James Wright has spent the last 30 years in show business.
The journeyman actor, singer and Lee’s Summit resident is one of many contributing to a growing arts scene in this community.
He’s worked alongside retired teacher Ben Martin, to reestablish community theater in Lee’s Summit after it had faded away about decade ago. Martin is president of Summit Theatre Group and Wright is on the Board of Directors which held its first season last year.
You may have seen Wright in professional roles at Missouri Repertory Theater, Starlight, the New Theater Restaurant, American Heartland Theater and the Unicorn, or heard his voice-overs for Mr. GoodCents or the Missouri Lottery.
He’s done advertising work for Hallmark. He sings jingles. He’s recorded an album entitled Center Stage: Songs of Spirit from the Musical Theater.
And he’s used his multi-faceted talents to put together a career in a challenging business.
“It’s a gypsy life, I don’t punch the clock anywhere, some times it’s a good month, sometimes its not,” Wright said. “It’s a different life but there are a lot of us out there with performance in their DNA, we have to do it.”
He said there’s nothing like play for a live audience. But an actor can starve if they insist on limiting themselves to only that.
His story’s now no different from that of many middle-aged performers, athletes, bands or actors where age takes its toll on work available to them.
At 52 years old, he said, now he needs to make the transition to a character actor, and he hopes directors and producers will recognize he has the “chops” to take on different roles.
Wright said he “used to look good” and at his age isn’t as marketable for stage work, so he’s venturing into the insurance business.
But he continues performing and has also started doing more on the production side. He’s doing some directing for a Lee’s Summit firm, Cinematic Visions, which makes corporate videos and shorts for websites.
Not that his stage career is kaput.
This summer he’ll be in the Buddy Holly Story at the New Theater Restaurant.
He said highlights of his career were working with stars such as Don Knotts and Andy Williams.
“I’ve rubbed elbows with some heavy hitters working in town, and that’s been great,” Wright said.
Another highlight is his album, which he said is still selling well.
He played Judge Turpin, in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd. Wright said he’d wanted to be in that musical for a long time and finally in 2007 he got a lead role with the Light Opera Oklahoma.
Sweeney Todd is considered by many to be Sondheim’s best work. It’s the tale of a corrupt Judge Turpin who uses his power to send a man to Australia for a crime he did not commit, because he had a pretty wife he judge wants for himself.
The man returns 15 years later, as barber Sweeney Todd, to get revenge.
The show Wright performed in was called “an extraordinary evening of theater” in the Tulsa World newspaper.
“Wright blends decorum and depravity in perfect balance as the Judge,” wrote James D. Watt Jr. in his review.
Wright said Lee’s Summit is a town filled with talent, professional and amateur.
“The Lee’s Summit Symphony is so good, better than it should be for its size,” Wright said.
One of the upcoming productions of Summit Theatre is “Sylvia,” about a man who finds a dog that alters his mid-life crisis.
Wright will direct the show. He acted it in American Heartland Theater and suggested it for a Lee’s Summit production. He put the idea for the show forward and the group offered him the director’s chair. It is scheduled for April 5 at Unity Village.
“Directing is new in my bag of tricks,” he said.
He still gets “nervous energy” before a show.
“It’s what propels us as performers to do well,” Wright said. “It’s only because I give a darn about what I’m doing.”
He said making commercials is gratifying and pays the bills, but not like performing for an audience. There he’s working without the safety-net of stopping and re-recording. And working with a cast and audience means a different energy level and challenge. Despite rehearsing and rehearsing, one member might have a bad night, there will be flubs and the cast has to adjust, pick up the show and carry a performance through.
“It’s a high that’s difficult to describe, a different experience, fun and edgy,” Wright said.