Stage & Dance

Unlike his character, 'Rent' actor makes most of his opportunities

Johnny Dawson, whose stage experience is limited though he sings and plays in a band, portrays Roger in SummerFest's production of Rent. The musical runs through Sunday and is the season-ender.
Johnny Dawson, whose stage experience is limited though he sings and plays in a band, portrays Roger in SummerFest's production of Rent. The musical runs through Sunday and is the season-ender. staff

Johnny Dawson, who plays Roger in SummerFest's production of Rent, has to get director Tracey Bonner to yell at him before rehearsals.

"I just have to get her to say some crazy stuff to me to get in the right mood," Dawson says, describing moments that sound like the scene from Tootsie in which Dustin Hoffman's character came over to enrage Terri Garr's character before an audition.

In a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, tattoos and blonde-brown hair, Dawson looks typecast as "the pretty-boy frontman who wasted opportunity," as Roger describes himself in the show. But similarities with Roger end on the surface.

"We're polar opposites," Dawson says of his outlook and Roger's gloomy disposition.

Roger has absorbed many tragedies, including the suicide of his girlfriend, his own diagnosis with AIDS and his impending eviction from his threadbare apartment.

"He just wants to die quietly," Dawson says. "So he's pushing everyone away."

Dawson embraces his friendships and family, and pretty much every opportunity that comes his way.

That's why when he was approached one night in the parking lot at The Bar Complex by SummerFest executive director Joe Artz with an invitation to try out for Rent, Dawson said, "Why not?"

Dawson, 25, had just finished regaling his best friend with a rendition of A Whole New World from Disney's Aladdin. Artz, who had been trolling area bars for potential cast members of the rock opera, liked Dawson's voice and look, so he gave him a card with audition dates and times.

"I was about six bourbons in, so I thought he was joking," Dawson said.

Dawson's main gig the past few years has been as a guitar player, not a singer, in the band Partly Cloudy, which is based in Central Kentucky. It's the latest in a line of bands that he has been in since middle school, when he started playing guitar.

He took a few shots at theater, even spending a summer in the apprentice program at the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, the predecessor to SummerFest. There, he played a guard in the 1999 production of Hamlet.

"Everybody dies, and me and my friend Taber Hibpshman just stand there," says Dawson, who remembers making Susan Wigglesworth, who played Gertrude, angry by trying to show her a yo-yo trick while she was trying to get into character.

Dawson's mischievous side rubbed a number of people the wrong way, getting him kicked out of a couple of school plays at Henry Clay and Lafayette high schools; he graduated from Lafayette in 2005.

At that time, his world was mainly music, landing his Partly Cloudy gig when he was working at Guitar Center and somebody mentioned that the group needed a new guitarist. The band has played all over the country and overseas, although Dawson says they are still at the living-out-of-a-van stage of their career.

"We have a shot at being popular if we could get a radio campaign going on our next album," Dawson says. "But we live in reality, and we know how much of a long shot it is."

And now, Dawson has seen other options.

Working with music director Mark Calkins has taught him a lot about his voice, and he says that castmates Nick Vannoy and Taylor Eldred have indoctrinated him with musicals, including Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George.

Still, little more than 48 hours from opening the show, he says, "I'm baffled I'm here, and it's only days away."

Dawson says he wants to audition for more shows and even study voice more with Calkins at Berea College.

Unlike Roger, he's not going to waste opportunities.

"I feel like every day is an experiment," he says, "and you should be creative and crazy and not classify yourself as anything."

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