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‘Roustabout’ uses humor, fact and fiction to tell true story of circus train wreck

| Judy Berthiaume

A true story of a train wreck in the early 20th century that killed 80 circus performers sets the stage for UW-Eau Claire’s last theater production of the year.

“Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!” tells the story of the 1918 crash that injured and killed members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which at the time was one of the biggest circuses in the country.

The show combines historical facts and historical fiction to resurrect the stories of unknown circus performers who met their fate when an American military train plowed through a circus train outside of Chicago in 1918.

“Roustabout” is described as a cheerful eulogy exploring the nature of performance, self and tragedy.

The show opens Thursday in Riverside Theatre of the Haas Fine Arts Center. It will be presented at 7:30 p.m. April 14-16 and April 20-23, and at 1:30 p.m. April 24.

The script for “Roustabout,” written by Chicago-area playwright Jay Torrence, isn’t published yet. This will be only the fifth production of the show outside the group that originally created it.

This spring, the playwright attended some UW-Eau Claire rehearsals and worked with the cast on the nontraditional elements of the show.

Seth K. Hale, a senior theatre major from Antigo who will graduate in May, will play multiple characters in the theater production. He took a few minutes from his busy rehearsal schedule to share his thoughts about the show, as well as his journey as a Blugold.

Tell us a little about the play.

“Roustabout” is a difficult production to describe plot-wise. I think the same could be said for a lot of post-modern productions.

The show has three different tracks it follows. One is a historical fact track that tells the true story of the Hagenbeck Wallace circus train wreck, where over 80 circus performers died when a military train hit the circus train. Then there is a historical fiction track that tells the stories of three of these performers. And, finally, there is a track where we play versions of ourselves trying to put on this show; this one kind of acts as a bridge to the other tracks.

What’s your role?

All six actors in this show play multiple roles. I play Big Neo (the “me” character), The Bearded Lady, Topsy the elephant, The Ringleader and Max’s father.

What do you like most about the characters you play?

I love all of these characters because, more so than any other show I’ve worked on, I get to improvise and propose new ideas to them that can then be added to the show itself.

However, I think my favorite is Topsy. She was a real elephant who was famously electrocuted by Thomas Edison after killing three of her handlers. In this story, she is completely apathetic and bitter, and it’s crazy fun for me to play. I imagine I’m in an episode of The Office every time I do her scene.

What’s the biggest challenge to being in this production?

The greatest challenge for me with this play is delivering something genuine. I believe myself and my fellow castmates have done a good job of this but it was a bit of a process.

We’re playing ourselves at points, and at other points, literally, clowning around, and sometimes directly addressing the audience. All of these things need to be done in a manner that feels genuine, like we’re sharing and experiencing everything with the audience, not ignoring them. The fourth wall never really exists here, which can be tricky to wrap your head around.

What do you expect the audience to enjoy most about the play?

Audiences will find the pacing and seemingly randomness of the show the most surprising.

The playwright — who we were fortunate enough to work with in the beginning of the rehearsal process — wanted this show to feel like the circus would have felt to audiences back in the day. You’d see death-defying acts one minute, then an exotic animal you’ve never seen before, then clowns would come out, etc. Sometimes these stunts were real, sometimes you were getting lied to, but you were always getting tugged around by new, stunning things. This show reflects the circus style and feel.

The same randomness that is going to surprise the audience is what will attract them to it. The show is incredibly funny.

What other plays have you been in as a Blugold?

I’ve been involved in many productions at UWEC, including “The Oresteia,” “Fuddy Meers,” “Into the Woods,” “Our Town,” “Die Fledermaus,” “Dracula,” “Far Away,“ “A Man of No Importance,” “Love of the Nightingale,” “Boeing Boeing,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “You Can’t Take it With You,” “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play,” “Cabaret” and now, “Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck.”

Because of the number of mainstage productions I’ve done on campus, I haven’t been involved in any community productions. However, I was in the UWEC Players production of “Finn in the Underworld,” as well as three university one-act plays.

How did your involvement in theater shape your college experience?

For me, these productions haven’t just enhanced my time as a Blugold, they’re what being a Blugold is about.

They take hard work and dedication both in and out of rehearsal, time management, self-discovery, sacrifice and, obviously, they give me a ton of joy and fulfillment.

I’m going to be a professional actor and there is no amount of reading a textbook that can equal the experience gained by actually being on stage (although reading the texts are important). Because of the opportunities I’ve had here I feel much more prepared for my next step.

What’s next for you after your May graduation?

I hope to be a professional actor. I’m moving to the Twin Cities in May to start that career. I hope to be constantly auditioning, working on my craft and working on productions in a professional environment.

What other experiences have you had as a Blugold are preparing you for that career?

Apart from the mainstage productions, I’m also vice president of the UWEC Players and president of Fifth Element a cappella.

I’ve won two awards for best actor in a leading role and one for best supporting role through the university.

And this January, I was named one of 16 finalists in the Irene Ryan Scholarships from more than 350 participants at the ACTF Region III Theater Festival.

Photo caption: The Bearded Lady (back row on the right) is one of five characters Seth Hale will portray in UW-Eau Claire’s final theater production of the year. The other student-actors shown are: (back row, from left) Cory McMenomy, Jake Pritchard and Dana Strothenke; and (front row, from left) Laura Schlichting and Emily Elliott.