When a wild-eyed man in a red feather boa appeared on Seven Days’ B Section cover two weeks ago, the box-office phones went crazy at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier. Because of the July 4 holiday on Wednesday, the paper hit the streets on Thursday — normally the theater’s slowest night. But by curtain time, every seat was filled for the self-conscious silliness of Musical of Musicals: The Musical, a hilarious song-and-dance send-up of classic Broadway productions. The performer in the photo: Montpelier’s Tim Tavcar, as a cross-dressing lunatic.
After the footlights dim, Tavcar takes on a host of leading roles in the capital city’s arts community. Since he arrived in Vermont a decade ago, his interests in music and theater, his intellectual curiosity and his passionate commitment have made him a major player both on stage and behind the scenes.
Tavcar turned 60 last month, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down. In fact, his signature seems to be juggling multiple projects at once. This summer, he’s wrapping up his first year as director of the Monteverdi Music School, where he has helped rescue a foundering nonprofit. He’s performing in three Lost Nation shows, including the title role in a new music-and-dance-filled version of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. And he’s prepping for an original literature-meets-music venture he’ll launch in the fall, called WordStage.
Wearing this many hats might wear others down, but it’s a challenge Tavcar has always embraced. And it has made him a good fit for the small professional theater company Lost Nation, where he has played just about every on- and offstage role, according to co-artistic directors Kim Bent and Kathleen Keenan. “He has a really deep background in a lot of different areas,” says Bent, and “an amazing amount of energy to keep going in difficult circumstances.”
Keenan clarifies that Tavcar’s diverse interests do not signal a dilettante. “He’s a real Renaissance man,” she avows. “He’s had passions since he was a teenager . . . The classics drive him.” She believes that Tavcar has a need as well as a talent for forging connections between artistic disciplines. “That’s what’s so wonderful about Tim,” says Keenan. “He can synthesize all those elements together. He’s been living it.”
Musical of Musicals co-star Carol Spradling describes how Tavcar fosters connections among artists while mixing up the genres. “He’s definitely a local impresario, and he brings synergy, especially now with his role at Monteverdi,” she notes. Spradling sang in the madcap PDQ Bach concert that Tavcar organized in May as a school fundraiser. With the program of opera, piano and chamber music and spoken-word humor pieces, he was “introducing musical professionals who’ve never worked together and having them feel like colleagues by the end,” she recalls.
Monteverdi’s board of directors approached Tavcar last year to head the school, which provides private lessons — including ones in voice, bagpipes and Celtic dance as well as orchestral and band instruments — to about 150 children and adults. The school was facing “a period of very serious financial challenge,” according to board vice president and Montpelier attorney Glenn Howland. Monteverdi needed someone with “energy and the contacts and the background to be able to help the school work with artistic partners . . . and find other patrons and supporters,” he says.
“Being a people person, Tim is well suited to help the school in that part of its mission,” Howland adds. “He’s been very active in building alliances.” Howland rates Tavcar’s first-year contribution to the school as “phenomenal.”
He attributes much of Tavcar’s success to an intangible credential. “Tim has a spark that comes with a life in the arts, and someone who has the opportunity to do what they love and love what they do,” Howland observes. “No matter what other talents that you have and abilities you have, if you’re missing that piece it’s going to be difficult to pull challenges together and respond to them.”
Uproarious laughter accompanies most conversations with Tavcar; he downplays most of his accomplishments with humorous, self-deprecating remarks. Gracious, old-school manners underscore many of his physical gestures: opening doors for others; kissing a woman’s hand at the end of an evening. His politeness is unfailing, but so is his sincerity.
In an interview at his Monteverdi office in Montpelier, he guffaws at a suggestion that he draws his energy from a deal with the devil. “Well, I have no other life. I have to do something!” Tavcar says with a smile, tapping his aged wooden desk for emphasis.
The professorial ambiance — shelves stuffed with books and music — shows that he doesn’t waste time on interior decoration. Monteverdi leases an old convent from the Catholic Diocese, and the facilities show their age: Most things are a little creaky, dusty and out of square. But a surprising amount of sunlight floods the former nun’s cells, which are the perfect size for teaching and practice studios. They also present a metaphor for the diligence and devotion required to play an instrument well.
That’s something Tavcar learned to do when he was a child. These days, parents may be more likely to think in terms of sports scholarships to help pay for college. But, in a rare flash of immodesty, Tavcar recalls, “I had my choice of 38 schools at the end of high school because I played the oboe and I played it damn well.” He chose Northwestern, in part because it also featured strong theater and opera programs. He credits the Cleveland public school system for fostering these cultural interests in a way that today’s schools with tighter budgets simply can’t.
Tavcar’s stage debut was memorable. He was set to play the lead — a butterfly — in a kindergarten play about the summer gardens that Cleveland elementary students cultivated. “I had this fabulous costume with ‘wings of death’ that my poor mother probably slaved over,” he recalls. “And I had lines, and I got to do this dance from flower to flower. I was so excited.”
Two weeks before opening night, he was helping to wash a neighbor’s car by scrubbing the top. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a butterfly, and I’m going to get to fly around the stage,’” Tavcar says. “And so I jumped off the car to demonstrate my wing technique . . . But I landed on a broomstick, and . . . broke both my ankles. So I made my debut as a beet.”
The emotional pain of having his wings clipped greatly exceeded the physical pain of broken limbs. But his abrupt demotion from star to supporting root vegetable taught the neophyte a veteran’s lesson: The show always goes on. Years later, in a junior high chorus version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, he had two more important revelations: Wearing tights made him look thinner, and hearing the “immediate, mass approbation” of applause was addictive. He soon became “an opera freak,” Tavcar says, and, under the tutelage of his French teacher, was exposed to “all this culture.” One highlight: hearing soprano Roberta Peters in the Metropolitan Opera Company’s touring production of Lucia di Lammermoor.
Nearly half a century later, Peters’ high E-flat at the conclusion of Lucia’s mad scene still lingers in Tavcar’s mind. “It was like a football game; people were pounding seats up and down and screaming and throwing things in the air,” he remembers. “And so I was hooked on opera from age 12.”
Though he came from what he terms “a very contentious household,” his parents supported his artistic pursuits. Even his dad — a Navy veteran — “didn’t shove me onto the football team because it would ‘make a man out of me.’”
Tim Tavcar’s music and theater interests have remained “complementary and intersecting” throughout his often itinerant career. “The apogee of my performing was probably my years in Washington, D.C., where I was singing with the National Opera and doing small roles on stage at the Kennedy Center,” he says. But in the late ’80s, both his parents got sick. Tavcar returned to Ohio and took care of them for eight difficult years. “Life intrudes, as we all know,” he says without bitterness.
While visiting a friend in Burlington in 1995, Tavcar spent a fall weekend sampling Montpelier: films at the Savoy, NECI meals, A Doll’s House at Lost Nation. By that time his parents were settled into long-term care and his sister lived close enough to supervise, so he impulsively left a resume at LNT. Bent and Keenan hired him for the following season. But then came another surprise: a collision with a drunk driver. A two-week coma and lengthy convalescence meant Tavcar arrived in Vermont a year later than planned.
Since 1997, his initial one-year gig with LNT has turned into 10. He has directed many of the company’s musicals, performed in numerous productions, created its popular Edgar Allan Poe Hallo-ween fundraiser, and helped with a host of administrative tasks. Tavcar has held other jobs during this time as well, including managing the renovated Vergennes Opera House and directing the Vermont Gay Men’s Chorus.
This summer, his triad of Lost Nation roles makes for a more demanding performance schedule than usual — especially that of his star turn in The Selfish Giant. Tavcar plays the curmudgeon who eventually opens his garden, and his heart, to children. Barre’s Mary Wheeler fell in love with the fairy tale Oscar Wilde wrote for his sons when she read it to her own kids 20 years ago. As her vision for a staged version evolved and LNT came on board, Tavcar became the obvious choice.
“I really wanted a giant who was not just going to blow you away with his gruffness, but who could really get to the vulnerable place, too,” Wheeler says. She adapted Wilde’s brief text into a full-length play with music and dance, and blended modern elements with Wilde’s Victorian sensibility to enhance the storyline’s accessibility.
Wheeler says she appreciates Tavcar’s “creativity and instinct on stage. He’s not afraid to try things,” including making valuable script suggestions. “He’s very collaborative like that, and always in such a great way,” she adds. Bent, who is directing The Selfish Giant, thinks Tavcar is particularly well suited to “larger-than-life, over-the-top roles.”
No one was so certain that Tavcar was suited for working with the cast’s 21 kids, aged 7 to 19. “He had a bad experience” directing 100 kids in Annie, explains Keenan. At a recent Selfish Giant rehearsal, however, Tavcar demonstrates a natural, grandfatherly rapport with the child actors. He seems more concerned about how comfortable they are with their parts than he is with his own performance.
After rehearsal, Wheeler says with a laugh, “He had a reputation for not liking kids, but it looks like — just like the Giant — he’s turning around and starting to really enjoy the small fry.”
In August, Tavcar will play two small roles in LNT’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe as well as coordinating the music for the show.
And he’ll concentrate on developing what he calls his “legacy project”: WordStage: A Chamber Music Theater. Tavcar describes it as “standing with . . . music stand[s] and playing all the characters and doing wonderful things with your voice.”
In WordStage, period music supplements scripts created from source material such as letters, poems and historical chronicles. The production values are simple. “The idea is, we need a good piano, some music stands, some costumes, and maybe a piece of furniture we can throw in the back of someone’s car,” Tavcar explains. “There’s so little shrift given to antecedents these days — literature and history. You have to have chandeliers falling or things blowing up. This is so pure; it’s words and music and how they interrelate. It’s so immediate.”
Planned pairings for next season include the letters of Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill with the songs of Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas, Frederic Chopin and some ancient English monarchs are also set to appear.
Tavcar plans to tap the wealth of “unbelievably talented” central Vermont performers and take WordStage to venues throughout the state. Eventually, he hopes it will provide another reliable paying gig for local pros. He believes the “Buy Local” campaign — so popular with Vermont business and agriculture — should be extended to the performing arts. “Pound for pound, there’s as much greatness in the quality of people who perform in this state as there is anywhere,” Tavcar declares.
The performer who got his start as a Cleveland beet has turned out to be one of Vermont’s best-liked — and well-rooted — local treasures himself.
The Selfish Giant, adapted by Mary Wheeler, directed by Kim Bent, produced by Lost Nation Theater. July 19-29, City Hall Auditorium, Montpelier, Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday, July 22, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, July 29, at 2 p.m. $20-25.