“Actors’ Theatre made me into a writer” an Interview with Rodney Vaccaro

Last season we began our “Actors’ ExPats” series – interviews with folks who once were involved with Actors’ but had since moved away. This year, as we move our 30th Season, we are going to take that idea and expand on it. We are going to be celebrating some of the many, many people who have made this theatre such a success!

So, we’ll be interviewing all kinds of folks, from those that helped start Actors’ in the very beginning to those who are helping out today; people who have moved from West Michigan and those who are active in Grand Rapids theatre now. Our goal is to get to know some of the amazing people who have graced our stage, from acting to directing to everything in between. This is an opportunity to take a look at the past and also look to the future – and why Actors’ Theatre has been a passion for so many.

To read more of our past interviews with Aaron Fryc, Paul Dreher II and more, go here.

Rodney Vaccaro

This week we spoke with Emmy Award winning writer/producer Rodney Vaccaro.  Vaccaro has worked extensively as a screenwriter, actor, playwright and stage director throughout the United States, France and Monaco.  He holds degrees from Grand Rapids Junior College and Western Michigan University, was trained in the Actors Studio and the Chekhov Studio in New York and worked in the south of France under the tutelage of Michael Stewart (Hello Dolly, Bye Bye Birdie, Mack and Mabel, 42nd Street, Barnum), and Francine Pascal (George M., Sweet Valley High.)

Vaccaro has written six plays, American Still Life, Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One, Brown Red Yellow, Home of the Brave, Screenplay By, and The Up System winning numerous awards including the Louisville New Plays Festival and the The Regional Midwestern New Plays Festival.  He has also published three novels.

As a screenwriter, Mr. Vaccaro has worked for virtually every studio in Hollywood.  His produced screenplays include HBO’s Night of the Running Man, Warner Brothers’ Three to Tango, staring Matthew Perry, Dylan McDermott, Oliver Platt and Neve Campbell, MGM’s Caught in the Act, featuring John Corbett, Amy Smart, and Sean Astin, TNT’s The Engagement Ring, featuring Patricia Heaton, David Hunt, Tony LoBianco and Lanie Kazan, CBS’s Snow Wonder starting Mary Tyler Moore, and Showtime’s Run the Wild Fields, starring Joanne Whalley, Sean Patrick Flanery, Alexa Vega and Cotter Smith.  Run the Wild Fields was nominated for Emmy’s in three categories, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture, winning Best Director and Best Picture.

So Rodney, are you originally from Grand Rapids?  Were you always interested in the arts, or what drew you to theatre here?

Rodney (center) with folks from Actors' Theatre back in the day. Note the nice hair.

I was born in Omaha, but we moved to Grand Rapids when I was around 12. I was an idiot kid, dumb as a rock with absolutely no direction in life, and then, at Ottawa Hills, Barb Wepman and Doug Reahm took me under their wings. They were both intensely strong personalities and magnificent teachers. Doug was my music teacher and Barb was my first director. They were the first people to make me feel I was, in any way, special, God bless them both forever. I was playing in rock bands and hanging out with my brothers, who were all much better artists than I ever was or ever will be. Peter and Fil were at Aquinas and Thom was at Ottawa with me. We were all continuously dragging home friends who needed a meal, so our house was really like a 1950s Village bar every night…only with my Mom’s cooking, so better food. I grew up at a dinner table with sculptors and painters and playwrights and novelists and priests and nuns and actors and musicians…I think Fred, who was just a boy then and at Aquinas with Peter, was at that table more than once. I was exposed to all the arts but I gravitated to theatre because I just wasn’t very good at anything else and I had nice hair.

You have worked all over the country and around the world, how have your experiences with theatre in Grand Rapids effected what you are doing today?

Rodney (left) in Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's production of "Cabaret"

I don’t think people today really have an understanding of the cultural history of the city of Grand Rapids, in general, and the history of community theatre in Grand Rapids in particular.

Despite what people think, Grand Rapids has, almost since the beginning, been a very vibrant, progressive, broad-thinking, cultural community. There is a very vocal, misguided, conservative minority, but the soul of the city has always been steadfastly progressive. It has always been a highly diverse, intelligent community that valued free thinkers and institutions like Actors’. People forget that, before Actors’, both Civic and Circle did some very progressive and controversial material. Paul Dreher pushed the boundaries as a director at Civic, doing really wonderful work. One of the most formative experiences I had was seeing Paul’s production of Celebration in the late 60s. It was incredibly controversial at the time, both politically and sexually. The difference was we then lived in a society that was intelligent enough to understand metaphor and accept a difference of opinion without a moral judgment. It is only recently, as political forces have become experts in using ignorant, fear-based, legislated morality as a profit making tool, that they are attempting to rewrite history and portray pre-Sebulske Grand Rapids as a Bible-thumping backwater.

"Conduct Unbecoming" at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Grand Rapids as always had a strong music and visual arts community but the theatre community has always been unique. There were a great number of vaudeville houses in Grand Rapids, and it was an important stop on any tour. I think the first professional tour the Marx Brothers did, as the Four Nightingales, was at the Ramona Park Theatre. On any tour Jolsen did…he might skip Chicago, but he would almost never skip Grand Rapids. A lot of performers loved the city, and in the 30s, when the touring circuit dissolved, many of them moved to Grand Rapids to settle, and formed the beginnings of the community theatre. This began the tradition of theatre in Grand Rapids. It was never a community of amateurs doing theatre, but theatre professionals who chose to live in Grand Rapids, which is how I still see it today.

My experience working in theatre in Grand Rapids gave me a sort of idyllic sense of artistic professionalism that sometimes made it difficult to work in the outside world. For instance, when I first moved to New York, I was sorely disappointed that the general quality of work done in the theatre there was nowhere near what I was used to in Grand Rapids. It’s the same in Los Angeles. I almost never see productions in either place…in the smaller theatres…that can stand up to what the Grand Rapids Theatre community does. It’s mostly actors who are looking for their next job. There’s very little passion and no sense of commitment. I find that very hard to work with.

On the plus side, the serious, professional nature of the GR community gave me the tools I needed to succeed for the last 20 years as a working screenwriter. I know when something isn’t working and I sometimes know how to fix it. Because of the limitations we had in budget and time, I can improvise in almost any situation. I know that there is a time to party, but work is real work, and when you show up, you show up locked and loaded with passion and commitment, no matter how small the job. I got that from the Grand Rapids Theatre Community.

Marcia McEvoy said it to me best once. She said, “If you want to make a living in the arts, you have to move to a place like New York. If you want to be an artist, stay in Grand Rapids.”

Having been here in the 1980s, you saw the birth of Actors’ Theatre.  What does Actors’ mean to you?

"The old church" circa 1995-96

There were several theatre groups doing alternative theatre in that old church before Actors’. Civic operated it for a while…I think it was called Second Space then. Michael Page was associate director for Civic, and Michael is a wonderful director. We did a terrific production of Lion In Winter up there. Fred had been doing just spectacular work at Circle. Really reinventing the way we all did musicals. And then, there was sort of a rift between the Circle board and Fred…the Circle board does this occasionally…so Fred found himself without a stage for a while. I was associate director at Civic at this point, and what happened was, we suddenly had a lot of really wonderful actors who had become very excited about the craft of acting. There was Carol Black and Christy Beatty and Jean Bahle and Kirk Swenk and Earlene Helderman and Kirk Swenk and Steve Taber… people who took your breath away on stage. So Fred started a Saturday morning actor’s workshop. I have a photo of that first group somewhere. It was just a ball every Saturday morning to go down to that little church and engage in three hours of pure acting. I think all of us were sort of feeling our way around then, but you could sense that something different was starting.

The beginning - the Actors' Workshop

Then, I ran away from home and joined the circus. I left GR and lived in New York for a while and then in France for a while and when I came back, I think it was during the first season of Actors’ Theatre. I never really enjoyed acting and wasn’t very good at it, I had begun to write and move from acting to directing and so I loved what Actors’ was doing.

Actors’ Theatre made me into a writer. I had decided to try writing seriously and I was writing and publishing young adult novels, but I wanted to be a playwright. That was when I was young and foolishly believed I had things to say. I remember going to the board at Actors’ and proposing a new plays festival. I had done some reviews at Second Space… Seems Like Old Times and Take Ten but I wanted to write “serious” plays. To my great good fortune, Actors’ agreed.

From The Grand Rapids Press July 15, 1984 - article announcing the opening of "Stop Me if You've Heard This One."

While living in France, I had written a play about Lizzie Borden, I showed it to Fred and he suggested, since the new plays festival would be in the summer, I should perhaps begin with something lighter than a double axe murder with Biblical/lesbian undertones. So I wrote a romantic comedy called Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One. That was the first new plays festival. Actors’ gave me the theatre and a tiny budget…really, maybe $100. I wrote the play and directed it and ran the box office. It was a wonderful experience…a great cast, Scott Trost, Steve Taber and the brilliant Jane Page and Joni Michelle and Fred and Jean and Tom who was a baby then. The show was a big hit. We had sold out houses, and so the next year, I did the Lizzie Borden play and Jean Bahle wrote a wonderful play and we had a two-play season. I think we did four or five seasons, growing each year. It was really exciting. I think Gillian Anderson did her first big role in one of the plays I wrote. It was a play loosely based on Mark Rothko called Brown, Red, Yellow… this was 30 years before Red. Steve Taber directed it and he cast Gillian. She was only 15, I think, but even then, brilliant. It was no surprise she’s gone on to do such remarkable work.

By giving their stage to me like that, Actors’ gave me the opportunity to develop as a writer…it was an incredibly luxurious gift. I not only had the stage and a budget, but access to an amazing pool of actors, much better than I deserved. I was given complete artistic freedom. I was constantly changing things, even in performance. For the Lizzie Borden play, I think we did a different second act almost every night…God Bless Roseanne Shansky and Pegeen Jeffcheck forever. To allow a playwright to work like that was a unique gift. To rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…well, that’s just unheard of and it made me into the writer I am today.

Actors' Theatre program for "Screenplay By" 1988-89 Season

That sense of artistic openness and nurturing is what I most associate with Actors’. It’s the part of Fred’s character that is most apparent in the group. Fred is an amazingly nurturing teacher, and even though we didn’t always agree eye-to-eye, and sometimes even butted heads, Fred never did anything but encourage me to work and develop as an artist. Even if we were not getting along personally, which happened a lot because I can be stupid and difficult, Fred never let that affect our professional relationship. That’s the mark of a real pro. I wish Fred would retire again so we can honor him some more. I have this theory…it’s sort of an order-of-the-Universe rule that every time Sebulske retires, the Kaechele’s have another kid. It may just be a coincidence but I don’t think so.

It was at Actors’ in, I think, the third new plays festival that I was able to write and develop my play And The Home Of The Brave which later became the movie Run The Wild Fields. One of the most moving moments of my life was the first day I was on set up in Toronto. It was the big church scene and as we drove up, we confronted an army of technicians and designers and actors in period dress, hundreds of people who were making their living because 15 years before, needing to come up with a new idea for the Actors’ new plays festival, I had come home from the Cottage Bar at 3am with an idea for a play about a conscientious objector during World War II. Here in front of me were hundreds of professionals making their living on a project, all because I had that idea and Actors’ theatre gave me the opportunity to develop it.

Run The Wild Fields was an extremely successful movie. It won several Emmys and continues to generate jobs and income for a great many families. I have, to date, five produced movies that have generated tens of millions of dollars and provided jobs for literally thousands of workers and it is all due to the training and encouragement I received at Actors’ Theatre.

One of the greatest gifts Actors’ has given me, that I retain to this day, is a passionate love and respect for actors. My kids are in a Waldorf school and I have recently developed a fascination for Steiner and, of course anthroposophical philosophy is all about a synthesis between science and mysticism, which is really what theatre is all about. Anthroposophy believes that performance art brings the ego into the body and visual art takes the ego out into the world. What I love about acting and what makes it such a spiritual communion is that it is both. To the audience, it is visual art and to the actor, performance art. Actors are my heroes. What they do is nothing short of heroic and especially community theatre actors, who only work for the love of the art. It’s an amazing sacrifice and one that deserves awe and respect.

Even though I live in LA, I still read the Press every day so I am not unaware of the recent attacks on Actors’ Theatre. It’s hard for me to take those attacks seriously because I have nothing but contempt for the people attacking the theatre. They are small, ignorant people. The little they know about art and education is only eclipsed by how little they understand about God. What have these people ever actually created? What have they given to their community? I think the theatre has been misguidedly gracious in their reaction to these bigots. I would guarantee that anyone involved in Actors’ production of Corpus Christi would have more in common with Christ than any of these people. Hate is not a point of view it is a character flaw. I’m getting bored with this. Someone needs to knot a rope and throw philistines like Richard Ryskamp out of the temple.

Okay, you know I have to ask – tell me about some of your favorite shows, or do you have any GR theatre stories you can share?

"Six by Two by Ten" program from Actors' 1989-90 Season

Oh God…favorite shows…I have so many. As I said, Paul’s production of Celebration is still vivid in my head after 40 years. Also, his production of Equus was amazing. You know, Paul really trained all of us. I don’t think any of what happened in Grand Rapids theatre would’ve happened without him. All of Fred’s work with Duane Davis and the eternally young Ken Tepper at Circle was just incredible. Especially their Cabaret. People just can’t imagine what that was like. I remember closing night, when not only every seat, but every inch of the stairs and anyplace anyone could stand were filled with people, many of whom had come to see it three and four times. I have a number of performances that haunt me. Kirk Swenk was incredible in that Cabaret. Michael Page’s Dylan was mind blowing…well, it’s a privilege anytime you see Michael on stage. I thought Kathy Wagner’s performances in both Passion and Evita were beyond wonderful as was Steve Taber in Streetcar… Jane Page’s Clear Glass Marbles monologue in Talking With stays with me to this day. I remember driving through a blizzard once to stand in the balcony at the old Civic and see Jim Drummond step in hilariously for an ailing Christy Beatty as Madam Arcatti in Blythe Spirit. Of course, everything Christy Beatty has done is incredible and I have been and continue to be amazed at Liz Dykhouse, I learned more about pure performing from watching Liz than I did anyplace else.

I also have many theatre stories…most of which I can’t tell until everyone involved is dead. Certainly, uncovering the dark side of Don Herman in El Grande De Coca Cola was a high point, and uncovering the dark side of Jean Bahle in Burn This and uncovering the dark side of Roseanne Shansky in American Still Life… Hearing Fred laugh uncontrollably in the front row when I went up on lyrics during a Rogers and Hart review was great fun and did expose what passes for Fred’s dark side.

I think all of us who were involved in the early days of Actors’ share one thing…a dent in our heads from that fucking beam that hung head high, stage right in the old church. I don’t know what it was about that beam. Everyone hit their heads on it at least once every show and it hurt more than hitting your head anyplace else. The stream of profanity that emanated from that stage right wing would’ve made Mamet blush. I suggest that, any actors who want the experience of working at the old theatre should allow Don Rice to give them a single whack right on their little fontanelles with a ball-peen.

The best was working with Scott Trost, Steve Taber, Ted Jauw and Kirk Swenk on A Coarse Line which was a Ben Franklin project. It was a send-up sort of review on shows that had been recently done in GR. The five of us wrote the show and the funniest parts were the creative sessions that nobody ever saw, which usually involved, as I remember, a great deal of rum. Highlights included Kirk’s rendition of A Coarse Comedian, a bit so horrific, even we would not let it be seen. I also remember bringing in a trained beef tongue act that involved a real beef tongue. The group cut that bit too, sparing Grand Rapids audiences from the disturbing sight of me throwing an uncooked, bloody beef tongue through a flaming hoop. I still think it could’ve worked.

From "If They'd Only Let Me" - How many of these performers can you identify?

I know you would like funny GR theatre stories so I’ll tell you one…as I said, we did this wonderful production of Lion In Winter …it was one of my favorites because I played Philip, the king of France, which is a great part because you have three terrific scenes in the first act and then you get to sit in the dressing room and read a book until curtain call. The cast was me, Liz Dykhouse, whom I was married to then, Fred, Erlene Helderman, Kim Hoag, Paul Dobie and Jim Gilkerson. Michael Page directed and the always splendid and boyishly handsome Bob Fowle did the costumes. Bob thought, since I was French and the others were all English, that I should be costumed differently…more…Frenchy…so, the first night he brought in costumes, everyone was given burlap sacks the color of shit, while I had this royal blue velvet sheath that was quite elegant and showed off my then girlish figure. The next night, while everyone else had the unchanged shit burlap, he had added pearls to my hem and the next night, rhinestones and the next, gold braid, and I kept watching Fred, who was playing Henry II, watching, as Bob continued to adorn me, night after night, until one night, Bob brought in a huge box of scene stealing costume rings and bracelets and necklaces and said to me, “Pick out whatever you want.” And after a moment, Fred, who had been watching, slunked over to Bob, and in his most-serious, best-pathetic, little-boy-who-had-to-lie-to-his-mother-about-being-invited-to-the-most-popular-girl-in-the-second-grade’s-birthday-party voice, said, “Um…you know, Bob…I’m a king too.”

What is next for you?  What are you working on presently?

Oh, God…I am mostly sitting in awe of my daughters Olivia and Isabella who are the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Other than that, I am always working on ten million things at once. I have an action film and a Hallmark movie and a web series. I am working on some TV ideas, a manual on how to train iguanas for the blind and a perpetual motion machine made from shoelaces and chewing gum. I would be more than willing to devote the rest of my life to domesticating white truffles, but until then I intend to write a movie based on the true story of a rabbit who goes to Las Vegas, gets picked up by a hooker, passes out drunk and wakes up the next morning in a motel room with his feet missing.


Photo credits:

Thank you to Grand Rapids Civic Theatre for photos from their archives.  Photo of Conduct Unbecoming by George W. Davis of Distinctive Photography.

Additional photos, programs and newpaper clippings from the archives of Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids.  Photo from If They’d Only Let Me by Darlene Kaczmarczyk.

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3 Comments

Filed under Actors' ExPats, Interviews of Note

3 responses to ““Actors’ Theatre made me into a writer” an Interview with Rodney Vaccaro

  1. David Kolenda

    Unlike Rodney, I’m speechless!

  2. Sarah Pinneo

    Wow. *sniff!*

    He had me at “white truffles.”

    (Love you, Rodney!)

  3. Betty Bartlett

    An avalanche of memories … Rodney’s detailed history of theatre in GR reminds me of how rich we are here, and the wonderful people we’ve met in the process. I salute you, my friend!

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