Even after 40 years on stage, St. Louis actor Joe Hanrahan still relishes the nervous anticipation of opening a show. Each time he prepares to step into the spotlight, he asks himself, “Can we pull this off?”
Hanrahan, who co-founded the Midnight Company theater ensemble in 1997, has spent much of his career starring in one-person shows or playing multiple roles in shows with small casts. He thoroughly enjoys the prospect of rapidly switching between different characters onstage, say, from a 12-year-old girl to a misogynist older man.
It’s thrilling and also terrifying, especially just before the curtain goes up, like taking that first step onto a tightrope.
“I like to be scared of a show,” Hanrahan said. “That’s the only time I ever get nervous, is just before a show, and I just say to myself, ‘Oh, I hope this is worth the audience’s time.’”
‘Make sure the audience knows who you are’
On Thursday, Midnight presents its first performance of “Popcorn Falls” by James Hindman. Hanrahan is one of two actors playing 21 residents of a small town facing bankruptcy. The plot revolves around someone digging up a forgotten check from an arts council that’s worthless unless the townspeople can successfully mount a theater production in a week.
“No one knows anything about doing a play,” Hanrahan said. “And so they've got to like scramble together to save the town.”
Decades ago, Hanrahan initially scrambled to wrap his head around his first one-person show, called “Drinking in America,” by Eric Bogosian. But he quickly grew to love the art form. Since then, he figures he’s played more than 150 characters in various plays. The record is 12 in one show.
Making them all distinctive is part of the thrill and one of the biggest challenges. Hanrahan’s strategies include giving each character a specific hand movement or stance as well as a signature voice.
“You have to make sure the audience knows who you are,” Hanrahan said. “And usually in addition to whatever you can do to make that character distinct, you try to maybe give them certain spots on the stage.”
The process starts about a month before a show opens. Hanrahan breaks down the script into chunks for easier tackling.
“When I work with a director, I say, ‘Next week, I will bring in these pages,” he said. “You build it up, and then you have the show down by the time you open.”
There are definitely advantages in being in a small cast, and especially in being the only actor in one-person shows.
“They’re very convenient,” Hanrahan said. “You get a lot of rehearsal done in the shower — or in your car.”
If you go:
‘Popcorn Falls,’ presented by Midnight Company
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand Blvd.
8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, March 28-April 13
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