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Spotlight on young actors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 11, 2008-  Most of St. Louis' colorful theatergoers and participants can agree that the local scene has unabashedly expanded over the past half-decade or so. From feisty breakout companies such as The Orange Girls to the ever-growing and perennially popular Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, times are good for our actors (and those of us who applaud them). Here, we introduce (or reintroduce, for savvy stage fans), five who are riding the theatrical wave in the Lou.

To find these talents, the Beacon contacted directors, who each recommended several names they felt St. Louisans should know about. Aaron Lawson, Berklea Going, Ben Nordstrom, Magan Wiles and Khnemu Menu-Ra represent a variety of goals, backgrounds, and ways of living out theater in our city.

Khnemu Menu-Ra

Hometown: Oklahoma City

For some actors, St. Louis is one stop on an ambitious career trajectory. "My father lives here, and it was another city, a bigger city," says transplant Khnemu Menu-Ra.

When did you get started acting? Late-middle school, early high school? I just kind of did it. I enrolled in an acting class. I really enjoyed it, and eventually I came to think I was actually good at it. The more you do it, the more you become it. That was 14 years ago.

You've done a lot with St. Louis Shakespeare. What about Shakespearian plays makes them exciting for you to perform? You see his plays, and they're all about old, rich people. You're like, "This isn't me at all. I don't deal with this stuff." But with Shakespeare, there's just something about this universal nature. While he doesn't touch on contemporary issues, the themes and ideas are always relevant. His use of language and his writing are just so poetic and specific. He'll find several different ways to express a single thought, and each way will reflect a specific note or moment that makes it different than the other phrase. He gives you these worlds and characters and these speeches, and they grab you. Your speech automatically sharpens up. You speak more clearly. It raises you as an actor.

Tell me about your most recent role, Edmund in "King Lear." It was a role that I'd been wanting to play for a long time. He is a villain, so I got to be, you know, despicable. There're a lot of people in "King Lear" who are going through a lot of trauma in their lives. Edmund is very active, and of all the characters in that play, he's the most straightforward. The fact that he's an illegitimate child means people tend to be a little more flexible in casting. Edmund is the one of the select few roles that seems almost written for a colorblind casting.

How important is it for a character's expected appearance and the actor's appearance to match up? It's a matter of interpretation, really. You don't want to jar with the material. A lot of times, it's harder to find the kind of actor who can really go all the way and change themselves into something else. If you wanna do something that's not necessarily in line with how it's usually done or interpreted, it requires that the entire production is slightly skewed. I've heard of productions of "Othello," for example, where the entire cast is black and "Othello" is white. That's really the only reason to depart from a common interpretation of the piece. To raise a question that hasn't been raised before.

You'd like to eventually move to New York. What have you gained in the past few years in St. Louis? I feel I've been fortunate to get some very good parts in terms of practical experience. Say working with the Shakespeare Festival and the Black Rep. Those are larger markets, and they hire out of St. Louis. I've been meeting people who are in a position I find myself working toward. The networking to a certain extent has been very educational for me.

Magan Wiles
Hometown:
Xenia, Ohio

Theater's high drama has the power to transform performers and audiences alike in deep, lasting ways. This is a belief St. Louis University grad Magan Wiles puts into practice on a regular basis by taking on challenging roles and working with International Play Ground at the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma (CSTWT).

What kind of an impact do you see with the drama troop at CSTWT? I've seen how powerful theater can be for the kids, who get a platform. The flip side is the community benefits a lot from hearing what, say, a young Afghani woman thinks about U.S. activities abroad. Creating with them also brings so much to my own acting. They are continually helping me evolve as a teacher and an actor.

You're playing a young Lebanese woman in the Orange Girls' production of "Scorched," and you'll soon be playing Evie in the world debut of local playwright Carter W. Lewis' "Evie's Waltz" at the Rep. Both of these are pretty challenging roles. I've created a niche for myself playing complicated teens. I enjoy playing people who are kind of on the fringe. When somebody has a complicated psychology, it presents a challenge and an opportunity to empathize with people you might not otherwise.

What do you feel audiences in St. Louis want to see at the theater? I'm hungry to see ultra-contemporary theater focusing on current events. I think people want to see a play about what happened in Kirkwood last year. The weird feel of racism, the gentrification of the city. People want to see stuff about St. Louis, about people living in St. Louis and about the flavor of the city.

It's always interesting to hear what St. Louis transplants have to say about St. Louis - what is the flavor of our city? Sometimes I feel like I'm in a Northern city, sometimes it feels Southern. It's East meets West, North meets South. People have converged here. There are so many neighborhoods with different styles. There are the hoosiers and the Ladue-siers.

Are you going to New York? No, absolutely not. That's probably the key thing, and the general public and the acting community ask me about it all the time. I could absolutely go to New York and do well there, but I love St. Louis. I like being in a community that's small enough to see the difference I'm making.

Ben Nordstrom
Hometown:Oklahoma City

The quality of life in St. Louis brought Webster grad Ben Nordstrom and his young family back from New York in 2004.

A lot of actors here plan to move to New York, but you left the Big Apple to come back to St. Louis. I was little surprised by wanting to do that myself. New York is amazing. Being on Broadway is amazing. Those are great things, and wanting to go to New York is legitimate. I had my agent, I worked, and I had a good time. It's crazy in a good way, but you do sacrifice a little bit to be there in terms of lifestyle and quality of life.

I'm so grateful I can live in a place like St. Louis and do this full-time. Now I often get, "What are you doing here?" It's a compliment to me, but it's almost insulting to St. Louis. What am I doing here? I'm having a life. New York will always be there.

You've been involved in myriad performances over the course of your career. What is a recent standout? "Urinetown" at the Rep is definitely one of my favorites. When this is what you do for a living, every show isn't amazing. "Urinetown" was awesome. The whole cast was perfect, and the show is so smart.

You raise a valid point: You're doing what you love, but not every show is going to be a peak, and in some ways it's a job like any other job. This is all I've wanted to do since I was 10, but there are parts of it that suck. Like when you do a musical, you spend the first few days sitting in chairs learning music. That first part for me is boring and tedious. Then there are tech rehearsals; that's the part that's really hard. They're long days, and it's not about you or the acting. You're just figuring out the costume and the set, so you run the same scene 13 times.

You're married and have an energetic 4-year-old. How do you find the work/life balance? It's just kind of a different lifestyle. It's hard when I'm doing a show, because I'm not home at night. But I'm home all day during the day. My wife, Kristen, who used to be in the business and still choreographs one or two shows a year, has a regular job. That's the stability. My son, Sam, always comes to rehearsal, and he's just so used to new people and watching. It's funny now because he can talk about what he likes and doesn't like.

So what does Sam like? He loved Charlie Brown, which my wife choreographed, and he loves Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]. He saw me play Joseph once before, and this past summer they did it at Stages. I wasn't Joseph, and that was when he first realized that you could play different parts. He didn't like the Stages version as much.

Berklea Going

Hometown: St. Louis

Berklea Going broke into St. Louis theater at age 7 with the Muny's production of "Showboat."

"I just thought it would be fun to audition," Berklea says, "and I was surprised that I got in." Since getting in, the 12-year-old has been singing and acting under the lights in this city and beyond.

What's your favorit part of putting on a show? Just being on stage and having the audience look at you and applaud at the end.

What's it like being a young actor in St. Louis? I've been extremely lucky. I've had so many opportunities, and they've all been wonderful. St. Louis has amazing opportunities for kids.

Tell me about your role as Scout in Metro Theatre Company's upcoming "To Kill a Mockingbird." I am so excited to be playing Scout. I love the movie and the book. You can get into Scout's character, but you have to think about it a lot. What makes it even more exciting is that it's my first straight play. I've only done musicals before. That makes it a little bit more exciting.

Right now, you're rehearsing full-time as Gracie Shin for Stages St. Louis "The Music Man;" are you missing school? Yes. It's not that bad. I just don't go in and then I make up the work. My school's really good about it. I actually missed three months of school when I did Susan Waverly for "White Christmas" with the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Any role that you really, really want to play that you haven't gotten to yet? I've had a lot of great roles, and I'm really grateful for that. When I played Jane in the Muny's "Peter Pan," I got to fly. It was really cool. They put you in a harness, and they make sure that you're going on the right path. I had to hold Peter Pan's hand, and we went through the window.

Aaron Lawson

Hometown: St. Louis

Theater with political undertones isn't just a passing flirtation for actors such as Aaron Lawson. The St. Louis-native (Parkway South, if you were wondering) is able to express his views through local companies, such as New Line Theatre.

Why do you click so well with New Line? New Line is about saying something. They always have a socially or economically driven message, even if it's just a goofy little message.

I'm a very liberal person, and I feel that all the ideals of New Line Theatre are pretty much my own. Also, performing with New Line in this city has allowed me to do things I would never have been able to do. Take "High Fidelity," that's something I literally couldn't have done anywhere else. Scott [New Line's director, Scott Miller] is the one who saw it, and people have expressed interest in the show now that we've done it.

With New Line, you get to act and sing ... I can't remember a time when I wasn't singing. If I'm in the car and I'm not singing, either the CD player's broken or there's something wrong. I heard about so many people with "High Fidelity" who said, "I don't like musicals, or I don't want to see a musical." When I was younger and didn't have as much access to musicals, I felt the same way, but it really it becomes your thing.

What about "Hair?" We're rehearsing it. Hair obviously is a classic show that you kind of wish we didn't need anymore. You kind of wish it were just a historical piece, but the issues they brought up in 1968 are still pertinent in 2008. We hope to show it to an audience that will appreciate it.

Do you fear you'll be preaching to the choir? "Hair" can very much preach to the choir. It's kind of the swing vote theory. You're looking to the people who are kind of on the fence politically in the first place. People who are steadfast aren't likely to change. St. Louis can be a liberal city, but we don't want to rock the boat. That's why "Hair" is important here.

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