What’s worse than being a stand-up comic who no one has heard of? Being the guy who opens for the comic no one has heard of. Hey-o!
Actor/playwright Thomas Ward was that guy — the opening act — a lot during a two-year career detour into the funnyman business. But there were two nights when he himself was the headliner — at the Holiday Inn in International Falls, Minn.
Seriously, folks. A few years ago, Ward was working a long string of gigs that took him from his Georgia home all the way to the Canadian border. The trip got him to thinking whether this flirtation with stand-up was the right thing for him, and when he returned to Dixieland, he wrote a small play named “International Falls.”
Ward and his wife, Sherry, will open a short run of the work Friday at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Thomas plays a performer who has hit a dead end, tired of the road and endless nights of getting drunk alone in a hotel room. Sherry Ward plays the hotel desk clerk, similarly exhausted by life and wondering if perhaps she should give the comic life a try. They are both in unhappy marriages and more than a little depressed. I know, funny stuff — funny, funny stuff.
“I’ve been amazed at how many comics come from sadness in their background,” Thomas said during an interview at a coffee shop near his south Minneapolis home. “I wanted to test that cliché about comedy coming from pain.”
The Wards and their two sons moved to the Twin Cities from Waco, Texas, last summer when Sherry became public-relations director at Children’s Theatre Company. Thomas had been teaching in the theater department at Baylor University. Originally from Nashville, he got his undergraduate degree in Texas and then an MFA in acting at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival/University of Alabama. The couple lived in Atlanta before moving to Waco.
Ward had written “International Falls” about two years ago after the name and feel of the place charmed him. The play has little to do with the town, but Ward felt his experience there provided a good snapshot for the stand-up life.
“There’s something admirable, amazing and terrifying about it,” he said. “I had gotten to the point where I asked, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ ”
The two characters in the play share the common ground of dissatisfaction. He finds himself questioning every choice he’s made in life and she is kind enough to offer him affirmation, of the brutally honest variety, telling him “You’re not that funny.”
Bain Boehlke enters
The Wards performed the play at the Dallas Fringe Festival last year, and it also was produced in Portland, Ore. As he introduced himself around the Twin Cities, asking about auditions and theater opportunities, Ward took a lunch with Bain Boehlke at the Jungle Theater. Boehlke was raised in Warroad, one of the few towns in Minnesota that is north of International Falls.
“It’s just a hop, skip and a jump,” Boehlke said.
The Wards read the play for Boehlke, and he said he’d be happy to direct them.
“I thought it was so honest in its realism and such a cool play,” Boehlke said. “They’re excellent actors and I know it’s hard to get connected here, so I thought it would be a nice thing to do for them.”
Boehlke actually had a slot of several days reserved at the Bryant Lake Bowl for a different production that didn’t come to fruition. So, the threesome trundled down the street from the Jungle and had a look at the 90-seat theater.
“It’s perfect because it has the same feel as a stand-up club, with food and drinks and waitresses walking around,” Thomas Ward said.
Because they have performed the play, the Wards haven’t had to do put in a lot of rehearsals. Boehlke has provided an outside eye as the two actors refreshed their familiarity.
“He’s really challenging us,” Thomas said. “He caught me on auto-pilot.”
Ward hopes the play opens doors in the Twin Cities. He’s working on another script that takes on the serious topic of Columbine, seen through the eyes of a teacher, and he is hoping to make the auditions for the new theater seasons. After a life in the South, he’s now committed to Minnesota.
“The snow was wonderful; we took the kids sledding all the time,” he said, referring to his first Minnesota winter. “The snow is such a novelty.”