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Actor Robby Benson Shares Tips of the Trade with Theatre Students at Appalachian

112202benson.jpgBy Jane Nicholson

BOONE–Mention the name Robby Benson and many recall the teen star of the 1970s movies “Ice Castles,” “Ode to Billy Joe” and “One on One.”

But in what seems to be a blink of the eye, Benson has grown up. Now a 40-something father of two, he is an accomplished director whose credits include the TV sit-coms “Ellen” and “Friends,” a playwright and composer. Oh yes, he’s also the voice of the Beast in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” More recently, he has a recurring role as an English professor in the television series “American Dreams.”

Ask Benson to describe himself, however, and the answer is straightforward. “Husband and parent – there’s no list -it’s just husband to my best friend Karla DeVito and parent to my two children,” he says.

But Benson also is a teacher – on and off screen. He spent a week in Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance sharing his knowledge of acting, directing and filmmaking.

While on campus, Benson worked with advanced acting students teaching them the different approaches used in portraying a character on film vs. the stage.

Benson has taught workshops in screenwriting, acting and directing since 1988, first at the University of South Carolina and later the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts. He will teach in the spring at the California Institute of the Arts, an independent college devoted to all the arts.

Benson was drawn to Appalachian because of its niche as a “teaching university” and the theatre faculty’s goal that graduates have strong skills when entering the trade.

“They want to make sure that (the students) have the background in classical performance that will make them true professionals, and the background to make a living,” Benson said.

The theatre and dance program at Appalachian has more than 100 majors. “Robby brings the dimension of film work to our program,” said department chair Susan Cole. “We are at the point where we want to add courses in film because that’s where the market is. Robby brings a wealth of experience as an actor, screenwriter and director.”

Benson started acting at age five, appearing in summer stock productions and later commercials. At age 12, he appeared in the Broadway production of “Zelda” and at age 14 starred in the original stage production of “The Rothchilds.”

He credits his foundation in theatre and his supportive parents for his successful transition from child to adult actor, a passage that sometimes eludes young performers.

“In my case, no doubt my parents,” Benson says. “It’s not strict parenting – it’s nurturing, and it’s a lot of love.”

Benson also has a life perspective that sometimes occurs only to those who have faced a serious illness or other life-changing event. He has had two open-heart surgeries to repair a defective heart valve.

“When you face life and death situations so young in life, you truly appreciate just being alive,” he said. “You start to pick up on the beauties of life. Why be destructive, why sabotage your own existence?”

His life experience is the subject of his most recent work – a one-act musical called “Open Heart” that Benson, DeVito and Stan Brown auditioned for the Roundabout Theater Company in New York City in hopes that the company will select it for a future production.

The musical is about a man who, in one minute of his life, finds out what is important to him, Benson said. “It’s the same thing that used to be important to him, but his priorities had shifted and he forgot what he was fighting for,” he explained. “What he discovers is that he has always been looking for that simple moment when he learns what real love is all about.”

Writing plays and music are Benson’s passions. “My dream job would be to be secluded and able to write day and night. I have always had a passion for writing, and I love to write music,” he said. “So to be able to sit back in the theatre and watch people perform and make my stuff better, that’s my dream job, to watch people make my work soar.”

Benson says teaching is a natural extension of his work as a director. “Directing is teaching,” he says. “Directing is just a different source of teaching because the source material is whatever script you are working on.”

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Picture Caption: Actor and director Robby Benson works with students in Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance. Benson was on campus for a week as a visiting artist in the department. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Mike Rominger)