Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : April 2005

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A Different Show Every Night
By Patrick Tandy

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THE ACT OF ACTING

THE ACT OF ACTING
Actor/litigator Jonathan Claiborne (right) plays Felix Unger to Michael P. Sullivan’s Oscar Madison in the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre 2005 production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. [Photo © Amy Jones/Amy Jones Photography]

“It’s awfully nice when that crowd applauds,” stage actor Jonathan Claiborne admits as he ruminates on just what keeps him (and the audience) coming back for more at the handful of community theaters that pepper the Baltimore area. Then, after a caesura born more of inward reflection than outward dramatic effect: “But it only happens, you know, for 30 seconds at the end of the night, so I’m not sure that that’s quite enough.”

“I enjoy rehearsals because I like the process itself – I enjoy the act of acting,” adds Claiborne, a 20-year veteran of the local stages who most recently appeared earlier this year as Felix Unger in the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. But for the Baltimore-based litigator with the law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, L.L.P., the greatest draw is something much more interactive.

“The acting community is small enough that [even] if you don’t know them personally you sort of know them from having seen them around,” he explains. “The acting community is very supportive of each other, and they all go to see each other perform around town.

“It’s really a potpourri of the community. There are other people like myself – lawyers, doctors or accountants – but there are [also] people in advertising and marketing. There are what you think of as the classic “actor people” who are waiting tables and bartending and just trying to get some acting experience. I would say [that] probably 75, 80 percent of the people who are doing community theater are people who are doing it because they enjoy doing the theater, with no real expectation of going beyond community theater to anything professional, either because they don’t have the time or the inclination or they don’t want to suffer through the economics or whatever. Most of the people are just doing it because it’s a hobby; just like they might play golf or tennis or sing in a choir, they like to do the acting. By being involved in theater, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a whole different group of people that I’m sure I would not have run into just because our paths weren’t going to cross.”

♦♦♦

Although he regularly attended movies while growing up in his native Blacksburg, Virginia, Claiborne took little interest in participating in the performing arts. It was not until much later, while attending the University of Maryland, that his interest in theater blossomed through attending on-campus productions.

“I actually auditioned for a couple things in law school, but they were musicals, and I have zero musical talent,” Claiborne admits with a chuckle. “[I] went to an audition and didn’t get the part, but I didn’t feel like I was completely overmatched by who was there. It was a little intimidating because you did have this sense that everybody had done it lots of times before and I had not. [So] I kind of kept my eyes open in the newspapers for other audition notices.”

Claiborne’s break ultimately came in 1984 with a local production of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Since then, he has worked on “about 15 or 20 plays over the last 20 years”, with “five or six different theaters around town” – though none more so than the aforementioned Spotlighters.

“If I’ve done 20 plays, I’ve probably done 10 or 12 of them at Spotlighters,” notes Claiborne, who in fact became so enmeshed in the workings of the theater that he, along with director Bob Russell, played an instrumental role in maintaining it when Spotlighters Theatre founder and president Audrey Herman passed away in 1999.

“We got together and decided that we would sort of be what we called a ‘Band-Aid’, kind of a temporary fix,” Claiborne explains. “We would take over the theater and try and sort of run it for a couple of years and get it going. Well, it took us a little longer to get that done than we thought; we ended up owning it for about four and a half years. But effective this past January, we handed everything over to a board, a non-profit corporation.”

The realities of balancing a busy law practice with an outside interest that requires roughly six weeks of rehearsals (and nearly as many for performances) generally limits Claiborne’s onstage participation to one show each year. “The nice thing about community theater is that there is the recognition that people are doing this as a hobby or [for fun],” he notes. “Even if you have aspirations for professional theater – and I assume there are some people that do – everybody recognizes that you have other jobs and other commitments, and so the rehearsal schedule is very flexible [and] works around people’s schedules.”

Such limitations usually find Claiborne – at home with either comedy or drama – auditioning for certain shows rather than specific roles.

“I’ve heard people say that comedy is harder,” says Claiborne. “For me, drama is harder because I think I have a more natural sense of comedy. I think I have a natural sense for the timing of comedy.

“I have virtually no training in [acting], so virtually anything I do is by instinct as opposed to any real knowledge of what’s supposed to happen,” he continues. “I think there are some people who do a better job of really getting into a character or something, and I just sort of feel what I think this character’s supposed to be like, and I try and project that.”

“But I don’t feel like I become grumpy for an entire month just because I have to play a grumpy character,” Claiborne adds with a laugh. “Actually, the hardest thing for me is learning all the lines. And it seems to be getting harder – that’s what’s a little disturbing. People always say, ‘My gosh, how did you learn all those lines? You must have an incredible memory!’ And I don’t. I have a very average memory. So my message to the public is that if you want to do this, anyone can do it. Don’t be intimidated by the idea, ‘Oh, my memory is not very good.’ Mine is not, either. It’s just discipline and repetition and forcing yourself to memorize, just like you’d memorize a song or something. You just work at it and work at it and eventually you’ll get it.”

♦♦♦

Despite the restrictions imposed by a tight schedule, Claiborne still holds aspirations for his stagecraft.

“As they say [with] live theater: different show every night because you never know what’s going to happen,” he notes. “I’ve never done Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare would be difficult to do, but I think that it would be something fun to try.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t [always] understand Shakespeare, so I’d have to make sure I understood what was going on,” he laughs.

But not all of the roles that Claiborne looks forward to filling are necessarily onstage.

“I have thought it would be fun to try and write something [for the stage], which has given me this huge appreciation for people that do write,” he explains. “For somebody like myself who’s had a couple of story ideas that might be interesting and maybe even sat down one afternoon to sort of try and write something and then gave up, for somebody to have the discipline and the talent to write something and get a start, a middle and an end and put it together in a form that can actually be produced, even if it’s just mediocre, is outstanding. That really takes a lot of work and a lot of effort.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: April, 2005

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