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COOL CLEVELAND
INGENIUS

A CONVERSATION WITH TOM FULTON
By Kelly Ferjutz
November 7, 2007

Once . . . upon a time

If ever you are privileged to sit and chat a bit with Thomas Fulton, it would be easy to think that among his next door neighbors or best friends you would find King Lear, Lady Macbeth, Uncle Vanya or even Arkadina and Trigorin. Or any of the other characters who inhabit the plays of Shakespeare or Chekhov. You might even encounter Stanislavski, who brought many of these characters to the forefront of modern theater.                       

Once . . . upon a time, theater was all about the people. âœThere were no sets, no special lights, few costumes in Shakespeareâ™s day,❠Fulton says in his matter-of-fact way. âœIt was just a small space, because of course, there was no amplification, so people stood in a circle around the stage area. The Globe is an exact replica of that earlier space, where they performed in the daylight.❠And, of course, all the parts were played by men. Or boys, dressed as women. Theater has come a long way since then!

You may recall having seen Fulton on-stage in our area during the last thirty or so years; heâ™s appeared on nearly all of them, some more than others. Heâ™s also directed a good many productions and taught acting classes, as well, for which heâ™s won the Scene Magazine â˜best acting teacherâ™ award several times.

This puts his familiarity with characterization into a better context, perhaps. In his opinion, (and that of others, too, no doubt) a good director needs âœto create an atmosphere where the actors feel â˜safeâ™ to do whatever it is they need to do. It has to work in this moment or itâ™s dead.❠He pauses for a moment, then continues in a thoughtful vein. âœFor the actor, what is the catalyst? In this moment, what do I have to do to survive?â

He is very eloquent speaker, but these words are all his own, and they tumble out of him.  âœShakespeare was all about imagination, especially on the part of the audience. The curtains open and we peek in at that world. But, what is that world made up of?  On the stage there is nothing.  It is an an empty space;  perhaps a throne here, a grassy bank there.  But in the sound of the first word, we find the story is in the language; the story; the set; the temperature; the passions; the loves; the desires.  Itâ™s the Shakespeareâ™s poetry, not the stage , that invigorates the actorsâ™ imagination and passions;   bringing  living emotions out of their secret hiding places.❠ 

So, the director must identify the themes of the work, or why do the play? âœLear understood betrayal,❠comments Fulton. âœThe poisonous stink of jealousy. The bitter pain of ingratitude. The dark dangers of hubris. A lost man; without rule, without children, without friends, without god â¡¡ã stripped to his core. All the ingredients. Patrons come to the theater, they generously pay in advance because they want to enjoy the play, even if its only the costumes or the sets.❠A grin accompanies those last words, before he turns serious again. âœIf the story begins with a kind of âœonce upon a time❠and the actors begin to spin a story that transports the audience, they become completely engrossed, and received more than their moneyâ™s worth.  Theyâ™ walk away happy..❠He muses, âœThe actor transports the audience by ignoring them. He simply focuses on his work, and when that happens, itâ™s magic.â

Fulton was born in Cleveland â¡¡ã University Hospitals, in fact, and grew up in the Lake Lucerne community north of Chagrin Falls. Theater beckoned early; young Tom participated in both Heights Youth Theatre and the WKYC-TV East Ohio Fairy Tale Theatre, directed by Jerry Leonard. He went to northern Michigan and Interlochen Academy of the Arts for his senior year of high school, where he immersed himself even more in theater. After that it was to the south and SMU, and a degree in theater, earned in 1975. Among his many teachers were Joan Potter, a member of the Actorâ™s Studio (to whom he owes a deep debt of gratitude for her genius as a teacher) Ray Bolger and Vivian Vance. He traveled for a little while, but one of those â˜seize the dayâ™ moments occurred a couple of years later when he returned to Cleveland for a visit.

He discovered the little theater at Public Hall, which seemed a great sort of place for a resident company, so off he went to the then-Mayor, Ralph Perk, who helped the young man obtain funding. Center Repertory Theatre sprang to life as a professional entity, and during the next three years, Fulton and his company added to Clevelandâ™s vibrant theatrical history with three especially note-worthy productions. Vanities, by Jack Heifner ran for just over a year (the 2nd longest-running play in Cleveland at that time);  Streamers  by David Rabe and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Michael Paller (world premiere) cemented the theaterâ™s reputation.

From there, Fulton and his troupe of actors moved eastward to Cleveland Heights, and the Civic Building near the intersection of Cedar and Mayfield roads. Phoenix Theater Ensemble did a lot of classical plays (one of the first plays I saw in Cleveland was A Midsummer Nightâ™s Dream) and Chekhov. The ensemble philosophy led him to begin a training program for professional (and non-professional) actors, using the Stanislavski Method, which is still continuing. Phoenix occupied him rather thoroughly for four years, providing Cleveland with excellent theater. Among the major accomplishments was a Cleveland Critics' Circle Award for Best Professional Production for Chekhovâ™s The Three Sisters.

In 1984 he began a five-year tenure at Cleveland Play House. Here, he was able to indulge all his theatrical passions: acting, directing and education. (I will never forget him and Cathy Lynn Davis in High Spirits â¡¡ã the musical version of Noel Cowardâ™s Blithe Spirits.)

During this time, however, he forged long-standing friendships with Wayne Turney and Andrew May among others, who, when the acting company at the Play House was disbanded, moved with him to The Cleveland Theater Company. This small professional theater company didnâ™t have a real home, but produced wonderful performances at CSUâ™s Factory Theater (another Christmas Carol) and even at Hathaway Brown (Hamlet). Following its muse for classic plays, audiences were presented with Chekhovâ™s The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya; Shawâ™s Man and Superman, Andrew Mayâ™s adaptation of The Canterbury Tales,  and Shakespeareâ™s King Lear. Contemporary playwrights were not ignored. â˜night Mother by Marsha Norman received one of its first productions ever at CTC.

Sometimes Fulton directed, sometimes he acted, sometimes both in the same productionâ¡¡ÀHamlet and King Lear. Even though he confesses to being terrified as an actor, he is mesmerizing once there on the stage. In recent years, heâ™s done more acting: George in Whoâ™s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Tartuffe for Actorâ™s Summit Theatre; Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Cain Park, Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha at the Halle Theater of the JCC just before it was torn down, and more recently, Emile in South Pacific for the JCC in partnership with Tri-Câ™s Eastern Campus. During this time he also directed an awesome production of Chekhov's The Seagull at Lakewoodâ™s Beck Center.

South Pacific was directed by Fred Sternfeld, his collaborator at the Fairmount Center for the Arts, [where Fulton serves as Executive Director] and where Fred serves as director of the Fairmount Performing Arts Camp (FPAC), a summer day camp oriented toward theater and creative arts, for the last two years housed by the Chagrin Falls School System. For the past four years, as Executive Director of Fairmount Center for the arts, Fulton has overseen and developed a wide variety of classes offered for students from grade one to professional adults, in theatre, music art, performing arts, writing, fitness and dance. Year round classes in the artsâ¡¡Àdance, music, art, fitness and gymnasticsâ¡¡Àhave been part of the Fairmount Center for the Arts â¡¡ã with central campuses in both Cuyahoga and Geauga Counties.  FCA has been operating since 1971.

New to the FCA family this year is the newly renovated theatre (3 years in the making) at Fairmountâ™s  Mayfield Village Cuyahoga Central Campus, at the corner of Wilson Mills and SOM Center Roads, where the forward-looking city fathers endorsed the idea of a â˜district for the arts. Along with  the a new state-of-the-art theatre and classrooms for music, dance, theater, and writing. They finished working on the theater in October, and are now just doing a few final tweaks on the lights and stage extension. Fulton promises â˜lots of leg roomâ™ among the 185 or so seats, and a full slate of plays in 2008-09, some of which will feature professional actors..

-- Kelly Ferjutz

[Tom Fulton was hired as Director of the Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Academy in Febuary, 2008]

 

 

 

Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Academy - 400 East Washington St.  - Chagrin Falls, Ohio 44022   440-715-4004