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Actor covets the chance to play Barrymore

He says he comes by his interest in performing quite naturally since his mother was an opera singer.

“Only my choice was to become an actor,” said Keith Baker, now starring in Barrymore, the Bristol Riverside Theatre’s 25th-anniversary season-opener, through Oct. 30. “I’m not sure exactly how much my mother’s career influenced me, since she was never in the theater and only pursued her operatic career. But I must have been influenced in some way.”

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On the other hand, Baker said he had many fantastic music and drama teachers while attending high school in New York.

“I learned many things from them, things I still keep with me today,” he said.

With a good voice and an increasing talent for acting, Baker said he was eventually persuaded to study acting, and made the decision to apply to the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse.

“I was just seventeen, the youngest person at the Playhouse, and was accepted into a two-year course. That meant studying with such giants as Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham, and later under John Houseman at Juilliard,” he said.

There were others who influenced and taught him, and Baker said he is grateful to all of them for helping to develop a career that has lasted so many decades, resulting in so many awards and fabulous productions to explore. Perhaps none more demanding — or rewarding — than playing matinee idol John Barrymore.

Today Baker, in his 60s and BRT’s artistic director, is enjoying delving into Barrymore, the man. Baker brings to life the charismatic actor whose notoriety and glory made him a Philadelphia legend. “I’m not trying to imitate Barrymore so much as look inside the man,” Baker said. “The play takes place during the last month of Barrymore’s life when supposedly he wanted to try to recapture his early success of Richard III in this late point in his life.

“It’s all fictitious and never really happened, but we’re trying to show him and his talent,” Baker continued.

“Barrymore was a drunk from the age of fourteen and never tried to hide it. Yet he was a functioning drunk, even going onstage drunk at times. But we never deal with him as a drunk in this play. Rather, we show a person courageous enough to try to do one last great thing again in his life, and I think that’s the universality of the piece.”

According to Baker, doing a one-man show is a “profoundly lonely experience. However, to make it less so and add some interesting side points, director Jon Marans chose to put Barrymore’s prompter onstage with him so it becomes, in part, a two-person play. And since Barrymore wanted people around him to view his work, that part is ‘played’ by the BRT audience.”

Having directed more than 60 productions himself at this point, Baker has appeared in many other BRT productions but never casts himself in any role.

“Susan (Atkinson, BRT founding director) asked me to do this role. It’s a role I would have loved to do and she felt I was perfect for it. So I jumped at the chance when she presented me with it,” he said.

Prior to coming to BRT, Baker was artistic director for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and the Florida Repertory Theatre. He is the recipient of many awards, including a two-time winner for best actor at the prestigious Carbonell Awards.

“I think one of the best things about being in this business is the opportunity to work with some of the very best actors and in some of the very best plays ever staged,” he said. “I believe the true value of what I do is when I am no longer acting or performing, but living the life of someone else in front of people who are truly happy to watch my work.” ••

For ticket information, call 215–785–0100.

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