In full costume, Kearney Community Theatre actor loses himself to ‘Cats’ character
Something magical happens when Lars Johnson puts on his costume and makeup before taking the stage as Shimbleshanks.
“It definitely is a lot of work to get into the makeup, the costume and the wig but it really does add an extra layer of feeling to the character,” Johnson said about his role in Kearney Community Theatre’s production of “Cats.”
The actor recalled the first night of wearing makeup at a rehearsal.
“Seeing yourself and everybody else with our cat faces, it really made it an entirely different performance,” he said. “After layering in the costumes and the wigs, I tend to forget who I am and who everybody else is around me because no one looks like themselves anymore.”
The production of the award-winning musical continues at Kearney Community Theatre with performances at 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets for the show are $18.
“Cats,” often described as a sung-through musical, features a series of vignettes about a troupe of feline characters. The show premiered in 1981 in London. The Kearney Community Theatre’s production features a cast of 29 performers.
Johnson describes his character as a cat who admires an orderly world.
“Shimbleshanks is one of the older cats,” he said. “He’s kind of a tomcat who’s very cheerful and friendly compared to some of the others. He works on the railway train going to various places in England. He likes things to be in order and as they should be.”
While the costume helps Johnson get into character, the discomfort of wearing excessive makeup and extra layers of clothing can make the performance uncomfortable for the cast members.
“It’s very hot wearing those costumes,” he said. “The wigs are all made completely out of yarn so that makes your head very hot. The Spandex suits, along with a wool vest over it combined with arm warmers and leg warmers — plus with a faceful of makeup plugging your pores — it’s very hot under the stage lights. You really notice it.”
The design of the costumes prevents the crew from washing the actors’ clothing.
“We’re not the best smelling group of cats, for sure,” Johnson laughed. “To give the costume a look of fur, the costume crew used a Sharpie to add the detail and the accents. To wash the costumes would make it all run out and not look like it’s supposed to. So it’s been up to fabric Febreze to keep us going.”
The makeup, so close to his eyes, occasionally creates problems for Johnson.
“There’s been times when I’m on stage and my vision just goes cloudy because of the makeup,” he said. “You just have to keep going and pretend that nothing’s wrong.”
The way he creates his character makes “Cats” unique for Johnson.
“It’s all about body acting and movement,” he said. “You build your character by how you present yourself visually rather than how you speak or say your lines. For each cat to make a distinction between the others, it’s all in how the characters move.”
When asked if he considers himself a cat person, Johnson replied, “Absolutely. I’ve grown up with cats all my life. I grew up on a ranch so I was surrounded by farm cats. Now that I live here in Kearney I have a cat of my own. Having a cat helps a lot with the show. There will be times when I’ll be watching my cat and I’ll notice something about her, how she holds herself.”
Johnson uses those mannerisms to help define his character.”
“I’ve thought, ‘I could work that into the show somehow,’” he said. “I think I thanked her by name in my character bio.”
Following the close of “Cats,” Johnson plans to move to Lincoln.
“I still want to continue acting and pursing theater,” said Johnson, a recent University of Nebraska at Kearney graduate. “I want to do it anyway I can whether it is through community theater or something more.”