Wayne Kennedy is in the middle of a busy week when I reach him. One of the town’s most talented actors, a quietly powerful force throughout his 27-year stage career, Kennedy is working on the sound design for The Little Mermaid, which opens June 1 at BDT Stage. He’s also in rehearsal for his role in the now-open Human Error at the Garner Galleria Theatre, the world premiere of Eric Pfeffinger’s play about the gulf between political left and right, red and blue.
“The focus and style and the way the scenes are written — everything about Human Error is foreign to me a bit,” says Kennedy, who has mostly worked in musicals. “The writer’s been there all along, the script changes every day; he’s been honing every scene and moment. To watch all that develop right out of the mind of the person who created it! And Shelley [Butler, who directs] is so detail-oriented, kind, patient and gentle. It’s just a fabulous thing to work on.”
Human Error, which debuted at the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit, tells the story of two couples. Because of a mistake by her fertility doctor — played by Kennedy — liberal Madelyn discovers that her embryo has been implanted into the womb of profoundly conservative Heather. Now these very different people must forge some sort of relationship. “It’s a comedy, very funny, but not just jokes,” explains Kennedy. “It explores some things that are very topical, and there’s nothing canned about the take on them.”
Kennedy has worked with BDT Stage for years. Nearly two decades later, some audience members will still remember his Billy Bigelow in Carousel, and the power and feeling with which he sang “My Boy Bill.” Then there was his moving portrayal of Amos Hart in Chicago; his Tateh in Ragtime, a role he reprised at the Arvada Center; and his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, another Arvada Center reprise. “I’ve seen Wayne Kennedy perform often,” I wrote in 2015, reviewing that performance. “I know his capacity for shoulder-shrugging and ironic humor, his talent for unsentimental pathos. But I’ve never seen him as he is here. A lot of Tevyes come across like Jewish Santa Clauses; Kennedy’s is a different animal entirely. He gives the comedy its due, but he lets us see the profound sadness beneath the jovial exterior.”
Tevye was perhaps Kennedy’s favorite role. “It seems like it comes naturally out of my heart,” he says. “It was really beautiful what BDT did with the set — the birch trees and the pared-down production.” In Arvada, the space was much bigger and the staging was “grand. It was a whole other ride — and both experiences were wonderful.”
For a long time, between performing and waiting on tables, BDT Stage was one of the few places where actors could make a living, and as a result, the theater assembled an excellent troupe. “It was a tough company to get into, but once you were in, it was steady work,” says Kennedy.
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“It felt like a home and family, and I got to play everything on my bucket list. I was able to stay in Colorado and raise my family,” he adds. (Kennedy and his wife have two grown sons.) “They put quality stuff on the stage. You didn’t feel you were sacrificing or compromising staying there. But it’s only natural if you stay in one place for a long time to look at other theaters and think it would be great to work in that company, too.”
These days, very few theaters — including BDT Stage — are able to maintain a resident company. Kennedy still works with the Boulder group, but he’s also performed further afield. In addition to his work at the Arvada Center, he appeared last year in the immersive The Wild Party for the Denver Center’s Off-Center.
Kennedy has had a lot of opportunity to observe the city’s shifting theater scene. “Once, a lot of folks would start working here with an eye to getting the union card so they could move on to a bigger market. There weren’t many people like me who stayed,” he says. Today, despite the difficulties of making a living, “the community as a whole is a lot stronger. There’s a bigger contingent of people who stay, and it’s been good for theater in general.
“But then, I’m biased,” he adds. “I’m pretty proud of being a Denver actor.”
Human Error, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through June 24, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.