Check out the latest run of dog and pony dc’s Beertown, at Round House Silver Spring through Oct. 19th. Read the actor bios in the program. When you do, you will read one that might be a little light on previous acting credits. In fact, there will be none. Making his professional acting debut in the production is Pete Miller.
This isn’t to say that you may not have other programs at home that include Pete’s name. He is a longtime member of the Board of Directors at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, has served more than one term as its President, led that Board during Woolly’s itinerant years, and, with his partner Sara Cormeny, led the capital campaign that paid for Woolly’s current home. If you are a frequent theatregoer, you likely have been in the same audience as Pete. He goes to a lot of theatre. He estimates that he sees about 100 plays a year.
Pete and Sara have also been important supporters of the small professional theatre scene here in DC. Sara is President of the Board at Constellation Theatre Company. They’ve taken personal interest in local artists whose work has inspired their devotion. I’ve been to their home when they’ve hosted readings involving Callie Kimball, a playwright whose career they have followed and encouraged. When I was artistic director at WSC, they saw Strange Interlude with Kate Norris as Nina. Shocked at how small the audience was, given how impressive the performance was, they contacted me with an offer to buy display ads in CityPaper.
So, how does an arts supporter, advocate, appreciative audience member find himself suddenly part of the cast? Well, it begins with the supportiveness described above. Pete saw Beertown. Four times. Obviously, he dug it. Unsurprisingly, he knew a lot of the people involved in its creation. Characteristically, he began talking with dog and pony dc (hereafter d&p) about packaging the project so that it could have further life.
Unlike many, if not most, plays, a script of Beertown would be indicative of only a fraction of the experience. As Pete tells me, he has only an index card worth of lines; the formal script is only a part of the experience. In fact, he says that on any given night, the audience will speak as much, if not more, than the cast. Pete thought that the show was fabulous and that more people should see it. As the interactive experience can’t sustain an audience of more than about 120, the most effective way for more people to see the show is for there to be other (non-d&p) productions.
Oh, by the way, during original rehearsals, there was a part, a warm, avuncular newspaperman, which, as it was being devised, kept being compared to Pete. The original actor (Matthew R. Wilson) was apparently encouraged to use mannerisms and speech tics associated with Pete. As this third run was contemplated, and a replacement for Wilson had to be identified, the idea of going with the character’s real world prototype presented itself. Of course, the folks at d&p, when they approached Pete about it, told him they did so because they thought he could do it. But — added bonus — it would help Pete’s ability to consult about an afterlife for the piece if he were embedded, as it were, in this latest version.
To be such a compulsive theatregoer, Pete must be a frustrated actor, right? Apparently, he hears that a lot, but he convincingly claims that there is nothing true about that at all. This on-stage experience is not something he pursued. He knows that acting is a lot of work and that rehearsals and performances take up a lot of time. Appearing in Beertown has disrupted his playgoing. Although he doesn’t express regret at the decision to swap sides of the footlights this once, that particular downside to the commitment would not be okay with him on a regular basis. Because of that, he won’t be humming “An Actor’s Life For Me” on his way to Silver Spring.
In fact, Pete says he feels a little like that professional amateur George Plimpton must have felt when he boxed or played football. Pete has thrown himself into the experience and is having a good time, “trusting that I’m never going to do it again.” So, pretend that this experience is like that TV show Undercover Boss. What has been surprising to learn from a rehearsal room point of view as against a Board Room point of view?
Woolly and other theatres have had a lot of open rehearsal experiences that Pete has availed himself of, so he had a pretty sophisticated sense of process and roles, such as what a director does and how. He knows what some jargon refers to, such as a “ten out of twelve” rehearsal. For those of you who don’t know what that refers to: technical rehearsals, during which lights, costumes, sound, and other elements are integrated, generally occur over a couple of days. Those (long!) days last twelve hours, and the actors get two hours break over the course of the twelve, hence the term. Pete tells me that, until experiencing what that’s like as an actor in Beertown, he hadn’t realized the “emotional impact” or how much energy it takes to weather this particular rite of passage, one to which actors are accustomed.
Pete also allows as how he thought he was getting into an acting gig that would be on the less demanding, low energy side of the spectrum. Now that he’s in a kick line and participating in a tug of war, he is exposed to more of the physical demands that are expected of actors. Often, these sorts of things are worked out in rehearsal, and the actor isn’t always aware, when a role is accepted, of all of the collateral activity the part will involve. Anyway, after eight run-throughs of a song-and-dance sequence left this “fairly fit” fellow “just gasping,” Pete had become aware of the “unusual physical and mental muscles” that performance can involve.
On the other hand, as a member of the ensemble, Pete is obligated to participate in the artistic creation of the piece. As a participant in the governance of a theatre company, he says that he steers “very clear” of artistic decision-making, but that the inclination to “keep my hands off the art” is not possible when you are suddenly one of the actors.
Let’s talk about stage fright. It doesn’t seem to be an issue. Pete has done a lot of public speaking in his professional life and has a tremendous amount of experience talking in front of folks. I ask about the other piece of that dynamic: keeping a production rhythm brisk. He tells me that they have, in fact, been asking him to slow down a bit, so pace isn’t adding pressure.
Another surprise, despite Pete’s having seen Beertown four times before jumping into its cast, was the depth of the back-story material created around the fictional town, and how much more continues to be created as each subsequent run is rehearsed. His character, he tells me to illustrate, has been feuding with another character because of an editorial Pete’s chap had written in the local newspaper. Pete decided to go ahead and actually write that article, creating and provoking even more background that gives increased texture to the world of the play. Pete tells me that, before theatregoing became such a focus of his life, he had been into role-playing games, and that that experience has been helpful: “’Dungeons and Dragons’ has come to my aid.”
Pete and I got into a discussion about what makes the Beertown experience so unique. Beertown is a model of democracy in action, as regards how audience input affects the experience, and Pete compares it to Burning Man in the manner in which the experience creates a sense of a temporary community. Audiences are encouraged (but not required) to participate in debate and elections in a way that Pete describes as “fun and natural.”
Closes October 19, 2013
Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
Details and Tickets
His door opened in Spring 1981 at the Folger. It was a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost (featuring familiar local actors Michael Tolaydo and Ralph Cosham, Pete discovered recently when the Folger provided him with a copy of that program). Describing himself as a “fairly word-oriented person,” he had had an intellectual appreciation of Shakespeare. Seeing the play, however, transformed an intellectual appreciation into a “very visceral” experience. His “coin drop moment,” realizing that the text was intended to be performed and that it truly came alive when it was, is what set him on the course of chasing after good live plays. Pete’s tastes are unusually catholic and his experiences have led him to the important conclusion that the amount spent on a production has a “trivial impact” on whether or not the evening will be memorable.
“Now you’re an actor,” some of Pete’s friends have said, to which he responds, I’m playing a role, and that’s about one-fifth of an actor’s job, the remainder being the constant job-seeking, as well as the continued training in order to know what to do with the part once cast. Pete is extremely excited about the terrific opportunity ahead for Beertown: a run in New York City at the prestigious 59E59 theatre complex, from Jan. 30-Feb. 16, 2014. But don’t look for Pete in that cast. Belying Jackie Susann, it seems that once, in this case, is enough.