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renaissance man
the wit and will of jeff mclane
by juli mccarthy
7.18.04
pop culture

He stands on a small wooden platform in a refurbished cow pasture. Black hair flying, eyes popping dramatically, his burly figure writhing and twisting as he shouts, “Rock on!” Twenty minutes later, he is dripping with sweat and taking his bows. “Thank you, lords and ladies. I am Master William Shakespeare! You may now put money in my pants.”

Huh?

Chicago actor Jeff McLane has been performing in the role of William Shakespeare at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in southern Wisconsin for the last ten years. A favorite attraction at the faire, his twenty-minute Hamlet show called “The Wit of Will” consistently plays to standing-room-only crowds. In this version, Gertrude gets hot over men in tights, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sound like Keanu Reeves and Laertes just wants to kick some royal butt. Knowing that the Shakespearean language can seem intimidating, McLane created the routine to remind his audience that a play is only a series of conversations: “You talk to your mother, you talk to your father, you talk to a ghost.” He flies in and out of the different characters at mind-numbing speed, yet clearly conveys the plot and character motivation at every step. You could get the same information with Cliff’s Notes, but you wouldn’t have nearly as much fun.

After his Shakespeare shows, McLane is often asked if he is an English teacher, a question he finds immensely flattering. “I was a terrible student. My grade point average in school was… ew.” He grimaces in recollection. He barely managed to stay interested in high school long enough to graduate, and went on to college almost on a dare. When a lady friend enrolled at Wright State University in Ohio, McLane tagged along for lack of anything better to do. Starting from nothing, he felt he had nothing to lose, so he auditioned for a play at the college. The head of the theatre department was so taken with his performance that he was offered a talent scholarship almost instantly and spent the next two years studying drama and history and performing on stage at every opportunity. When his scholarship and his limited finances ran out, he left school with his advisor’s blessing to pursue a career in acting.

In addition to his portrayal of William Shakespeare, McLane is one half of a swashbuckling duo called The Bold And Stupid Men that performs in California at The Renaissance Pleasure Faire. McLane plays Bolt Upright, a comically chivalrous character who teaches the audience “the manly art of self-defense.” The Bold And Stupid Men grew out of another act, The Swordsmen! , created by fellow Ren faire performers and stage combat instructors, Douglas Mumaw and David Woolley. It’s a high-energy act, with carefully choreographed sword fighting and fast-paced physical comedy, and it’s exhausting to watch, let alone perform in the California sunshine. McLane jokes that he should be weighed before and after each performance, as he’s certain he burns off several pounds each time.

In the spirit of a true Renaissance man, McLane is a poet, painter, graphic artist, screenwriter and musician as well as an actor. Last year, he collaborated with the Wiccan poet Morgaine d’Abney on her book Demons Don’t Fail Me Now, providing haunting photo-manipulation illustrations. He has also done CD covers and prints. McLane’s photo-manipulation is a little weird, I notice. He takes photographic portraits of people, mainly women, and twists them in Photoshop. His portrait subjects cry tears of blood, or dissolve into flames. They are unsettling, spooky and eerily beautiful. Despite his cheery, almost manic stage presence, he prefers to explore the dark side in his art and poetry.

He grew up in rural southern Illinois, and says being dirt-poor most of his life prepared him well for the starving artist lifestyle. He isn’t interested in finances, except as a means to an end. “I don’t need much,” he says. “A roof, some food, clothes. A car that works,” he adds, laughing. It’s not about the money. He does not have a day job or a fallback plan, choosing instead to follow his dream relentlessly. He’s been fortunate so far; between Shakespeare, Bolt Upright and assorted other stage roles, he stays ahead of his bills and manages to put a little aside. He has reached the point in his acting where he rarely has to audition for stage roles he wants – directors seek him out. Now he is pursuing big-time, mainstream Hollywood success. He has a screenplay of his own shuttling around Los Angeles right now and insists that if the screenplay is optioned, he will play a role. Ah, I comment, the independent filmmaker route: write, direct and star in your own movies. He laughs. “Yes! It worked for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.”

He is ambitious, but cautious, and fully aware of the level of competitiveness in his chosen field. He shuns work as a movie extra because he says it would be too easy to fall into the eternal purgatory of the Screen Actors’ Guild, where actors do drone work to pay the grocery bill, but rarely break out into the public’s awareness. He wants to spring onto the scene like Venus, fully-formed and ready to star. To that end, he spends his offstage time networking with other actors, directors, and writers. With a practicality that I notice is typical of him, he points out that it’s not necessarily “who you know” but that it doesn’t hurt, either. He is friendly with a few filmmakers, and has recently landed a small role in an upcoming biopic about Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. He’s obviously excited about this.

There is a definite element of the matinee idol in him, with his leading man good looks and charming personality. Surely the original William Shakespeare never had groupies, but McLane is generally surrounded by pretty girls at the faire, and they can’t ALL be English scholars.

He seems to adore his audience, even when it’s not just pretty girls. When asked about this, he agrees readily. The audience, he says, is another character in his plays. He can sense when he’s engaged them and he feeds off their energy. Recently he decided to add MacBeth to his reperetoire, and coaxed the audience to help him write the act on the fly. I met with him after this performance, and he was eager to know how I thought it went. When I said it was confusing in parts, he immediately started taking notes: “What was confusing? What would make it better?”

“Choosing a life as an artist…” I start to ask – and here he interrupts. “It’s not choosing. I have always been an actor. It’s about taking the creative energy and talent and turning it into something. Being an actor or artist isn’t a way to be ‘cool’, it’s a gift. If I was given these gifts – the voice, the talent, whatever – it follows that I am supposed to do something with them.”

Yes, but I was going to ask about the money. Isn’t it hard to willingly turn your back on security in the form of a nice cushy 401K plan? “Nah. I don’t need much,” he repeats. “I just want to make something and see it happen on the screen.”

Until it does, Jeff McLane can be found performing his “Wit of Will” show three times daily through Labor Day weekend at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. If I were you, I’d catch him now. If his career goes according to plan (and there’s nothing to indicate that it won’t) you may not get another chance.


ABOUT JULI MCCARTHY

A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy

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