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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Actor’s Craft

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ActorLee Ernst, a consummate performing artist and resident at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, views his profession as a complex set of skills. His personal repertoire includes the added dimensions of fight choreographer and makeup artist. Ernst’s current season at The Rep began with the demanding role of Cyrano, where he also crafted the famous nose and directed the swashbuckling sword scenes.

It continues with his part in Samuel Beckett’s classic Endgame. Ernst, a 15-year veteran with The Rep, speaks about the art of being an actor.

Which part of your craft do you enjoy the most?
Well, it’s hard to say, but sometimes I really just like to choreograph; the fight choreography. You go home and think about it, develop it and then it’s done. As an actor you need to memorize all those lines, and perfect them—get them into the deep recesses of your brain so they become second nature. As an actor—it takes a long time to memorize all those lines!

So memorizing is the most difficult part of acting?
In Cyrano, I was onstage almost constantly for three hours, and it took about four-and-a-half weeks to learn all those lines. Then we rehearse two-and-a-half weeks, deepening the acting. Ironing all the soft spots in your brain. It’s an exhausting process. You want to know the lines so well, so you have the freedom to look deep into someone’s eyes, because you know the words will be there, to fully realize those moments onstage.

You did the extraordinary makeup for Cyrano, and always do your own makeup. Where did you learn that skill?
When I was 21 and at American Players Theatre (APT), Randy Kim was the artistic director and he was a very accomplished makeup artist. He asked—no, told—the actors they all needed to learn how to do makeup—transformational makeup. He said if there were 200 distinctly different characters onstage, then the audience would see 200 different characters by transforming our looks through makeup for each role.

And you decided to take this further?
I just see makeup as part of the craft of theater. There are many components to the craft. Sometimes other skills are required. I just take them to the limit. I’ve studied under Dick Smith, who has won Academy Awards for makeup, and added courses along the way. It would feel odd if I didn’t do my own makeup, and there aren’t a lot of people who do the prosthetic makeup needed in Cyrano.

And the fight choreography—where did you learn that?
I learned the fight choreography at the Delaware Theatre Training Program as a graduate student. I continued choreography when at the APT. People kept calling and calling, so that has expanded on its own and now it’s a sideline.

And, finally, what is the best part of being a veteran of The Rep?
Productions are an “esprit de corps.” The company is all teamwork. At times, each member plays supporting roles, gives up their egos. It’s all about the show and we’re all very professional, respectful. We’re like fine wine—aging and mellowing differently.

Photo by Corey Hengen