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An actor’s life: Local boy Don Farmer toils at his craft against all odds

SHARE An actor’s life: Local boy Don Farmer toils at his craft against all odds

"Footloose" is the play that made 22-year-old Don Farmer wish he were 17 again.

Not that Farmer looked any different than the younger guys who danced beside him in the recent Hale Centre production.

In one scene after another, there he was, leaping onto the stage, back arched, arms and legs flying. The music pulsed. The lights pulsed. As he danced and turned cartwheels, Farmer sang — smiling and sweating and never running out of breath.

When you're in high school, or even in college, Farmer said, you have time to keep in shape for a such a demanding musical. When he was younger, he worked out and danced eight hours a day.

But now, having graduated from Westminster, and being basically a grown-up, Farmer has to work full-time so he can afford to be an actor on nights and weekends.

This is, no doubt, the way the majority of local actors live. But to follow Farmer through a few weeks of his life is to see just how exhausting and invigorating it is.

In many ways, his is the universal story of an aspiring artist. He works hard. He lives in the moment. Yet it always seems — this year especially, maybe even this month — that he might be on the verge of something big.

Mid-August. Backstage in the Hale Centre. A voice comes over the intercom: "Check your props and be ready for green room in 10 minutes." Enter Farmer, who sits on the floor and begins to stretch. One by one, other actors come into the lounge. Their bodies and voices are taut. Their excitement can't be contained. The director comes in, JaceSon Parker Barrus. He praises their last performance. "Tell the story tonight," he says, "along with the pace and energy." . . .

The actors center themselves, joining hands in a circle for a moment of quiet. Someone prays. Then they grin at each other, eyes wide. Barrus shouts, "Fifteen minutes." It's almost show time.

Later, after a wild production of "Footloose," during which an electrical storm derails the lighting but no one misses a step or a line, Farmer tries to explain why the theater is the most incredible work in the world. He talks of creativity, passion. "Theater is an expression of life, so everything you experience in life is there. You grow from it. You get new things from it every time."

Hearing him talk, watching him act, it seems he could be happy with this for the rest of his life. Happy being in Utah. Working to live and living to act — as they say in the theater.

But now, young and talented and unencumbered, Farmer feels somehow compelled. "I see myself moving this year, or next," he says. A theater professor told him if he's being cast in what he wants, locally, he should try L.A. or New York. Farmer works for The Gap; he figures he could work for The Gap in one of those cities while he auditions for everything in sight.

He thinks of graduate school. Someday. Maybe business. Maybe writing plays. He majored in photography; he might try that career. But first, he needs to act. "I've been told I have exuberance," he says. "I've been told I shine."

Here's what happened during just one week in August: Farmer had an audition for Desert Star Playhouse and he learned that Tokyo Disney would soon hold auditions in Salt Lake, and his car blew up on the freeway and he sprained his wrist in "Footloose."

The wrist accident happened at the end of the last act when something went wrong with the launch and his back-flip turned into a handstand. "I just kept going during the finale and when I got offstage I screamed and they took me to the hospital," he said. Luckily, his was one of the parts that was double-cast. The fellow who played the same role on Monday/Wednesday/Friday took over his Thursday performance. Farmer was back on Saturday.

By the day of the Desert Star audition his wrist was better, and about the only challenge he had, other than preparing a monologue and a song, was finding a friend to give him a ride to the playhouse. Having done as much research as he could, talking to people who'd been in productions there, Farmer felt prepared. He showed up with his resume and a portfolio of photos.

So here he is, sitting in the hall, waiting to be called in for the audition, joking with some of the other actors. Farmer selects one young woman to tease and tickle. "You are making me nervous," she tells him. "You are making me nervous," he replies, sounding not at all nervous.

Once he is called in and hands his sheet music to the accompanist, Farmer still seems self-possessed, but also excited, even thrilled. He banters with director Scott Holman, talks about all the things he minored in at college — theater, music and dance.

Farmer doesn't go into everything he's done; all that is in his resume (the most impressive being his part in the touring production of "Tony and Tina's Wedding"). He does tell Holman that his availability might be limited because he's just been single-cast in Hale's upcoming show, "Annie."

After his song and monologue, Holman tells Farmer he'll be called back. Farmer is happy but not completely surprised to get the second audition. In Salt Lake City, he says, if you are a man and you can dance, it is fairly easy to find work.

And, in fact, if you talk to Sally Dietlein, executive producer at Hale Centre Theatre, that's the first thing she'll say as well. "He can dance and he's a man." So he'll get parts. "But," Dietlein added, "he also sings well and he has a solid stage presence. He can act."

Dietlein can list scores of Utah actors who have day jobs — teachers, moms, accountants, waiters — and who act, as Farmer does, every chance they get. She can also recite the names of young actors who have nabbed parts with Broadway touring companies. Actors of Farmer's caliber do leave Utah for New York or L.A., she said, and some do get work.

In the end, although he is pleased with the monologue he wrote for his Desert Star call-back (the premise involves a nerd, Tarzan and the "Nutcracker"), Farmer did not get a part. The "Annie" schedule didn't jibe with the Desert Star schedule.

He didn't get Disney either. He says a couple of his friends did. The Disney people advised him to take some ballet classes. They told him he was a good dancer, but not classically trained. Farmer seems OK when he talks about it and willing to take more classes.

But then he adds that, though he had intended to stay for a singing audition with Disney, he changed his mind. "I thought, 'I got rejected once today; I'm good to go.'"

On a Monday afternoon in mid-September, Farmer is working at The Gap, and there aren't many customers. He sells a pair of pants to someone and talks him into getting a Gap credit card. The store gives him a bonus each time he does that.

Right now, Farmer needs a little extra money. He's earned $1,000 from "Footloose," and he will probably get $2,000 for "Annie" before it ends. But he's got this new challenge: He has to find a place to live. His current roommate wants a quieter home than Farmer, with his incessant rehearsing, can offer. Farmer wonders if he can afford his own place.

Oh well, he says, straightening some shirts. He has "Annie" to look forward to. Rehearsals have begun, 7 to 10 p.m. weeknights.

And then he goes back to talking about the Gap card he just sold and says he's a top card-salesman. He says he uses jokes and persistence. Before he'll give up, "I have to be told 'no' three times." Then he adds, "That's the theater training, right there."

E-MAIL: susan@desnews.com