Sharing a dream with Vincent van Gogh
“I know what it’s like to have a dream,” says actor-educator Jim Jarrett, of Sonoma. “I know what it’s like to struggle in pursuit of that dream – and I know what it’s like to start late in doing it.”
Vincent van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27, points out Jarrett, who began acting at 29 and was met with bewilderment at his late-stage career path.
“Just like Vincent, I know what it is like to have everyone think you’re crazy.”
There is, adds the award-winning, globe-trotting performer, one other thing about his own life that mirrors the experiences of the groundbreaking 19th century painter.
Says Jarrett, “I know what it’s like to feel that you know what you’ve been put on this Earth to do.”
Jarrett’s passion for performance goes back to his days training with legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, whose students include such acclaimed names as Gregory Peck, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Grace Kelly, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Steve McQueen and Sydney Pollack. After six years of training, Jarrett was the last of the renowned instructor’s apprentices to be approved to teach the Meisner technique. Jarrett, who moved to Sonoma 10 years ago, has since taught acting across the United States, Europe and Asia. In 2005, he founded the Meisner Technique Studio, in San Francisco.
As a performer, Jarrett has worked on television and on stage, has developed a number of children’s educational shows. Several years ago, he wrote the one-man-show “Meisner,” based on notes he took while training with the colorful and influential teacher.
But it’s “Vincent,” a remarkable solo show about Vincent van Gogh, which Jarrett credits as his most significant, and surprising, success.
Written in 1981 by Leonard Nimoy – yes, that Leonard Nimoy – the play was originally performed on Broadway by the “Star Trek” actor. It came Jarrett’s way while he was living in Hawaii in 1996.
“I was taking a sabbatical from my teaching and acting career in L.A., to raise my baby,” he recalls. “Out of the blue, one of my former students sent me the play. On the cover, he wrote, ‘This was written for you!’ I looked at the title and thought, ‘You gotta be kiddin’ me!’ I had no connection to Vincent van Gogh. I just knew the soundbites. ‘He was crazy. He killed himself. He cut off his ear.’”
Then Jarrett read the play.
“I couldn’t put it down,” he says. “I read it cover to cover, and by the time I was done, I absolutely knew it was something I had to do.”
Jarrett contacted Nimoy, and secured the rights to perform and produce the show.
“That began the journey,” he says. “I spent nearly three years working on it, taking a 90-page monologue and turning it into a believable human being, playing multiple characters. All of that required a tremendous amount of work.”
Eventually, Jarrett debuted the piece in Hawaii, where it earned rave reviews and sold out a six-week run. Through a series of chance encounters, he was soon invited by Demi Moore and Bruce Willis to perform the show at their theater near Sun Valley, Iowa. Jarrett agreed to the Iowa run of “Vincent,” not knowing that from those few shows a rare and life-changing opportunity would present itself.
“At that point, I had no designs of touring ‘Vincent,’” he says. “I honestly had no idea that the touring world existed, where you could literally go around the world for 20 years, making a living performing a theater piece.”
After an agent saw “Vincent” in Iowa, Jarrett was told that a show like that could have a healthy run on the touring circuit, with performances at festivals, universities and museums around the world. One of his first stops was the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland, where “Vincent” became an immediate hit, winning accolades and awards, all of which led to more opportunities to perform.
That was almost 20 years ago.
“I tried to do the math once, and figure out how many times I’ve performed this piece,” Jarrett laughs. “Between repeated shows at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I was over a hundred performances, right there. After that it gets crazy. I’d say that over the last 20 years, I’ve done well over a thousand performances of ‘Vincent.’”
Surprisingly, one of the few places he’s yet to perform “Vincent,” is right here in Sonoma.
“I did ‘Meisner’ in Sonoma, about five years ago, but I’ve never done ‘Vincent’ until now,” he says. “With this being my 20th year, I finally just decided to do it, as a benefit for Sonoma Arts Live.”
Jarrett admits that this is going to be a bit of a sentimental year.
“I’ll be doing shows in Hawaii, then I’m going up to Sun Valley,” he says. “I just did some shows at my studio in San Francisco. And I’ll do these three shows in Sonoma.”
He considers it all part of his “thank you” tour.
Says Jarrett: “It’s ‘thank you’ for this great opportunity I’ve had, to be a working actor. It’s ‘thank you’ to all the people who gave me opportunities along the way, including Sandy Meisner and Leonard Nimoy.
“And obviously,” he laughs, “it’s a big thank you to Vincent van Gogh. Getting to tell his story, to so many people, has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.”
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