If you’re hoping to read about things Dean Holt does badly, this is not the story for you.
Praise for the actor, who’s marking his 25th-anniversary season with Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, is so unrelenting that attempts to avoid depicting him as a saint lead to this question: “OK, but what does Dean Holt suck at?”
“I’m going to say resisting temptation to play,” gamely answered Autumn Ness, who has acted with Holt for 20 years, although both are now furloughed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Let’s say I screw up a line or I start us off in Act Two when we’re in Act One. I automatically know when I’ve done this and [when] Dean is in the play, too, he will hear it like a dog hearing a dog whistle,” said Ness. “He’ll turn to me with a great big smile and go, ‘Let’s go with this. Let’s play with this.’ And I’ll look at him like, ‘No! Please, let’s just do the play the way we rehearsed it. No!’ Which he will ignore.”
But Ness immediately follows that supposedly sucky story with, “He’s the best person in the world. He built our fence. He got our bed up the stairs when we moved. He’s a good cook. He’s a good dad. He’s a good organizer.”
Ness’ husband is no help, either.
Reed Sigmund, a third member of the CTC acting company, jokes that his and Ness’ sons and dog prefer Holt to him. Sigmund laments that theater folks only get to know Holt if they work at CTC, since it’s the lone stage on which he appears.
“It can sound like I’m fitting him for his halo but he really is the kindest person,” Sigmund continued. “My son has had heart problems and my mom has had health issues and he is the first one to call to check up on you, to offer his hand and say, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ ”
Holt’s wife, stage manager Stacy McIntosh, who met him on her first day at CTC and began dating him soon afterward, said, “He’s crazy handy. He’s a great family person. He remembers everybody’s birthday. He is the wonderful person he seems to be on stage.”
Holt, who won Ivey Awards for “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” and “Reeling,” is as surprised as anybody to find himself marking 25 years. Although he enjoyed ventriloquism and “The Carol Burnett Show”-inspired impressions as a kid, the Cannon Falls, Minn., native barely saw any theater until, while studying to be a pilot at St. Cloud State University, he took a theater class. Realizing that aviation wasn’t for him, he followed a friend to nearby St. John’s University in Collegeville. Required to declare a major, Holt wrote “theater,” assured that it would be easy to change.
It never did change, although he didn’t plan to stay in Minnesota this long.
“Going to Children’s was a steppingstone,” admitted Holt, 48, who worked with members of the now-defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune while he was in college. They recommended him for a CTC apprenticeship, which he expected to do for a year.
“The plan was Hollywood and movies or New York, doing sketch comedy,” recalled Holt, a midcentury-modern fan who is known to blast Rat Pack tunes in his dressing room.
One thing that keeps him here is CTC’s sense of play. In last year’s “Corduroy,” Sigmund was a night watchman continually surprised by the gigantic messes piled up by a teddy bear played by Holt, who made Sigmund’s job easy by creating new destruction at every rehearsal.
Things can go too far, though, as they did in 2003’s “Once Upon a Forest.” Sigmund and Holt played giants who beat each other up, culminating in three head butts.
“One day, Dean says, ‘Instead of three head butts, let’s do five,’ ” recalled Sigmund, who wondered if their stage manager — McIntosh — would approve. “The next day, he says, ‘Let’s do seven. Let’s see how far we can push this.’ I’m like, ‘Is your wife going to get mad?’ And he said no, so we do them and giggled to ourselves because we’re so naughty and we’re getting away with it. The next day, it’s up to 17 head butts. And they were slow, so we’re head-butting each other for close to a minute. I start giggling and that makes him start giggling.”
Not giggling? Their stage manager, who called them on diverging from the agreed-upon performances.
“I will just say we have differing opinions as far as how much an actor breaking on stage is funny,” said McIntosh.
An artistic home
It didn’t take long for CTC colleagues to feel like family for Holt, who occasionally thought of leaving but always found reasons to stay.
“I’d get an offer to audition for something at the Guthrie or wherever but nine times out of 10 the timing wouldn’t work,” said Holt, who watched buddies such as “The Office” actor Brian Baumgartner leave Minnesota for the coasts. “I had friends who found great success but we talk about this in the dressing room all the time: What is success? The number of people at the theater? How do you measure it?”
CTC artistic director Peter Brosius hopes Holt measures it by sticking around. In Brosius’ 23-year tenure, CTC has created shows such as the Buster Keaton-inspired “Reeling” for Holt’s talents, which include a gift for physical comedy and what Sigmund calls a “relentless” drive to make things better.
“He believes so deeply that the work we do is the most important work in the world because if the work is in any way mediocre you can turn young people off to an art form that is transcendent,” said Brosius.
In recent years, Holt has helped train actors. He assistant-directed “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” running a separate rehearsal room for the children. And he helps shape new work, like when he urged “Madeline and the Gypsies” playwright Barry Kornhauser to cut all his lines.
“First time I’ve ever heard that from an actor. Usually, it’s ‘Could I have twice as many lines and a song?’ ” said Brosius, who thinks directing a full show is in Holt’s future.
Not that Holt is done with acting. In fact, he’s already anticipating a play as far ahead as next March. Although he has played “The Cat in the Hat” twice, he doesn’t think he’s nailed it.
“I haven’t been as confident to express ideas,” said Holt. “I’m looking forward to thinking, ‘OK, let’s start over with this one. Let’s get this right now.’ ”
It’s no surprise that Holt is still pondering a role he hasn’t performed in six years. And it’s not just audiences that benefit from his thoughtfulness.
“Anytime I’m lost on any aspect of my life — whether as a husband, a father, a performer — I know I can, and usually do, go to Dean for advice,” said Sigmund.
Giving advice, of course, depends on being a good listener. Holt listens when friends seek advice. He listens in rehearsals. And he listens on stage — one of Brosius’ favorite Holt moments was in last year’s “Matilda the Musical,” when Holt’s wordless glance conveyed that his evil Mr. Wormwood briefly recognized the humanity of his daughter, Matilda.
Autumn Ness says that kind of care goes beyond CTC.
“People may have an idea about what theater for children is like but when they see his inventiveness, they go, ‘Oh, I might have been wrong. I’ve never seen theater like this — let alone children’s theater,’ ” she said.
With theater on hold, Holt is counting his blessings.
“I’m so appreciative and proud our organization honored our contracts through [the intended April 5 closing of] ‘Spamtown’ and the fact that Peter and [managing director Kimberly Motes] called every employee,” said Holt, who worries about when audiences will be ready to return to the theater.
Meanwhile, Holt is banging around ideas. Online bedtime stories? A podcast with buddy Sigmund? Whatever it is, history suggests he will work at it until it’s great.