Sense of spirituality, contribution
define his roles in life and on stage
Steve Wehmeier was bitten by the acting bug when his three-channel television, tethered to rabbit ears, picked up Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film Richard III.
“It hit me with how spectacular acting can be,” said Steve, who started reading Shakespeare plays in junior high school. “I couldn’t believe that a guy could have that much fun being evil.”
In high school, a friend’s recommendation spurred Steve to part from the school gymnastics team and pursue acting. After just one audition, he was cast in his first role: Paulinus the Centurion in The Robe.
“It was exactly what I was looking for. It had literary, historical, physical performance,” says Steve, who worked on shows throughout high school. “It’s all part of the imagination. It’s all part of my make-up.”
Steve is now a Radio Redux staple, taking lead roles as well as up to half-a-dozen characters in a single production. His latest lead is as newspaper journalist Peter Warne in It Happened One Night.
He’s also played the lead in Radio Redux productions including Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still, Sam Spade in Maltese Falcon, Doc Boone in Stagecoach, and Rick in Casablanca.
Steve’s early theater career included stages in Seattle and San Francisco. After graduating from North Eugene High School, he studied theater at the University of Washington, then moved to San Francisco, where a friend from San Francisco Magic Theatre introduced him to playwright Sam Shepherd. The two wound up frequenting a bar across an alley from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Booksellers.
His time in the Bay Area coincided with the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, which led to increased tensions between the gay community and San Francisco police. From his apartment, Steve watched people flipping police cars, and he heard about police with batons beating protesters elsewhere in the city. It was a heady time for social upheaval, especially in cities like San Francisco and New York.
But it’s not always true that you can’t keep ’em down on the farm after you’ve seen Paree. Steve moved back to Eugene and earned a degree in theater arts at the University of Oregon, where he directed two productions: The Bear, by Anton Chekov, and Big Knife, by Clifford Odets. Since then he’s appeared on stages all over town.
Besides Radio Redux, he’s performed with Very Little Theatre, Lord Leebrick Theatre, Lane Community College, and Fools Haven Shakespeare. He also completed coursework for a graduate degree in theater from UO.
Steve’s versatility has proven a boon for his many roles with Radio Redux, which requires actors to focus on vocal tone and inflection to convey action and story flow as well as character development.
“We don’t have to block out movement, we don’t have elaborate sets,” he says of Radio Redux’s streamlined approach to theater. “We’re asking the audience to use their imagination. The sound effects are suggestions of something going on — a fight scene or a party. We use our voices to add to the excitement or add to our sense of the situation.”
Radio Redux founder Fred Crafts says Steve has “played several heavy leads, carrying the weight on his shoulders. He’s able to keep the show moving. And as a founding member of Radio Redux, Steve has helped us grow and change.”
One of those changes has been increased physicality in performances. Radio Redux originally stuck to the premise of portraying shows exactly as they’d been presented on a radio station studio stage — actors in street clothes reading from scripts, speaking into microphones, backed up by live and recorded sound effects. That remains the same, but over time the actors, all of whom bring traditional theater backgrounds, added more and more physical gestures and movements to their roles.
Steve at the microphone with Maggie Muellner during a Radio Redux production.
The result is that a Radio Redux performance today is a far cry from a stark Readers Theater approach and closer to a conventional theater production.
“Radio Redux is a little different,” Steve says. “It’s like doing a piece of music from the sheets, from the score, rather than a memorized solo piece. We’re concerned with telling the story and making sure it has emotional truth to it. When I reach out to a character, I want to go in as far as I can. I try to imagine the character as fully as I can physically and then I try to physicalize that sense as best I can and discover what comes out and try and work with that until I get a sure feel for what’s going on.”
Steve is well aware that radio, even on stage before a live audience, steers the audience’s attention to the ear rather than the eye.
“My father (sportscaster Hal Wehmeier) was a radio-television guy and I learned from him that you can’t have dead air. So if you take a pause, that pause has got to be loaded with meaning,” Steve says. “It’s got to be something that the audience is connected to in that moment of silence. You can’t take your time and meander through the dialogue. You’ve got to keep it moving. The tempo and pace and bringing them along with you is your responsibility, especially in the leading roles.”
Steve says the way Fred produces scripts for Radio Redux — weaving together scripts from both radio and film productions of the same show – helps the actors by ensuring dialogue and action are as lively as can be from the outset.
Steve as Uncle Billy in Radio Redux's production of It's a Wonderful Life. Judi Weinkauf is at right.
“The way Fred threads the scripts together —putting all the descriptive elements together to keep the imagination going — is very cool. Fred is good about picking and adapting scripts. You can tell when you have a different character almost by the difference in rhythm as much as you can with voice changes, which is very helpful when you’re doing more than one part.”
Being in Radio Redux has also widened the range of actors Steve gets to perform with. “It’s allowed me to work with the other actors around town, stay in touch with them, get more familiar with them. You get to see how they develop their rhythms,” he says.
“Different actors work different ways,” he continues. “We’ve worked with some really fine actors in Radio Redux who have a really nuanced ear for mimicry and can recreate a voice. Dan Pegoda does that, pulls a character very close to himself, but that’s not the way I work. I don’t have a good mimic sense, so it just messes me up. In fact, I’ve had to work against that if I know the part pretty well. I have to say, ‘I’m not them. I’m not that guy. I have to do it some other way and let it happen.’ ”
And he is enjoying “letting it happen” at the Soreng Theatre in the Hult Center, where Radio Redux performs five shows each year.
“It’s been a great place for us,” Steve says. “I was thinking when we moved over from the Wildish Theater [in Springfield] that it was a mistake; we had good audiences at the Wildish. But there were a lot of people who were not willing to go to Springfield to see shows.” (The Radio Redux subscriber base has quintupled since the troupe moved to the Soreng Theater two years ago, after five years at the Wildish.)
One reason Radio Redux moved to the Hult was for its technical advantages.
Steve and Shirley Andress play the lead roles in It Happened One Night.
“The technical crew at the Hult is terrific and they really support Fred,” Steve says. “It makes a huge difference for Fred. It takes a load off him to know things will be taken care of.”
That helps Radio Redux take good care of its audiences, who in turn take good care of Radio Redux.
“There are people who are huge fans of how unique this is and they come to all our shows,” Steve notes. “It’s very satisfying to be a part of something that means so much to those people. It really is. To know you’re stepping up there to give them something they appreciate. The response from the audience has almost been embarrassing, it’s so effusive.”
One ongoing role critically important to Steve is when he steps in front of the UO’s Religious Studies Department class “Dark Self East/West,” a course he first took as a student and that he says changed his life. The class discusses how spiritual enlightenment can be discovered across different populations. Steve regularly visits the class to discuss his decades-long struggle with alcohol and how the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step program saved him.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Steve, who says it took six counseling treatments and a “psychotic break” before he ultimately quit alcohol. “All these stories shared in class are about finding a spiritual reason to go on and contribute to life,” Steve says.
Steve, standing at right, talks with Stanley Coleman, seated at left, and Nancy Hopps in the green room at Soreng Theatre before a show. Also pictured are Don Aday, center, and Fred Crafts.
“You’ve got to be making a contribution; that’s what I do with theater. That’s the best way for me to contribute. It’s the talent I have,” Steve says. “A fellow that helped me a lot told me ‘You’re either improving the quality of your life or you’re backsliding and you’ll end up drinking again.’ It’s certainly a key element for me that I try and do something to feel like I am improving the quality of my life and sense of things.”
That sense of spirituality, of oneness with the moment, imbues his work in theater, he says.
“There’s almost a kind of communion that happens in the best moments of theater, when the audience and the performer share the same heartbeat. Those moments happen. You can feel it. You can sense it. It’s like the whole place is in the same moment. It’s like magic. It’s a uniquely human thing. To me, it’s a spiritual moment. It’s where we share our common ground.
“I have a joy doing Radio Redux because of that.”
— By Emerson Malone. Emerson, a journalism student at UO, provides sound effects and character roles for Radio Redux.