An “alarm” went out from Gamut Theatre Group last month. Ian Potter, long-time Core Company member, was leaving Harrisburg earlier than expected.
Having performed its final show in its old Strawberry Square location, Gamut was in the final phase of preparing its new home in the former First Church of God across N. 4th street. Potter, the company’s set designer and an expert builder, was vital to those renovations.
As one example, he drew the plans for the new thrust stage and helped build it.
Now, he’s applying those skills in another city in another context. As of Sept. 8, Potter became a workforce training instructor at Rebuilding Together NYC, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit focusing on urban revitalization projects and disaster recovery for low-income and struggling residents of the Big Apple.
“I’m responsible for formulating a curriculum I will then teach to a student body composed of low-income participants,” he said.
The program has two goals—to recover salvageable materials from federally bought homes on Staten Island ravaged by “Superstorm” Sandy and to offer the students certification to get well-paying jobs in the construction field.
Potter is “very excited” about this career move, being able to use his teaching and construction experience to “better communities and lives.”
Theater friends and fans of Potter’s are both surprised and not. For all his thespian talents—people still talk about his energetic title performance in Gamut’s production of “Hamlet” a few years back—he never felt “it would be theater or nothing for me,” he said. “I can see myself being happy in a lot of different walks of life.”
But no one, including Potter himself, expects the 28-year-old to leave theater completely.
It was a passion he discovered relatively late.
“The interest actually started in my senior year of high school, at Bishop McDevitt,” said the Harrisburg native. “I had a wonderful lit teacher, Sister Jude, who was also assistant director of the theater program.”
At the time, Potter was “more into” sports and art classes, but when the nun said she “needed help” with a production of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” he agreed to audition.
“She knew what she was doing,” he laughed. “It was a lot of fun.”
As a freshman at Shippensburg University, Potter aimed to be a history education major, but his acting bug was sparked further by one of his professors, Paris Peet, a member of Actors’ Equity who has performed with Gamut.
After Potter appeared in a production of “The Pavilion” directed by Peet, the professor pulled him aside and said, “You have a knack for this. Come see me.”
During their meeting, Peet conveyed the message: “If this is something you want to do, you need to go somewhere else for college.” Shippensburg offered only a theater minor and a club.
Potter indeed transferred, choosing West Chester University because of its “great theater program.”
Leaps and Bounds
Even before entering college, Potter had embarked on what was to become a long, glorious relationship with Gamut Theatre Group. During the summer of 2006, he interned with the company, which cast him in a very small role in “King Lear.”
He returned in 2010 during a spring semester, when Gamut was gearing up for a production of “Richard III” starring David Newhouse. Potter got cast in multiple small roles and commuted back and forth to do them.
“I really loved it,” he recalled.
Then came an unexpected non-acting break. Jeremy Garrett, Gamut’s technical director, was leaving after that season, and he was hired.
“I grew leaps and bounds professionally in ways I never thought I would,” Potter said. “What Gamut does, the scope, is so immense—that a small core company of actors does so much—including design and building.”
He also credits Clark and Melissa Nicholson, Gamut’s artistic and executive director, respectively, for trusting company members “to be competent and talented enough without being checked on. You have to be self-sufficient.”
And stretch yourself. In his first season, Potter “shied away” from teaching because he lacked experience. During his last season, he was teaching two different classes as a lead teacher and assistant-teaching two others.
“I can’t imagine what kind of person I’d be if I hadn’t met the people I did through theater and through Gamut,” he said.
Rite of Passage
While acting has brought Potter great satisfaction, even more may have derived from his set design and building for Gamut’s shows—including “Hamlet.” (See www.potterproductions.org for a gallery of some of these designs and Potter’s personal artwork.) “I’m a very visual person,” he said.
Looking back at his tenure with Gamut, Potter considers three productions as “sticking out.” “Hamlet,” not surprisingly, is his favorite.
“The role is so immense and so challenging, it’s like a rite of passage for actors,” he said. “And there’s just the fact that we did the play largely uncut—which is kind of unheard of.”
Clark Nicholson, who directed, “is really good at energizing the language and pacing the plays,” Potter added.
Potter found the production of “An Ideal Husband,” re-written from the Oscar Wilde original for four actors—who play 15 or more characters while ripping off Velcro for role changes—“pretty insane but really funny and fast-paced.”
His third-favorite show, “The Dresser,” did not call on Potter’s acting talents but on his designer role. “I’m really proud of that set,” Potter said.
Upon departing, Potter emphasized that Harrisburg and New York are “only an Amtrak ride” apart. He said he will “definitely do some tech stuff” for Gamut and would audition, as well, if a role came along that he and Clark think suits him.
Still, it’s not quite the same as an omnipresent Ian Potter.
While the old adage states that “no one is indispensable,” Clark Nicholson noted that Potter comes pretty darn close.
“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but Ian has many strengths,” he said. “He’s a fine teacher, a good actor, a mentor to young people and a designer and builder. These skills don’t always go together.”
Potter’s replacement, Andrew Nyberg, has been embraced in the characteristic Gamut way. But, said Nicholson, “Ian will be missed.”