Not Just the Goofy Guy

The Actor Behind the Antics of Michael Stuart

The world's greatest detective and the world's greatest criminal mastermind are engaged in a tense showdown of wills. The evil Professor Robert Moriarty has infiltrated the rooms of Sherlock Holmes, and Holmes has confronted him. The two move and speak smoothly, both making a great show of expressing outward calm, but the underlying tension between them charges the air. Then, at the moment of supreme suspense, Moriarty makes a face and Holmes just about cracks up laughing.

That scene was played out at Synergy Studio in January 1995, late in the run of The Public Domain's production of Sherlock Holmes. I was the Holmes on the receiving end of that look and the actor who nearly caused me to lose it was Michael Stuart. Stuart is a playful actor, one who occasionally likes to, shall we say, try new things -- fresh line readings, pauses, movements -- even during performances. During this particular show, he was inspired to give a little goose to his exit in that scene. Moriarty has a final threat to toss at Holmes before he strides offstage, and just as he was about to issue it, Stuart... paused. He froze in mid-gesture, then pulled the gesture back, the lips closing over the words, as if he thought better of what he was going to say. The pause caught me off guard and when I looked at Stuart, his eyes gleamed with mischief. He slowly raised an eyebrow; it was a challenge, an invitation to a game: Can you keep a straight face? I had to marshal everything within me to keep from laughing out loud.

For many people, the episode is Michael Stuart in a nutshell. For more than 10 years, this mainstay of the Austin theatre scene has been dishing up delicious comic performances all over town. Stuart is almost as imposing for his ability to elicit laughter from an audience as for his height. The 6' 5" actor can draw guffaws from the stoniest of houses, and he does it with any trick in the comedian's bag. He'll whine, he'll roll his eyes, he'll dribble ice cream down his chin. He'll do a take that will stretch from here to Sweetwater. If there's a laugh to be had, he'll get it, even if it means sometimes doing something that maybe he shouldn't. He's a joker, they say, a cut-up. Mr. Anything-for-a-laugh. The goofy guy.

But to the people who have worked closely with Stuart, he's much more than an overgrown class clown. Talk to some of his colleagues and you'll hear the actor praised for the thoughtfulness with which he approaches his performances, the thoroughness of his research into roles, the support he provides to his fellow actors, and -- gasp -- the seriousness with which he takes his craft. According to Ken Webster, who has directed Stuart in nine shows over the last 10 years, including the production of Educating Rita opening this week, "There isn't an actor in town who's more serious about acting than Michael."

Don't misunderstand. Stuart is the goofy guy, and he'll tell you as much. "I like it. It's fun. Goofy's fun," he says, his eyes taking on that mischievous gleam. "I like goofy," he jokes, before offering up a more reflective comment on his creative approach. "I do always look for the funny part, even if it's a serious thing. I remember doing a monologue from Streetcar for some voice and diction class in college -- I was reading Stanley -- and I got some terrific laughs. Other people were doing the same piece and everyone was acting it so seriously. I hit the serious moments, but I made a few jokes, too. Maybe that's why people expect it from me, 'cause I'm gonna do it, whether I'm supposed to or not."

Stuart has provided evidence for his claim in dozens of performances through the years. A graduate of St. Edward's University who made his big splash on the local theatre scene in 1986 and has been performing steadily in Austin since, Stuart has found humor in almost every role he's taken. From long-suffering manservants -- Something's Afoot and The Importance of Being Earnest -- to kind-hearted losers -- a real specialty of Stuart's, seen in The Butterfingers Angel, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Fool for Love, Sin, and Lone Star, among others -- to the ultra-intelligent, underworld kingpin Moriarty, Stuart has consistently pinpointed the weak spot in his characters' makeup and exploited it for comic effect; he hits their Achilles' funny bone, as it were.

But Stuart's comic dexterity doesn't end with his ability to unearth the potential for humor in a part; it extends to his uncanny skill at playing it for all it's worth. In describing Stuart's qualities as a performer, actor after actor mentioned his masterful sense of timing. Bernadette Nason, who first met Stuart during Sherlock Holmes and is now working with him in the current production of Educating Rita, sees in Stuart an innate understanding of comedy. "When Michael gets a laugh from an audience, he knows where the laughter is coming from," she says, "and he knows how to manipulate it."

Because Stuart is so adept at snagging laughs, his comic work often eclipses the other qualities the actor brings to a role. "Michael is so much more versatile than people think," insists Webster. "He's basically known as being a comic actor, but I've seen him do things on stage that could just tear your heart out. Even playing basically goofy characters like Ray in Lone Star, Richie in Bleacher Bums, Lust in Sin, or Boo in The Marriage of Bette and Boo, he is able to make those characters so real and human, and so sympathetic. Many actors could be as funny playing those roles, but very few could play them with the depth that Michael can."

Margaret Hoard, who has both performed with and directed Stuart and is an unabashed fan, echoes Webster's praise. Stuart, she says, "can display all the colors of the human heart on stage. I loved his performance in Sin. It had so many layers to it, and it sent me in so many directions. It was full of surprise. There was a lot of mystery. You were wondering how the mind of the character worked. Was the character manipulative? How guilty is he? To me, Michael honors the essence of acting, which is being `in the moment.' So much of the time, we come to the theatre with the blueprint in our mind of how we're going to do it. He creates on the stage as he goes along."

There is a sense of spontaneity that pervades a Stuart performance, a sense that nothing is set and anything might happen. "He is very comfortable with himself as an actor," observes Nason, "so when he goes into a role, he is very open. He's not afraid of taking risks. Give him free rein and he'll take the character as far as it can go."

To the audience, this sometimes takes the appearance of looseness, but Nason is quick to dispel the notion that Stuart is a lazy actor. "He studies a lot outside the theatre," she says. During Sherlock Holmes, she recalls, "He knew everything there was to know about the character of Moriarty. He lent me a copy of the Sherlock Holmes story on which the play was based so I could see something of where my character was coming from." For Rita, the two have fleshed out the histories andbackgrounds of their respective characters. "We'll get very intent on the thought process, some understanding, some appreciation of what the other person is experiencing. He makes it great fun to do, but if I have a serious moment, he's terribly focused." She describes a rehearsal in which they were running lines for the scene where Rita considers leaving the course taught by Frank, Stuart's character. The character of Rita is very upset, nearly in tears, and as she spoke the lines, Nason felt her eyes welling up. Then, she says, she looked at Stuart and "his eyes had filled with tears, too. We were not on a stage; we were in Frank's room, and I thought, `He really understands what I'm saying.' It really wasn't expected. It was wonderful."

That he is also tremendously sensitive may be the most surprising hidden aspect to "the goofy guy." According to Hoard, Stuart "really takes pains to take care of people on stage. If you're inexperienced or shaky in any way, you just feel so protected with him." That may sound at odds with the image of Stuart trying to provoke laughter from one of his fellow actors, but Kathy Catmull, whose most recently worked with Stuart in the production of Sin, says that in her experience, most of Stuart's onstage antics are nothing more than "tiny, amusing signals to let you know he's in there." She thinks this is his way of saying "Hi!" on stage and says it can be kind of comforting if you're feeling shaky, although she admits she's had to bite her lip a few times. Catmull says that there probably isn't an actor she feels safer with on stage than Stuart, because, "No matter what happens, he always remains unfazed and keeps the scene moving right along."

"Nothing fazes him," insists Nason, and the comment is echoed by Catherine Uldrich, who played Beatrice to Stuart's Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing last year. Uldrich should know; she and the other actresses in The Public Domain's production did their best to break Stuart's concentration. During one performance, they stood offstage and collectively mooned Stuart and two other actors who were onstage in the middle of a scene. Uldrich says that none of the actors ever looked in their direction, but one wonders whether Stuart would have missed a beat even if he had. Possibly not, for, as Nason puts it, he has an incredible ability "to go with the flow. He takes what comes."

The Stuart stereotype would explain away his unflappability as just an overdeveloped degree of laid-backness. Stuart acknowledges his laconic qualities -- "I like to think of myself as a laid-back guy. I think of myself as being lazy." -- but he attributes more of his cool self-control to the two years he spent performing in audience participation murder mysteries. "We were doing totally improvised shows," he says. "For two hours, you're out there without a net and you have to entertain people who are shoving salad in their faces. Make 'em laugh enough but not too much so they don't spit all over you. I realized I could go out there and not know what was going on. I feel safe on stage, and I think that's what it is." Most actors, he says, suffer from "that fear of not doing it right. But there is no right or wrong. There's the way you're doing it. That's all. I do fret about missing a line or something but I know that if I do, something will happen and it will get covered up. I like to goof around. It's good for me, to keep me light, but more than for me, I try to keep everybody else from getting scared. It's not scary, what we do."

Acting is fun. That's the credo for Michael Stuart. "It's been really fun to work with Ken Bradley in Lone Star because he feels that way, too. He's out there having a good time, as am I. We're just Roy and Ray, out there havin' a good time behind Angel's. That doesn't mean we're not very serious as actors, that we're not just learning the lines and going up there and goofing around. We know what we're doing technically. We've looked at the characters and studied the backgrounds. There's that, but you have to have that other part, that happy part."

That Stuart continues to find the fun in acting may explain why he does so much of it. When he opens Educating Rita this weekend, he will be starting his third show of the summer, with no weekend in which he hasn't been performing. It completes a 12-month period in which he's also appeared in Scenes From an Execution, the Radio War of the Worlds, Radio A Christmas Carol, and Radio Romeo and Juliet, all for The Public Domain; plus The Importance of Being Earnest for Live Oak at the State Theatre; The Company's production of Barefoot in the Park produced in Columbus; and even a skit for the Chamber of Commerce in which he played Mr. Spock ("This was at the Erwin Center," says Stuart. "They had all these tables, thousands of people. We're on this teeny eight-by-eight stage, I'm in the ears, and I turn to say something to Tom Parker, and I notice the
40-foot screen's on, and there's my head. Whoa! Wait a minute! I didn't know people were lookin'. I thought I was going to be a speck!").

Stuart is already busy lining up projects for the next year, too. In the spring of 1997, The Public Domain will revive Sherlock Holmes with Stuart reprising the role of Moriarty. But before that comes a role which will call upon all the resources in Stuart's considerable bag of tricks: Cyrano de Bergerac, in The Public Domain's production of the Edmond Rostand play as adapted by Anthony Burgess. True, it's a character part and a role requiring the skills of a comedian, but it also demands great heart, panache, a stirring sense of adventure, and an exquisite sensitivity to romantic poetry. If Stuart can pull it off -- or when, as his fans are more likely to say -- we may no longer be able to consider him just a joker or to call him by Ken Webster's longstanding label of choice: "The most underrated actor in town."

Educating Rita runs Aug 1-17 at the State Theatre.

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