Acting in Yosemite: A Camp Diary from Phillip J. Berns

The Portland actor takes a gig playing a park ranger twice a day in a place where the star surrounds the stage

You might remember actor Phillip J. Berns from his one-man Christmas Carol, or from various shows at Post5 Theatre. And as you make the rounds to summer Shakespeare shows, you may even muse, “Where did that guy go?”

Well, funny story: the Portland-based but nationally active Traveling Lantern Theater Company has in its repertoire a show specifically written for, and exclusively performed at, Yosemite National Park. The interactive, all-ages show, Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure, revolves around a rookie ranger character. And…three guesses who got the gig.

Without further ado, ArtsWatch gets the field report from Phillip J. Berns.

Who has two suspenders and a summer acting job at Yosemite? This guy.

Guess who has two suspenders and a summer acting job at Yosemite? This guy.

STUPID BEAUTIFUL

BEING AN ACTOR’S ATTEMPT TO DESCRIBE THE INDESCRIBABLE, AND HOW IT AFFECTS HIS ART AND HIS LIFE

 

“Thou, Nature, art my Goddess…” King Lear I;ii;1

 

The first thing I feel I need to explain is the phrase, “Stupid Beautiful,” and what I mean by that. It’s not that Yosemite is so beautiful that it’s stupid, that its beauty shouldn’t be allowed in polite conversation or company. Nor do I mean stupid in the sense of simple, as in its beauty lives in its simple, natural state. While there is certainly truth to the latter statement, and even some in the former (I believe one of the first phrases out of my mouth upon rounding a bend to yet another breathtaking panorama of The Park was, “that’s absurd”), neither was the reason for this particular title. The phrase came to me when I started thinking about how the first glimpses of Yosemite affected me personally.

It’s a blessing and a curse, that most artists – and certainly most actors – have a hard time simply experiencing an experience, or an idea, or an emotion, before they start analyzing it, categorizing it, and locking it away for future use. Yosemite did not allow me to do that. Upon first view of its absolute Majesty and Granduer, I was stupefied. I felt as though I should say something, but I had no breath (much less the words) to express what I was feeling. I honestly stopped thinking and for a few, all-to-brief, beautiful moments, was simply experiencing. I was stupid. Not stupid in an ashamed, hang-my-head-for-I-am-not-worthy way, but stupid in an awe-struck, head-to-the-sky-in-wonder way. I felt as though I was truly part of something bigger, something infinitely important, just a very small part. The first sound I made after my initial stupification was a laugh, a laugh of pure wonderment and joy. I still find myself laughing like that from time to time when a new feature of The Park, or even when a new view of something I see every day strikes me in a particular way.

I realize that all of this must sound terribly hyperbolic, but that first glimpse of The Valley was the closest I have ever come to a religious experience.

For those who have never been to Yosemite, the one thing I must impress upon you is the sheer scale of the landscape. The Park itself is larger than the state of Rhode Island, and its features mirror its size. I believe Margaret Sanborn put it, if not best, than very aptly when she wrote:

Walling the valley are cliffs of gray granite, mountains,  infinitely varied in height and size, in form and character, and differing wholly one from another – some smooth and sheer, some intricately carved, some crowned with domes and spires; all are separated by wooded ravines or deep shadowy canyons threaded by streams and cascades.

– Yosemite: Its Discovery, Its Wonders, and Its People p.11

Even this, however, doesn’t come close to the experience of viewing El Capitan or Half Dome for the first time in person. Even famed photographer Ansel Adams could not truly capture the (again, literal) breathtaking beauty of The Park and its features, though he spent almost a lifetime trying to. I harp on this theme simply because it is imperative that you understand the backdrop I ma working with. My office for the next three months consists of North Dome almost directly upstage, Half Dome to my left, and Glacier point directly in front of me, not 200 yards behind the audience, always watching, and always (its hard not to feel) critiquing. In this sense, I feel I have the best, and harshest critics in the world.

Which, of course, brings me to the show, Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure. It is a wonderfully funny, accessible, and often poignant two-person script centered around Ranger Ned (my role) who finds himself having to give a presentation on his very first day as a Ranger when his boss and idol, the fictional Ranger Fred, is unable to make the show. Racked with nerves, Ned asks an audience member to assist him – the second player in the show – Bob, as well as a child volunteer who plays small rolls throughout (a thunder-sheet operator, a Sequoia sapling, a mule deer fawn, and a delightful John Muir, who echoes Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bully’s,”) to the audiences delight. The show runs about 45 minutes, the first two-thirds of which center around the history of Yosemite, and the final third with how to be a conscientious guest and how to be “bear-aware.”

As a performer, my experience thus far has been a mixed bag to say the least. Being a city-boy at heart, the transition to a much slower lifestyle, and focusing on one show (which we perform twice daily, five days a week) has been both a difficult and intensely rewarding one; my free-time spent hiking and climbing have been unnerving, challenging and whole lot of fun (more on those in future posts). In addition, our first Bob was unable to do the show this year due to medical reasons, throwing a huge wrench in the plans for the summer.

Traveling Lantern flew in a dear friend of mine (and Traveling Lantern stalwart), Sam Levi, to do the role for the first two weeks. Sam played Ranger Ned in 2012 and was, therefore, familiar with the script. I can’t imagine a better man to fill in during such a crisis. With only two days and one rehearsal to learn a completely new role, Sam not only stepped up, but also brought amazing choices to a part he had only ever seen. I first met Sam about six months ago when he Stage Managed Post5 Theatre’s (of which I am a proud Company Member) Tartuffe, and immediately took a liking to his enthusiasm, positivity, and professionalism. I recently saw Sam off, and to say he will be sorely missed would be a tragic understatement. You’ll be able to see Sam as one of the Octavius Caesars in Portland Actors Ensemble’s Antony & Cleopatra this summer.

To replace Sam as the part of Bob for the remainder of the summer is Mr. Murren Kennedy. Murren starts his second year at Portland Actor’s Conservatory this September and is a 6’ 2” tower of professionalism. After rehearsing a half-dozen times with Doren in Portland, seeing Sam’s final performance, and having one rehearsal in the park with K.B. and myself, he was able to both incorporate Sam’s choices (which had never previously seen), as well as bring new and exciting characters I had yet to see to the stage. I’m frightfully excited to see how we both grow as performers during the next three months, and how the show grows due to that personal growth. Lastly, I feel immensely blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people, landscape, and energy as I take this sabbatical from the city (for that is truly how I’m viewing this time), for having such a remarkable opportunity to reconnect with both nature and myself, and for knowing that when I arrive back in Portland, I’ll have a loving family of friends and colleagues to welcome me back.

I’ll see you all in September, until then, I remain,

Your humble fake Ranger,

Phillip J. Berns

 

KID QUOTE of the WEEK!

CHILD (to Sam, before they enter as Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir on hobby-horses): Wait! Shouldn’t I name my horse first?

SAM: How silly of me! Of course you should! What will you name it?

CHILD (after a moment of serious reflection): JuiceSparkle!

 

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Artists/performers, do you also have an out-of-town gig, residency, or position this summer? Feel free to share where you’re going and what you’re creating in the comments below.

 

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