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One-man showman Will Stutts is alone no more

The Walnut Street Theatre’s favorite solo performer brings a few more people on stage for his play "The Gift."

There are two things that actor-playwright Will Stutts is best known for: a host of smartly, self-written one-person shows and a history of performing them at the Walnut Street Theatre. In his time as a thespian (“this is my 50th anniversary,” says Stutts, a former Philly resident), Stutts created "Journey Through the Mind … Edgar Allan Poe," "Walt Whitman: Liberal and Lusty as Nature" and "Noel Coward at the Cafe de Paris," along with many others. What brings him to the Walnut next has nothing to do with acting or one-man shows. Instead, it is Stutts the playwright’s "The Gift" — a somewhat fictionalized version of the life of Truman Capote and Harper Lee — that he’ll deliver to his favorite theater space.

You worked so much with the Walnut Street Theater. Yet you are currently living in Sanibel Island, Florida, and hail from the South. How did you make your way up north to begin with?
I was born in Alabama and was going to be a doctor — University of Alabama medical school, pediatric medicine — yet, when I happened into the university’s drama department where they were casting for Chekhov’s "The Seagull," I read for a part, didn’t get it, and, in what sounds like a cliche story, a week later I got a call. The young man who won the part I auditioned for took ill — he literally broke his leg. So they asked me to do it. From then, I switched my major and continued on the theatrical path.
Medical background aside, you don’t think someone had something to do with that guy’s “accident”?
I swear I wasn’t there.
So from the Great South to the Great North, where did the idea of the one-man show aesthetic to come from?
I had a dynamic American lit teacher who absolutely insisted that I perform as the great literary figures of our time, such as Mark Twain, who I eventually made my own. I began to develop different characters and it went well. I started booking other one-person shows and I became known for that. I needed to work and make money, so if producers and directors weren't banging my door down, I had that. I got to know the people I knew in the business through the one-person thing.
That works because Walnut Street Theatre’s longtime President and Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard is dedicated to the biographical play, the one-person show, as you put it. He is also dedicated to you in particular because you’ve performed there with dozens of different roles.
Yes, I have had that privilege and it is amazing. I don’t think there is a producer who is more receptive to the artist than Bernard. I don’t know from whence this comes, but he fights hard for what he believes and allows artists enough rope to hang themselves. He is all about the survival of the artist — never interferes, always respects. He has been kind enough over a protracted number of years to invite me to the Walnut, commissioning many of my plays such as my Frank Lloyd Wright show and even this new one. I really only had Poe, Twain and Walt Whitman under my belt before the Walnut. Everything since has been a commission, which is unusual and wonderful.

As you’re so equated with one-person shows, is it ever annoying or weird having another actor on stage with you?
Not bad or weird at all. I absolutely appreciate it, especially when I don’t have to create everything. It’s nice to know that in Act 2, the dancing girls will come on to take some of the burden. There’s nothing more joyous than having good actors to work alongside — and nothing worse when they’re bad.

Bernard Havard commissioned "The Gift." Why did he want you to write about another writer?
I had been kicking around this idea for years — the unanswered questions about what role Truman Capote had in the life and work of his best friend Harper Lee. There were never any answers. She helped him research books such as "In Cold Blood," but never authored anything. How did she come up with a Pulitzer Prize winner such as "To Kill a Mockingbird"? Did he write it and give it to her? That was the relationship I wanted to write about. I wanted to know where his impulses … and hers … came from. It is about tormented genius and co-dependency. It is also about friends helping each other — basically friends with benefits, but just notthosebenefits.

Will Stutts’ "The Gift" runs from Feb. 21 through March 19 at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St. $35-$45, 215-574-3550, walnutstreettheatre.org

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