A rewarding ‘Chapter’ for actor Jamison Stern in Aspen
August 21, 2009
ASPEN – Jamison Stern arrived in Aspen in the spring knowing nothing about the town he would be living in for the summer, nothing about the organization he would be working for, nothing about the people he would be working with. Several months later, as the 30-something actor is about to bow out of town, he has learned plenty about all three.
Of Aspen, he says it’s a “magical city, where people really get it and appreciate the arts.” Of Theatre Aspen, where he has appeared in both of the season’s feature productions, he says it’s one of the best theaters he has worked in. And of his castmates in Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” he singles out Jimmy Ludwig, saying “I could work with him the rest of my life,” though adds that the other two cast members – Joan Hess and Sally Mae Dunn – have been nearly as integral to his summer experience.
On top of that, Stern has learned much about himself, or at least about his capabilities as a performer. In “Chapter Two” – Neil Simon’s autobiographical romantic drama that closes Theatre Aspen’s season with performances tonight and Saturday, Aug. 22 – he plays Leo, a New York public relations guy who is cynical, shallow and philandering, but also, especially regarding his widower brother George (played by Ludwig), caring and sincere. Playing Leo has been a stretch, and a professional education.
“To know I could just play a real, a normal, person, with everyday plights – I’m a character actor, but I got to play a real man with problems,” said Stern of the opportunity. “You never get to play the funny guy and then play real serious, dramatic, like I do in this play. You don’t get to be funny and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s a huge gift.”
Stern is quick to give credit for “Chapter Two” to Jay Sandrich, the part-time Aspenite and prominent TV sitcom director who is having a late-in-life second career as a stage director. (He made his debut as a theater director, at the age of 76, last summer with Theatre Aspen.) Stern, a keen student of comedy from a young age, gives the impression that Sandrich, who was instrumental in creating “Soap” and “The Cosby Show,” has been a hero. “He understands comedy better than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” said Stern. “Because of what he’s done, there’s never a moment when you don’t completely trust him.”
But Stern eventually gets around to giving himself a deserved pat on the back for having achieved something new in his career.
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“I went in thinking I had to create a character,” he said. “But I realized I had expanded on who I was. Which is really what anyone does as an actor. You have to start with a place of honesty, some place of who you are.”
• • • •
When Stern went to audition for a role with Theatre Aspen, he believed he was smack in the middle of his comfort zone. Stern responded first to a casting call for Theatre Aspen’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the Tony Award-winning musical comedy. He had seen the show on Broadway, and loved the high-wire story of misfit kids in a spelling competition. He calls “Spelling Bee” “one of the best books of a musical written in a long time, smart and funny and so real for those kids.”
He also saw “Spelling Bee” as right up his alley. It allowed him to show off his two primary strengths – singing and being funny. Playing Vice Principal Douglas Panch, Stern was allowed to be snarky and condescending, and be out-and-out funny nearly in the manner of a stand-up comedian. And with a big element of improvisation built into the production, thanks to the volunteer spellers welcomed into the cast each night, he got to change things up from show to show.
“Being able to improvise and ad-lib – that’s like my wet dream,” he said. “To have permission to do that – to have to do it – it’s awesome. As a comedian, getting laughs is like a drug. To get to control it like that – awesome. And to not know what’s going to happen, that’s a real high.” Stern also reveled in the specific kind of comedy he got to create: “He’s just a total asshole,” he said of Panch. “The director, Mark Martino, said, ‘Just be mean. Meaner!'”
Stern’s view of “Chapter Two” was not so optimistic. But Theatre Aspen was looking to double-cast his role, with the same actor playing both Leo and Douglas.
“I was scared, a little bit,” said Stern. “Nervous about two completely different roles, big roles in two shows I had never done before. ‘Chapter Two’ was a little daunting, the reality of the play, in general, and having to play a true grown adult, with a wife and kids. I’m always the funny, kooky guy, and he is that – but like everyone in ‘Chapter Two,’ he’s a real guy. He’s so much more.”
• • • •
Stern brought at least one thing to the character of Leo that he knew intimately: The actor is a New York native who still calls Manhattan home.
“Spelling Bee” gave Stern something even more substantial that he could relate to: “It’s a play about misfits,” he said. “Any actor, anyone who’s grown up to be an actor, at some point in their life was a total misfit.”
Stern has spent many of his years not quite fitting in. Going to public schools in Tenafly, the northern New Jersey town where his mother lived – his father lived across the Hudson River, on the West Side of Manhattan – Stern says he was “an artsy-fartsy kid. It was hard to fit in with the jocks and cheerleaders. I had the drama club, which was my saving grace.”
Stern credits his mom, a designer and decorator, with his overall artsy orientation. The sense of humor he got from his late father, a onetime actor who turned him on to Mel Brooks movies and told jokes that had young Jamison snorting soda through his nose. Neither parent, however, provided him with the ability to play music.
“Up through grade school, you have to play an instrument,” he said. “I played cello and clarinet, and couldn’t play them at all. In lessons and concerts, I actually had to pretend I was playing.”
One day the music teacher introduced a new musical instrument – the voice – which gave Stern a way to perform. In middle school, he joined the chorus and the stage became a second home. He spent his teenage summers at Stagedoor Manor, the performing arts facility in the Catskills that was profiled in the documentary, “Camp.”
“I basically got college training from the age of 14 to 18,” said Stern of his years at Stagedoor. “Everything I know I learned there.”
College was a lesser experience. Distracted by the professional jobs he was pursuing, Stern bounced from Hofstra to Montclair State to N.Y.U. In retrospect, he thinks he should have gone to some conservatory far from New York, and gotten a better education. But he reconciles that with the fact that he got his Actors Equity card at 20, that he has appeared on Broadway – in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “By Jeeves,” as an understudy for all the male roles, which gave him plenty of onstage appearances – and has gotten steady work in regional theater and Off-Broadway.
“Because I came from an artsy family, college didn’t seem all that important,” said Stern. “No one was breathing down my neck, saying, ‘You must!’ No one expected me to be a doctor. My grandmother wanted me to be a singing judge – unfortunately there is no such thing.”
Stern’s most significant professional relationship has been with the Alley Theatre, a Houston organization that has two theaters and a year-round resident team of theater artists. After making his Alley debut in the role of Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors,” he has followed with seven more appearances with the company, all of them plays rather than musicals.
Stern says it is a mixed blessing to have the kind of career he has had, one he calls “slow and steady.” “My friends who hop from Broadway show to Broadway show might want to do a lot of the work I do. I get to do a lot of plays, not just musicals. It’s so ideal to be known as a comedian who sings,” he said. “But I think I would give up some of that to go from Broadway show to Broadway show. The grass is always greener.”
Beyond Aspen, Stern is looking at a few projects that could deliver the sort of artistic satisfaction that will take his mind off the location of the performances. He is involved in “It’s Only Life,” a new musical built around the songs of cabaret songwriter John Bucchino. Stern did the show last summer in California, and hopes to help bring it to New York next year.
Even more enticing is “Mother of Mine,” an autobiographical work about post-partum depression written by Stern’s best friend, Erin Leigh Peck. Stern would get to play himself, or technically Stevenson, a character based directly on him. “I can say, without bias, it’s the best new play I’ve been in in years,” said Stern, who is hoping the play gets a staged production this fall.
“Mother of Mine” would give Stern a chance to examine the character named Jamison Stern, which he sees as an odd proposition. “It’s funny when the director says, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Because you know in your heart, you were the one there,” he says of playing himself.
His summer in Aspen has been a far different opportunity, a chance to fool people into thinking they know something about him.
“Everything about me is completely different than those two men. Especially ‘Chapter Two,'” he said. “So it’s very rewarding, when people say, ‘You’re totally different in person than you were onstage.’ It means I did something really interesting onstage, something really complete. I am not Leo Schneider, and I can’t believe I actually pulled it off.”