By Leslie Carter
James Leaming is the narrator of “Who Am I This Time? (and other conundrums of love),” the current production running at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach until Feb. 2. The production is adapted from three stories by Kurt Vonnegut.
Leaming, 57, is a founder and actor with American Blues Theater in Chicago (www.americanbluestheater.com), an ensemble company that has been producing American plays since 1985. They feature the classics of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and William Inge, as well as new plays they foster and guide from conception to the stage.
Q: “How are you finding this experience with this play, and how do you feel about your character?”Leaming:
“I’m the voice of Vonnegut. These are heartfelt stories and I thread them all together.
This narrator guy needs to be just artful and present. I talk directly to the audience for a lot of it, so it feels like a conversation.
It’s a touching, sweet play. I talk for three pages at the beginning, and then I’m in every scene, talking about everything. I am your tour guide for this town. And by the end everybody does kind of find out who they are in this world.
Q: What are your impressions of North Coast Rep?Leaming:
I’m enjoying it. The people are wonderful. I had never met David Ellenstein (North Coast Rep’s Artistic Director) before, but I worked for his brother, Peter, at the William Inge Festival in Kansas.
That’s how I came to David’s notice.
It feels like a nice, tight organization; people know one another well. They know their patrons, and each other. It’s a community. I admire that in any theater company. That’s what American Blues is about, too. It’s about community and family, and an intimate experience.
Q: Tell us about American Blues Theater.
Leaming:We do original works that speak to the middle-west — American plays. With the new, we do a lot of American Classics that we reimagine.
2015 will be our 30th anniversary of doing four plays a year.
In 1985, there were four founders. I’m an actor and designer, one is a director and actor, another one is a playwright and an actor, and one is an actor and schmoozer with connections to the Chicago’s North Shore — and whatever we needed to get the business together to make a theater.
With American Blues we actively work with playwrights in developing new plays. It’s a risky endeavor. You must get people to talk them up to sell tickets. The marketing is difficult so we scatter the new ones among the American Classics.
At first in Chicago I designed sets and lights. I don’t really do it anymore, but, recently, I designed “Tobacco Road” sets and lights and played two characters in the show. I won the Joseph Jefferson, a Chicago theater award for that.
Q: You have a one-man show, correct?
Leaming:It’s Steve Murray’s “This Wonderful Life,” a version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.
For 12 years we’ve staged “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a 1940s live radio play at American Blues Theater.
The director at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, had seen me do George Bailey in that, and he handed me the script for the one-man show. I was very interested.
We birthed it in 2008 in Sarasota, and then went to Syracuse Stage in New York, Cleveland Play House, and Laguna Playhouse two years ago.
Q: Do you do a lot of physical things, such as climbing on the bridge, and running down the street?
Leaming:I use a 16-foot, Home Depot-style steel staircase that is upstairs at Zuzu’s and the bridge I jump from. There’s a table and a chair on casters — so everything moves around.
By my count, there are 47 characters. I lost 15 pounds doing three weeks of eight shows in Cleveland. I’m hoping to be able to do it again a few times before I have to do it from Potter’s wheelchair. It’s a workout.
Q: You have played in theaters all over. Is there one that stands out?
Leaming:Peninsula Players, north of Chicago in Door County, Wisconsin, is an 80-year-old summer stock theater. One of the few places my wife, Carmen Roman, and I actually get to work together. We’ve been there nine seasons.
It’s a wonderful place. It’s on a little spit of a peninsula north of Green Bay with cherry and apple orchards, and lots of artists.
My wife just started rehearsal at Indiana Rep in a play called “Who Am I This Time?” by Aaron Posner.
We’ll be in the same play in two cities. Life in the theater is sometimes strange...