published Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Curtain Call: Improvisation no mystery for actor Jeff Buchwald

  • photo
    Jeff Buchwald has been acting at Vaudeville Cafe ince 2004. His favorite role, he said, is playing Ivan in "Mystery of Flight 138."
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Jeff Buchwald

Age: 56.

Hometown: Memphis.

Family: Wife, Carol; daughters, Erin Buchwald and Katy Tillman; son, Joey Tillman.

Job: Manufacturer.

If You Go

Where: Vaudeville Cafe, 138 Market St.

Phone: 517-1839.

Website: funnydinner.com.

Admission: $14-$26.50, includes dinner, dessert and beverages.

Jeff Buchwald isn't sure why one of his Sunday school students years ago thought he would make a good vampire, but he's happy it happened.

When the local community theater near his church in Texas had a vacancy in the lead part in "Dracula," Buchwald got the part. Buchwald never mentioned to the director that he had no training and had never performed onstage.

"I didn't mention it until the show ended," Buchwald said.

The experience opened a new world for him. Upon moving to Chattanooga, he sought out the Chattanooga Theatre Centre and the Signal Mountain Playhouse. He has performed in three productions at each location.

In 2004, his wife suggested he try out for one of the murder-mystery productions produced at Vaudeville Cafe on Market Street.

"She had been there and said it was wonderful," he said.

Buchwald said he was more accustomed to performing in dramas than in comedies and that he had never done any improvisation work, so he was interested in the challenge.

"I had always done stage plays where the script is sacred," he said. "You work every day getting your lines just right and your mannerisms just so. Though my strong suit, I guess, was characterization, I wanted to try improvisation."

Vaudeville Cafe is a dinner theater that stages several murder mysteries such as "Mystery at the TV Talk Show," "Mystery of Flight 138," "Mystery at the Nightmare Office Party" and "Mystery at the Redneck-Italian Wedding."

Buchwald said cast members rotate between shows and even nights of the week depending on their own availability. He tries to perform every other weekend, but hopes to eventually be able to do more.

"I love it," he said. "I will be doing this forever."

Buchwald does occasionally audition for film roles. In addition to doing a couple of training films for TVA, he was a featured extra in "My Dog Skip" and was an extra for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

He spent about eight days on the set and was actually chosen as one of the hobos on the train in the opening scene with George Clooney.

"The casting director was literally on the phone with her brother saying, 'If you can get here in a hurry, you can do it.' I got fired for the casting director's brother,'" he said.

Buchwald said he keeps a notebook with him at all times for writing down funny lines or observations that he can use at Vaudeville Cafe. It's not unusual for current events to make their way into the ever-changing dialogue.

"Four years ago, just the mention of Sarah Palin got big laughs," he said.

He said the improvisational experience doesn't translate for him to dramatic acting, "except that you learn how to predict what an audience will do. I have a really good sense of how an audience will react."

He's also learned to predict which audience members will be good participants in the nightly productions. For example, when it comes time to ask for volunteers, if a group immediately points to someone, Buchwald always chooses the most vocal pointer, not the pointee.

"Usually the group is trying to embarrass the person or bring him out of his shell or something."

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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