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RICHARD WESP: AN ACTOR AT THE TOP OF HIS CRAFT

Richard Wesp was talking about what it's like to be an actor.
"If you want an object lesson, I can show you my car," he said.
Your car?

"It's a 1984. It has this wavy, wrinkled, strange-looking hood. It flew up in my face last year driving on the expressway. I haven't been able to get it fixed. Very sad-looking vehicle. But what it means is, if you are an actor you can't afford car repairs, so don't break your car."

Sitting in a small Allen Street restaurant not far from his apartment, Wesp smiled his crooked smile. He is tall and slender and balding. He is 41 and has been acting for 20 years.

Right now he is arguably the actor on every Buffalo theater-goer's list.

For most of those 20 years, Wesp spent more time out of Buffalo than in it. Now he's spending more time here than anywhere else and supporting himself by acting, even if it's a marginal living.

Something has happened in Buffalo theater. He's one of a small band of actors -- no more than 20 -- who can do this.

And of this new group, beneficiaries of change in Buffalo theater, he is its first star. He is the only actor with wide name recognition who doesn't have his own theater as do David Lamb, Vincent O'Neill and Saul Elkin, to name three leading actor-directors.

He doesn't run a theater ("How do they do it?"); he doesn't direct.

He acts, only that; and he is in his prime.

Actors, like athletes, train long and hard. Some reach their prime sooner than later; some never reach it; some are relegated to the equivalent of pinch-hitting; some remain backups; some step forward when the pressure is on; some manage their finite careers better than others.

Since his return to the city theaters in 1991, Wesp has strung together exceptional performances, notably at the Kavinoky Theatre, Shakespeare in the Park and the Irish Classical Theatre, culminating in the eyes of many who have followed his career in a stunning performance last spring at the Irish theater in Thomas Murphy's "The Gigli Concert."

More than a few theater-goers lucky enough to have been there said they couldn't remember anything better. And this was the same show in which Vincent O'Neill gave a tightly crafted performance opposite Wesp and the same season that David Lamb gave one of his best performances ever, superb work in "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell" at the Kavinoky Theatre.

Clearly, Wesp is an actor to follow. It has taken him two decades of false starts, of luck, of coming and going, of hard work, of learning the ropes, of talking himself out of not being "scared as hell" to follow an acting career to get where he is today.

Where he is is at the top of his art, or as he prefers, craft.

"Nobody's getting rich or famous in Buffalo," he said. "I can't tell you what it's like to be a big star. I don't even know anybody that can tell you."

Acting can be physically trying, so Wesp works out at a downtown health club. But he also smokes.

He absent-mindedly chose a restaurant that prohibits smoking. Partway through lunch, his cold gazpacho soup grown warm from neglect in his passion and enthusiasm for talking about acting, he rolled a cigarette and fondled it until he could step out to the sidewalk and light up.

"I don't know any actors making much more than $20,000 a year," he said. "My best year was $22,000."

Money worries Wesp, but money is a means.

"Making a living as an actor in Buffalo simply means I pay the bills. Sometimes I pay them late, I roll my pennies, but I pay them. That's the goal of all actors: Can you support yourselves through your craft?"

Wesp grew up here, went to school here, went off to several colleges, but his direction from his mid-teens on was acting. About 10 years ago he went to Atlanta.

"It was a kind of base for a while. I was working in the Academy, a visionary theater that has since failed. I worked at the Burlington, Vt., Champlain Festival, and that folded, too. A lot of theaters fold after I join them."

This is not intended seriously. Much of what Wesp says and how he says it -- his car, working out and smoking, other of life's perplexities and contradictions -- is amused and self-depreciatory.

About his career he will say, "I am big on serendipity" to explain the sometimes confusing pattern of an actor's employment. He has had to move around for acting jobs to Atlanta, to New York (any self-respecting actor has to try New York), to Vermont, to Green Spring, Wis., and so on, but aside from the need for employment, not much rhyme or reason emerges. It does look like a reliance on chance and accident, except for one thing.

That one thing is Wesp's guiding pursuit of whatever will improve his craft, his abilities as an actor.

Getting on an exercise bike and then jumping off for a drag on a cigarette is his kind of joke, but finding the right people and the right places to work to refine and improve his acting is no joke. About that he is very serious.

"I've been lucky. Just about every time I needed a kick in the a-- I've gotten one. If left to my own devices I might just drift. It's only by getting booted out of Buffalo, so to speak, that I learned how other people work and do things. If you stay going in one direction, if you surrender to inertia, you'll just go in that direction. So as much as I dislike leaving Buffalo, there's growth in doing that.

"Over the years I had to come to grasp what I wanted to do with my work and how to make a living at it. I'd come and gone from the city, of course -- this is where my family and friends are -- but it wasn't until 1991 there was work of sufficient attraction to make me want to stay here. For the last 18 months the Irish Classical Theatre Company has been home. Before that I could not make a living at it, so down the years I worked as a clerk at the Buffalo News, a hopper for the old Courier-Express, in a warehouse, as a teacher."

Local differences in the theater scene reflect deep trends across the country. Theater capitals like New York, while important, are less important than they once were. To a significant extent New York theater, for instance, mirrors creative energies in other parts of the country. It isn't the originator it used to be. Regional theaters wield creative power.

"It is now possible to be a regional actor in the U.S. as it was not possible when I started," said Wesp. "There is a way, but it is a convoluted way. For example, if I had children to support -- I am not married -- I could not do it. There are trade-offs in life to do your work, if it's worth it to you."

The Studio Arena Theatre used to be the all but exclusive preserve of New York actors imported for one show at a time. Under Gavin Cameron-Webb this is no longer true. Actors living here are getting on stage in important roles. It is only a matter of time before Wesp appears there in a major role.

"Being at the mercy of theaters used to scare me," Wesp said. "But I know someday I could go back to clerking, to the warehouse or teaching -- I hope it's teaching, that warehouse work is physically tough. There's always the possibility of economic reversal hanging over your head: It's not like working in the same job 20 or 30 years and retiring safely."

Acting means applying for and gaining or losing a new job six or eight times every year. Mental wear and tear from living job to job is draining.

"The only way to do it is plan ahead," said Wesp. "I already know what I'm doing through, oh, September '95. With a big fat hole in February, which means I focus on that big fat hole and how to fill it. If you get to the place to see a year or 18 months ahead, that gives you room to breathe and enjoy the work you are doing.

"It has become possible to do that in Buffalo. You have people like David Lamb at the Kavinoky, Vincent O'Neill at the Irish Classical, Gavin Cameron-Webb at the Studio Arena, Saul Elkin at Shakespeare in Delaware Park who also have to plan well ahead for their theaters. In a town like this you work with people who are working in the same conditions, and it takes some of the terror factor out of it. At the same time I can't understand why anyone would want to run a theater, but I'm grateful to those who do."

Wesp's calendar goes like this:

In September and October he will play Robinson Crusoe in a new adaptation of the Daniel Defoe book by Jamie Moses, called "Crusoe's Island."

In November and December he plays the English hostage in Irish writer Frank McGuinness' "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me."

In December and January he plays King Henry II in James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter."

Then comes February, the "fat hole. I've not yet developed an ulcer over it." In April and May he has a leading part in a new comedy by Irish writer Geraldine Aron, "Same Old Moon." All but "Crusoe's Island," which is in the Franklin Street Theatre, are in the Irish Classical Theatre.

What then?

"Then it's summertime. I love summers. Everybody works. I might possibly get something in Shakespeare in the Park here, or go to the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., where I worked last summer. Or there are plenty of other summer festivals around. Then it's fall again. I'll worry about that after Christmas."

Financial security is a chimera in theater. Choices are very difficult.

"I really consider myself a journeyman with a big old chest of tools," Wesp says. "So if the hammer doesn't work, throw it out and try another tool."

This workmanlike approach belies Wesp's intense search for what is artistically worthwhile. He has a story about a college friend who went straight into a network television sitcom. He made all the money he wanted but creatively came to a dead stop years ago. Wesp grants the choice. What he says is that he accepts his own alarming financial insecurity for a deepening of his craft and artistic adventuring. It's another trade-off in a profession defined by trade-offs.

"There are very small perks to what I do," he said. "For instance, I still have the khaki trousers they let me buy after the Kavinoky's production of 'Night and Day' years ago. I once went to lunch with a date and the restaurant owner had seen me act in something and he sent over champagne, and that's an advantage on a first date, you know. And if I get stuck downtown, I can always crash on the Equity 'couch.' Theaters are obliged to have a place for actors to rest, often very ratty, but . . . " Wesp was in his self-deprecating, ironic mode.

"And sometimes you work with guys who are auto mechanics. I have, you know, a symbiotic relationship with my car . . . "

By then Wesp was out on the sidewalk lighting up. Something about that and about his ordinary appearance joined him to the life of the busy street, made him look like everyone else. Nothing special set him apart. He soaked up his surroundings.

You could see how Shakespeare's Macbeth, or Goldman's king, or Murphy's manic con-man Englishman, or melodrama's arch-villain would find the ordinary clay of Wesp's personality and appearance hospitable. He didn't look like any of them, so he could resemble any of them once he had gone to work with his "big old box of tools."

"When I was 20," he said, "I was very arrogant. I wanted to be Humphrey Bogart or Steve McQueen, or both. Before I could become a good actor I had to lose that arrogance and the pride in self. I had to become aware of the world and others in it. I had to learn not to imitate but to learn from. Getting arrogance kicked out of you is a great boon to craft."

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