By Brian Robin
Derek Manson Makes Breaking A Sweat Look Easy
During a post-show Q-and-A session after a performance at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Derek Manson fielded a question that would be appropriate for someone to ask after he finished a performance of Snow White, the Theatre for Young Audiences and Families production playing on the Julianne Argyros Stage through Nov. 20.
“One of the children asked us how do we make the sweat look real? We had a hearty laugh about it,” Manson remembered. "'It’s real,’ I told them.”
Keep that in mind when you see Manson in what is an engaging, exhausting and exhilarating performance playing “at least 12 characters” in Greg Banks’ adaptation of the children’s classic. Manson and Candace Nicholas-Lippman play all 14 roles in a hilarious—and demanding—production that is delighting and entertaining audiences.
“From the moment I read the play, both (SCR Artistic Director) David Ivers and I knew Derek Manson was the perfect choice to play Dwarf Four,” director H. Adam Harris said.
Snow White has stretched Manson’s considerable and experienced acting chops to the limit. In one memorable scene, where he plays all seven dwarves in rapid-fire succession, he’s feeding acting cues—to himself. Remembering who was who, switching the voices to the appropriate character, while adjusting his hat and not missing a cue is a thrilling, high-wire act.
“They key to it all is the scoring of the script,” Manson said. “By that, I mean figuring out what these characters voices sound like, deciding how they will sound and how they sound different from each other. Their motivation. It’s crazy. I’m out there depending on myself to give me the cues from one character to the next. When I land a (Dwarf) Five line, it will be a cue to remember what a (Dwarf) One line will be. It’s a great, awesome challenge that H. Adam has given me the opportunity to take this on.
“… The mythology of these seven (dwarves) are, they can be whatever we want them to be. You’ve seen them depicted in a variety of ages, so what H. Adam and I decided to create were voices that seemed contemporary to the kids coming to see the show. We developed voices that are identifiable to them.”
That led Harris and Manson to inspirations ranging from the Mighty Ducks movies to “The Little Rascals.” He sat down and decided how each dwarf would sound by running their voices in his head. Dwarf Four is the main character. Dwarf One became the “wanna-be leader.” Dwarf Two is “always anxious and worried.” Dwarf Three is “always falling asleep.” Dwarf Five is the “trickster goof.” Dwarf Seven is the “old, wise one.”
Manson said the role is so demanding in terms of following cues and hitting marks with the constant switching of costumes that he has to make a conscious effort to stay with his lines every day. He can’t take a day off from refreshing his lines, lest he miss a cue or drop a line—or lines. He said the first time he went off book, he was calling for lines all the time.
“Early in rehearsal, it was Everest. I kept asking myself ‘Am I going to be able to climb it and get up to the top of the mountain?'" he said.
“Playing this role is the workout it appears to be, but it is so rewarding because of my passion for performing for kids and recognizing how much they are enjoying the play and the way they are in awe of watching this play out in front of them,” he said. “Seeing this character spending most of the time saying ‘I can’t do this. It’s impossible,’ and of course, the kids don’t want to leave by the time I’m finally pushed into admitting I have to play all these characters all at once. There’s so much anticipation and excitement about it that it’s hard not to get swept up in that.”
Manson often gets swept up in it. Snow White is his fourth Theatre for Young Audiences and Families play, joining Jane of the Jungle (2012), James and the Giant Peach (2014) and the Outside SCR 2021 production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, where he played Snoopy. At Alliance, near his hometown of Covington, GA., Manson appeared in Goodnight Moon and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
He also played Albert Einstein in Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile—with the comedian in the audience.
Along with stops in New York, Sacramento and finally in Southern California—where he was most recently seen at SCR playing three characters in last spring’s production of Tiger Style! by Mike Lew—Manson developed the versatility that merged seamlessly with his passion for children’s theatre. His ability to segue from character to character and own each one in an engaging, entertaining manner exudes “fun” to audiences. How could they not have a good time when Manson was so clearly enjoying himself?
“The Theatre for Young Audience stuff is always part of what I do. In my opinion, those audiences are our most important audiences. They are our future audiences,” he said. “Doing the work for them is incredibly important to me. I feel like if you have a production clicking on all the right cylinders and you grab those audiences, they will be audiences that sustain us and sustain theatre for years to come. …
“When we have a school production, I always get excited in the curtain speech when (SCR’s Conservatory and Education Programs Associate) Nick Slimmer will ask how many of them are going to the theatre for the first time. It’s the first time for most of them and it grabs me by the heart and gets me excited because it infuses me with a sense of purpose. …. I really enjoy going out and doing the work and doing something that will make them lifetime theatregoers.”