On the basis of Sam Cordes' winning performance in the Unicorn Theatre's The Mineola Twins, it's not a stretch to wonder if we have an acting dynasty in our midst -- the Barrymores of midtown.
With a hot chocolate at a Westport coffeehouse last week, Sam took a break between his sophomore classes at Lincoln College Prep and that night's performance to talk about life as a second-generation thespian. It's a role that isn't as predetermined as observers might think.
"At my age, acting is a hobby of some sorts," Cordes said. He was wearing a shirt and tie with blue jeans and toting a typical teen's ubiquitous backpack. "Some kids go to basketball practice. I go to rehearsal. Kids at school don't get what I do for a living."
In addition to The Mineola Twins, in which he plays (through December 28) both a counterculture kid and one he calls "a closeted Republican," Sam was cast in this summer's 101 Dalmatians at the Coterie. Playing one of Cruella De Ville's Cockney henchmen with rubbery comedic flair, he took on a role that wasn't written for an adolescent. Together, the three roles clearly exhibit a talent that thumbs its nose at the word hobby.
Jeff Church, who directed him in 101 Dalmatians, says, "He's the lead this spring in our new play, Everyday Heroes, by Laurie Brooks. I never would have handed that to him if he wasn't truly superior. He's already proven that."
Lisa Cordes, a former actor who now works for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, recalls watching Sam a few years ago in a performance at Camp Shakespeare. "I knew he had native talents and, once he knew that, I knew he'd want to do it," she says. "He's had minimal training, [so] it must be something he's born with.
"I'm aware that the theater is very seductive," she adds. "But he's under no illusions about the difficulty and how hard a craft it is to practice. I did think, Who's going to take care of us in our old age? It's not a fait accompli -- college opens up a lot of choices. But Sam has a special gift, and I know it's frustrating for people not to use their gifts."
Sam's first acting assignment was at age five, playing the hobbled Tiny Tim in the Missouri Rep's A Christmas Carol, a role he performed for three years. Another Rep show, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, found him playing a brat Tennessee Williams tagged "a no-neck monster."
"There were lots of kids in Christmas Carol, so it was always so much fun," Sam says, recalling the lack of self-consciousness that made the job a breeze. "I don't think in a child's mind they realize there's people out there. They haven't developed a sense of embarrassment and don't have any limitations. What I did learn was how to focus on the scenes when I wasn't talking."
When he got a C in social studies, though, his parents eighty-sixed the acting. "My parents said after my academic decline, 'You can always do that later. Let's put it on hold.'"
But that restriction didn't last long. He's presently in two invitation-only master classes at the Coterie and mentions the sadness of going to an urban school without a drama program. But his involvement in forensics is not without its benefits. "I like it -- I win trophies. I hate to admit it, but I get to see a lot of bad acting, which only makes me better."
Additional acting tips have come from his father, Scott, who, if memory serves, has never given a bad performance. In fact, Sam begins at least four sentences with "My dad taught me ... ," including something many adult actors repeatedly fail to realize.
"Actors need to leave their sense of their lives. It's for the audience, not themselves," Sam says. "They need to judge what to take from their own life and what to take from others.
"You start with the basics," he continues. "My dad was always observing people in public. He'd pick one person and tell me everything about him -- that's the first stage of character development. He'd say, 'You're going to play this guy someday.' And if you don't care, the audience won't."
Though Sam contemplates other careers ("I have a great want to be a teacher," he says) and has interests that tilt toward rap and artists like Meat Loaf, he says he listens to a lot of show tunes. And he's giddy about his next job, playing a manipulative teenager caught in a tragic lie. Despite his parents' qualms, it seems to be in the blood.
"An actor is a storyteller, with the goal being to influence an audience," he says. "You make them think, hate you, love you, feel sympathy for you and feel fearful that what's happening to the character could happen to them.
"I think catharsis is the term," Sam adds. "I learned that word last week."