Storytelling with legends: ‘American in Paris’ actor talks shop

By Logan A. White
Times-News correspondent 

From left, Nick Spangler, Garen Scribner and Etai Benson appear in a scene from the national touring production of "An American in Paris." The show is being performed Jan. 3–8, 2017, at DPAC in Durham. / Matthew Murphy

“I loved the conversation between audience and actor.”
That connection was what got Etai Benson hooked on live theater. As a child, he’d directed his focus toward film, but discovered his true passion in his teens.
“As long as I can remember, I was obsessed with movies. Even as a kid, I thought I wanted to be a film director. I knew that I was just obsessed with storytelling. I was writing stories, I was creating comic books and making films, and watching movies all the time,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until high school that I discovered stage acting. I auditioned for my first little play, which was ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and was cast as the Tin Man. And I got hooked.”
The passion he developed for the silver screen has come full circle: Benson is now playing World War II veteran and composer Adam Hochberg in the first national tour of “An American In Paris,” the Broadway adaptation of the 1951 Gene Kelly film.
“Our show is so different from the film,” he explains. “We like to say it’s ‘loosely inspired.’”
Benson originally auditioned for the role of Adam when the show was in its early stages — before it hit Broadway. He knew that the role was a perfect fit, but things didn’t work out the first time. So when he heard about the national tour more than three years later, he knew it was his second chance.
“I pursued it very hard, and this time it did work out,” he said. “Often we feel like if we don’t book a job, we blew it, and that’s it. It’s over for us. But often it comes back to you.”
This time, he had the advantage of knowing the creative team — including ballet and choreography legend Christopher Wheeldon, who directs and choreographs “An American In Paris.” Benson had no inkling of the scale of Wheeldon’s reputation, which, in retrospect, he’s glad of.
“Even when I met him for the first time at the audition, I had no idea. And then after the audition, I looked him up on Google, and I was like ‘Oh, my God, this guy is huge!’ He’s like a giant of the ballet world, and I had no idea.” He’s now worked closely with Wheeldon — even going bowling with him — but still remains in awe. “He loves artists, and that love, I think, is really reflected in his work. He’s incredible. I almost forget that he’s the giant star that he is because he’s so down-to-earth. He’s on your team.”
Because the show’s dance and presentation is largely rooted in ballet, Benson also has had the opportunity to perform and work closely with members of the ballet world.
“I’m surrounded by perfect human specimens,” he joked. “The work ethic is astounding. The level of dance is staggering. I’ve never seen an ensemble work harder.”
Benson’s own work ethic is partially driven by advice from Brett Wagner of the University of Michigan, whom he considers to be one of his greatest teachers.
“’Always look forward, and not look sideways,’” he reflected. “It’s so easy to look around at your peers and start comparing yourself. You have to be steadfast in looking forward at the path ahead.“
You can see Benson in “An American In Paris” beginning Tuesday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through next Thursday, 8 p.m. Jan. 6 and 7, 2 p.m. Jan. 7, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 8. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased at all Ticketmaster outlets, in person or by phone at 919-680–2787.

Logan A. White is a home-schooled junior and a Teens & 20s writer.

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