If there’s a foam pad hidden anywhere at Children’s Theatre Company, Reed Sigmund is likely to throw himself on it.
A master of physical comedy, the gung-ho actor has leaped, lunged and pratfalled his way into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Minnesota children in his 17 years as a company member. He’s taken a stage dive as the piggish stepsister Dorcas in “Cinderella” and jumped out a cave as the priggish Grinch.
At the same time, he has found the sensitive heart of characters, from the Boy in “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” to the empathetic woodcarver Gepetto in “Pinocchio.”
Now Sigmund is one of the stars of “Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches,” adapted from the Seuss book about creatures with stars on their bellies and those without.
In rehearsals, Sigmund is willing to try anything. “Reed is a hugely thoughtful actor who brings flexibility, an adventurous spirit and a huge heart to the rehearsal room,” said CTC artistic director Peter Brosius, whose production opens Friday. “He is totally unfettered in his ability to explore and take risks.”
That fearlessness comes at a personal cost. Sigmund broke his foot during a curtain call for “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” He cracked his tailbone during the run of “The Monkey King,” in which he played a half-pig, half-human groom. And during the 2014 production of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — a title role he will reprise next holiday season — an artery collapse in his right forearm led to a blood clot.
“That wasn’t because of the show but because of wear and tear over the years,” he said. “They took 13 inches of veins from another part of my body to fix it. I missed 30 performances out of 86 but I learned to throw a pie over half the audience with my left arm.”
All of those injuries, and any more that might come, are worth the thrill of performing for the most honest audience an actor can face.
“When you do comedic work for young audiences, they make a lot of different sounds,” he said. “But nothing is as exhilarating as 740 schoolkids laughing.”
An unlikely actor
That Sigmund, 38, is an actor at all is something of a surprise. The second of four children born in Fargo to a mother who operated an in-home day care and a father whose many occupations included driving a Greyhound bus and running a video store, Sigmund thought his future would involve children — but as a child psychologist.
His experience in elementary and middle school certainly gave him enough empathy for the job. “I was typically the shortest male in our grade and one of the heaviest, which doesn’t make for the most popular body type or body image,” he said. “I certainly had low self-esteem and lacked self-confidence, but once I was onstage as someone else, it all lifted.”
His first role came in fourth grade, when the school’s music teacher was casting for a production of “Johnny Appleseed” in a carpeted gymnasium. Since sound did not travel well, they needed someone with a big mouth.
“I was the loudest student,” he laughed.
In sixth grade, he sang at New York’s Carnegie Hall with the Red River Boys Choir (“I had no idea what that meant”). In eighth grade he played Captain Smee in an anti-drug adaptation of “Peter Pan” (Captain Hook was a drug dealer). And he found a summer home at the Trollwood Performing Arts School in Moorhead, Minn.
“It was a place where being unusual was normal,” he said. “It was full of outcasts and we rallied around each other, we celebrated each other’s unique gifts without ridicule. To be clear, I wasn’t bullied for any stretch in regular school. I just felt like I didn’t belong.”
But by his own admission, Sigmund was less talented than many of his friends. So, when he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, it was to become a child psychologist. One day he saw an audition notice for a school production of the Greek tragedy “The Bacchae.” Sigmund mused about it, and decided to give it a try.
He got a small part with big implications. It brought back all the joy and camaraderie of the stage. He also met his future wife, Autumn Ness, now also a CTC company member. The show led to parts under directors such as Lou Bellamy and Kent Stephens, who suggested that he try out for an apprenticeship at the Children’s Theatre.
The yearlong apprenticeship didn’t pay enough to cover his rent and car payments, though. Halfway through it, he was ready to drop out. Then a friend told him about a game show being shot at the Mall of America. He went, got on, and faced questions about — no kidding — Shakespeare. He won $5,000, enough to help him finish his internship.
“The universe was looking out for me,” he said.
Growing in craft
He’s performed for families, especially children, for his whole career. “The biggest thing is the responsibility and weight on your shoulders,” he said. “A lot of the kids are seeing the show for the first time. You want to be vibrant and exciting,” and hook them on theater.
Sigmund had zero training in physical comedy before coming to CTC, but he had taken tae kwon do as a child, advancing to become a black belt, which proved helpful.
“If you jump in the air and fight gravity, something is gonna break when you land,” he said. “But if you relax and work with gravity, you avoid injury.”
Though he may seem invincible, Sigmund does have concerns. “I’m a big guy, so I have to protect my knees,” he said. “But I love my crash pads — love jumping from high things and falling forward.”
In June, he and Ness will celebrate their 13th year of marriage. They have two boys, Sawyer, 7, and Sullivan Twain, 3 (Sigmund and his wife are big Mark Twain fans).
Sigmund says he sees himself in the rambunctious energy of his children. As a child, he was often getting into scrapes and accidents.
“Oh, man, I was in the hospital so much, with a concussion at 4. One time I dropped a bowling ball on my hand that shattered a finger,” he said. “To this day, my middle finger on my left hand looks weird. But those things have never stopped me from just wanting to go.”
He’s still gung-ho, even as he is wiser. He’s been watching his weight to make sure he’s in tip-top shape. His elder son had open heart surgery a few years ago. His mother, who survived a massive stroke, also has been dealing with health challenges.
“I want to be around,” Sigmund said, “so that I can play and belly-flop and have 740 kids laughing.”