. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. Things didn’t go his way. A bad attitude didn’t help.

“One of the reasons I left New York is because it really did a number on me. It kicked my ass,” he said. “I got kicked out of the Academy. I couldn’t work with people. I was such an asshole. I was trying really to find myself. I didn’t really know who I was.”

It’s why, Watson said, “I connected with Paul immediately, because he’s a loner. He’s trying to find a home.” Like Paul in the play, Watson didn’t have a place of his own in New York. He scrounged to get by, reinventing himself as needed. He said, “I’ve been down. I’ve been out. I’ve had to stay at people’s houses a few weeks here and there.”

The lure of “doing black theater” with John Beasley brought him back to Omaha. He did Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson at the Beasley Theatre. But he ultimately came back because “Omaha’s my home. It’s a place I feel safe at.”

 

 

 

Kelcey Watson and Carl Brooks in Minstrel Show 

 

 

His rediscovery of his love of acting continued at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where he did an intensive three-month workshop in 2004. “Going through Steppenwolf I learned ensemble acting,” he said. “This time I was so receptive. I learned how to trust people…to let myself go.” He brought his nuanced approach with him back home.

Omaha is where he’s come of age as an artist and as a man. Besides the comfort of  his hometown, there’s the home he’s found, too, in local theater. In his search to connect with people and ideas and emotions, he’s looking “to find that space where you can really express yourself and your feelings and be vulnerable.” The Blue Barn may be that space. “They bring the stakes up higher,” he said.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher in Six Degrees. The fact things turned out so well confirms he’s doing what he’s supposed to. “It’s amazing to me the cast said things like, ‘You’re our hero’ and ‘Thanks for saving us.’ This is what I love to do,” he said. “I went to school for this stuff. I’m still in debt because of it.”

Clement-Toberer said when told what Watson had to do to ready himself for the part that Guare, who attended the April 20 show, complimented the actor, saying, “It was as if he was inventing it right on the spot.” Watson said that before Guare left the theater, the playwright turned to him and said, admiringly, “Eight days, huh?.” Watson could only smile.

She said Guare explained how he “thinks of characters in colors” but often finds oranges miscast as purples. “He felt with this production the cast of colors was appropriate across the board. He said, ‘Of course, if you can’t find the right color, then you cast Kelcey.’” It’s the kind of comment theater legends are born of.

 

 

 

John Guare

Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”


Back when the Great Plains Theatre Conference and its founder Jo Ann McDowell brought in a veritable who’s-who of American theater, playwright John Guare was one of those luminary figures who came and dazzled locals. The following story I wrote for the City Weekly was based on a phone interview I did with the artist. The Omaha appearance referenced in the story was not for the festival itself, but for a production of his play Six Degrees of Separation by the Blue Barn Theatre. Guare made himself available to the cast and crew and was reportedly quite impressed with the production. I saw the show directed by Susan Clement Toberer and I must say it was well done.

 

 

 

 

Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly

 

Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell’s world class theater ties made possible this weekend’s Omaha appearance by celebrated New York playwright John Guare. Guare is a Tony, Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle Award winner. He’s coming here at McDowell’s express invitation to discuss his best known work, Six Degrees of Separation (1990).

He’ll be in residence at MCC’s Fort Omaha campus, host of the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC) that McDowell co-directs with Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee. Guare can’t make that event, but his April visit is a nod to the theater colony McDowell’s forging at Metro and a preview of the GPTC, which is all about craft.

In Omaha Guare will introduce the Blue Barn Theatre’s April 21 production of Six Degrees and participate in a talkback session. On April 22 at Metro he’ll present a noon screening of the same-titled 1993 film he adapted from his own play and attend a 1:30 p.m. reception.

By phone, Guare discussed his work, the state of American theater and why theater angels like McDowell are important.

Six Degrees is inspired by a real-life incident in which a young black man posing as actor Sidney Poitier’s son insinuated himself into the lives of rich, white Fifth Avenuers. The piece unfolds as a breathless tell-all that’s meant to, as Guare says, “go like the wind. It’s a story these people couldn’t wait to tell us. So urgent, we had to grab the audience by the lapels and tell it to them.” Thus, characters directly address the audience at times.

“This is really life or death that they tell this most extraordinary thing that’s come into their lives,” Guare said.

To accentuate this naked need to bare all, the staging calls for a minimalist set that exposes people in stark relief. “I just wanted to concentrate on the story and not get tied down in all naturalistic trappings,” he explained.

For the film version, which he “loved,” he never considered having characters talk to the camera. “You can’t do that. See, movies are essentially…a documentary medium. The color camera is recording documentary reality. The theater is a place of poetry, where the text creating the scenery, the lighting, the costumes creates the life of the play in our engaged, enrapt minds.”

He uses farce to express the greed, ego, white guilt and fear behind these WASPish “victims” compulsive retelling of events. “We see how the story helps them rise up the social scale as more and more people want to hear this story,” he said. “Their main fear is losing their life(style). That they’re just one step ahead of the sheriff.”

Laid bear is the human conceit of ever knowing someone different than ourselves.

Even when he focuses on lower class denizens, as in his play The House of Blue Leaves or his screenplay Atlantic City, his work is about lost dreams and disconnected lives. Or, as he puts it, “what people tell themselves in order to get through the day and what happens when that gets challenged, and that’s the same thing whether it’s people in the trailer park or on Fifth Avenue.”

Desperation drives his characters. He’s written that “avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.” Otherwise, he leaves the idea of his themes “for critics.”

He enjoys farce. “Well, I just love to laugh. I mean, I love the freedom. You come to the theater to let down your guard and there’s no better way to let down your guard than through laughter,” he said. That liberation allows him to express our modern hysteria. “That’s exactly it,” he said. “I think we live in farcical times.”

That’s not to say all his works are farces. “My Lydie Breeze play are certainly not farces,” he said, “although they have farcical elements in them. You don’t write out of the same mode every time. It’s what the material demands. And that’s what makes it hard for critics because you keep changing your hats all the time. You have to keep changing your hats so you don’t become bored or become stale.”

He adores Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz. She won a Tony for Blue Leaves “and was brilliant,” he said, filling in for Stockard Channing in Six Degrees. He knew this was Kurtz’s hometown, but was surprised it’s the adopted home of playwright Megan Terry (Viet Rock), a Yale Fellow with he and Sam Shepard in 1966. Terry, a veteran of New York’s Open Theatre, was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. “I have very fond memories of Megan,” he said. His only previous stop in Nebraska came on a ‘64 cross-country road trip. When he couldn’t pay a speeding fine, he holed up at a Lincoln Y until friends sent him the money.

 

Swoosie Kurtz house of blue leaves

Swoosie Kurtz in The House of Blue Leaves

 

 

Guare’s also well aware Omaha’s a theater haven thanks in part to Metro’s Jo Ann McDowell, whom he credits for nurturing American theater.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “Jody is an absolute fountainhead of inspiration. You should know how lucky Omaha is to have Jody, who is this force of nature about ensuring there’ll be a future and bringing the generations together and getting the best out of everybody.”

He said figures like McDowell are vital given the “perilous state” of theater in America, where “things are difficult because the arts get meager support from the government compared to every other nation in the Western civilized world.”

Events like the Great Plains allow established artists such as himself to pass the torch. “You’re passing it on,” he said. “You have to let young people know there’s a theater out there waiting for them. I love teaching. I love working with other playwrights.” The Queens native has taught at Yale and previously at Harvard and New York University. He began the playwrighting program at Juilliard.

Despite challenges, he’s encouraged by what lies ahead for theater. “There’s work today that’s absolutely thrilling,” he said. “A student of mine at Yale named Terrell McCraney is just the future. He’s just a magnificent young writer.”

Guare and his wife Adele Chatfield-Taylor live in New York and, for three months each year, in Rome, Italy, where she’s president of the American Academy, a center for artists and scholars doing independent study. Located on 11 acres on the highest part of Rome, he’ll be at work there while the GPTC unfolds here. He has a new play opening at New York’s Public Theater next season.

 

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