Max von Essen
I've always been obsessed with summer stock. I knew it was something I had to do, and I've had some amazing experiences. Probably my favorite place is Sacramento Music Circus, where they've been so good to me and continue to take chances on me. My favorite role there was the Emcee in Cabaret. That's one I wouldn't normally have the opportunity to take on, but they trusted me and it turned out to be amazing. Another favorite is Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, where a few years ago I played Fredric in Pirates of Penzance. We only had five days to stage it, so I studied the music for weeks before I flew there and, on arrival, I dived in like a crazy person. It turned out to be one of the absolute best theatrical experiences I've ever had! Probably my all time favorite summer stock experience was Hair at Bay Street Theatre back in 2001. Being so young, playing Claude, bonding with my amazing cast and experiencing it with the backdrop of beautiful Sag Harbor all came together in a sort of indescribable theatrical alchemy. I'll never forget it!
I cut my teeth at the St. Louis MUNY, where, like so many others, I got my Equity card. The executive producer, Edward Greenberg, took me under his wing and I'm forever grateful. I played several seasons there, starting when I was 19. I have many amazing memories: Funny Girl with Juliet Prowse and Larry Kert; Show Boat with Eddie Bracken; and the list goes on and on. The wackiest time was when I was playing Smee and Nana in Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby and John Schuck. It was over 100 degrees and I was in a 30-lb. dog costume. At one point, I had to exit because I thought I was going to pass out right in the middle of the Darling's living room. Mostly, when I think about those summer stock days, I think of those amazing young men who are no longer with us because of the AIDS crisis. I lost so many great friends over the years and I think of them all the time. They are forever etched in my heart and memory. And while I am sad thinking about them, my memories of our summers working together are only happy ones: seeing them dance, hearing them sing, and laughing so damn much.
Isabel Keating I had the "summer stock" straw-hat circuit experience. I knew nothing of what it entailed, so I crashed on a friend's couch and showed up for a three-minute time slot to do a monologue and eight bars for 25 producers. The fates aligned and I landed at a place that will forever be dear to my heart: Bristol Valley Playhouse, in a magic setting among the hills of New York's Finger Lakes. In a season that included the requisite Agatha Christie (The Mousetrap, in which I played Miss Casewell) and Barefoot in the Park (in which I played the lead role of Corie Bratter), my hands-down favorite role was the shy seamstress Popeye in Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest. Popeye exposed me to my soul -- and my affinity for playing broken ones. I'd never read anything quite so heartbreaking and funny. She's such a rich character, so full of eccentricities, bottled-up passion, and honesty. And that's just the surface. I loved everything about that production: the role, the set, the crazily talented company, the history, new friends, and the beginning of a life in the theater.
At the ripe age of 19, I got an awesome job at Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach, Florida, doing The Royal Family and The Mikado. I especially liked The Royal Family because I was playing Gwen and had this cute cropped blonde wig and amazing costumes. I also learned a lot about acting from the wonderful women playing my mother [Nicole Halmos] and grandmother [Lourelene Snedeker]. What I learned didn't stop me from sitting backstage before a particular scene for about 10 minutes thinking of every depressing thing I'd experienced in my life trying to cry so I had real tears onstage. I'd like to think my acting skills have improved significantly since then!
One of my first paying jobs was an exhausting and wonderful summer in Keene, New Hampshire at the Keene Summer Theater [Keene State College], run by a great guy named Al Corona. We were paid $35 a week, and stayed in dorms and ate in the cafeteria, It was a dream lineup of shows -- Candide, Merrily We Roll Along, Baby, A Nigth in Hollywood/A Day in the Ukraine and The Robber Bridegroom, all in 10 weeks. Having loved the original production of Baby, the chance to play Nick, a role I would never be cast in professionally, was an opportunity I've always cherished. I also met a lifelong friend, Kurt Deutsch, who now runs ShK-a-Boom records and carries on the legacy of original Broadway cast recordings that often would not get recorded.