Will Carpenter was a second-grader in the mid-1970s in the industrial city of Milwaukee, Wis., when he was first exposed to theater.
“They took our class to the Repertory Theater in Milwaukee. It was a great theater,” he recalls. “We were watching a kid’s show; there were dinosaurs and big costumes and sets, and the lights are on in this big, dark theater. It was so much cooler than a movie. They were right there, sharing the same space, the same air. They could hear us and we could hear them. I had tunnel vision – either my eyes dilated or my brain did – but I was so zeroed in on this and watching with crystal clarity. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it would be really neat to be a part of that.’”
Carpenter would parlay that second grade experience into a successful acting career, performing with the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Shakespeare Chicago, among others. He has performed in theaters in cities across the country; now he can be seen gracing stages in Tulsa.
Oklahoma has produced a sizable share of stage actors in its relatively short existence. Tony Randall, Rue McClanahan and Patti Page all got their starts on Oklahoma stages. Contemporary actors like Kelli O’Hara, Joe Sears, Alfre Woodard and one of the most popular Broadway stars in recent history, Kristen Chenoweth, also began their careers in the Sooner State.
Jeffrey Moore, project manager for the Oklahoma POP Museum, believes the wealth of actors, singers and entertainers that come from Oklahoma can be traced back to the career of one man: Will Rogers.
“As we’ve worked on the Oklahoma POP Museum, one of the things that has become very apparent is the circle of influence that Will Rogers has had on the state,” Moore says. “The fact that he was able to go from stage acting to this huge icon is something that is in the back of everyone’s mind, and it lends itself to the idea that being a stage actor is a possibility.”
Mateja Govich, an Oklahoma City native and actor, sees the talent that this state has to offer on the stage. A performer since age 5, Govich first appeared as a munchkin in The Wizard Of Oz (his lone line was, “If any.”) and later as Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He went on to act in various productions during college and ended up on the Great White Way as part of a production of Cabaret with Brooke Shields as the lead, which was performed at historic Studio 54.
But home beckoned, and in 2008, Govich moved back to Oklahoma and has since “gotten to do the most challenging work I’ve done,” he says. Such work includes portraying Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha at the Sooner Theatre; Fred Graham in Kiss Me, Kate at Edmond Summerstock and Tateh in Ragtime, a Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma production.
Rogers once said, “If you want to know how a man stands, go among the people who are in his same business.” Govich shares the same principle.
“I was shocked at how good Ragtime was,” Govich says. “(Lead characters) Tateh, Mother and Coalhouse, all three of us had Broadway experience…the quality of actors that we have available to us that are in Oklahoma, we’re very lucky. I’ve been on Broadway, I’m a decent performer, and I’m shocked when I go to rehearsal and see a show that people can see for 15, 20 bucks [in Oklahoma], and they’re better than the ones people pay $150 to see in New York.”
Theater companies have been around in Oklahoma since the 1920s when Theatre Tulsa, opened its doors. It’s the oldest continuously operating theater company west of the Mississippi.
Groups like Theatre Tulsa and, in Oklahoma City, Lyric Theatre, are integral to a city’s cultural scene. But there’s always room for one more. That’s exactly what Tyler Woods was counting on when he brought Reduxion Theatre Company to Oklahoma City.
“Any time you can specialize in something, I think, means you’ll be better at it than anyone else,” he says. “I think a certain degree of specialization is wonderful, but too much can be a bad thing, and it’s important for theaters to [not become] too niche or too small so they can offer one thing and one thing only. It’s important to do what you do with your own unique voice…in that way, we are, I believe, fulfilling a niche of theater that is intimate and literally in your lap in that it is pared down and reduced.”
“As far as the development of theater companies, from a historical standpoint, it goes to the idea of Oklahomans having this ability to create and come up with ideas and new concepts. It’s kind of the DNA of the state to explore acting or music,” says Moore. “The other thing that bears is the link between opportunity for creative endeavors and economic prosperity. Oklahoma has been in a cycle of prosperity the last 10 years or so, so I think that if there are economic conditions to allow people to pursue these types of activities, they will.”
Reduxion Theatre Company presents Shakespeare productions at their most minimal.
“My wife Erin and I started this thing,” Woods says. “We were living in New York City in 2006, and we were both acting and directing a little bit. We wanted to take an approach to Shakespeare that was bare-bones, stripped down, to get in touch with the beautiful poetry of Shakespeare.”
Reduxion’s first performance was Hamlet, performed off-off-Broadway with seven actors. The production was well received; it ran for 12 performances. The next year, Reduxion produced As You Like It with 14 actors.
The couple eventually decided to move back to Woods’ home state to lay down roots and to become part of Oklahoma’s theater scene.
“We wanted to be here and bring our unique voice to Oklahoma City,” he says.
Reduxion has performed for thousands in Oklahoma over its last six seasons. “We have the ability to create opportunities for other artists to practice their crafts and open doors to residents to see the talent we have in this town,” Woods says. “That is my ultimate triumph. Playing MacBeth on a national tour was wonderful, and being on All My Children was wonderful, but seeing this happen has been my real joy.”
Will Carpenter moved to Tulsa when he was a teen. His acting took him all around the country, from Chicago to L.A. He appeared in a short film, Nines, that won an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. But it was a need to be near family that brought him back to Tulsa.
“I was really bummed when I first moved back here,” he admits. “I was bummed because I was like, ‘I don’t get to be in the game anymore.’ I didn’t do anything for the first two years. Then I [performed in] Educating Rita at Theatre Tulsa, and it clicked again, and I’ve been inspired ever since. I’ve run into other people that have similar journeys, and it’s nice to have a common past with these people. It’s been fantastic to share these experiences with new people in Tulsa.”
Carpenter has been acting professionally for more than 20 years. It’s a far cry from his second-grade dream of being a pilot, but he says he feels lucky that he has found a career that keeps him inspired and enthused.
“It’s rare to find something that you’re so passionate about. It’s like becoming a monk. You’re committed to more,” he says. “You’re not going to live well, you’re not going to have a lot of stuff, but you’ll have the magic of performing in front of a lot of people, telling stories that have been around for hundreds of years, and that to me is amazing. That was my road.”
In addition to acting, Carpenter is an artist-in-residence instructor at Harwelden Institute, which means he travels to classrooms, from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade, teaching acting. “It’s tough, because the first thing to go [out of the classroom] is arts, theater, things that help kids listen and with interpersonal skills.”
“Acting is what I do, that’s my job,” says Matthew Alvin Brown. “That, and I teach a couple of courses at the Thelma Gaylord Academy, some of these weird, made-up rock musical classes.”
Brown is a professional actor who has appeared in productions around Oklahoma City. His first paid acting gig was in 1993, and he finally quit his day job in 2007 and has since devoted his career to the stage and teaching the craft. “And it gets rough every couple of months, so you have to take different types of jobs to make ends meet,” he says.
Brown has several career highlights, including flying around a theater in a car during a production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in which he played the role of Caractacus Pott.
“That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done as far as being on stage with the set and technology,” he recalls. “There’s a show I get to do a lot called Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and every time I get to do that it’s my favorite thing in the world. We did a version at Oklahoma City Theatre Company a couple of years ago, and that was probably, emotionally and role-wise, the coolest.
“The best thing I’ve ever been a part of was Passing Strange at The Pollard in Guthrie. Passing Strange is a rock musical that really does what I crave in my art, which is laying comfort with theater. People that don’t like musicals think they’re seeing the play, and people that don’t like plays like seeing the musical. It speaks to anyone with a pulse if they’re willing to listen to it. It was a difficult show to do, but Jerome Stevenson at The Pollard figured out how to do it.”
Brown is comfortable with his decision to act professionally but freely admits it may not be for everyone.
“Oklahoma is decidedly not a hub for the arts, but the good news is that there’s always something going on in this town, whether it be a dance show, a spectacle show, an art piece, guerilla theater…there’s always something going on, and the more people know about it, and the more the rich people will give money to theater taking risks, the better this place will be to develop a scene,” Brown says.
Liz Masters has been in the acting game for 25 years now. She appears in productions for various companies throughout Tulsa.
“In college I was a music major, but they always needed people to fill in the chorus for the spring musical, and I hung out with theater people, so I was in ‘the scene,’” she says. Her first production was Crimes of the Heart when she was a student at Northeastern State University.
During college, she was directed by the renowned playwright Edward Albee, who served as an artist-in-residence at NSU while Masters was a student.
“He’s an odd duck,” she recalls of Albee. “It was cool working with a Pulitzer Prize winner. He wasn’t my greatest director, but he was Edward Albee.”
Masters has a 9-to-5 job that allows her to pursue her passion for acting at night and on the weekends. “You give a lot of time to a show. In recent years, I’ve deliberately tried to always have a day job to allow me to have my nights and weekends free to give to the theater. I’ve sacrificed financial potential, but to me it’s worth it.”
And to Masters, performing in seven to eight productions a year is living the dream. “There are definitely more theater companies than there used to be. I’m fine with it…from an actor’s standpoint, there’s so many more options for me.”
What started as a lofty goal for Tom Berenson has now become a part of life. This Broken Arrow optometrist always had an urge to act, but he never made time to do it. Around 1980, he was invited by a patient to become a part of the Broken Arrow Community Playhouse, and his first production, The Diary of Anne Frank, was life-altering.
“I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was,” he recalls. “For the first year or so, if I wasn’t doing a show, I was working on it, doing sound, whatever, just to be there. Last time I sat and tried to figure how many shows I’ve done, it’s got to be between 90 and 100.”
Berenson has portrayed Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof three times and Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street at least five. He’s also played Clem in Will Rogers Follies and appeared in the 2005 Tulsa Theatre Arts Production Camelot, which starred British actor Charles Shaughnessy and former Miss America Susan Powell.
Berenson was part of the award-winning cast of The Gin Game, a production that the Broken Arrow Community Playhouse has traveled internationally to perform and is one of Berenson’s favorites. BACP’s production follows two elderly people who strike up a friendship over gin rummy at a nursing home. The games lead to lengthy conversations about the their lives.
“The lines are hysterical, but the situation is horrible,” he says of The Gin Game. “I think as an actor, I love these kinds of roles because you can really get into them.”
But Berenson’s favorite role, he says, will always be that of Tevye in Fiddler. “The last time I did it, Theatre Tulsa put it on. I got so motivated that when I returned to my office on Monday after the production closed, I went online looking for theater companies, regional or professional, that might be doing [Fiddler] and might be having auditions.
“I was ready to chunk [the business] and go for it. If I were single, if I didn’t have the responsibilities, [I would have] 20 years ago,” he says. “I would have gone to New York. I would have loved to at least tried it.”