Story posted February 21, 2007
He was that guy in the wings, handing actors props on the fly. Or the darkened figure perched high in the catwalk, sprinkling plaster “angel” dust down from the ceiling in Angels in America.
Suddenly, theater “techie” Willi Yusah ’08 finds himself emerging from the sidelines and into the spotlight: He has the leading role in Henrik Ibsen’s classic, “An Enemy of the People,” the Departmental spring theater show, March 1-3, 2007.
What happened, Willi?
I don't know! I did not even come to Bowdoin as a theater-oriented student. I wanted to go into business. I just found the theater here. Every semester has been an evolution of exposure to theater. Wonderfully different.
Why a techie?
The thing I love about technical theater is that you have to swallow your pride, work your hardest. The three hours you spent painting a book will be noticed by how many people in the audience? But you notice it. And being a techie, standing in the fly gallery watching actors do their thing ... I definitely absorbed a lot of things. But there's a big difference from absorbing them to being to apply them myself. I like being in the shadows. This spotlight thing is new and very humbling.
Are you nervous about your debut?
Well, crying I don't worry about. It's puking.
“I was just supposed to stage manage the show,” laughs Yusah, still somewhat incredulous at his theatrical transformation. “Then the director, [theater professor] Davis Robinson said, ‘I think you should audition.’ I thought, oh my gosh! But he had so much faith in me that I decided to take up the audition.”
According to Robinson, it wasn’t blind faith at all. “Willi is just a natural,” says Robinson, who cast Willi in the role of Dr. Stockman, the play’s protagonist. “He has a real sensitivity for what’s honest onstage, an almost musical instinct for when things should happen. I noticed this right away in the way he worked on technical aspects of theater, then later, when he took some movement and theater classes.”
The role requires Willi to carry much of the story’s dramatic weight, playing a town doctor who blows the whistle on local corruption and hypocrisy that threatens the health of the townspeople in a Norwegian hamlet.
It also requires him to deliver one of the longest “rants” of the modern theater — a volatile, dramatic monologue that runs fully nine pages of text.
“I’m just taking it one page at a time,” grins Willi. “The monologue is a roller coaster of escalating emotion. The first few pages are beginning to come clear to me emotionally and physically. Other parts of the text I’m intimidated by; it’s dense and almost foreign.”
He credits Robinson with helping him build a believable character, despite scant acting experience: “I don’t have many things to grasp onto for training, but Davis helps me find my reactions. He stops me now and then and says in simple terms ‘Think about this, try this.’ It’s not insulting, but really helps me explore.”
“If I did anything,” counters Robinson, “it was to try to not fill his head with tension or nervousness. One of the things Willi does that makes him a wonderful actor is that he doesn’t put a lot of clutter on what he does. I know how good he is. You just try to stay out of their way when you have a good, instinctive person.”
Real life also has played a part in helping Willi prepare for the role.
If one of the tenets of actor-preparation for dramatic realism is to draw from one’s own experiences, Willi has had a lucky break. His best friend at Bowdoin, Anthony DiNicola ’07, plays the role of his brother in the play, Peter Stockman, the town mayor.
The two come to serious conflict over the central issue of public interest — local mineral baths that have been contaminated by waste from a local tannery. The mayor eventually turns against his own brother.
“Anthony and I are basically brothers at Bowdoin, which is so wonderful onstage,” says Willi. “Because, like brothers, we know how to get under each other’s skins. The Stockmans of the play are both strong characters — just like Willi and Anthony in real life. That was the first thing I could dive into weeks ago when rehearsals started.”
This adaptation of “An Enemy of the People” is staged in the round, giving the actors a more intimate, three-dimensional connection with the audience and with each other. It plays to Willi’s natural strength as a performer — his naturalness onstage.
“The main thing I fear and strive to get as a first-time actor is just being genuine,” says Willi. “This stage setting is so intimate I don’t have to project, I can hold onto real reactions. I’m playing a man who gets beat up, who gets betrayed by everyone. How do you get back up from that? I’m just trying to be as honest as I can be.”