John Reichenbach has been performing locally for decades. His performance history is diverse and compelling. Recently, the Sun-Gazette was fortunate enough to have Reichenbach answer a few questions about his life as a performer.
SUN-GAZETTE: When and how did your interest in performing arts begin?
JOHN REICHENBACH: I have always had a desire to perform on stage or in film. I remember seeing performers like W.C. Fields, Elvis Presley, James Cagney, Will Rodgers and others strut their stuff.
At parties or gatherings, I would imitate those stars and put on impromptu skits or shows. Back then it was just a fun activity and it never occurred to me that I might wish to take it to a new level.
While in the military in the '60s, I took on extra jobs at the base NCO club. The club had live entertainment and I started doing standup comedy routines during the band breaks. Before long, I had a few invitations to perform in clubs off the base and really began to enjoy the feeling of helping people forget their problems for a few minutes and just laugh. Later, I found myself at Clark AFB in the Philippines, where I was offered a spot on Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam. Because of critical staffing issues [...] I was not able to accept the offer.
SG: Why did you start performing?
JR: After leaving the military, I focused all my energies, for the next 30 years, on family and a career as an air traffic controller. But every so often I would still wonder what it would be like to participate in a stage production as an actor.
In late July 2003, I had triple-bypass heart surgery and my doctor advised me to stop refereeing soccer until he felt I was strong enough to start again. Being retired and unable to referee, I felt a little disconnected from being able to give a little something back to the community. Then I saw an audition notice for upcoming productions at the Community Theater League (CTL). It was a no-brainer, I had to try out for a part. As it turned out, I auditioned for two plays within a matter of weeks and got a part in both of them. The first was a SPROUTS (theater for children) production of, "The Elves and the Shoemaker," and the second was "Buried Child," a drama by Sam Shepard.
SG: What do you like about performing?
JR: The "chase" for perfection that will never come. We all know that no two performances are exactly alike, and that appeals to me. Along with the "chase" is the challenge associated with developing an understanding of the director's vision of the story, and your character's part in bring that vision to life.
SG: If you could play any role, without limitations, what would it be?
JR: Actually, in many ways, I have been playing that dream role for the past 25 years. Back in the mid '80s, I found that during the holiday season, if I wore holiday colors and let my beard grow, I could inspire a certain awe, great big smiles and laughter, from small children (and some adults). I am overwhelmed and pleased that I can bring such joy to the little ones. This simple act may not mean much to a lot of people these days, but it means the world to me. Over the years, I have received a number of offers to do this character as a job for money and I have turned them down. A broad smile on the face of a young child, and allowing them to dream and hope for a better tomorrow is priceless and turning it into a job would ruin the experience for me.
Three years ago, Mayor Campana invited me to participate in the cities holiday parade and I was truly honored. I appreciate his understanding and the support he has given me to expand this "role" to include many more smiling young faces of Williamsport and Newberry.
In addition to being in the parade, one of my favorite things, for the holiday season, is to participate in the "Breakfast with Santa" fundraiser sponsored by the AIDS Resource House - (8 to 10 a.m. Dec. 10, St. Luke Lutheran Church, Market Street. Shameless plug) - It's just a wonderful time for the whole family.
SG: Do you have a favorite playwright?
JR: The short answer is no. Every playwright has priorities formed by their life experiences that influence the story they are telling. Simply stated, I celebrate this diversity and cannot place one above another.
However, I do hold a special regard and feel privileged to have been present during the genesis of a new playwright right here in Williamsport. That playwright, actor and director is Kyle Wilson. I've known Kyle since he was 8 years old, when I coached him in soccer. Since that time I have been on stage with him, enjoyed watching his first successes as a playwright, and more recently taken his direction in the TAG (The Actors Group) production of "Pillowman" at Club Z this past spring. I am very confident we will see many more successes from Kyle in the future.
SG: What show do you love?
JR: "Grease." As a teenager in the '50s I can relate to the presentation of teen issues explored for that era. All of these still experienced by today's teens and will continue for generations to come.
SG: What is the best production-theater experience you have had?
JR: I had always considered comedy my strong suit, yet, somewhere along the way at CTL, I developed an attraction for drama. At first I didn't think I could pull it off, but with the direction and support of Jeanie and Tom Ryersbach, I have learned to love the dra-matic challenge.
It was during the production of "Over the River and Through the Woods" by Joe DiPietro, and directed by Jeanie, that it happened. My character was Nunzio, who was dying of cancer and about to tell his grandson, Nick, that fact in an effort to keep him from moving away. By the end of the scene, Nunzio does not tell Nick about the cancer. He accepts that Nick must do this move for his inner self. It was a very poignant and emotional few moments in the middle of this wonderful heartwarming comedy.
I remember Perry Costello, who was doing sound and lights for the show, said, "Great job John, during the porch scene there wasn't a dry eye in the house." I was speechless. It was exhilarating and humbling at the same time. I will never forget that moment.
SG: What do you like about performing in Williamsport?
JR: I moved here in 2000, and was immediately impressed with the people and culture here. The Community Arts Center (CAC) and CTL are just super facilities and are working together to support the youth of the community and provide them opportunities to explore all areas of the performing arts.
The SPROUTS program at CTL is another wonderful example of opportunities available to the youth of the area, along with theater production workshops held there during the summer months. Additionally, the management of Club Z has demonstrated its support of the arts here in town by providing space for TAG to push the envelope and present edgy productions.
I also like the fact that there are so many talented performers here. Every production I have been associated with has been filled with amazing, dedicated actors, actresses and crew members.
SG: What is your favorite role that you have performed? Would you attempt it again? How would you do it differently?
JR: I've played Gepetto in "Pinocchio," Aesop in "The Fabulous Fable Factory," Candy in "Of Mice and Men," Captain Shotover in Shaw's "Heartbreak House" and a few others, but I always return to Nunzio as my favorite. Would I attempt it again, you betcha! Would I change anything? Not at all, with the exception of changes in support of the director's vision.
SG: What role would you like to do next?
JR: Although it's too early to tell whether or not this role will end up on stage, it does seem destined for film. The role I'm talking about is a character named Halt in the "Ranger's Apprentice" book series by Australian author John Flanagan. Mr. Flanagan started writing a number of stories in an effort to cultivate a desire to read in his teenage son. This project was expanded and the result was a ten book series that is an absolutely wonderful read for teens and adults alike.
Halt is a complex character offering many challenges for the actor and I would love to have an opportunity to take on those challenges.
SG: If you could work with anyone, living or dead, famous or not, with whom would you like to work?
JR: That's a real tough one. Names like John Wayne, Alec Guinness, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Don Ameche, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Julie Andrews, Myrna Loy, Elizabeth Taylor and on and on, not to mention the current crop of performers. I would like to work with them all.
But if I had to pick just one it would be W.C. Fields. He was a comedic genius both visually and orally. More often than not he also wrote the scripts for his routines and films. I have watched his films over and over since I was a child and still get a thrill watching this craftsman at work. I would love to do a scene with him.
SG: Who would play you on stage or film? What kind of production would it be?
JR: Ho Ho Ho ... It would be Richard Attenborough, and it would be a family Christmas classic.