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Over the past 30-odd years, Gary Lanier has proven himself to be a triple-threat powerhouse and has become a pillar of the Fort Wayne theater community.
Lanier grew up in Seymour, hometown of John Mellencamp and former Miss America Katie Stamm. Although he says he was a shy child, he was an active one. “I loved climbing things,” he says. “That’s probably why I was in the ER so often.”
He lived in a neighborhood with plenty of other kids, so there were lots of group activities to keep him busy. When he entered high school, he connected with the “theatercrowd” and found himself cast as one of the king’s children in The King and I.
“I was a freshman,” he says, “but I looked like I was around 12 years old.”
After roles in The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof in high school, he earned his “first actual role with a character name” when he was cast as Stuart Dalrymple in Brigadoon.
While earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration at Indiana University, he auditioned for the prestigious vocal group Singing Hoosiers and was accepted as a tenor.
“I was thrilled,” he says, “because I wasn’t a music major and I was part of a performing choral group in one of the nation’s renowned schools of music.”
Although he didn’t major in music, Lanier did take ballet classes and voice lessons through the School of Music. “My voice teacher was a graduate student of [Metropolitan Opera star] Margaret Harshaw’s,” he says. “That’s what I love about that school. You are working with the best.”
He also studied jazz, modern dance and tap through the IU African American Arts Institute, and he danced with the Windfall Dancers, IU Dance Theatre, and IU African American Dance Company.
Lanier moved to Fort Wayne in 1984 and soon began doing community theater. His first production was a Fort Wayne Civic Theatre Guild Show called Woman and directed by the late Larry L. Life.
“I was in the chorus,” he says. “Nobody really knew me at the time.”
He was later hired as the box office manager at the Embassy Theatre. It was then he decided the arts should be a part of his career.
His current full-time job is administrative assistant in the dean’s office of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at IPFW. On the side, he choreographs musicals at the Civic Theatre and other local venues.
He estimates he has performed in around 80 shows over the years and is proud of the influence he has had, not only on community theatre performers, but on members of his own family.
“I have a niece who was into musical theater in high school, and now her older daughter is,” he says. “I think I’ve influenced family members to appreciate theater.”
Lanier not only has the singing and the dance chops, but he takes acting seriously as well. He spends time doing his homework on every characters he plays.
“I try to come up with some sort of biography on the character before I delve into anything else,” he says. “If the character is in the midst of something in an historical context or of social significance, I do some research. Then I think of that person’s relationship with other characters in the piece. The rest just seems to fall into place during the rehearsal process, sometimes sooner than others.”
He has created a back story for his current character, Herr Schultz in the Civic Theatre’s current production, Cabaret.
“He grew up as an only child in a close Jewish family in Berlin,” Lanier says. “I believe his wife died at a fairly early age. They had no children. He has been running his fruit shop since he took it over from his family’s business. As a single elderly gentleman, he found it easier to live in the boarding house that he currently resides in.”
Several of the characters he has played have an accent or particular way of speaking. Herr Schultz speaks with “a sort of a combination of German and Yiddish,” he says. “The rest seems to come with experimentation through rehearsal and leadership from the artistic team.”
Cabaret is a show Lanier has revisited several times in his performing career. He was in the chorus of the IPFW production in 1985. He played the Emcee at Arena Dinner Theatre in the 1990s. He cites the Emcee as being his all-time favorite role.
“There were times when I actually lost myself in the character,” he says. “It was wonderful and scary at the same time. I had never experienced that before. My character in that production rarely left the stage. He was always this ominous observer.”
He doesn’t compare the two productions of Cabaret, but he does acknowledge that the Civic’s cast is “about as solid as they come. You will be very impressed by the quality performance of some amazing young talent in this production.”
The production is a newer version of the 1966 musical by Kander and Ebb. It was revised in 1998 and starred Alan Cumming who is currently reviving the role in the Broadway production, which also stars Emma Stone.
“This version is a lot more ‘in your face,’” says Lanier. “The sexual overtones are a lot more blatant, and the social stigmas involved with what was going on politically in Germany at the time are more pronounced. This version also has included some of the movie version’s music and removed a couple of the original songs.”
Lanier compliments the Civic Theatre for their choice of theatrical offerings, which appeal to a wide variety of audiences.
“They do a nice job of adapting to society and how it evolves,” he says. “Their season choices are a little more diverse. There is the lighter fare and the more risky, such as Rent, which mainly pulled in the younger crowd.”
Lanier has also worked at Arena Dinner Theatre, First Presbyterian Theater and the IPFW Department of Theatre, but he doesn’t play favorites. He does admit, however, to a favorite performance space: Studio Theatre in Kettler Hall at IPFW. Under the direction of Larry Life and originally known as PIT (Purdue-Indiana Theatre), the space was home to some of the most cutting-edge and important theatrical pieces this city has seen. Lanier is proud to have been part of several of them, including The Normal Heart and Corpus Christi.
“Larry Life was a big influence on me as he was with a few generations of actors,” Lanier says.
He takes every role seriously, but he also appreciates the importance of keeping a sense of humor.
“Once when we were in dress rehearsal for one of Larry Life’s guild shows,” he says, “there was a moment during a Disney segment that one of the actors dressed as a forest creature [and] who had no peripheral vision in the costume tripped over the young lady dressed as Snow White and literally fell on top of her and flattened her. It happened to be a moment when Larry was having one of his infamous tirades, but in spite of that the whole cast broke into instantaneous laughter.”
As experienced and accomplished as he is, Lanier acknowledges that he shares something with a majority of performers: a fear of auditions.
“I think that most actors feel like the audition is like being led to guillotine,” he says. “It never gets easier.”
Lanier’s next project will be less nerve-wracking – at least for him. He will choreograph The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre.
He approaches choreography similarly to his acting roles: through repetition and visualization.
“The first thing I do is read the script several times,” he says. “I listen to the cast recording over and over. Then I start visualizing, [taking] notes and putting the movement to the score in my own little language.”
He also considers the abilities of the performers, which he discovers during the audition process, and tailors his choreography to what they can – and cannot – do.
“I think that I can choreograph to a median level to different levels of dance ability in the actors, and still manage to make it interesting,” he says. “I love the challenge. It keeps me on my toes. Pardon the pun.”