Living

The play’s the thing for Wayne Stephens

Actor Wayne Stephens of Ocean Springs is preparing for his 50th role in South Mississippi community theater.
Actor Wayne Stephens of Ocean Springs is preparing for his 50th role in South Mississippi community theater. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

He’s been a dog, more than once. He’s been a woman — many times. And he keeps coming back for more.

He’s Wayne Stephens, one of the most prolific actors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and he’s preparing for his 50th community theater show at Center Stage, “Morning’s at Seven,” opening Nov. 10 at Center Stage in Biloxi.

“I started (with Center Stage) in 1990. That was my first show at Center Stage,” he said one recent morning at his home in Ocean Springs. “I’ve done theater all over, also with the Walter Anderson Players. There were some years I did almost every show (at Center Stage).”

Chuck White, who frequently directs productions at Center Stage, apparently keeps Stephens on speed dial.

“Chuck will call and say, ‘I need a man for this role,’ and usually if we’re not traveling, I’ll do it,” Stephens said. “Chuck checks with me to see what our schedule is. He knows the parts I prefer — character parts.”

Characters

And what characters. He’s been Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Senex in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” He portrayed Edna Turnbladt in “Hairspray” and Gertrude Garnet, “ the most glamorous concert pianist on the international stage,” in the World War II spy spoof “The Lady in Question.” He’s been Carmen Miranda for a fundraiser.

“You know, I respect women so much more than most men probably do,” he said. “I mean, all that you go through. The foundation garments, the makeup, the hair, and that’s every day for you.

“And having babies! Well, I haven’t had babies — yet. Oh, I take that back. In ‘Moonlight and Magnolias,’ I played Melanie having her baby in ‘Gone With the Wind’ — well, one of the men pretending to be Melanie having her baby,” he said as, ironically, one of his two fur babies jumped onto the coffee table.

Early beginnings

Stephens has been performing on stage for decades, beginning back in Madison County.

“I’m originally from Canton. My mother still lives there, and she’s 93,” he said. “She is my biggest fan. This had to be something instinctive. My mother was the jitterbug champion of Madison County, and her father was a Baptist preacher — can you imagine! This just happened. I had to perform. The first thing I was in was in 4H Club. I think I was 12. I pantomimed to ‘Pink Shoelaces’ (by Dodie Stevens). I had a grand time growing up in Canton. I would liken it to ‘The Donna Reed Show’ and ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ It was a good place to grow up, and it made me who I am today, and it was a good place for my sister Diane, who lives in Picayune now. She’s my second biggest fan.”

Favorite roles

Two of his favorite roles have been Norman Thayer in the drama “On Golden Pond” and Adolpho in the comedy “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

“And I loved being Snoopy (in ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’). I’ve been Snoopy several times. I can even still do ‘Suppertime’!” he said, demonstrating the kicks and fancy footwork of the musical number while still sitting. “When Shorty (Sneed) and I did ‘The Sunshine Boys,’ the lines just rolled off.”

There have been several demanding roles, too.

“Oh, ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep,’” he said immediately. “That was a two-man show, and we had four weeks to rehearse it, and I had never worked with Greg Alexander. I was a woman, a wolf, a vampire, and you had all these constant costume changes. Chris Miller was my dresser. When I looked at the video later, I asked, ‘How in the world did he do it?’ ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ was a fun show but very tiring, as you might imagine. Edna (Turnbladt in ‘Hairspray’) was very demanding, mainly because of all that padding. I was burning up! I must have lost a few pounds doing that show.”

Random memory?

After doing scores and scores of plays, do random lines ever pop up in his head during another production?

“For some reason, they filter out,” he said. “As soon as that play is over, they just go off somewhere. But if I do it again, they come right back to me, like in ‘Charlie Brown.’ That’s my biggest fear, that I’ll forget a line at some point. Community theater is a lot of work, but it helps to be retired.”

First career

Stephens is retired from teaching.

“I taught public school music in Biloxi for 27 years,” he said.

The Canton native wound up on the Coast through a job fair.

“When I graduated from USM in music education, there was a job fair for education, and Bruce Stewart from the Biloxi schools was there,” Stephens said. “Nichols Junior High School needed a choral music teacher, and he hired me on the spot.”

Stephens taught two classes of music that year and three classes of English because of a sudden need. But Stephens wasn’t certified in English, so he wasn’t able to do that the following year.

“That’s when the elementary position came open,” he said.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

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