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On surviving a pandemic

Galloway Stevens plays Billy Flynn in an Oregon Cabaret Theatre production of "Chicago," with Deanna Ott as Roxie Hart. Photo courtesy OCT
Actors wake up, grab a coffee, put on their britches and face the real world like everyone else

Anxiety, doubt and pessimism often work their way into people’s lives during hard times, times like the pandemic the world has experienced for more than a year.

While Ashland actor Galloway Stevens sees them as valid feelings to be recognized and addressed, he feels they can stand in the way of creativity.

“If we don’t like the world around us, we should write, talk, sing and dance about it,” he said. “I encourage myself and other artists to use our talents to constructively work through frustrations — and then power on.”

It was Oregon Cabaret Theatre that brought Stevens to the Rogue Valley. His first show was “Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret” in the summer of 2015.

The creative team brought him back in 2016 for a few more shows, and by 2017 he was working full-time for OCT as performer, director and associate artistic director.

He’s playing the role of Norbert Garstecki in the Cabaret’s production of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” with sold-out performances scheduled through June 20.

Stevens’ character is a middle-aged backwoods Florida toll collector who is trapped in a rut because he’s married to an agoraphobic wife who hasn’t left the trailer in 20 years, since their child was kidnapped.

When a professional stripper moves into the park and takes a shine to Norbert, trouble — and the comedy — follow.

“I’m having a blast with this show,” the 25-year theater veteran said. “It’s an over-exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek farce about the stereotypes of ‘trailer park trash.’”

As a Southerner who grew up in and around trailer parks, he was nervous at first to poke fun at the community.

“But like our director, Michael Jenkinson, pointed out, it’s like British comedy. Nobody makes fun of the Brits like the Brits.

“He’s right. Now, I’m living in it and allowing my Southern flag to fly. No, not that flag! The fried chicken, cornbread, green-bean casserole one,” he said, laughing.

He grew up in Etowah, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

“Most would categorize my family as blue collar,” he said, “salt-of-the-earth folk. My family enjoys teasing that I’m the black sheep.”

Music was a big part of family life.

“My father tinkered on the guitar with his favorite country, bluegrass and gospel tunes. My mother was a singer around the house and passed on to me her love for golden age musicals,” Stevens said.

He remembers the first public performance that made a big impression on him.

“My aunt Madrie was a fan of live theater and was the first to introduce me to a stage musical,” he said. “She took me to Charlotte to see a touring company do ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ It was magical, and I was hooked.”

He was exposed to more of the performing arts in high school, which had both a theater and dance program.

He studied theater arts at Lees-McRae College, a small Presbyterian liberal arts school in the high country of North Carolina. He took a break two years in and jumped into the professional theater circuit to see if he had the chops to make it.

“My father was urging me to get a theater education degree because he didn’t understand how anyone from the hills of North Carolina could make a living as an actor,” Stevens said.

Five years later, after doing a lot of work in children’s theater, amusement parks and summer stock, he returned to college to finish his training.

“It was during that adventure between college 1.0 and 2.0 that I knew I was meant to be a professional performer.”

Besides his work with OCT, Stevens has performed for Pacific Conservatory Theatre (California), Prather Entertainment Group of Theaters (Pennsylvania, Florida), Temple Theatre Company (North Carolina), Little Theatre on the Square (Illinois), and many other regional companies. He also performed in a national and international tour of “The Addams Family Musical” and enjoyed a long stint in Osaka, Japan, singing for Universal Studios.

His side hustle during the pandemic was unemployment benefits.

“My husband calls it ‘funemployment.’ Our country’s leaders at the time did such a poor job of handling the pandemic that I felt zero guilt picking up the phone and asking for government assistance,” he said.

“I was also one of the lucky who worked for a great company like Oregon Cabaret Theatre. When they could, they made sure I had a secure salary.”

It’s one thing to be a George Clooney or a Tom Hanks out of work during a pandemic. It’s a different story for the majority of actors.

“There are so many theater artists who wake up on the daily, drink their coffee, put on their britches and face the real world like everyone else,” Stevens said. “We’re not huddled in dark corners of despair.”

He says the theater community is made up of people who are trained to make it work.

“Trust me, if there is any breed of peoples meant to survive a catastrophe, it’s theater peeps. We’re like cockroaches, but prettier.”

Two roles are among his favorites, both performed in 2019: Cervantes/Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha” for Harlequin Productions of Olympia, Washington, and the titular role in OCT’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”

“Don Quixote is one of those characters I’ve been watching since my teens and thinking, I can’t wait. ’Man of La Mancha’ is special because the text is a beautiful mix of romantic and political poetry,” Stevens said.

On the other hand, Sweeney Todd is a hauntingly damaged man, “weaving his way through a twisted penny dreadful comedy,” he said. “There are so many ways to approach the character, and I hope to portray him again one day so I can learn more about him.”

Music has been a major part of his life and dominates his resume of performance credits.

“It was the joy of singing that gave me the courage to speak,” he said. “My parents recognized my ear for music at an early age. So, when the school system decided to offer violin lessons, my parents put one in my hands.”

He played the instrument throughout high school, but left it behind when he went to college.

“Picking up the violin after so many years is not like riding a bike,” he said. “I now have a guitar and plan to pick at it a bit.”

His father would be honored.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.