Local star taking part in prestigious acting program

Posted: July 18, 2014

THAT PHILLY-based actor Forrest McClendon is spending this week in Wisconsin is hardly big news. After all, the Land of Beer and Cheese is a popular place for rest and recreation in mid-July. But of the untold numbers of people currently visiting America's Dairyland, McClendon is unique: He is one of only 10 thespians there as part of the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship.

Named for famed early-20th-century stage actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the fellowship is a weeklong master class conducted at Ten Chimneys, the couple's estate in the bucolic town of Genesee Depot.

This year's guest instructor is David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier," "Monty Python's Spamalot").

"It's an actor's boot camp in a lot of ways," McClendon said during a break in the activities, which run through Sunday. "It's a chance for renewal, for rejuvenation for midcareer actors - a chance to ask ourselves how [we] continue growing . . . and how to continue challenging ourselves."

It's also an opportunity for actors to pause and reflect on what they've accomplished and what could come next, he continued.

"It is pretty amazing when somebody recognizes what you tried to do over the course of your life up to this point. That recognition is really special. But on top of that, there's the realization that acting is a grind. We are constantly looking for new work and new opportunities. There aren't a lot of chances for us to just pull away and talk and think about the work itself, and think about our technical skills, if you will."

Furthermore, "It's a chance to hear about what's going on in other [theater] communities, and make contacts at other theaters. I have no doubt other things will grow out of it. And hearing about what's going on in other communities allows me to come back to Philadelphia with ideas about how to be more effective in my community."

McClendon got a 2011 Tony nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Tambo in the musical "The Scottsboro Boys." He also copped a local Barrymore Award for the same role in the version staged by the Philadelphia Theatre Company. But his invitation to participate in this week's program was not the result of one acting job but recognition "for your body of work," he said. "You have to have a minimum of 20 years' experience. That's what I think makes it a really extraordinary opportunity."

The Norwalk, Conn., native was nominated for the honor by the Walnut Street Theatre, where he has performed in "Finian's Rainbow" and "The Maids." It was a no-brainer for Bernard Havard, the Walnut's producing artistic director.

"His unwavering dedication to his craft as an actor was apparent from the start, as he had a collaborative attitude that made him a pleasure to work with, beyond his extraordinary talent," Havard said in an email.

"The Walnut Street Theatre and the Greater Philadelphia [theater] community have truly benefited from such a positive influence, both on and offstage. Forrest shares his vast performance experiences as a teaching artist and mentor. His dedication to the stage, and his community, made him a perfect choice for the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship."

Although he teaches voice to musical theater students at Temple University's Esther Boyer College of Music and Dance, McClendon is an in-demand actor whose next gig is reprising his role as Mr. Tambo in the upcoming debut of "Scottsboro Boys" in London's West End theater district. He'll be there for six months, beginning in early October.

With such an impressive resume, it's clear that McClendon could pitch his professional tent anywhere he pleases, including New York. But the 20-year Philly resident insisted he has no desire - or excuse - to leave Brotherly Loveville.

"It's one of the most vibrant and diverse communities in the country, and I get to do great, great work," he enthused. "I don't anticipate going anywhere else. . . . I get to work nationwide. There really is no reason for me to go anywhere else. Philadelphia International Airport can get me anywhere I need to go."

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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