Fort Wayne's current crop of ultra-prolific actors who perform in back-to-back shows includes Fort Wayne native and professional actor Aaron Mann. He's a self-described perfectionist who is just as happy working quietly by himself backstage as he is performing onstage.
"As a young person I was incredibly shy and kept to myself," he says. "In many ways that is still very true. If I'm outgoing and interactive with anyone, that usually means I've grown to trust them. There's a very limited number of people who get to meet that me."
As an introvert, he doesn't consider himself a born performer, but he does come from a very musical family. His mother sang at weddings from the time she was a young teenager. His father is a self-taught guitarist who, in turn, gave him the basis for his guitar studies. His brothers played clarinet and saxophone.
Even so, as a child he gained experience in front of large groups as an altar boy, choirboy and church guitarist at Most Precious Blood Catholic Church.
"I enjoyed the traditional and formal elements of the service," he says. "Contributing to something sacred and sharing my gifts became something that made me proud and satisfied with myself. To do good work is a great honor."
His father, an electrical engineer, instilled "a lot of discipline" in him and his two brothers, and he attributes his "unique work ethic" to his influence. Meanwhile, his mother's support and encouragement, he says, inspired him "to never give up and to try exciting and interesting projects."
Both she and his grandmother fostered in him a love and appreciation for musical theater. His interest in performing in that capacity was sparked when his grandmother took him to a production of The Mikado at First Presbyterian Theater in 1999.
"I was my grandmother's little date and wore a jacket and tie," he says. "It's a habit I try to maintain to this day."
Mann performed in his first musical ("a show about baseball called The Inside Pitch") in the fourth grade at Price Elementary. His first play was as a high school freshman at Elmhurst: the Woody Allen comedy Don't Drink the Water, directed by Kirby Volz.
"I was a little nervous but mostly excited to audition," he recalls. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into being mixed in with a bunch of upperclassman." His natural talent came through and he was cast in a supporting role, complete with a comedic monologue in which his character believes himself to be both of the Wright brothers.
The experience was "electrifying" and opened up a new creative outlet for the teenager.
"After that I was involved with as much theater as possible for my high school and in the community," Mann says. "I once participated in nine shows in a single season. I learned about dinner theater catering, volunteering for ushering, crewing shows, carpentry and design. I was in high school when I realized that I enjoyed just about every element of the craft."
He attended IPFW where he earned a B.A. with Academic Distinction in theater with an emphasis on acting. However, he still found himself just as enthralled with the behind-the-scenes aspects of theatre.
"I absorbed as much as I could about the technical world," he says. "IPFW really helped me understand the fundamentals - set and costume construction, paint treatments, hanging and focusing lights and scenic design. My work-study job for four years was constructing costumes, but in summer stock [in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania] I was always stereotyped as a carpenter. I welcomed that experience as another way of rounding out my training."
He says his education at IPFW also advanced his acting by giving him "exceptional opportunities, film workshops, two regional tours, challenging auditions and rigorous class work."
After graduation, he moved to Virginia and found immediate work as a scenic designer, technical director and props master. He also had plenty of professional opportunities to utilize his musical skills by playing guitar for productions of Godspell, Grease! and Working (the musical).
Mann's first professional acting experience was as one of three acting interns at Wayside Theatre in Middletown, Virginia. "For one year I performed in many shows," he says, "but also found myself building in scenic and costume shops. I learned a little about administration as well."
Athough he was offered the position of general manger at a new theater, he decided to stay at Wayside as the theater's resident properties master.
"Designing props seemed like the perfect bridge to my background with carpentry and stitching," he says. "I loved it. I'm very detail-oriented and somewhat of a perfectionist in my work."
In 2011 Mann was cast in the Midwest tour of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan's longstanding and prestigious annual production of A Christmas Carol. After the tour, he returned to Omaha where NTC was based.
There, he designed sets, became an interim technical director and performed as a musician and actor for a sketch comedy group as well as acting in two Shakespeare festivals. "It was a very exciting time," he says.
He also discovered a new passion: children's theatre.
He set up a residency at the Rose Children's Theatre (also known as The Omaha Theatre Company), which produces major national tours and high quality educational entertainment. "I thought I would just commit to one contract there and find another city to bounce to," he says, "but the Rose continued to be very good to me."
Nevertheless, theatereducation beckoned.
"I landed my dream job for an organization called WhyArts?" he says. "Their purpose is to provide creative activities and outlets for any under-served population in the community. They frequently partner with The Kennedy Center and many other programs to enrich the lives of so many. I worked closely with diverse demographics - elderly, youth, impoverished, special needs and even a group where language was the only obstacle hindering our journey together."
Now back in Fort Wayne for the past three years, his attention to detail got him a job at Allen Plastics Repair, a company that produces such things as fire truck bodies and galvanizing tanks, as a quality control specialist. "I take a lot of pride in being one of the last people to check a product before it ships," he says.
Mann's attention to detail informs his stage work as well.
"I try to be very precise and intentional with my choices," he says, "even when it may appear I'm not making any."
Those choices might be to stand in an uncomfortable or awkward position if he feels it lends itself to the character's portrayal or simply through a particular vocal variety.
"It's counterintuitive to both be precise and to also challenge yourself to continue making discoveries throughout rehearsals," he says. "It's a lovely and rigorous process."
Mann's perfectionism doesn't extend past his own performance, however. "I'm only hard on myself," he says. "Every actor has a journey specific to them and it is my job to attempt to reassure and encourage them only when appropriate."
No matter the age or level of experience of the actors he shares the stage with, Mann says he treats everyone with the same level of professional respect. Meanwhile, he shares the benefit of his own vast experience with his cast mates if they're interested - particularly the kids.
"One of my favorite things in doing shows with younger actors is the process of passing on healthy knowledge and theatre etiquette," he says. He grew particularly close to his Mary Poppins co-stars who played his son and daughter, helping them with their British accents and "creating a silly and positive atmosphere to relax any anxiety they might have been experiencing in a show with loud and boisterous adults. It's important to take the time to engage them with positive energy and kindness. These experiences inform me of my destiny to stay involved with theatre education."
At the same time, he says, the cliché holds true: children are the best teachers. The honesty of child actors has helped teach him about removing the adult filters and opening himself up to "bold and exciting choices that adults have difficulty allowing themselves to find."
He has another opportunity to work with - and learn from - young actors. He is currently playing Emil de Beque (Frenchman and father of two) in the Arena Dinner Theatre production of South Pacific.
Now that he's achieved that bucket-list role, Mann's next dream role is to found a chapter of the philanthropy WhyArts? here in Fort Wayne.
"With incredible companies like Wunderkammer and Triple Threat Performing Arts Academy growing," he says, "I think it may be time for another important arts organization to develop here."
Wherever his theater journey takes him next, he accepts every experience as one of personal betterment.
"I'm so grateful for all of the gifts that have presented themselves in my work wherever I've travelled," he says. "Theater has taught me to maintain a happy heart."
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