He braved the cold dressed as an elf. He faced hundreds of shoppers for a dreaded dose of Black Friday. But it’s Kerry McNally’s newest challenge that’s got him, well, pretty freaked out — but very excited nonetheless.
Six years ago, McNally (WCCO-TV features reporter), like a number of Minnesotans, saw a little play called “Triple Espresso.” He immediately fell in love with it. The kooky cast, the great clean, entertainment value of it all and especially the charm and lovable nature of one of the lead roles — a character named Bobby Bean.
“It was something that I could really relate to,” McNally said. “He was this wide-eyed optimist, just kind of a goofball, larger than life and a bit of a dreamer.”
About two months ago, McNally merged from the traffic reporting lane to become a features reporter for the WCCO morning show. Besides bringing daily doses of the lighter side of news, McNally wanted to immerse himself into the features he was reporting.
With a background that combines years of amateur theater and experience in stand-up comedy, McNally had the idea to try for the role of Bobby Bean for a few select performances, while documenting all that went into the new gig.
“Triple Espresso” agreed with the concept and set a few dates during the holiday season for McNally’s stage debut.
“Next thing you know, it’s on, it’s happening,” McNally said.
With less than a month to learn a new script, a few musical performances, plus the blocking, the humor of the character and the interactions with the other actors — on top of his day job — McNally knew he was embarking on one crazy odyssey.
Now, with a week left before his first performance, the nerves are starting to set in. Between his morning show duties, after-work rehearsals and at-home preparations, McNally sat down to chat with me about his new adventure and the expectations of being in a new, more direct, spotlight.
With your experience in acting and comedy, did this role seem like a natural fit?
McNally: Well the interesting thing is that I play a little guitar and he, the character, plays a little guitar. And his brand of comedy and the comic sensibilities are the same, as far as timing, and waiting for a laugh and when to pick up a cue and those kinds of things. The difference is you’re in an ensemble piece. You’re relying on each other and they, in turn, are relying on you — which, I think, is inherently much more responsibility than stand-up. Because in stand-up, if you write something and you want to add it to your show on Friday but you forgot — you might not even know you forgot. It doesn’t really matter, the audience doesn’t have a transcript. But if you go, we call it, going up on your lines, if you do that, you might just get a blank stare because they’re waiting for you to say something. So that creates an immense amount of pressure.
How have things been going so far, in terms of rehearsals, etc.?
McNally: Grueling. Flat out, absolutely grueling. I’m still working full time and often times I’m working 10 to 12 hour days and then I have to go to rehearsal. And rehearsal is shortened, it’s abbreviated. But then I feel obligated to go work at home. So I have a DVD of the show, I have the script and I have the music. So I’m almost non-stop while I’m awake.
Beyond the scripts and memorizing that takes place behind the scenes, there’s an element of the unexpected, right? Since this is a relatively interactive show?
McNally: Unlike 99 percent of theater, it breaks the fourth wall and involves the audience. Right from the beginning, Hugh (Butternut), who is the lounge singer at Triple Espresso, which is a fictional coffee house, he immediately starts recognizing people in the audience and spotlights are already cued to hit them. You know, ‘Meet my mom and dad, everyone’ and it’s just a couple in the audience that they have pre-chosen and selected. Which that, I think, to a greater extent that is what has made this show so popular and also, that people feel interested enough to come and see this show a second or third time, because there is that interactivity.
The piano player takes requests and they’re different every night, based on what’s shouted out from the crowd and that’s pretty cool. And then one of the big pieces that I have to do, I do pull someone out of the crowd. And therein lies, also, a little bit of the inherent fear, that that might not go well. Because the stage manager explained to me that often times it just doesn’t go the way you think it is.
How do you prepare for that?
McNally: They’ve actually thrown me a lot of curveballs. In the middle of rehearsals, where I can’t stop (you get to a point where you’re not allowed to stop), they’ll just do something very strange and you just kind of have to roll with it. But that’s also what’s kind of thrilling about it, too. I’d like to think that by next week, I’d be prepared enough if something does not necessarily go wrong but in the context of what I’ve been working on, I’ll be able to roll with it. And I’ve been going to a lot of shows, too, so I’ve been able to see a nice variety of different things that can happen. Plus, I will be on stage with people that have done the show almost 1,000 times.
That’s a little more comforting.
McNally: It’s reassuring to me, because oftentimes if you go up and you forget a line, it’s rare that it’s so paramount to the story — to drive the story forward. So then the other actors will basically just fast forward and that will usually clue in the actor who’s lost it for a second as to where they are. … So that gives me a lot of confidence. I’m working a lot with the guy that’s doing it now and I’ve worked with the guy who originated the role, so that’s been really cool. And it’s also been neat to see the two completely different performances.
So beyond rehearsing for the role, you’re also putting together behind-the-scenes packages for the morning show. How’s that side of this process been going?
McNally: I’m trying to be really honest about it. I’ve been honest with my colleagues, I’ve been honest with my bosses, it’s been very … it’s been exhausting. (Laughs) It’s just a lot. It’s not so much emotional, but it’s intellectual effort that you have to put into it.
What’s one thing you’d say as a final pitch to get people to come check out your performances?
McNally: I’d say people go to NASCAR for two reasons. They want to root for their favorite driver … and we all know what the other reason is. Not that they want to see anyone get hurt but it is pretty exciting when someone puts one in the wall. I think (David) Letterman said that once. I mean, it’s kind of a high wire act. I ran into some people at the theater the other night that were just interested in the show because they’d seen some of the reports and that’s pretty cool. If for any reason you enjoy what I do on the morning show, I think you’ll really see a completely different side of me but it’ll be just as much fun, if not more.
Kerry McNally will perform at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 15. For tickets, click here. “Triple Espresso” runs until Jan. 9, 2011 at the Music Box Theatre.
Sara Boyd is a web producer and columnist at WCCO.COM.
Watch WCCO-TV’s Kerry McNally In Rehearsal