News Column

Two actors performing in Tulsa this weekend share their career stories

October 24, 2013


Oct. 24--Tulsa has been the starting point for dozens, even hundreds of actors who have gone on to fame on Broadway, from Tony Randall to Kristin Chenoweth.

But the city has also been home to hundreds, even thousands of talented actors who -- for myriad reasons -- have spent the majority of their performing lives in Tulsa, working with local theater troupes for little or no money.

They do it because the art form they love is something they think important to share with their fellow Tulsans. They do it because they know live theater can entertain, uplift, disturb and challenge in ways that are unique and powerful.

This week, two new productions open in adjacent theaters at the Tulsa PAC. One is by a community theater company whose history goes back two decades. The other is by a professional company affiliated with Actors Equity.

One show has in its cast a veteran of the Tulsa theater scene. The other features a young actor just beginning what he hopes will be a professional career.

Curtain going up ...

Sterling McHan

Theater isn't supposed to be a life-or-death proposition.

But Sterling McHan, who has worked as an actor, director and technician for local theater groups for the past 30 years, has had to be selective about the jobs he's taken in the past decade.

"I have this blood-clotting disorder that is a genetic thing," McHan said. "My problem is that what I have doesn't respond to the usual treatments for such disorders."

It's put McHan in the hospital numerous times and forced him to spend months in a wheelchair, unable to walk because of blood clots in his legs. And because of this condition, McHan has been reluctant to do what he loves most of all -- to act on stage.

"I've done some things in the meantime -- some commercials, small roles in local films, murder mystery shows," McHan said. "Those are jobs that don't take a lot out of you because you work a day or two, do your stuff and you're done.

"But when you do a play, you're making a commitment for five or six weeks of rehearsal, as well as for however long the show itself is to run," McHan said. "So I sort of took myself out of the game because I wasn't sure I could be reliable. And I'm one of those people who's pretty fanatical about being punctual, of being someone the people I work with can count on."

This weekend, however, McHan is once again in the theater game, playing the pivotal character in the ensemble comedy "Seminar," by Theresa Rebeck, being presented by Theatre Pops.

McHan plays Leonard -- a once-critically acclaimed novelist who now offers his talents as a teacher, charging exorbitant sums of money to aspiring writers in exchange for casting his jaundiced eye over their attempts at the Great American Novel.

Leonard is the sort of person who believes his literary taste is so refined that he can suss out a manuscript's strengths -- and, more devastatingly, weaknesses -- from the first page, even the first sentence. But as this particular "Seminar" goes on, the students find ways to turn the tables on their arrogant instructor.

The cast of "Seminar" includes Heather Sams, Chris Williams, Larry Ward and Jennie Lynn.

"Seminar" debuted on Broadway in January 2012, with Alan Rickman as Leonard. Jeff Goldblum took over the role before the show closed in May 2012.

What is a bit unusual about Theatre Pops production is that McHan wasn't supposed to play the role of Leonard.

"Randy (Whalen, Theatre Pops artistic director) met with me to talk about doing the show," McHan said. "He had managed to get the rights to do it right after the Broadway production closed. So it's like doing a brand-new play. I doubt few people in Tulsa have heard of the play, much less seen it, so no one's going to have any preconceived notions about it.

"I told him about not being sure I could commit to doing the show -- in fact, a month before we had this meeting, I was in such a state that I couldn't walk -- but Randy said he was more interested in me directing," McHan said. "And that I didn't mind, because it wouldn't be physically taxing."

Then, about three weeks into the rehearsal process, Whalen began experiencing health problems of his own.

"We had spent the first week doing table readings, working out a lot of the groundwork of the characters and their relationships," McHan said. "But once we put the show on its feet and started blocking out the action, I could tell that Randy was really just dragging.

"He works at a hospital, which means he works some really odd hours, and he kept saying he was just tired, not getting enough sleep," he said. "But I could see that he was beyond 'just tired.' And I told him I was really worried about his health. I knew that, as a director, I was going to have to push him a lot, and the last thing I wanted to do was push him right into an ambulance."

McHan came up with the idea of a switch. He would take over the role of Leonard, and Whalen would finish the job of directing.

"By this time, we had a lot of the real heavy lifting out of the way," he said. "We were at the point where the actors could more or less throw the scripts away and see what comes out of their interactions. And it has changed the dynamics of the show somewhat, because I'm not trying to imitate what Randy had been doing with the character."

McHan got into theater a bit by accident. He happened to see a notice for auditions for a production of the musical "Man of la Mancha" and tried out for the show on a whim. He credits local director Cyndi Vetter with "taking me under her wing and getting me addicted to this theater stuff."

"The great thing about that show was that I was on stage practically the entire time," he said. "I wasn't the lead, I was just part of the ensemble, but I had to play all these different roles."

McHan spent what he characterized as an "ill-fated semester" at the University of Tulsa.

"I decided I would go to Dallas and be a star," he said, laughing. "Dr. (David) Cook, who ran the theater department then, told me I would regret leaving. And he was right. I should have stayed and finished at TU. Oh well."

McHan has lived and worked in other parts of the country but keeps "bouncing back" to Tulsa. For several years, he funded his work in theater by owning a boat shop, which he had to give up because of his blood-clot disorder. He teaches acting at the June Runyon School of Dance.

"Debi Myers, who runs the school, is an old friend, and she's someone who understands that there's more to dance than the movement," he said. "There has to be an emotional component to it, and that has to be communicated, otherwise it's just calisthenics set to music."

As for dreams of fame and fortune, McHan said those are for other people.

"To be honest, I like my anonymity," he said. "I don't want to have to live among the crazies in California or deal with the pace of New York City.

"Besides, acting on stage is a completely selfish act for me," McHan said. "I'm not interested in the applause or what people might say about a show I'm in. If I enjoy what I'm doing, and feel I'm doing it to the best of my ability, that's good enough for me."

Jonathan Walker Gilland

Jonathan Walker Gilland finds himself caught in a "Deathtrap" thanks to an overheard phone call.

"I sing 24/7," Gilland said. "My mother insists that I was born singing. And one day in high school I happened to be singing as I was going by my music teachers' office. They were both University of Tulsa grads and were on the phone with Machele Miller Dill (head of TU's music theater program).

"Apparently, she could hear me singing over the phone, and she started asking who that was," he said.

That chance long-distance encounter led Gilland, a native of Memphis, Tenn., to enroll at TU in as a music theater major.

The move also led to what has become a professional relationship for Gilland with Tulsa Project Theatre, the city's only theater company affiliated with Actors Equity Association.

Tulsa Project Theatre is designated a Tier 1 Small Professional Theatre under Actors Equity, the union that represents professional stage actors and stage managers.

The company in its early years worked in partnership with the TU Department of Theatre, and Gilland appeared in the company's production of "Rent," which also served as his senior year musical.

Since then, Gilland, who graduated from TU in 2011, has appeared in several Tulsa Project Theatre shows, including the musicals "Seussical" and "Hairspray." He has also performed with theater companies in Dallas in such shows as "Spring Awakening" and "Next to Normal," where he earned enough credits to become a member of Actors Equity.

This weekend, he has a role in the company's first nonmusical production -- the Ira Levin comic thriller "Deathtrap." Gilland plays Clifford Anderson, an aspiring playwright who has come up with an apparently sure-fire hit of a play -- the sort of stage thriller so perfectly constructed and polished that "even a gifted director couldn't hurt it."

Clifford has shared the only copy of the manuscript with his mentor, Sidney Bruhl, whose only hit play debuted nearly two decades ago. Being able to put his own name on a play such as Clifford's is something that Sidney might be willing to kill to accomplish.

Besides Gilland, "Deathtrap" stars Liz Masters, Chad Oliverson, Rebekah Peddy and Derick Snow, and it is directed by Jenny Guy.

"Clifford is such an interesting character to play because he's so totally opposite of who I am," Gilland said. "That's a big part of the fun of acting -- taking on these personae for a while, experiencing life through their eyes and their mindsets, and doing things that maybe in your real life you would never dream of doing."

It's difficult to talk more about "Deathtrap" because playwright Levin has some sort of plot twist on every page of the densely worded script. But, although the characters of "Deathtrap" are there in service to a fiendish plot, portraying them is still very much an actor's challenge.

"And that is really true for me because I haven't done many shows that didn't involve singing," Gilland said. "I don't have the luxury of having a song-and-dance number to help express something about my character.

It was the musical "Wicked" that made Gilland realize that he wanted to be an actor, to be able, as he said, "to make people feel the way I did when I first saw (the "Wicked" character) Elphaba fly."

When Gilland made his dreams known to his parents, he recalled a conversation with his father, who told him "I should never live for a 'what if?' " he said. "And that really moved me. Knowing that I had their support for me following my dream made me realize that this was the right thing for me to do."

Just not the easy thing to do, especially in what has become Gilland's second hometown.

"You can't make a living as an actor in Tulsa," he said. "There are a lot of theater companies in town who do excellent work, but there's no way to earn a living at it. Dallas has at least four Equity theater companies, so that it is possible to be able to live there and work as an actor. But even then, it's tough."

Making a living as an actor is tough anywhere. Gilland now makes his home in New York City, where he works jobs that include being a personal assistant to a theatrical producer and a stage designer, and a weekend job at a preschool facility.

"These jobs give me the time and flexibility to go on auditions," he said. "I've done a couple of readings and a lot of auditions. But to be honest, I see this time as really being more about networking than landing that big role. I just want to be able to pay my rent and make the connections within the industry that could help me in the long run.

"Besides, I still want to be able to enjoy life," Gilland said. "I want to have the opportunity to live a little, not spend every waking moment stressing out about my career."

It also allows him to be available for shows with Tulsa Project Theatre.

"When I heard they were going to do this play," Gilland said, "I got in touch with the company and said that I knew they could fill all the roles with people in Tulsa, but that I'd be available if they wanted me.

"But as much as I've enjoyed the shows I've done with Tulsa Project, I really like their mission, which is to bring more people into the arts," he said. "And I love the way Tulsa has changed, even in the short time I've been here. I used to think of Tulsa as a college town, but when I see what's going in places like the Brady District, it's really amazing at how much this city has to offer."


Presented by Theatre Pops

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Oct. 27

Where: Doenges Theatre, Tulsa PAC, 110 E. Second St.

Tickets: $10-$15. 918-596-7111,


Presented by Tulsa Project Theatre

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 30-31, Nov. 1-2, 2 p.m. Oct. 27 and Nov. 3

Where: Norman Theatre, Tulsa PAC

Tickets: $15-$20. 918-596-7111,

James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478


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