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Five Faves

Civic director Jim Carter with Ben Zylman in a production of Greater Tuna.
Longtime Civic denizen recounts special stage memories

The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre is 90 years old this season, and I am happy to say I’ve been a part of it for almost half of those years. Since making my debut at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre 40 years ago, I’ve had the good fortune of directing or acting in more than 60 Civic productions. As you might imagine, I’m usually in a quandary when asked to name my favorite shows. The roles, the people and the creative processes have all been uniquely wonderful, but here are a few of my favorite memories.

Not just another opening night

The opening night of a new production is one of the most exciting experiences in theater. There’s an indescribable energy and electricity both onstage and in the wings. And so it was in 1982 on opening night of Dracula — until one of the actors skipped from Act I to Act II mid-monologue, and no one on stage knew. The results of skipping pages of dialogue could have been disastrous if not for the quick thinking of our talented director, Kathy Mulay, a skillful cast and a hard-working crew. I’ll never forget Ms. Mulay sending an actor out on stage to advise the other actors of what had transpired and to get them back on track. At intermission, we huddled in the makeup room poring over the script, determining what had already been said, what had been omitted and what needed to be said in order to create some sort of continuity. Instant rewrites! When the curtain came down and the reviews were written, no one seemed to have been the wiser.

More than just a show

I have always loved Oklahoma! Filled with colorful characters, incredible production numbers and beautiful music, it truly is one of my favorites. I directed a production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that opened on Sept. 28, 2001, just 17 days after our country was subjected to the worst terrorist attack in American history. Hurting and fearful, patrons of all ages found healing and comfort in the familiarity of this simple slice of Americana. I’ll never forget the emotional impact of 500 audience members rising to their feet each night as they joined the cast in singing “God Bless America” immediately after the curtain call.

Mentors and more

I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was in 1994 when Civic Director Jim Carver asked me if I would join him in a special production of the two-man comic romp Greater Tuna. Jim had a profound impact on me as an actor and director, and the opportunity to share the stage with my mentor was tremendously rewarding and a little frightening. All through the rehearsal process, Jim proved to be an incredibly generous scene partner, going out of his way to share the spotlight. I loved working with him on that project. Fast-forward to 2014, when Jim asked me to join him and Art Nemitz in a special production of The Sunshine Boys. Wow! After all the years of acting and directing, I learned so much from sitting back and watching these two “old pros” at work.

Talent, talent and more talent

In 2004, in celebration of the Civic’s 75th anniversary, I produced and directed The Gala Reunion Concert. This very special event was created as a way to recognize artists who had gotten their start at the Civic and gone on to professional careers in theater, opera, cabaret, film and television. Everyone we invited back to perform agreed to participate. Due to the crazy schedules of these talented folks and the fact that they were performing for free, we kept the rehearsal process to a minimum, putting the whole show up in just three days. Believe it or not, the time constraints only added to the excitement. While all of the performers received incredible applause, I’ll never forget the audience reaction to Broadway veteran Jerry Dixon’s stirring rendition of “Ol’ Man River” — an instant standing ovation!

We are family

Not often, but every once in a while, a production comes along that exceeds any expectations you could possibly have for a show. That is precisely what happened in 1986 with Brighton Beach Memoirs. More than 80 people vied for seven roles, and the audition process was arduous. Those of us ultimately cast as members of the Jerome family knew instantly that we were a part of something very special. The bonds we created were intimate and immediate: We were a family! Artistically, the forging of those friendships allowed each of us to do our best work. The role I played provided me with challenges I had never been afforded, and I was able to meet those challenges head-on, in large part because of the wonderful people with whom I shared the stage. Even after 30 years I count some of those people among my closest friends.

Ben Zylman

Ben has over 35 years of experience and over 100 productions to his credit. His Civic directorial credits include Crazy for You, Broadway Bound, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Annie, The Wizard of Oz, Fiddler on the Roof, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Gala Reunion Concert, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Mame, Oklahoma! and the award-winning Forever Plaid.

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