JOHNSON CITY, TN - The arts and entertainment are full of prima donnas who crave the limelight and attention. Then there are the humble few who quietly study and hone their craft, while seeking to help others do the same or just survive in the business.
In the latter group is Doug Reiser, the newest Equity member of East Tennessee Repertory Theatre and a graduate student in the Professional Theatre Experience class.
There are no divas in the class at all, say its professors and mentors, and that includes Reiser, despite his credits as a 20-year veteran of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, a graduate of New York University's theatre program and a career as an actor, director and producer of stage plays, television, film and commercials in New York and Los Angeles.
"Doug has been a wonderful addition to the ETRT ..." says Elizabeth Sloan, theatre instructor at Northeast State Community College and Equity member in the new theatre company. "ETSU is lucky to have him as a graduate student. He has had wonderful training at NYU and years of professional experience that he has been able to share with the students.
"I must admit, before I met Doug, I thought that someone with his experience would have a level of snobbery or theater diva, but as soon as I met him, I knew that was not true. I've been impressed with his humility, dedication and willingness to grow. He's a real team player."
Family - his wife's parents - brought 37-year-old Reiser to East Tennessee, but the new theatre company and a yearning to teach is keeping the Jersey City, N.J., native here. "During the past year, I've been working with writers in New York as a producer and dabbling in real estate," he says. "But I wasn't doing what I wanted, which is acting."
Reiser has been doing plenty of that this summer, portraying six roles in The Dining Room, the second of two plays by ETRT and its apprentices in the span of three weeks. And he is ready to dive into a master's degree in Professional Communication, thanks to the vision of ETSU Theatre and Dance division head Pat Cronin. "I was calling around to schools in the area ... Lees-McRae, Appalachian State, UNC-Asheville and ETSU. When Pat picked up the phone, we hit it off and he's been quite the mentor. He has really inspired me as to the possibilities in Johnson City for an actor."
Yet one endeavor at a time is too simplistic for this multi-tasker, and preparing to teach by pursuing the master's, rehearsing The Dining Room in evenings and assistant directing ETRT's first production of Robin Goodfellow at Northeast State Community College's Performing Arts Center have rounded out his schedule, along with keeping his 19-month-old daughter, Eleanor, and renovating his house on Eighth Avenue.
"I wasn't expecting to be busy so soon," says Reiser, looking out at the lawn he'd hoped to be working in this summer, "but it's exciting embarking on a journey that's going to present a lot of work opportunities. I've always wanted to teach young people what I learned from my NYU and Strasberg training. There's a lot I can share and a lot I can learn and grow from in classes I take."
The protégéof acting teacher John Flood at his grammar and high school in New Jersey, Reiser understands the effect a teacher and mentor can have on a young performer. "He got me on stage my junior year in The Gift of the Magi, a musical," he says. "I had to sing and wear tights on stage - and I had never sung before, ever. I had fun and, really, it brought out a lot in me that I was holding back, a lot of emotions I didn't know were there."
At NYU, again, it was a teacher that made the difference - film actor Geoffrey Horne. From there, Reiser joined some friends in the Pantheon Theatre Company, on 42nd Street and 8th in New York, acting, building sets, doing lighting. "After a few years of doing plays, I felt like I wanted to go to L.A.," Reiser says. "That was a culture shock because there was no culture there. The weather is fantastic there. The sun numbs your brain."
He must not have been too numb, because Reiser earned a part in a feature film, Crocodile, worked on some stage plays and produced short films, one in Southern Italy.
Then came 9/11. "It was a really weird time," he recalls. "I decided I wanted to go back home."
Since then, Reiser started another theater company with his brother Dan, producing shows including Hurly Burly and Criminal Genius and went back into producing short films, two of which garnered film festival honors, through his own company, High Reiser Productions. When the economy started sinking, Reiser was in the producer's chair, he says, looking for scripts and financing. "I wasn't good at it, but I did read a lot of scripts and meet a lot of people," he says.
Then he met his wife to be, Kristin, and a couple years later, she introduced him to the mountains of the Tri-Cities and North Carolina, where they have a cabin in Banner Elk and she works. "Being here is just a really good decision," he says. "Kiplinger rated Johnson City in the Top 5 places to live and raise a family. I thought that is cool, especially because I want my daughter to grow up in a great place like this with a wonderful atmosphere and near her grandparents."
There are plenty of projects, as well as family, in the area. Reiser has already connected with a Knoxville talent agent and become involved in a local social media film undertaking called dreamspeaktv.com.
And theater is theater, no matter the location, says Reiser's friend and longtime stage and TV actor Mart Hulswit. "Some of the most wonderful theater that I have seen is outside of New York," says Hulswit, who portrayed Dr. Ed Bauer on Guiding Light for a dozen years. "If the cast is good and the director is good and the audience is good, it doesn't matter how small the theater or how small the city if the work is sound. The theater is a privilege to be in, anywhere in the world."
No one could be happier with Reiser's relocation than the theatre teachers at ETSU and Northeast, who have started the new repertory company.
"His work as assistant director on Robin Goodfellow was invaluable," says Sloan, who shares a couple of scenes with Reiser in The Dining Room. "With such a short rehearsal period, it was wonderful to have someone with his experience to help work with the actors. Not only did he play the role of assistant director on Robin Goodfellow, but he is also playing six roles in The Dining Room. I think the audience is going to be impressed with his work in the play. We are all glad he moved to the area."
In the handful of weeks he has been in the area, Reiser has already made a difference, says Bobby Funk, ETRT artistic director, especially in sharing his Strasberg Institute training. "He has created our warm-ups and it has been so good for the students to see this different approach," Funk says.
Reiser is truly pursuing his dream, says Hulswit, now director of the philanthropic Episcopal Actors Guild, on whose council Reiser served for a number of years. "He will make a wonderful teacher. He hasn't had a long career but he has had a good career, and he has the enthusiasm and he loves the theater.
"Young people are very receptive to that and to honesty. If there's one thing Doug is, it's honest. He speaks from the heart. A greater teacher you couldn't find."
Reiser's training, experience and passion are going to be assets to the ETSU Department of Communication, as well as the company, Funk says. "You get some graduate students who come into the program thinking they know all there is to know," he says. "There can be a tendency not to be a team player. Doug is so ready to learn from others, always polite and a gentleman and so very talented.
"I've had him come up to me, say, "I didn't know that!' It's not BS. He's very sincere, and the younger members of the company have jumped on that. It's led to this being the best company I've ever worked with. No back-biting. No one's holding onto anything, and it's because of attitudes like his."
The Dining Room will be presented Aug. 19-21, 26-28 (2010) at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. at ETSU's Bud Frank Theatre in Gilbreath Hall. Tickets are $20 for non-students and $10 for students. For reservations, call (423) 439-7576 or e-mail email@example.com. For more information on Doug Reiser, go to www.dougreiser.com.