I have found my grail…

J. S. Lee poses with Spamalot cast member, George Dinsmore

Guest blog by J.S. Lee

I have found my grail.

My earliest introduction to any form of onstage entertainment was through Phantom of the Opera. I was being driven by a neighbor to Vacation Bible School and he had just been to see it in New York. He had the music on … wait for it … a cassette tape. We listened to it every day for a week. I subsequently became the only kid in a small school to have fallen in love with this form of entertainment. Consider for a moment, being the kid where you’re already made fun of for the glasses and braces you just got (at the same time BTW), your outspoken love of Star Trek, a lack of understanding of ‘social norms’, and a myriad of other things. Then show up one day and talk about your love for something called Phantom of the Opera without the ability to articulate why you love it and see what happens. I was already a sensitive kid and cried about most things. Then one day a teacher said something to me that more or less informed who I’ve become. To paraphrase (because the original version was a little harsh), “Those people just want to upset you and you’re giving them what they want. Stop letting them and they’ll move on.”

Twenty years later I still find myself learning and growing from that one profoundly simple idea. I found myself, over time, embracing things that the ‘cool’ kids didn’t like. I unabashedly admitted to being weird and generally embraced that other people’s version of weird was my version of normal. Then something amazing happened. I found other people who shared these concepts. It was like a small slice of heaven to find out that I could be me and people would genuinely like being around me. Through this process, I forged friendships with people that would change my life even more. I started acting in plays in high school. I started a small theatre group with a good friend from high school. We produced our own plays, many of which were written by us. It was during this time that I started seeing video tapes of myself on stage and realized that I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing up there and recognized that acting was most definitely not my forte. Then our company got invited to be a group of people running a haunted house. From there, they allowed us to basically take over with concepts, story, design, acting, etc. Suddenly I was thrust into the technical side of things and recognized my love of being behind the scenes and my ability to handle the very specific stress of what that entails. Now, pair all that up with my side project of running lights and sound for a great friend of mine in a local band (my music/sound mentor) and blamo, here I am.

I worked a few shows here and there, but it was Harbison Theatre that gave me a chance to be the sound guy full time. I worked that road house for about 2 ½ years. I got to work with everyone from local theatres and organizations, various church groups, stand-up comics, and even a few international folks. I kept learning my craft (something I’ll never stop doing) and kept meeting more and more amazing people from all walks of life. All with different skill sets, talents, and ideas about life. Each of these people have had some impact on my life. After I left Harbison, something else amazing happened. And if you want to know what it is, you’ll have to read the next paragraph. Let’s all be honest, I get a little wordy and you may have given up by now, but I’ve basically been setting you up for the next part, so don’t crap out on me now.

One day, I get a phone call from a friend telling me that Danny Harrington is looking for a sound guy to do a show. I thought, “Sure, I’ve worked with Danny before, should be fun”. What I didn’t know was the whirlwind of crazy was about to occur. Town Theatre has a long and rich history. Walking into my first show I had the feeling of excitement, with a side of trepidation. I know enough theatre people to know that there’s a family element with Town and I didn’t know what to expect being the new guy. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to work more than one show. In fact, the only show I technically committed to was Spamalot. I told Danny that I would do what I could, but I’d do Spamalot even if my arm was off. The next thing I know, I’m rearranging my schedule to do every show Town could throw at me. Even the rentals. What I found since I’ve been there is exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for when I was a kid. The ability to come in and do what I love, be myself, work with incredibly talented people, and have some of the most fun I’ve had since my haunted house years. That trepidation I felt? It melted away immediately after working one show. That family I spoke of? I learned quickly that it’s a family with arms wide open. (You’re welcome for getting Creed stuck in your head now.)

The long and short of it is; I love what I do. I’m there early, I stay late. I love the challenge of not knowing what will happen from night to night with live theatre. I love basking in the crazy, different, wonderful group of people who I’ve come to love and respect. Instead of saying “I have to go to work”, I say “I get to go to work”. And I’ve come to very much love working through it with the people of Town Theatre. Every cast and crew I’ve worked with has been amazing. Working on this show has reminded me of why I love theatre so much. It really is a family. We bind together and bolster each other up no matter what happens. I’m honored to be a small cog in a giant wheel.

Thank you Town Theatre for reminding me of what my grail is.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…

Guest blog by Emily Hinely-Clelland

By now, I am sure that you have heard the old saying, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  Well, I am here to tell you that it’s true!  As a child, I begged my mom to let me dance.  After a lot of thought, she enrolled me in the nearest dance school she could find in our rural town.  I was hooked by the first sound that came from my feet.  I wanted to be a dancer!  But there was one small problem… I had no rhythm.  Without the ability to keep time, I would probably never amount to a very good dancer.  Lucky for me, one dance teacher, Barbara James, saw my passion for dance and the spirit I had to learn.  So, she pulled me aside, spent several hours making me shuffle and cramp-roll until my feet hurt to work on rhythm and timing.  I never gave up.  In fact, I practiced so hard, I broke a tap shoe. By the time she was finished with me, I had the rhythm and the drive to be great! I’m forever grateful to Ms. James for believing in me and my passion to dance. 

I loved tap, but started trying other styles to see if I “had what it takes” to succeed.  By the third grade, I was into ballet, jazz and clogging, where I excelled.  I danced my way through elementary school and middle school.  By middle school, I had worked my way to the Palmetto State Cloggers, an award winning State team.  At 14, I was the youngest member!  Then, the greatest thing happened… Our team was invited to perform at a local theatre for a Country and Western segment.  Excitedly, I jumped at the opportunity and never looked back!  You see, that theatre was Town Theatre, and the show was Showstoppers VIIII.  I instantly fell in love with theatre, much like that feeling in my first pair of tap shoes.  There was such “family” vibe with the cast, and a mesmerizing feeling when I saw them sing and dance at the same time.  I knew, at that moment, I NEEDED to be involved in theatre; and, Town Theatre was a great place to start. 

IMG_5937
Emily — then and now!

I spent the remainder of middle and high school performing at Town.  It was such a wonderful place to spend my free time doing two things I loved… singing AND dancing!  After my first show, I was invited to join the prestigious company known as Young Town Players where I met wonderful people that shared the same passion I had for being on stage.  We had routines that encompassed the greatest Broadway shows and decades of music from the 1920s to the 1960s.  It was more fun than I could ever imagine until I had to become a member of the “real world.”  Unfortunately, I had to grow up and with that, came responsibilities like jobs and college.  Sadly, I didn’t have as much time to do the things I wanted to do. 

I ended up at the University of South Carolina and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice.  Then I fell in love and got married.  Many years (and many visits to Broadway) later, Chase, my husband, and I were talking about my theater years, when he suggested that I get back on stage. Because I like a challenge, I did.

I was quite ambitious, out of the gate, and tried out for Chicago in Camden… and I got in!  All those feelings from the past came back.  As it turns out, dance is like riding a bicycle.  I could still do it! Once I walked out on that stage, I knew I needed to do more shows.  I tried out at Town, but just wasn’t quite right for that show.  I tried my hand at dinner theater and other theaters to gain experience in hopes of being able to get to that coveted stage where I fell in love.  Two more tries, but no such luck.  There are simply so many talented people in Columbia and only so many roles available.  But as I said in the beginning… “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” 

Two friends convinced me that I should try my luck at Town again with Spamalot. To be honest, I wasn’t really familiar with the show or Monty Python humor and was reluctant to try again.  After all, auditions were in TWO hours! However, I grabbed my tap shoes, threw a song together and gave it a go. 

A few weeks later, I got an email congratulating me on being cast as a Laker Girl.  I am THRILLED to have an opportunity to sing and dance on the stage where it all began.  I believe everything in life happens for a reason; and, Spamalot was the right show for my return to the Town stage.  I have never laughed so hard or had so much fun at rehearsals.   I am truly grateful to Shannon and Lou for this awesome opportunity to do what I love so much.  I invite you to come to the “Bright Side” with a cast of “multi-talented people” who have, made me one of the “luckiest people” in Columbia.

Keeping it in the Family (and other thoughts from a first time blogger)

Guest blog by Bill DeWitt

Bill Citadel
Bill during his Citadel days

It’s Tuesday morning, and we officially open Spamalot on Friday, so there is some reflection going on here during a few quiet moments before I start on today’s honey-do list. First, how and why did I ever get involved in theatre in the first place? I never “acted” on stage or even considered the theatre in my teen age or early adult years. A graduate of The Citadel, a high school history teacher, administrator, and coach, I thought of myself as a jock, and my free time was spent either with family, golfing or traveling. My younger, taller, smarter and infinitely more talented brother, David, had been a double major in journalism and theatre in college and grad school. He has always been heavily involved in theatre, so maybe there was something hidden in my DNA after all? Then one night I took my 11-year old daughter, Laura, to audition for a children’s play. The director, Larry Hembree, told me that since I would be bringing Laura to rehearsals anyway, I might as well do a small part in the show. I said, why not, and was hooked. Just 25 years and some 61 stage productions, a movie and some commercials later, and I’m still hooked. My wife has shown infinite patience and has indulged my passion over the years; she is my biggest supporter and harshest critic. So my daughter and brother got me started, my wife has sustained me, and the countless friends I have made have inspired me. I’ve done Willie and the Cowardly Lion, musicals and dramas, and still feel that adrenaline rush every single time I step on stage. I am immensely thankful for every chance that comes along.

Sir Bedevere
Sir Bedevere, the strangely flatulent; photo by David Barber.

That brings me back to Spamalot – and, yes, I do tend to ramble a bit. I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail many years ago, and loved it. Then I heard that it was going to become a Broadway-style musical. Now, I live doing comedies and dramas, but have always been a bit nervous about doing musical theatre. Bottom line, when Town Theatre announced that Spamalot would be part of its 96th season, I decided to give it a shot. Part of being an actor is being willing to step outside of your comfort zone (or so directors keep telling me), so I auditioned and got cast, and am having an absolute blast. The show is hilarious, and we are having so much fun every night during rehearsals. I get the chance to work with some old friends with whom I have worked before (like Frank Thompson,  George  Dinsmore,  Bob Blencowe,  Agnes Babb, and others), with old friends with whom I haven’t worked before (Tracy Steele, Chip Collins,  among others), and new friends (like Rebecca Goodrich Seezen, Chris Cook, and Daniel Niati and others). Some of these folks are Town regulars, some have been seen in other theaters around Columbia, and for some, it is their first time on stage. I could list everyone in the show, but don’t have that much room. Besides, that’s what your program is for. Watching everyone bring their total commitment to their roles, to put all their skill, talent, time, effort, and enthusiasm on the line, to “give it their all”– I love it. Just being a part of this has been a thrill. A quick aside – observing Shannon Willis Scruggs blend this collection together (ask me later about how she can blush), Lou Warth Boeschen fusing together this amalgamation of voices (even mine), Danny Harrington’s set/lighting, Lori Stepp’s costumes, and Toni Sheridan’s magic with our hard-working crew – that is a special treat all on its own. And a topic for another blog.

Some of you know the show, or the movie, or you know the highlights or main characters, but you have to see the Laker Girls, the Knights of Ni, the French Taunters, Herbert and his lovable father, Brother Maynard, Sir Bors, the citizens of Finland – a true feast for the eyes and ears.

If you come to see Spamalot, and I hope you do, you’ll see and hear singing and dancing, hear jokes aplenty, see the sets and costumes, hear the music, and see some really good people pour themselves onto their roles. If the audience has anywhere near as much fun watching the show as the cast has had doing the show, well, a good time will be had by all.

And to answer the earlier question about why I do theatre, I can’t speak for others, but for myself – well, it’s partly the adrenaline rush, partly the challenge of trying something new, partly the “roar of the grease paint and smell of the crowd” – but mostly the friendships, the people I’ve come to know over the years that have become so important in my life. You guys are my family. And a little DNA as well. ‘Nuff said.