When Ed Asner Comes to Town
A lifelong theatre lover gets to perform opposite TV’s Lou Grant
When Naperville’s Fair Lady Productions got an unexpected call from Liza Asner, wondering whether they’d be interested in collaborating with her father, Ed Asner, Kandiss Hernandez and Megan Hill knew two things: The answer was yes, and Stuart Vance would be one of the people they’d cast alongside TV’s “Lou Grant.” He was “an easy choice,” Hill wrote in an e-mail.
The kindergarten teacher got the call just before starting his 31st year teaching — 30 of them at Indian Prairie School District’s Spring Brook Elementary. Vance was a kindergartner himself when he first performed, as the lead Pilgrim in his class’s Thanksgiving production. “I made my mom make me a costume — and no one else had one,” says Vance with a laugh. That auspicious debut turned into a hobby through high school, earning him a theatre scholarship to Central Washington University.
In 1986, Vance followed his parents’ move to Illinois and auditioned for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Naperville’s Summer Place Theater. He had so much fun, he continued, performing in at least one and sometimes as many as six plays a year in towns throughout the area, from Westchester to Wheaton to DeKalb.
“I especially love the ones I do for kids, the ones whole families can come to. Having kids I know in the audience is always special — they get really excited and sometimes it inspires them to do theater.”
Vance will be in a Harry Potter production at Naper Settlement during All Hallow’s Eve and in Magical Starlight theater’s “Tarzan” in January. Most parts come after an audition; “sometimes things fall in my lap.” But until recently, nothing as big as this. When Hernandez mentioned the project, Vance replied, “Ed Asner! Sure, I could make that work!”
Vance, 59, was a big fan of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” His students know the 88-year-old Asner as the voice of the old man in the animated movie “Up” and as Santa Claus in “Elf.” Vance has worked with actors who went on to bigger things, like Broadway, but never with a “real star.”
“An established person you already respected … it was a little nerve wracking. Just a little bit.” In August, Vance met with the director on a Monday and Tuesday, then with Ed Asner on Wednesday and Thursday.
“The kindness of the man — when one night they changed the lighting on me to blue, I couldn’t read my script. Asner told the crew, ‘Change this so he can read it!’ He could be tough . . . but yes, like Lou Grant, absolutely, with a heart.”
For four shows from Thursday through Sunday, the 90-minute original play, “God Help Us! A Political Comedy,” was performed for the first time anywhere.Asner played God, who moderates a debate between a couple, one liberal and one conservative. The staged reading didn’t require the actors to memorize lines, but it was still a challenge. Watching Asner working, developing the character, ad-libbing and having to adjust and keep the show going was “such a cool thing,” Vance says.
“Normally, shows are so laid out, you practice six-to-eight weeks. They want it word perfect — in a normal production you don’t mess with it. This was such a fluid process, — it wasn’t improv but it could be.” “We had to be on our toes to keep it going. Sometimes things would just come out of his mouth, and you’d be like, ‘I have to respond to this and make it real’ during the show!”
It was adrenalin-inducing joy. “A 90-minute show that you are basically reading shouldn’t be hard but we’d be done and I’d be exhausted because your brain is actively engaged every second,” Vance says.
Vance gives Asner a rave review. “He was great — really, really good and so nice to work with. He wasn’t the Hollywood star you would think, but very down to earth, open and welcoming. He even stuck around after for pictures and to sign autographs for the audience.”
A week later, Asner performed “God Help Us!” at the Antaeus Theatre in Glendale, California. Vance hopes the shows will go on. “It’s so timely with where our world is right now. It makes both sides realize you have to meet in the middle a little bit. It’s a cool concept to have someone like him go around the country working in small venues.”
A still feisty “Mr. Grant,” dropping in to help us laugh.Edit Module