Interview with Sam Whited, “A Christmas Story” Lead

Sam is a favorite at Tennessee Rep. He was in Inherit the Wind, Dearly Departed, 1776, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, The Crucible, The Underpants, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Darwin in Malibu, and many others. He is a well-known sight on Nashville stages, having also appeared at Nashville Children’s Theatre, Mockingbird Theatre, People’s Branch Theatre, and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. He lives in White Bluff with his wife, Erin (who is also the stage manager for A Christmas Story). We had the chance to ask him some questions about the show, his previous work, and whether he ever shot his eye out.

Tennessee Rep: Where were you and what was your initial impression the first time you saw A Christmas Story? Were you familiar with Jean Shepherd’s work before then?”

Sam Whited: I’m not sure when I first saw A Christmas Story– I think it was in high school and I had no idea who Jean Shepherd was. I just remember how it felt like I was looking at an honest assessment of a kid’s Christmas experience. I was struck even then at how genuine the memories were in their state of “heightened reality”.

TR: Why do you think A Christmas Story has such enduring appeal? Is it childhood nostalgia, or do you think it’s something more?

SW: I love the sense of nostalgia it evokes, but nostalgia is not something that is particularly hard to come by. I think the humor is probably what keeps it in our minds; its timeless in the way that all great comedy is. It is not dependent on the time period and manages to avoid being dated in that way. I think it also works on an totally different level. The genuine reactions the characters have to each other touch us in ways that surprise us. In the midst of all this comedy, we find a moment or three that genuinely move us to tears in their displays of stinging truth and unconditional love. That’s pretty potent stuff.

TR: Shepherd wrote that only adults have room for nostalgia, that children are too busy trying to get older to reminisce about the past. Does he have a point? Why or why not?

SW: I agree. I think it is an issue of adults reflecting on a culture they’ve already established while kids are still establishing their own. You can’t really reflect on the way things were when there isn’t much “past” in your culture. I was struck when I heard 20 somethings reminiscing about Smurfs, Pop Rocks and Opryland. Apparently nostalgia is a sense you develop when you realize you have moved away from something difficult to get back to.

TR: Erin tells me that you and your little brother have roughly the same age difference as Ralphie and Randy. How does that, in any way, help you connect with your character? What about your childhood did you bring to this role?

SW: Anyone with a sibling can better understand the relationships in the play. There is a dynamic (partially of competition, partially of “comrades in arms”) that is different from families with one child. It is one of the reasons I find Randy’s concern for Ralph particularly moving. Needless to say, I am never on stage alone. My immediate family is as close by as my stage family.

TR: While we’re on the subject of your childhood, I’d like to talk about BB guns for a bit. You had one as a kid, and your aim was particularly formidable. Can you elaborate?

SW: I wasn’t particularly good at anything growing up. I was extremely sensitive and self conscious. My BB gun was one of the first things that demonstrated to me that I could do things that others couldn’t necessarily do. I will not brag on my BB gun technique any further than to say that splitting dandelion stems set me apart. No domestic weed was safe when I was in a killing mood.

TR: What is your favorite Christmas memory?

SW: It is a relatively recent event.

On Christmas Eve, 1994, I attended midnight mass with my girlfriend and her family at Trinity Episcopal church in Clarksville. After the service, her parents headed home and the two of us drove over to the Austin Peay campus to have a quiet moment together. (Our relationship started there during a show.)

As we drove on campus, just in front of the Dunn center gym, I noticed a campus policeman patrolling ahead of me. In a rush of foolishness, I chose to make a large show of a U-turn in the middle of a 4 way intersection before coming to a stop in front of the gym. We sat for a moment gazing at the trees there under which we had talked for long hours, then the blue lights started flashing behind us.

My date was mortified, a little shocked and a tad concerned about the path the evening was taking. When the officer walked up to my window and asked if I need any help, I smiled and told him that this woman and I had met at the university and I wanted to bring her back to propose. Between the tears in my wife’s eyes and the goofy, “aw shucks” response of the officer, my heart was cartwheeling. That night, its memory and the subsequent years of happiness I share with Erin are something that I don’t think can be topped.

TR: What is it like to play a nine-year old on stage? Does it make your acting more free?

SW: Heavens no! Nine is a terrible responsibility. Not as bad, say, as four or two; but there are specific needs and responses in younger characters that are harder to make genuine the further you move from childhood. I love to play children and there is perhaps a greater physical simplicity in their characters, but there is a greater need to be honest and present and firmly committed to the rules of childhood. As far as I’m concerned, playing younger is much more challenging than older.

TR: You’ve acted in many shows with Tennessee Rep before, including the holiday show Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol. What about holiday shows do you find particularly rewarding and/or challenging? Is there a different kind of energy there?

SW: I love holiday shows. They almost always seem to center on a character’s gradual realization and acknowledgment of something greater than themselves. They are reflections of the best in us rising to meet the best in others or the redemption of those who had been lost. It’s hard not to love stories with such investments.

By the same token, I think there is as much to be made of the differences in the responses of the audience to such material. Unlike other shows where folks come to hear and see a story of interest, they seem to come to holiday shows specifically to share something. Ideally, theatre should always be a shared experience; the audience should leave feeling that they have been on a journey with everyone else in attendance. Yet, when they come to a Christmas show, there seems to be a need to connect that is different than at other times of the year. As far as I am concerned, regardless of the show, I thirst for that connection with the ensemble and (of course) the audience. It is also interesting to think perhaps the time of year affects how open some folks are to the experience of theatre.

TR: Do you think there is a scene you look forward to performing the most? Is there a scene that the audience will particularly enjoy?

SW: I think each member of the audience will be looking for their own specific moments. I think they will each be pleasantly surprised at what they find….My favorite moments in any show are when I can play with the rest of the ensemble.

TR: Exit question: have you ever shot your eye out? Anybody else’s eye?

SW: No, but I did once poke a jagged stick in my eye. I can’t really recommend it.

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Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 9:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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