Faces: 50 years on stage - Professional, community actor now entertains in Pequot Lakes

Body: 

Some people have nightmares about falling or drowning or being chased by unpleasant creatures.

Rich Dreissig's greatest nightmare is a little different.

"I'm walking down Broadway in New York, and somebody pulls me into the theater saying, 'The lead actor just had a heart attack or broke their leg, and we need you.' And they throw me on stage with thousands of people out there," he said.

That's the paranoia of someone who enjoys being on stage and strives to be flawless when in front of an audience. And someone who's been doing it for 50 years.

Dreissig, a 30-year resident of Nisswa, found his niche in acting during high school and college and has since had a hand in numerous productions at both the professional and community levels. After going to school with the hopes of becoming a theater/speech teacher and a hockey coach but learning that wasn't the right path for him, Dreissig became an insurance salesman - a career with flexible hours.

"That gave me time to do a lot of theater because I didn't have to punch a clock," he said.

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'Bus Stop'

  • When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, July 11-13, and Tuesday-Thursday, July 17-19.
  • Where: Pequot Lakes High School auditorium.
  • Tickets: $14 for adults, $12 for seniors (60+) and $10 for youth. Visit www.glapa.info or call 218-568-9200. Credit cards are accepted.

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The Elk River native dabbled in the arts in his hometown and around the Twin Cities before moving to the lakes area. A few of the most memorable roles from Dreissig's professional acting career near the Twin Cities include leads like Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," Lenny in "Of Mice and Men," Amos in "Chicago" and King Arthur in "Camelot."

But those characters weren't easy. The Willy Loman role, for example, drove Dreissig to quit his job for two months so he could rehearse around the clock.

"It was that important to me," he said. "I honestly rehearsed eight hours a day at home and then four-hour rehearsals at night for about a month."

That dedication paid off when it came to showtime, but all those hours of work had a strange effect on Dreissig.

"I worked so hard on that show that it took me about two months after the show closed to get out of character. That's never ever before or since then ever happened to me. And it scared me," he said. "I found myself acting like Willy Loman."

Luckily the drastic aftereffects of "Death of Salesman" were a one-time occurrence, but being able to identify with a character on some personal level is important for Dreissig as an actor. That isn't always easy though.

"I've done rapists, I've done murderers, I've done lovers ... though I'm not any of those people in real life," he said. "You've got to have that courage to explore that character and find something in it that you can identify with to pull it off. Otherwise you're just playacting."

Finding that common thread can also be a learning opportunity.

"You learn a lot about yourself, about your strengths and weaknesses - or gullibilities," Dreissig said. "That's why I do it, because it allows me to do all those great things that otherwise you would never do. ... You get to live a life of somebody else within your own skin. It's like therapy."

Dreissig wouldn't be able to accomplish those great things or live those new lives, though, without a little help from his life mentor and acting coach, Froggy the Gremlin, a character from the 1950s TV show "Andy's Gang."

"As a little child watching this show, I immediately was captivated by him," Dreissig said of Froggy, adding that the character was what you might call a "jolly prankster," which was pretty forward for the time period.

Dreissig said he grew up in a strict family in the 1950s, just like many others. Froggy the Gremlin brought something new and exciting to the table with his disrespect for authority figures on the show.

"Though I don't disrespect authority, I will challenge it," Dreissig said. "That's why he's still my life coach."

A small Froggy the Gremlin figurine personifies the amphibious life coach for Dreissig, who never leaves his mentor far behind.

"Every show I've ever been in starting from college ... Froggy the Gremlin has always made an appearance," Dreissig said. "It became kind of a cult thing ... that people were coming to the shows because he got to be quite well-known."

Froggy was always tastefully added to shows, he said, and sometimes even took a more major role if it fit. Dreissig has since abandoned the need to have the physical Froggy doll in all his shows, but a bright green upper arm tattoo of his little friend makes up for it.

"He's with me all the time," he said.

The Froggy tattoo will suffice for Dreissig's most recent role of Sheriff Will Masters in the Pequot Lakes Community Theatre play "Bus Stop," which opened Wednesday, July 11.

"He's a fun-loving character, kind of like a gentle giant," Dreissig said of Masters. "It's a small town, so he knows everybody. He's got his nose in everybody else's business, which is shown throughout the show."

The comedic supporting role is one that Dreissig now enjoys most. His days as the lead actor in a professional setting over, as he prefers the less stressful community theater environment, where he can now spend more time after retiring from the insurance business in 2009.

"I can't believe how strong the community theater is in Pequot Lakes," he said. "This group has been around 30-some years, and they have a great following from the community. Most of their shows are sold out because people love coming here."

When he's not on stage, Dreissig is most likely cooking, traveling or working in one of his many gardens.

"I like green things," he said. "It's good for the environment and good for my soul."