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Stage West's Peter Clapsis is living his lifelong dream

Be warned that this reads like an eye-rolling Hollywood fairy tale: Man loses job and fulfills his lifelong dream.

Only thing is, the story is absolutely true.

It all started when Peter Clapsis, now 49 and living in Spring Hill, was in the third grade in Toms River, N.J., and he and his classmates decided to act out The Wizard of Oz. No script. No scenery. No costumes.

"I was the Cowardly Lion," Clapsis said. "I always went for the character roles, even when I was a kid."

The teacher thought it was so good, she took them on tour — to other classrooms.

"That kind of got me started," Clapsis said.

In seventh grade, Clapsis played the role of kidnapper Bill Driscoll in the O. Henry tale, The Ransom of Red Chief. By high school, he was a regular, doing Pajama Game, Oklahoma, Kismet, South Pacific, You Can't Take It With You. At age 14, he and his fellow thespians in the Township Savoyard Gilbert & Sullivan acting troupe went to the fancy Commodore Hotel in New York City to do the HMS Trekkiestar for a convention of Star Trek fans.

"I met Gene Roddenberry and the cast of Star Trek," he said. "Imagine that, at age 14."

Clapsis' trajectory seemed set: He'd graduate from high school, then go live with his grandparents in Greenwich Village, get a job and go to acting school.

But Real Life interrupted.

While directing a community theater version of Plaza Suite, he fell in love with a lovely woman named Linda and married her at age 21. Several years later, along came daughter Maria, now 25 and a design artist for Disney, then Carolyn, now 23 and working at Starbucks to save money for graduate school to become a psychologist.

For the next two decades, Clapsis' life centered on his family and career in community relations. All that theater stuff was behind him, even after he and his family moved to Florida in 1990 to be closer to his in-laws, and several theaters were nearby.

Then one day after Linda began teaching at Hernando High School, she asked Peter to help with productions of Bye, Bye Birdie and Pajama Game.

Clapsis' latent theater bug began to bite.

"I saw an audition notice for You Can't Take It With You at Stage West (Community Playhouse),'' he said. He tried out for the role of Boris Kolenkhov, a role he'd done at age 17, and in January 2005, he was back in the theater, this time for good.

That role won him a HAMI Award by vote of his peers and theater patrons.

"I've been in five shows a year since then," he said.

Sometimes he's been the lead, playing Sheridan Whiteside, the cranky visitor in The Man Who Came to Dinner, or Pseudolus, the conniving Roman slave in Funny/Forum — his all-time favorite role.

Sometimes, it's a key supporting role, such as the leprechaun Og in Finian's Rainbow, or the pickpocket Fagin in Oliver! Sometimes, it's a member of the chorus.

Whatever, Clapsis manages to make even small roles big.

None was bigger than the time the vertically challenged Clapsis stepped in to play the mobster Big Jule in the musical Guys and Dolls after the original actor dropped dead of a heart attack on stage on opening night. "I didn't want to do that one," he said.

In truth, he has become something of the go-to guy at Stage West in many instances.

Like the time the actor playing the king dropped out of The King and I at the last minute, and Clapsis did the role with mere weeks to learn it. Or the time the two lead actors and the director dropped out of Being of Sound Mind close to opening night, and Clapsis not only directed the show, but also recruited his wife and friend Dalton Benson to do the roles, scripts in hand.

He also took on projects others didn't necessarily want, like directing the creepy murder mystery Veronica's Room and the lame comedy Epic Proportions or playing the detective in the silly Ax of Murder.

Though the latter two were flops, Clapsis and cast and crew turned Veronica's Room into a triumph, winning two HAMIs, including Favorite Forum Show.

"I am very, very proud of that," Clapsis said, never mind that he also had doubts about doing it. "Such material (as Veronica's Room) isn't actually my cup of tea," he said before the show opened.

Then came June 2010, when his employer, Access Health Care, eliminated his position as community relations director.

"I decided to take time off — vacation," Clapsis said. But fate would step in.

"I happened to run into Matthew McGee," the artistic director at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre. "He was having trouble casting (the role of) Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!," which was to open Oct. 1. McGee had seen Clapsis perform at Stage West and suggested he go to the Show Palace tryouts.

"I went to audition, and the rest is history," Clapsis said.

He got the role of Ali, along with big rounds of applause from theatergoers, then went on to land two roles in the current show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Mr. Twimble, the mailroom chief, and Wally Womper, the Big Boss) and has been cast in the upcoming 42nd Street as Bert Berry, the writer and producer of the play within the musical.

"There is nobody nicer," McGee said of Clapsis. "He's so talented."

Longtime Stage West pal and personal friend Paulette Hess was among those from Stage West who filled three tables at a recent show.

"He was beyond wonderful, and, yes, was born to perform," she said. "(We are) so very proud of him."

All this seems to be happening at the right time for Clapsis.

"Right now, I'm trying to get an agent," he said. Besides his theater work, he's doing voice-overs for WJQB-FM 106.3 in Hudson, an oldies station.

"It's not great money," he said. "But my daughters say, 'We never saw you come home from work this happy.' "

Stage West's Peter Clapsis is living his lifelong dream 01/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 12:32am]
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