The considerable mental and physical demands of live performance are probably not uppermost in the thoughts of youngsters dreaming of a career in show biz. But whether it's eight a week on stage or multiple evening shows in cabaret or intensive rock band cross-country tours, working performers soon learn that they need to keep their instrument in fighting trim in order to deliver the high quality goods with consistency. Back Stage spoke with 15 working professionals to discover their varying, and often highly personalized, strategies for making sure that they are always able to give 100% to all those people out there in the dark.
Kate Levering—Learn to Listen
"I've been dancing since I was seven, but I never really developed a regimen until I was on Broadway and responsible for a professional performance every night," says Kate Levering, who turned heads last season as the Mayor's daughter in "The Music Man" and plays the pivotal role of Peggy Sawyer this season in the Broadway revival of "42nd Street."
Playing a chorus girl landing her big break on Broadway when the star suffers an unexpected injury might be karmically thought of as rather like tempting fate. Yet Levering devotes herself to fitness, whether for the rehearsal process or for the grueling eight-performance week she's gearing up to give. Levering's nearly always on stage—for all but two moments in the show—so the tapping and singing and acting, above all, require energy.
"Finding a routine depends on the show and the person," she says. "I belong to a gym, but I don't go right now because over-exercising can be really bad for you. Once a show is up and running, however, I find I can go back, and when I do, I'll know what I'm going to do by how my body feels or how my clothes fit. I adapt my workouts to what my needs are." Once "42nd Street" opens, she plans to visit the gym two to three times a week, "mixing it up" with cardio and weights.
Levering also developed an instinctual sense of diet that serves as her energy pipeline. "Eating-wise, I'm fairly disciplined," she says. "I have to be, because if you're not eating correctly, you're not giving your body the fuel it needs. So, I stay away from carbs after the morning and I eat a lot of protein—fish, chicken, and no red meat."
Levering's fiercest challenge comes on matinee day, when she must give two performances in one day. "It's not easy," she says, "since you have to think about what to eat, when, and how much. Also, I get sick to my stomach if I eat too close to show time, so maybe I'll have coffee and a bagel or toast in the morning, maybe an egg, then a chicken wrap at 5 or 5:30, and if I get hungry after the show, I'll have a hard boiled egg or some sort of salad."
On Sundays, Levering takes leave of all rules and regimens. "I deny myself nothing. If I want pasta, ice cream, pancakes—I eat it. Nutritionally, it's good to shock the system, so it doesn't get used to one thing."
For Levering, however, one thing is even more important than diet: sleep. "I really try to get eight hours of sleep," she says, "and I really try not to go out after a Tuesday or Friday night show because I know I have a two-show day the following day." She also catnaps between shows.
Before a show, Levering replaces sleep with her own brand of meditation. "It's part of a big show prep," she says, a process that includes arriving at the theatre two hours early for makeup and a vocal warm-up. "I stretch, get into costume and wig, and then usually have 10 minutes where I just sort of breathe. I also have a little prayer on my mirror that I read. I get out of my own head and into the play.
"Pay very close attention to your body," Levering says. "Because it really does speak to you—and it's up to you to listen."
Sebastian LaCause—Rocky's Road to Fitness
Of all the men appearing on Broadway these days in states of near or total undress—and there are many—only one merits a whole production number about his considerable muscular charms. That would be Sebastian LaCause in the title role of "The Rocky Horror Show."
LaCause, playing the part of a composite creature created by a mad scientist with a definite muscle fetish, wears nothing but a pair of white shiny briefs from shortly after his entrance (to the final strains of "The Charles Atlas Song") to the finale (when he adds a red corset, boa, and pumps to his brief outfit). Working as he does in a three-quarter-round theatre with the audience literally at arm's reach, LaCause cannot afford to lose his physique. Fortunately, he tells Back Stage, he is genetically lucky, prone to a "fit and toned" body, and has stayed in good shape by dancing since he was five.
Only "over the past couple of years" has LaCause started working for bulk, while taking care not to overdo it. Again, he acknowledges his chromosomal luck, saying that he has long muscles and overextended arms that counteract the potential constrictions of weightlifting. He doesn't leave anything to luck, however, and uses plenty of limbering exercises to keep his flexibility. "I know people who have added muscle and I've seen how it can tighten them up—how they can't move as gracefully," he says. "Stretching is absolutely important to stay limber; some people work out and forget to stretch afterwards, and they pay for it later.
"I think staying flexible has to do with how you're putting the muscle on, and what kind of food you're eating. Changing your body is a combination of diet and exercise, not exercise alone," he reiterates. "Diet is such a key factor.
"I would suggest people eat in at home as much as possible and resist the temptation to have something delivered," he says, adding that cooking a meal provides nutrition to the mind as well as the body. "It's good discipline to prepare your own food," he notes. "Also, that way you know what really goes into it. When you order something from a restaurant, even something healthy-sounding, you don't know how they make it, what oils they use. Well, when I make something myself, I know."
So what does he make at home? "I'm really into stir-fries," he says. "Vegetables and rice and chicken or beef," using cooking spray instead of oil, to make it that much healthier.
Still, he knows it can be tough for New Yorkers on the go to find time to cook for themselves. He says that the city lags behind Los Angeles when it comes to restaurants specializing in healthful fast food, but even here patrons can frequently make healthy choices if they look for options on the menu. "Those times I have to have a burrito, I go to a place where I know they have tofu 'sour cream' and soy cheese and whole wheat tortillas. Those things make a difference when you add them up."
Not that he's always a saint when it comes to eating, he gladly admits. "I love pizza," he says. "I love a lot of bad food. So I like to allow myself one day a week—Monday, our day off—to eat whatever I want. That way, I have something to look forward to at the end of the week. All my ice cream, burgers, Krispy Kremes, I cram 'em all into one day."
LaCause has an additional piece of advice to anyone just starting to build their bodies: "It's about working out with intensity, not just moving the weights around. When I was just starting out, I'd be at the gym for three hours at a time, doing a million exercises, but as I matured I've learned that it's better to break it down and get more concentrated workouts.
"Now, although I like to allow myself an hour, I can get a really good workout in 45 minutes if I have to, by going in and working really hard on one muscle group: legs, arms, chest, back, or shoulders. That way you don't have to become a fanatic about it and spend all your time at the gym."
But if you do it right, as he demonstrates, you can certainly look as if you do.
Marge Champion—Open to Change
"I've learned a lot about my body since January, when I started rehearsing," says Marge Champion, currently playing Emily Whitman in the Broadway revival of "Follies," her first Main Stem performance since the 1950s. "I really had to slow down a little bit and figure out what would work for a more mature person."
At 81, Champion's definition of "more mature" doesn't imply less energetic or agile. Indeed, her work as a choreographer and arts supporter (plus Tony Award nominator) has kept her in fine fettle for years. Being cast in "Follies," however, nudged Champion to re-assess for physical and nutritional routine—and to be "open enough to change."
"It goes without saying that doing a show requiring eight shows a week and long rehearsal period is taxing," she says. "Remember, it's not just the shows—it's the interviews, it's getting up at 6 am for the 'Rosie' show. Plus there's excitement being in a hit show, so the tendency is to do everything you used to do—all the people coming backstage who want to take you to dinner, all the things you enjoyed when you were in the your 20s and 30s and maybe overdid a little. Now you've got to think about it first."
Above all, Champion's goal is to maintain her performance level with discipline and realism. Smart nutrition, she says, has always been her trademark; ironically, she's even less hungry now than usual and has lost an entire size since doing "Follies." "In the morning," she says, "I first have a big glass of water, then this bread with every known grain in it and it I spread about a quarter of an avocado and a dash of salt. I think there are really restorative things in avocados, plus it keeps me extremely regular."
In addition to vitamins—"everyone has to take those"—Champion is big on soups, creating her own broth "from the tops of every vegetable and chicken bones." On occasion, she admits to enjoying a cocktail of tequila and grapefruit—"my ersatz margarita"—and once a year, she "looks for the perfect hamburger," happily downing it with a glass of beer.
Champion champions exercise, as any lifelong dancer should. During two recent episodes that briefly sidelined her from "Follies," however, her dedication to physical fitness became a lifesaver. "First, I pulled my hamstring in rehearsal when I was doing what seemed to be nothing," she says. "Then, a few weeks ago, I woke up with a massive back spasm. I iced it instead of what I should have done—apply moist heat—but the point is, I found this wonderful physical therapist. His name is Angel, but I call him my angel."
During the weeklong absence from "Follies," Angel taught her "exercises to strengthen what might have gotten tired over the years, like my quads and knees." Now, she says, she has "no residual pain. Also, I still have damn good muscle tone from exercising all my life—so you learn to use what you still have left."
Enough rest helps too, she says. "My father taught me two things," she says. "One was to dance, the other how to nap. If you don't resist napping, you can get two days into one. I've even been known to lie down on my dressing room floor and take a 15-minute nap. If you've warmed up and done what you need to do before a show, even if you're just the slightest bit tired, it's a good idea to nap to get a boost before going on."
In Champion's view, "80 years old today is what it was like for my mother at 60…I'm not fudging when I say that two things matter for longevity: heredity, and how you've taken care of yourself. You've got to stick to some sort of regimen that gets your fanny off the couch."
Deven May—Bat Boy Fights the Fat
"I used to weigh about 210 pounds, so I've always fought with weight since I was a little kid." So says Deven May, the star of the quirky Off-Broadway musical "Bat Boy." May is a slimmed-down version of his former self and he needs every ounce of energy to play the demanding title role. As the half-vampire, half-human mutant child he is required to crawl all over the haunted-house set, chinning himself up and down in cages and caves. But his weight reduction was not just for this show.
"I was in L.A. and went in for a commercial audition," he explains. "It was for Sprint long distance service. The guy had me read a piece. He was very nice. It went very well and after the reading, he said to me, 'That was a lot of fun. You remind me of Michael J. Fox. Do you mind if I offer you some advice?' I said, 'No,' and he said, 'Lose weight—you're fat. You're never going to work.' Well, it took me another three months to get over my bruised ego. And then I came to a decision. I could either gain even more weight and become a really big character actor or follow that casting director's advice and I could lose the weight I had. I'm happy that I chose the second."
May's regiment has included a combination of diet and exercise. "My diet involved staying away from sugar and carbohydrates. When training for a role, I will eat pasta and a piece of pizza because I need the energy, but, normally, I will stay away from complex carbohydrates and all sugars—like pasta or white bread and also soda and sugary drinks. I had some champagne on my birthday and it was amazing how much I felt like crap the next day. For this part, I've been drinking no alcohol. You don't know what kind of effect it has on your body until you stop."
His exercise routine involves jumping rope, power walking, and a system called plyometrics, which is a series of moves involving jumping, pushing, and pulling. "It's like a Western man's yoga," May explains. "These are all things I can do without joining a gym. I wanted to do power walking because running is stressful on the body. More fluid movements burn more calories faster. There's no rest period in between the strides. If you remember that funny little speed walk they did in the movie 'When Harry Met Sally'—that's power walking. It looks kinda weird, but it helped me lose 60 pounds.
"I lost that weight in a year. I had a diet called Sugarbusters—similar to Atkins, similar to food-combining. Its basic principle is you don't ingest any sugar; your pancreas makes enough sugar for your body. White refined sugar has been spoon-fed to us, but it's not natural at all. White refined sugar is poison. We eat about 140 pounds per person per year. With Sugarbusters, you eliminate things that don't have any nutritional value. Your body thrives on protein, so you eat things like cheese and milk and steak. For two weeks I had the worst headaches because I had quit drinking coffee—I was that addicted to sugar. So it's all about freeing your body of what it doesn't need.
"For a while, when I was working in Las Vegas, I was working with weights, but now I'm trying to slim myself down—not as bulky. Now it's about an athletic, slimmer build. Leave the other to Sylvester Stallone."
Angela Ai—A Three-Fold Approach
Angela Ai sees fitness and health as more than purely physical, incorporating her emotional and spiritual fitness into her vision of health. A recent tour to Taiwan sharpened her appreciation of the components of good fitness for actors, in part because she got sick!
A classical perception of good health habits guides Ai's choices. "Enough water, eight hours of sleep, no sugar, good nutrition, and some form of exercise four times a week is my ideal. For me, good exercise would be a Sweat Your Prayers dance class, yoga, or tennis. In terms of singing, warming up my voice daily is valuable. And stuff like going to the doctor and dentist—the basics."
All of that, day in and day out, would indeed be an ideal regimen. In a less than perfect week of running to auditions and living the hectic life of an actor and singer-songwriter (Ai has performed at The Triad Lounge, Birdland, and The Bitter End, among others), she is forced to focus on what she considers crucial: "Physically, the most important thing for me is to get eight hours of sleep a night. If I don't get sleep, I'm going to get sick. That's just a guarantee."
But Ai looks beyond showing up in good physical shape to perform. "Creatively, I have to be centered." In order to be at peak readiness to perform honestly, Ai attends as diligently to the emotional and spiritual components of health as she does to the physical. "I go to therapy. I talk to my friends. I write in my journal and read inspirational literature. I pray, and, ideally, I'd meditate on a daily basis. I'm trying to incorporate that." By practicing good mental hygiene, Ai weathers the stresses of life in the theatre and is grounded and confident when on stage.
Just back from her first tour (in the rock musical, "Making Tracks"), Ai learned some hard lessons about the challenges of staying well on the road. "I went to Taiwan, so I had to deal with the time change, and my eight hours a night went right out the window. I was waking up at 3 am and getting to rehearsal at 9 am. That was hard for me. It was my first tour, and everything was so new to me—the schedule, the people. There was so much to take in, and I have relatives in Taiwan, so there was that, too. I didn't drink or smoke, which I don't do much anyway. I might as well have smoked though, because the pollution there was so awful. I got bronchitis, but I still had to perform. I learned a big lesson from that. If I did it again, no matter what I had to do, I'd get my sleep. I think I'd take melatonin (a natural sleep supplement) next time. And I would not hang out with the group socializing so much. I would take more time for myself. Not that we had much time, but when we did, I'd take as much time as possible to rest in the future." She adds a word of warning for actors concerned with their fiscal health as well: "I'd buy more phone cards, and don't ever, ever use a hotel phone to call long distance!"
Ai doesn't hang on to unhealthy habits or let herself be unconscious of her needs. When asked if she has any indulgences she'd refuse to part with, she muses instead on more good habits she could develop. "I could use more play time and relaxation. I love what I do, but I don't do enough playing just for me. I have this idea that I'd open a nap center." Until she does, stressed actors might follow her lead and write that eight hours right into their schedules.
Matt McGrath—Consult Experts
In his role as "The Emcee" in the Roundabout's long-running Broadway revival of "Cabaret," Matt McGrath is everywhere—center stage, peeping out from behind curtains, joining in all sorts of tableaux. He is a whirlwind of energy—narrating with his very presence, his movements, his singing, and his leering expressions. Clearly, this is a physically demanding effort. And so, he says, "My main object is to conserve my energy. During my two weeks of rehearsals, I had to focus on getting my stamina and endurance built up. I did that by running at least five miles a day. I also worked out with free weights. Strength is important in this role because there is a lot of dancing. I'd been in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' before 'Cabaret.' That role also required a great deal of strength and stamina and I followed a similar regimen. I'd do push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups and, in terms of weightlifting, I'd do lateral raises, bicep curls, as well as chest and tricep work."
But, McGrath emphasizes, for "Cabaret," he had to be careful not to build himself up too much. "My character is supposed to be a drug addict and slender. I do yoga so as not to become too compact. Yoga lengthens and stretches out the muscles. It's a good thing to do after working out to make sure your muscles don't get too tight. It helps the circulation and keeps you from becoming sore."
What is his regimen? "I try to aim for three times a week for weightlifting and six times a week for both yoga and for running. But the show itself is a strong workout so I cut myself some slack."
Physical fitness is obviously a topic he must pay a great deal of attention to, and so he reads up on it. He discovered "core training"—a program that works the abdominal area—while surfing the web (www.bothsidesup.com). He plans to explore it in the near future.
"Core training is designed to build strength in your center in order to ground yourself for lifting and other physical activities," McGrath explains. "That lessens your risk of injury. The program was begun by David Weck, a trainer who works with professional football teams. I plan to work with him or one of his staff members."
McGrath believes it is important to consult experts. "I used to do more cardiovascular exercises than anything else, because I enjoyed that, but I'm a slight person, and I learned that what I really needed was to build myself up more. At one point, I lost a great deal of weight and realized I'd overdone it, that I'd become too slim.
"I'd recommend to anyone who is beginning to focus on exercise that he or she develop a specific regimen and that, in order to do that, they talk to people who know what they're doing in this area. Moderation is also important. If you overdo it, you'll become fatigued. That's another reason it's good to have a knowledgeable person guide you, so that you learn to pace yourself and get an objective opinion as to what your needs are and what you realistically can do at any given point."
Denise Di Renzo—Big on "Bikram" Yoga
After two and a half years in "Cats," Denise Di Renzo recalls that her knees were shot. Surgery was in the picture, and in an attempt to avoid that unappealing prospect, she started going to a physical therapist, although that didn't help at all.
Desperate to try anything, short of surgery, she took a chance and walked into a yoga class that was being held, coincidentally, across the street from her physical therapist. As it turned out, that was the luckiest coincidence of her life. "Within a few weeks of attending the yoga classes, I had no pain!
"What I didn't know when I first started," she continues, "was that the particular form of yoga that they were teaching—'Bikram,' named after the man who founded it—was specifically designed for hurt knees. The workout consists of a series of 26 postures—all of them designed to strengthen the muscles around the knees. There is the mistaken notion that yoga is laid back. Yoga is stretching and balancing and it takes a great deal of concentrated strength. I also get quite a cardiovascular workout. I'm probably in far better shape now than when I was dancing on Broadway."
Di Renzo still aims to get to her yoga class twice a week. One of the virtues of going to the class, she says, is that "they keep the temperature at 98 degrees. You sweat a lot and that's very good for cleansing the system."
Di Renzo also performs a daily workout on her own each morning. She describes two of the exercises. "In one, called 'the bow,' you raise your leg in back, grab your foot from behind—your body looks like a bow—and you hold that position for a minute. Then do the same on the other side. In another exercise, called 'the tree stand,' you lift one foot up and press it onto the thigh of the other leg. You bend all the way over, over the knee, keeping your hands in a prayer position. Stay in that position for a moment. And then do it on the other side."
She insists that doing these exercises has given her the assurance and focus that she has never had before; and while she recommends Bikram Yoga, she offers a caveat. "If you have back problems, beware!"
De Renzo, who has starred in such Broadway shows as "A Chorus Line," "42nd Street," and "Sophisticated Ladies"—as well as in cabarets across the city—is also keenly conscious of diet.
"I try to eat nothing except fruit until noon. It's almost like a fast and it's a way to cleanse my body. At lunch, I will have a salad and some bread, usually whole grain. At dinner, I try to eat fish, which I bake with a little olive oil and seasoning. I serve the fish with pasta or rice. I do not eat read meat.
"When I'm in a show," she continues, "I'll have the same diet, only earlier, meaning I eat dinner at four in the afternoon. After the show, I'll try to eat something light, like cheese and crackers or organic whole wheat fig bars. I especially like those because they have no fat or refined sugar. I may have that with a cup of herbal tea."
Generally, Di Renzo is "pretty much decaffeinated, although if I'm having a sinus headache, which is usually related to allergies, I might have a cup of coffee that is half decaffeinated, half caffeine. I find that it helps me. Rarely, I will have a glass of wine."
Alec Mapa—Gym Rage Management
Alec Mapa, whose irreverent and funny persona is no different in real life, has had quite a busy season, first as Vern Limoso on the CBS sitcom "Some of My Best Friends" and, more recently, as "Perlita" Alacran, a sometime drag queen, in Jessica Hagedorn's "Dogeaters" at the Public Theater. Critics love his timing and energy—plus his skill at walking in four-inch heels—but Mapa is modest: All you need, he says, is diet and exercise.
The five-foot-four, 128-pound San Francisco native didn't worry much about health issues while still in his 20s. "But after I turned 30," he says, "my metabolism changed. I started getting a lot of television work in L.A., and while I used to have the metabolism of a hummingbird where I could eat a bacon cheeseburger and a milkshake for lunch and it never showed up, I turned 30, got together with my last boyfriend, and all we did all summer long was eat Chinese food and drink white wine, and suddenly I gained 15 pounds. Then I did an episode of 'Law and Order' and I screamed 'no!' because the camera added, like, 125 pounds!"
During those stretches without work, hitting the gym possesses psychological as well as physical benefits for Mapa. "I joined a gym because of unemployment," he says. "I've had three months at a time when I wasn't doing anything and I felt useless. It became really important to me to feel like I've accomplished something every day at the gym."
Calling his regimen "gym rage management," Mapa discovered that fitness isn't an option in L.A.—where he lives—but a not-so-subtle factor in casting decisions. "New York is about process; L.A. is about results," he says. "You have to be ready to do whatever they want you to do when you walk in the room, which means looking the way they need you to look when you walk in the room. You go to the gym because you're expected to be at the top of your game—they don't care about your process. You're like a fireman in L.A.—things get really interesting really fast. You sit around for months at a time and then all of a sudden you're working all the time, so going to the gym is part of getting and staying ready."
At home, Mapa's mostly cardio-related workouts are blended with body resistance techniques to vary the diet. In New York for "Dogeaters," however, he found himself adapting oddly to the wet Gotham wintertime, decreasing his workouts yet losing weight from performing eight times week. "I've been doing a lot of things in New York that I never do in L.A., like eating bread, eating after five, and eating," he says. "And I've lost four pounds!"
To prepare for "Dogeaters," Mapa reconnected with his stage roots, first acquired as an NYU drama major, then refined on a yearlong "M. Butterfly" tour that introduced him to audiences around the country. "You learn about energy—about plotting. For an eight o'clock show, I have to nap between six and seven or I'm a wreck—and to eat several hours in advance." To combat the dark New York weather, Mapa pops Echinacea and vitamin C.
For Nina Hellman, actress (she is a founding member of the Hourglass Group) and singer (her band "Cake Like" has three albums on Vapor Records), a sense of fitness and health is connected to state of mind. "If I'm feeling calm and good about myself, I feel fit. But that is connected to my body." Hellman will go to great lengths to stay fit, drawing on inner resources of self-discipline, and she believes it is crucial to do so.
But that doesn't mean Hellman obsessively runs to the gym, yoga class, or watches every morsel of food she eats day in and day out. The realities of working as an actor and touring with her band make perfectionism impossible. Instead, she focuses on the components she can control, choosing to fight her battles carefully.
When asked what one factor in staying healthy she considers key, Hellman answers, "Getting enough sleep. Honestly." In December, she shot a TV movie for Fox, "The Mary Kay Letourneau Story," in which she played the title role. "It was insane. We shot for 12 days, and every day was 16 hours long. I'm in almost every scene, so I had no downtime. There was no time to run to a yoga class or anything like that. But I did sleep, and that saved me, because if I didn't do that, I would have been a mess. There were nights I was in bed at eight o'clock, because I had to be up by five. You have to be self-disciplined. You have to make yourself do what you need to do."
Another fitness trick from Hellman: "Stay away from craft services! Because then you'll crash." Hellman describes her eating habits as healthy, and she has cut way down on caffeine, eliminating coffee and black tea. "I'm down to just green tea. I do like caffeine; I like a cup in the morning and another in the afternoon. I don't know about giving that up. And I will go out and have a drink. Sometimes I think that's not the best, but I do it."
Touring with the band presents unique challenges, calling for unique strategies. On her last U.S. tour with "Cake Like," the three-woman group drove from city to city in a van, played late at night, and often shared a hotel room. Getting enough sleep was practically impossible. As if that weren't challenging enough, "You're eating at Denny's every day." Again, by focusing on one thing and being tremendously self-disciplined in applying it, Hellman came up with a stay-fit solution. She made audiotapes of her exercise videos, "Half-hour tapes. I brought a tape recorder, and I'd get up half an hour before the others, plug it in in the dark, and do my little tape on the floor by the bathroom. I didn't want to get up and do that, but I'd just keep telling myself how I'd feel better when I was done. You are sitting all day long in a van. You've got to do something."
By staying flexible about her options and disciplined about the choices she makes, Hellman finds a way to make her changing situations work for her, a strategy that fits the life of a working performer in any medium.
Kris Gebhardt—Thought Precedes Action
At the finale of "Blast!," the Broadway marching band and spectacle show currently blowing them away at the Broadway Theatre, 60 over-achievers from the world of outdoor pageantry take a beaming bow. It's well deserved following a performance freely intermingling balletic physical feats and musical prowess, and what's remarkable is how easy it all looks. Kris Gebhardt, a nationally recognized fitness consultant who serves as personal trainer to the group, knows better.
By his own admission, Gebhardt is an unlikely candidate to be the personal trainer for the cast of a Broadway show. Originally a lineman for Ball State University, he was sidelined by an injury at the age of 20, a life-changing event causing the six-foot Gebhardt to balloon up to 250 pounds.
Frustrated physically, Gebhardt poured himself into several different careers, working first with the Andover, Mich. sheriff's office on security detail, then with Tom Monaghan, the CEO of Domino's Pizza, on a "mock governor's detail," often pitting the older executive against the younger, less fit security guard. Something about Monaghan's obsession with fitness stuck in Gebhardt's mind and craw. What motivated Monaghan's mindset?
The question led Gebhardt to rescue his sagging body and self-image. At first, the physical work of getting fit seemed easy. "I had a good experience with training—a coach took me under his wing at the age of 14—so I had a good understanding of weight training." But what Gebhardt lacked—yet quickly discovered—was an understanding of the mental and emotional outlook of someone pursuing physical health.
After a stint selling exercise equipment—and playing pro bono personal trainer for friends—Gebhardt's first book, "Why Wait?," began to explore that mindset. Another book, "Body Mastery," chronicled five clients choosing the road to fitness.
Gebhardt describes his dogma as "a belief system, a line between the subconscious and conscious…it's the idea that thought precedes action—always." Unlike many personal trainers, Gebhardt feels his long-term presence in a client's training is less important than endowing the client with the tools to self-train and self-motivate.
Which is, in fact, precisely the strategy Gebhardt uses to keep the "Blast!" cast in fine fettle. "They understand that I'm a specialist in getting someone to perform, that you don't need symposiums or diet pills or anything. What I figured out is not so much understanding the deep theory of anatomy, but how to do peak performance—how to get yourself to do it consistently."
Yet Gebhardt probably wouldn't even know the "Blast!" cast if he hadn't worked with rocker John Mellencamp, who suffered a heart attack in his late 40s and now, thanks to Gebhardt's motivational techniques, is viewed as having recovered almost completely from the event. Through Mellencamp, Gebhardt met Bill Cook, an Indiana businessman "of a certain age," who also returned from near-total physical disrepair to become one of the producers of "Blast!"
"When Bill saw how Mellencamp improved, he let me know about 'Blast!' going on tour for six months—meaning six months of injuries. I came on board to help them stay fit, especially when traveling, whether it's food, hydration, whatever. I put them in a training facility to teach them how to maintain themselves. The point is, no matter how exhausted they are, they can stay fit and healthy—in their body and in their minds."
Judy Ann Olsen—Safety in Numbers
It is well known that stress is bad for practically every health condition. That is a major reason that Judy Ann Olsen—cabaret singer, actress, composer, and lead singer of the rock group "The Trancesenders"—has made breathing-based meditation a central part of her health regimen. But there are work-related reasons as well. "Proper breathing is basic to singing, so this sort of meditation has become a mainstay of my preparation for my work. But my main goal is to release the greatly increased amount of energy you acquire when you lessen stress."
Olsen founded a group, which chose the name The Nine Muses. Its members are all performers—actors, dancers, singers. "We do our breathing exercises together and encourage one another with our creative endeavors while working on the exercises. We all focus on getting rid of stress, tapping into our deeper energy and directing it towards our work. You can also apply that extra energy to other forms of exercise, which further adds to improving your physical well-being."
She points out, "A lot of people associate breathing exercises with yoga, and, of course, breathing is an important part of yoga. But yoga emphasizes positioning the body in definite ways and holding those positions. We emphasize the breathing itself—with the goal of building our powers of concentration. We do creative visualizations together."
Chanting is another activity members of the Nine Muses engage in as way to both lessen stress and to build energy that goes into artistic efforts. "It's not a religious kind of chanting," Olsen explans. "The repetition and vocalization in a group builds both a relaxed feeling and a group energy we have all found to be stronger than what emerges when we each do these exercises alone. The more familiar you become with hearing your own voice, the more confident and at ease you are about using it—whether as an actor or a singer. Initially, using your voice in a group setting is psychologically easier to do. And the group's emotional support provides a kind of strength that is very helpful in our respective work lives. So, while there is a spiritual element to the group feeling that builds during chanting, it's also grounded in our seriousness about our creative goals and our desire to apply the benefits of what we're doing to those goals."
Olsen does her breathing exercises right before she goes on stage and finds it helps her equally well for each of the areas she works in. The Trancesenders appear regularly in several popular clubs, among them Sidewalk and Gaslight. Olsen is both lead singer and composer of many of the group's songs. As a cabaret singer, she appeared at Danny's Skylight in "Not Just David." Her most recent acting role was as Ophelia in "Denmark: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of" at Walker Space.
"I can call back the feeling built up in the group and can concentrate much more clearly when I perform," she says. "So, while breathing and meditating are forms of relaxation and of reaching into yourself spiritually, these activities have strong health and fitness benefits."
Tim Sampson—Sports Medicine
"I do a lot of lifting in this play," says the hulking Tim Sampson of his role in the current Steppenwolf Theatre revival of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." His character, Chief Bromden, is seen at first as a catatonic mental patient, but he eventually overcomes his fears and escapes from the play's mental ward after destroying a massive electrical generator. Sampson follows his father (William Sampson) in the role, who played it in the Oscar-winning 1975 film version.
Sampson began in show business as a stuntman, which requires considerable physical agility. "I started doing stunts in 1975 and you have to be in really good shape for that," he explains. "I didn't have a set exercise routine. The job itself was exercise. There's a lot of tumbling, learning how to fall without hurting yourself. I started doing small parts in films—I'm from California—and the parts kept getting bigger until finally I concentrated on the acting rather than the stunts."
"I try to stay active," he says of his current physical state. "I love playing basketball and tennis. It's my game and I've loved basketball since I was a kid. I do a lot of martial arts. I practice Tae Kwan Do and Hitaki, which is a form of kickboxing, three times a week. I run and stretch a lot, and lift weights once in a while. But it's mostly through playing sports that I keep in shape."
Lynnie Godfrey—Trial and Error
From the time musical performer Lynne Godfrey was a small child, she recalls, exercise was part of her life. "My father was a drill sergeant and we'd start each morning doing exercises. Then I moved into taking ballet classes. When I began to work in the business and still lived in New York, I'd go to dance classes every other day. But when my husband and I moved out of the city 15 years ago, I realized I'd have to create my own regimen. I had no desire to go to a gym. Over the years, it [her regimen] has evolved incrementally, based on what felt right and experimentation, and it's all been very natural to me."
Today, Godfrey works out on a daily basis at home, engaging in what she calls "cross-training," consisting of yoga, treadmill, free weights, and aerobics. "I do a combination of these to work out certain muscle groups. But I do a different set of exercises each day to keep my body surprised and avoid boredom. Once you're bored, you'll stop. You've got to keep the workout challenging.
"On Monday, I'll usually do yoga, aerobics, and then some treadmill and free weights," she continues. "On Tuesday, I'll start with stretching, followed by aerobics—there are any number of video tapes out there that are good—or I might work on the stationary bike if I'm home." She stresses, "It's especially important to continue exercising when you're on the road, whether or not you have access to the machines. Although dance warm-ups are usually held at the rehearsal, I recommend warming up before you get there. My workout usually lasts on average between 45 and 50 minutes. But a 10-minute exercise regimen is fine if you're just starting out. A little soreness is good, but pain isn't."
Godfrey would certainly be in a position to know. Consider her resume. She is the recipient of NAACP and Dramalogue Awards, and received Drama Desk and Audelco Award nominations for her Broadway debut in "Eubie." On film, she can be seen as Kathleen Turner's best buddy in "V.I. Warshawski." Among her TV credits: "L.A. Law," "Amen," "227," Oprah Winfrey's "Brewster Place," and "Frank's Place." And in the near future, she can be seen at the Danny Kaye Playhouse, May 18-20, as Pulchitruda, the stepmother, in the New York State Theatre Institute's original musical, "A Tale of Cinderella."
Godfrey also eats well, although she didn't always. "When I was growing up, a meal wasn't a meal without roast beef and macaroni and cheese, or fried chicken and potato salad. And I was addicted to Oreo cookies. I realized I had to change my diet when I started dancing. You cannot dance with roast beef in your stomach."
Again, she insists that diets (like exercise regimens) are highly individual and evolve through trial and error. Once Godfrey decided to change her eating habits, she discovered she preferred "bland, plain food—like steamed vegetables and rice. No sauces or salt." She also admits she is blessed in having a fast metabolism. Weight has never been her problem.
Although she will occasionally indulge in spare-ribs and potato salad, for the most part she adheres to her regimen. "I don't smoke or drink caffeine or alcohol. Never have. For breakfast, I usually have herbal tea, whole-wheat toast—yes, I do use a little butter—and I may have an omelet with American cheese. I fry the omelet with olive oil, not butter. If I don't eat an omelet, I'll have some fresh fruit, like pineapple and melon. Pineapple is very good for the vocal chords.
"At lunch," Godfrey continues, "I'll have an omelet if I didn't have one for breakfast or the fruit if I had the omelet for breakfast. At dinner, I'll prepare baked chicken or baked fish or tofu. No red meat. When I'm rehearsing [or performing], I'll eat more fruit and drink more herbal tea during the day. Lunch will be light—fresh fruit and yogurt. And if I'm performing at night, I'll eat my big meal at two in the afternoon. After the show, I'll have something light—soup and/or some rice, white or brown. I'll never have a big meal after 10 pm."
Godfrey urges an open mind in creating a health regimen: "You can try what someone else suggests. But that doesn't mean you have to stick to it."
Matthew D. McCallum—When in Doubt, Improvise
Having enjoyed sports all through high school, especially long distance and cross-country running, incorporating exercise into his life was a natural thing for Matthew D. McCallum to do. "In school, it was just for fun, but I found later that long distance running can be a good way to open up your brain, so to speak," he says. "I think a lot of things out while running, both personal matters and acting-related problems and situations. A lot of things become clearer for me."
While he was appearing in "Grease" at the Media Theatre in Philadelphia, the company wanted him to work out often and paid for him to join a gym. "That's when I began to seriously work out with weights at least three or four times a week," McCallum explains. "I did that all through rehearsals and throughout the show's run. I'd work on a different area every day—arms, chest, abdomen, back, and shoulders. No matter which area I focused on, while working with weights on any given day I always ran, both for the cardiovascular benefits and as a workout for my legs.
After he returned to New York, he was determined to keep up that level of consistency in working out. But, as happens to so many of us, a busy schedule can make that difficult. "Sometimes I find that going to auditions, rehearsals, and working all create time constraints," he finds. But, if he can't get to the gym as often as he'd like to in a given week, there's always that old-time acting standby—improvisation.
"I try to come up with other ways to make sure I get close to getting as much exercise as I'd gotten in Philadelphia. I teach ballroom dancing, swing, and salsa classes. Those are a workout in themselves," he points out. "I walk up steps rather than take the elevator and I walk to wherever I have to go rather than take the bus or train. I improvise with heavy objects in my apartment and do bicep curls and other weight-related exercise movements with them. I know this sounds funny, but many times I'll even use the kitty litter bags I buy for my cat as weights."
McCallum often takes on catering-related jobs and makes a point of volunteering to do anything that will allow him to do as much heavy lifting as possible during the course of those jobs.
"All of these little improvisations, if you will, are for those times when I can't reach my goal of getting to the gym three times a week. But when I can maintain that gym schedule, or as close to it as I can get, I continue to do the intensive weightlifting I found so useful, and I always make time for the running I enjoy so much."
Nicole Golden—All Things in Moderation
There is a moment in "The Complete Lecher" (a play by Paul Singleton seen recently at The Kraine) when Nicole Golden, playing a pornographer's defense lawyer, must tear her blouse open during her closing argument, and continue the scene in her bra. Not surprisingly, her fitness goals center on "making sure that I feel comfortable about my body." In fact, her whole approach to health and fitness could be described as low-key realism, and it's working for her.
"Anything that makes you feel better about yourself and able to get up and do whatever you have to do on stage" is a win for Golden, who confesses that she "hates going to the gym. I hate getting on the treadmill. I had to sit myself down and ask myself what I really like, because I don't enjoy exercise for its own sake." Recalling her childhood enjoyment of gymnastics and diving (her dad was a coach) led her to yoga and Pilates. For Golden, the important question is, "What will I actually get up and do? I know that if I bought a gym membership, I'd never go. But I will walk for an hour in Central Park with my friend Tanya. Also, my friends keep me in stitches, and what is that? Nine calories per laugh?"
Golden is a realist about her eating habits as well. Regular exercise is tolerable because it means she can eat what she likes. "When I was a kid, I got instilled with really good eating habits. I love salad. I love fruit. I eat a lot of very healthy stuff. But if I want a steak, I want a steak! I don't want to censor what I eat. It takes a lot of energy, rehearsing and performing a show. I always lose a little weight during a run, so I need the fuel."
Any unhealthy habits she's unwilling to break? "I love beer." For Golden, a sane and balanced approach to eating, exercising, work, and laughter means she doesn't have to give up good times, and she doesn't feel deprived.