Pursue What You Love and Love What You Pursue: An Interview with Ben Tissell
When Lakewood Theatre posted an audition notice for The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the first thing I did was Google the director – a guy named Benjamin Tissell. I’d never heard of him. It turns out a lot of other people have…but more about that in a bit.
As I looked through the website http://www.benjamintissell.com/, internally pulled from one page to the next, I thought to myself, “This man has dedicated his life to the arts.” Nary a day job in the picture. I called the theatre immediately and put my name on the audition list.
I admit it was humbling to be cast in a smaller role than the last time I was in the same play, at the same theatre, seven years ago. I even had a good cry about it. But something told me to accept the smaller role anyway. Ahem, a wise decision on my part. After all, as Mrs. Armstrong would say, there are no small parts, only small actors.
At the first cast meeting and read-through, I understood right away why Ben cast the show the way he did. Everyone I was pulling for in auditions, he cast like I would have. The part I thought I wanted going in – no way, Adrienne was perfect for that part. And she didn’t even come to read initially – she came because her husband and children were reading. There is no way to predict that kind of serendipitous momentum – it’s something which just happens in the energy of the moment, in the magic of theatre.
That’s the energy I experienced consistently during rehearsals and performances with this particular cast and crew, under the helm of our skilled, compassionate and imaginative director.
When Ben agreed to an interview, I knew right away what my first question for him would be well before we sat down at my kitchen table and chatted over a cup of tea. I’d been dying to ask since the second rehearsal. For those of you who haven’t seen Barbara Robinson’s delightful, funny and touching show, a brief introduction may be summed up by the first lines of dialog: The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars, even the girls, and talked dirty and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken down tool house. There were six of them – Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys – and they went through the Woodrow Wilson school like those South American fish that strip your bones clean.
Ben announced, right from the beginning, Herdman would be pronounced with the “H” silent…Erdman. After the second rehearsal, as I was eagerly discussing the production process with my fiancé, I asked George, “Why do you suppose the director doesn’t want the “H” pronounced? What kind of name is Herdman? Do you think maybe in the country where it originated it would be pronounced Erdman? I’ve never heard of such a thing. What do you think?”
George reflected for a moment and replied, “Well, if you think about it, doesn’t Erdman sound funnier than Herdman?”
It turns out George was spot on.
Ben asks to see the stage and reads the script at least a dozen times before he even casts the show. He sees the finished product in his mind’s eye and tries out different possibilities mentally and aloud while learning the play. He says he can get stuck on the smallest details and is a very visual, abstract thinker. Sometimes what he sees or hears in his head doesn’t work in the physical space and he needs to change it – like re-blocking scene ten twice in this show. Ben says, “You have to trust yourself, and not even think about it. Erdmans was funnier to me, so it might be funny to others. At the same time, you have to be willing to re-direct, to say ‘This play is not about me showing my resume to the world. This is a story. About real people in real situations. I want to honor the humanity of it.’ This is what draws us to the theatre! I have to get out of my own way and admit when it isn’t working. You have to be willing to laugh at yourself.”
All the same…as it turns out…Erdman was indeed funnier than Herdman.
Ben was born, the youngest of four siblings, into a family of singers in British Columbia, Canada and grew up in Portland, Oregon where he watched his older brother and sisters become involved in theatre. He created productions in his head in the back yard as a child, and saw his first Shakespeare play in fifth grade, the same year he was first on stage himself as Boy Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He said to himself, “Theatre is important and I really love this.” He had seen shows at NW Children’s Theatre and wanted nothing more than to be in them himself. He honors the ‘extreme dedication’ of his parents for getting him to theatre four or five days a week throughout much of his childhood.
Musicals were Ben’s biggest focus; straight plays came later. He took voice lessons in high school and applied to several conservatories, receiving full vocal scholarships to more than one. He briefly considered a more practical line of work – like music education – but said, “I couldn’t stay out of the theatre. Arts took my life captive. I don’t know that I had an option.” Ben was even accepted into Julliard, where his voice teacher expected him to go, despite not being offered a scholarship. However, Ben had seen one too many artist “clamoring for success” and said to himself that wasn’t who he wanted to become. Ultimately, he decided to go to George Fox University, where he could major in both music and theatre, and work with a music coach he admired.
Ben says, “College was a time of learning about myself, how my personality works, and growing into who I am. I’d rather be a good human than a great artist.”
Ben studied music all through high school and college. He applied for and was granted an agriculturally related service trip to Swaziland, Africa – an experience which deeply touched him. He needed a way to express this experience, and wrote his first song, called “There Will Be a Light.” Song writing became his way of journaling, an outlet for his thoughts. He began to play the piano and learn the guitar as part of the composition process and eventually – cautiously – started sharing some of his own music with close friends. One of them, as a birthday gift, gave him three hours in a recording studio to complete a demo. The same friend talked him into putting it on-line. “People loved it – I was very surprised!”, Ben said. Now he performs two or three times a month at local venues.
Along with performing, acting, and directing, Ben has co-written music for a musical entitled Oh, Little Town which was successfully performed at Valley Repertory Theatre in Newberg. He’s in a fiction writing group which meets weekly, and has written a full length play about the seven assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which he is submitting to the JAW festival at Portland Center Stage. He writes reviews for the venue and receives free tickets for opening night. He has taught at NW Children’s Theatre, Clackamas High School, and picks up a class at a theatre company here and there.
This is Ben’s day job, because has pursued the arts so single-mindedly, which has led to opportunities and exposure. He didn’t even think about directing until someone offered him a directing job. Ben says, “I think I have a problem saying ‘no.’ I’ve never been able to say ‘no’ to the things which interest me.”
Now, however, he’s being offered more work than he can say ‘yes’ to. All the same, Ben emphasizes, “You can produce really good work and be miserable to work with. It’s more important to me that the actors feel validated as human beings.”
Ben has not gotten more roles than he has, like any actor. His favorite roles to date include George Baily in It’s a Wonderful Life and Father Flynn in Doubt. The one that got away: Shakespeare’s Richard III – he had already committed to something else. Dream role for the future: Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
In closing, I asked Ben what advice he might have for young people captivated by theatre and the arts as he has always been. He responded by quoting Richard Rohr: Love is just learning to say yes to what IS. Ben said, “Let your career lead you a little bit. Accept where it’s going. And remember we only have a certain amount of creative energy to give to something. I take care of that place in myself first; otherwise, the mind can become scattered.” He drained the last of his peppermint tea and added, “And do the thing. At some point you just need to get up…and do the thing.”
While Ben Tissell has not sought out commercial work at this point, commercial work is seeking him. He’s been tracked down by the producers of Portlandia for a screen test (he was too young for the part) and the producers of a national TV show (he had another commitment.) People know about Ben in ways even he doesn’t understand.
I suspect it has something to do with his voracious pursuit and love of the arts and commitment to caring about people first.
Contact Ben at http://www.benjamintissell.com/
I don’t want to join a rat race. I just want to create good art. –Benjamin Tissell
Authentically Yours, Laura