By James Draper
Kilgore News Herald
The youngest and oldest members of the Texas Shakespeare Festival’s company don’t share a stage together this 29th season, but put them in the same room and their common bond is clear: the love of the stage.
Rick Higginbotham is a veteran actor of many stages, including TSF’s, after first putting on another character’s skin as a high school senior decades ago. At 13, Kilgore’s Brandon Fugler is still relatively new to his acting career, though he’s fast accruing a roster of roles.
That’s the ticket, says Higginbotham, a high school theater and speech teacher at White Oak ISD: step out into the spotlight.
“What I always tell my students every year is ‘Be on stage, have fun and make good choices with what you decide to be on stage with,’” he said. “I think there’s a reason they call it a play. Just always have fun. If it ever gets to where it’s not fun any more, then step away.
“In the meantime, just enjoy it, get to know the roles you’re playing, find out what makes those characters unique. Just be on stage any time you can.”
A Trinity School of Texas student, Fugler’s credits include his first role in 5th grade as Charlie in a school production of Willie Wonka, Kurt in Artsview Children’s Theatre’s The Sound of Music, Pongo in 101 Dalmatians and other parts. His turn as Macduff ’s son in TSF’s production of Macbeth this summer is his first run in a professional company.
“Hanging out with your friends or people your age is kind of fun,” he says. “Being at Texas Shakespeare Festival, I feel more professional, and I still have fun.
“These people here, they all want to be here. They’re ready to go. They don’t miss their stuff because they’re joking around or playing. It feels like everyone’s focused, but at the same time they can have a little more fun.” It’s Higginbotham’s fourth summer season with TSF after stints in 1999, 2011 and 2013 – last summer, he played the Old Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, Balthazar in Comedy of Errors and Merlin in Camelot. Higginbotham also won the holiday-season lead as Scrooge in the company’s radio show performance of A Christmas Carol.
In the end, that turned out to be his audition for season 29.
“If I had needed to audition again, I certainly would have,” he said, but “That was kind of a two-for-one deal, worked out well.”
This season, Higginbotham portrays Selsdon Morbray in Noises Off, drunken ‘Pygmalion’ patriarch Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady and, his ‘favorite’ father-figure character, Belarius.
“Because they are all different, I like the challenge of having to create three different people,” he said. “I think it’s fun, and I enjoy a challenge like that.
“I’ve had a fun time with Alfred P. Doolittle for obvious reasons. It’s just a fun role. I’d seen the movie of course, but I’d never seen it on stage … The only reason that I have any singing roles in a musical is if the singing prowess of the character doesn’t have to be that high. Alfred P. is not part of the Metropolitan Opera or anything. That’s right up my alley.”
Higginbotham said he feels a deep connection with the Belarius character, a former friend of the eponymous Cymbeline, banished into exile and kidnapping the king’s children on the way. Cymbeline is one of the bard’s latein life ‘problem plays’ with heavy themes, performed rarely.
“You can find elements from his other plays as well. It’s a mature work,” he explained. “I just love it. I enjoy working with it. I enjoy my role because me and the king’s sons for 20 years have been out in the wilderness. What I like the most is his relationship with him and his sons. They’re real.
“I think it’s a great element in the play. It’s a role and a play that was new to me; I’d never read it. Looking back on what Shakespeare I’ve done, I think this will be one of my favorites.”
For Higginbotham, one of the key elements taking the stage is storytelling and connecting with the audience, if only for a little while.
“It’s fun telling stories. We’ve been telling stories to entertain and to report on hunts and battles since we’ve been here,” Higginbotham said. “To be able to come into a dark theater with other company members and having worked very, very hard learning a play and then being able to get up and share that story with an audience and to receive the energy that they give back to you, it’s just such an organic experience and something that … it’s hard to describe to people how that feels.
“I know Brandon feels it. When you’re out on stage there’s just something about that. To be a member of an ensemble that tells a story that moves an audience and lightens things up or makes them chuckle or laugh or makes them think a little deeper, that’s the biggest thing.”
In Shakespeare’s script, Macduff ’s son is identified as just that, “Macduff ’s Son,” but TSF’s company named him behind-the-scenes.
“‘Willem’ was a name that a group of us made up because I had no name,” Fugler explained. “They thought, ‘What is a real strong Scottish name?’ Angus was already taken, so we decided on Willem.”
It’s rare that TSF has children in its summer shows, says artistic associate, playwright and actor Jason Richards. There’s one only every few years at most, especially considering the demanding rehearsal and performance scheduling stretching through June and July.
The 29th season’s company was already about two weeks into rehearsals when Fugler was brought on board at Richards’ suggestion.
“I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do this summer?’” Fugler recalled.
After directing Fugler in The Sound of Music, Richards said, the Kilgore teen was the obvious choice to take the stage in the Van Cliburn Auditorium of Kilgore College’s Anne Dean Turk Fine Arts Center.
As Kurt, “From the very beginning he was that character. He was a great member of the cast,” said Richards, incoming general manager for Artsview in Longview. “ He seems to be more mature for his age, which I think helps him.”
Richards was confident the teen could hold his own alongside older actors and, importantly, could handle the sacrifice of his summer vacation.
“It’s a big commitment. No summer baseball, no trips,” he explained. “It puts a big responsibility on him and his family. I told him it was a big commitment and that didn’t seem to bother him. He was on board from the beginning. It worked out really well for us, and we were glad he was able to do that.”
The company’s cast and crew have welcomed the 13-year-old into the fold, Fugler’s mother, Angela, said, exceeding her expectations.
“The entire cast has adopted Brandon as part of the troupe. They don’t see him as any different.”
Higginbotham isn’t surprised.
“It’s one of the kindest, most generous groups of people that you could hope to work around,” he said. “They come from all over the country and sometimes different parts of the world, and we’re all coming together with one goal: to tell stories.
“We are lucky that we get to do this. We are so lucky. There are a lot of people all over the world who would like to do what we would like to do here.” Willem relishes the chance to step under the lights. Fugler looks forward to entertaining audiences, to making them happy in some way for a few hours, and to helping them experience something outside their day-to-day lives.
“It could change the way they think about things,” he said. Macbeth, people who see it might think that life is precious and that we should care about people. You learn things from these stories. You could take a different perspective on anything. It could be that you see the evil in the world. It helps people change. It gets people thinking.”
For all that, Fugler accepts his final scene on stage is a jarring one. The role presented a new challenge for the young actor – in a notoriously bloody play, Macduff ’s son is among the casualties.
“We told him he was going to die – his face lit up: ‘ I get to die?’” Richards laughed. “He was excited about doing that.”
The thought of a death scene was “pretty fun,” Fugler said, in the darkest role he’s tackled.
“I went into TSF and they asked me to read the part. There wasn’t any special way to read it. I read the part not knowing where it’s coming from really. They said I did great and so I had high hopes. I got the part,” Fugler said. The medieval element is another boon for the young thespian. “My brother and I, we play with sticks as swords all the time. I was looking forward to it. It’s going pretty good.
However, “I’m not winning the fight.”
The on-stage death is pretty hard on Mom.
“I get in touch with that every time I’ve seen the play,” Angela Fugler explained, shaking her head. That said, she’s been impressed to see her son grow through various roles. At the first in fifth grade, to see her normally shy, quiet boy tromping around stage, “My first response was ‘Who is this?’
“Brandon has always been that special kid who’s in touch with others. He connects well and brings something special to every relationship. As a parent, it’s nice to see that other people get to share that. I’ve not missed a performance yet; I love watching him. I’ll be there every time – I’ll watch Macbeth nine times.”
That’s a pretty heavy dose, Higginbotham joked, but he knows the feeling: he never missed a performance when his daughter was on stage.
Sitting down for a joint interview, the veteran thespian filled in his young colleague on the centuries-old dark-side of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
“One of the legends, the old theatrical traditions or myths, says that if you speak the title of the play Macbeth inside the theater that some kind of bad luck or curse will catch you,” Higginbotham explained. Whether they take it seriously or not, actors don’t test fate and instead use a variety of nicknames for show: “Mackers, McB, the Scottish Play. It’s one of the things that make what we do kind of fun.”
Higginbotham is pleased to see another young person catch the acting bug.
“Being a part of a company, of an ensemble like this, is something very unique and very special. When you think of all the different arts involved in what’s going on in that building,” Higginboth said, “all the different people that bring years of work and study and bring their crafts there and, on one particular night or one particular afternoon, that we all have to take all of those elements and piece them together so that we can come away with one unified whole for a one-time experience. Recreating that nine different times per show in a season is a rare experience.
“It’s very ephemeral. Which is what I believe makes theater such an incredible artform,” he added. “We are very blessed to have an opportunity like this here in East Texas with these wonderful people who are in their 29th year doing this right now.
“This company is growing and there’s a reason for that.”