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Like that little girl in the treehouse, grown-up Gerrie Benzing loves everything theater


Her face lights up Seed & Bean as she spies Terry Tincher crossing the café to say hello. After sharing a warm embrace with the white-bearded GM of Florida’s first CBD marketplace, Gerrie Benzing settles into her window seat overlooking a stretch of Broadway that takes in the Franklin Shops on First. She’s there to chat about her leading role in Zalman Velvel’s farcical comedy D.M.V. and theater in general.

Right now, she’s luxuriating in the role of Bernice Hodes (rhymes with POTUS), the manager of a local branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles who is retiring after logging 30 years as a frontline bureaucrat. She’s sold her house, packed all her belongings and is moving cross-country to be closer to her daughter. She just has to negotiate one final day of the crazies.

“I just love the feeling of being on stage,” Gerrie effuses, a wide smile flashing across her youthful features.

In truth, Benzing loves everything theater.

In addition to acting, she directs, spearheads Cultural Park Theatre’s summer camp, and writes monologues for children with film and theatrical aspirations. To soak up even more theater culture, she works in the box office at Florida Repertory Theatre by day. And when she doesn’t have a gig of her own, she treks to theaters in the Cape and Fort Myers to lend support to her colleagues in the theater community, whom she regards as part of her extended family.

Although she studied theater in high school and college, Benzing traces the origins of her love affair with theater to her earliest childhood days.

“When I was a little girl, I would go to my tree house and act out the stories from Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, playing all the characters,” Gerrie laughs.

Back then, her audience consisted of just her dog and her horse.

“I’ve always had a vivid imagination,” she adds self-consciously, looking up to make eye contact with cast mate Sam Bostic who’s working behind the counter at Seed & Bean.

But Benzing’s theatrical aspirations were interrupted following her schooling by career obligations. In her case, she became the CEO and COO of a household that included five small children. Her duties left no time for acting – aside from the characters she brought to life during the bedtime stories she read to put her kids to sleep at night.

After her divorce, she landed a job at Cultural Park Theatre, establishing the region’s very first summer camp for youngsters. With limited options for child care, she dragged the kids along with her.

“They picked up on theater just by being around it so much, and all five were child actors at one point or another,” Gerrie explains matter-of-factly. Today, daughter Kiersten is a regular in Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre productions, with credits that include the recently-closed Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Evita and Music Man. (She even appeared in Phantom and Hairspray for Prather Entertainment’s sister venue, the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.)

Early on, Gerrie did some acting, but as the kids were growing up, her role shifted from actor/director to chauffeur and stage mom.

“Although some of the kids danced, I was never a dance mom,” Gerrie adamantly avers.

It’s unclear whether she’s providing an accurate self-assessment or some of Terry Tincher’s finely-honed sense of sarcasm rubbed off on her when they hugged.

In any case, once the kids were grown and out of the house – or at least able to drive themselves wherever they needed to go – Gerrie jumped back into acting.

Since her re-entry into acting, she has appeared in more than 14 productions at Cultural Park Theatre and one at Theatre Conspiracy at the Alliance (in the dual roles of Lucy and Tommy of No Consequence in last season’s Marian, or the True Story of Robin Hood). Her role as Bernice Hodes (rhymes with POTUS) marks her fourth time on the Lab Theater boards.

But she’s just as accomplished in the role of director.

Of the six main stage productions she has directed to date, three earned her Cultural Park Best Director Marquee Awards (Sister Act, Boeing Boeing and Peter Pan). And even though Chicago didn’t garner any directorial awards, it was both a critical and commercial success.

But while the validation is always welcome, Benzing takes more pride in the accomplishments of her students, summer campers, clients and fellow thespians.

Several of the kids who’ve taken her summer camps have gone on to appear in film. One of her students is currently on Broadway. Benzing’s as proud of his accomplishments as if he were one of her own.

“At this year’s summer camp [at Cultural Park], we did an amazing production of Anything Goes. The kids now are so talented, and they’re fun to be around because they’re fresh, excited and impressionable. There are so many opportunities for kids compared to 15 or 20 years ago. When we first started, none of the other theaters had summer camps. Now all the theaters have them, which is just wonderful. If you’re a kid and you want to act, you can go anywhere. SWFL has just exploded.”

With nearly a dozen professional and community theaters interspersed throughout Southwest Florida, there are an ever-increasing number of roles for adult actors too. But in certain age categories, the competition for parts is often stiff. That makes no difference to Benzing. She’s complementary of each of the actors who show up for the same auditions.

“I would cast them before me,” she says without hesitation.

While she may not land every role she covets, she gets her fair share.

Based on recent work, her share is likely to increase.

But that’s a perk. She has more laudatory goals.

“I’m grateful to be cast in any part because [each one presents] an opportunity to grow and get better. It’s what I do for fun, but still …”

Her voice trails off and is swallowed whole by the noise of a passing motorcycle.

Her intent is clear nonetheless. Benzing takes pride in her work, and whether she’s on stage or in the director’s chair, she’s driven to be the very best she possibly can.

She suddenly waxes philosophic. Seed & Bean’s collegiate atmosphere engenders that sort of thing.

“Acting and directing are like climbing a ladder,” she says, narrowing her eyes into a trademark Bernice Hodes (rhymes with POTUS) squint. “We’re all on different rungs, but the key is to keep reaching for the next one.”

Toward that end, she embraces every opportunity to learn – by studying the directors who cast her, watching her fellow actors and brainstorming with daughter Kiersten.

She’s particularly impressed with D.M.V. director Carmen Crussard.

D.M.V. succeeds so much because of Carmen,” Gerrie points out. “She did a wonderful job making each of the characters really pop on stage. I really admire her for the job she’s done.”

She also appreciates Crussard’s directing style.

“She gives her actors the latitude to bring their own interpretation to the role, pulling us back where necessary. I love directors who do that. I’ve been in many plays where directors don’t give you that feedback. As an actor, you need someone to stand critically outside you and tell you what’s working and what’s not working. I like that so much.”

And when it comes to learning from fellow actors, she credits Joann Haley with providing considerable food for thought in terms of character analysis and backstory.

“We did Best Man, but then I got to work with her again in Marian and I learned so much by watching the way she approaches roles and the contrast between how I would have performed a role and the way that she does.”

And then there’s Kiersten.

“Once we get past the ‘you were so wonderful’ phase, she asks for my critical opinion and we talk about what’s working, what’s not. She likes my critique. I’m brutally honest. I like when people do that for me as well.”

Of course, not having read the script or heard the director’s instructions, her perspective is based solely on how the performance comes off for the audience. But through critiquing Kirsten and the shows that she’s in, Benzing takes advantage of the chance to grow vicariously as both an actor and director, as well.

If it sounds like Benzing keeps a lot of balls in the air at the same time, you’d be right. “There are three prongs to all this observing,” she explains. “There’s enjoyment mode; director brain; and actor/performance brain. My brain is a very busy place. Lot’s of weird stuff going on there all the time.”

Ah, yes, it’s that vivid imagination she’s had since childhood.

“It’s fun to be someone else. In theater, you can stop being you for a little while and be someone else. Suddenly, I’m that little girl back in the tree house, except that there are people watching now rather than just my dog and my horse.”

You can see Gerrie in the role of Bernice Hodes (rhymes with POTUS) in D.M.V. at Lab Theatre through August 25.

August 15, 2019.



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