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A test of acting skill: Playing a genius

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Today Bermudians don't have to buy an aeroplane ticket to see a performance from one of the oldest and most prestigious theatres in the United States. The Walnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia will be performing David Ashburn's play 'Proof' as part of the Bermuda Festival line-up.

'Proof' is a romantic drama that has won the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and New York Drama Critic Award. It tells the story of Catherine, a college student who abandons her studies to care for her mentally ill father, Robert, a genius maths professor. The play arrived in Bermuda with only a small cast and crew.

“What makes 'Proof' stand out is that it talks about mathematics in a way that non-math people can understand it,” said Bill Van Horn, who plays Robert. “It discusses the nature of genius and how genius affects people and family relationships. It is also about how genius is related to insanity and how families deal with that.”

Mr Van Horn said it has been challenging to play the role of someone who is “light years” ahead of him intellectually.

“The best acting I have ever done is to convince people that I might be a genius,” said Mr Van Horn with a laugh. “I am terrible at math in every way and flunked it in high school. Robert is a mathematician of the order of Albert Einstein.”

He said he was very proud to be bringing the play to Bermuda, and getting the name of the Walnut Street Theatre onto the international stage. The Theatre celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2009, and first started taking touring only last year.

“We are the oldest theatre in America and we have the largest subscription base in America,” said Mr Van Horn “We have 60,000 subscribers, which is pretty amazing for an arts organisation. One of the proudest achievements of my career is to be associated with the Walnut Street Theatre. It is just an awesome theatre.

“If you ever goes to Philadelphia, I highly recommend going there. I can't think of a great actor for the 20th century who hasn't played there including Laurence Olivier, and Edwin Forrest. Edwin Booth owned it for a little bit. (Edwin Booth was a 19th century actor who started the famous Booth's Theatre in New York.) It is studded with historical significance.”

Mr Van Horn has acted in many performances at the Walnut Theatre and last summer directed Tennessee Williams' 'The Glass Menagerie', the first of the theatre's plays to go on tour.

“It was nice to get Walnut's name out there, and also promote Philadelphia theatre, in general,” said Mr Van Horn. “Philadelphia is one of the best theatre towns in the United States. There are a lot of acting companies there.”

In addition to acting, Mr Van Horn also writes plays, opera librettos and has written documentaries for television including 'Enrico Caruso: Voice of the Century', 'A Workshop for Peace' and 'Khachaturian'.

“I divide my time between writing and acting,” he said. “Right now I am doing more acting.”

He is originally from Brooklyn, New York and got into theatre as a youngster after having a kidney removed.

“As a child I had a kidney out. I became a real athlete,” he said. “Then one day I was getting a medical physical and the doctor saw the scar from where my kidney was removed. The doctor said 'you can't play sports anymore because the insurance company won't insure you'. So I spent a year as a juvenile delinquent getting into trouble. Then my mother steered me towards dramatics and it was like being on a team with a cast. The dressing room was like a locker room. It saved my life. Since I was 16 years old, I have done nothing else.”

He studied theatre at Boston University and Hunter College.

Other actors in 'Proof' include Alex Keiper as Catherine, David Raphaely as Hal and Krista Apple as Claire. Bernard Havard, the producing artistic director of Walnut Street Theatre, is also with them in Bermuda.

The play closes tonight (Saturday) at 8pm at City Hall. Tickets are $65 for adults and $25 for students at www.bdatix.bm online or All Wrapped Up in the Washington Mall or Fabulous Fashions in the Heron Bay complex. Also see www.bermudafestival.org for more information.

The cast of 'Proof'.
Bill Van Horn

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Published February 11, 2012 at 7:00 am (Updated February 11, 2012 at 7:40 am)

A test of acting skill: Playing a genius

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