South Sound stars

Award-worthy: We name the standouts of South Sound theater

February 27, 2011 

Oscars, schmoscars. Yes, there are some great actors, directors and the like ready to line up on the red carpet in Hollywood tonight, but there are also plenty of award-worthy folks right here in South Sound, doing live community theater and often juggling it with day jobs, family and commuting as well.

So, this year, we’ve created our own awards to remind us of all our local talent. It’s true that we did not use a reputable accounting firm to help us tally ballots. Instead, we chose to profile a few of our favorites, nominated with the help of theater critic Alec Clayton and based on 2010 performances. Profiles, Page C6 Best actor Jason Haws

(“The Elephant Man,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Harlequin Theater)

Additional nominee: Scott C. Brown (Harlequin, Lakewood Playhouse)

Jason Haws doesn’t at first seem the type to string out a death scene for seven minutes before cavorting in a donkey’s head. But it’s this role as Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” staged at Harlequin Theater, that got him both our nomination and the admiration of Harlequin director Scot Whitney.

“Jason is so simple, so straightforward, and incredibly resourceful,” says Whitney. “For the death scene, I told him he could extend it a bit, and he went on for seven minutes, all about ... how hard it was to kill himself. It absolutely worked.”

Chatting over coffee, though, Haws is anything but melodramatic. The 41-year-old sixth-grade humanities teacher has a soft, thoughtful voice, with a stature and face that could blend into any crowd. But get him talking about theater, and it’s clear that that’s what drives him.

“I love it,” Haws says simply. “It’s a passion, it just fulfils something innate.”

Haws started in children’s theater when he was a kid, and continued acting through middle and high school. As a student at The Evergreen State College, he did some community theater but then dropped out when teaching duties crowded out his schedule. After about eight years, though, he began working on a master’s in education, and with it, the summertime Creative Theatre Experience for children – and he realized he had to do more.

“It’s been a part of me for a long time, but when I came back, that actually doubled,” he says. He landed a part with Harlequin in 1999, and hasn’t looked back, playing roles – mostly at Harlequin – from comedy to drama, such as the disfigured John Merrick in “The Elephant Man.”

“I’m not a singer,” Haws says. “And I like comedy. But dramatic pieces really challenge me. My favorite is probably Merrick. ... There’s so much history. That guy’s life is a pretty fantastic journey.”

Haws likes the community at Harlequin: “I’m surrounded by an amazing cast, crew and designers – the experience is always really positive.”

Theater also had a spin-off on his day job. In class, Haws explores concepts through theater all the time, he says, including reader’s theater, skits, workshops, after-school plays and public speaking practice.

“Every lesson should address aural, visual and kinesthetic ways of learning,” he says. “Theater touches on all of these. It’s amazing how much more engaged (students) are when they can get up and move around.”

The only down side to acting, as many community actors find, is fitting it in with family. With an 8-year-old and 18-month-old at home, Haws has struck a deal with his wife: only two or three shows a year. Even so, with each show taking up two months of rehearsals or performances almost every night, “it’s pretty intense for my family,” Haws says. That’s also why he sticks to Olympia theater, for now.

And this “alternative Oscar” nomination?

“It’s nice to be recognized,” says Haws with a smile. “It’s nice to remind people there’s good local theater around here.”

Best actress Samantha Camp

(“Eleemosynary” at Tacoma Little Theatre)

Nominee: Heather Christopher (The Midnight Sun)

Samantha Camp walks into a cafe like it’s a stage. Another woman might look like she’s manhandling a stroller and two vocal preschoolers in the rain; Camp makes it look like an entrance. Tall and curvy, with long reddish-black hair and a wicked glint in her eyes, Camp exudes as much dramatic confidence on a Tuesday morning as she does on stage at Tacoma Little Theatre, Lakewood Playhouse, Tacoma Musical Playhouse or any of the many other local venues where she’s been cast in lead or character roles.

Interestingly, though, it took her awhile to get that confidence.

“I’m a hard cast,” says Camp right up front. “I’m tall and not petite. I’m too big for film, my face and just myself. But I don’t stress out about calories or shape anymore. Life is too full of other things to worry about that.”

Life certainly is full for Camp. With three kids in their 20s and a 2- and 4-year-old to look after, she also makes a living acting, which is highly unusual in the South Sound. In addition to community theater, she does regional theater such as Seattle Repertory, plus indie films and audition coaching. She’s had stints as managing director (Gold from Straw) and has just started her own handmade soap company. She averages four auditions a month, going up to 10 in some weeks.

But the girl from Pittsburgh (where she got her bachelor’s degree in acting) via Texas (where she was an arts writer) is committed to something else: facing up to things she doesn’t like.

“Once I stopped worrying about (my shape), I actually started getting cast more,” she says. “And people treated me differently, because I was confident.”

The confidence translates into her stage work, too. Scared of singing, she’s spending this month deliberately taking singing auditions, even way past her usual vocal range. She also relishes roles that take her beyond the usual.

“I like parts where I read the script and think, ‘I can’t do that.’ I like characters that aren’t necessarily likable. There’s a challenge in making them likable. I like it when people look at me and say, ‘I had no clue it was you up there’ – that shows I’m not being me, I’m being just a human being on stage. But I also like ensemble roles – you can have so much fun with them, it’s like a vacation from hard work.”

As she multitasks swiftly between chatting, drinking, and wiping noses, Camp gets serious about why she likes community theater, despite a north-south rivalry that recently forced her to move to Seattle from Tacoma to get more big-city gigs.

“There’s something so cool about the families and enemies that are created,” she says. “But what really gets me is the oh-crap-what’s-gonna-happen moment when you go on stage ... and you think, ‘Please let them get what I’m doing.’ The feeling that I’ve not quite got it, that’s what drives me.”

As for the nomination, Camp’s “confused but flattered. I have an incredibly busy life, but I don’t for a second take it for granted. ... I love finding out what makes people tick. You see yourself in these characters.”

Best supporting actor Chris Cantrell

(“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” and “The Complete William Shakespeare Abridged” at Lakewood Playhouse)

Nominees: Dennis Rolly, Elliot Weiner (Lakewood Playhouse and others)

When Chris Cantrell walks into a room, you notice. Tall and wide, with spiky punk hair, goatee and leather bike jacket, he commands as much attention as he does acting Jacob Marley or Macbeth. But Cantrell – who acts for Lakewood Playhouse, Harlequin Productions, Events on the Edge and more – doesn’t talk in an intimidating way. Instead, he’s soft-spoken, philosophical, even self-deprecating.

“Acting started out as a bad habit in high school,” says the Lacey actor. “I was a shy person who needed a way to talk to other people, and a reason to be out of the house.”

Theater classes offered that reason, and Cantrell followed them up with informal classes at Washington State University and Middlesex University in England. Now in his late 30s, Cantrell has a six-show-a-year habit that consumes most of his life outside his job with the state Department of General Administration, as he auditions for anything that’s within reasonable driving distance.

“I found I was a very boring person when I wasn’t doing theater,” he says with a smile. But for Cantrell, acting is more than just self-improvement.

“I like getting to work with different levels of people in community theater,” he says, “some better trained, some not. Directing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ a couple of years ago, I got to work with young actors who had a bunch of talent but didn’t know what to do with it. It was fun to help them become aware of what they could do.”

It’s also fun being the baddie.

“I’ve been blessed with all the opportunities I’ve had, especially for someone my size,” he says. “I really enjoy villains – Bill Sykes, Macbeth. But I also like strong comedic roles.”

“Chris has a fabulous voice and great attitude,” says Scot Whitney, who has directed Cantrell at Harlequin productions. “He has a great ear and use of language. And he’s a sweet guy, really diligent.”

Community theater, though, has taken a toll lately on Cantrell’s personal life. He doesn’t have much time for other interests like online gaming – “Theater is like another part-time job” – and his relationship with his partner has also suffered.

“They call them theater widows,” he says sadly. “Mine resents theater – that’s why I’m cutting down on shows this year, to try and advance my life.”

Best supporting actress Alison Monda

(“Rent” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse)

For someone who photographs like a supermodel and staged a mock sword-fight at her own wedding, Alison Monda is surprisingly down-to-earth. She’s been hailed as expressive, energetic and sexy for her work in theaters from Olympia to Seattle; she’s made 16 films and modeled bikinis and hair products and bridesmaid dresses. Still, the tall, thin actress with long brown hair is into laughter more than anything.

“I’m more of a character actress than a typical ingénue,” says Monda. “I can emote more with that. But I really like comedy – if I can make someone laugh, I’m good!”

For Monda, the acting is full-time. The 24-year-old lives in Issaquah but travels “wherever the work is,” commuting as far as Olympia for shows. Just married in November to fellow Tacoma actor Matt Posner (the swordfight’s on YouTube), she fills out her income with film, commercial and modeling work, and is even working on her songwriting, when she has time to record.

Having just quit a day job as a medical receptionist, she appreciates community theater for the ability to earn two incomes. What she likes best, though, are the people – on stage and off.

“They make it so much fun,” Monda says. “I love Harlequin; there’s tea and coffee at every rehearsal, they work with your schedule and even put you up in a hotel if you’re out of town. It’s not much money, but the payback from helping people escape their daily lives for a moment, or hearing how they can really relate to my character – it’s really rewarding,” she says.

Monda hasn’t had formal stage training; she simply learned from experience since the third grade. But with a powerful three-octave voice and boundless energy, she impresses directors.

“She’s like a colt,” says Whitney at Harlequin, where Monda just finished “The Last Schwartz.” “She has so much energy – at the audition, I was impressed but a little terrified. And oh my God, what a voice. I’m always telling her to pull it back.”

About the newspaper “nomination,” though, Monda is humble: “There’s so much talent around here – I can think of so many people more deserving. But it feels wonderful. You put your work out there and often don’t get much feedback. So it’s great to be appreciated.”

Best director Scot Whitney

(Director at Harlequin Theater)

Nominees: Pug Bujeaud (Olympia Little Theatre) and Brie Yost (Tacoma Little Theatre)

In a way, Scot Whitney’s a typical Olympian. He reads a lot, plays guitar, has a beard, rides his bike for transportation, and never quite graduated from The Evergreen State College. But the man with a successful graphic design company has a second job that sets him apart – he’s the founding director of Olympia’s highly successful Harlequin Productions company at Olympia’s State Theater.

The whole thing came out of rebellion. Whitney had studied film at Evergreen and was an indie filmmaker for 18 years, mostly “wacky educational films,” he says. But the focus changed to bigger and better equipment rather than film, and Whitney became cynical.

“I wanted to work with actors,” he says. Meeting his wife-to-be Linda through her graphic design work, he began to design theater posters and realized that’s what he wanted to do. After fruitlessly offering challenging scripts to directors – “Everyone was just doing Neil Simon comedies or musicals in those days” – he decided to mount a play himself, and Harlequin was born. Six years later, he was buying the State Theater, and Harlequin is now one of the most respected companies in South Sound.

“I have to pinch myself sometimes,” says the 58-year-old Whitney. “I have a fantastic staff ... a beautiful, intimate venue. It’s a magic space.”

Whitney also likes to think he’s been a part of community theater changing from old warhorses to something more interesting.

“We have younger people, more intriguing and challenging work – we’re not afraid of the F-word or something moderately controversial. At Harlequin, we’re really serious about putting out quality work.”

Whitney also hesitates to distinguish between community and professional theater.

“At ACT, Intiman (in Seattle), they’ve got some good people doing good stuff. But they’re always having to be first, be the world premiere. We’ve done premieres, but it doesn’t really matter to me – I just want to do good work, and learn how to do it better.”

Like many actors, though, Whitney is feeling the exhaustion of how theater can take over your life. After directing four shows last year, plus his overall company direction, he’s taking his biggest break ever, through April.

“I’m picking up blues guitar after 40 years,” says Whitney. “I’m having a ball with it.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@

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