Humphrey Bogart

DramaWatch: It’s Bath Night, kids

Former "Live Wire" star Sean McGrath is back in town, getting ready for a run of sketch comedy. Plus "Hair" and other openings.

During his 14 years living in Portland, from 2002 to 2016, Sean McGrath made a name for himself as a comedy writer and performer for the public radio variety show Live Wire, as a member of the all-star sketch-comedy troupe Sweat, and as an intermittent stage actor at Portland Playhouse and other theaters. But a few years ago he moved back to his native New York, where he’d spent early childhood in, as he puts it, “the heyday of Hell’s Kitchen, pre-Bloomberg.” So what’s he doing there now? 

“I’m pretty much doing whatever I can,” he says. “It’s a tough town.” He maps out what sounds like something you’d expect of a struggling theater artist’s work life: auditioning a couple of times a week for Off-Broadway roles, taking acting classes, shooting commercials (a national ad for Budweiser among them), motion-capture work for video games such as Grand Theft Auto V

Lori Ferraro and Todd Van Voris in rehearsal for Bath Night sketch comedy.

He’s even studying improv with the famed Upright Citizens Brigade. “I don’t love it the way I love sketch,” he admits. “I think of something and I want to go in the corner and refine it. Do that in improv and you’re just standing at the back of the room all night. You can’t go with your best idea, you gotta go with your first idea.”

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DramaWatch Weekly: Be yourself?

Is there such a thing as "just playing yourself" onstage? What does that mean? Plus, openings, closings, nachos, and a Terrence McNally film

Caroline, or change?

Pretend. Play-acting. Make believe. The actor’s art is a curious challenge: Use your heart and mind, body and soul, to appear to be someone else.

Fine actors do it often. And yet, something in that seeming contradiction at the essence of the art sometimes results in an odd response: “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor, but he only plays himself.”

That’s a bit of off-the-cuff criticism I’ve heard from time to time in talking to Portland theater fans, and I’ve always been puzzled by it. What does such an assertion imply about the nature (or even the definition) of acting? Is “playing yourself” a shortcut to authenticity or a form of cheating? How do you speak someone else’s words and be yourself, anyway?

Sharonlee McLean, “a force of unearthly brilliance” in “Luna Gale.” Photo: Owen Carey

These and other questions came to mind afresh not long ago when I watched Sharonlee McLean as Caroline, an overworked social worker, in Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, which ended its run at CoHo Theater last weekend. It was another wonderful performance on her part (and from the entire cast, for that matter), but it was her very reliability that reminded me that she’s one of the local performers about whomll I’ve heard that odd opinion: plays herself.

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