On more than a thousand nights and weekend afternoons since 2004, Joseph Demerly has walked out onto the stage of the Kavinoky Theatre to ease audiences into the company’s latest production.
His shtick has changed very little over the years. There is the same warm welcome, the same request to raise your hand if it’s your first time at the theater and to raise your hand if it’s the last time, and the same cheesy joke that somehow never failed to produce a torrent of laughter:
“If you have candies or lozenges with those crinkly wrappers,” Demerly always says with a smirk, “please unwrap them now or eat them with the wrappers on.”
There was that one season in which Demerly replaced the lozenge joke with a quip about a theatergoer who asked him for directions to the “Kevorkian Theatre” – “I told them it’s the Kavinoky. But I’m not saying we don’t put people to sleep” – but otherwise his reassuring routine has been as dependable a fixture at the theater as the intermission bell.
On May 24, during the final performance of “She Loves Me,” Demerly told his creaky but beloved lozenge joke for the last time. Last week, to the great surprise and sadness of the theater community in which he was an indispensable figure, he announced he would step down as managing director of the Kavinoky to take a job heading a theater advocacy group in Charleston, S.C.
With his departure, the Kavinoky will say farewell not only to a smart and committed employee as comfortable directing musicals as he is negotiating union contracts, but to a beloved spokesman and champion for the company and theater community at large.
“He could do everything. He was my key guy,” said Kavinoky founder and artistic director David Lamb. “For 20 years, I was basically bringing him up to take over. And I think with help he could have done that.”
For his part, Demerly said, the only reason he’s leaving the Kavinoky and the Buffalo theater scene he loves is to be closer to his sister and his three nephews. And he’s taking a pay cut to do so.
“I don’t want to watch my nephews grow up on Facebook,” he said. “This isn’t about money; this isn’t about prestige. It’s taking a job that I know I’ll be very good at, in a town where it doesn’t snow, so I can go to baseball games for my nephews.”
Even so, it’s clear that in the days since Demerly announced his departure, he may not have fully understood what his work meant to the theater community here or the deep and broad impact he’s had in his various roles – on stage and off. As soon as he made his announcement on Facebook, comments, emails and letters began pouring in from every precinct of the theater community, from fellow actors and directors to patrons he had never met.
Among Buffalo’s actors, directors and theater administrators, few are more universally respected and admired than Demerly. (Full disclosure: I have known Demerly since before I began covering theater for The News in 2007, though our friendship has been a strictly professional one since then.)
“I’m still shocked at the outpouring of support I got. I’m still shocked. It felt like I was at my own funeral,” he said. “When I got an email from this one specific subscriber, I started crying, and I sent the email to my mother, and she’s like, ‘Joe, people like you.’ And I’m like, well, that’s very nice. It was so unexpected.”
Demerly has been working in some capacity at the theater since 1997, when, as a shy SUNY Buffalo State student, he auditioned for David Lamb for a role in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Soon, he began helping out at the box office, stayed up painting sets until the early hours of the morning, and slowly became a jack of all trades capable of doing everything from stage managing to directing. He became managing director in 2008, replacing the embattled former Kavinoky staffer Steve Cooper, exerting an increasingly evident amount of influence over the theater’s programming and its relationships with playwrights such as A.R. Gurney and Tom Dudzick.
He also worked, tirelessly if often silently, on the boards of the Buffalo Theatre Alliance and the Theatre District Association, helping to organize nearly every Curtain Up! event over the past 18 years.
And all the while, he acted. He has appeared on nearly every local stage, in roles ranging from a campy quasi-zombie in Buffalo United Artists’ 2004 production of “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to Noel Coward’s neurotic playwright Roland Maule in the Kavinoky’s “Present Laughter” in 2010. Among his favorite productions, he said, were Ujima Theatre’s “Marvin’s Room” in 1999, Buffalo United Artists “Beautiful Thing” and “Never the Sinner” in 2000 and New Phoenix Theatre’s “Thrill Me” in 2007.
Asked to reflect on what he’s contributed to the community, Demerly was characteristically modest in his reply. He said he got into theater in the first place because it was an escape, and he has never been in it for the attention or the accolades.
“Everybody who is in this business is in it hopefully because they love the art, they love the craft. It’s nice to get a good review, it’s nice when they applaud or give you a standing ovation. It’s nice to have somebody tap you on the shoulder when you’re at Dairy Queen and say, ‘Were you in that show at the Kavinoky?’ Those are perks, but I don’t think you receive those perks if you’re not really passionate about what you do,” he said. “And I always have been, and I always will be, passionate about what I do.”
For the past 18 years, Buffalo has been the beneficiary of that passion. We’ll miss those speeches, cheesy jokes and all. And his tenure here deserves an extended standing ovation, a four-star review, a bevy of Artie Awards and all the good wishes we can possibly muster.
I hope Charleston’s theater community realizes how lucky it is to gain Demerly as its champion.