Photograph by Jenny Graham
Comedy tonight: Shad Willingham (right) and G. Valmont Thomas mug it up in 'On the Razzle.'
Former North Bay actor Shad Willingham on working onstage in Ashland, gauging an audience and the Oscar speech he plans to someday make
By David Templeton
'Welcome to our little winter wonderland. Please take the snow with you when you leave," jokes actor Shad Willingham as he warmly greets a visitor to the very cold Ashland home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).
The phrase "winter wonderland" has been grotesquely overused, but on this day, the last Sunday in February during the opening weekend of OSF--and Oscar night to boot--the tiny burg of Ashland does indeed qualify for the right to be called a winter wonderland. Three days ago, the town received its heaviest snowfall in 50 years, and now the stuff is everywhere. On this morning, three months before the festival opens its large outdoor theater, the crowds are pleasantly small as the OSF launches its 10-month-long-season with four plays, a number that will eventually grow to 11. The four openers are Shakespeare's As You Like It, Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole and Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle.
The latter, a delirious comedy built out of outrageous puns, pratfalls and diabolical twists of plot and language, features Willingham in the role of Sonders, a would-be suitor to the virginal Marie, whose uncle, Zangler, opposes the marriage for financial reasons. Willingham, working with a cast of first-rate comic actors, gets some of the show's biggest laughs, largely through a blend of extreme physicality and pitch-perfect timing.
"I'll tell you this about Razzle," Willingham says, taking a seat at a coffee shop around the corner from the theaters. "Comedy is really hard, and this is even harder. Our timing has to change from night to night. We start the show thinking, 'OK audience, where are you at tonight? Oh, OK, you like the sophomoric material.' Or, 'I see, this crowd is going to be into the headier stuff, the linguistic gymnastics and the puns.' It takes a while to gauge the audience and figure out how to play the show, how to anticipate which jokes they'll be laughing at and which they won't be."
In June, Willingham will add another comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, to his duties, playing the part of Hortensio. This is the fifth season at OSF for Willingham, a graduate of Santa Rosa High School and a cofounder of the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre. Now a regular on the Ashland stage, Willingham says that performing here was a goal from the first time he visited while still in high school in 1981.
"I used to dream about getting a job here as an actor," he says. "From the moment I saw my first Ashland show to the first time I actually, finally set food on that stage, I never stopped dreaming about this place. For an actor growing up in Northern California, this is Broadway. This whole town is a theater, this town is devoted to theater. There's nowhere like it, except maybe New York City."
While the drive from the Bay Area to Ashland takes most Ashland fans about seven to 10 hours, Willingham's journey took a little longer: he achieved it in just over 20 years.
While in high school, where he admits he began hanging around with a "bad crowd," Willingham got hooked on theater after taking Elizabeth Craven's drama class at Santa Rosa High, then doing after-school plays with her husband, John Craven. It was an exciting time to be an actor at SRHS, with the Cravens staging controversial shows like Tobacco Road and Cabaret, the latter of which was notoriously shut down by the school board for its fishnets-and-swastikas realism. Over the next several years, Willingham performed with every North Bay theater company that would give him a part, spending several seasons with the nationally acclaimed Summer Repertory Theater program at Santa Rosa Junior College.
He earned his BFA at the North Carolina School of the Arts, then returned to Sonoma County with the intention of starting his own theater company. That company, formed with his friend Eric Cook, was the Illusion Theater Alliance, which staged two or three shows before Willingham was approached by director Jim dePriest. DePriest had recently acquired a small theater space in Sebastopol and invited Willingham to join him in starting a new theater company, Main Street Theater, the earliest evolution of what would eventually become the mighty Sonoma County Repertory Theatre. In its first few years, Willingham directed and performed in several shows, then--on what amounts to a whim--suddenly decided to see if he could make it in New York.
"My girlfriend at the time was a dancer," he explains, "and one day she looked at me and said, 'We're young, we're not tied down with a child'--except for me, of course--'so let's move to New York.' Three months later, we were there." He stayed for six years, during which time he learned everything there was to know about the high pressures of auditioning in the Big Apple and the New York restaurant industry. "I was like a lot of actors in New York," he laughs. "I didn't really know how to start my career. I just showed up."
By the time he left, Willingham had done exactly two shows in New York, both of them off-off-Broadway, one as an actor and one as a director. On the other hand, he'd been doing quite a bit of regional theater over those six years, performing outside of NYC. Eventually, he decided to do the next logical thing for an actor: he went back to school to earn his masters degree, this time landing at the University of Washington in Seattle.
And that's when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival finally took notice.
Over the years, he'd auditioned for OSF twice and been passed over both times. So when he was asked to come to Ashland and audition, he tried to remain realistic.
"But then," he says, "they offered me a season, man! I did Demetrius in Midsummer and a couple of parts in Richard II. It was like a fairy tale. It was like, 'Why do you go to graduate school?' The answer is not, 'To get a degree.' The answer is, 'So you can work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.' If I'd known that, I'd have gone to grad school a whole lot earlier."
On this snowy day in Oregon, however, Willingham is once again at a crossroads.
"I haven't decided if I'm going to audition for next year's season or not," he reveals. "That dream of working here in Ashland, that dream I cultivated for 20 years, that's not my only dream. I also kind of--and I'm serious, so don't smirk--I want to win an Oscar." He laughs happily.
"Hey, Ben Affleck has an Oscar," he adds. "Why can't I have an Oscar?" Next year could see Willingham in either Los Angeles or London.
This being the day of the Academy Awards ceremony (Willingham is hosting an Oscar party for some friends), the subject of acceptance speeches comes up.
"As someone who actually works on his Oscar speech from time to time," he states, "I have actually given some thought to this, and to whom I will thank, someday, in my speech. Here's the deal: I am a very, very lucky actor. When I first got into theater, I can confidently state that I was very definitely going down the wrong road. I was, maybe, a year-and-a-half away from doing some very bad things.
"So, first of all--and pardon me for being corny--I will thank my mom," he says. "Even when I was going down the wrong road, my mother saw that I was searching for something to fulfill my . . . whatever--my emptiness. When I came to see theater as my calling, she didn't discourage that. She didn't suggest I come up with something to fall back on. She just said go for it. The drama class I took from Beth and John Craven at Santa Rosa High School--it literally changed my life. And I'd definitely thank Jim dePriest, who taught me that energy alone can get stuff done, that you don't always have to have a plan, but you do have to have the energy to implement whatever it is you do come up with. These are the people who helped me become who I am. They are the people who helped get me here, and will be a part of wherever I end up next."
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