The Hartford Stage’s current production of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” has served as a double homecoming for Hartford native Wayne Pretlow, who’s a proud member of the show’s ensemble and also plays two important roles in the show. Not only has he gotten the chance to visit with his family and reconnect with some old friends, he’s also had the opportunity to once again play to audience at the Church Street theater after a hiatus of nearly three decades. We had the chance to sit down with the New York based actor earlier this week for a personal interview and to see him in the production on Wednesday evening, May 27.
“It’s been thirty years since I last appeared at the Stage Company,” the robust, congenial actor indicated, in what was a Hartford Stage Company Summer Youth Theatre production of, coincidentally, “Kiss Me, Kate,” under the direction of the late Clay Stevenon, who founded the program in 1978. Pretlow, who grew up in Hartford’s North End, participated in the Youth Theatre program for several years and regards Stevenson as his first and probably most influential mentors.
“When he first cast me,” he continues, “it was my introduction to professional theater.” All participants, teenagers from the greater Hartford area, were paid a stipend based upon their financial need. “It was a great experience,” he relates, “as we learned everything from building sets to scouring the community for props. I enjoyed working with Clay who had a great reputation. He taught me a lot about acting and the craft of theater. I miss his wisdom.”
Pretlow has been acting since the age of five, he recalled. He appeared in school plays, joined the Glee Club and was encouraged by one memorable teacher, Ellen Knuth, to look into the Hartford Stage’s Youth Program. He had never tried out for a part before, and says that “I really didn’t know how to audition. When I didn’t get the part, I was crushed. But it made me more determined to get in the next year, now that I knew how to prepare.”
In “Kiss Me, Kate,” Pretlow sings and does a little bit of dancing as part of the ensemble, while also playing “Pops,” the veteran backstage manager of the Baltimore theater where the action of the musical takes place. As part of the production of “The Taming of the Shrew” that the characters on stage are producing, Pretlow also plays the Priest, who’s called upon to marry several couples over the course of the show within the show.
These roles join a long line of noteworthy stage characters that Pretlow has performed, including one of the Moes in “Five Guys Named Moe” and Nicely Nicely Johnson in “Guys and Dolls,” a role he has played at eight different times in his career, winning Boston’s prestigious IRNE Award and Washington, D.C.’s Helen Hayes Award in the process.
The youngest of five children of involved and supportive parents, Pretlow graduated from Hartford’s E. I. Prince Technical School with a major in carpentry. Although he was definitely interested in theater, his parents cautioned him to develop a special skill that he could always fall back on. With carpentry, Pretlow says that he felt that if his dream of an acting career didn’t manifest, “well, at least I could build the sets for the theater,” quickly adding, “but fortunately that was never necessary.”
While performing locally and regionally in his early 20’s, he was spotted by a casting agent who asked if Pretlow was interested in doing commercials. Although this was not necessarily something that he had pursued, he went out and took a class on acting in commercials and embarked on busy career appearing in commercials, all while still living in Hartford.
Eventually the commuting became so time consuming that he moved full-time to New York City, where he also appeared in off-Broadway and regional theater productions, as well as being cast in the ill-fated out of town tryout for Andrew Lord Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind.” He was subsequently cast in the Hope Davis film, “Next Stop Wonderland,” which helped jumpstart a growing career in TV and film, which saw Pretlow cast in various iterations of “Law and Order,” as well as in such programs as “The Sopranos,” “Nurse Jackie,” and “Person of Interest,” to name a few.
His first love, however, is theater. “I enjoy being able to build a character,” he says. “Theater gives you the time to explore what the character is about. With film and TV, your performance is often based on what you bring to the role then and there, on the spot. You have to do it and then it’s done. There’s little opportunity to explore the various layers of the character.” In more recent years, he’s been a frequent performer at New York City Center’s Encores series of concert revivals of older musicals including “The Most Happy Fella,” “St. Louis Woman,” and “House of Flowers,” as well as in the Madison Square Garden production of “A Christmas Carol” where he understudied Ben Vereen.
Because of the range of experiences he has had as a performer, Pretlow established several years ago a consulting business in New York City, ICF Consulting, aimed at helping aspiring actors learn how to break into show business and avoid the pitfalls that await nearly every performer. He offers both group seminars and individual counseling and has helped a number of clients to achieve their dream. On the day of this interview, he had just received a text from a client who had just booked an industrial show, an opportunity that many young actors are unaware that exists. “My goal,” he elaborates, “is to prepare the client for what they will encounter, to help them approach the business with their eyes wide open. At the same time, I want to let them know that with the right approach and preparation, it is possible to have their dream and give them hope.”
Pretlow has been enjoying his return to Hartford Stage in “Kiss Me, Kate.” “The cast is amazing,” he enthuses. “We all got along well from day one.” He specifically appreciates director Darko Tresnjak’s approach which allows the individual actors to collaborate in building their characters. “There’s been such an appreciation for the actor in the process,” he adds, “rather than feeling like a puppet. And Darko has such an eye for story-telling. He approaches “Kiss Me, Kate” with the same care and sensitivity that would a Shakespeare text, which is appropriate since the musical is based upon “The Taming of the Shrew.””
As for being back in Hartford, Pretlow reports that “I’m loving it. It’s been great to be able to sepnd time with my mother and my relatives and to reconnect with some friends. They’re excited about being able to see me perform.” He also hopes to get the chance to offer one of his seminars to some local actors considering an acting career. He’s also looking forward for chances to re-acquaint himself with Hartford itself and catch up on some of the changes that have occurred in his absence, such as the new Front Street Development, the relocation of UConn to downtown Hartford, the new restaurants that are popping up and the renovations of downtown buildings into apartments.
Pretlow will be in Hartford through the production’s conclusion on June 14, so he has more time to explore and his Hartford friends still have time to see him perform. For information and tickets to “Kiss Me, Kate,” call the Hartford Stage Box Office at 860.527.5151 or visit their website at www.hartfordstage.org.