Six Degrees of Ron Berry
Making Good Stuff With His Friends
Walking into the Off Center to review the production of Physical Plant Theatre's Fatigue, I noted a pair of tuxedo-bedecked actors, Ron Berry and Carlos Trevino, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the front of the stage. They were smiling and looking over the audience, sometimes speaking quietly to each other. Before sitting down, I walked up to Berry and shook his hand and said, "Hi." Berry, ever friendly, smiled and greeted me in return. We exchanged a few words and I took my seat, suddenly thinking how rude and indulgent I'd been: There was no reason to interrupt the actors' concentration like that. But Berry is so warm and engaging, it was impossible to ignore him standing there, in what seemed like an open invitaton to say hello. It felt like the most natural of things to do. For Berry, such ease and approachability have everything to do with the way he makes theatre, whether onstage or behind the scenes. "That's ... important to me, doing it in the right manner, you know, in a very respectful and fun manner. Doing it with people that you like and that you care about. If it's not respectful and fun, it's almost like, 'Ah, I don't want to do it.'"
But Berry does want to do it, lots of it, as can be seen in the dozens of theatre credits he has racked up during his four years in Austin. Since his arrival in 1996, the versatile Berry has kept himself busy acting, directing, writing, and producing, and now he's even built a theatre -- the Blue Theatre -- which opens this week. He clearly wants to do theatre; he just insists on having a good time when he does.
"The way in which it's done is almost as important to me as making work that is really well-crafted and immediate and exciting to watch," Berry says. "In other words, the spirit in which you make something carries through to the finished product. I'm not saying I don't like to bust a little tail and get dirty with a project -- I love it, I mean you've gotta bust your back and put your heart into it or it's probably not going to be worth a damn -- but it's the way you bust your back that matters."
"I think that he comes from the mindset that it has to be fun," says actor-director-designer Dana Younger, whose involvement with Berry goes back to Water, the first production by Berry's Refraction Arts Project theatre company. "I think that that's the driving principle to why we all do it together: why we create things together, why we do the kinds of shows that we do. We try to make it fun for the audience. It might sound clichéd, but it's the main thing. We try not to get too stressed out about stuff. Because nobody's making any money at this. Nobody's making any money at theatre, so why worry so much about it? And Ron has so much fun, he is so fun, and I think people in general play off Ron and respond to Ron because he responds to them. You know, he's got one of those magical personalities that everybody loves him."
Berry's face is big and round, and when he talks, it is full of smiles that make his eyes narrow and his face bob like a balloon. His hands rise and open up, as if he's holding something large in front of him -- maybe a bigger balloon. His smile is infectious, and he laughs easily, which is also infectious. It's these kinds of qualities that draw people, even strangers, to Berry and make them want to talk with him, work with him, join him on his theatrical quests. Just looking at him can lift one's spirits. Small wonder, then, that Berry has cultivated so many fans and friends.
Actress Jessica Hedrick is one of the latter and the former. Having appeared in most of Refraction Arts' shows, she has observed Berry's acting from close range, and it's led her to view his talent as extraordinary. "I think what makes Ron a great actor," Hedrick says, "is his ability to find a rapturous aliveness in his characters. He won't stop 'til he gets there and is not afraid to troll the dorkiest depths of dorkdom 'til he finds it. And I mean that as high praise. He breathes out golden possibilities; even in his skeeziest characters, he manages to capture (or attract) this very authentic sense of the person's giddiness in the face of being alive, and that hilarity and wonder operates like magic over an audience." She has known Berry longer than most folks in Austin, having first met him on the campus of Earlham College in Indiana almost 10 years ago. "When I moved to Austin (after a dreadful three years in Seattle) and discovered that Ron lived here," she says, "my move felt justified by the Hand of Destiny."
Hedrick is not alone in her recurring connection with Berry. The man has collaborated at one time or another with most of the most creative and personable artists in town, from playwright-actor Cyndi Williams and actor-director David Jones to musical group the Barkers and the Blue Genie artisans, and they form an extensive web of friends and acquaintances around him. It's so extensive that you can play something of a Six Degrees of Ron Berry game with the participants in a Refraction Arts production. Here's a typical sample of the interconnectedness of Berry's world (try to keep up): Berry went to Earlham College with Barkers drummer Steve Balgooyen, who is the roommate of Blue Genie's Dana Younger, who was in Troupe Texas with Jennifer Haley, who wrote Refraction Arts' current project, The Butcher's Daughter, which is being directed by Deanna Shoemaker, who went to Webster University with Ron Berry's sister Katherine and Will Walden, who was also a member of Troupe Texas with Younger and Haley and who formed the Barkers after the production of Water, when Walden was introduced to Balgooyen by Berry. Phew! These are just some of the simpler orbits around the man. And it isn't that he shapes them; they just ... happen.
"I guess I've never really felt like I had a plan. I've just gone along and done my thing," says Berry, reflecting on the birth of Refraction Arts. "It was just basically me, Scott [Wilcox], and Eliot [Haynes] wanting to make stuff, you know, make theatre and film and music. I like making stuff, I like making shit, you know?" Berry laughs. "That's what really gets me going. Especially new stuff, new work. Or newer takes on revivals. I really just like making stuff." He laughs again, emphasizing the word "stuff." It's a fun word for Berry's mouth. "That's just always been the dream, I guess. Just to have a place to make the stuff, you know. For me, an empty theatre is the greatest place in the world, it's the coolest place. Hanging out in an empty theatre on an empty stage is the greatest, it's the greatest."
"He is truly one of the best actors in town, if not the best," says Dana Younger, who directed Berry in the Refraction Arts productions of Water and The Visit. It's the sort of praise you hear a lot where Berry the actor is concerned. His colleagues recognize in Berry a remarkable ability to create characters with great depth, full of contradictions and complications, yet simultaneously open and approachable. Cyndi Williams, who has worked with Berry in the Subterranean Theatre Company production of Raised in Captivity and in the productions of her plays American Arcana and Woman at the Window, says that Berry "has the ability to play conflicted, vulnerable characters who overcome their fears to take a sort of leap of faith into the unknown." Berry looks for that complexity in a balance between his own personality and the character's. "There's always going to be a fair amount of yourself in the role," he says. "You've got to bring some of that, but there just aren't a whole lot of plays about the life and times of Ron Berry out there, so you've got to do a little looking outside yourself as well. I guess maybe it starts out as sort of a conversation, a dialogue between yourself and the character, with the ideal being that you eventually reach some sort of collective understanding of each other. At which point, you gotta roll up your sleeves and start fighting, fighting for this person. I think that's largely what an actor's job is: to fight for this character that you're playing. Even if the character is a buffoon, like Odysseus was in Water, you're still fighting for him, you're still putting it out there."
Berry has leapt into characters who are full of love, as with the Lecturer in Physical Plant's Fatigue, and into characters who are full of hate, as he did with the Schoolmaster in Refraction Arts' The Visit. In the latter, Berry turned in a mesmerizing performance as the conscience of a greedy town who comes to realize the hopelessness of it all. In one breathtaking scene, Berry's Schoolmaster descends from upright moral citizen to drunken witness, his character deflating before the audience's eyes. Younger remembers Berry's work vividly: "When we did The Visit and he did that scene, I just ... I get chills when I think about it. It blows me away, it was so good."
"Both of these men were extremely earnest and heroic in their own ways," says Berry, "and probably equally blind and tragic. But again, the joy for me was fighting for these characters. Fighting for the Lecturer's lost loved one, his sense of right, his friendship with the piano player. And similarly with the Schoolmaster, fighting for his sense of worth, for his sense of redemption at what he and the townspeople had done. This was probably the biggest onstage transformation of any of the characters I've played, at least here in Austin. It was really challenging and fun."
Ken Webster, who directed Berry in Raised in Captivity, suggests that the actor's perpetual sense of fun could be the key to his artistic power: "He is living proof that you don't have to be a tortured soul to be a great actor. He seems to love and enjoy life more than anyone I know. Maybe that's what makes him so good."
"I love to laugh," says Berry, "and I think if you can bring that to a part, even in a drama -- sometimes I feel especially in a drama -- then that's great ... All the levity and lightheartedness -- I think that's a big part of who I am. Although there is definitely an equally big part of myself that is very earnest and serious and awkward and, as Jessica likes to say, 'brooding.' I guess like most people, there are a lot of things that I feel very passionately about -- the theatre is a big one. And I guess, for me at any rate, part of being a good artist is negotiating that balance between taking yourself and your work very seriously and truly pouring your soul into it and, at the same time, being able to step back and laugh at yourself and at the whole thing and say, 'Wow, I'm standing up here on a wooden platform with a big plastic sword and some tacky yellow leotards spouting rhymed couplets, and people are watching.'"
"Everyone watch Ron; this is how I want it done," says director Deanna Shoemaker during a rehearsal for The Butcher's Daughter. Berry is making a highly exaggerated, mechanical gesture of sweeping invisible food to his open mouth. Berry is wrapped up in the gesture and continues it for the benefit of the ensemble, although he gives the impression that he could keep scraping that invisible meal up to his mouth for hours, whether anyone is watching him or not. Between moments onstage with the cast of The Butcher's Daughter, Berry takes a little time to make everyone as comfortable as possible, adjusting the fans to get the air moving toward the stage for a little heat-ameliorating breeze. The air conditioning units have yet to be installed in this brand-new theatre carved from yet another East Austin warehouse. Rehearsals for The Butcher's Daughter have been going on for about three weeks in what is its own work in progress: an old warehouse being turned into a new Austin theatre.
Asked for the story behind the theatre, Berry spins a tale that involves a dream, some hard work, a little luck, and, not surprisingly, friends. "My friend Dan," says Berry, "he's a really good friend of mine, a really cool dude -- we talked several times in the past about how I'd love to have a theatre space. I had a little money set aside and he said, 'I'd really love to help you get a space.' We started looking around and one day I was hanging out with Dana Younger and I said, 'Dan is going to help me get a space, we're really excited, we're looking around.' And a couple of weeks later, [this] place came up for rent ... and Dana was like, 'Oh, you guys ought to check this out.'"
Younger is part of the group of artisans that used to inhabit the now-defunct Black Mountain Arts, a house and workshop amid the trees and old houses just south of Town Lake. When the group was evicted in early 1999, it headed east and landed in a warehouse off Seventh Street at Springdale Road. That became the home of Blue Genie Art Industries, a workshop where Younger, Rory Skagen, and Kevin Collins create everything from masks to Mardi Gras floats to a six-panel installation for the exterior walls of the new Bob Bullock Texas History Museum.
The Blue Genie crew moved into their space in October 1999. In April of this year, they discovered that the adjacent warehouse was available. Younger immediately thought of Berry: "Ron and I have been talking for a long time, fantasizing about having a space. We had looked at a couple of other places and been hot on the trail for a while and then sort of dropped off. It started to seem like the impossible task that it actually is," he laughs. "But it was just in the back of my mind. And this space came up and I looked at it once and I said, 'Whoa, this is already a theatre.'"
The space is ideal for Berry's brand of rough-and-ready stage play, with a 15-foot ceiling, a flexible acting area that currently measures about 400 square feet, and seating for an audience of up to 90. A loft overlooking the playing area makes a perfect booth; there are toilets, a little backstage space, and an office/dressing room space. Adjoining this large warehouse is a space about half as big, which Berry and Younger hope to turn into a movie theatre, showing friends' films and more.
"I definitely wanted Dana to be a part of it," says Berry. "He's just a great person to have aboard. All those guys, Dana and Kevin and Rory. It's great; if you can dream it, they can build it or make it happen."
One week after my first visit to the Blue Theatre, all the seating risers are in place, as well as most of the seats. The set is no longer masking tape lines on the floor, but an intricate mountain of risers with a ladder, poles, and a rope: The Butcher's Daughter is full of movement, apparently. And the AC has been installed. The impressively quick finish out of the space is testament to Berry's large circle of friends and to Younger and the Blue Genie folks' abilities to, as Berry might say, make stuff.
All these friends, a new play, a new theatre, a company that champions theatre as something fun as well as substantive: So is Berry the Happiest Man in Austin? "God -- I think I really love what I am doing, you know? And I love people, I love hanging out with people. Being a goof," he laughs. "Trying to get a space ready and open a show ... I hit my head against a wall nightly. Right now I feel like I've relinquished all control over my life, you know. Just sort of handed over the truck keys to someone else: Someone else is driving the truck now."
But this is a truck that seems to know where it's headed, no matter how out of control Berry says he feels. Down the road, Berry sees only more theatre: "I'd love to make something really take root here and continue to build. Make new shows. Make new theatre. There's lots of theatre I'd like to see around the world, and lots of places I'd like to see. I've thought about taking a year or two and just traveling around various countries just studying theatre kind of on my own terms.
"I feel like I still have a lot to learn. But I definitely feel like theatre is my life, or what I want my life's work to be, what I want to give my life energies to. I don't know, we'll see where that takes me. I don't really have aspirations to go to L.A. or New York and try to make it, I have no desires to be a professional actor. That's not to say I don't want to do work that is well-crafted and engaging and immediate. I just want to make stuff, to make good stuff with my friends."
The Butcher's Daughter runs June 15-July 8 at the Blue Theatre, 916 Springdale. Call 459-6212.