OGDEN, Utah (AP) — At its heart, the musical "Footloose" is a fish-out-of-water tale about Ren McCormack, a city kid who suddenly finds himself in a small town, struggling to fit in.
Ogden resident Shane Larson knows how Ren feels.
The disabled veteran, who plays Coach Dunbar in the current Ziegfeld Theater production of "Footloose," is definitely outside his comfort zone on this one. For starters, it's the first time he's ever done any acting. What's more, the very idea of standing in front of an audience — for a man who lists social anxiety among his debilitating issues — fills Larson with such dread that it usually requires prescribed medications to get him through a performance.
"How I deal with social anxiety is, I put on a face," he says, showing a forced smile, "and then take some meds."
Larson had made a career for himself in the U.S. Army, most recently serving as an executive administrative assistant to the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, Belgium. But in 2013 he was medically retired by the military, due to a host of problems including spinal surgery, irritable bowel syndrome, anger issues and severe anxiety.
When he left the military, Larson says he was not at a good place in his life. He unsuccessfully fought his retirement and, in the aftermath, depression set in.
"If not for my parents still being alive, I would have suck-started a pistol already," he said. "But I promised myself, as long as my parents are alive, I'd never do that."
Larson says he's seen psychiatrists on and off over the years, but he doesn't much care for them.
"They have a tendency nowadays to try to fix you, but I don't like to see myself as broke," Larson said. "I earned my problems, and I embrace them — although there are things about myself I'd like to fix."
One of those things Larson wanted to fix was his tendency to stay at home and close himself off from the rest of the world.
"My psychologist — and my parents and friends — said I needed to get out more," he said. "Because mostly, I just want to be left the (expletive) alone."
A friend's daughter was in a recent production at The Ziegfeld Theater, and Larson was talked into auditioning for the community theater's current show, "Footloose." The 1998 musical is based on the 1984 film of the same name, starring Kevin Bacon.
"All I wanted was the role of the cop," Larson said. "You pull Ren over, you have a couple of lines, and that's it. That's what I intended and expected."
But the show's director, Dee Tua'one, had other plans. He cast Larson in the role of Coach Dunbar, which the director describes as a character who is "very stern," and set in his ways.
Tua'one, who is making his directorial debut, said he didn't know much about Larson. However, there was no denying that the man had "such a natural presence, especially for the character of the coach."
Although Larson has no previous theater experience, Tua'one thinks he's very instinctual with the character. And the director believes, given time, his actor could expand into other roles.
"If he gets more experience — and he's just now learning new things about himself, which is very much something he's been going through with this process — I think he can do all sorts of roles," Tua'one said.
Larson says he's just grateful Tua'one took a chance on an unknown commodity.
"Me and him have a lot of differences culturally, but he's a great guy who's given me the benefit of the doubt," Larson said.
Larson didn't think there was a place for "cisgendered white, middle-aged men" in the theater. But it turns out, he says, that the art form is accepting of all — and especially for those, like him, who don't seem to fit in with the rest of society.
"The theater is for misfits, and LGBT, and people like me," he said. "If you're not welcome anywhere else, you may be welcome in theater."
Larson has made a couple of friends among cast members, which is no small feat for him, he says. One of them, Carol Madsen, plays Vi Moore, the wife of the preacher.
Madsen, who's been doing community theater since the mid-1980s, says Larson is doing "really well" for his first show. She initially refused to believe "Footloose" was his acting debut.
"I said, 'He's good. Where did you find him?'" Madsen recalls. "And they said, 'It's his first time.' And I said, 'No, not really.'"
Madsen says the more she got to know Larson, the more surprised she was to learn about the extent of his physical and mental health issues.
"He's just been such a willing soul, and the cast really loves him," she said.
Madsen says the best thing about theater is the empathy it instills in both the performers and the audience. She says it opens hearts and minds to other points of view.
Larson says he'll take a little break after this project concludes, admitting that the rehearsal and performance schedule has been pretty hard on him both mentally and physically. However, he could see himself back on stage in the future, and he says the experience has had its benefits.
"If my mind is engaged, I think less about the physical pain I'm in," he said.
Larson said he believes that's a benefit other military veterans could tap into — getting them out of their own thoughts, engaging their brains and interacting with people. Socialization, he says, is important for disabled veterans, and not everyone has the tools to deal with the pain and depression.
"I'm hoping in doing some of these projects, although they're physically challenging, it will give me more emotional tools," Larson said.
Having gotten to know Larson in recent months, Tua'one says he believes theater is really helping Larson with his issues.
"I feel he has learned quite a bit about being able to let go, which I think theater is really helpful for," Tua'one said. "So many of us who do theater do it because there is a catharsis, a feeling that I can express these emotions in a forward trajectory, instead of holding me back."
Madsen says she's glad Larson "walked into that audition and gave us a try."
"It's been good for him, and it's been reciprocal — good for the rest of us as a cast," she said.
And if nothing else? Trying his hand at acting has accomplished what family, friends and therapists had been telling Larson all along.
"It's gotten me out of the house," he says.
Information from: Standard-Examiner, http://www.standard.net
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