Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Actor voices painter's untold story

Express Staff Writer

Photo illustration by Erik Elison

When actor Jim Jarrett first assumed the role of Vincent Van Gogh 15 years ago, he was a young father attempting to support his family doing something he enjoyed.

Rehearsing the play into the early morning hours, he spoke his lines while cradling daughter Kyla in his arms.

Since then, "Vincent," as played by Jarrett in a one-man show written by Leonard Nimoy, has become one of the most successful touring productions in the world. When it opens at Ketchum's nexStage Theatre on Monday, Dec. 26, Kyla will be there, as she has been all along the way, as technical support, a role she first assumed at only 8.

The two have literally grown up with "Vincent" and learned what it means to stay true to the thing that gives you a reason to rise every day.

"It's the story of someone who has a dream," Jarrett said of the painter, as famous for his mad act of severing part of his ear off as he was for his brilliant expressions of color. "One who struggled mightily with his dream while surrounded by a lot of people who didn't get it. It's the story of someone who literally loved his job."

It was a journey that Jarrett never envisioned would result from what he has described as a mediocre existence up to age 25, aimless until he saw the movie that made Jon Voight famous, "The Deer Hunter." It so moved him that he became determined to be an actor.

An article in The New York Times gave him his first lead on where to start. It was a story about Sanford Meisner, who was being honored by the White House for his contributions to the arts and acting. Among Meisner's students were Gregory Peck, Susan Sarandon, Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen.

After Jarrett submitted a letter that garnered him an interview, then struggled tearfully to explain why Meisner should take him on as a student, he got the opportunity he was looking for. It was not a license to drive, but a permit to train, to see if he had the mettle to stick it out. He became one of only a handful of

people in the world hand-selected by Meisner to teach the famed Meisner technique.

It was a former student who sent him Nimoy's play.

Nimoy spent years researching and writing Vincent, and briefly starred in the show.

He combed over nearly 2,000 letters that Vincent had written to his beloved brother, Theo.

"Vincent Van Gogh was one of the world's loneliest souls," Nimoy writes in the introduction to the play. "There was one man on earth who encouraged him in his work, provided him with the supplies and money necessary to continue painting, who believed in him and who had an inexhaustible fund of love, which above all else, Vincent needed: his brother Theo."

Each night, after having painted for 14 to 16 hours, the Dutch painter poured out his heart to his brother, communicating in intricate and soul-searching detail.

At age 37, Van Gogh died in his brother's arms after shooting himself. When Theo tried to address the hall of mourners at his brother's funeral, he was so overcome with grief that he was unable to speak. He died six months later, heartbroken and lost without his brother, despite having a wife and child of his own.

Nimoy tells the story from the perspective of a week after Van Gogh's death, in late July 1890, but in this story, Theo is able to summon the words to do justice to his brother's memory.

Jarrett was not a fan of the former "Star Trek" actor, and he thought he knew all there was to know about Van Gogh: "He was a guy who cut off his ear, killed himself and his paintings were worth a lot." But an hour after reading the play, Jarrett called Nimoy's agent and secured the rights to produce the show himself, and spent the next two and a half years working on what he sensed was the role of a lifetime.

"I had to earn the right to say those words," just as Meisner had taught, Jarrett said.

"Vincent" opened in Hawaii in 1996 to such a buzz that Bruce Willis and Demi Moore invited him to bring the show to Hailey's newly refurbished Liberty Theatre. A talent scout saw the show and signed Jarrett to a tour, and he's been on tour ever since. More than a quarter of a million people have seen it.

Since then, he's called Sun Valley and Sonoma, Calif., home, frequently returning to the valley to do fundraising productions for friend Kathy Wygle and nexStage, where he serves on the board.

In between, Jarrett has become among the most respected teachers in acting, won multiple awards, established four acting schools and produced a play called "Meisner," about his mentor, and three children's shows, "Manners Matter," "Graduation Day" and finally "The Worst Thing About Me Is," which deals with bullying and teasing.

But clearly the most gratifying aspect of becoming Vincent is the adventure he has been able to have with his daughter over the years, and the example he has strived to set for her and other protégés.

"My daughter has grown up running around theaters and traveling the world and seeing her dad do what he loves to do," Jarrett said. "She knows her dad loves his job and literally has the honor of being an ambassador on behalf of work that does inspire and inform.

"It's given us an amazing life. I'm an actor who makes a living doing theater, I'm so blessed." To return the favor, proceeds from his holiday run of "Vincent" at nexStage will go to the theater.

"Sun Valley is my home," he said. "And I will be forever grateful to so many people who have been so kind to me over the years."

Get tickets for "Vincent"

"Vincent" runs from Monday, Dec. 26, through Thursday, Dec. 29,

at Ketchum's nexStage Theatre on Main Street.

Where: Chapter One Bookstore or Atkinsons' Market in Ketchum or nexStage on Main Street in Ketchum or by calling 726-4857.

Cost: $25 general admission or $35 for a champagne reception opening night.

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