Inside The Long Island Actor's Study
An interview with...
John Blenn
STARTING OUT

How did you get started in theater?
I made an 8mm horror film when I was 8, so that
was the first script and acting I ever did.  After
15 years as an entertainment journalist, my wife
started urging me to write a play and stage it. I
formed Middle Class American Productions,
(MCAP) with my wife Joni, in 1995 with an eye
toward filling a huge void in original works on L. I.

What hooked you? Was it your first school play/
movie-first time seeing a Broadway Show? 
What inspired you to be where you are today?
Having been a journalist since college, the time comes
when you get tired of covering the stories and a desire to "be the story" starts to set in. I found making me people laugh was the greatest buzz I've ever experienced and that's why I'm still at it 11 1/2 years and 47 productions later.

What was the first play you ever saw?  Ever performed in?
First play I ever saw was Damn Yankees at the Jones Beach Theatre. Joe Namath, the Jets' Super Bowl quarterback, was in it and I guess my Dad figured it was good for me because I loved sports and my Mom wanted me to have a little more culture.

Did you study acting?  If not, how did you get into it?
It wasn't my major area of study in college, but I was always being pursued by classmates at both Nassau Community College and Hofstra, to act in their productions. I had made some raw indie movies as a teenager before the WHOLE UNIVERSE had home cams, but I was initially interested in being a radio DJ.


GETTING IN

What was your first audition?
A regular soap opera that aired on campus at Hofstra University. I got the part of an unfaithful surgeon.

How do you choose what play you will audition for?  The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.
These days, the process starts with something I'm usually writing, I'll wind up taking a little cameo nine times out of ten, so I do most of my work on stage to fill a need for the production rather than a role I had an eye on. I'll usually start out with several regulars in the core of a piece, but 47 productions later, we ALWAYS have a few new people debuting every play we do.

Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
Sometimes I think it's essential, if you have a limited time to put together a show, you have to know you have bankable entities. You have to deliver a work, hell or high-water.  I certainly understand an actor being upset if they walk in thinking they have a shot a dream part and find out it wasn't open at all. I think the problem is too may companies not being up front about EXACTLY what they're casting for. MCAP does all original works, so people audition for us without any particular plans on what part they want, so we're a little different.

What types of parts do you normally play?  Do you feel typecast?
I'm more of a character actor type. I've been a lead once in all the plays we've done, and it was a character actor with an ex-wife, three kids, who was dying from a brain tumor. He was quick-witted and charming, but moody and anything but sexy, That I can do. I'm a big lad, so I always get offered the John Goodman/John Candy comedy relief or loud raucous guys, so I guess I do get typecast in other's eyes. I have no problem with becoming the next Brian Dennehy or John Candy if someone on Broadway has some money to spend.

Looking back on the roles you've been cast in, do you think there's a certain kind of role you get cast in repeatedly?  When directors look at a certain role, what do you think they see as a "John Blenn type?
I've tried to do as many things possible in the plays we've done. I've done a mentally- challenged hospital patient, a fully-bearded totally unconvincing drag queen, an overgrown child of a 40-something slacker homeowner on Long Island and even a slightly off the wall playwright. When I can make a stretch like the latter (wink), I feel I'm dodging the stereotypes as much as I can. Our following lets me know when they think anyone isn't convincing in a part.


CHARACTERIZATION

What is your approach to developing your character?
Everything I write basically comes out of taking real life personalities and putting them into manufactured situations. I have a voice in my head and a means of approach as I'm writing it. If I'm auditioning, I'll ask a director point blank what they seem in that character and what their expectations are, and then I'll go about trying to craft what they want.

Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
I played a character named Virgil Carp in a piece called Another Baffling Chess Accident. John Leone played my brother and Joan St. Onge, who directed, played my sister. We were three slackers in line for the family fortune and our sister sets us up to get the boys cut out of the will. Most fun I ever had doing a part in my life. We had to replace an actor two days before opening, but it just fell into place.

What do you think were your best roles?  your worst?
Probably Virgil, my mentally-challenged character Marvin in the St. Francis Show and the fatally-ill actor in Say Something Important. I don't think I've had any worst roles, rather a decent number of those nights where I didn't execute well or my timing was off or I hitched on a line. You always wish you had those performances back. I just want to thank the other actors for not hitting me with a folding chair on those evenings.

What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why?  How well do you think you met the challenge?
Playing Marvin was tricky because one never wants to do a cartoonish version of someone who is challenged. I didn't want him to be pathetic or laughable, just someone whose innocence created the laughs. I didn't get any hate mail so I either came close to what I hoped for or no one noticed I was in the play. All roles are also fairly challenging depending on how smoothly directing the piece is going.

What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
The very first play, X's & O's, that I had staged in 1995, had an attorney I played. I was subbing for one actor for just one performance, but as ready as I was, I blanked on a couple of lines and tripped over my tongue once or twice. But I'm redoing the play this year and this time, I'll cut the boo-boos in half.

What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future?
High-paying roles.


MOTIVATION

How do you feel when you perform?
The sound of laughter is the sweetest noise I've ever heard.

What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
The ability to make people laugh. The chance to connect with other's hearts and the knowledge that people politely applaud, but they don't politely laugh. When they laugh, you took them away from whatever was bothering them for a few moments.

During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?"  Why do you do it?
To get out of mowing the lawn or washing the dishes.


SHARING

What is your favorite theater story?
The second play I ever had staged was called Trailer Park Etiquette and it was at The Stage in Merrick. Two scenes into the second act on opening night, there was a power outage and Merrick went dark, The only things on in the room were two emergency lights. We offered refunds or tickets to one of the other performances. The crowd started chanting "finish it," so we did, with two emergency lights and a couple of flashlights.

Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack up on stage?
Cracked up on stage a few times, you bet. We call them "Tim Conway/Harvey Korman" moments. Fortunately it was in comedies, We have had people laugh in the middle of a serious scene where somebody dies, I think they got nervous because it was out of character for us. Better them than one of us.
        
What was your worst theater experience?
Working with arrogant actors that buck direction. We had a few people suddenly change their delivery and approach when they knew it was too late to replace them. You bite the bullet, get out of the show and make a note to stear clear of working with them again.

What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
A late actor, who I'll leave nameless in respect, sat down in one scene and said, clear as day, "Give me a line." The entire scene turned into a free-for-all with actors panicking and throwing out other people's lines. I was as guilty as the rest of them on losing my focus.


OTHERS

Why do you perform at the theaters you do?
As a "road team," we've had some theatres out here treat us like second class citizens. They LOVED the money but they weren't helpful in any way, shape or form. We work where the respect is a two-way street.

Do you think regional theater will continue to grow on L.I.?
Unfortunately, no. The younger audiences are not interested in live theatre or live music...give them computers or ipods. Unless their friends are in a play, they're almost impossible to get through the doors. Our audiences are predominantly mid 20's on up.

Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with?
There are people you work with because you admire their skills, there are people you work with because their excitement of fulfilling their dream to act is uplifting and there are people you work with because you just love sharing the experience of going to battle with them. In my case, all those lists are too numerous to mention.

Who's the best (in your opinion) that you've done a show with?
There's a few that really blew me away, like Joan St. Onge, Ted Plezia and Debbie Cascio, who have loads of experience and guys I grew up with, like Mark D'Agostino, Scott Interrante, John Leone and Trish Lawson, that are amazing to write for/work with.

Who is your favorite performer? favorite L.I. performer?
There's a few guys, Gary Oldman and Kevin Spacey, to name a couple, that I would pay to watch read a phone book. I love character actors. As for Long Island, I've worked with 200+ actors and enjoyed almost every one of them, most for different reasons.


LIFE ISSUES

How do you maintain your career and do theater?
I've been in the arts my whole life. My "day jobs" are what most people would love to do. I'd love to get paid just to be creative all the time, but, hey, who wouldn't?

Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. Theater?
Because I'm still looking for an honest agent to rescue me.

Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
My wife Joni is the reason I do this and my rock. My Dad taught me my relentless work ethic. They're supportive with a capital S.

How has performing enriched your life?
It's allowed me to meet a lot of inspirational people, both celebrities and the unrewarded heroes that keep the world turning.


FUN

What brings you the greatest joy?
My wife Joni, my Dad who's still in great shape at 88 and hearing people laugh every time we do a play. To still have them laughing a decade later is both a blessing and a mystery. Thank you all.

What really irks you?
The self-absorption and selfishness of way too much of the planet.

If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would.
Bank it all, laugh as much as possible and spend my days searching for great stories to be told and unusual characters to investigate,

Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
I'll take either, it'd be a nice change. Does anyone need my mailing address?

What's your favorite word?
Passion.

Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there?
We know your heart was true even if your execution left something to be desired...come on in.


FUTURE PLANS

Do you have any projects on the horizon that you want the readers to be aware of?
I'll be doing a world premiere at Governor's in April called Award Show, which is a goof on the Academy Awards that celebrates 12 years of MCAP moments with clips of older shows substituting for nominated films and actors. We're also doing a fifth new writers series of American Dating Catastrophes, this time at the Dix Hills Performing Arts Center, July 26-28, and I have a film in development with Sunset Films.

Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire?
I'm still on the road to writing that role that makes me say, "that's EVERYTHING I wanted to say, good night and God bless."