Actor covets the chance to play Barrymore

He says he comes by his in­terest in per­form­ing quite nat­ur­ally since his moth­er was an op­era sing­er.

“Only my choice was to be­come an act­or,” said Keith Baker, now star­ring in Bar­ry­more, the Bris­tol River­side Theatre’s 25th-an­niversary sea­son-open­er, through Oct. 30. “I’m not sure ex­actly how much my moth­er’s ca­reer in­flu­enced me, since she was nev­er in the theat­er and only pur­sued her op­er­at­ic ca­reer. But I must have been in­flu­enced in some way.”

On the oth­er hand, Baker said he had many fant­ast­ic mu­sic and drama teach­ers while at­tend­ing high school in New York.

“I learned many things from them, things I still keep with me today,” he said.

With a good voice and an in­creas­ing tal­ent for act­ing, Baker said he was even­tu­ally per­suaded to study act­ing, and made the de­cision to ap­ply to the pres­ti­gi­ous Neigh­bor­hood Play­house.

“I was just sev­en­teen, the young­est per­son at the Play­house, and was ac­cep­ted in­to a two-year course. That meant study­ing with such gi­ants as San­ford Meis­ner and Martha Gra­ham, and later un­der John House­man at Juil­liard,” he said.

There were oth­ers who in­flu­enced and taught him, and Baker said he is grate­ful to all of them for help­ing to de­vel­op a ca­reer that has las­ted so many dec­ades, res­ult­ing in so many awards and fab­ulous pro­duc­tions to ex­plore. Per­haps none more de­mand­ing — or re­ward­ing — than play­ing mat­in­ee idol John Bar­ry­more.

Today Baker, in his 60s and BRT’s artist­ic dir­ect­or, is en­joy­ing delving in­to Bar­ry­more, the man. Baker brings to life the cha­ris­mat­ic act­or whose no­tori­ety and glory made him a Phil­adelphia le­gend. “I’m not try­ing to im­it­ate Bar­ry­more so much as look in­side the man,” Baker said. “The play takes place dur­ing the last month of Bar­ry­more’s life when sup­posedly he wanted to try to re­cap­ture his early suc­cess of Richard III in this late point in his life.

“It’s all fic­ti­tious and nev­er really happened, but we’re try­ing to show him and his tal­ent,” Baker con­tin­ued.

“Bar­ry­more was a drunk from the age of four­teen and nev­er tried to hide it. Yet he was a func­tion­ing drunk, even go­ing on­stage drunk at times. But we nev­er deal with him as a drunk in this play. Rather, we show a per­son cour­ageous enough to try to do one last great thing again in his life, and I think that’s the uni­ver­sal­ity of the piece.”

Ac­cord­ing to Baker, do­ing a one-man show is a “pro­foundly lonely ex­per­i­ence. However, to make it less so and add some in­ter­est­ing side points, dir­ect­or Jon Marans chose to put Bar­ry­more’s prompt­er on­stage with him so it be­comes, in part, a two-per­son play. And since Bar­ry­more wanted people around him to view his work, that part is ‘played’ by the BRT audi­ence.”

Hav­ing dir­ec­ted more than 60 pro­duc­tions him­self at this point, Baker has ap­peared in many oth­er BRT pro­duc­tions but nev­er casts him­self in any role.

“Susan (Atkin­son, BRT found­ing dir­ect­or) asked me to do this role. It’s a role I would have loved to do and she felt I was per­fect for it. So I jumped at the chance when she presen­ted me with it,” he said.

Pri­or to com­ing to BRT, Baker was artist­ic dir­ect­or for the Ken­tucky Shakespeare Fest­iv­al and the Flor­ida Rep­er­tory Theatre. He is the re­cip­i­ent of many awards, in­clud­ing a two-time win­ner for best act­or at the pres­ti­gi­ous Car­bon­ell Awards. 

“I think one of the best things about be­ing in this busi­ness is the op­por­tun­ity to work with some of the very best act­ors and in some of the very best plays ever staged,” he said. “I be­lieve the true value of what I do is when I am no longer act­ing or per­form­ing, but liv­ing the life of someone else in front of people who are truly happy to watch my work.” •• 

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