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(Originally appeared in PerformInk, March 16, 2001)

STAGE PERSONA – ACTOR-IMPROVISER SUSAN GASPAR:

BY LUCIA MAURO

As a child growing up in Malone, N.Y. (population 10,000), Susan Gaspar had no intention of becoming an actor even when her grade-school teachers kept casting her in pageants and plays. But that ravenous acting bug chomped down pretty hard by the time Gaspar entered high school. At that point, she claims, no one – not even steadfast guidance counselors touting more stable careers – could convince her to relinquish the stage.

The new artistic director of The Free Associates – now celebrating their tenth anniversary creating intelligent, fully improvised parodies of classic literature, movie genres and popular TV shows – recalls having to take a test, during her senior year in high school, to determine the profession for which she was best suited. Imagine her delight – and her guidance counselor’s chagrin – when "actor" turned up first on the test printout. The computer suggested a second career, too: "boatswain."

"I didn’t even know what a boatswain was!" exclaims Gaspar with a fervent laugh. "Then I found out that it referred to a deck officer who yells orders. I remember my mom telling me, ‘Boatswain, that’s a good profession for you – you have a projectionable voice.’"

Besides booming lung power (and a voice with a limitless capacity for timbres and dialects), Gaspar is an inspiring leader in a company that demands self-confidence, symbiotic teamwork and witty on-the-spot repartee. Plus The Free Associates’ unscripted Shakespearean spoof, As We Like It: Shakespeare in Your Face, no doubt required an appearance by an occasional brawny boatswain.

Mark Gagne, The Free Associates’ founder and former artistic director, handed over the creative reigns to Gaspar in the fall. A highly visible ensemble member since 1993, Gaspar has created a hilarious range of smart and kooky characters in Cast on a Hot Tin Roof; MedeaMorphosis: Greek Tragedy to Go; As We Like It; The Greatest Story Never Told; Divamatic; Blithering Heights; BS; Pick-a-Dick; The Real Darren Stephens; Stages Through the Ages; The Scryptogram; Back in the Shadows Again; Big TV; Chancing at Lunacy; That Sinking Feeling; and A Long Play’s Journey into One Act. She directed Charlie and the Fiction Factory: Roald Dahl Unscripted, Bronte and A Dysfunctional Dixie Christmas.

Gaspar reaffirmed her stamina and savvy, lightning-speed turns of phrase during The Free Associates’ marathon retrospective, which marked the closing of the Ivanhoe Theatre – their base since 1994 – this past January. She gleefully transformed herself from a cruel Gothic guardian in Blithering Heights to a tortured Hellenic heroine in MedeaMorphosis to the desperately damn good ER head doctor in BS to a whip-smart beautician cutting a deal in the David Mamet-inspired Scryptogram.

Her characters, together with those created by her nimble-minded performers, are the glue holding together these impromptu scripts based on audience suggestions but rooted in specific styles.

"Our work comes from acting first, improvising second," says Gaspar, 36, from The Free Associates’ office in ArtsBridge at the Athenaeum Theatre. "We need to have that blend in order to be successful. We can’t just be there for the joke. If we just focused on the joke, we wouldn’t have the body or richness underneath it. Our main goal is to create a piece of theatre, not improv.

"From the beginning, I thought this was such an interesting way to use improv to create theatre. I did short-form improv. But I had no experience creating an entire play. With The Free Associates, I have the best elements of improv combined with what I love about theatre."

An avid reader all her life, Gaspar already had built a sturdy foundation as an ensemble member in a theatre company that requires its artists to have a massive and eclectic frame of reference.

For As We Like It, the cast read the entire Shakespeare canon and viewed nearly every cinematic version – then spent long hours discussing characters, motivations and recurring themes. Gaspar devoured Roald Dahl’s 75 books for children and adults, together with all the scholarly commentary on the fantastical British author’s twisted psychological themes. BS, a spoof of ER, required the cast to watch every episode; and the parody of Hollywood biblical epics, The Greatest Story Never Told, prompted everyone to overdose on epic film versions of Ben Hur, The Robe and Solomon and Sheba.

"You have to be well read and really like to continue to learn," Gaspar advises. "You have to get inside that material, and you have to be able to make judgment calls and character choices based on your knowledge of that material. You gain confidence the more you practice and master a style. It becomes a part of you to the point where you don’t even have to think about the style."

Gaspar’s parents are teachers and encouraged their three children to experience a variety of artistic disciplines. She remembers a time, though, when acting was not a top priority. In junior high, at the height of her majorette ambitions, Gaspar remembers getting very angry with her father for forcing her to audition for a play (a standard children’s theatre piece).

"I didn’t want to do this," she asserts, "but I reluctantly agreed to audition and couldn’t believe it when I got cast in the show. Then something happened. I really liked acting and have been acting ever since."

Gaspar, who majored in acting at the State University of New York at New Paltz, performed in numerous musicals and dramas. In fact, her initial goal out of college was to pursue dramatic acting in New York City, where she lived for seven years. Off-Broadway, she appeared in Lady L at the Actor’s Playhouse and in Finishing Stroke at Lincoln Center. While she was often cast in ingenue parts, Gaspar preferred character roles. Her powerful and malleable voice only enhanced her "character" leanings. She also studied improv in Manhattan with Paul Sills, and developed and taught improv at the Actor’s Co-Op.

But she still suffered from New York burn out. Just as she was getting turned off by the New York theatre scene, Gaspar attended a wedding in Chicago and was attracted to the city’s livability and its diverse theatre offerings. She moved here in 1992 and – between waiting tables at Leona’s -- got cast right away in an absurdist comedy,The Great American Cheese Sandwich, with Close Call Theatre and a musical revue, Life’s Too Short, at Baird Hall.

Her first exposure to The Free Associates was a photo of Mark Gagne and Lynda Shadrake "in their underwear" from Cast on a Hot Tin Roof (the Tennessee Williams’ parody) in the Reader’s "Critic’s Choice." She then responded to a Free Associates’ audition notice in PerformInk, but found out they were booked. To her surprise, Gagne later phoned and asked if she could be at callbacks at Sheil Park in 15 minutes. She bolted out the door and ended up being one of eight actor-improvisers selected for more tests of endurance.

"I was there for five hours," notes Gaspar. "They put me through the rigors of different styles, then asked me to stay for rehearsal. I remember, despite how frenetic things were that night, getting this flash of this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

"But I didn’t hear back from them right away. The audition was in October, then in January I got a call from Mark who asked me to join the cast of Stages Through the Ages, The Free Associates’ improvised history lessons that toured schools."

This show formed the basis of the group’s literary-historical spoofs to come. Students would offer "what if" suggestions on, say, the Salem Witch Trials or French Revolution, and the actors would bring these slightly skewed tales to life in a spontaneous, comedic way.

"Mark’s idea was to make history fun," says Gaspar. "One of the main goals was to encourage kids to like history and want to learn more about it on their own.

"The same idea drives our parodies. Mark thought the classics were the best to parody because just about everybody hated being forced to read them in school. By spoofing Shakespeare or the Brontes, we could hopefully inspire the audience to re-read the classics and find new joy and meaning in them."

Stages Through the Ages was soon replaced by adult performances of Cast on a Hot Tin Roof and Pick-a-Dick (a detective-genre satire) at the Bop Shop. Gagne invited Gaspar into Cast on a Hot Tin Roof as an understudy. He told her to attend a couple of rehearsals (only one hour before curtain) and shows to get a feel for the tone. Then in true improvised fashion, Gagne asked her to be in the show after only one rehearsal.

"I was like scared out of my mind," shares Gaspar. "Then I just had to focus on being a character. I went out there and, boom!, I felt fine. I let the energy of the style and the other actors pull me in. Your acting training clicks in. I knew that as long as I listened and reacted, nothing bad could happen to me."

She still gets cornered by skeptical audience members who believe their clever, fast-moving shows are scripted.

"One woman insisted there was a TelePrompTer in the corner of the wall that the audience couldn’t see," says Gaspar. "We had her come up on the stage to prove there was no TelePrompTer, but she thought we were hiding it. What really happens is that the stage manager frantically writes down audience suggestions [for characters’ names and situations]. But we don’t have time to do any writing between scenes. When I’m off stage, my focus is on listening."

BS, now in its seventh year, is one of The Free Associates’ biggest hits. The company has transferred BS to its new home at the Royal George Theatre (shows will be added beginning March 23 – Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and 9:30 p.m.). While Gaspar was not in the original BS cast, she indirectly inspired it.

In 1994, she was hospitalized for a serious kidney problem that required surgery. Her fellow actors spent a lot of time visiting her. One day while Gagne was at the hospital, ER happened to be on Gaspar’s TV – sparking the idea for an improvised spoof of medical dramas. It then evolved into an exclusive parody of ER.

"Over the years," says Gaspar, "other shows have fallen off. But BS remains. I think audiences are attracted to its gritty, fast-paced, hand-held camera energy.

"It makes a difference if it’s a cinematic or theatrical style. With BS, there was nothing to read. We just had to watch every episode of ER. It’s a TV style. So it can go real flat – like a soap opera. You can’t rehash ER either. In order to deepen it and parody it, you have to heighten the drama and get underneath the character."

She continues, "When it’s a cinematic parody, we work the camera element and the way actors are framed. We think of ER in terms of tight close ups; we look into an imaginary camera."

On the subject of recreating camera angles on stage, The Free Associates’ next offering is Alfred Hitchcock Resents, based on his movies and TV program (opening June 27). Other future projects include an environmental production of Little House Quite Contrary: Laura Ingalls Wilder Unscripted and a scripted play, Daphne DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel (whose dark intrigue Gaspar believes works well with the troupe’s interest in Gothic subject matter and Hitchcock programming).

Looking back on her dreams as a child, Gaspar admits that she wanted to be a book illustrator – in reality, a career not much different from the one she’s chosen.

"Now I get to read a lot of books," says Gaspar, "and draw pictures for those books – only they’re stage portraits. What a way to reach people – by helping them to see a story come to life."
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