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Switching hats

Perseverance staff juggle multiple roles at the theater

Posted: September 13, 2012 - 12:00am  |  Updated: September 13, 2012 - 7:14am
Art Rotch, Perseverance Theatre's Executive Artistic Director, left, talks with actors Kevin T. Bennett, center, and Bostin Christopher during rehearsal of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." The play opens Perseverance Theatre's season on Friday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Art Rotch, Perseverance Theatre's Executive Artistic Director, left, talks with actors Kevin T. Bennett, center, and Bostin Christopher during rehearsal of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." The play opens Perseverance Theatre's season on Friday.

Art Rotch normally wears at least two hats at Perseverance Theatre: in the office he’s the Executive Artistic Director and in the theater itself he’s often part of the design team. This season he’ll be doing set design for “Oklahoma!” as well as “Seminar” and “the road weeps, the well runs dry. “ He’ll also be adding third hat, one that’s fairly new to him, that of director. He directs the first play of the season, “Of Mice and Men.”

He’s not the only one with triple billing: Bostin Christopher, who signed on as marketing director and artistic associate at Perseverance last year, has a lead role in “Of Mice and Men,” and then takes the director’s position for “Betrayal,” the third play in this season’s lineup.

And Shona Strauser, director of education in the office, will direct “Oklahoma!” and then move directly into a lead role in “Betrayal.”

Switching roles does more than provide new challenges for these theater professionals, it also helps them gain perspective on their areas of expertise from a different position, strengthening team communication and cooperation in a realm where these concepts are of paramount importance.

Rotch said directing “Of Mice and Men” — the first production he has directed for Perseverance — has so far been an enjoyable combination of surprises and familiarity. One surprise: he didn’t know as much about costume design as he thought.

“Set designers have to think about ... conceptualizing the production as a whole: when is it, what color is it, what texture is it. Lighting designers work a lot on the nuts and bolts of how we get from a moment to a moment to a moment, and the rhythm of the piece, how the piece is put together ... Costume designers really dig into, who are these people, what are they made of? So I really learned a lot about that design element, from these actors, actually, and from having this role.”

Rotch received his master’s at New York University’s Tisch school, where he studied set and lighting design. He said for “Of Mice and Men” he made sure to bring on designers he could trust — Matthew Allar on set design and Danielle Sheehan on lighting — so he could keep his focus where it belonged.

“I made sure that I wouldn’t be tempted to do that myself,” he said with a smile.

Last spring Rotch directed Brandon Demery’s “I Am My Own Wife” (not a Perseverance production) and was pleased with the results. He said he’ll likely evaluate his future directing options on a case-by-case basis. “Of Mice and Men” is a play he’s very familiar with and fond of, and he chose to direct it for that reason.

“For the last few years — not quite every season but almost every season — there’s been one that I really picked in part because I loved the play and wanted to work on it somehow,” he said. “This was definitely of that lot, this was something that meant a lot to me personally. So I kept (the director role) open for a while.”

Rotch said he feels directing will help strengthen multiple aspects of his current roles at Perseverance.

“It will make me much better at working with other directors, much better at being an artistic director,” he said. “How much I’ll do it, I don’t know. ... I think something will come along and I’ll want to do this again.”

Like Rotch, Christopher said he also makes the decision to direct based on his connection to a particular play — and that is how he got his start.

”I started directing in the late ’90s because there was a play I found that I really loved, but there was no part in it for me, and so I thought, ‘oh I guess I have to direct it then.’” Christopher said. “There’s many plays like that, where you think, I would love to work on that piece, or it speaks to you in some way, specifically.”

Christopher plays Lennie in “Of Mice and Men,” and directs Pinter’s “Betrayal” later this season. He’s been an actor longer than he’s been a director, but enjoys both and finds they feed each other.

“Acting, for sure, helps you as a director because you’re working with actors,” he said. “I think of myself as a storyteller, no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m acting or directing or producing or whatever it is. I’m telling a story. And getting the chance to work with professional designers and getting a chance to work with a strong team of actors and putting all those things together — there’s a real joy in that.”

Christopher received his bachelor’s in theater from UAA and his master’s in dramatic art from UNC at Chapel Hill. He arrived at Perseverance last year to help with their expansion to Anchorage, and directed the first play of last season, “The 39 Steps,” which was enormously popular with local audiences. He also took on — at the very last minute — the role of The Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol” when the original actor was unable to fulfill the position. Being an active artist is part of the reason he’s here, he said.

“I came here for a specific reason, that was to help with the expansion to Anchorage, but also to work as an artist, and get the opportunities to act and direct, and that’s happening. That feels really good,” he said.

Perseverance staff member Strauser, Artistic Associate and Director of Education, also straddles the line between office and theater. Strauser is well known for her work with local youth, working as an artist in residence in the schools, and with Perseverance’s Young Company and with university students out at UAS. This season she’ll be taking on the direction of “Oklahoma!” and then immediately acting in one of three main roles in “Betrayal.” (Juneau audiences will no doubt be glad to see Strauser back on stage after a long absence.) After that, she and Christopher will take “Betrayal” to Anchorage for a second run.

Whew.

All the juggling and the pressure of deadlines can be overwhelming, but Rotch and Christopher said they try to remember that though their work is important, it isn’t life or death.

“Right now we’re in that phase of working 12 and 14 hours a day, trying to make this thing happen, trying to get this show open, and there’s a challenge in that. But that’s the fun,” Christopher said.

“And we’re so lucky to be able to do this where we are,” Rotch said, adding that the pressures in New York, for example, would be much more intense.

“There’s a little more at ease-ness here,” Christopher agreed. “More perspective on what’s important.”

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