by Lorie Lewis Ham
Since theatre on stage is still on hold right now, it seemed like a good time to feature some local actors who have also been acting on our podcast, Mysteryrat’s Maze. This week we chatted with local actor and director Kelly Ventura who has been the voice of several of our episodes. Mysteryrat’s Maze features mystery short stories and first chapters read by local actors.
KRL: Are you from Visalia? If not, where are you from and how did you end up here?
Kelly: I was born in San Jose, CA but my parents moved to Visalia when I was a child. However, my mom’s side of the family has been in Visalia for four generations, so I officially consider myself a native of Visalia.
KRL: Current day job?
Kelly: I am a Producer for Gallagher, one of the largest insurance brokers in the world. I work mainly with nonprofit organizations and help them to find the right insurance and risk management program. Given the focus, mission, and passion of my nonprofit clients, I find what I do very rewarding.
KRL: Schools attended?
Kelly: I attended Conyer Elementary in Visalia, Visalia Christian School, Central Valley Christian, Golden West, and COS.
KRL: When did you first get involved in acting and why?
Kelly: So the first time I got hooked on being on stage was during a fifth grade talent show. I was supposed to perform with a buddy of mine but he backed out at the last minute. I was a stand-up comedy fan at a very young age. My parents would let me stay up and watch Johnny Carson, so I’m old enough to have seen the first performances of guys like Jerry Seinfeld, Gary Shandling, and my all-time favorite, Robin Williams. And I remember watching these comedians and naively thinking, “Hey, I can do that!” So I hastily threw together some little comedy bits and one-liners and entered the talent show as a solo act. I was way too young to realize the recklessness of my decision, but I did it anyway. And after my first punch line I got a laugh. Then another and another. Honestly, my “act” was hackneyed at best. But no one was going to heckle a fifth grader. I think most of the audience was probably laughing at the fact that there was an 11-year-old kid on stage doing stand-up comedy at a Christian school talent show. I am thankful they laughed because looking back, I was insane for doing it. Later in school I wasn’t the class clown or anything, but I was usually the one who told the class clown what to say. As I grew up, being the funny guy drew a lot of attention. Most importantly, I got the attention of the girl I ended up marrying.
KRL: What was your first part?
Kelly: I played a lot of little parts in school and church shows throughout grade school. Including a cameo as Rico the bartender in our third grade performance of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana. Yeah. Don’t ask. But my first real part was when I was about 16 and I was cast in a summer touring company that traveled to churches across California for about three weeks. To be honest, I’m not really a huge fan of the big traditional Easter church programs because over the years I’ve seen some pretty cringe-worthy performances. But I really fell in love with this particular show and the character. The show was called Mark of the Carpenter and detailed the life of Simon the Cyrene who, in Biblical accounts, was forced to carry the cross for Christ prior to the crucifixion. In the show he’s sort of an anti-hero, a complicated and angry character. He deeply resents what essentially the Roman government forced him to do, and the playwright comes at the typical Easter show from a totally different angle. I am a respectful person and all, but I really like shows that are weird, different, and a bit unorthodox. So I was drawn to the character in a big way. Ironically the show was my first directorial debut a couple of years later.
KRL: What are some of the shows you have been in, the parts you have played, and with what companies?
Kelly: For almost ten years I’ve enjoyed working with the Enchanted Playhouse in Visalia. During that time I’ve played John Silver in Treasure Island, Mr. Craven in The Secret Garden, and Mr. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’ve also had a memorable time striking out on my own and producing my own one person show A Christmas Carol. I started performing that show every December since 2005 (save one December). That show is very close to my heart because I’ve played the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge longer than any other. I actually had the opportunity to perform A Christmas Carol as a fundraiser for The Enchanted Playhouse before the Main Street Theatre closed. I was in my first film over the summer, a student film called Conduit. I’ve really enjoyed my time with Good Company Players. Recently I played Antonio Rainaldi in My Cousin Rachel. I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan since I was about ten years old, and being a huge fan of villains I was very excited and grateful for the opportunity to play Professor Moriarty in 2nd Space’s recent production of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.
KRL: Do you have a favorite type of show, both to be in, and to direct?
Kelly: I am naturally a sarcastic and vain person (seriously, I don’t know how people can stand to be around me) so I’d have to say that my favorite type of show to be in and direct is one that a lot of people pay a lot of money to come see. But really, for all my talk about liking the unorthodox stuff, I absolutely love melodrama. Good old fashioned Oceano-style melodrama is my favorite type of show to be in and direct. I’ve directed melodramas such as Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch, Run to the Roundhouse Nelly, and I even wrote my own melodrama called The Phantom of the Melodrama.
Everything about that particular genre is known. Similar to commedia dell’arte, you have characters that are immediately recognizable. There are secret plots, live piano music, and audience participation. That’s really my favorite part. I know some actors don’t always like to hear an audience’s reaction during a show, but I love it. There’s a certain level of comfort for me in the melodrama world. No doubt there are some theatre folks who have seen my work and who are reading this saying to themselves, “Yes we can tell you are very comfortable in the world of melodrama!” When I played Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure at 2nd Space, I actually received the traditional melodrama villain “boo” from the audience. Honestly, I absolutely loved it! My wife and I have a couple of “get away” plans for when we retire. And one of them is buying a house on the coast and working for The Great American Melodrama. The other one is getting a job at the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. LOL.
I love one-person performance pieces. A Christmas Carol is my favorite one to perform. I also really enjoy playing villains. I was recently approached by a director asking me to audition for a villain, so I may be getting type-cast. But that’s okay. A villain is really just the hero in his own story. I enjoy playing the dark, brooding, calculating, tortured artist type. LOL. And I’m a huge fan of several “villain” actors like Mark Strong, Alan Rickman, and Peter Cushing.
KRL: What do you like best about acting/directing? And what has been the hardest?
Kelly: I love the process. As far as directing goes, I love everything from the script selection, initial concepts, costume sketches, and getting characters in your head. I love the excitement of pre-production meetings with my creative team. The audition process is daunting but once the cast is selected you move forward like a team.
Acting is the same. The process is so much fun. The character becomes a part of you. In fact (this is kinda weird actually) sometimes I find myself saying things in real life or even walking or moving in certain ways and I stop and I go, “Wait, where did that come from?” And it’s a character I’ve played. Other people have actually pointed it out to me. I was walking across the stage once to do some menial directorial task and a fellow director stopped me and was like, “What character are you playing right now?” I said, “What do you mean?” They replied, “That walk you’re doing. It’s left over from one of your characters.” Then they named the character and I thought, “I don’t know. Maybe I should see a therapist about this?”
The difficult part for me when it comes to acting and directing is saying good-bye. When I direct I have a speech that I give at the end of a show. I tell my cast that they’re all part of the Ventura tribe, and my door is always open and I’ll always answer their call or text. I’ve written letters of recommendation, job references, and college references. It’s cool to have students remember that even years later. I’ve had student actors go through my program and then go on to become designers for Apple, graduate from MIT, and start their own nonprofit organizations. That’s a great feeling. People in my life did good things for me, and I want to do the same for students.
One of the hardest things for me as a director is to NOT watch a show or be in an audition with my director filter on. Sometimes you just want to enjoy a show and you can’t because you know things as a director that the family sitting next to you doesn’t. Sometimes I’ve actually auditioned for a show myself and while I’m waiting to go on, I’m watching my fellow actors as a director. I’m casting the show in my head without realizing it and it’s NOT MY SHOW. I have to actually force my director brain to stop and focus on my audition. However, it doesn’t always work and it’s cost me getting cast in some shows.
But the upside is when you’ve directed a lot and you’re cast in a show, then you’re able to bring that understanding to your performance. The directing experience creates a certain frame of reference for me as an actor and helps me understand my responsibilities to the show.
When you’re acting, saying good bye to fellow cast members is sometimes a mixed bag. LOL. But saying good-bye to the character you’ve played for three weeks or eight weeks is often a sad thing. When the experience has been good, saying good bye is kinda like watching the last episode of Friends or The Office. It’s bitter-sweet. And honestly, it’s like that most times for me. I like working with people and collaborating. I did one show not long ago and all we did was quote The Office backstage. Those are the fun experiences that you remember.
KRL: Future goals and dreams?
Kelly: I have pitched this idea to several folks, but I would really like to see one theatre location in Visalia that would serve as the hub for several local theatre companies. Having a home is important. Right now the Enchanted Playhouse is extremely happy with our new home at The Fox Theatre downtown. But a lot of companies don’t have the opportunity to perform at a classic venue like The Fox. There’s been a lot happening over the past two years, and as an organization we have all that stuff in our rearview [mirror], but at the end of the day, EPTC is blessed. However, many of our local community theaters are itinerant, and I’d like to create a rehearsal and performance space everyone can use. Ultimately, it has to make sense for an investor to go all in on an idea like this. And with everything going on in the world right now, that may be a dream I have to put on the shelf for quite some time.
KRL: I like that idea. Heroes?
Kelly: I have many local heroes but to those of you (and you know who you are) who helped and believed in me at various stages in my life, I could never adequately express my gratitude.
KRL: What do you feel has helped you the most in growing as an actor and director?
Kelly: As an actor, being able to rein in that fear of, “What if I don’t get cast?” or, “What if my choices are wrong?” is a huge step in your development. I tell cast members all the time, “Resist the temptation to re-audition in your mind after the actual audition is over.” I personally tend to be an overthinker, so that’s a big one for me to overcome. But when you are able to navigate those things, it helps you to become better. It’s definitely a process, though.
KRL: What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into acting?
Kelly: I get to work with so many talented students. When I see an actor with particular strengths or traits that I recognize in another actor’s work, I will often advise them to further study that particular actor’s work. The sad thing is, the older I get, my actor references are not registering with the younger student actors. So I just end up saying, “Google it when you get home.”
Over all, my advice is, “find your strength.” Identify it. Work on the other stuff, but spend a bulk of your work as an actor on what you do well. Watch other actors who are like you. Watch their films, shows, and performances. Watch documentaries on their lives. If there’s a part that you’ve always wanted to play, watch as many versions of that show as you can. Find what makes you different as an actor. It could be something as simple as an ability to do accents really well. Develop that. I can’t tell you how many emails, calls, and texts I get from fellow directors (because we all talk) asking for a particular actor with a certain accent, or a certain type. Find what makes you unique and you’ll always be busy.
Steve Lamar was my technical theatre instructor at COS and he told us something similar to this. Everyone wants to be cast as a lead. A ton of people want to audition for the same role. And if you’re cast, that’s awesome! But if you learn all aspects of theatre such as lighting, stagecraft, sound, etc. then you will ALWAYS be busy in theatre.
Do not be afraid to audition for a show that you may think is out of your league. I did that SO MANY TIMES when I was younger. I sat in theaters waiting for my time to audition and…oh my gosh…I was in too deep but no one ever told me. At an audition, don’t be afraid to do the weird thing. By that I mean do something (within reason of course) that’s going to make you stand out. I once had an actor get so into the scene she was reading that she kicked over the folding chair she had been sitting on. Everyone was okay and the chair survived. And I ended up casting her in the show. It takes a certain level of bravery, but don’t be afraid to do it. That shows a director that you are not afraid to make bold choices.
KRL: Any funny and/or inspirational stories to share?
Kelly: So back to the stand-up comedy thing. I was in Mike Wilson’s drama class at Golden West. Our final was a monologue, and I had chosen a bit of Robin Williams’ stand-up routine from his comedy special, A Night at the Met. I was so psyched up and getting ready to go on, when Mr. Wilson comes to me and said, “Hey, the stage lights aren’t working. So if you want to reschedule your monologue, that’s fine.” I didn’t want to prolong my anxiety, so I told him that I’d go on anyway. Now if you’re familiar with Robin Williams’ A Night at the Met it is pretty intense right off the bat. So I launch into it and it’s a quick set up and then the first punchline. You could literally hear the air being sucked out of the room as all my friends were waiting to get Mr. Wilson’s approval before laughing. I was like a fighter in the arena looking up at the Emperor waiting for thumbs up or thumbs down. Mr. Wilson paused, chuckled, put his head in his hand and the place erupted. Whew.
After I finished, Mr. Wilson came up and said some things to me in front of the class and my confidence level soared. I’d never felt that before from someone outside my family. It was at that moment the ultimate validation. In my work with students at EPTC and elsewhere I’ve always striven to bring that “Mr. Wilson” level of encouragement and positive reinforcement to my actors. He changed my life for the good, and taught me it was okay to be a theatre kid. I actually had an opportunity not too long ago to let him know. It was cool. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Jones at COS had me audition for his program not long afterward and I did the same monologue. Totally different reaction. LOL. But I got in though.
KRL: What is your dream role? Dream show to direct?
Kelly: In college I had an opportunity to meet another mentor who would change my life for the better. Mr. Borba was my Shakespearean Literature Professor. He was actually the one who inspired me to write. In his class I actually wrote an original one-act play completely in iambic pentameter. The script was basically a Hamlet rip off and it will never see the light of day. But as an actor, you sometimes have to take the opportunities as they come, right? So Mr. Borba gave students the opportunity to perform a few scenes from a Shakespeare play. True to form, I, of course, chose Richard III. I performed a few monologues in class and I loved it. So I suppose my dream role would be to play Richard III for a full show. However that part is really designed for a man a few years younger than me. So that ship has most likely sailed.
KRL: Is it hard balancing a job and acting/directing?
Kelly: Well I was telling someone the other day that I don’t fish, golf, hunt, and I’m not a “weekend warrior” really of any sport. I am basically a boring, predictable person. So after work hours, theatre sort of fills that time.
KRL: What was the hardest for you in doing a podcast?
Kelly: The hardest thing for me in doing voice-over work is differentiating in my head [between] a theatrical performance and a voice-over. On stage, if you stutter or fumble a bit, or spit on the audience, it can all be worked into the performance. In a live performance you can come off like, “Yeah, I meant to do that.” But voice work is a very different thing. It’s very precise. My student actors know that I love improv. And I love going off script as my character. But you can’t do that in voice work. So for a guy like me who’s a very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type, the precision that voice-over demands is frustrating at times.
KRL: What was the most fun?
Kelly: Hands down, the most fun I’ve had doing the podcasts was recording the story about Lizzy Borden. I loved doing that one because I am a huge fan of the story. I’ve listened, read and watched so much about the murders, that I know way too much about the details of that case than an average person should. Not only did I record the podcast on the day of the anniversary of the murders, but at the precise time of day the murders occurred. I think the word is “obsessed,” right? I’m kinda weird like that.
KRL: Had you ever done any voice acting before?
Kelly: Yes, I did an audio version of my one-person performance of A Christmas Carol. All in that’s about 18 different characters. It’s weird to have all those people rolling around in your head. My family jokes that when I am old (older than I am now) I’ll be wandering around the neighborhood randomly performing all these characters. Yep. I’m going to drive my family crazy.