BY CARY GINELL
Chris Mahr, who is currently directing High Street Arts Center’s production of Guys and Dolls, was born in Thousand Oaks and raised in Ventura. He didn’t catch the theater bug until high school; as a sophomore, he performed in A Nightmare Before Christmas as Vampire #1, which he was “totally stoked” about. His mother was also a theater major in college, focusing on set design and construction. Thanks to his mother and grandparents, who were also theater buffs, Chris grew up seeing a lot of musical theater. He got his degree at AMDA (The American Musical Dramatic Academy) taking classes at both the Los Angeles and New York City campuses. We continue our interview with Chris and begin by talking about the pre-recorded musical soundtrack that is necessary when producing a show at Moorpark’s space-restricted High Street Arts Center.
VCOS: Is working with a pre-recorded soundtrack a relief because you don’t have to worry about that aspect or is it harder?
CHRIS: The tracks that MTI provides are beautiful and gorgeous. Do I wish that sometimes it was a live orchestra? Absolutely. There were moments where I wanted things to be held out longer or to provide pauses. The actors sometimes need to have more room to be able to act if they want to. As an actor who is on the stage, I would have loved to have had a live orchestra, but you mold and you mesh. You have what you have and you make the best of it. Sometimes we’d call them and have them do a few edits for us and they did that, which is nice. But it’s different working off a track.
VCOS: What is Chris Mahr’s stamp on Guys and Dolls?
CHRIS: Something that I’ve been approached about and flattered every time someone says it is that I really wanted people to be in character all the time, whether they’re in the chorus, are a brick, I don’t care. Have something happening. Have the audience notice you. No matter what, someone is going to be seeing you, whether you’re a main character or a background character. And it was something that I pushed. I would say, “Listen, I understand that some of you are just chorus, but you can make some magical things happen, and you can have some fun on stage that people are going to notice.”
VCOS: Hence, the drunk.
CHRIS: (laughs) Hence the drunk, yes! Todd Tickner. I love Todd Tickner. But I really wanted to share that. And I really wanted people to know that background characters make the show just as much as the main characters.
VCOS: What do you think the audience does not notice that you put a lot of work into?
CHRIS: I don’t know, but I hope that the thing they don’t notice is the fluidity of the show. If a show moves well, an audience doesn’t even recognize all the aspects that go into it. You have lights, your actors are working with tracks, you have sets moving around, you have costume changes. I don’t want people to realize that it is “just” a community theater show. I want them to be completely immersed. I was really picky about pace. Keep the show moving. I would tell my actors, “Watch some of the old comedies. Watch My Man Godfrey. Watch His Girl Friday. His Girl Friday is one of my favorite movies in the universe. Look at some of those old classic comedies – they’re all about pace, pace, pace.” They keep it moving. Sometimes the laughs are so funny, you miss some of the next lines. I don’t want them to do that but I want them to keep that level of energy.
VCOS: What’s next for you?
CHRIS: Hopefully, I’ll be directing again, but in the meantime, I’ll be doing makeup design for Shrek at Conejo Players, which is going to be insane. There are a lot of magical creatures, prosthetics, and lots of green. And quick changes. I watched a live performance of it on Netflix; I had actually never seen the stage production until Shawn Lanz talked to me about it, and I’m pretty sure my face was in shock the entire time. It scared the living daylights out of me. That’s an undertaking of a show. So that’ll be fun.
VCOS: If you get to direct a show of your choice, what’s at the top of your wish list?
CHRIS: Hmm. That would have to be one I’d like to direct and not want to be in (laughs). Dogfight: The Musical. That is a phenomenal musical. It’s got great music, it’s got a great book, and it’s great for a black box theater. I would do that in a heartbeat. It’s on YouTube so check it out. It is impactful and it is good. Also, I would love to direct Chicago. That’s what Julie [choreographer Auxier] and I both love – we love our Fosse. I would love to be in Cell Block Tango myself, but I don’t have the right parts.
VCOS: That never stopped you before! Like when you were the Amazonian chorus girl in The Producers.
CHRIS: That is very true! (laughs) I had fun trying to fit into that cupboard. When that cupboard is shorter than you are and you have to fit into it, that makes for a good night. “Hey, Chris. Wear heels and then fit into this little enclosed space and be hidden.”
VCOS: What are your favorite roles that you’ve played.
CHRIS: It’s a close tie between Dr. Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror and Patsy in Spamalot. With Patsy, I had five lines, but filling in that quiet space with being on stage and having a good time doing improv, watching, and reacting, and playing around with whatever was happening on stage – I mean, it’s Monty Python. They leave you that room. Doing Rocky Horror at Conejo and then at Hillcrest was the most liberating and phenomenal experience of my entire life. Nothing was taboo. You talk about a show that has no boundaries and you don’t have to play by the rules, and are able to do it on stage and get away with it. Hell, yeah, I’m so on that train!
Guys and Dolls concludes its run at the High Street Arts Center this weekend. For ticket information, dates, and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.