Character Study: John Manfredi
I wanted to play
With such ambitions young John Manfredi put his foot on the threshold of the world. He left the football behind at Kenyon College but carried theater on to Goodman School of Drama (now The Theatre School at DePaul University), one of the top professional theatrical training programs in the United States.
He studied under acclaimed professors and actors such as Bella Itkin, Joe Slowik and Uta Hagen. Upon graduation, he went on the road with one of the many tours of Man of La Mancha. What more fitting tune could see a young, idealistic artist off into the cold reality (literally; he lived in Michigan, y’know?) of bills and budgets than “The Impossible Dream”?
To Reach the Unreachable Star!
“From there, I was just a struggling, working actor. When I came out of Goodman I was so convinced I was only going to do Shakespeare and Shaw… but then I found out there were only like three freaking Shakespeare companies in the whole country, so that was poorly thought out.”
For years John lived and worked in Detroit, finding the financial freedom he needed, surprisingly enough, in the auto industry. When he was a child, his mother wanted him (desperately, he says) to be either a priest or an opera singer. Priest was right out, so John trained as a singer. He’s also blessed with one of those deep, resonant voices you’re pretty sure you’ve heard before (and probably have, actually). All that adds up to good prospects for voice over work, and Detroit had a ton of it available.
“Detroit, in the 70s and 80s, was putting more film in the can than anywhere else in the country because of the auto industry.”
By day, John was the voice of the Ford conveyor belt or some employee safety video; by night, a Shakespearean rogue. Voice work turned out to be lucrative enough to allow him to pursue the arts while his vocal chords paid the bills. It also introduced him to filmmaking, taught him the minutiae of how film is produced and all the associated vernacular. That would pay off later.
In the meantime his acting work led to directing work, and directing work started to show him “how the sausage was made.” He discovered that there are a large number of theaters, acting companies, production companies, et cetera that exist solely because some artist wanted to create a job for themselves. They get their project off the ground, it takes wing, and then they prove they know plenty about the “show” and nothing about the “business” and run it into the ground.
And John thought, “I could do this better.”
He began to manage theaters, and before long became known as the guy you call when a theater is about to fold or when a fledgling theater needs an effective plan for growth. With the breadth of his experience, John is uniquely suited to such tasks. He’s worked in highly prolific and influential theaters like the Jewish Ensemble Theater and Meadow Brook Theater, done one man shows in off-Broadway theaters, worked in film in everything from small, independent student films to major Disney motion pictures; if it is at all acting related, he’s done it.
“It sounds like a bad Liam Neeson knock off, but I have a very particular set of skills,” he likes to say, half-joking.
It’s that very set of skills that brought him to Beaumont. For some time the Beaumont Community Players have been looking to expand into a regional influence in Southeast Texas, but needed an experienced director to make it happen. John found out about the job via a headhunting company. Before that moment he had never heard of Beaumont, Texas.
What ultimately convinced John that he wanted the position was BCP’s youth programming. That’s always been important to him, and when he ran his own production company it was one of his main focuses. According to John, youth programming actually serves two purposes: it has the obvious effect of passing on the benefits of a theater education to children and it also enriches the teachers.
“I learned to act in front of children,” John says. “You can’t fool an audience of children. If you don’t believe you’re the frog prince, they’re not going to believe you’re the frog prince and then you’re dead.”
At BCP, the summer months are jammed with programming for kids. Multiple overlapping camps that last more than a month keep the theater humming all day long.
“The work that we do with the youth of Southeast Texas is some of the most impactful work of my entire career.”
And that’s coming from a guy who’s been on the silver screen. Granted, he’s had “very small parts in very big films,” but it’s a credit to him that what he’s done in the film industry comes across as an afterthought.
His first experience in the feature film industry was in 1992 in the Danny DeVito directed film “Hoffa.” It was also his first experience in “the heartbreak of landing on the cutting room floor.” He and another actor got the same line, save John’s had an f-bomb. They decided to drop the profanity, which would make sense if not for the fact that “Hoffa” is an R-rated movie from the 90s. By my memory in the 90s directors would put profanity in their movies just to avoid a G or PG rating. But I digress.
Later, when strong film incentives came to Michigan in 2011, John had several more opportunities to work in major motion pictures. His experience with filmmaking in the Detroit auto industry, a purely technical exercise by nature, ended up serving his goals as an artist as well as paying the bills. With tax incentives for filmmakers of 42%, the highest in the country at the time, Michigan briefly became a hotspot for production. John landed acting parts in The Ides of March, Real Steel, and Oz the Great and Powerful, among others. He says he worked on Gran Torino for “a hot second” and was impressed with Clint Eastwood’s directing efficiency.
Eventually the incentives dried up and the film industry moved elsewhere. John started thinking that he was too old to be a freelancer, so he signed up with a headhunting company and the rest is history.
Since John’s arrival, BCP has added 8 shows to their season and doubled their budget. With three times as much programming as before, there are live events over 200 days a year. The aforementioned youth programs reach hundreds of kids each year. The organization survived COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, a real accomplishment for a business model that needs to fill theater seats. All in all, the Beaumont Community Players are well on their way to becoming the anchor organization for arts and culture in Southeast Texas, just as they intended.
Find out more about the Beaumont Community Players:
Info@BeaumontStages.com | 409-833-4664
4155 Laurel Ave, Beaumont, TX 77707
Being from Michigan, John fell into company with the likes of Sam Raimi and acted in several low budget indie films among Raimi’s group of friends. That alone would constitute bragging rights for most people. Above: John stars alongside Sam Raimi in the largely unknown cult sleeper “Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except”.
John also played various roles in the television series Rescue 911 and Unsolved Mysteries. Apparently he was so well liked as a villain on the latter show that he says that over two seasons he racked up at least 16 “kills.”
Above, John stars in one of his favorite off-Broadway productions, a one man show called “An Illiad”. The play received a four-star review from the Detroit Free Press and was labeled “a one-man triumph”.