Joey Wishnia shares his life with the playwright in Shakespeare and Me

There aren't many actors around who can claim to have met Laurence Olivier, David Frost and Noel Coward -- however briefly -- or who still refer to Macbeth as Mackers, to ward off the curse associated with the play.

But then, there aren't many who bring to the stage the wealth of experience that Joey Wishnia has accumulated. He has acted in nineteen of Shakespeare's plays and directed five in his native South Africa, in England and in the States. Shakespeare and Me, which opens on Friday, is a compendium of scenes and anecdotes from Wishnia's work with Shakespeare; the one-man show was inspired when friends urged Wishnia to share the colorful and intriguing stories he told them.

Wishnia and Wade Wood, then the owner of the Denver Vic, began staging monthly Shakespeare readings at the Vic -- which was fitting, since that basement theater was originally created by a Shakespeare-loving tuberculosis patient in 1911. They managed three readings before Wood was forced to sell the home that housed the theater. After that, the readings moved to the Grant-Humphreys Mansion. Finally, Maggie Stillman of the Byers-Evans Theatre Company asked Wishnia to put together Shakespeare and Me.

Wishnia's background is eclectic, and he has worked in almost every branch of theater. In 1960s London, he was employed in an agent's office, which meant free tube fare along with theater tickets. His meeting with Coward occurred when he visited backstage after a performance; he was with a friend called Zoe. "How droll," murmured Coward, on being introduced. "Joey and Zoe. It sounds like a vaudeville team."

Wishnia's response, he says, was eloquent -- and here he laughs and mimics his own starstruck stuttering.

As for that Scottish play, he believes in the curse. He once worked at a brand-new theater and opera house in Capetown, South Africa, which had what was then state-of-the-art tech. "The computer malfunctioned," he says. "It went through every lighting cue within a matter of minutes. The audience was very confused -- not to mention the witches on stage. The curtains closed, opened, closed, opened again." Once the computer had been reprogrammed, "Lady Macbeth made her first entrance, slipped and did a perfect pratfall. I shouldn't say this," he goes on dryly, "but she was a very good actress, and knew it and demanded obsequience, so we were rather tickled."

Working in Denver, where he arrived in 1993, required some adjustment. In England and South Africa, Wishnia says, there's a clear distinction between professional and community theater, and actors get paid a living wage. Here he's had to get used to the fact that most performances are on weekends only, and "even if you do get paid, it's not very much."

"It has nothing to do with the quality of the work," he adds. "We have some great talent here."

Shakespeare and Me presents the fruits of a fertile life in theater: "When I look back -- I'm 75 now -- one thing has led to another, almost as if pre-ordained. At the time I couldn't see the reasoning, but now I can," Wishnia says, then adds, "I'm not one of those people who live in the past, but there comes a time when you can't help looking back. As you get older, the events of long ago become clearer. I'd be hard put to say what I had for breakfast yesterday, but all these older memories are pouring back."

As for the future, his plans are "to share and to keep working," he says. "The theater's my life and I love it."

Shakespeare and Me runs from April 6 to April 28 at the Byers-Evans House, 1310 Bannock Street. For more information, call 303-620-4933 or go to www.byersevanshousemuseum.org

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