When Woodford Theatre opens John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men this weekend, the theater will not only be sharing an iconic American classic, it will do so with an all-star ensemble of some of Central Kentucky’s most enduring talents.
Veteran actors include Kevin Hardesty, Herald-Leader music columnist Walter Tunis, Paul Thomas, Pete Hawley, Tim Hull, Jeff Sherr, Glenn Thompson and Dmetrius Conley-Williams. As individuals, they have each played titular or strong supporting roles in local productions for decades. Collectively, they easily have more than one hundred years of theater experience.
When you add director Joe Ferrell’s decades of experience, producer Trish Clark’s decades of experience, and the fact that many of the performers have worked together before, you get one of the area’s most fruitful, sought-after working environments for local actors.
“One of the things I love about working with Joe is that he has an ability to set up an environment of trust where people can truly be creative and take risks,” says Kevin Hardesty, who plays George, returning to a role he played for Actors Guild of Lexington in 1999.
“He just sets up that environment and while he gives great judgment and direction, there’s an element of freedom to explore,” says Hardesty, who says Ferrell encourages lots of experimentation and exploration during rehearsal.
“They call it a play for a reason,” Hardesty says. “He allows you to play.”
Paul Thomas, who plays Candy, echoes Hardesty’s experience.
“It’s an experience that you don’t always get in terms of a director,” Thomas says. “He does not come in and just take hold of everything and superimpose his own vision. Oh, he has one, but he allows the cast to discover things as a unit as the project goes on.”
“One of the things he really focuses on are real connections between people,” says Tim Hull, who plays Curley. “It’s tough on stage because you’ll get nervous and you’ll start to worry about your lines and this and that and the other. He helps the actor to bypass that and really listen, really talk to each other.”
In addition to Ferrell’s direction style, cast members enjoy the trust established from previous years of working together, which some say can accelerate the creative process.
“It’s a wonderful shortcut,” says Jeff Sherr, who plays Slim. “There’s a history and an understanding. It’s wonderful to listen to actors who are able to listen and all of these folks really listen to each other and respond so that every rehearsal there’s something new that you find.”
“You let your defenses down and your creativity go forward because you can trust these people,” says Glenn Thompson, who plays Carlson and has worked with all but two cast members previously.
The trusting, ensemble nature of the work isn’t just for the old guard, though. Courtney Watermire and Conway Poteet, two younger actors, say that working with seasoned cast has been a pivotal professional experience for them as well.
“I haven’t been in the theater as long as these guys have,” says Waltermire, who plays Curley’s wife, the lone female in a very male play. She says watching the older cast members boldly experiment with new ideas, not all of which always work, inspired her to do the same.
“They really inspired me as an actor to try new things,” says Waltermire. “We found some nice moments by that comfortable experimenting.”
“To call it a learning experience would be such an understatement,” says Poteet, who plays Whit.
“Let’s say you’ve got a line and you assume that you thought of every way to deliver the line. Then when you watch someone else play and do what they’re doing, it gives you inspiration and helps you come up with ideas you wouldn’t have had on your own.”
Conley-Williams, says that despite working with about half the cast before, he didn’t always get to share meaningful stage time with them before.
“Walter and I, we have been in two plays, but this is our first time having a scene together, so that’s the first time for us to play with each other,” says Conley-Williams, who adds that no matter how experienced a fellow castmate is, it does not guarantee chemistry.
“When I see an actor that I like and I found out I’m going to work with them — I’ve never worked with Kevin before — I say, ‘I hope I click well with them,’” Conley-Williams says.
“I think we clicked before we even read the script. just sitting around the table talking to each other the first rehearsal,” Conley-Williams says of the ensemble’s chemistry.
Tunis, who plays Lennie, says that the risk-taking encouraged by Ferrell translates to the entire show.
“The whole show itself is a risk,” says Tunis, “just to tell it properly and to tell it with a sense of purpose that makes it valid and as important as it deserves to be. It’s a great, great work.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If You Go
‘Of Mice and Men’
What: The Woodford Theatre’s production of John Steinbeck’s classic.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 23, 29, 30, Feb. 5, 6 and 2 p.m. Jan. 24, 31, Feb. 7. Note: Due to weather, the Jan. 22 performance has been cancelled. The theater is contacting ticket holders to exchange for another date.
Where: Falling Springs Recreation and Arts Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles.
Tickets: $20 adults, $13 students