MILWAUKEE — John McGivern climbs onto a bicycle built for a 5-year-old and takes a few laps around the stage — winding around a stepladder, a pair of lawn chairs, and other trappings of summer — before arriving downstage center. The bike is decorated Fourth of July-style, with crepe paper in the spokes, flags sticking out of the handlebars, and shiny foil stars erupting from behind the seat. "Here's where we'll do the final story," McGivern says, looking out on 500 empty seats in the Cedarburg Performing Arts Center, about 20 minutes north of Milwaukee. "And I'm going to do it sitting right on the bike."
McGivern is describing his new one-man show, Summer Stories, which he performed in Cedarburg July 13-15. It's an evening of stories about being a kid during a Wisconsin summer. They're generally light and funny, laden with McGivern's self-deprecating humor and sweet sense of nostalgia. It's familiar territory for the 52-year-old actor-comedian, as they're mostly about his own life. Just a week later, McGivern shifted gears, playing 40 characters in Becky Mode's Fully Committed at Sheboygan's John Michael Kohler Arts Center. He's done the show four times previously, so it's familiar territory of a different sort.
How McGivern is spending his summer says a lot about his current personal and professional paths. He's an actor, storyteller, and standup comedian, as well as a savvy businessman and energetic promoter. In Milwaukee, his hometown, he has name recognition that rivals that of the mayor, but he's also the kind of guy who puts pictures of his family right next to performance photos on his website. He has continued to delight Milwaukee audiences on stage, radio, and television with stories from his life, but lately he's added more heft to his acting résumé, appearing in plays as different as Take Me Out, The Odd Couple, and Homebody/Kabul.
Yet Summer Stories, in which he has the luxury of a director (Edward Morgan, a frequent collaborator) all to himself and a one-man tech crew, feels a little different for McGivern, who is used to working a room with just a microphone and an outline in his head. "I usually don't get so much help," he laughs. "Here's a stool and a kneeler and I'm done."
The kneeler, of course, is de rigueur: Most of McGivern's stories recount growing up gay in an Irish working-class family in Milwaukee. He entered the seminary right out of the eighth grade, was kicked out after three years, and re-entered two years later. He left for the final time when he was 28 and started to look for acting jobs. Back then, he says, his theatre work was a far cry from Tony Kushner or Richard Greenberg. He started as an intern at Atlanta's Academy Theatre under the renowned Frank Wittow and auditioned for his first show that same year.
"I did every kind of crap theatre everywhere," McGivern says, slipping into high-storytelling mode at a Cedarburg coffee shop. "I played Amos the town drunk in The Sword of Peace," an outdoor historical drama in Snow Camp, N.C. "I did It Ain't Country for producers known as the Watson Brothers in Atlanta, where I played an abusive car mechanic who sang a song about killing his wife. I did some bad, bad stuff. But I never stopped working. Ever."
Eventually, he says, he took a step up, appearing at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., in a production of the musical March of the Falsettos, which won a 1986 Helen Hayes Award. Shortly after that, he slipped into what he calls his "golden handcuffs," playing Tony Whitcomb, the flamboyant hairdresser, in Shear Madness. The play sustained him for years; he is still a co-producer of the Milwaukee edition of that multimillion-dollar franchise.
In 1994, McGivern started doing solo work, using his life as material for standup comedy routines and evening-long story collections that he's performed around the country. The first was called Midwest Side Story and premiered at Chicago's Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, followed by half a dozen others. He also spent a few years in Los Angeles trying to get cast in a sitcom, but he admits he never really broke his Milwaukee ties. In 2001, director Morgan recognized the potential in McGivern's comic charm and cast him as Guzman, a lower-class servant, in John Strand's Lovers and Executioners, an adaptation of a little-known 17th-century French romance by Montfleury staged at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
"John is a terrific performer," says Morgan. "He's charming, charismatic, in tune with an audience, and extremely funny — and I've seen those qualities shine through whether he's talking directly to an audience or to another actor in a scene or to himself as another character."
For McGivern, the key to his success is finding the connections between his personality and that of the character he's playing. Of Mason Marzac, the business manager he played in Take Me Out, he says, "The sensibilities of that character were so much my sensibilities as well." His connection was so strong, he says, "people who came to the talkback asked, 'Did John write those speeches?' Which is good. When people come to see a play they know nothing about, maybe it's good that they can still say, 'Oh, it's still John.' "
McGivern says he loves blending solo work with more-traditional theatre. "I do so much alone that it's always great to get involved where the responsibilities are less. And it's nice to be with a group of people and go through a process like that." But, he says, "I don't know if theatre like that is such a collaborative art form. Directors have a real idea of what a play is going to be. They brought me into a show, but they're certainly going to change what I would otherwise be doing. They know what they want." Thinking about it, he adds with a characteristic smile, "But I think my voice is still heard."
McGivern is scheduled to perform David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries at Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre, Dec. 19-31. For more information, visit www.nextact.org.