Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: Actor Nick Vannoy is having a great ride

Vannoy, right, was Collins, with Emanuel Williams as Angel, in SummerFest's Rent last year.
Vannoy, right, was Collins, with Emanuel Williams as Angel, in SummerFest's Rent last year.

Nick Vannoy loves roller coasters.

"I used to go to Kings Island all the time," Vannoy says of the Cincinnati-area theme park. "My favorite was the Vortex. Me and my friend would ride that all night until the fireworks started."

That might be why he describes his theatrical career in roller-coaster terms.

On his current role as The Creature in SummerFest's production of Frankenstein: "It's a wild ride to play this character. You just take that first drop and it goes."

On his burgeoning career, which has included a wide variety of roles during the past year, and a ticket to Actors Theatre of Louisville's prestigious apprentice program for the 2011-12 season: "It's just been this great, downhill roller-coaster ride. I just pray that it keeps going."

This week it will hurtle through the haunted tunnel of Bo List's adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which Vannoy will take on the task of playing Dr. Frankenstein's monster.

"It's very different," Vannoy says of playing a character who was essentially stitched together on a mad scientist's lab table. "Initially it came from a very physical place and a vocal place to figure out how he moved. At this point, we're really getting into the nitty-gritty of why he is doing what he is doing.

"It's hard. It's hard when you're dealing with someone who may not have a fully developed brain. What I am working on right now is getting him emotionally through the show, which is hard when you are talking about a newborn to 2 years old."

Frankenstein brings him back to a stage he has loved — the Arboretum amphitheater — performing with an actor he has idolized since he was a student at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School: Spencer Christensen, who plays Victor Frankenstein.

During the past few months, Vannoy was directed by Christensen in The Impersonation of Being Ernest, a production by Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, which presents SummerFest. Now Vannoy is playing opposite his mentor.

"Spencer is fearless. Absolutely fearless, absolutely his own person," says Vannoy, 23. "He's not going to conform to any expectations, ever. He makes everything his own, and he makes everything make sense.

"Even as a high schooler, I could figure out when he wants something from you onstage, he's very intent and very direct."

Vannoy played football at Dunbar before successful auditions in the school's theater program rerouted him from the gridiron to the stage. He also got involved in the educational arm of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, the predecessor to SummerFest, and he traveled to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Dunbar's theater program.

Theater was going well enough for Vannoy that he initially thought he would graduate and move to New York to try to break into the stage world. But then he saw a production by the drama department at Northern Kentucky University.

"I was really impressed, and I went and auditioned," Vannoy says. "They were really interested, and I got a scholarship and I went."

In what he calls "a really blessed career" at NKU, he played Lenny in Of Mice and Men and had various roles in Shakespearean productions and musicals, including Cats. He also got to work with Commonwealth Theatre Company, a professional troupe based at NKU, in a production of Man of La Mancha that played in Cincinnati and toured to Romania.

Finances forced Vannoy to leave NKU before graduation. He spent a quiet 2009-10 in Lexington until being cast in one of his dream roles, Tom Collins, in last year's SummerFest production of Rent. That sparked a heady year on Lexington stages, including playing another dream role, William Barfée, in The Woodford Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

"I saw that on Broadway and I remember telling my girlfriend at the time, 'I'm going to play Barfée someday,' never thinking I'd actually get to play it," Vannoy says.

But this has been a year of dreams realized for Vannoy, topped off by his invitation to be part of the apprentice program, which gives actors a lot of onstage and offstage experience and the potential for contacts in the international theater world. Vannoy has had a chance to talk to some apprentice program veterans, including locally based actors Ellie Clark and Dara Jade Tiller.

"They said to expect to work very, very hard," Vannoy says. "They said to expect very long days, to get very close to the other apprentices and the Actors Theatre staff, and to be blown away by the work there."

It sounds as if Vannoy is getting ready to head into another big drop on his theatrical coaster. That's fine by him.

Vannoy says, "Hopefully it will keep winding and turning and going faster and faster."