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Fort Wayne native Dan Butler directs and stars in Our Town at IPFW
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Whenever actors are honored at awards shows, it’s a sure bet that capping the list of “thank you’s” will be a heartfelt one for “Mom.”
And that’s probably doubly true for actor Dan Butler, whose mother took him to his first audition when he was just eight years old — and at the time, he didn’t even know he was going.
The story goes like this: Butler’s mother took him to see the film version of The Music Man. Butler remembers being transported by the experience, something that wasn’t lost on his mother. Soon after, she saw an audition notice for a local production of The Music Man staged by Festival Musical Theatre in Franke Park. “She took me out there Sunday after church, but she didn’t tell me where we were going, because she didn’t want me to get nervous,” Butler says. “There was a whole group of red-headed kids saying lines and singing. Gradually, they narrowed it down, and I found out later that day that I got the part.”
Butler remembers at least one other Festival Musical Theatre production he was in — The Sound of Music. “It was a community theater that was pretty vital and vibrant back then,” he says. “They would do free shows out there in Franke Park, before there was a roof over the theater. Of course, I’m remembering how I felt about it as a child, but I thought it was quite a wonderful thing.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Butler — an actor writer, director and producer probably best known for playing Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe on the TV series Frasier for nine seasons — is a Fort Wayne native, and his extensive career in theater, television, and film began in the city, first with roles in community theater and as a part of middle school and high school productions, and then as a student at IPFW.
Butler is co-directing and acting in a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at IPFW. The venue is the smaller Studio Theatre, the space Butler knew as the PIT theatre when he was a student in the mid-to-late 70s, performing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Threepenny Opera, among others. “The space is where we used to do all our college productions,” he says. “There’s an intimacy between the audience and the participants. You’re not very far from the action; it’s taking part all around you.”
Our Town opens December 6, and when we talk three or so weeks from the opening, Butler says rehearsals are “going like they’re supposed to go” at this stage of the process. “It’s a mixture of patience and audacity and fun and just being supportive of one another,” he says. “You try to create an atmosphere where people are willing to take chances and learn.”
The cast includes a few alumni from Butler’s PIT days. “I wanted to incorporate present theater students and some alums that were in the department when I was there — a few community members old and young — and just embrace the experience of being back in my home town.”
Of course, this is hardly Butler’s first return to Fort Wayne in a professional capacity. Besides still having family here, Butler and his spouse Richard Waterhouse have conducted several weekend workshops about acting in film and television for students at IPFW. In addition to an extensive list of acting and directing credits, Waterhouse — who is co-directing Our Town and plays Dr Gibbs — is also a respected acting coach who has taught for 15 years.
There’s a wealth of acting and theater experience between the two of them, and so you might expect any young, aspiring actor taking their workshop to ask about the nuts and bolts of “the business” — getting an agent, auditioning, etc. But to hear Butler tell it, there’s not much “business talk” during the workshops he runs with Waterhouse. That may happen one day — in his student days, Butler says he was completely in the dark about the professional side of acting, so he thinks that might be useful — but in the workshops he runs with Waterhouse, there’s not much talking at all. “Usually, we present this new way of viewing things, and we just say ‘let’s not talk about it’,” Butler explains. “When you do (talk about it), it becomes an intellectual discussion, and nine times out of ten, it rips up any kind of authentic and creative response. Intellect certainly comes into it, but mostly you want to listen to your instincts and intuition. We’re trying to cram into one weekend what usually takes us six months or longer. So we say (to the students) ‘give yourself the gift of just diving in and trusting and being courageous and saying “okay, I’ll do what you say,” and that’s where the results come from.”
“Theater is just about how do you make it more alive and true, and whatever feeds that is different for different people,” he continues. “You see how people work differently, and you honor that. You never know what’s going to be the thing that helps the penny drop. When you take on a new role, you’ve always got to start from ground zero.”
Despite a lifetime in theater, this is the first time Butler has directed or acted in a production of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s story of life, love, and death in the small town of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire. Published in 1938 and set at the turn-of-the-century, Our Town is one of those rare works that seems to be re-discovered by each new generation. A production by David Cromer just a few years ago at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York became the longest-running production of the play in its 70+ year history.
There’s something kind of poetic about it — Butler’s acting career began in Fort Wayne with a play set in small town America at the turn of the century. And now, just a little over 50 years after that debut, he’s back in Fort Wayne, acting and directing in a play set in small town America at the turn of the century, albeit one with a far different tone. The metaphor isn’t as tidy as a hack writer might like — for one, Butler’s hardly at the end of his career; for another, one of the themes of Our Town, about how life isn’t really appreciated while it’s lived… well, that doesn’t seem to suit Butler much, either. When Butler talks about teaching and acting, he emphasizes that you’re never really “finished,” you never really get to a point where you know everything you need. “If you don’t let ego or vanity get in the way, if you’re pulling from your experience and your whole life, that’s where you learn from,” he says. “If you stay open to that, you don’t stop learning.”
So, the metaphor isn’t as neat as we’d like, but still… “One just feels very full-circle teaching those workshops and coming back to direct, coming back to where I had my first important roots in the theater and help teach the present student body,” he says. “To see some of the students we’ve taught, to see how they’ve grown as actors… that’s very gratifying.”
The IPFW Department of Theatre presents Our Town
December 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 at 8:00 PM
December 8 and 15 at 2:00 PM
High School Matinee – Wed. Dec. 11 at 10:00 AM
Sign language performance – Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013
2101 E Coliseum Blvd
$20 Adults; $18 Seniors/Faculty/Staff/Alumni; $16 Groups of 10 or more; $10 Other “college” students with ID; $5 IPFW students/ High School students/Children under 18.
The IPFW Larson Ticket Office in the Athletic Center is open Monday – Friday from 12:30 – 6:30 PM. Patrons are encouraged to call in advance to reserve their tickets.
Box office: 260-481-6555
Fore ,more information call the IPFW Box Office or visit ipfw.edu/theater