Reporter’s note: This is the third profile in a LebTown exclusive series on people involved in art and the arts in Lebanon County. As the veil of COVID-19 continues to lift, we are pleased to draw attention to this important segment of our local culture.
Since his debut on the local community theater scene in 1979, Larry Sheaf has become a fixture on stages in Lebanon, Gretna, and Hershey. A prolific actor who has taken a variety of roles, he also has directed 86 productions.
His professionalism and impact on local theater are the stuff of legends.
If you are a patron of the local arts, it is unlikely that you missed the Larry Sheaf touch along the way.
He’s at it again
Sheaf and fellow veteran director/performer Kevin Biddle are in rehearsal for the next production at the Lebanon Community Theater, a comedy titled Greater Tuna that takes place in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas.
Sheaf and Biddle make up the entire cast, playing more than 20 eccentric characters of various ages and genders. There also is no director for the production; the two principals direct themselves.
LebTown talked with Sheaf and Biddle briefly about the play.
“It goes way back,” Biddle said. “I saw this play performed in 1980, and knew I had to do it here someday. It was just a matter of finding the right cast member to work with me. Larry is the perfect choice. We are having a great time with this play and expect it to rub off on the audience.”
Sheaf had worked with Biddle in The Odd Couple years ago. The chemistry between the two actors was apparent during the production.
Who is the director?
“It is both of us,” said Sheaf. “We are both experienced and have such mutual respect. We listen to each other’s advice. This is unique and special.”
Greater Tuna runs at the Lebanon Community Theater from July 22 through 25. For details and ticket orders, call the Lebanon Community Theatre, East Maple Street and Theatre Drive, at 717-833-4528.
Raise the curtain on a passion for theater
Every story has a beginning.
Sheaf’s realization that “theater is my calling” began at an early age. He remembered, “We were given speeches to learn for Christmas Eve and Children’s Day services at our church. This was my first experience speaking in public. My heart used to beat so hard. I was sure the people could not hear my recitations.”
He continued, “At Cleona Elementary School, the school’s Christmas program for parents consisted of a play performed by sixth graders. In 1955, when I was in first grade, the play was set in an orphanage. First graders played the orphans. I was the only one with speaking lines. I got the part when my teacher, Miss June Sprecher, sent the script home with me to learn the lines. I got stage struck back then.”
It was in high school (Annville-Cleona, class of 1967) that Sheaf found his theater mentor, Miss Joan McCullough.
“She directed me in three tri-class plays (10th through 12th grades) and the senior class play,” Sheaf said. “She taught me things about directing that I still use today.”
Forced hiatus from theater
Responsibilities following high school graduation kept Sheaf away from theater for eight years but did not deter his mission.
“I worked for two years, spent two years in business school, then spent four years in the Navy, before enrolling at Shippensburg State (now University),” he said. “I auditioned for the musical 1776 and was cast as John Dickenson. This was one of six productions I appeared in during my four years there.
“In my junior year, I won the theater’s Russel Able Award and was chosen as Best Actor when I was a senior,” Sheaf said. “I was back!”
The Larry Sheaf Lebanon Valley Theater years
Following college graduation in 1979, Sheaf’s love of theater manifested itself in earnest. As the Three-Mile Island crisis dominated the news, Sheaf was cast in Charlie’s Aunt at the Lebanon Community Theater. He has continued with directing and acting in many productions to this day.
His favorite acting roles include The Boys Next Door, Of Mice and Men, Dracula, Moon Over Buffalo, and Kiss Me, Kate. As a director, he lists The Curious Savage at Hershey Playhouse, and 12 Angry Jurors in 2020 for Lebanon Community Theater.
He added, “For many years, I volunteered as a ‘gopher’ for the Gretna Theatre – running errands, picking up New York actors at train and bus stations, and helping backstage in any capacity as needed. This paid off in the end. During the summers of 2010 through 2017, I was cast in principal, supporting and featured roles onstage at the Gretna Theatre. Those were exciting and rewarding years for me.”
Sheaf’s years of dedication and accomplishment at Gretna were rewarded in 2016. The board of directors honored him with the Charles F. Coghland Award at their annual gala, in recognition of his years of volunteer service.
“I was very honored to have received that award,” he said.
Sucker-punched by the pandemic
He remembered vividly, “We were in the middle of the first week of performances of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Lebanon Community Theatre when the quarantine began. I really missed the cast and crew as we had a great time rehearsing and performing. At the time, the cast was asked by our director, Rick Graybill, if we would be able to come back to finish the performances.
“I am looking forward to doing that later this year. Watch for the announcement.”
During the hiatus, Sheaf has been spending time watching TV shows and doing crossword puzzles.
“I was exercising regularly, but that stopped,” he said. “I have the packed-on pounds to show for it.”
Milestones along the way
As a teenager, Sheaf was a serious ice skater. He took lessons with the Hershey Figure Skating Club.
“My goal, at the time, was to become a professional skater, but theater took over and my skating years stopped,” he remembered. “But I believe my stage presence began in those years while I was performing in the club’s annual ice show.”
In 1968, Sheaf successfully auditioned for the Ice Follies, but could not fulfill the commitment to join the show.
“I do remember the excitement of skating on the same ice as the headliner, Olympic Gold medalist Peggy Fleming. It was a memorable audition,” he said.
“I also remember going to New York to see theatre – many times since 1970. Peter Wolf, a Lebanon friend, has worked as a New York production stage manager. He helped me go backstage to meet performers and talk to them.
“One was Daniel Radcliffe, a small man who was a giant on stage,” Sheaf said. “It was a thrilling experience to stand on (the) stage of a theatre of a show I had just seen.”
Advice from an experienced director and actor
“When I direct, it is my job to make the cast look as good as possible at all times. I am a stickler for detail and stage presence. I strive to make rehearsals and performances as enjoyable for my casts as it is for me,” Sheaf said.
“As an actor, I must set an example for my fellow castmates by being a good actor who listens to the director,” Sheaf said. “It is also important to keep things in order backstage and focus on the professional aspect of the production. Even though we are volunteers serving the production, a professional attitude is important in all aspects of what we do.”
It is difficult to measure the impact of theatre and the arts in our local culture and our lives personally, but it is safe to say that there would be a void without it. We learned that during the pandemic.
Local theatre audiences continue to be thankful that people like Larry Sheaf have committed to keep going and going.
See you at the theatre!