Gerry Roe will take his final curtain call Saturday at Rocky Mountain College’s graduation.
It’s been a long, colorful run for Roe, who came to Rocky in 1987 and is retiring after directing more than 300 plays.
There was the time Roe cast television actor Jason Earles, of “Hannah Montana” fame, as the troubled boy in “Equus” when Earles was a student at Rocky in the 1990s.
“We had to sign an agreement not to cut the nude scene,” Roe recalled.
So Roe artfully backlit the stage so it wasn’t too obvious that Earles was nude.
“He did the nude scene, and, well, let’s just say he got dates,” Roe said.
And Roe kept his job.
Not only that, but Roe thrived at Rocky, producing plays in those early years on a budget of $50 a year, involving nontheater majors in interesting ways, and mentoring hundreds of theater majors to help them find the honesty in their roles.
There have been dozens of other special and sometimes painful moments on stage over the years.
A couple years ago, Roe and his technical director, Sarah Brewer, connived a Chicago gangster theme for “Romeo & Juliet” with the Montagues and the Capulets carrying fake Tommy guns and wearing pinstriped suits. It was a hit with the audience.
When he staged “Dracula,” Roe remembers having trouble with the flying bats, which were supposed to soar over the audience. One night, Brewer had to jump on the stage to get the bats moving.
In the “Blood Brothers” production several years ago, a student who used a wheelchair tried out for the chorus, and, appreciating her lovely voice, Roe ended up giving her a larger role that included dancing center-stage in her wheelchair.
Then there was the time when Roe cast an Asian student in “Anne Frank,” never fussing over him not getting the German accent down.
Never slow down, never grow old
Roe is 70 years old, but he is not slowing down. In late April, he drove to Sheridan, Wyo., to critique “Little Shop of Horrors,” then drove back to Rocky to critique eight one-act plays directed by his students — all in one day.
With no biological children, Roe has always considered his students and his actors his children.
“The students walk in the door and it takes me two weeks and I’m in love with them,” Roe said. “Then they start to pull away and that’s what I want — for them to take those steps on their own.”
Lynn Al, who was in his first acting class at Rocky, asked Roe to walk her down the aisle when she got married in 2008, and Roe even made her wedding cake, decorating it with yellow daisies.
“I remember one of the first rehearsals I had with Gerry on his first play at Rocky, ‘Harvey.’ It was awful, but we tried. He stood up and said, ‘That’s a glorious failure. If you fail without trying, we can’t do anything to make it better. But if you fail trying, we’ve got something to work with.’ ”
Another former student, Jayme Green, will take over teaching for Roe in the fall. Green credits Roe for helping him find his path in life.
“Something clicked toward the end of my sophomore year. Looking back, a large part of that was being around and seeing Gerry’s passion,” Green said. “He loved what he did. Still does. He loves the process, loves the people, loves the creation, even loves the hiccups and more difficult times that come with every performance.”
One of Roe’s greatest moments was winning the Rocky Mountain Theater Association’s first place award for Rocky’s production of the quirky comedy “Almost, Maine.” The success of that show allowed Roe to coax the playwright, Tony Award winner John Cariani, back to Billings last fall to work with his students on “Love/Sick.”
The spelling of Roe’s first name was a typo by the hospital. Roe’s mom told him that she liked the spelling and decided to keep it, but the family mostly called Roe by his middle name, Benny or Ben, and they still do.
Roe was a born showman. When he was in elementary school, Roe started putting on plays with the neighborhood kids.
“Mom would say, ‘Where are the sheets?’ Well, they were out on the line as my stage curtain,” he said.
When he graduated from high school in 1962, Roe wrote a song performed by his classmates at graduation. And he can still sing it.
His first real stage production was playing Og in the political satire “Finian’s Rainbow,” and there was a hiccup.
“In one scene, they would pull off parts of my clothing. The pants were supposed to pull off and I had another pair underneath, but somehow they got stuck together and everything but my underwear came off.”
Roe has directed many shows at Billings Studio Theatre over the last three decades. The highlight, he said, was directing “Les Miserables” in 2013 with Susan Sommerfeld as assistant director and A.J. Kalanick as producer. It was
the biggest undertaking ever at BST and it packed the community theater every night of its four-week run. It also brought one important audience member to the theater.
“My sister had never seen a show I directed, and she’s close to 80 now,” Roe said. “She came to see that show. At the end of the performance, I went out to talk with her and she started crying. She said, ‘Benny, I never knew.’”
Susan Sommerfeld, who has known Roe since 1973, remembers when she first met Roe when they performed together in a summer showcase in Great Falls.
In the 1990s, Roe cast Sommerfeld as Adelaide in her first-ever show at BST, “Guys and Dolls,” performing with Wally Kurth in the leading role.
“What a career he has had,” Sommerfeld said.
Megan Kongaika, who works in public relations at Billings Clinic, said even though she isn’t working directly in theater, she learned a valuable lesson from Roe through his theater classes.
“We always talked about being authentic and honest in theater. That is something that translates to my career. Theater is so much more than what you see on the stage,” Kongaika said.
Kassidy Miller, who graduates Saturday from Rocky with a creative writing and theater major, said Roe’s passion is contagious. She worked on five plays with Roe over the course of four years of study.
“He always emphasizes how important it is for an actor to the find the truth in a character,” Miller said.
Freshman Jack Jennaway took a role in “Blythe Spirit” even though he is not a theater major. Roe taught him the importance of dedication, no matter what your field.
“You could tell when people are invested in a role or when they weren’t,” Jennaway said.
Roe plans to stay in Billings and do more acting after retirement because he misses being in front of an audience.
“It’s love,” Roe said. “How can you not love theater? It gets inside you.”