Theatre Community Gathers to Remember Christopher Evan Welch
By Robert Simonson
A theatre full of stage character actors came together to remember a fellow character actor at a Feb. 17 memorial held for Christopher Evan Welch at the the Irene Diamond Stage of The Pershing Square Signature Center.
Welch died Dec. 2 from complications related to cancer at the age of 48.
In the audience of the memorial were such reliable players as Henry Stram, John Pankow, Edward Hibbert, Dana Ivey, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Mary McCann, Thomas Jay Ryan, Jayne Atkinson, Stephen Kunken, Michael Emerson, Keith Reddin, Reg Rogers and many more. No doubt, they recognized a kindred soul in Welch, who forged a fruitful career over two decades, executing dozens of stage and film roles. While he never achieved widespread fame, he was always working and almost always critically appreciated.
His mother, Kathy Burke, remembered that Welch had pursued a master's degree so that he could teach in case his acting career dried up. It proved unnecessary. "He never had to find another job," she observed through tears.
The other speakers, who included directors Doug Hughes and Joe Dowling and playwrights Bruce Norris and Theresa Rebeck, remembered an effusive, energetic, loquacious man who found the fun in every activity and never seemed to lose his enthusiasm for any of his passions, from music (he headed a Seattle rock group in the early '90s) to reading ("The drunken, endless debates about that book," recalled Rogers, who read from "Moby Dick," one of Mr. Welch's favorite novels) to fatherhood (his daughter, June, was born three years ago.)
"He was the irrepressible bad boy," recalled Hughes, who was acting artistic director of Seattle Rep when he first met Welch in Seattle in the early '90s. "There was no way you tell what was going to happen next. I learned he was in a rock and roll band, and that explained a lot." Though Hughes understood that Welch was accustomed to flinging himself into the arms of adoring crowds of grunge rockers, he nonetheless tried to convince the young man to take a supporting role in a revival of that most staid of comedies, Harvey. It took extended petitioning, but Welch eventually agreed. Once in, he gave it his all.
"On stage or off, he was willing to take a header into whatever he was working on," remembered Hughes. Thereafter, to Hughes amusement, Welch would expound to his cool young friends how Harvey was actually secretly "hip." But, then, recalled Hughes, he could convince you most anything he was into at the time was actually "hip." "Let's face it," said Hughes, "the boy could talk."
Welch's unflagging gift for gab was commented on by almost every speaker, as was his contagious engagement with every project. "He was just so positive about everything he got into." said Rogers. Actor Jefferson Mays recalled being perfectly willing to dislike Welch upon first meeting him — a natural reaction from an actor whose parents had inordinately praised to their own son the gifts of a perfect stranger (Welch) whose work they had seen onstage. Mays' built-in animosity didn't last long.
Bill Irwin, whose 1997 production of Moliere's Scapin gave Welch his break-out role, sent a note (read by Pankow) in which he recalled growing impatient with the young actor as he ate up rehearsal time rigging up a rope. The idea was to have his character swing in on the role, swashbuckling-style, and then, too afraid to let go, swing back out. "I wondered if it all was worth it," remembered Irwin. In performance, "the bit lasted two seconds. The laugh lasted 12."
Rebeck, who had worked with Welch in her plays Our House and The Scene, call him "a gift of the Gods to all American playwrights," who had a great enthusiasm for participating in new work because it meant he had a hand in creating "the literature for the age."
Norris admitted that "I would not have a playwriting career at all with Chris," noting that Welch appeared in his first play at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where Norris got his start, and in his first play done in New York, 2007's The Pain and the Itch at Playwrights Horizons. He also noted that the actor was in an early reading of Clybourne Park, Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in the role that was subsequently played off and on Broadway by Jeremy Shamos. Ever the acerbic observer, Norris recalled Welch's competitive side. "He saw Clybourne Park and he said Jeremy Shamos was fine. Actually, 'serviceable' was the word he used. 'But," he said, 'of course, it's my part.'"
Norris said that he and Welch — who adeptly played many a fool and conniver in his career — shared the conviction that audiences weren't interested in seeing virtuous people on stage. "Audiences like to watch greed and cowardice and envy and contempt," he said.
Toward the end of the event, James Palmer played a couple tunes from the repertoire of the Ottoman Bigwigs, the band Welch belonged two. Both songs had lyrics by the actor. One had the two-line chorus of "I don't care what he had/I just care who he was."
Mays recalled another occasion when he and Welch were driving up to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where Mays had a part in a production of Waiting for Godot. "We got hopelessly lost and finally pulled over. Christopher suggested I walk up to a trailer that looked like a set piece from 'Deliverance' and ask directions. He was so excited he was bouncing up and down in his seat. 'This is fantastic,' he said. 'This is our play!'
"He was fantastic," added Mays. "He was the play."
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