Out theater vet sets the stage

With last week’s opening of 11th Hour Theatre Company’s “The Life” at Adrienne Theater, and this weekend’s premiere of “The Syringa Tree” at Theatre Horizon, you’d have to forgive Steve Pacek for seeming distracted this month.

 

“Throw into the mix that I’m on the Theatre Philadelphia board and co-producing the Oct. 27 Barrymore Awards, and it’s no wonder I’m feeling a little crazy,” said the actor/director with a laugh. “Yet, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

That work ethic (to say nothing of personal mottos like “greatness is only possible on the threshold of complete failure”) is what’s pushed the thespian from ensemble parts in “Les Misérables” at Walnut Street Theatre in 2008, and roles in children’s theater at the Arden (2004’s “Franklin’s Apprentice”) to manning that company’s kiddie-centric Arcadia stage as director for this year’s “The Cat in the Hat,” before tackling directorial duties for playwright Pamela Gien’s weightily dramatic “The Syringa Tree.” Along with directing shows at 11th Hour, like its first season musical “I Sing!” and 2007’s “The World Goes Round” (for which he was nominated for an Outstanding Direction of a Musical Barrymore), he’s created larger-than-life acting roles in “The Bomb-itty of Errors.”

“Nothing ordinary belongs in the theater. It’s a medium for the extraordinary,” he said.

Along with all this, Pacek is celebrating the 10th anniversary of 11th Hour Theatre Company (which he co-founded with Michael and Megan O’Brien), where he is artistic associate director. Just to happily crowd his schedule further, on a personal tip, Pacek is in a relationship with a fellow artist (a touring opera singer whose “circles know him pretty well”) whose crossover in regard to shared crafts is crucial to the actor.

“He and I are able to offer advice, support and share things that inspire us, but also are different enough so it doesn’t get competitive or insular,” Pacek said. “Beyond that, the name of the game is making time for each other — even when we’re in different parts of the world — for friends and family, for our dogs and for dreaming about the future.”

It’s hard to imagine Pacek thinking about relationships and next steps with what’s on his plate, let alone having time to sleep and dream.

“Then again, if you will it, it’s not a dream,” he said.

The Lansdale/Doylestown native feels at home at Theatre Horizon, the Norristown company with its own dramatic oasis, far and away from downtown Philly.

“Horizon prides themselves on bringing great art and great artists to Norristown, and choosing material that connects to their community, but also material that challenges their community to see beyond themselves,” Pacek said, looking not only at Theatre Horizon’s 2014 season (which also happens to be its 10th) of “The Syringa Tree” and its tale of personal interracial struggles against the backdrop of apartheid, but also of upcoming shows like “In the Blood,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ modernist retelling of “The Scarlet Letter.”

What grabbed him about Gien’s tale of a black caretaker and her white charge in South Africa were the struggles with injustice and the emotional journey of loss that she etches with detail and deliciously tart poetry.

“These are two things that even a white guy from Lansdale has to deal with once in a lifetime,” Pacek said. “They may not be exactly what the characters in ‘Syringa Tree’ go through, but they hurt as much and make ‘keeping hope alive’ as big of a challenge.”

The additional challenges of Theatre Horizon — where he acted last season in “The 39 Steps” and will again in its next production, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” — has to do with his aesthetic vision being close to his own 11th Hour company.

“Erin Reilly and Matt Decker are friends and collaborators on so many levels and our companies have had similar journeys,” said Pacek of Horizon’s co-founding directors. “We’re even the same age and everything.”

If Horizon’s season bears fruit with thoughtful causality, 11th Hour’s 2014 season is about introducing audiences to rarely viewed musicals — three Philly premieres in “The Life,” “Dogfight” and “Dani Girl,” William Finn’s rarely produced “A New Brain” and the world-premiere production of Michael Ogborn’s “Field Hockey Hot!”

“These shows push the limits of what musical theater can be,” claimed Pacek.

You’d expect nothing less from an artist who enjoys working equally in musicals and straight theater, with a background in dance, visual art, music, physical theater, clowning and an ease in working with artist collaborators in the rehearsal room. Ask him what sets him apart from Philly’s directing and acting pack, though, and he’s got a curious response that truly shows off his humanity.

“That’s hard, because I’m really always looking for things I have in common with people … Although I need to express my ideas, I crave the time to listen to those around me. I always give 100 percent because, on stage, I’m never alone.”