The Fantasticks: An Interview with Robert Spencer

The Fantasticks began Off-Broadway in 1960 and went on to become the world’s longest running musical with over 21,000 performances in New York. While the production closed in June 2017, it lives on as a classic piece of musical theatre.

Cast member, Robert Spencer, who plays the role of Henry in In Tandem’s production of The Fantasticks, played the role of Matt in the 1960’s. We sat down with him to get his perspective on this charming, whimsical musical and his fascinating acting career.

The cast of The Fantasticks Off-Broadway. Robert Spencer is one in from the left.

The cast of The Fantasticks Off-Broadway. Robert Spencer is one in from the left.

How did you get started in acting?   

As a child, I loved to sing and my parents determined that I was destined to be the next Frank Sinatra.  When I was seventeen years old, I began studying voice at The Russell Wood musical workshop in downtown Chicago.  Mr. Wood also produced scaled down Broadway musicals on the weekends.  Within three weeks, he threw me into the chorus of Guys and Dolls.  On opening night, as we were singing the finale, I distinctly remember thinking, “I don’t want to be the next Frank Sinatra, I want to be a Broadway Musical Comedy Star!”  Soon after that, I was being cast in leading roles.  Developing the personalities and behaviors of the characters I was playing captured my imagination and I knew, “I no longer just wanted to be a musical comedy star, I wanted to be a serious actor” and I sought out the best acting teacher in town, Minnie Galatzer.  She taught “The Method,” a popular acting training program that was developed by the great Russian theatre practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavski.  I loved this method of study, as well as my subsequent training after I moved to New York in 1957.  I have been a professional actor for 63 years.

What was it like playing Matt in The Fantasticks Off-Broadway?
It was a dream come true.  My personal manager, Carly Mills, was also Kenneth Nelson’s (the original Matt in The Fantasticks) manager.  I was in Bye Bye Birdie at the time, and on one of my nights off, he took me to see the show.  I was completely enthralled with the production, and vowed that I would play Matt, someday.  Four years later, I had the opportunity to audition for the role.  There was a line of young men that went around the block at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, also wanting to land that plumb part.  And much to my surprise, I GOT IT!  I loved playing Matt.  Discovering new and unexpected facets of his character was very satisfying to me.

How long did you play Matt in The Fantasticks?
I played Matt for one year and ten months.  It’s the longest I’ve ever played any role.

What is it like to be back in The Fantasticks, this time in the role of Henry?
I am having the time of my life.  To be a part of this phenomenal cast that Jane and Chris have assembled is a real treat at this point in my professional life.  When I was in the Off-Broadway production, every time Henry made his entrance, I fantasized what it would be like to play that role someday.  It only took 53 years to fulfill that fantasy.  I am one happy camper.   

What is your favorite thing about The Fantasticks?
The score.  It’s not only wonderful music, it totally supports, and furthers the narrative of this, delicate, beautiful love story. 

What has your favorite role to play, in any show?
It’s a toss-up between The Emcee in Cabaret and Norman the dresser in The Dresser.

Are there any parts that you never got to play that you wish you could? Any parts that you hope to play in the future?
I really don’t have a specific list of roles I want to play.  Through the years, I’ve pretty much taken whatever has come my way.  I have been blessed with many great roles in my lifetime.  I am about to play a role I’ve had my eye on for some time.  I’ve been asked to play Fool to James Pickering’s King Lear this summer for Optimist Theatre.  I am “chomping at the bit” to work on this one. 

What is the best piece of advice you ever got about acting, and from whom?
Be Present.  Listen.  Play your intentions.  Have fun.  These simple, practical words of wisdom came from Eve Collyer, my New York acting teacher.

What are some of your favorite moments during your acting career?
Being cast in the original production of Bye Bye Birdie, my first Broadway Show.  And stepping onto the stage for the first time at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

The Fantasticks at In Tandem Theatre performs April 27 – May 20, 2018. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 414-271-1371, visit us in-person at 628 N. 10th Street, Milwaukee WI, 53233 (Monday-Friday 10am-5pm), or click here.

Out Goes the Tide, In Comes the Youth

 

Draw Write Here Class

The Draw Write Here! class presenting work that they created from The Outgoing Tide.

DRAW WRITE HERE!, created by Helene Fischman, brings together local artists and writers for special collaborative events. For their last event, they saw In Tandem Theatre’s production of THE OUTGOING TIDE and used it as muse for creative response in their medium which they presented at the Tenth Street Theater on Tuesday, March 6. The performance sprung from the heart of the theatre, yet reached beyond its walls.

After the DRAW WRITE HERE! performance, Fischman created the following commentary based on the participant’s experiences:

“Several weeks ago, I brought my collective “Draw Write Here!” comprised of both youth and adult artists and writers, to see the In Tandem Theatre production of Bruce Graham’s, The Outgoing Tide. Taking high school students to a play prompts my radar to be up. As every dramatic detail unfolds, I am wondering if they can relate. What they can reap from the themes? In their worlds driven by technology and social media, are they finding this engaging?  The In Tandem Theatre is a great place to take teenagers because of its size, they can connect to the work because they can practically reach out and touch it. It’s a small, 99-seat studio theatre, so wherever you are seated is right up in its grill – enmeshed in the physical space of the play. You are in the air the actors breathe in an almost uncomfortable intimacy. ”

To view the full commentary, click here.

 

View a Sneak Peek of The Outgoing Tide

Gunner is beginning forget words and becoming confused. His wife, Peg, wants to move them from their beloved Chesapeake Bay home and into assisted care. Trapped by the menacing grip of an aging mind and fearful of his uncertain future, Gunner hatches an unorthodox plan to shape his own destiny.

Don’t miss the powerful drama, THE OUTGOING TIDE, February 23 – March 18, 2018. Purchase tickets at http://bit.ly/TheOutgoingTide

View a Sneak Peek of Scrooge in Rouge!

A troupe of 23 players are about to embark on a musical adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” when 20 of them come down with food poisoning, leaving only 3 actors to put on the entire show! View a sneak peek of this holiday musical here:

Don’t miss the bawdy, raucous holiday musical, SCROOGE IN ROUGE, December 1, 2017 – January 7, 2018. Purchase tickets here:http://bit.ly/ScroogeInRouge

Captivating Authors That Our Cast and Crew Recommend

Charles Dickens, Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, George Orwell. The list could go on and on. All The Great Books (Abridged) goes over a multitude of authors but not all of our favorites made it on the list. We asked our cast and crew what authors and books they love to get you started on your fall reading. (Note: If you’re looking for the answers for the company’s favorite authors in the All The Great Books (Abridged) program, these are them.)

Doug Jarecki (Actor – Gym Coach)
Favorite Author:
Stephen King
I enjoy Stephen King for a lot of reasons, but one reason in particular is that I have never seen someone who physically fits their job so well.  I mean, when you look at his picture, you think “Ah yes, terrifying horror guy…..or children’s party clown…..or both.”  Which leads me to my recommendation…
Book Recommendation: “IT.” I have not seen the recent movie, but the book itself is fantastic.  I think you’ll love it.  Unless you are a clown.  Then you might be offended.

Chris Goode (Actor – Student Teacher)
Favorite Author:
Barbara Pym
I enjoy reading Pym because her particular style of whimsical writing reminds me that life is a special and funny thing.
Book Recommendation:
“Excellent Women”

Kyla Tully (House Manager/ Administrative Assistant)
Favorite Author:
Caitlin Moran
I wish I could have read Caitlin Moran as a small town teenager – her memoirs, novels, and newspaper editorials tackle poverty, sibling dynamics, small town dreams, the patriarchy, and other incredibly personal and relevant topics with brutal honesty, hilarity  and rock’n’roll.
Book Recommendation: “How to Be a Woman”, “Yes, That’s It Exactly!”, and “How To Build A Girl”

Chris Flieller (Artistic Director)
Favorite Author:
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe was the inventor of the modern mystery genre, and was one of the first American writers to delve into the psychology of his subjects to reveal the dark and terrifying recesses of the human mind. His complete works are compiled in one posthumously published volume called “Tales of Mystery and Imagination”, which is also the title and subject by an awesome album by the Alan Parsons Project.
Book Recommendation: “Tales of Mystery and Imagination”

Thomas Darrow (Administrative Volunteer)

Favorite Author: Andrew Greely
Most of Greely’s mysteries take place in my hometown of Chicago and in places that are familiar to me which is why I love reading him.
Book Recommendation: His “Irish Love” and “Blackie Ryan” series are some of his best books.

Catarina Ebra (Crew/Dresser)
Favorite Author:
Gillian Flynn
My favorite author (at the moment) is Gillian Flynn, most well-known as the author of “Gone Girl”. Having read all of her published works of fiction, I can truly appreciate her style of fully rounded yet jaded characters, dark story lines, and “throw the book across the room” level of plot twists. I also admire how she writes her female characters, making them fully dynamic and also the antithesis of what women are supposed to be in today’s society, and how they manipulate their surroundings in order to survive in a world that doesn’t want them to thrive.
Book Recommendation: “Gone Girl”

Jonathan Leubner (Sound Designer)
Favorite Author:
John Steinbeck
I chose the American author John Steinbeck because his stories of common people, in sometimes extraordinary circumstances, have spoken to me with a familiarity like they are being told to me by an elderly and wise uncle. I have read nearly every book he wrote and the one that stands out is an autobiography called “Travels with Charley in Search of America”, which is his account of a road trip adventure that he made across the country in a modified pickup truck with his dog Charlie. It’s a great book.
Book Recommendation: “Travels with Charley in Search of America”

Ann Ricca (Marketing Manager)
Favorite Author:
Lemony Snicket
It was hard to choose just one author as my favorite but one of them is Lemony Snicket. I loved the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books as a kid and Snicket’s writing style is so unique, witty and sarcastic. You never know what he’s going to do in his stories!
Book Recommendation: “A Series of Unfortunate Events”

Pat Smith (Lighting Designer)
Favorite Author:
Nevada Barr
Barr writes about Anna Pigeon, a forest ranger turned sleuth, which I really enjoyed.
Book Recommendation: “Blind Descent”

Jane Flieller (Managing Director)
Favorite Author: Ray Bradbury
It’s difficult for me to narrow down a favorite author. I chose Ray Bradbury because I began reading his work at a very early age and one of my first theatrical projects was playing a role in a production of “I Sing The Body Electric”, the story of an electric grandmother that comes to care for a family.
Book Recommendation: “I Sing The Body Electric”

Kathy Smith (Costume Designer)
Favorite Author:
Charlotte Bronte
I chose Charlotte Bronte because she wrote “Jane Eyre”.  I remember reading “Jane Erye” when I was a teenager and then seeing the 1943 and 2011 movies. I love the first person style of storytelling and following the heroine through many emotional struggles as she matures and decides what kind of person she wants to be.
Book Recommendation: “Jane Eyre”

Megan Linzmeyer (Stage Manager)
Favorite Author: 
Meg Cabot
Book Recommendation: Any of her books!

Emily Schlemowitz (Gallery Curator)
Favorite Author: 
Jane Austen
Book Recommendation: Pride and Prejudice

Rick Graham (Set Design)
Favorite Author: 
L. Frank Baum

Ryan Schabach (Drama Professor)
Favorite Author:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Have a favorite author or book you’d like to share? Email Ann at Ann@intandemtheatre.org with your favorite author/book by Monday, October 2 at noon and be entered to win a pair of tickets to the Milwaukee Film Festival’s showing of BAD LUCKY GOAT. Winners will be contacted by email by 5pm on Monday, October 2nd. If you prefer a show time (Thursday, October 5 at 8:30pm or Saturday, October 7 at 2:15pm), please mention this in the body of your email.

A Carnival comes to In Tandem Theatre

Carnival_Photo 3 of 6

Many years ago, I was in a community theater production of Carnival back in Michigan. I loved the show: the music, the characters, the setting. About two years ago, when we were looking for a spring musical for this season, I fondly remembered Carnival and wished we could produce it but thought, “It’s so big. It would never fit on our stage.” Then I remembered that when I was in it, we had done it in a large room of an abandoned firehouse.

Shortly after that, I began a conversation with Karl Miller, a local choreographer, about Carnival. The show was a favorite of his as well, and he too, had big ideas about a smaller production. So we put it in the season and now, finally, it’s all about to begin.

A carnival is a place where you can forget your troubles – lose yourself amidst the grandeur and illusion. A carnival comes and goes, leaving you breathless and content. But what happens if you pull back the curtain, revealing the people who are the carnival – who create that grandeur and illusion? We imagine they’re people who are truly living the dream – part of something magical and special. But they’re the same as you and I, made up of many different sides and with dreams of their own.

In Carnival, Paul dreams of finding purpose again – and love. Jacquot dreams of the rebirth of the carnival of his youth – rising from the ravages of war. Marco dreams of commanding the legitimate stages of Europe. And Lili dreams of a new family – somewhere to belong. Carnival teaches us that through love and perseverance, we can reach our dreams and the tough life lessons we learn along the way are a necessary part of that journey. And, of course, it’s a great big musical with music, dancing and laughter!

I couldn’t be happier with the cast, designers, band and crew we’ve assembled and look forward to putting this show together. Our plan is to make this show an immersive experience and we’ll be transforming the hallway and lobby into a Midway, of sorts, with lots of things to see and do like Tarot readings, a Wheel-of-Fortune Game, and cut-outs for picture taking. So we recommend getting here a little on the early side to take advantage of all the fun.

-Jane

Carnival runs April 21 to May 14, 2017. Purchase tickets at 414-271-1371 or click here.

Life Through The Camera Lens: Part Two

In Time Stands Still, Sarah, a photojournalist, is injured in a war-torn country but eager to return to work. The story not only explores why Sarah puts herself in dangerous positions but also how her profession affects her family and friends. In part two of this blog series (see part one here) with photographer Michael Nelson, whose work will be on display at the 10th Street Gallery February 24- March 19, we discuss how his profession has affected his family.

  1. How has your profession affected yourself and your family?
ALBANIA-KOSOVO-U.S. RANGERS

Photo by Michael Nelson.

            Fortunately, my wife has generally been understanding of what my work involves. There have been times when I was younger and was asked to deploy with military units that she was fearful for my safety and tried to stop me from going. We are never forced into covering dangerous situations and have the choice to turn them down. I have never turned down an assignment, though I did express reservations about covering the war in Liberia. I had never covered a West African war and was not familiar with that part of Africa. The brutality and summary execution of people along tribal lines made me uneasy. Thankfully, I was not assigned to that story.

I have been fortunate in that I have not been very emotionally affected by what I have seen while covering grim stories. The camera has acted as a type of barrier to what I am seeing. I am thinking about telling the story, composing the picture, making sure the exposure settings are right, what the lens choice should be. I am not thinking about the terrible way the person has died or the suffering an injured person is going through as they are being treated or evacuated or the sorrow of a loved ones funeral. It is rare that I will just look at a scene without thinking about how I am going to depict it through a picture. I am saddened by what I am seeing, particularly by the senselessness of it. War is such a waste. A waste of life, a waste by all the destruction it causes, a waste of all the resources it takes. And in most wars I have experienced, it is not the politicians who declare the wars, or the manufacturers of weapons, or even the generals and soldiers who carry them out that suffer, it is the poor innocent civilians who are caught in it and have no choice.

  1. How did you meet your wife?

            I met my wife, Mona Sherif, at the International Language Institute in Cairo when I tried to learn Arabic and she was the Arabic teacher. She was and still is an exceptionally beautiful and exotic person of Nubian-Egyptian ancestry. After courting for almost a year, I converted to Islam and we married. Unfortunately, even after marrying the teacher, I never really learned Arabic very well.

  1. Did having children change your attitude about covering dangerous situations?

            Yes, it did. I almost missed my first child’s birth as I had left to cover the coup d’etat in Sudan at the beginning of July 1989. Fortunately, within days of returning my son, Shamseddiin, was born on 15 July.  At first, it did not have any impact as I separated work from my personal life. I had covered famines in Eritrea, Sudan and Darfur in 1985 and 1988 and had seen and photographed the same sort of scenes. It was difficult to see anyone suffer needlessness and to be helpless to do something, but (and this may sound heartless) it did not affect me personally. After spending the day shooting such scenes and then processing, printing and sending the pictures in the evening, I did not lose any sleep over what I had experienced.

However, when I covered the Somali famine in 1992, I was greatly saddened by the terrible suffering of the people but particularly of the poor children. To see malnourished children my son’s age, starving, and knowing many were in absolute misery and many would die, was heart wrenching. I wanted to do something. Pick them up, give them some food, save at least one, but that was not possible. So I took pictures. But those visions stay with me to this day and when I look at my pictures from those days, I hope they survived. But I know many of them died and it is sad. I may not have realized it at the time, but I came to understand my change in perception was due to having a child of my own that I love and would protect with my life. To think of him or my daughter suffering like that is unimaginable.

  1. What would you like people to know about the photographs that will be at the 10th Street Gallery?

 

Photo by Michael Nelson.

Photo by Michael Nelson.

The photographs are a small slice of the work I have done over the years. There are dozens and dozens of photographers around the world covering stories like those every day. They are all good people and they are all taking risks to get the story out. We all do it for different reasons. Some people find it addicting and need the thrill and excitement. Others do it because it is a way to make a living in a situation they cannot escape. Others (like me) are dutiful employees that do it because it is one of the requirements of the job. Whatever the reason, the images are important. They inform people and policymakers of what is happening.  Without such a record, wars and tragedies will go on unobserved, out of mind and unchecked.   I know many of us have become immune to the horrors of such situations, especially with all the make-believe violence that entertains us in movies, television programs and video games.

But these are real people and we need to understand that wars and gun violence (here in the US) kill and hurt people and we need to care about them and when we can do something to help, we should try.

 

Michael Nelson’s work will be displayed during the run of Time Stands Still February 24 to March 19, 2017. Purchase tickets at 414-271-1371 or click here. This exhibit is sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club Endowment. A free opening reception for the exhibit will take place Thursday, March 16 from 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. before the performance of Time Stands Still. A talk back with the cast and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel war correspondent , Margaret “Meg” Jones will take place after the performance. 

Life Through the Camera Lens: An Interview with Photojournalist Mike Nelson

During Time Stands Still, the 10th Street Gallery will present photographs from photojournalist Mike Nelson. Capturing gripping and emotional stories from across the world including Lebanon, Africa and the United States over his 35-year career, Nelson has seen the first-hand effects of war and conflict on communities and their people. Now living in Los Angeles, he works for the European Pressphoto Agency.  In preparation for his exhibit, we asked Nelson how his work has affected his life and his family in this two part blog series:

  1. When did you start photography and what was your first assignment?
Lebanon italian paratroopers

Photo by Mike Nelson.

Professionally, my first assignment (self-generated) was in Paris in 1981 on my way to Lebanon where I photographed and interviewed former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr. My first assignment when I arrived in Lebanon was covering a street battle along the Green Line in West Beirut.

  1. Where have you been to capture your photographs and why?

            In my career as a photojournalist, I have traveled extensively in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. As a wire service photographer, we monitor the news locally and decide if the story is newsworthy to cover. Because I have been a part of a major news agency most of my professional career, our offices around the world will also ask for coverage of certain stories. If there is a breaking news event like a terrorist attack or a disaster, I move on it right away. On breaking stories, the sooner you get there the better chance you have of getting access to the area. Once the authorities get organized, they limit media accessibility.

  1. What made you decide to continue with photography in places that some may consider dangerous? Do you still go to these places and if so, why (or why not)?

I was a history major in college and I wanted to experience history in the making myself. My college roommate, a Lebanese-American and political science major, suspected the Israelis were going to invade Lebanon to try and destroy the PLO. Therefore, after we graduated, he suggested traveling to Lebanon to cover the civil war. We arrived in Lebanon on Thanksgiving Day in 1981 and in June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. When you are young, you feel invincible and war is exciting. Now as I look back, I took some foolish chances during those early days in Lebanon. Once I started working for Agence France Presse (AFP) in the Middle East, I was the only American photographer they had that had any conflict experience, so they wanted me to cover war stories as well as conflicts involving the US military (Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo).

I am no longer interested in covering active war stories. They are dangerous. They are uncomfortable (you often have to sleep outside or in very rudimentary conditions), food can be difficult to come by and dealing with unsavory and suspicious militiamen at checkpoints or military bureaucracies can be scary and frustrating. If called upon, I would cover the aftermath of war. I don’t enjoy such coverage as it deals with funerals, grief, the injured and the terrible destruction of people homes, livelihoods and families.

  1. Did you have any close calls when you were out on an assignment?

    Photo by Mike Nelson.

    Photo by Mike Nelson.

Yes. In Lebanon, a Palestinian militia friend was shot in the stomach near my seaside apartment as the Israelis tried to make a landing in the middle of the night. I evacuated the landlord’s family and during the gun battle taking place on the corniche, my friend was shot. I helped him to safety but learned he died a few hours later. A television cameraman, Ken Jobson, was shot in the neck next to me by a Phalangist militiaman as we tried to take cover from sniper fire. He survived.

And bizarrely enough, one of the most frightening situations was here in the United States when I was covering the rioting that followed the police officer’s acquittal in the Rodney King beating. I was out at night in south Central covering the looting and burning and though I tried to stay with the fire fighters, I needed to drive around looking for where things were taking place. At one point, a large group of rioters carrying clubs and smashing things along the street swarmed into the road where I was stuck in traffic. I had a pretty crummy car at the time and I hunkered down and they passed by the vehicle without noticing that I was a white person. Earlier in the day, a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, had almost been beaten to death and rioters were attacking white people and Koreans. I had been very scared and got out of there right away.

Learn more about Mike Nelson’s experiences in our blog post next Monday, February 20. Nelson’s work will be on display during Time Stands Still February 24 – March 19, 2017. Purchase tickets at 414-271-1371 or click here.  A free gallery reception for the exhibit will take place Thursday, March 16 from 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. before the performance of Time Stands Still. A talk back with the cast and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel war correspondent , Margaret “Meg” Jones, will take place after the performance.