By Anthony Chase
Don Gervasi is one of a number of actors in Buffalo who have had to shift gears quickly to take over roles due to a variety of circumstances. He replaced an ailing actor, and leapt into Bernard Slade's two-character play, Same Time, Next Year at Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre, playing opposite Lisa Ludwig. Others have stepped in to replace someone who was fired, or in the case of the Kavinoky, an entire cast, ready to open in To Kill a Mockingbird, had to shift gears and memorize 1984!
“I wasn’t planning to do this how,” confirms Gervasi, “but when the original actor fell ill, Jay [Desiderio] called me to read. I didn’t know the dates. I didn’t know the play.”
Gervasi was offered the role, which was especially sweet, because as an Equity Actor, not every role in town is available to him. In addition to being a member of Actors Equity Association, the labor union representing American actors and stage managers in the theater, Gervasi is the regional rep for the union.
“Everybody who becomes ‘Equity’ does it for their own reasons,” says Gervasi. “It is not for everyone, and it certainly does not mean that you are a better actor than anyone else!”
Gervasi likes what Equity membership has done for him.
“In addition to the union benefits, being Equity altered my life in that it helped me say 'no' to things I really didn’t want to do in the first place,” he says. “Some people like to do six shows a season. They are constantly going from show to show, and they like that. That's not me. The down side, of course, is that theaters often don’t call me.”
Members of Actors Equity, are not allowed to act in shows unless they have a union contract. This can be limiting at times, but Gervasi has been able to find a balance.
“On the surface," he says, "I may work a bit less in Buffalo, but my membership in Equity allows me easier access to auditions for any professional theater in the country, and whenever I visit New York, I always schedule an Equity Principal Audition or two. Unfortunately, my non-union actor friends need to wait for openings to be seen at these auditions.
"The situation is different at every theater,” he continues. “The houses are different; they handle profits differently. There are Equity contracts to fit most producing situations. Jay [Desiderio] has a sixty-five to seventy seat theater and he was able to hire Equity. A community theater can hire Equity! Of course, there are times when I have not been able to do shows that I really wanted to do, but there are advantages, and it is not as if I am just sitting at home!”
Gervasi has a well-established career in improvisational comedy.
“I was an improviser before I was an actor,” says Gervasi. “Some people go to college and train as actors. My method comes out of improvisation.”
Gervasi is a graduate of Toronto’s Second City Conservatory and Improv Programs.
“Second City in both Toronto and Chicago are Equity houses, which also influenced my decision to join the union,” he explains.
“I think that [my improv] background has been very helpful, and I find the work creatively fulfilling. Sometimes we’ll go out for a drink after a show and talk about it for more time than it took to do it!”
Recently, Gervasi has been doing a two-man show called Babushka with fellow improviser Todd Benzin. The two "create an entirely improvised one-hour play, playing all the characters themselves, on-the-spot. They explore a single suggestion, taking the audience on a long-form roller-coaster ride of spontaneity and discovery.”
Gervasi got his Equity card while working at the now defunct Studio Arena Theatre. The show was Two Pianos Four Hands. He was the assistant stage manager and they were supposed to go off to Germany, then off on a year-long tour.
“9/11 ended that!” laments Gervasi. "First it was cut to four months. Then it was cancelled."
For now, Gervasi’s storied path has taken him to Desiderio’s and to Same Time, Next Year, a big 1970s hit.
“I love the show,” says Gervasi. “It’s funny. It’s cute.”
It has also been playing to full houses.
“It’s about infidelity at the surface,” he says. “But it is about more than that. As I read the play, it became sweeter and sweeter with every page. Of course, I am only considering this from the point of view of the two characters onstage. I try not to think too much about their spouses, back home watching the kids, while these two carry on a once a year affair!”
What attracted Gervasi to the show?
"Well, the chance to work with Lisa, of course," he says.
Gervasi and Ludwig had worked together years ago in Charles’ Busch’s camp classic, Psycho Beach Party, at BUA.
“But I also really wanted to do it because I’d never done a two-hander before. This was a new challenge, and a chance to work outside of my comfort zone."
I remind Gervasi that Babuska is a two-hander, and he’s been doing it for nine years.
“Improv is completely different,” he explains. “Making up and going for an hour, is not the same as memorizing fifty pages and keeping it spontaneous every night! That’s what Lisa and I are doing!”
Gervasi can be seen in Same Time, Next Year at Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre. The show was directed by Jay Desiderio, and will play through April 7th. For evening shows, arrive at 6 for dinner and the show will start at 7:30; for matinees, arrive at 1 p.m., and the show will start at 2:30. The theater is located inside Bobby J’s Italian American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd., Cheektowaga (716-395-3207). www.mybobbyjs.com