Acting is Greg Gasman's first love, so it stands to reason that he'd be an "actor's director."
"I like actors to be totally creative," he said. "I like them to explore their characters. ... I just like them to create, be explosive, catch my attention."
But now it's Gasman getting the attention, as the 21st recipient of the Beltrami Community Art Center's Friend of the Arts Award. He will be the guest of honor at a celebration June 8 at Headwaters School of Music and the Arts.
"Theater is Greg's passion, and he has been an active and prolific theater artist for 30-some years in the region," Al and Cate Belleveau stated in their nomination of Gasman. "He brings varied stories of human experience to life with his creative vision and has pulled theatrical presentation skills from hundreds of adults and children to produce poignant, powerful, humorous and strong theater for the entire region."
They said Gasman was long overdue for the award.
Others who sent letters of support for the nomination hailed Gasman's commitment to the arts, dedication, inspiration and his choice to keep his considerable and varied talents in the Bemidji area.
Gasman has been part of theater in the area since 1982 when he moved to Bemidji and started acting at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. He got Bemidji Community Theater off the ground, directing most of its first three seasons.
After the BCT was well-established, Gasman moved on to "do my own things," which included not only acting, directing and theater troupes, but also being a mentor to youth.
"I've worked in every school in the Bemidji area," he said, adding that he has also worked with children's theater.
"The Playhouse used to do a lot with children's theater," Gasman said. "I worked with that a lot over the years. A lot of those actors have gone on to do things - we've got kids in L.A. doing films and live theater, we've got kids in New York that are doing stuff. That is really cool."
Gasman enjoyed working with youth at the Northwest Minnesota Juvenile Center, where he was director and acting coach from 1997-2005 for plays written by students.
"I was blown away by these kids," he said. "It's almost like they needed a place to act out where they wouldn't be yelled at our cut down. ... I was sorry to see that program go by the wayside."
While he is always open to new talent, Gasman keeps his favorite actors close to him.
"I have a bunch of actors that have been working with me for years," he said. "I have them all floating with me in my head. I can pick them out and precast a show."
In Gasman's favorite production, "Jesus Christ Superstar," however, the title role was played by a man he'd never seen on stage.
"He was just always happy, always smiling, people knew him, he knew everyone, he would say hi to everyone, he just felt like such a warm character," Gasman said of Mitch Blessing.
"When I knew I was going to do 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' I didn't know if he could sing; I didn't know if he could act. I asked him to play Jesus just because of his personality."
Plus, Blessing was working as a carpenter, so Gasman asked him how he could pass up the role.
He finally got Blessing to agree, and then cast Tom Buckanaga as Judas in the Paul Bunyan Playhouse production.
"They had the best of friendships and they're still friends today," Gasman said.
"We did 10 performances in 1999 and we had 75 people in it," he said. "The people continued their friendships. In 2000, we remounted the show, and the only changes I had to make was half a dozen disciples I had to recast. I think we ended up doing 22 performances in the two years, and I think 20 sold out."
Also an important production for Gasman was "Equus," which he saw when he was studying acting in college and got the opportunity to go to New York City to see the play on Broadway.
He said then that someday he would play the role of Dr. Dysart, the psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious/sexual fascination with horses. Gasman waited until he was 50 to take on the role, also directing the play in 2001 at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse.
"'Equus' was one of my most challenging shows," said Gasman, who started memorize Dysart's numerous monologues three months early so he could balance the acting and directing.
Other favorites include "Turtle Island Blues," which toured from 1992-1996, taking 28 performances to 18 separate locations in two states; "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which starred Caleb Fricke and pulled the audience into the psych ward set at the Elks Club; "12 Angry Men," for which Gasman got permission to use an old Beltrami County courtroom that was being closed off; and his most recent production, "The Birthday Party," which brought theater of the absurd to Bemidji.
"The Birthday Party" was not a commercial success, but Gasman doesn't base his choices on crowds.
"I wanted to do things I want to do rather than having to do a play that someone else wants you to do," he said. "Now I just find plays that I've always wanted to put my twist on stage."
Gasman is proud of the fact that in the last six months, he has produced theater in 37 different venues in Bemidji.
"I look for different spaces where I can put something in and bring the audience close to the action," he said.
Gasman is general manager at Harmony Foods. He and his wife, Kay Houdek, have two sons, Dustin, 25, and Shyler, 22.
Gasman, working with Shyler and Mike Bredon, has also branched out into film, in Zool Production Group.
The trio's short films have found success in competitions. Some of their work can be viewed at www.filmmaka.com.
"We've been going strong," Gasman said.
Still, "Stage is the main thing for me," he said. "Doing live theater is just amazing."
Bemidji is home to a surprising level of quiet talent, Gasman said.
"You're working with actors that were off-Broadway or writers that have had their productions done all over the world. They live out in the woods here in Bemidji. It's awesome to run into people like that."