Spotlight on John Rensenhouse

interview

{All photos taken by Angie Fiedler Sutton.}

Note: this article will be published in the June 2011 issue of KC Stage Magazine.

You’d think that someone with the resume like John Rensenhouse would be cockier about his talents and abilities. After all, this is the man set to play Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most complex villains, in this year’s Heart of America Shakespeare Festival; who played Scar in the touring production of The Lion King; and who played both Dracula and Atticus Finch at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

But when it all comes down to it, Rensenhouse is quite self-effacing – and one of the first stories he tells is how he can’t sing. “I went to Hocker Grove Junior High School, and did the student musicals,” he says. “Oh, it was so bad – and this has been the story of my life, actually. What they would do – they’d write a script but plug in popular songs. I had the lead in one called Speak of the Devil, and I was a student who sold my soul to the devil to like get my homework done or something. And I was to sing a solo of, ‘I’ve Gotta Be Me’,” he sings.

“And I practiced. Oh, I practiced so hard. But I was so bad that they put the pit chorus in with me. It ended up not being a solo, because I just couldn’t sing. And I’ve tried so hard throughout my life to be a singer. It’s something about my tonality or whatever – it just doesn’t work.”

He admits that yes, he did standby for Scar in The Lion King, but, “I was hired because Disney didn’t want a singer in the role, they wanted a Shakespearean actor.”

Rensenhouse explains how exactly he got the part. Tom Hewitt, who was the second Scar on Broadway, was leaving, having been cast as Frank-n-Furter in the Broadway revival of Rocky Horror. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be leaving The Lion King‘, and then he looked at me and said, ‘You could play Scar.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t sing.’ He said, ‘No, they don’t want a singer. You can play Scar. I’ll set you up for an audition.’ So he set me up for an audition, and by that time I was working at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and so I flew up.” He laughs, and continues, “It was very funny, because fortunately the guy said, ‘Okay, let’s do the acting first.’ We did the scenes, and that went very well. Then he said, ‘Okay, well, now let’s do the song.’ I think I did what you’re not supposed to do at an audition, and I went, ‘Okay. I’m sorry, but I’m scared to death. I’ll do this, but I’m scared to death. Let’s do it.’ It worked to my benefit, because by the time I finished, they were like, ‘Oh, that was great, that was great! See, that wasn’t so bad!'”

Rensenhouse is originally from Kansas City – he proudly states he was born in Menorah Medical Center, right across the street from the Rep. But his journey back to Kansas City is a long, circuitous route. He admits to being hooked on theatre at an early age. “I think it all happened because in the first grade Christmas pageant, I was playing Frosty the Snowman, and my pants accidentally fell down, and the audience roared – of course – with laughter. My mom, when she was taking me away after, said, ‘Oh, John, that was very fun. You were the star.’ And I was like, ‘Oooh – what’s a star?'”

After graduate school, he moved to New York: “And was scared shitless,” he admits with a laugh. Thankfully, a roommate from Milwaukee had moved to New York and had gotten on the soap opera The Edge of Night, and told him about a part that he felt Rensenhouse was right for.

“They were at the final stages of auditions for this character, but my friend took me in to the producer of The Edge of Night and said, ‘This is my friend, John, who just moved here, and he’s really good on this stuff.’ The producer was like, ‘Well, okay. Here’s a script. Come back this afternoon, and we’ll put you on tape.’ This is my second day in New York – I had arrived the day before.

“So I went out and I tried to learn the lines, and I went back later in the afternoon. There were four other guys who were in the waiting room, and one by one they called us in to this studio where they filmed the show and put us on tape. There was a girl reading with us, and there were all these cameras, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was like in another world. And we ran through it, and I forgot completely all my lines – it was a disaster. The second time, we did it and somehow I did better. And that was that.”

A week later, his friend told him he didn’t get the part. But another week later, he got a call from the casting director, asking if he was still interested. “She said, ‘The writer saw the tape that you made, and he thought you were just deliciously evil, and he has written you a part.'” He laughs as he continues the story. The original part was supposed to be the character of Smiley Wilson, and he was going to be a villain – starting in a month. The part, however, got split, as the show was in negotiations with Frank Gorshin to be on the show as well, and he ended up being Smiley, with Rensenhouse being his younger brother Hector. His stint on the show lasted for about ten months, and then his character got killed off.

“After I got killed, I couldn’t get a job for the life of me,” Rensenhouse continues. “I went around, but I wasn’t really soap opera material. I mean, The Edge of Night was sort of known as being one of the more off-beat ones, and I wasn’t soap opera handsome or anything.”

He started taking regional theatre jobs out of New York until 1991. His agent had started going out to LA for pilot season, and Rensenhouse decided to go out with him. He liked it so much, he moved there. “It’s a tough world out in LA,” he says. “It’s very tough, just because there’s so many people they can use. You have to be exactly right for the part – the acting aspect of it is not that crucial. The look is. So, I was easily discouraged.”

So, he continued taking regional theatre jobs, this time out of LA. “I was never on to sit and wait,” he says. “Everyone I knew who made it big in the business was committed to doing just that. They would sit in New York and turn down jobs to go out of town and wait until the big thing in New York came, or sit in LA and wait until the big thing came. I couldn’t do that. I wanted to work. So, I kept taking jobs that were offered to me. I almost never would say no to a job.”

In 1994, he got a job at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and ended up spending three seasons there. But his life would take another turn. “Then I turned 40,” he says, “and I wanted to buy a house. And Ashland … for me, being a single gay man, it was not good. It was just too small a town. So I needed to leave there, and I thought, ‘Well, I should go back to LA.’ But I couldn’t afford to buy a house in LA. And so I started casting about.

“Then I got cast in the Shakespeare Festival here in 1997. Richard III. I don’t know how I came to audition for it, but I did. And while I was here – I have a sister here – I was staying with her. And I was looking at houses, and ended up buying a house that summer – and that decided it. Okay, I’m moving to Kansas City.”

He thought his acting career was for the most part over, and was starting to think about becoming a playwright. “But the funny thing,” he says, “I did a couple of plays here. I got cast at the Rep in Les Liaisons Dangereuses – that was one of the first big ones I had here. And the New Theatre cast me, and then people who I had worked with at various theatres would call me, and say, ‘Well, can you do this?’ So it was funny, when I thought my career was going to come to a screeching halt when I moved to Kansas City, it actually got busier. It was sort of a happy thing. So I still would travel a lot and but was now based out of Kansas City, and really enjoyed getting back to know the community here, because I knew some of the people.”

So, with such a varied career, Rensenhouse has had to change how he approaches his craft. “The training I went to was very technical. One of my main teachers was very much one of the directors who was like, ‘No, no – move your hand on that line.’ You know? So early on in my career, everything was very thought out, very crafted. I would know exactly what to do. The act of performing was sort of like driving an obstacle course, you know? Obviously, that worked okay – but emotionally, not all that satisfying.

“The biggest part I’ve ever played was Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo. Huge part. I’ve always been the kind of performer where before every performance I’ve got to go through all my lines and make sure I know all my lines, because I’m desperately afraid of forgetting my lines. Desperately afraid. Because it’s happened, and it’s the worst feeling in the world.

“But with this part, it was so huge that I couldn’t,” he continues. “So I had to give that up. I had to start at the beginning and go and just trust that all the work I had done would be there when I needed it. So now I really try and craft an emotional scenario whereby I can – backstage before going on – put myself in a very specific place of person. I get very specific about exactly where I am emotionally at that moment, go on stage, and listen and react. Now it doesn’t always happen so good. But that is my goal. And well, that’s what acting should be.”

John Rensenhouse will be playing the lead in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production of Macbeth, from June 14 – July 3. More information can be found at www.kcshakes.org.