Archives for category: Profiles

Kennedy as Bobby Galena 

Robert W.C. Kennedy is a man of many names.  The W.C. is a mystery to all but his closest friends and family, but his nicknames (all given with love) are well known: The Detective, The Department Store of Technique, The Golden Pharaoh, and of course, The Deacon.  And if you’ve been a patron of theatre in Milwaukee over the last decade or so, you’ve seen his work on any number of stages.

Master Kennedy been a huge part of the success of Bunny Gumbo having appeared in more Combat pieces than any other actor.  He’s also appeared in the Bunny Gumbo productions, ‘Losers’ portraying Kurt (a part that was written for him), and has the distinction of being the only actor to portray a part in all three plays of ‘Criminal Acts.’

Indeed, it’s hard not to run into Robert if you spend any time in Milwaukee.  He’s a lifelong patron of the Milwaukee Transit System, bartends at Irish Fest,  routinely shows up in short films made in the Cream City, and can occasionally be found supping at Real Chile with Bai Ling.  He’s a good guy to know, so let’s get to it.

Kennedy in Bialystock & Bloom’s production of “Search and Destroy” 

How did you first get involved in theatre?

My First Grade Thanksgiving pageant found me playing an apple. The producers admired how I peeled back the layers to get to the core of that character and cast me in the role of John F. Kennedy for some sort of patriotic revue that they were fond of in southern Indiana during the lead up to the U.S. Bicentennial celebration. (There is no way I was cast solely on name alone.) I enjoyed the chicks you got as JFK, and I was hooked. I played Bobby Shaftoe in “Babes in Toyland” a year or two after that, before taking a 10-year hiatus and moving north.

I didn’t take to the stage again until my senior year of high school, having spent the previous three primarily occupied with Dungeons & Dragons. During that year, I was in the chorus of “HMS Pinafore,” played Captain Ahab in a course stage version of “Moby Dick,” and Julius Caesar and others in the senior follies program.

I went off to college with big plans to major in anything but theatre.  I took one introductory course that covered all aspects of the theatre craft, from performance to the technical. When it came time for the final projects, my fellow students wanted to keep me far away from anything heavy or electric, and I was assigned the job of “actor.” So, I played the guy in a scene from “Same Time Next Year” while others did the important stuff.

The slightly older young woman playing opposite me wore a slip in the scene. I thought I might like to spend more time around women in their underwear, so I pulled a bit of a grift with the assistance of my older brother to secure one of the hard-to-get spots in an introduction to acting class. I still had no intention of taking this on as a major.

Kennedy in Skylight’s production of “The Music Man”

Well, it was just too much damn fun, and everyone seemed to appreciate me in that environment, including the instructor who suggested I audition for (what was then) the Acting Specialist program. I really wish I could remember what piece I auditioned with, but I found out much later that the conversation in the room after I left pretty much centered around “Does he always dress like that?” (Those who knew me then will understand…)

I guess I didn’t realize that I was actually taking Theatre and Drama on as a major, but that’s what happened. I didn’t have much ambition to take it on as a career though, so I grabbed a Communication Arts minor at the last minute (sometime into my fifth year…).

Kennedy as Deiter in Drew Brhel’s “Neibelungen-Lite”

The program eventually evolved into the Specialist In Acting Major (because the professor who took it over during my time liked being “the king of S.I.A.M.), and I re-auditioned for it every semester studying everything from Commedia del’Arte, circus skills, Kabuki and stage combat — they really tried to squeeze a lot of specialties into an undergraduate program. Anything but simple modern American scene study.

I was one of two members from my original class to finish the program.  The other one occasionally shows up Off-Broadway, in Coen Brothers movies and in multiple episodes of “Louis,” that Louis C.K. show.

Kennedy as Che in Michael Moynihan’s “Bang Bang, Gong Gong; The Re-education of Chuck Barris 

What’s did you go to school?

That grade school was St. Columba’s in Columbus, Indiana. I attended from first through fourth grade.

My next grade school was St. Sebastian’s in Milwaukee, in the area now called “Washington Heights.”

That high school was Marquette University High School. (I know what you’re thinking, but I worked in the kitchen to pay tuition.)

That college was the University of Wisconsin — Madison. I worked with rhesus macaques at the Harlow Primate Lab to fund that degree.

Kennedy as Brad Pit in Randy Rehberg’s “A Clean Sweep”

You’ve bounced around a bit.  Where did you grow up?

Born in Columbus, Indiana, which is a lot more like Kentucky than Indiana, although a county or two too north to be “Kentuckiana” proper. It’s the home of shoe genius Chuck Taylor, Ross and Don Barbour (of the Four Freshman, of course) and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. It’s also the architectural capital of the Midwest.  Seriously, ask an architect.

I moved to Milwaukee between fourth and fifth grade. I was in Madison for five years of higher education, with a brief stint in The Philippines, and have been back in Milwaukee since 1991.

Kennedy as Tony Soprano in Patrick Holland’s “Holy Big Pussy, Batman”

What was your first professional gig?

Live Bait Theatricals (associated with Live Bait Theatre in Chicago) produced a play called “Girls! Girls! Girls! Live On Stage, Totally Rude.” I played a sleazy strip club comedian, and I think we were paid $100 per week for four shows at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. It ran for about two-and-a-half months, until one of the cast members broke his leg rehearsing for another show. I had long hair then, and got my first favorable reviews in a major newspaper. That’s about all I remember about it.

Kennedy in Live Bait Theatrical’s production of “Girls! Girls! Girls! Live On Stage, Totally Rude”

Tell us about your upcoming performance in Ireland.

I’ll be brief, because I don’t want to jinx anything.

I’m playing the role of Nathanial Yeshov, a Russian-Chinese from Brooklyn, in Sebastian Barry’s “White Woman Street.” Milwaukee Irish Arts is producing this piece as part of the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival, which is being held at Axis-Ballymun in northern Dublin this year.

I’ve performed in this festival in Chicago, Toronto and Rochester, New York. I did a one-man, hour-long monologue about the  Euro ‘88 Cup and other matters at Irish Fest for this organization.

The play is sort of a Western that takes place in Ohio in 1916. Nathaniel is part of a group of outlaws planning to rob an army train. I have an insane beard. I have an accent. I have a bowie knife. I have a Colt revolver. We ride horses. We get covered in steam during a train robbery.

And they’re flying us out and putting us up in Dublin for a week for this thing.

I’ll stop now before I have to wipe my monitor and keyboard off.

Ask me about it after May 20… It’s gonna be cool!

Kennedy as Nathanial Yeshov in Sebastian Barry’s “White Woman Street” 

Robert has returned since I originally interviewed him and he has this to add:

Looking back at what I wrote in response to this question before we opened that show, it’s hard to believe that the experience could possibly have exceeded my lofty expectations. But it did.

We certainly saved our best performance for the festival, and it’s a good thing we did. We had the Lord Mayor of Dublin Andrew Montague in the audience. He loved it and even tweeted about it. There was spontaneous audience applause during one particularly “complicated” moment in the script, and a standing ovation followed. Pretty much everything you can hope for during a critical performance.

The show was so different from what they usually have at this festival that we were kind of media darlings over there, getting interviewed on RTE Radio 1 and getting our picture on the cover of The Irish Times.

We walked away with a nomination for best production (getting edged out by a well-deserving production of “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” from Calgary). And one of our cast won Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The festival participants, the hotel staff and the Ballymum neighborhood treated us like visiting royalty. And the camaraderie of the cast was epic.

The whole experience had a pretty profound effect on me. I took a little side trip to Belfast, and I remember thinking on the train up there that I might actually be achieving the best life for which anyone such as I could really hope. And the funny thing is that this all happened because I participate in this often-thankless hobby. I’m not even doing this for a living and here I am reaping a reward greater than anything money could buy.

It made me question my notions of commercial theatre, the role of performing arts in society, and my whole purpose in “the great hidden scheme.” Yep. Pretty deep thoughts between all of that Guinness and whiskey. Don’t ever ask me about it again; it will bore you to tears.”

Kennedy and the cast of “White Woman Street”

Do you have a favorite venue in Milwaukee?

It’s like a 20-way tie. Every space has its own little quirks, its limitations, and its charms. I fondly recall water bottles backstage at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts freezing in winter; all of the chaotic cafes and bars I performed in with Inertia Ensemble; the Boulevard Theatre back when the only commercial operation for miles of Kinnikinnic was the Big Beer Bar; the unsurpassable backdrops of the courtyard, lake, and grand hall of the Villa Terrace; and my mansion-away-from-home at the Brumbder. And there is nothing like the exercise in focus that is the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, with dancers stomping above you and pipers droning away next door. But they do have that great pub…

Oh, I suppose the Steimke, the old Off-Broadway, and the spaces at the Broadway Theatre Center are nice too. There just a little “refined” for my tastes.

And there is one little acoustically perfect spot on the main stage at UWM that is killer! (Anyone who has performed there knows what I’m talking about.)

Kennedy as Father in Tony Woods’ “Flaming Feet”

Why Milwaukee?

As I always say: “It’s a great base of operations.” I can live here affordably — damn-near opulently — and yet still get anywhere in the world without much hassle.

In the summer months, I hardly think there is a more entertaining place to live. And I’ve been a few places. If you have trouble finding something to do, you simply aren’t looking.

This goes the same for the other nine months out of the year. Just a few weeks back, I was trying to figure out how I was going to see and do everything that I wanted to with rehearsals, performances and this upcoming trip. I realized that there was just no way I could squeeze in everything that was being offered to me.

Whenever I hear someone say “there’s nothing to do in Milwaukee,” I laugh. And I cry. Because I know that person is lame.  I read this in some musician’s interview recently, and I couldn’t agree more: “There are two kinds of people who hate Milwaukee. Those who have never been here. And those who have never left.” (Sure it gets cold. Grow a pair, ya’ pussies!)

Kennedy as Brett Michaels in Tom Dillon’s “The All Access Pass to My Heart”

Has there been a favorite gig?

I’ve learned something from every single one, so I’m hesitant to even start listing them. I remember starting to put together a top 10 list for some reason several years ago, and it just kept growing and growing. I’m fickle.

I’ve enjoyed so many Combat experiences because of the people with whom I’ve had a chance to work and the roles in which I would never be cast anywhere else. But you don’t really live with those pieces long enough for them to stick with you in any deep, emotional way. Of course, the sumo wrestling / rodeo clown piece was memorable.

Kennedy as Siomoto in Tony Woods’ “Yipee-Kai-Yay-Yokihama”

Yeah, I’m not even going to start going into the productions I have done with different companies in the area because I simply cannot list how many good times I have had in Milwaukee theatre, and it would be unfair to leave any out. Even though they haven’t all been life-changing experiences, I can honestly say there isn’t a single gig that I regret doing. I even enjoyed the camaraderie aspect of traveling around to hotel conference centers throughout Wisconsin doing murder mysteries for corporate parties. The “theatre” wasn’t so memorable, but the friendships are.

But since this is a Bunny Gumbo interview, I don’t think I’m playing favorites in mentioning “Losers.” And anyone who saw it will know I’m not pandering either. That was just a solid production all around. Who doesn’t like working with their favorite performers and best friends on meaningful content in a collaborative environment with overwhelmingly successful results? Maybe there are people out there who didn‘t think that show was something special, but I haven’t met them yet.

And I guess I’ll always have a soft spot for that one-man production of “In High Germany” I did at Irish Fest a few years back. Only two performances of a monologue, basically about soccer, but my father got a chance to see it and later said it was the first time he realized how really good I was at this stuff. Critics, audiences and directors can say what they want about me from that point forward. I ain’t even hearin’ it.

Kennedy as Kurt in James Fletcher’s “Losers”

Has there ever been a gig that scared you?

They’re all pretty scary if we stop and think about them too long — and maybe this one is just coming to mind because it was so recent — but I had nightmares about that goddamn train scene in The Music Man. It became one of those things I looked forward to doing every night and wanted to do again the moment it was over, but there was just such potential for disaster, me being the only non-musical theatre person in the bunch. My natural rhythms are just not of the Meredith Wilson middle-America type. But it was such a rush as it took off each time and barreled forward, taking everything in its path with it. And when it was on, it was so on. The audience loved it and people still give me credit for being a part of that. While I’m usually pretty humble, I’ll take all the kudos I can get for living through that one. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, sit bolt upright in bed and scream, “No it ain’t. No it ain’t. But you gotta know the territory!” The horror, The horror…

Kennedy as Lionel in John Van Slyke’s “Sweet Smell of Silence”

Any dream roles out there?

Nah. I don’t read enough dramatic literature to know what is available out there, and I can’t look at any individual performance and say “I’d really like to give that a shot some day.” There are shows I’d like to be in, sure, but I’d probably be totally inappropriate for them. I try to just take what is offered to me and make it my own. I’m not setting out to define any character or put my stamp on anything. And I guess when I become aware of or see someone else tackling a really challenging role I just think “Good for him. Looks like a lot of work.” I think I try to treat whatever role I’m working on as “the one I’ve been preparing for all this time.” I think I’d get depressed if I was always thinking that a better role was coming after this one. That sounds a little counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

Kennedy as Van in Randy Rehberg’s “Fangs for the Memories”

What’s your day job?

I’m a corporate communications specialist, responsible for internal communications at an area utility company employing approximately 4,700 people. My role is to engage a diverse workforce in the organization’s mission, to improve their efficiency and effectiveness in providing essential energy services to our customers.

I didn’t just pull that off of a job description. That’s actually what I do. I ask questions. I conduct interviews. I research projects and I research technologies. I teach. I do a lot of writing. I examine challenges and try to come up with the simplest solutions to barriers of understanding. And I go to too many meetings.

If all works out, employees understand what their company is doing, how they contribute to it, and they want to do it better. And when a customer flicks a switch and a light goes on, they don’t ever have to think about the small miracle that we just made happen.

The Deacon will be escaping this weekend to join Bunny Gumbo for another round of Combat Theatre.  For more info go to: Bunny Gumbo

Rentmeester in The Triumph of the Still

Tami Rentmeester is one of the funniest actors I know.  She’s got the rare ability to send an audience over the edge with a single look.  She’s also got the guts to extend a pause further than it has a right to go.  It takes a special kind of actor to wait a gag out, let it get to that point where it’s not funny and the audience gets uncomfortable, go past the point where most actors break and give in and thus suffer the joke falling flat on its face.  Tami will wait until it’s funny again.  Then she’ll wait a little longer.  Then she’ll wait a bit longer until it’s hysterical.

As such, she’s a hot commodity at Combat.  Not that anyone has a choice, the actors are cast at random, but your day gets a little better when Tami’s in your play.  “Whether Tami is in a play of mine or not, she usually comes to mind during my writing process” says playwright John Van Slyke.  “She’s so versatile and fearless, Tami typically comes to mind for as at least one of the roles. And when she is picked for one of my plays, I know all will be well. Tami brings comfort with many exciting surprises.”

Rentmeester in Fiddler

She’s also a favorite amongst directors.  Katie Cummings has had the opportunity to work with her several times.  “Some of my favorite moments of Tami in Combat are her portrayal of  the madam in the whorehouse that Maclay was interviewing for PBS, playing Sesame Street’s Ernie in Patrick Hollands, “Scalp Those Muppets” and Floyd the Barber in Tony Woods “Triumph of the Still.”  Katie adds, “She’s genuine, she’s the real deal, she has the ability to transform into any character she chooses and she works hard.  Bottom line, she is beautiful inside and out and I can’t imagine doing a Combat without her.”

So who doesn’t like working with Tami?  Just one person: John Maclay.  “I don’t like being in scenes with Tami because she is really quite a bit funnier than I am and I don’t like getting shown up at Combat Theatre.  Each Combat morning I sit and pray that she will be cast across Bo Johnson or Doug Jarecki as she is also funnier than them.  And I have no problem with them getting shown up.”

So enough of the love, let’s have Tami speak for herself.

What first got you involved in theatre?

My folks used to take my brother & me to see the high school musicals when we were little, which is an inexpensive way to introduce your kid to the arts.  I saw Brigadoon when I was only about 4 years old and I was BIT.  HARD.  Plus, we had a ton of cast albums that I listened to all the time.  When I was 12 or 13, a friend’s mom was directing a children’s play for the local community group, and I was cast.  I never really stopped after that.  Weirdly, during high school, I was too chicken to audition for the school shows, but I was continuously doing community theater on the side.

Where did you grow up?

Greendale, Wisconsin.  Or, “The Bubble” as all residents between the ages of 13 and 19 refer to it.

Where did you go to school?
Greendale High School.  No college.  Well, a little bit of UW-Oshkosh for seasoning.  No theater/drama/acting school.  I got all that training in the trenches.

What was your first professional gig?

I was in the chorus of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for Milwaukee Opera Company.  Which has since changed names a whole bunch of times and may not even exist anymore.  I think I made around $40 or $45.  Woot!  I did a few more shows for MOC, then some Music Under the Stars.  It was a while before I made much more than gas money.  But hey – at the time, $45 bucks filled my Horizon more than 3 times.

Why Milwaukee?

It’s just home.  I’ve never strayed, apart from a brief period travelling for regional stuff.  When I decided  a) It was time to stay in one place.  b) That place will not be New York; it just made sense to stay here.  I like it here.

The first time I met you was on the docks outside of Skylight (I was doing something in the other theatre and we were having a smokey treat).  What show were you doing then?

Ooooh, what was I doing?  I think it had to be A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Mr. Bo Johnson was in that show, and I believe he is the one who introduced us.  I beat him up every night in Funny Thing.  And my wig was made of yak hair.  Awesome.

Michelle Smith, Bo Johnson and Tami Rentmeester in Forum

You’ve got a great singing voice, were you trained?

Yes, I was trained.  I started out lucky – just accidently sang correctly when belting out Loverboy’s “Get Lucky” album in the living room after school.  But I knew that in order to advance in musical theater I needed real training.  I studied classical technique privately with Patricia Nelson for several years.  I even did the regional Met Auditions.  Holy carp, that was terrifying.  But rewarding.  But seriously terrifying.

Rentmeester as the Fairy Queen in Skylight’s Iolanthe

You’re a great comedian, do you prefer comedy to drama?

I do.  I enjoy drama as well, but comedy’s just more fun.  (Duh)  Plus, I think I’m better at comedy.  I think I’m more believable in funny situations than dramatic ones.  (Or so I assume.  I know people who think I’m hilarious when I’m angry.  I hate them.)

What was your favorite gig?

Am I a brown-noser if I say Combat?  ‘Cause I love that.

Playing Fruma Sarah in Fiddler at the Skylight fulfilled a childhood dream.  I loved doing Honk! at Music Theatre of Wichita, being Ruth in Pirates of Penzance and Sr. Mary Hubert in Nunsense.  ONE real favorite?  Impossible.

Rentmeester in Honk

What was your scariest gig?

See above re: Met Audition.  Not really a gig though.  This:  Michael Wright cast me in “A My Name is Alice,” and he gave me a pretty sizeable monologue.  I was perfectly comfortable standing alone in the middle of the stage to sing.  But to TALK?  It was the first time I was expected to actually TALK that much.  Scared the crap out of me. (thank you for kicking my butt, Michael)

Is there a dream role out there?

I consider myself mostly retired now, so I doubt I’ll ever do it, but there was I time I would have hurt someone for the chance to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

What’s your day job?

I’m a secretary.  I get in trouble when I use that word, but I prefer it.

I’m officially Executive Administrative Assistant in Communications & PR and Assistant Vice President at Baird, a financial services company.  I really love it.

Besides Sheepshead, what else do you enjoy?

I read like it’s a sickness.  I’m such a book nerd that I set myself ridiculous reading challenges with spreadsheets to track & calculate how I’m doing.  It’s embarrassing.  Don’t tell anyone that.

Tami playing Sheepshead with the boys

Randy performing at Dear Diary

Bunny Gumbo produced its first show in the winter of 2000, and Randy Rehberg was one of the original playwrights involved in that inaugural production of Combat Theatre.  Combat Theatre is comprised of shows that are written, directed and acted within 24 hours.  The writers pick a subject and location and then rush off to complete the play by the next morning.  Since that first show, Randy has been a part of every single Combat, writing 44 plays to date.  In addition to Combat, Randy wrote a full length play entitled ‘Keep it in the Family’ for another of Bunny Gumbo’s productions, Criminal Acts.  We decided it was high time to learn a little more about Mr. Rehberg.

From Keep it in the Family 

Bunny Gumbo:  What first got you involved in theatre?

Randy Rehberg:  I first got involved in theatre during my senior year of high school when I was in our senior play, ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Musical.’  Since I really couldn’t sing or dance very well, I added some comic relief to the show.  It was good fun and a great bonding experience.  The next year, I tried out for a drama at UW-Waukesha and was completely surprised when I got one of the leads.  The play was a new work about the Civil War (Leander Stillwell by David Rush) and our director, David Hundhausen, really involved the cast in developing the production, and I became fascinated with the collaborative process of theatre.

BG:  What’s your background?

RR:  Besides the shady and probably criminal activities of some of my ancestors, my background is pretty boring.

From Son of Goldfinger

BG:  Did you grow up around here?

RR:  I grew up in Waukesha County, mostly in Dousman, which had a total population of 400 people when I lived there.

BG:  Where did you go to school?

RR:  Where I didn’t go to school would make a shorter list.  I went to 6 different schools, including UW-Waukesha and UWM.  I graduated from UW-Stevens Point.

From Going to Graceland

BG:  Why did you move around so much?

RR:  A variety of reasons. My first semester in college, I attended UWM and it seemed so impersonal with hundreds of students in large lecture halls, so I transferred to UW-Waukesha. Since that was a two-year school, I went to Stevens Point.  After graduating, I tried grad school and was a teaching assistant at Oklahoma State University in English, and added a journalism minor.

BG:  Was your concentration in theatre?

RR:  No, I had a BS in English with a teaching certificate and a writing minor.  I liked the director at UW-Waukesha, so I took the theatre classes he taught there.  Then I just continued taking playwriting and other theatre classes at the other schools.  I’ve written fiction and found I get too hung up on writing description, which is why I enjoy playwriting.

From Fireflies, A Burlesque

BG:  What was your first professional gig?

RR:  I had a play produced in Homer, Alaska.  Geography was never my strong suit.  When the letter arrived, I saw the AK abbreviation and thought it was Arkansas.  It was definitely a long-distance collaborative process.  But it turned out okay.  Pre-YouTube.  I watched a tape of it and it got decent reviews.

BG:  Why Milwaukee?

RR:  Friends and family mostly.  When my wife Pam was finishing up her MFA at Northern Illinois University, the PTTP (The Professional Theatre Training Program, an MFA acting program begun by Sanford Robbins in the early 70’s) was starting up at UWM.  I made sure she applied as soon as she could for a faculty position, so we could get out of Bears country and back to Packerland.

From Fangs for the Memories

BG:  Your wife, Pam, is a costumer.  How did the two of you meet?

RR:  We met doing a community theater production in Oconomowoc called ‘The Shame of Tombstone.’  I was acting in it and she was doing costumes.  I promised her I wouldn’t say, “She took my measurements and the rest was history.”

BG:  Besides the shows you’ve written for Bunny Gumbo, what else have you written and where have they been produced?

RR:  One oldie but goodie is a show called ‘Mystery at Midnight.’  It started out as a one act but I expanded it to a full-length play.  It was the one produced in Alaska.  It was also produced in Chicago and at UW-Waukesha when its new theatre opened.

I also wrote a variety of Combat-like plays through UWM for Human Experience Theatre that were produced in various locations.  They were short interactive training plays for corporations, universities, and non-profit organizations that dealt with issues such as racism, sexual harassment, and even plagiarism.  In addition to covering the topic, there were always specific character types or requested elements to incorporate.  The hardest part to write were the endings; because they were used in interactive training, the plays couldn’t have conclusions.  It was hard to leave your characters hanging.

From Land ‘O Libre

BG:  You write for a living, tell us about that.

RR:  I started writing scripts based on my favorite TV shows when I was in grade school.  Ever since, I always wanted to be a writer of some sort.  I’ve written and edited all kinds of things.  I’ve been lucky and experienced a lot on projects.  I got to go to Hollywood and see the set for Batman Returns because I was doing some kids books based on the movies.  I went to the NBA offices in New York, and rewrote a website for LEGO in Denmark.  I’ve interviewed astronauts, politicians, athletes, and celebrities.  I even met Alex Haley because of knowing how much a bull weighed.  The one drawback is that after writing and editing books all day, sometimes it’s hard to come home and write stuff for yourself.

BG:  All right, don’t leave us hanging; how do you know how much a bull weighs and how did that knowledge lead to meeting Alex Haley?

RR:  Several friends, a graphic designer and ad salesman…

BG:  This sounds like the beginning of a joke.

RR:  Right?  They were interested in starting a magazine about log homes and asked if wanted to edit and write it.  They set up a trip to Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee.  After we drove down, the founder decided he didn’t want to talk to us.  The week before, he had been interviewed by some journalists from New York and the experience didn’t go well, so he didn’t  want to deal with any more.  It had rained and the New York people were not happy slopping around in the mud, and he had to deal with their complaints.  After some pleading on our part, he offered us a challenge.  If we could tell him how much a bull in his pasture weighed, he would agree to talk to us.  Being country boys from Wisconsin, and not city slickers from New York, we huddled up and guessed about 800 pounds, and the bull was 850.  As he led us around we started interviewing him and he just asked if I wanted to meet Alex Haley, who had a farm next to the museum.  Of course, I said yes.  He called him up and Alex Haley came over.  I have a photo hanging in the office of the two of us looking at some machinery.

From Damn, It’s Hot Out Here

BG:  What was your favorite gig?

RR:  Because of the immediacy, every Combat script is my favorite gig until the next one is written.  I haven’t read it in awhile but ‘Mystery at Midnight’ is probably my favorite.  It was my first decent full-length script.  People I respect asked to do it and it’s one of the few times since ‘The Shame of Tombstone’ that my wife did costumes for it.

BG:  What’s the plot of ‘Mystery at Midnight?’

RR:   It’s set in the 1940s.  An actor on a radio show becomes involved in a murder that echoes the show’s script.  Things get blurry, and it’s not just the scotch.  The play combines film noir, comedy, and radio sound effects as the hero tries to unravel a mystery, find himself, and win the dame.

From A Clean Sweep

BG:  What was your scariest gig?

RR:  I played the Father in ‘A Christmas Story’ for the Racine Theatre Guild.  I hadn’t been on stage for a while, and trying to memorize the gibberish curses aimed at the furnace was hard.  I was afraid that I would slip up and let out a real string of profanity if I messed up one of the lines.

BG:  Is there a dream project out there that you’ve been working on?

RR:  I’m finishing up an adaptation of Robin Hood and starting on a play about some of the weird and humorous things that happen during theater productions.

BG:  Getting back to Combat Theatre, do you find the constraints liberating or confining?

RR:  Both.  There’s really a lot you can do with a 10-minute play.  Every time out at the start, however, there’s one terrifying moment when it’s just you and the computer screen, and the thought runs through your head, “What if this is the time that I draw a blank and can’t think of anything to write?”  Then you take a deep breath and say, “Suck it up, you can do this. There are people counting on you.”

BG:  Are some subjects and locations more difficult than others?

RR:  Sometimes the hardest ones to write are those with actual people and locations or established characters because people have ideas of what these people or places should be (I think.)  If you have to write about Captain Kirk, people want to see William Shatner, so you can be confined to this perception.  Sometimes the time constraint works against you. You may get an idea that you think is great, get about halfway through, find it doesn’t work, and have to salvage it because there’s not enough time to start over.  There are times when I feel constrained by my own mind.  When you see pieces by the other writers, I think how did they do that, why couldn’t I think of that?  Also, subjects I don’t know much about are more difficult, since I have to do some research before writing (especially when picked on Fridays, since we lose time because of the show.)  Thank God for Wikipedia and YouTube.

And it can be liberating because you can try new ideas and conventions.  I love taking things from films or TV that you would never think you would see on stage and trying to make them work.  Because of the format and the openness of stage, you can go anywhere.  There’s also the one evil temptation where you think to yourself, “What bizarre, nasty things can I make the actors do?”  Luckily, that thought usually passes quickly.

From Underdog: The Lost Episode

BG:  Has there been a Combat play that you felt like you completely failed?

RR:  None completely, but obviously some turn out better than others, and it starts with the writing.  You may go in a direction that just doesn’t work as good as you thought it would.  Sometimes, the simpler ones are the best.  I think at times you try to add too much in addition to the subject and location.  I also learned from the early plays that you shouldn’t put the whole meaning of the play in one line at the end, because if it gets missed by the audience, they have no idea what the last 10 minutes was about.

BG:  Once you’ve written these plays, they’re turned over to the actors and directors.  Are you ever surprised by what they do to them?

RR:  Yes, I am continually surprised.  And this is the part of the process I love.  When everything comes together.  I try not to overwrite and give the director and actors some leeway in characterization and staging.  Usually during read-through, I get a sense if they get what I’m trying to do, and they usually add things that enhance the play.  For example, in ‘Pee-Wee’s Fan Adventure’ (during Best of Combat), it was a small bit, but the head shot of the box fan just cracked me up.  And watching Angela (Iannone) dance a complete number wrapped in Christmas lights was fantastic in ‘Fireflies, a Burlesque.’  I think my stage direction was “We see a light dance.”

From Fireflies, a Burlesque 

BG:  Is there a favorite Combat piece that you’ve written, and if so, why?

RR:  There are a few. ‘Enter the Eggman’ I think was one of my first good ones, ‘Ballet in Lambeau No. 3-19,’ and both ‘Fireflies, a Burlesque,’ and ‘Pee-Wee’s Fan Adventure.’

BG:  Is it hard to sit out in the audience and watch these plays come to life?  Not just Combat, any of your plays?

RR:  Not as much anymore.  There’s always a little trepidation along with the excitement.  If I’ve done my job to give them enough to work with, I have faith in the director and actors to bring the script to life.  It’s been a while since I’ve gone all Franz Liebkind (from The Producers) after a show.

Randy Rehberg lives in Franksville, Wisconsin with his wife Pam.

Pam and Randy Rehberg