The Acting Olympics: What local stage stars do to get into roles

Actor Manny Fernandes and director Kristianne Kurner during a rehearsal for "Sailor's Song" at New Village Arts Theatre in 2008.
(Earnie Grafton / San Diego Union-Tribune file photo)

The thing about being an actor is (spoiler alert!), you have to portray other people who are not, in fact, you.

That sometimes can mean learning new skills — or at least taking on the appearance of having learned them — well enough to play a character convincingly.

Oh, and you might have only a few weeks to do it.

We have a story coming up later this week on San Diego actor Jason Heil and his efforts to learn how to surf, in order to get into the mindset of the surfing-mad mayor he’s playing in San Diego Rep’s world-premiere play “Beachtown.”

Talking to Heil got us wondering about other challenges local actors have taken on for the sake of a show.

So we polled a few of them on the topic, and learned that just about everyone has a story along these lines. (And often more than one: The versatile actress-singer Sandy Campbell told us she had to learn both Italian and some semblance of piano for separate productions here.)

A few championship anecdotes from the acting arena:

Lance Arthur Smith, playwright-actor, teacher and writer in residence at the Army and Navy Academy:

“What springs to mind is my prep to play a drill sergeant in Mo`olelo’s ‘A Piece of My Heart,’ my first show in San Diego. Leaves fell on a stretch of blacktop outside the La Jolla Playhouse as David Tierney (a former Marine and then-cast member of ‘The Miser’ at La Jolla Playhouse) screamed at me to march, do push-ups and move in formation. (Mo`olelo co-founder and artistic director) Seema Sueko had arranged it for me.

“It was my first time meeting David. He was warm and insightful prior to and after the session. But he warned that he’d assume the role of a true Marine drill instructor. During the session he made me feel like a man without identity. It was harrowing, but incredible material from which to paint a character.”

Kristianne Kurner, actor-director and executive artistic chief of New Village Arts Theatre:

“When we were rehearsing John Patrick Shanley’s ‘Sailor’s Song,’ we figured it would be important to actually go out and row on the water, so the actors could get the feel for it. We set off in two canoes on the Carlsbad Lagoon for an hour of ‘training.’ Everything started out smoothly, but we had a very strong-willed group of people who all had their own thoughts about how to paddle a canoe. It ended up with one (group) in a big argument that almost tipped the canoe. We went back in the rehearsal room after that.

“Other favorite: When working on ‘Fool for Love,’ (actor) Joshua Everett Johnson had to lasso the bed post every night. To prepare, we headed out to a ranch in Warner Springs and spent the day riding horses and learning how to lasso (of course I learned it all as well). Very fun research.”

Ron Choularton, veteran San Diego actor:

“In ‘Corpse!’ (at North Coast Rep in Solana Beach), I actually had to make a Russian blintz live with a hot oven — we pretended it was gas but it was electric operated from the booth. With lines interwoven, I had to make a pancake out of a mix, cook some onions, and finish with a blob of cheese on both our plates at an exact line in the script.

“I’ll tell you, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done onstage. Talking and cooking can be stressful, keeping in mind what can go wrong. Even the smallest thing — like one night when the pancake mix was replenished in the same box but with a different mix. It took a lot longer. Peter (Rose, Choularton’s cast mate) and I ate white slosh with onions and cream that night!”

Attention local theater artists: Got any more stories for the Acting Olympics? Send them along, to .

Twitter: @jimhebert