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A Charlotte (theater) institution

Billy Ensley as actor, director, collaborative pro

by Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer

Billy Ensley never met a man he didn’t like. Then he didn’t like anybody, except one guy who rejected him after a botched sex-change operation.

At one point, the police suspected him of committing child murders but could never be sure of his guilt.

‘Spring Awakening’

When: May 25-June 10 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 p.m. June 1
Where: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Rd.
Tickets: $28
Details: 704-372-1000, theatrecharlotte.org

Now he’s presiding over a German community rocked by suicide, thwarted love, abortion and suppressed homosexual longings.

Billy Vinson Ensley has put together the longest-lasting, most diverse career of any actor-director currently working in Charlotte theater. Whether playing the amiable title character in “The Will Rogers Follies,” an embittered rocker in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” or a possibly homicidal writer in “The Pillowman,” he has moved gracefully across the spectrum of musicals, dramas and comedies since the early 1980s.

He has spent most of the last decade directing: His version of the Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening” closes Theatre Charlotte’s season May 25-June 10.

And he’s done all this without having to leave his hometown. That’s the most remarkable thing.

Local performers know virtually nobody earns a full-time living here as an actor. If you’re good, you’ll leave. If you don’t leave, how good could you be?

People started asking Ensley about departure plans in the 1980s, but he had a sound explanation for his refusal to bolt to New York.

“I thought, ‘There are 2,000 of me up there and only a handful of me here,’” he recalls. “So many of my contemporaries went to New York and became bartenders or word processors. I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase. I wanted to have a home and a dog and some roots.”

At 56, he does. He ended up as COO of Rexus Corporation, which does background checks internationally on prospective employees. He keeps a sailboat on Lake Norman and a house at the North Carolina coast. He has a 9-year-old Boston terrier named Maynard (for TV’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”).

And on the side, he keeps reinventing himself and helping others do the same.

Directing … since 3rd grade

“I have been the third tree on the right, the supporting character and the lead, so I understand all levels of acting,” he says. “I’ve absorbed something from all the directors I’ve worked with: administrative styles, the balancing act of being a boss and a friend, ways to show the arc of a story.

“Managing people in the workforce, keeping them satisfied while meeting deadlines – these business skills come in handy as a director.”

Tom Hollis, who first directed him at Central Piedmont Community College about 35 years ago, knows why Ensley’s in demand: “He understands actors’ fears and anxieties and communicates with them on that level. He never had to be the star. He took the (smallish) role of the company manager in our ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and gave that as much care and attention as Hedwig.

“He’s always willing to help. He learned to work with a rope years ago for ‘The Will Rogers Follies.’ We’re opening this Summer Theatre season with ‘Oklahoma!’ and the actor playing Will Parker needed to know how to do rope tricks. Billy was right in the middle of directing ‘Spring Awakening’ but came over to teach him.”

You might say Ensley’s been directing since third grade, when the present of a ventriloquist’s dummy inspired him to create an act he took to churches, business conferences, even weddings. (He can’t recall why he started but remembers watching old clips of Edgar Bergen and woodpecker-bait Charlie McCarthy.) He discovered his song-and-dance destiny a few years later, partnering his dance teacher’s granddaughter in ballroom competitions.

Since then, his day and night jobs have intertwined.

He was pushing a mail cart at the law firm of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson when a senior partner saw him in “Barnum,” juggling and walking a tightrope. “They figured, ‘This mail guy must have some talent,’ and I ended up as director of office operations,” says Ensley.

Later, frequent co-star Pat Heiss told Ensley her husband was starting Rexus to check applicants in professions ranging from health care to trucking to banking. Ensley went to work there in 2001 and now runs the company, meeting with clients from Puerto Rico to Alaska.

If the picture of a type-A personality has begun to form, dispel it. He’s meticulous but not obsessive, dedicated but not hard-driven.

“He is intuitive on- and offstage,” says Actor’s Theatre of Chip Decker, who has acted with Ensley and directed him. “He instinctively knows what a role or a moment should feel like. But he also spends a great deal of time exploring things, whether he’s directing or part of the cast. Theater (is about) having a vision and being able to delegate. Billy always knows what he wants…and will guide the process accordingly, but he realizes collaboration is key.

“People who saw ‘Hedwig’ assumed that, because it’s a musical, it was just another role. (He worked) hard to make it look easy. He spent months making himself mentally and physically ready to perform on a nightly basis. Often actors don’t prepare, and it shows halfway into a run. Billy never takes any task within theater lightly. He busts his butt.”

The self-destructive title character in “Hedwig” burned Ensley into Charlotte’s theatrical memory like no other. Over more than a decade, he played the part three times and directed a fourth production. At 52, this glam rock fan donned drag, wigs and glitter to play the role one last time in an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production chosen by audience votes.

“It’s exciting and horrifying to be Hedwig, because you have to be so vulnerable,” he says. “I owed Chip and Dan (Shoemaker) a lot at Actor’s Theatre. So I got on the treadmill and lost weight to turn myself into this waifish crackhead again. There’s always been a connection between me and underdogs, people on the fringes of society.”

‘It’s an honor’

Ensley says he’s finally “sated” with performing. Instead, he has become a busy director. He’s Theatre Charlotte’s go-to guy for edgier musicals: “Avenue Q,” “Rent,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and now “Spring Awakening.”

Those require a unique blend of tact and hard-hitting emotional honesty in community theater productions. Ensley doesn’t find those aspects mutually exclusive.

“Any elements required to tell the story as intended will be in (my shows),” he says. “If something’s gratuitous or intended to shock, there’s no reason for that. The end of Act 1 of ‘Spring Awakening’ has a sex scene with some nudity involved, and it’s necessary. You can make that sensual and sexual and beautiful, nothing to be ashamed of.”

Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law admires Ensley because “he does a lot of pre-production work with the script: characterizations, concept, style. He likes to begin designer discussions as early prior to auditions or rehearsals as possible. He always has a strong vision but is flexible – which is something he knows he has to be in (our) facility. He knows the limitations of the space, but he doesn’t compromise quality.

“He works one-on-one with featured performers, so discussions don’t take up other actors’ time…. He is soft-spokenly assertive: He knows what he wants and pushes, but he is not loud and aggressive. Actors adore working with him.”

What Ensley most wants after 15 years of directing is a show where nobody sings or dances. Tom Hollis, hearing that, nods his head: “‘Type’ is the four-letter word in theater. It’s easy for producers to say, ‘Well, he’s the musical theater guy. He’s good at that.’”

Ensley has long since proved his versatility as the crazed soldier in “House of Blue Leaves,” the Neil Simon stand-in of “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” and especially the creepily sympathetic Katurian in “The Pillowman.” (That won him a best actor award a decade ago from Metrolina Theatre Association.) But varied directing opportunities elude him.

He acknowledges this without regret. In fact, he says everything without regret. His dual life has brought contentment, he says, and he doesn’t wonder what might’ve happened if he’d driven north all those years ago.

“Some contemporaries said I wasn’t serious about my art, because I didn’t suffer for it,” he recalls. “I reject that idea. There’s never been any lack of seriousness when I performed. It’s an honor to do live theater, and I never took it for granted. How great it is to immerse yourself in a character who’s nothing like you!

“Charlotte sorely needed good live theater back then, which was a valid reason to stay. It still does.”

Posted by The Charlotte Observer

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