A long road brings actor back home to debut in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’

By NICOLE S. COLSON Sentinel Staff

Ben Robertson was on the fast track to become a Wall Street banker. But one day he took a detour to 42nd Street, where he decided to take some acting classes. And that road eventually led him back home to Keene.

Robertson will make his theater debut in Keene this Friday in the lead role of The Edge Ensemble’s production of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” The Keene-based theater company will also stage the Bill Manhoff romantic comedy this Saturday, and Thursday, Nov. 16, through Sunday, Nov. 19, in Keene.

Robertson grew up in Keene — he attended Keene schools and graduated from Northfield Mount Hermon School in 1986 — but he never planned to return to his hometown.

What he did know was that he did not want a full-time job. An only child, Robertson thought the responsible thing to do was to go into banking. After several jobs in that field in Manhattan, Robertson needed a change.

“I had the classic mid-life crisis,” said the 43-year-old. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t live this way anymore — I want to do something different.”

He was first introduced to acting at Northfield Mount Hermon, where he was cast in some of the school’s plays (actress Uma Thurman was one of his classmates).

“I wasn’t thinking about being (an acting) professional at the time,” he said.

His experiences onstage in Northfield were ultimately what led him back down that road to acting in New York City. He signed up for a five-week intensive acting training course there and soon after was auditioning for work in television and film. He got some roles as an extra in a handful of television shows, including in the HBO program “Boardwalk Empire.”

“It showed me the ropes,” Robertson said of his early work. Those parts led to some small roles, including as a prisoner on The History Channel’s “MysteryQuest” and as a police officer on the Biography Channel’s “Celebrity Ghost Stories.”

While he was living in Brooklyn, Robertson met a biodiesel business owner from Fitzwilliam who asked Robertson if he’d work for him as a financial consultant. Robertson agreed, and decided to return to the Keene area two years ago. And he hasn’t left the business world behind — he still works for that company, now as a partner, and also as a consultant for a few other firms. It’s how he pays the bills.

The rest of the time, Robertson is acting. Not long after he returned to the area he met Aaron Wiederspahn, a film director and co-founder of The Starving Artist Collective in Keene. He took an acting class with Wiederspahn at The Starving Artist.

“I felt like I was at a point where I could learn and grow,” he said. He has been cast in a short film Wiederspahn plans to start shooting locally next month.

Robertson received accolades for his lead role as Jonas, a single father in Ross Thomas’s 2010 short film, “Anywhere But Here.” The film is a multi-generational story about a father’s splintered relationship with his own father. The role won Robertson a Performance of the Year award at this year’s N.H. Film Festival — his first award for his acting work.

He also played the lead role in an untitled Hitchcock-style thriller with Italian director Lorenzo Faccenda, set for release next year, and next year he will start filming in the lead role in “Plowing up a Snake,” a film based on a book by Merle Drown about a murder in Vermont.

Although he wasn’t familiar with the play at all, and he hadn’t done any theater work since he was in high school, Robertson auditioned for “The Owl and the Pussycat.” (He had done some improvisation work with the New York-based troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, where comedienne Amy Poehler got her start.)

He was cast in the lead role, and said director Kim Dupuis taught him basic stagecraft.

“There are differences between how to approach stage and film,” Robertson said. For instance, there are no close-ups in theater, so he had to re-learn how to convey emotion to the back row of the theater. “It was a huge learning curve.”

Robertson plays Felix, a bookstore clerk, who meets Doris (Dakota Benedetto), a prostitute, and the two have an unlikely romance based on delusion. Robertson said the play is staged in the early ’60s, the period when it was written. “It’s very ‘Mad Men,’ ” he said.

Robertson sees the role as just one of many more acting opportunities, ones he wouldn’t have had if he had stayed in New York.

“You get lost trying to fight your way through in a huge market,” he said of the city. “There’s a lot of people producing great work (in Keene).”

The Edge Ensemble will present “The Owl and the Pussycat” this Friday and Saturday, and Thursday, Nov. 16, through Sunday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at Heberton Hall (the Keene Public Library annex), Winter Street, Keene. Tickets are $12-$15 and can be ordered by calling 352-5657 or by e-mailing TheEdgeEnsemble@aol.com.