Local Press

S.A. stage directors get a lot from time in the spotlight
August 16, 2014
Published Tuesday, August 19, 2014
by Deborah Martin

Ken Frazier is causing trouble.

And so is his character.

Frazier is playing rabble-rouser Randall McMurphy in the Sheldon Vexler Theatre's staging of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.” In this particular scene, he leads his fellow mental hospital patients in a game of basketball in the middle of their ward — a definite no-no. Worse than that, he's contributed to a missed cue.

“It's hard to hear with the ad-libs and the bouncing and Ken's incessant yelling,” said director Dylan Brainard.

Frazier immediately corrected her: “McMurphy's?”

“Yeah, McMurphy's yelling,” she said, smiling.

Typically, any yelling Frazier might be doing at the Sheldon Vexler Theatre would be from the sidelines rather than the stage. And no audiences would ever witness it.

But Frazier, 51, is taking a rare spin in the spotlight with “Cuckoo's Nest,” which opens Saturday. The casting idea came from Brainard, the Vex's production manager. Frazier, who runs the theater and directs and designs many of its productions, got excited about acting as a chance to break out of the norm. He also believes that it's important to have an intimate understanding of what it's like to be an actor in The Vex.

“This gives me an inside eye into the actor's perspective,” he said.

There are a number of directors who act — or, as some might have it, actors who direct — in town. They all say that each skill feeds the other.

Rick Sanchez, who is also appearing in “Cuckoo's Nest,” has directed a lot of late. He headed up The Playhouse San Antonio's back-to-back stagings of “Funny Girl” and “Tommy.” Still, he thinks of himself primarily as an actor.

“Directing is not something I thought I would do,” said Sanchez, 32. “There comes a time when an actor is going to be set to a certain type or not be able to play certain roles. You've got to expand yourself for other roles in the theater world.”

When he directs, he tries to draw on his experiences as an actor, asking himself how he would want to be approached by a director if he were playing that role. That also extends to how he wraps things up. After opening night, he walks away.

“It's like having a child and letting them go off into the world and letting them have own exploration,” he said. “I'm not one of those directors who sees every (performance) and still gives notes. Me, as an actor, I hate that. I totally believe that it comes to the point where the show is frozen and there is no more adding.”

His experiences directing have changed his perspective a bit.

“As an actor, I think I became more humble because I realized how much the director has to do. So when we're working on something and maybe the director is exploring things on the fly or with the actors, I am totally respectful of that,” he said. “I've been there.”

Matthew Byron Cassi, 36, who was just cast in the Woodlawn Theatre's forthcoming “Unbroken Circle” and is slated to direct “Merchant of Venice” for Classic Theatre next year, always planned to direct. He studied acting specifically so that he would understand that aspect of production.

“I was not going to be an actor,” Cassi said. “My primary focus was to be directing.”

As it happens, he ended up doing both, as well as trying his hand at design and tech. When he moved to San Antonio five years ago, acting was his entry point to the theater scene.

“As an actor, I can walk in and I could get a role without them knowing anything about me,” Cassi said. “It's a lot harder to get the work (as a director).”

Directing, he said, is more fulfilling creatively for him. Even so, he finds himself craving stage time.

“I have to get onstage at least once a year or my wheels start spinning,” he said.

Andrew Thornton, 46, who is in rehearsals for AtticRep's “God of Carnage” and most recently directed, devised and performed in “Clonster” at the Overtime Theater, has directed and acted on stages all over town. His first directing gig dates back to the second grade, when he pulled together some neighborhood kids to put on a show, but he still thinks of himself primarily as an actor.

Acting, he said, comes more naturally to him. He directs because it is more difficult for him.

“I always say, if something in me says, 'You can't do that,' that makes me want to do it,” he said. “That makes me think there's something in there that I'm afraid of that I need to do to progress in life.”

Directing, he said, “is 100 times harder than acting because, as the director, you have to be able to act every part, you have to know every part inside and out. The director not only has to understand the characters, the director has to come up with a vision, think about pacing, all those other aspects and details that the actor doesn't really have to worry about.”

One of the best pieces of direction he's gotten came from a fellow director/actor. He was working on Classic Theatre's staging of “Waiting for Godot” a few years ago and came into a rehearsal feeling out of sorts. When director Tony Ciaravino asked him how he was, he was honest about it.

“I said, 'I'm kind of feeling bad and I'm grumpy,'” Thornton said. “And he said, 'Good; start from there.' And it just helped me so much to have him be there with me, and not say, 'Get energized.' He said, 'That's fine. Start from there and use it.' That was some of the best acting advice I've gotten — 'Start from where you are.' That's what a director can do for you. It can be very empowering.”

At The Vex, Frazier is taking notes on his experience as an actor of things he wants to remember when he returns to his regular role.

“It's exciting to see there's a freedom for an individual actor to just be self-focused on their own character and not have to worry about all the big stuff,” he said. “I think that gives more strength to the individual character. So, next time I direct, I'm going to kind of remember that a little bit more, I think. It's reminded me that, in approaching an actor on a certain level, it's OK to let them think individually and what's going on in the moment. It's not your job as an actor to protect the arc of the show.”

Frazier also has tried to be mindful that since he runs the Vex, taking a role in a show there could change the dynamic.

“I'm always checking myself,” Frazier said. “I'm hoping this cast feels confident that I'm just another actor that Dylan thought was right for the role. I'm hoping that who I am never gets in the way of the other actors.”

That doesn't mean there haven't been jokes about him getting onstage. During a break in a recent rehearsal, Frazier joked about his acting being payback for the demands he routinely places on actors, but castmate Scott Leibowitz, who has been directed by Frazier several times, said that wasn't the case.

“If it were payback, I'd be directing you,” Leibowitz said.

Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
Where: Sheldon Vexler Theatre, 12500 N.W. Military Highway
When: Aug. 23-Sept. 20.
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. No show Aug. 31.
Tickets: $15 to $21. Call 210-302-6835 for reservations.

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