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John M. Manfredi returns to the stage in A Picasso at Performance Network Theatre. Photo: Peter Smith
By Donald V. Calamia
Most recently he's been a producer, director and teacher, but when A Picasso opens at Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre, John M. Manfredi will return to his true passion - acting, in the role of Pablo Picasso. Manfredi talked recently with EncoreMichigan.com about the show, the dream team he's working with and what else is on his plate in the very near future.
If my memory is correct, A Picasso marks your return to the stage after a long absence – excluding the recent summertime Rocky Horror Show revivals at Meadow Brook Music Festival. What is it about A Picasso that lured you back?
Your memory is correct. I haven't been on-stage in so long I almost had to re-join the union. Honestly, though, Dan Walker was doing some work with Performance Network's reading/selection folks, he read the play, thought I would be good for the role and asked me to do a reading last year. I loved the script; I am a HUGE Picasso fan and have been my entire life. I was thrilled when the Network decided to do it and ecstatic when they asked me to do the role.
Given the show's pedigree, A Picasso is shaping up to be the "must see" show of the summer. It's directed by Tony Caselli (who seems to be everywhere these days), you co-star along side Emily Sutton-Smith, and Monika Essen and Dan Walker are responsible for costumes, props and the set. How cool is it to work with such an all-star team? And did that factor into your decision to commute each day from your home in north Oakland County? (At today’s gas prices, it ain't a cheap commute!)
Well, the commute doesn't suck as much as you'd think; it's only about 50 minutes for me, but the spike in gas prices came at a lousy time for sure.
As for the people involved, that was a huge factor in my decision to come out of 'retirement.' I have known most of these people for close to 20 years. I was stage managing at the Purple Rose in the early '90s, and Tony Caselli was one of the apprentices. I distinctly remember telling (then-artistic director) Newell Kring that he'd better hold onto him, because the 'kid' was a big talent. I wasn't wrong; he's one of the best directors I've ever worked with and a good friend.
Hey, these people are the jewels of our theater community; I am a big fan of theirs and honored to work with them.
David Wolber (Performance Network's artistic director) and I have been trying to get together on a project since our days together at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre, and he and Carla (Milarch, executive director) have created an incredibly cool working environment at the Network; the whole process has been a complete joy.
As for Emily, it's no accident that she's getting the accolades and the film work she's been getting. Emily rocks; the woman is incapable of having a dishonest moment on stage, and people are going to love her work on this show. She's kind of difficult to work with, though, because I get mesmerized watching and listening to her. Emily is also the best female tape-ball player I've ever shared the court with; her back hand flip shot is a thing of beauty.
You're playing an historical figure in the show. What kind of research did you do to help develop your character?
As I said, I was already a big, big fan. I have Picasso prints in my house, so I knew quite a bit about him and the impact he had on the art world.
For the role I did more research on the 'man.' I read books, watched documentaries and listened to what other people said about him. Surprisingly, there was very little audio of Picasso, so the research into his voice was the most difficult. It was often commented that although he spoke fluent French, he didn't do it very well and maintained touches of his Spanish accent throughout his time in France, and for the show we've tried to emulate that vocal quality.
Is it easier or harder to play a character that's based on such a recent well-known, real-life individual?
I don't know if it's easier or harder to play people that are historical or fictional; I approach the preparation the same way.
You've been in the business for over 30 years now – as an award-winning actor, director and executive (and pretty much everything in between). Is there one area that you prefer over the others? If so, which – and why?
As I was driving a big truck just the other day, picking up pieces of scenery for one of the shows we are producing, I told James Bowen who was helping load and un-load that I was surprised at how much I was enjoying acting again. It's my first love; it's the reason I got into the business in the first place, and it is way easier than producing or directing. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE directing, but I would say acting is still where my heart is.
Last year you founded Etico Productions, a full-service entertainment and arts education provider. What are Etico's goals, and what's coming up that theatergoers should look out for?
Thanks so much for asking about Etico Productions! Our goals are simple: to make some damn money.
Etico Productions does a little bit of everything, because as you said so astutely yourself, I've kind of done "pretty much everything in between" my whole career. We've built sets, run youth camps, produced plays and we even teach Yoga. My wife, the lovely and talented Kate, is a certified Yoga instructor and teaches all over Southeast Michigan. But like most people in the country - and especially those trying to start up a business - we're struggling. I just told my wife this morning that although we are poorer than we've ever been in our lives right now, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. She said, "I hope it's not a train!" But we do have the audacity to hope and are still counting our blessings everyday.
We're producing some outstanding family entertainment this summer, two Michigan premieres: Good Night Moon and If You Give a Pig a Pancake at the Meadow Brook Music Festival. Details can be found at our Web site, www.eticoproductions.com or at www.palacenet.com. We are also getting set to launch a new service called Michigan Theatre Preview and will be making an announcement about that in the coming weeks.
Are there any plans for more stage appearances any time soon?
I will be putting on the pumps and corset one more time, Sept. 11-12 for a new version of The Rocky Horror Show out at the Meadow Brook Music Festival. Other than that I have nothing on the books, but if any directors are reading this, I'd certainly be up for doing more.
The hair will grow back.
ABOUT JOHN M. MANFREDI:
John M. Manfredi most recently directed a series of productions for Palace Sports and Entertainment at the Meadow Brook Music Festival that included If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and The Chronicles of Narnia. The critically acclaimed director of Driving Miss Daisy, Syncopation and Macbeth at The Theatre Ensemble, Manfredi has been in the professional theater for over 30 years as an award-winning actor, director and choreographer with an extensive resume in film, stage and television. In nearly a decade as an adjunct professor at Oakland University he has participated in many productions including Zastrozzi and Romeo and Juliet. He has been nominated and received honors as Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Musical Performer from The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, The Oakland Press, The Michigan Association of Professional Theatres and many others. As a fight choreographer, his work has been seen on stage and in many films and television shows, including Unsolved Mysteries, Thou Shalt Not Kill..., The Pirates of Penzance, Don Giovanni, Macbeth, Real Stories of the Highway Patrol and Hill Street Blues.
ABOUT THE SHOW:
"A Picasso" opens in previews June 11-14 & 18 ($10-$32), then runs Thursday through Sunday June 19-July 12 at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Tickets: $15-$41. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.www.performancenetwork.org/
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