By John Farrell, Curtain Call Writer
On stage he is a monster.
No, that isn’t a negative criticism. He actually is a monster in his current role, the creation of Victor Frankenstein: tall, threatening, with an unhealed wound on his head, a steam punk monocle and dressed in an almost floor length leather duster that, with his muscular bare arms, makes him intimidating and ferocious, a man whose life has been revived by Frankenstein’s science and who is confused and helpless, frightened and frightening all at once. His monster is no Boris Karloff, speaking in guttural mutters. After all, he has to sing..
In Frankenstein the Musical Ray Buffer, as actor and director, is just where he wants to be: on stage performing in a musical. You can’t tell he is happy: that is what acting is all about after all, creating a character. But Buffer is in the middle of the world he loves and he wants to keep that world alive.
The West Coast premier of Frankenstein the Musical recently ran at the Ernest Borgnine Theatre at the Scottish Rite Temple in Long Beach. This was Buffer’s first appearance on stage in several years. He has been in Los Angeles since 1999, trying to make a career as an actor and director. Frankenstein, in partnership with Jonas Sills, is his latest attempt to catch the trophy of success.
He looks in real life a little like Frankenstein’s monster, but in a clean-cut, all-American way: big, strongly built with a handsome, square face, a serious smile and an affable, engaging personality. He is 45, and has been doing theater all his adult life. He has moved easily in the past from earning a regular paycheck, with Long Beach Opera and the Laguna Playhouse in marketing, and in the retail field, to taking a chance on theatrical ventures. Originally from south Florida, Buffer moved to central Florida, where there was plenty of work in local theaters and theme parks.
“I had lots of chances to perform there,” Buffer said in a recent phone interview. “There are plenty of theaters around Orlando and Disney World. I left there in 1999 to come to Los Angeles and try my luck here.
“I was making a good living, working in sales and marketing locally, for the Laguna Playhouse, driving just a few mile to a cushy job there. Then I moved to become general manager for Long Beach Opera under Andreas Mitisek. Sometime around 2006, I discovered the Warner Grand and decided I wanted to produce theater there.”
The Warner Grand, then as now, was an underutilized space, a depression-era jewel that could hold a large audience even if it had some difficulties with space on stage (it doesn’t have much room for deep sets and had an antique rigging system, the ropes and pulleys used to change sets, that needed improvement.) It was once a premier movie palace, and had finally been bought by the city to be used for local performing arts. But it hadn’t found anyone willing to do the hard work of producing shows there.
That’s where Buffer comes in.
In 2007, he founded The Relevant Stage company to produce shows in the Warner, sometimes big shows, sometimes small, but, at least at first, shows that were a little unusual. For four years Buffer ran his company in the Warner Grand, producing, amongst other works, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and, early in his four-year run, Urinetown. Buffer starred as Petruchio in Kate, was one of the leads in Seven Brides and played Scrooge once in the annual The Christmas Carol. Buffer has a pleasant, easy baritone voice that, if not dynamic, serves him well in a variety of roles.
“The first thing we did at the Warner was Acts of Desperation. The second was Over There, Over Here the west coast premier of that musical,” Buffer remembered. “We decided that we needed to be big, so we did Urinetown, and then Bat Boy: the Musical. As the audience began to build we decided to do seasonal shows like I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change for Valentine’s Day, and The Christmas Carol for the holidays.”
One of his proudest memories is of a musical version of Upton Sinclair’s Singing Jailbirds.
“We adapted that play into a musical and had thirty men from the sober living facility at Beacon House as the chorus,” Buffer said.
But, finally, the Relevant Stage didn’t have the success he had hoped it would and Buffer returned to the retail world in 2011.
“When I get tired of producing theater I return to the world of getting a regular paycheck,” Buffer said. “Then, when I get tired from earning too many paychecks I go back to the theater. It’s a cycle, from one to the other. I keep hoping that I will find the perfect balance between the two and if I do I will be very happy.”
He and Sills got together recently to from Art in Relation, hoping to find a black box type space they could use for their productions.
“We were looking for a space where we could have a yoga studio/art gallery during the day, with apartments above to pay the rent and a performing space by night – an intentional art space,” Buffer said. “But we couldn’t find that option. We talked to Long Beach Parks and Recreation about doing a show outdoors at Recreation Park, but the show times conflicted with Woodrow Wilson High’s homecoming. We started looking at indoor options. We inquired about the Edison Theatre. Then we talked to the Scottish Rite Temple. They have the Ernest Borgnine Theatre there. Everyone knows that building but no one knows what goes on there. When they said we could use that theater space, letting the public know it is there, it was a win-win situation.”
Frankenstein was a show I had long wanted to do, ever since I heard the original cast album. But when I inquired the producer had just signed over the rights to Playscripts. They had the rights but the play hadn’t even been printed. Then I went on a four-year hiatus and now we are doing it.”
What does the future hold?
Well, first of all, Art in Relation is doing The Christmas Carol at the Borgnine Theatre in December for eight performances the week of Christmas. The company has reached an agreement with the Scottish Rite Cathedral to produce three to five Musical at the Borgnine next year.
And then there are other plans: “Jonas and I want to find the kind of space for a black box theater we are thinking of,” Buffer said. “We want to build a following who will come with us.”