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Role Playing: Dan Waller wields a personal brush as uneasy genius of ‘Pitmen Painters’

Submitted by on Nov 26, 2011 – 5:20 pm

Interview: Iowa native says he shares the values of community and loyalty at stake in Lee Hall’s play about North England miners. “The Pitmen Painters” extended at TimeLine Theatre through Dec. 18

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Actor Dan Waller describes himself as a simple guy who values friendship and the respect of his peers. That makes him a close kin to the North England coal miner, revealed as gifted artist, he portrays in Lee Hall’s play “The Pitmen Painters” at TimeLine Theatre.

But Waller, whose understated eloquence in the role remains one of the most appealing performances of the season’s first half, adds with a laugh that the similarity ends there.

“Me, paint?” he repeats the question back. “I’m a pretty good doodler, but I’m definitely not a natural. Actually, this role is quite a change for me. I usually play serial killers or raging alcoholics.”

Hall’s play concerns the phenomenon of a group of miners whose artistic gifts sprang to international attention quite by chance in the 1930s. Some 30 miners, who came to be known as the Ashington Group, took an art appreciation course under an educational program that provided low-cost study of any subject not intended as job training. To help them understand the meaning of art, instructor Robert Lyon decided to have the men try their own hand at painting. “The Pitmen Painters” shows how that leap came about, where it landed the miners and the profound personal issues that resulted.

Waller plays the most gifted of the lot, a miner named Oliver Kilbourn, whose stunning work leads him to a moral crisis. A wealthy art collector offers Kilbourn a sizable stipend to leave the mines for an artist’s life. That development is playwright Hall’s fiction, but it serves to engage an essential point about a community’s sense of tradition, unity and loyalty.

“I don’t know that the character (Kilbourn) views himself ever as an artist,” says Waller. “Who is an artist? Who makes art? That’s the crux of the play: I’m a pitman, not an ‘artist.’ I see things down in the mine, shades of black and gray and the occasional brown. I don’t think of my world as sunny days or lilies in the field. In the world of decay, you find beauty in the little things. What I value is this job of a pitman. And it’s such an insular world.”

But genius can be the tail that wags the dog, and Kilbourn’s untrained talent threatens to reshape his life. At the same time, he is the product of his place. The only life he has known and prospects for artistic fame are suddenly at war within him.

“The idea of separation is very troubling to Kilbourn,” says Waller. “At its core is the need to be loved, to belong. Jimmy (another pitman painter) says, ‘No one here is an artist. We’re all equals.’ For Kilbourn to become something he’s not is terrifying.”

Yet this one pitman’s emergence as the most gifted doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process of discovery, in part the outcome of a continuing process of mutual criticism among the painters in Lyon’s class. Some of the play’s funniest stuff occurs in those shoot-from-the-hip assessments of each other’s work.

“They don’t pull any punches,” says Waller. “They say everything they mean, nothing is sugar-coated. That’s kind of how I am. I like things cut and dried. That’s characteristic of this town and the Midwest. We’re up front, we tell you the truth.”

A native Iowan, Waller arrived in Chicago in 2000 after theater studies at the University of Kansas, Washington State University and the Los Angeles Academy of Dramatic Arts. Like the pitman he plays, he’s reluctant to call himself an artist.

“Actors create to a degree, but we need the writer, the director and an audience before this piece of art exists,” he said. “I’d love to have the talent to draw or paint or play the guitar. I did play a rock star once, but I didn’t have to sing.

“With ‘Pitmen Painters’ it’s really a learning experience that’s pivotal for this man who has a deep desire to continue to paint. He keeps asking his the other miners what they think of his work. He needs to know. He needs positive reinforcement. We don’t pursue things if we don’t think we have a knack for it.”

While playing the role of Kilbourn hasn’t exactly turned a doodler into Picasso, says Waller, it has caused him to look at art differently.

“I’m just more aware visually,” he said. “I see things now – light, shade, lines. When I look at the el tracks, for example, the uniformity of the rails and the places where the light shines through. It’s an urban beauty that resonates a little stronger.”

And this plain-spoken actor adds that ‘The Pitmen Painters’ has only confirmed his belief that art on the stage is a community enterprise.

“This cast is like the miners. There’s a level of trust with everyone, an open and honest relationship that makes coming to work enjoyable. You know they have your back. Without that, you don’t  have much.”

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Photos and credits: Home page and top: Actor Dan Waller. Right, Oliver Kilbourn, played by Dan Waller, weighs his unexpected options in “The Pitmen Painters.” (Photos by Lara Goetsch) 

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