Actor brings professionalism to Bread Loaf play
RIPTON — When Ian McNeely arrived at the Bread Loaf School of English this June, he turned to a nearby student and asked, “What is this place?”
McNeely had been hired as a member of the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble only a few weeks before the Bread Loaf sessions began after two other actors had to back out, and so had had little time to prepare for his time in Ripton. In fact, he admitted with a grin, he didn’t even have time to Google the place.
“I was a replacement of a replacement,” McNeely said.
Fortunately, McNeely, who plays Thersites in this summer’s production of “Troilus and Cressida” and will conduct the production’s musical component, is no stranger to performing in new and different environments.
He grew up in Idaho and later attended the University of Idaho at Moscow as a theater student. There, in 2009 he was awarded a Rabold Fellowship, which guaranteed him an expense-paid year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he had roles in “Paradise Lost,” “The Music Man” and “Don Quixote.”
It was during that fellowship in Ashland, Ore., that McNeely grew to love Shakespeare.
“I found myself going though undergrad thinking Shakespeare was boring and not knowing how to get into it,” he said. “After the season in Ashland it totally changed my mind.”
In fact, McNeely was so invested in Shakespeare that upon graduating from the University of Idaho, he and some friends formed their own Shakespeare company, the “Animal Fire Theater.”
They performed five productions, including “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in a variety of venues throughout Moscow, Idaho, and later in Olympia, Wash., where the company later moved.
Perhaps the most unusual venue the Animal Fire Theater performed in was an abandoned mini-mall that had lost nearly all of its business due to the recession.
A bar in the mall was looking to increase its foot traffic, and so agreed to let the company perform while patrons ordered drinks — audiences came, the bar received more business, and the Animal Fire Theater got its start.
Now regularly performing Shakespeare in an Olympia park, Animal Fire Theater has become an established company in the area, so much that it is continuing this summer in McNeely’s absence.
“They’re still going without us,” McNeely said. “They were such a success because families wanted to see Shakespeare, they were hungry for it, it was free. It was something to take your kids to. It was really special.”
Five years after graduating from the University of Idaho, McNeely moved to New York, where he applied to graduate theater programs and was accepted into the Brown University Trinity Repertory Company, a masters of fine arts program.
Brian McEleney, director of Bread Loaf’s production of “Troilus and Cressida,” is McNeely’s main professor at the Trinity Rep program, and often selects students from the MFA program for the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of membership in the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble is classwork — professors will often call actors into the classroom to enact certain passages of the text and lead discussions that may help students understand the material from a fresh perspective.
McNeely has already performed in several classes, and has found it exciting to work with the Bread Loaf students, many of whom are high school English teachers, and others of whom are writers.
“They’re like teachers being students, and I understand what that’s like as someone that started a career and then went back to school,” McNeely said. “The dialogue is so on point and well thought out.”
Now at Bread Loaf, McNeely says he still uses the “shorthand” he learned in classes with McEleney while rehearsing for “Troilus and Cressida.”
“(McEleney) has side-coaching, like ‘use upward pitch,’ and he’ll point up to remind us to go up at the end of the sentence,” McNeely said. “We’ll work in rehearsals with him and he’ll use shorthand with me — all these signals, and people must think we have some sort of secret language.”
While McNeely and members of the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble rehearse “Troilus and Cressida” throughout the day, community members in the cast file in for evening rehearsals to join the core cast. Among the cast are children of students and two faculty members, as well as about a dozen students, who have both speaking and chorus roles.
McNeely, whose interest in theater began with parts in community productions, says that the community component of Bread Loaf shows is spectacular.
“You’re talking to a guy who’s only been here for a week, but I can tell you my experience has been so positive,” he said. “Everyone is so sharp and on point, the discussion is so articulate.”
The Bread Loaf School of English/Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble summer production is Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida.” Performances run nightly at 8 p.m. from Wednesday, July 30, through Sunday, Aug. 3, in the Bread Loaf campus’ Burgess Meredith Little Theater. Tickets are free to the public and will be available by reservation beginning Friday, July 18. For reservations, call (802) 443-2771.
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