by Lou Mancinelli
Before Chestnut Hill resident Paul McNair, 53, chanced upon the charming Stagecrafters theater at 8130 Germantown Ave. two years ago, it had been 18 years since the former New York City actor/carpenter took to the stage.
McNair is currently portraying Sean Leonard, the lead role in “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at Stagecrafters. The story, by Philadelphia writer Thomas Gibbons and directed by Barbara Mills, tells the tale of an elderly southern black woman who becomes a literary sensation after her memoirs are published. The play explores tensions and questions that arise when it’s discovered that the author is actually a white man.
The story raises questions about race and explores how much one can truly know another. Before McNair landed the lead in a Stagecrafters performance of “The Deadly Game” in the spring of 2012, the last time he has acted was in 1994.
That was with The House of Candles, a resident theatre group he’d been part of for six years that had its own performance space in a loft on the Lower East Side of Manhattan but lost its lease in a typical New York rising rent story.
Following its demise, McNair picked up and drove cross country with Emma Sabin, his then-girlfriend, now-wife, and eventually moved back to Brooklyn, where he had previously lived for many years.
“I just lost interest,” McNair said. “I didn’t know how to do it or make it work or something.”
He was 33, then. He’d lived the New York acting life for more than a decade. Trained in the early ’80s in New York at the National Shakespeare Conservancy, McNair spent the ’80s chasing the New York actor’s dream. He worked various day jobs, auditioned for Broadway and other performances, got callbacks and heartbreaks when parts weren’t won.
Nevertheless, McNair persisted. He “bopped around the bottom for a little,” landed small-time roles and worked day jobs. By the late ’80s he landed with The House of Candles. Their entire space was painted black. You’d walk in and not know whether you were part of the audience or the play.
At the Shakespeare Conservancy, McNair had played more traditional roles performing classical pieces, including King Lear, perhaps the most difficult role of all.
The House of Candles renewed his interest in theater, though.
When he was young, McNair said his acting was all about feelings and emotion, but at the Conservancy, he learned that acting was a craft. A master actor mastered his craft and relied on it when inspiration failed.
“About this time I was really questioning my identity as an actor,” McNair said, so while the House of Candles had reignited his vigor for the stage, his will to perform waned when its run ended.
After his cross country trip, McNair settled back in Park Slope in Brooklyn. He’d been raised in a family of builders on the Connecticut shoreline and while chasing acting roles, he had developed his carpentry craft and opened a woodworking shop. So for McNair, whose first performance was in high school in “Endgame,” by Samuel Beckett, the theater had led to the hammer.
McNair had once even gone to New Orleans to write a Great American Novel and worked on a merchant marine ship, like the Beat Generation’s Jack Kerouac, his icon.
When he had nothing to write, however, he went to New York City “to learn how to act and find the right teacher and all that.”
So after he married in 1997, it was with some surprise that McNair found himself auditioning for a new role, this time in corporate management accounting at a major commercial construction firm.
And there he has stayed. In August 2011, McNair moved to Chestnut Hill with his wife and son, Gavin, now, 8, a Jenks School student. “Since then our lives have just opened up in so many ways. I’m having this life I could never have in New York.”
He’s talking about being able to grow vegetables, afford things and have room. “I don’t want to say it wasn’t that difficult,” said McNair about returning to the stage after being away from it for so many years, “but it wasn’t ‘that’ difficult.”
For more information about the production of “Bee-Luther-Hatchee,” which will play until Feb. 9, visit www.thestagecrafters.org or call 215-247-8881.