A New Resident Finds a Place of His Own in Little Lake Theatre’s Favorite Texas Town

By Doug Shanaberger

Now you see me goin’ through it
You may think there’s nothin’ to it
But I simply cannot do it alone

Recognize the lyrics?

They’ve been plucked out of the Fred Ebb-John Kander score for “Chicago,” from the number that transfers the spotlight over to Velma Kelly and shows her cheerfully/desperately pleading with Roxie Hart (“Come on, what da ya say?”) to join her in a two-girl song and dance act.

Solo journeys aren’t Velma’s specialty, and, at Little Lake Theatre, they aren’t the norm for Art DeConciliis either.  He’s an “actor’s actor,” a longtime member of the Little Lake family once told me, because of “how supportive he is, how much he appreciates talent, on top of how good another actor feels working with him.”

He’d rather not do it alone.

And the subject of teamwork becomes even more important than usual every time the holiday season takes Art back to the cornpone hamlet created by Jason Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, when rebooting the trio’s wildly popular, two-man Southern-living satire A TUNA CHRISTMAS means that he needs a partner in comic antics, someone who is every bit the chameleon and quick-change artist that he is.  A Bing Crosby to go along with his Bob Hope.  A Dean Martin to pair off with his Jerry Lewis.  Or, if you know the play (and who among the Little Lake audience doesn’t know it?) a Thurston Wheelis for his Arles Struvie, an Inita Goodwin for his Helen Bedd.

Buddy Wickerham admits that he never expected to go on the road to Tuna, Texas, with Art, though the mentor-student relationship they have dates back to the late 1990s.

“I respect the hell out of the guy,” said Buddy, whose 14 previous Little Lake mainstage credits include “As You Like It” and “Biloxi Blues,” both directed by Art DeConciliis.  And he was happy enough just watching from the audience, a fan of the profitable “Tuna” franchaise (remember “Greater Tuna,” “Red, White and Tuna,” “Tuna Does Vegas”?), always “floored,” he said, that Art and his fellow trouper so expertly brought the play’s crackpot characters to life.  All 22 of them.   From Vera Carp and Petey Fisk to Bertha Bumiller and Elmer Watkins.

Then came the announcement that A TUNA CHRISTMAS would close the 2014 season at Little Lake with Art again but not with his most recent teammate, Kevin Bass, who had to bow out because of another commitment.

Buddy wanted to fill the slot, and though absent from the stage at Little Lake since 2011’s “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some),” he asked for a chance to audition—a move that delighted Art DeConciliis and Sunny Disney Fitchett.  They’re co-directing the latest production of A TUNA CHRISTMAS, which opens November 29.  And, yes, Buddy Wickerham won them over after one triumphant read-through.

“He was on the list of possible replacements from the start,” Sunny later recalled.  “Buddy has always been a natural, gifted actor, and I have a feeling that he’s never really known how good he is.”

Good enough to be almost fearless at the thought of doing a two-hander for the first time in his 16-year acting career?

He’s that alright, saying “I’m ready … I’ve waited a long time to do this,” but admitting during an afternoon off from rehearsals, that he’s never faced—in one play—quite so intimidating a “Things You Have to Get Right” checklist.  With the breakneck pace of A TUNA CHRISTMAS, the assembly of eccentrics he’s required to portray (young and old), the gender switching, and the mastering of a Southern dialect … well, “Shakespeare is easier,” Buddy said.

Fortunately, he’s en route to Tuna in the company of a guy who doubles as an inspiring peer and an encouraging coach.

“This show throws a lot at an actor all at once,” said Art, beginning with 96 pages of dialogue.  To the lines upon lines upon lines, add a need for improv skills, the development of multiple characters with distinct voices and physical traits, the proper Texas drawl (funny, sure, but not too “Hee Haw,” y’all) and those costume changes.  Yes, those lightning-speed costume changes.

Being veterans in “Tuna” Land, “Sunny and I are just dusting off old bits and coasting on auto pilot,” he added.  “I helped Buddy with the order of things for his process, such as learn the lines and get them solid first so you can relax and begin to play with the characters.  Then develop their vocal and physical traits—they go hand-in-hand and sort of develop simultaneously.  Finally, work on the pantomime—clear, clean movements that indicate what you’re handling, and match what the other actor is doing with the same imagined prop or furniture.”

Added Sunny:  “Art and I know these characters like the backs of our hands, and although we can give Buddy pointers, he is the one who has to get all the voices clear in his own head.  It’s been a bit disconcerting to us when Buddy introduces a new vocal quality or rhythm to a character, or to a scene.  But Art and I listen, try to shake off previous interpretations, and when we open ourselves up to a new style, we learn it works.  And Buddy has surprised both of us along the way with new ideas that are really, really funny.”

Buddy returns the praise.  “Art,” he said, “never misses a word when we’re on stage,” and in addition to living up to his reputation as a meticulous pro, “he’s been very generous to me.”

He’s also grateful for the opportunity to work with the soon-to-move-on Sunny Disney Fitchett in one of her last efforts as a director at Little Lake.

“She was the first one who saw potential in me as an actor,” Buddy said.  “When I was in high school, I played a lot of sports, and once I started trying out for school plays, because I wanted to act, I kept hearing “You’re a sports guy … stick to what you know, you’re wasting your time going to auditions.’  No one thought I had talent.

“Then I went to Little Lake, where I met Sunny, and she asked me to read for a part, a really difficult part, in ‘Over the Tavern.’  I didn’t have any experience, but she ended up giving me that part because she believed in me.  She rolled the dice with me then, and now, all these years later, she rolled the dice again when she cast me in A TUNA CHRISTMAS.  It’s a perfect bookend working with her one more time, before she leaves Little Lake.”

To purchase tickets for A TUNA CHRISTMAS which runs through December 13, phone Little Lake’s box office at 724-745-6300, or take advantage of the new opportunity to order tickets online.