grothe-sliderGrothe brings professional experience to classroom

Actor, writer, professor, husband — enforcer for Henry VIII. Joel Grothe is all these things and more.

The Lamar theatre professor plays Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” at Houston’s Main Street Theater, the latest role in a career that led him to Southeast Texas in 2009.

“I moved about a week before school started. That was seven years ago — everyone who was at Lamar in theater when I got here is gone now — I’m the old man,” Grothe jokingly said.

The two plays are based on Hillary Mantel’s novels about the reign of Henry VIII. Grothe, who plays the king’s right-hand man, has been working on the plays since summer when the director first contacted him.

“Becky Udden called me in late July while I was in Canada asking me if I could do the play,” he said. “I’ve been working on it since then. Not all day, and not every day, but almost every day. I had the script already and I immediately ordered a couple more copies that I could mark up all to hell. I’m playing Thomas Cromwell, who is in virtually every scene in both parts one and two.”

Grothe has not always wanted to be a teacher, but his father was a professor and Grothe said he had a lot of great teachers over the years.

“I don’t really know why I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “I had some great teachers in high school and I thought maybe I’d want to teach high school. I got to college and thought I’d like to become an English professor — which actually I think I would love to do now — but I became more interested in theatre and film.”

Grothe first became interested in drama in elementary school, and he credits one particular teacher for that.

“I had this incredibly caring music teacher in elementary school — Ms. Lippi — growing up in the west county of St. Louis in Missouri,” he said.

grothe2“One day, she showed us ‘West Side Story’ and it changed my life. My mother used to check it out of the library for me to watch over and over. It had a profound impact on me. I don’t think the way ‘West Side Story’ captivated me can be put into words. It was a moment. As the poet T.S. Eliot says, ‘A poem can be felt before it is understood.’”

Grothe’s obsession with watching drama became an obsession with performing, directing and teaching it.

“There has always been a connection between acting and directing, and a career and a business,” he said. “When I did plays in college, it was always to get more experience. The few times I’ve done a play for little or no money, it was to make connections, to build résumé credits or to get people to see my work.”

Grothe said he has never thought of theater as a hobby or necessarily as fun.

“I’d much rather be at Minute Maid Park or on Adams Bayou, or with my family than in a theater or on a film set during my free time,” he said. “I’ve tried to quit acting several times actually — and as soon as you say that, you are presented with an amazing opportunity — like ‘Wolf Hall’ — that you can’t possibly say no to.”

Grothe does, however, know how to say “no.”

“Being a professor who doesn’t make his living exclusively by acting and directing, I can be a lot more selective about what projects I work on off campus, and I typically have some say over what shows I direct on campus, which is another reason I’ve stayed at Lamar so long,” he said. “That’s appealing to me, because people who do it exclusively for a living can’t pick and choose.”

Though he left his freelance acting schedule in Minneapolis to teach full time, the change has proved worth it, he said.

“I’ve stayed at Lamar because the institution has been incredibly supportive of me,” he said. “The president and the provost are both incredibly smart and forward thinking. My department chair encourages me to do outside work.”

Grothe said acting, teaching and directing has yet to become stale or mundane.

“Whether I like it or not, I still act and still teach acting because I haven’t figured it out,” he said. “The same is true of directing. Directing is about a process and, especially with students, it’s basically the same as having them in class, albeit more concentrated and intensive.”

Grothe says there is no such thing as being too prepared.

“I’ve never done a project where I said, ‘OK, I’ve prepared all I can prepare,’” he said. “I consider myself a good actor, but not great. Also, I feel lost a lot of the time. I think most actors do, and part of recognizing that is part of the process — part of being good. As an actor I always feel I can do more.”

Even with preparation, not everything always flows smoothly onstage or behind scenes. Good actors hide their screw-ups and the audience doesn’t realize how often this happens, Grothe said.

“I have been blessed to have never had a real meltdown on stage — at least not one I can remember,” he said, as he knocked on wood. “I blanked on the closing couplet in ‘Titus Andronicus’ once. Fortunately, my character was very upset, so I just pretended to get emotional and walked off the stage.”

Not every show has been fun. One production of “The Music Man” was just cursed, Grothe said.

“The cast was full of idiots,” he said. “I was Harold Hill, and Marian, the librarian, and I just hated each other off stage. A girl I really liked came to see me, and I lost my voice and couldn’t really sing but still went on. It was pretty bad. It was a real chore to try to perform that every night.”

Grothe said the problems happen on a college campus as well.

“You have to replace actors sometimes, or sometimes the show turns out to be not the best choice,” he said. “I have to remember, as a professor, my show is first and foremost for the students who are going to put it on and work on it, second for the students who are going to see it.”

Grothe said theater is a tough business.

“Acting takes everything you’ve got,” he said. “It’s exhausting as a practice and a business, and then to also have to make additional income on top of that to support yourself. When I’m in a production, I don’t see my wife and my dogs enough. I fall out of touch with friends. I don’t live a full life that, ironically, you need to be interesting enough to be an actor.”

Beyond that, Grothe said, the business has its limitations.

“Frankly, the opportunities I have to act are rarely appealing,” he said. “I auditioned for a director a few months ago who sat in her chair turned away from me for the entire audition. I’m sensitive. I thought, ‘Thank god I don’t have to make my living this way.’ They were just so uninterested and strange. Do you want to spend six weeks with this person every day?”

Grothe said he would like to branch out as time passes.

“There are other things I’d like to do — writing especially — that continuing acting has taken me away from,” he said. “I’d like to do more film work. I’ve been in a couple movies shooting in Louisiana and I did some when I lived in Toronto, but I’d like to do more.”

For all his accomplishments in the arts, Grothe said his marriage to Natalia is his biggest accomplishment.

“Getting married is the best, hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “She is like me, she works hard. My wife is obsessive like me — she is a good motivator as she is always trying to better herself. She is an award-winning band director — she works with much more difficult situations and circumstances (and students) than I do. But obviously we support each other. She comes to see all my shows and vice versa.”

Grothe said he hopes students appreciate his intensity and obsessiveness, and that he can inspire them.

“I hope they see what I do and realize they can do the same thing,” he said. “Students often want to finish a task as quickly as possible. They think they learn their lines and the character is done. It’s not done. It’s never done.

“I want them to work harder, be obsessive, be tenacious, and not settle for adequacy by doing the minimum. I hope they learn to be present and have a good attitude — to have values.”

If you want to see Joel Grothe’s current performance in Wolf Hall, you have a chance until Dec. 18. Student tickets are available. Visit www.mainstreettheater.com for details.

Danielle Sonnier

UP Contributor

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