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Muse in our midst

A life enriched by theatre inspires Oliver King to share the joy, wonder and value of performance

By RICHARD A. ROSS

BETHEL, NY — Oliver King doesn’t just love theatre. He lives it. His life is a rich tapestry of acting, directing, oratory, street theatre and dance. Yet while world travel and famous artists have infused his creative expression, it is principally built on an epiphany he experienced during a high school production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

When his father, William Jesse King, passed away only two months earlier, he did not allow himself to cry. Instead he barricaded his grief until one night, in the midst of a critical scene within the play, all his pent up feelings came rushing to the surface. What ensued was unscripted, powerful and real. King learned that night how actors channel their experiences and transmit emotions that transcend boundaries of nationality, age, gender or time. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said to himself in 1970.

King soon met actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, who introduced him to Marketa Kimbrell. The latter ushered him through street theatre performances across the country. Then it was on to the 1972 Olympics to perform in lieu of the Bread and Puppet Theatre. Subsequent work with Kimbrell’s New York Street Theatre Caravan and intensive classes with Lee Strasberg were forerunners to a Mexican tour. Later, while on vacation in Mexico, a showcase of Brecht’s “Waiting for Godot” led to a stint teaching acting at the University of Vera Cruz. In Los Angeles, King danced professionally and worked with the renowned Company of Angels.

“As actors, we use emotion and sense memory to affect our audience“ King says. “You can laugh until you cry or cry until you laugh; it all comes from the same place inside. Drama is an innate part of everyone‘s life experience, and for me acting is therapeutic.”

When King says everyone, he means that quite literally. Since arriving in Sullivan County nearly 20 years ago, King has taught people with little or no acting experience how to entertain and involve audiences. His staging of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Tasa Faroni’s “Dixie Peach,” choreography for DVO’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and his Shakespeare in the Park productions in Liberty, have evinced drama that is intelligible and accessible to actors and audiences alike. King has also performed with the Sullivan County Dramatic Workshop.

His current endeavor is a play commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Town of Bethel. King was approached two years ago about the project, but this past October town clerk Rita Sheehan asked him again. King authored the show, which he entitled “Beth’EL, House of God: A Pre-Victorian Tableau of a Resplendent Catskills Haven.” It will be performed at the Duggan School on March 28. King tapped accounts provided by Bea Schoch and Jeanne Scott, and researched James E. Quinlan’s “History of Sullivan County” to learn about families such as the Pintlers, Frasers, Hurds, Fultons and Crumleys, some of whom have descendents that still reside in the town. With help from Harold Tighe and set designer Rachel Keebler of Cobalt Studios, this recreation of the period from 1796 to 1825 forms the first of a three-part performance. The play will hopefully be performed again this summer in his front yard as he launches an annual festival. The timing denotes not only the Bicentennial, but his mother Margaret Mary’s 90th birthday and 20 years since he emigrated from LA to partner with his mom, who had opened Twin Acres Bed & Breakfast. The ubiquitous King is also choreographing Eldred High School’s spring production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

It took a while for King to get to center stage, but the passion was always there. At school he excelled in spelling bees, beamed with pride as his sister Diane danced to the Pink Panther and cried real tears when his brother Donald died as the King of Siam. Determined to be a part of his school’s production of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” he ventured to Takashimaya’s in Manhattan to buy a kimono, went to Ben Nye Theatrical Makeup to learn how to make himself look Japanese and constructed a pair of geta sandals from plywood—all for a bit part with no lines. But eventually that determination paid off when some friends at Bishop Ford High School told him about their upcoming production of “West Side Story,” which needed more ethnic students to play the Sharks. King auditioned and was cast as Bernardo. With permission from playwright Jerome Robbins, the young cast decided to rewrite the ending and have Maria die like her analogue in Romeo and Juliet. The controversial move shocked their peers and drew widespread attention from the local media.

Clearly, even as a young man, King was impelled by a muse that he felt was sitting on his shoulder. It’s still there now as he channels his insights to others. In Sullivan County, drama is King–and vice versa.

TRR photo by Richard A. Ross
Oliver King (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Richard A. Ross
Director Oliver King, right, rehearses the upcoming play “Beth’EL, House of God,” created for the Sullivan County bicentennial, with cast members Dick Crumley, left, Pat Crumley, Carolyn Massey (backgrounf), Lynden Lilley and Jeremy Lilley. (Click for larger version)