During his 26 years with PassinArt: A Theatre Company, Kenneth Dembo has worn pretty much all the hats: actor, director, board member, stage manager, production manager. He’s bringing these last two talents to PassinArt’s current production of Seven Guitars by August Wilson.
“I love watching people excel at what they do best,” he says of his work offstage. “I get so inspired. People are so committed. You can see they love it.”
Dembo’s first acting job with PassinArt was playing Sol Gilchrist in Sunbeam by John Henry Redwood. Since then, Dembo’s played parts in PassinArt productions including Deceptive Love, Gospel of Lovingkindness, Black Nativity, and August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, for which PassinArt received a 2018 Drammy for Best Ensemble.
He remembers when Artistic Director Jerry Foster asked him to direct Lullaby back in the day at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.
“I didn’t want to do it!”
Dembo brings a range of interpretive skills to his more than 30-year career in theatre. From Molière to Steinbeck, from George F Kaufman to Athol Fugard, Dembo has delivered lines written by playwrights on different continents in different centuries. The most challenging? William Shakespeare.
It was extremely difficult learning his lines for Othello, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and Measure for Measure, Dembo says. “You can’t ad lib. You have to learn it.”
That means every day, every day, every day, “You’re memorizing up to opening night.” What’s uncomfortable and must be faced is the possibility that you’ve memorized the unfamiliar language incorrectly and then must unlearn and relearn it.
“You have to realize you’re not speaking your language,” Dembo says. “You’re speaking another language. It’s someone else’s.”
Still, “I love Shakespeare,” he adds. “I love the music of Shakespeare. It’s a rhythm.”
Dembo’s most recent foray out of his comfort zone was directing his first film, Two White Stripes by Kwik Jones.
“I’m used to a stage,” Dembo says. “Film is much more introverted, much more subtle” compared to the louder voices and bigger projections required of stage actors. Working with close-ups and framed shots, “taught me a lot.”
“The other scary part,” he adds, “it was live. There was no going back to re-do. It was all one straight take.”
As production manager, Dembo describes his work as a path finder. He likes to get his cast, designers, and crew together for sessions of creative give-and-take. “I’m a navigator of all these wonderful people,” he says. “I’m navigating their skills. Getting everyone what they want. Or, finding the alternatives.”
As stage manager it’s more “managing work ethics,” he explains. “Making sure everybody is where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be.” And then, once the lights go up on opening night, and the director’s and designers’ work is done, “It’s the stage manager’s show,” he says. “It’s my job to ensure that the integrity of the show stays intact and true to what the designers and director have created.”
Stage managing for a production like Seven Guitars makes for long days, he points out. “I’m the first to arrive and the last to leave.”