Local actor and director Bobby Zinsmeister made his debut on the stage of Weirton’s Ashley Marie Performing Arts Center (AMPAC) in September, playing Ichabod Crane in Striplight Community Theatre’s production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Since then, he has found a creative home at AMPAC and not only directs and stars in Striplight’s current production, No Ordinary Man by Jimmy Cunningham, which runs each Friday and Saturday through October, he will also be teaching acting classes at AMPAC in early 2020. SoulFireWV recently sat down with Bobby to learn about his impressive acting background—which has included certifications in stage combat—and his plans to help forge a vibrant theatrical culture in the Upper Ohio Valley.
SF: Tell us a little about your background. Did you grow up in the Ohio Valley, and if not, where did you grow up? What was it like there?
BZ: I was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Robinson Township, PA. I was an athlete, playing baseball and football. I did not get involved in theatre until my freshman year in high school, when I auditioned for the musical Damn Yankees and was cast as one of the leads. Once I got a taste of performing, I was hooked and started down the theatrical path. I was an only child, and it quickly became apparent that my ability to act was rooted in that. Having no brothers or sisters to play with, I had to invent and breathe life into all of the characters in whatever story I would bring forth from my imagination. It was this exercise in imagination that imparted me with the raw tools of character development and performance. I just needed to take that raw material and learn how to channel it into the acting/performing process.
SF: I know that you studied theatre arts at Clarion University. What was a defining moment for you in your decision to pursue theatre arts as your career? Was there a specific movie or stage production that spurred your interest?
BZ: The defining moment for me was when I auditioned for, was selected to, and attended a large audition for the Southeastern Theatre Conference or SETC during my sophomore year in college. There were over a thousand actors auditioning for over fifty theatres over one weekend. I left that audition with my first professional job and the attitude that I had what it took to make a living out of being an actor. As far as inspiration from other stage productions, I have to say that I am an actor who does not enjoy sitting in an audience. When I see a show, all I want is to be up on stage, and I find that very distracting so I shy away from attending live theatre.
SF: You trained with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. What did that experience involve and what productions were you part of there?
BZ: I had to apply to Shakespeare & Company to become a work study/intern with them starting in January of 2002. So after I graduated from college, I immediately moved to Western Massachusetts and began working. Now, this was an unpaid internship where I was tasked with the interior demolition of a building as well as being part of a three-man crew that was building a temporary or foot-print stage for what will become a reconstruction of the Rose Theatre (the theatre in Shakespeare in Love). In exchange, I earned the tuition to train with Shakespeare & Company and their actor-intensive program. During my time there, I was able to put my value and talent on display to the point where I was put on staff and began to receive a salary. After my training, I left Massachusetts with every intention of returning to become a company member, but life always has other plans. During my time at Shakespeare & Company, being surrounded by so many theatre professionals, I learned just how much work I still had to do to become a successful actor. It was both humbling and encouraging.
SF: Did you have any specific mentors either in college or in your post-graduate stage work? And if so, how do you feel they shaped your growth and, ultimately, your vision as an actor and director?
BZ: My mentor in college was my acting teacher Rob Bullington. From an acting standpoint, Rob helped instill a fearlessness in me as an actor. He helped me learn to not hold back, give it everything you have, make bold and exciting decisions, give the director plenty of material and let him/her use it to craft the best show possible. No regrets, that was the most impactful lesson. Never walk away from a show regretful that you could have been better. As far as directing is concerned, my mentor was a man named Roger Henderson. Roger was a director from the West Coast with whom I had the good fortune to work in the Quantum Theatre productions of Dark of the Moon and The Crucible. Unfortunately, Roger passed away shortly after we closed The Crucible, but what I learned during the brief time I was able to work with him was to trust your actors. Directors have a vision, a plan, but it is incumbent upon the actor to execute that vision and bring it to life. Roger taught me to be a conductor not a dictator, to actually direct actors, not pull their strings like a puppet master choreographing a marionette. Roger made every actor feel like an indispensable key in making a show succeed not just a cog in the machine pushing the story north. I have found through my directing experience that this process is fulfilling, creative, dynamic, and rewarding. Actors are made to feel like collaborators rather than spectators, and they will learn about themselves as people and as actors.
SF: Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with Quantum Theatre, which you just mentioned, and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (PICT)? Who did you get to work with, and what were some of the stand-out productions that you were part of?
BZ: Too many names to list! I was able to share the stage with Pittsburgh stage regulars and talented actors such as Marty Giles, Danny Krell, Sheila McKenna, Richard McMillan, Mary Rawson, Robin Walsh, and David Conrad. I could go on and on! Karla Boos and Andrew Paul were both significant in my career because they both gave me the opportunity to work on their stage, at the time Andrew Paul was the Artistic Director for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and Karla Boos is the Founder/Artistic Director for Quantum Theatre. Henry the IV parts 1 & 2 with PICT, Dark of the Moon and The Crucible with Quantum were absolute stand-out productions in every aspect.
SF: You’ve mentioned that you’ve been involved in live stage combat? What did that entail, and how did you train for it?
BZ: I am going to preface this answer by saying that the art of stage combat is extraordinarily detailed and nuanced. As an actor you never want to overstate your abilities and or qualifications as a stage combatant because there are real world stakes and safety concerns anytime that there is fight choreography in a show. The individuals that are certified fight directors with the Society of American Fight Directors are the special forces of the stage combat world, the best of the best and that is who I did most of my training with. I did train in hand-to-hand combat with Shakespeare & Company but it wasn’t until I arrived as a cast member for Blue Jacket! outdoor drama formerly in Xenia, Ohio that I knew what stage combat truly was. Blue Jacket! was a very fight-heavy show, and we in the cast were afforded the opportunity to train with and be certified by two fight directors who are on the Mount Rushmore of stage combat, Mark “Rat” Guinn and Drew Fracher. Stage combat is the art of taking a dynamic, exciting, violent, and dangerous act—combat—and putting it on stage for the audience to enjoy. The most difficult aspect of stage combat is to make it riveting, believable, and enjoyable to the audience without hurting yourself or another actor. Stage combat is choreography, like ballet or tap. You must have a mastery of moves and steps in order for it to work. There are a variety of weapons to be certified on, and each involves basic moves but also varies based upon the weapon. Hand to hand, knife, rapier, rapier and dagger, short sword, broadsword, and quarterstaff all have basic and advanced steps. I was certified in hand to hand and rapier and dagger. Your training begins with learning the positions of basic parries (blocks) as well as positions of basic strikes and blocks. You learn how to handle a weapon safely, proper footwork, eye contact, how to engage your fellow combatant safely. You start slowly and build speed. After all of that, you then put your fight to dialogue, a scene, like taking a dance from eight counts and putting it to music. I had a four-week training period to earn my certification. However, my certification has lapsed, and I no longer list myself as an actor-combatant.
SF: Starring as Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at the Ashley Marie Performing Arts Center was your return to the stage after 11 years. What was your creative outlet during those years off the stage, and how did you discover The Ashley Marie Performing Arts Center (AMPAC)?
BZ: My creative outlet was teaching myself to play the guitar. I also painted, sculpted, learned to weld in order to make folk art, I wrote, but my biggest creative outlet was entertaining my daughters, my wife, and my co-workers. For 11 years my wife has been in my ear asking when I was going to return to the stage, and she was the one that actually found the audition notice for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. My daughters have an interest in theatre so I asked if they were interested in auditioning with me, and my middle daughter, Ilsa, did and then my other two daughters followed, with Abigail doing costumes and stage management and Lily having a small role in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
SF: What would be your dream role as an actor, and what makes that role so appealing to you as an artist? Additionally, what production would you love to direct and why?
BZ: Hamlet would be my dream role. Shakespeare wrote him in a way that he gets to indulge himself in every human emotion and that would be one hell of a ride to jump on. Hamlet is also the biggest challenge for an actor, every actor that puts on the mantle of Hamlet is taking with him Booth, Barrymore, Day-Lewis, and the countless talent that has assumed his voice. The main question always is, “What are you going to bring to this character that no one else has?” From a directing standpoint, I wouldn’t be able to isolate one work that I would like to take on. I would love to direct Romeo and Juliet, I would love to direct Pride and Prejudice, I would love to direct the Fantasticks, or Dancing at Lughnasa. In the end, I just want to act in and direct pieces that ignite my imagination, my heart, and my soul.
SF: You have three beautiful and talented daughters with your wife Kara. Will any of them be involved in upcoming productions?
BZ: Why thank you, all of that beauty comes from their mother! Yes, my daughters are featured in the children’s show Halloween Surprise, which will be performed at the Weirton Museum on Saturday, October 26th. My whole family will also be performing with the Striplight Theatre Singers holiday production of Frosty’s Follies. My middle daughter Ilsa and youngest Lily have both been bitten by the acting bug and will be auditioning for more shows for Striplight. My oldest daughter Abigail is focused on costumes and stage management, although I have a sense that she will also be auditioning for upcoming shows.
SF: You’re currently directing as well as performing the role of Martin Eugene Rigney in AMPAC’s production of No Ordinary Man by Jimmy Cunningham.
BZ: What other projects do you have in the works at AMPAC? I was just recently voted onto the Board of Directors for AMPAC and have developed an acting class curriculum that will be launching in January/February of 2020. Classes will be for ages 8 and up and will focus on the introduction to acting, auditioning, theatre vocabulary, basic scene and character breakdown, etc. It’s my hope that from that class we can add more advanced classes, acting Shakespeare, advanced scene and character development, and much more.
SF: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
BZ: I want to thank Shawn Holmes for the trust he has placed in me to help AMPAC grow and move forward. This is a critical time for AMPAC. We have the opportunity to rewrite the narrative for quality and professional community theatre in the valley. To all the readers, come and see what AMPAC has to offer and join us as we stride forward in this artistic adventure!