Theatre of Western Springs Spotlight: Archie Benfield

<p>Archie Benfield  | Submitted</p>

Archie Benfield  | Submitted

Get to know the community of Western Springs with our Theatre of Western Springs Spotlight feature!

This week, we meet Archie Benfield of Downers Grove who joined TWS back in 1962.

Q. Why did you join TWS?

A. A fellow artist and I had been putting on little art programs for various small groups. My wife Vivian saw an article in the local paper about studio for actors at TWS, and we thought this program might help my stage presence. I called TWS and talked to Jane Burns (Stacy). There began a friendship that has lasted all these years. Jane and her husband Fred Burns became my mentors at TWS.  

Q. Go back in time. When did you discover you had an interest in theater and drama?

A. When I was about 10-12 years old, we lived on the outskirts of a small factory town in North Carolina called Lenoir. There was not much to do, so we had to make our own entertainment. My mother was outside in the yard, and I snuck into the house and put on a long coat and a hat that belonged to one of my older brothers. (I had six brothers and two sisters.) I came around the house and approached my mother as if I were coming from town. I tried to change my voice and with the hat pulled down over my face I said, “Mrs. Benfield, is Paul at home?” She (dear mom) said, “No, I don’t know where he is.” I said, “Thank you, M’am,” and walked away. I had fooled my own mother!

At that time, and for years to come, I had no particular interest in theatre. However to make up for a lack of almost everything material, (This was during the Great Depression.) I lived in my imagination. My Uncle Grover was a traveling house painter, and while he was gone he left his car in our yard. I think it was a Dodge. He had taken the key, but he left the car unlocked. On many rainy days I would sit in the driver’s seat and imagine I was Humphrey Bogart or some other movie star.

Many years later, after Viv and I were married, we belonged to Warren Park Church in Cicero. We sang in the choir, and Viv was a soloist. I was the class clown at rehearsals but very shy in other situations. Sometime before Christmas, I was asked by two fellow choir members to be a Wise Man in the Christmas pageant. I said no, but they persisted. There we were outside the church door and these two guys were pulling me into the church. I resisted, but they overpowered me, and I very reluctantly became a Wise Man. I had two lines which were to be spoken as we walked down the aisle toward the manger scene. I said the first line and forgot the second one, so I just repeated the first line over again. This was about 1956, and it was at this time a fellow artist and I put together the art program which morphed into joining TWS.

Q. At TWS, do you work on stage, behind the scenes or both? 

A. After studio, I became completely engaged with theatre. Mary Cattell got me involved in so many facets of TWS, that I became lost in a wonderful world I never knew existed. I worked building sets, painting and acting. Mary initiated the Activities Committee, and Viv and I and another couple were the first leaders of that group. Once a month, we put together programs for the Actives. 

At that time there were only about 100 Actives, so some actors were cast in more than one play per season. I was one of those who never turned down a role. During those early years I sometimes had three of four roles in a season. 

I have had many wonderful roles in the past 50 years. Some of my favorites are the coach in “That Championship Season,” the player in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” in which I had many wonderfully witty lines, and my all time favorite was Soloman, the old furniture dealer, in “The Price.” 

We took “The Price” to Ireland for the Dundalk International Theatre Festival where amateur theatre groups from all over the world competed. TWS won the first prize! I still have the handwritten critique by Iona MacAna, former director of the Abbey Players in Dublin. My greatest accolade as an actor was at the cast party when Aileen Coughlan, theatre critic of the Irish Times, chatted with me (sans make up and accent). She said she knew people like that Jewish fellow from New York, not realizing I was the actor who played him.

I was paint chair for seven years. I remember once that a set designer (who shall remain nameless) was not pleased with the way we painted the floor of her set, so we repainted it. Still she was unhappy. We repainted it a third time, and I said, “all the actors will appear taller from all that paint on the floor.” 

Q. What do you love about TWS? What is it about TWS that motivates you?

A. I love the camaraderie of TWS. I love to have an actor convince me that he or she believes in what they are doing so that I believe it. Now that I don’t act much anymore, I feel almost like an outsider. I love to design sets and occasionally someone will compliment me on my set design which is nice, but it can’t compare with the applause you get from being on stage. I guess it’s the need for approval from your peers that is the motivating factor for me in theatre.

Q. List three things you have given TWS: 

1. My heart

2. My talent

3. My love

Physical evidence of my graphic arts are all around TWS. Outside I installed the address in raised letters on the east wall; inside: the building capitol fund on the wall on the left side of the lobby. I designed and installed the 4’ x 8’ erase board with names of chairs. In the Cattell Wing, I was responsible for the portable box office and portrait of Mary, and many of the painted bricks in the dressing rooms.

Q. What has TWS has given you?

1. Many treasured friends

2. An outlet for whatever talents I have

3. A sense of belonging

4. An appreciation for theatre

5. Wonderful, wonderful memories

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