As a child, Ernsberger was "painfully shy" but an avid reader with a strong imagination. He credits his love of books for paving his way into theater.
"[I loved] imagining myself in someone else's life or situation," he says. "Onstage, you get to be a part of a more fully realized and immersive version than what you can picture in your mind's eye, and it helps [you] develop a sense of empathy."
It wasn't until middle school that Ernsberger took his first step onto the stage, led by Jo Drudge at Rome City Middle School.
His first role was in middle school in the ensemble of a musical called Little Miss Christie. He really had the chance to shine, however, in his next production, a school variety show.
"I did a vaudeville act with my best friend Nik," he says. "We played two German guys. The jokes were all based on misunderstandings created by the pronunciation of words in the thick German accents we used. The two of us used to do a lot of dialects for fun, most of which I am sure were awful, but that inspired Jo Drudge to have us do this bit for the variety show. I later got to repay Jo for casting me in my first role when I cast her in my first directing gig."
He went on to do theater at East Noble High School under the tutelage of Craig Munk and Bob Avery. The theater program was very active, producing four to six shows each year. While a student, Ernsberger appeared in about half of them, including his first Shakespeare play.
After high school, he earned an English degree from Ball State. He went on to gain business experience as a program manager at a non-profit educational organization, as a brand marketing manager for a luxury consumer goods company and as a retail manager. Theater was still in his heart, however, so he enrolled at IPFW and earned a second bachelor's in theater with an emphasis on directing. While at IPFW he worked as the scenic/lighting designer and technical director at both North Side and Homestead high schools as well as performing in community theater.
All told, he has been involved in over 50 productions in Fort Wayne - both onstage and off. "I found myself fascinated with all of the aspects of theater," he says, "so I did a little bit of everything."
In 2011 Ernsberger left Fort Wayne again to attend graduate school in arts administration at the University of Alabama.
"I always joke that I decided my English degree was too marketable," he says, "so I needed to add a couple theater degrees to balance it out."
In truth, he says, "I wanted to take my 'day job' business experience and apply it to my love of the arts. Many arts organizations fail because the artists who found them do not understand that, [even though a theater may be] a non-profit, there is still a business to be run. I thought that my experience in theater would help bridge the gap between art and economic viability."
After he earned his master's degree, he took a job as the event operations manager for the Leslie S. Wright Center at Birmingham's Samford University. The concert hall seats nearly 2,600.
"I did a little bit of everything, from moving tables as we set up for events to writing a safety and security plan for the venue," he says. "The biggest drawback was the sheer number of hours I had to work. It never allowed me the time to express myself creatively in theater."
Then an opportunity opened up at Arts United in Fort Wayne. He accepted the position of events operations manager where he works with clients who rent the spaces at the Arts United Center and the PPG Artslab. This change opened up the opportunity to get back onstage after several years away from it.
"I am happy to be with an employer who values participation of its staff in the local arts scene," he says.
He's only been back a short time, but has jumped back into acting. Although he's played a wide variety of roles over his career, he says he's fallen into a comfortable niche playing "neurotics or pretentious Brits." In this go-around, he's playing the latter: Charles Dickens in the First Presbyterian Theater production of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.
Written by Scott Carter, the executive producer of Real Time with Bill Maher, the play is a contemporary comedy that premiered in 2014 in Los Angeles.
"The title is a bit long," Ernsberger says, "but it gives you an idea of what the play concerns."
In the show, the founding father, the Victorian novelist and the Russian revolutionary find themselves trapped in a room somewhere in the afterlife.
"They set about trying to figure out why they were brought together and what they need to do to get out of the room and move on," Ernsberger explains.
The thread that ties all three together is a historically accurate one: each of them had written his own "Gospel" of Jesus in his own style and according to his own experience and philosophy and viewpoint.
Ernsberger calls the play "thought-provoking and fun," and says it addresses the very contemporary issues of faith and hypocrisy. "These historic figures are often held up as paragons, but they're really just the same flawed humans who fell short of their ideals. Dickens, for example, presents himself as a model husband and father, but he treated his family, and his wife especially, pretty horribly. He wrote about the trials of the working class of England, but once he broke out of the cycle of poverty in his family, he lived a life of excess and was pretty egomaniacal. You get to see that aspect of him in the show."
He says he and his cast mates (Scott McMeen as Jefferson and Thom Hofrichter as Tolstoy) have enjoyed "exploring the historical aspects of the characters and finding the humor in the piece. The larger-than-life personalities of these historic figures makes them fun to play, and I think the three of us have developed a great chemistry."
Ernsberger has also embraced the challenge of memorizing his character's uniquely written dialogue.
"Dickens' speaking style is very specific," he says. "I have not had this level of memorization in about seven years, and if you don't use that muscle, especially as you age, it takes a while to get it back to form."
Hofrichter, the artistic director at First Pres, handed the directing reins over to Chance Parker so that he himself could perform in the piece.
"Thom is great to work with," says Ernsberger. "The last major role I had in Fort Wayne before I left for graduate school was playing the Fool to his King Lear at IPFW, so we already have an established rapport onstage and understand how each other works. Our characters have an exchange about Lear - Tolstoy was not a fan - so that's kind of a fun moment considering our history."
Ernsberger is proud of Fort Wayne and its continuing growth and evolution.
"Part of the reason I came back was the tremendous energy I am seeing here with all of the major projects that the community is backing to improve the quality of life here," he says. "I see the arts as a vital part of that community-building, and I think Arts United is a leader in ensuring that the arts claim a place at the table as we move forward."
Initiatives like the Public Arts Commission "moves Fort Wayne in the right direction," he says.
"Arts United's longtime mission of providing both financial and administrative support for local arts organizations is just one aspect of the things I get to be a part of here."
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