Circa director is a theatrical triple threat

Posted Online: July 23, 2014, 11:26 am
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By Jonathan Turner,
Theatrical powerhouse Jim Hesselman seemingly can do it all — act, direct and write — and he does a lot of his directing at Rock Island's Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse.

The friendly, modest 54-year-old Milwaukee native is presenting his first original straight play, "Love, Lies and the Lottery," which is his 24th production for Circa over a span of 20 years. His directing credits in recent years include "Legally Blonde," "Hairspray," "Peter Pan," "Squabbles," "Dixie Swim Club," and the recent 50th-anniversary run of the classic "Fiddler on the Roof."

"I really get a little upset if directors get typecast," Mr. Hesselman said of directing musicals versus plays. "They're all different animals. It takes a little different skill level on some things. This show we're rehearsing now is much harder than 'Fiddler.' "

His new play is a madcap homage to classic farces. "It's less cast, it's all dialogue and the timing," he said. "To try to get comedy believable, but ridiculous, is hard. I wrote this for people to laugh. There's no other alternative than to get people to laugh."

Mr. Hesselman — who also is an assistant professor of theatre/performance at Indiana University Southeast — said being a director has helped him writing for theater.

"You can write anything down, but is it practical? You can't write things that are impossible to happen," he said. "It helps just being a theater person — you have to know every aspect of theater."

Writing his first non-musical, especially a fast-moving farce, was a challenge — one Mr. Hesselman began 12 years ago, after reading about an unclaimed winning lottery ticket. Like other farces he's acted in and directed, his own includes misinformation, mistaken identity and six doors (that often are slammed).

"I love them. They're no less difficult and no less plotted out than a good mystery," he said of farces, pointing to British author Ray Cooney (who's now 82) as the pinnacle, especially his "Run For Your Wife" (1983).

"I love directing those things, and being in them, in that the audience was just there to laugh," Mr. Hesselman said. "If you're there to laugh that hard, you're gonna leave here changed."

He also cited the best of "I Love Lucy" as a classic example of the form, noting an episode of Lucy going to the hospital. "It's so believable, that you can laugh at it 70 years after it was done," Mr. Hesselman said. "That to me makes something hold up. It's not about topical things in the news, about teasing the president. It's about human things."

In "Love, Lies and the Lottery," audiences should be able to relate to the relationship of an 82-year-old mother (with a new boyfriend), and her son, and a winning lottery ticket he bought a year ago, but had not claimed its $500 million prize. An ex-wife, a psychic and cross-dressing all add to the hijinks.

Mr. Hesselman pays tribute to the quirks of his home state in its fictional small town in Wisconsin. He originally considered titling the play "Taxidermy and Cheese," and later, "Where There's a Will, There's a Wife."

Mr. Ciemiewicz (who just wrapped a grueling two-month run as Tevye in "Fiddler") is glad to be rid of his bushy beard (grown just for that part), the director said. They also just had four days of rehearsal -- starting July 14 -- before a technical run-through of the world premiere show, but it's helped knowing him so well and having that built-in trust, Mr. Hesselman said.

The comedy is harder than the big musical "Fiddler" because it's just seven actors and they have more responsibility for the whole show, he said.

Joining Mr. Ciemiewicz are two of his "Fiddler" co-stars: fellow Bootlegger Brad Hauskins, who has also appeared in Circa productions including "Southern Crossroads" and "Empty Nest," and James Fairchild, of the venue's "The Full Monty" and "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story." Rounding out the cast are returning performers Tristan Tapscott ("Legally Blonde"), Janet Brucken ("Always a Bridesmaid"), and Tamarin K. Ythier ("Always a Bridesmaid"), and debuting Circa performer Erin Clark (of the neighboring District Theatre's "Hair," "Rent" and "The Rocky Horror Show.")

Mr. Hesselman -- who also is directing the Bootleggers' show in August; the last one he did was a Kander & Ebb revue in 2012 -- said much of a director's success is based on good casting and how you communicate with each person.

Mr. Hesselman has acted in, written and/or directed more than 150 productions at Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Indiana (across the Ohio River from Louisville) and runs his own production company, Theatre Island Productions. He has performed all over the country, including almost two years on the road playing Billy Crocker opposite "Days Of Our Lives" diva Gloria Loring on the national tour of "Anything Goes."

He has been producing artistic director of both the Shawnee Summer Theatre and Music Theatre Louisville and has written 14 children's musicals, a gospel musical called "Celebrate," and co-written the gospel musical comedies "Peace In The Valley" and "Sing Hallelujah!," which broke box office records at Derby Dinner Playhouse and has been done at Circa '21.

As an actor, Mr. Hesselman toured in the 20th anniversary of the original "Nunsense" starring Kaye Ballard, Lee Meriwether, Georgia Engel, Mimi Hines and Darlene Love. He directed Circa actor and Bootlegger Marc Ciemiewicz (the lead in both "Fiddler" and "Love, Lies") in 2011's "Nuncrackers" at the Rock Island theater.

Directing and writing are like making and raising a child, he said. "You're letting it grow and letting them go. It's exactly comparable," Mr. Hesselman said. As if he's not busy enough, he's working on writing another play, which is more sentimental.

If you go

What: "Love, Lies and the Lottery."
When: Friday through Sept. 6 (plus preview tonight at 7:45 p.m.); Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:45 p.m., Sunday at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $49.12 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $43.37 for the plated-lunch matinees, available at the Circa '21 ticket office, 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or at

NOTE: Bring in your losing lottery ticket for a chance to be a winner. Circa '21 will draw one losing lottery ticket at each performance for a chance to win one dinner and ticket to the next show -- "Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother."


Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Sept, 30, the 273rd day of 2014. There are 92 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: The ARGUS Boys are very anxious to attend the great Democratic mass meeting tomorrow and we shall therefore, print no paper on the day.
1889 — 125 years ago: H.J. Lowery resigned from his position as manager at the Harper House.
1914 — 100 years ago: Curtis & Simonson was the name of a new legal partnership formed by two younger members of the Rock Island County Bar. Hugh Cyrtis and Devore Simonson..
1939 — 75 years ago: Harry Grell, deputy county clerk was named county recorder to fill the vacancy caused by a resignation.
1964 — 50 years ago: A new world wide reader insurance service program offering around the clock accident protection for Argus subscribers and their families is announced today.
1989 — 25 years ago: Tomato plant and other sensitive greenery may have had a hard time surviving overnight as temperatures neared the freezing point.

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