By Alec Clayton
The first time I saw Dennis Rolly act was in the black box at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. It was 1993. The play was “King Lear” presented by the now defunct Washington Shakespeare Company. The last thing I saw him in was Harlequin Productions’ production The Seafarer. In between those he has appeared in more plays than I can count. More than he can count either, but he says he’s been in “at least 85 plays, probably closer to 95.”
It would be safe to say that Rolly loves acting. He also loves to play quirky, strange and difficult characters. Lear, for instance, is an extremely difficult role that few actors can pull off successfully; his character in The Seafarer was none other than the devil — a role that could come off corny and contrived if done by a lesser actor. Among other odd and challenging roles I’ve seen him play is that of Ebenezer Scrooge, not in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but in the far more dark and outlandish Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at Olympia Little Theatre, and as many different characters — Lepidus, Euphronius and a soothsayer and clown in Antony and Cleopatra, also at Harlequin Productions.
Rolly started acting because he had a crush on a young lady in the drama club at Moses Lake High School in 1969. He auditioned for The Crucible because she was in it. “I didn’t get the girl, but I got the part,” he recalls.
He moved to Thurston County as a young man. It was 1972 and he had just turned 21. He came here to help his brother run a nightclub, Sir Walters in Tumwater. For about a dozen years he worked in various rock and roll nightclubs. He had two small children at home, and he says the lifestyle “catches up with you.” Now, and for the past several years, he has been working as a waiter on the day shift at Pellegrino’s in Tumwater, a job that allows him time for acting.
His first acting gig in the area was Catch 22 at Lakewood Playhouse, directed by Doug Kerr. He played Army chaplain Albert T. Chapman. He said that he caught a late-night movie on WTBS called WUSA starring Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins. Perkins played a mousey little man; Rolly used Perkins’ character in that movie to fashion his character in Catch 22. It wasn’t until sometime later that he discovered Perkins also played Chaplain Chapman in the movie version of Catch 22.
After that he acted in what he calls “a lot of terrible stuff.” He did four shows for Lakewood Playhouse when it was a Ft. Steilacoom, and he did some fringe theater in Seattle. He joined Equity, the actors’ union, and “was so disillusioned with professional acting that I quit.” He recalls that he was told he should go to Hollywood where he could be the next Don Knox. He had no interest in being the next Don Knox.
Rolly says his favorite role of all time was Mr. Lockheart (the devil) in The Seafarer. “It was the most fun I can ever remember having playing on stage, for several reasons.: the character, the writing, and the people I got to work with. He mentions David Wright, Jason Haws, Chris Cantrell and Russ Holm as among the actors he most enjoys working with and Scot Whitney as the best director to work with.
Other favorite roles have included Shylock and King Lear with Washington Shakespeare Company and Leporello in Don Juan in Chicago at The Midnight Sun. His next appearance on stage will be in yet another Shakespeare drama, Richard III at Harlequin in October.