I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from one of the many actors who in 2001 left Orlando to seek their fortune in Los Angeles. He had just completed his first performance with an all-West Coast cast, and he wasn't at all happy with the experience.
"Every one of them steals the spotlight as much as possible," the transplanted thespian wrote. "It's all about narcissism out here. No one works together."
I could have rested my head on my desk and wept for the future of the El Lay theater community. But I didn't. Because I know that we're sending them Peter Hurtgen Jr.
In his six years in the Orlando area, Hurtgen has built up a reputation as a prolific writer/performer with an innate flair for comedy. Just as important, he has chosen to advance those abilities via a working philosophy that's suffused with geniality and team spirit. Merely speaking his name in front of past collaborators inspires them to roll their eyes -- not in exasperation, but in recollection of a monumentally pleasurable experience.
If all of this good-citizenship talk strikes you as better suited to Boys' Life than Orlando Weekly, know this: Hurtgen's all-for-one ethic is integral to his artistic output. His humor is biting, yet never cruel; earthy, but never off-putting; intelligent, but not snooty. It's the "inclusive" comedy we hear so much about, but bereft of the P.C. stuffiness that so often attaches itself, leechlike, to the term.
Hurtgen's welcoming wit is an element in "Everything Must Go," an original comedy/drama by playwright Tod Kimbro that begins a limited, two-week run this Friday, July 12, at iMPACTE! Productions. The show represents both a farewell to the black-box theater -- which is closing at the end of the month -- and a send-off for Hurtgen, who is beating a path to L.A. in a bid to take his writing and performing to the proverbial next level.
"I wasn't going to do another show before leaving," he says. "[But] my character is funny and easy. He's kind of peripheral to the main plot. We bring him on in dramatic moments for comic relief, which is what my parents used to do."
Behind that joke linger the traces of genuine childhood alienation.
"I had no friends," Hurtgen freely admits of his formative years, which began in Chicago and continued in Washington, D.C., and Miami. "I would think to myself and talk to myself and play with these little figures. I used accents to differentiate the voices coming out of the same mouth."
Early influences on the solitary, budding funnyman included Monty Python, George Carlin and Emo Phillips, who Hurtgen credits with stimulating his love of the absurd. After he graduated from high school, he experienced an epiphany: He was fed up with being a loner. Learning to interact successfully with his peers was a matter of self-imposed conditioning, he recalls. The effort paid off when he enrolled in the University of Florida. There, he contributed original plays to an underground radio station and appeared on a cable-access TV show. He also formed working friendships with the like-minded Brian Bradley and Audrey Kearns. When he "finished" UF ("as opposed to 'graduated,'" he clarifies), Hurtgen accepted Bradley and Kearns' invitation to follow them to Orlando.
"They would call it 'enticed' -- I would call it 'conned' -- me into moving here," he says.
You better work
In the ensuing six years, Hurtgen made the most of living in an area where "performers can actually get day jobs performing." He logged 565 on-stage appearances at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows, directed there 10 or 12 times and wrote both of the attraction's kids' shows. His involvement with children's theater culminated in this year's Orlando International Fringe Festival, where he acted in Spirit Daddy Productions' Step on a Crack and wrote the charming "How a Little Gal Named Sally Saved the World From Near Destruction (and Did It in Time For Supper)." On the adult side, he was a key contributor to the well-received ensemble piece Farrago.
Hurtgen has also been seen on the stage at Theatre Downtown and taught classes at Maitland's Zoë and Company and (recently) the Civic School of Theatre Arts. But it was his work with Bradley, Kearns and comedienne Anitra Pritchard in the sketch troupe Discount Comedy Outlet that truly allowed his creative potential to flourish. As a member of DCO (and its predecessor, Third Planet Players) he supplied crowd-killing gags and unforgettable portrayals of societal misfits to a series of theatrical revues, themed cruises and club gigs.
"We tried to make fun of Swiss people as much as we possibly could," is how Hurtgen characterizes DCO's thematic consistency. But the group's success also vindicated his long-held belief that any creative endeavor entails constant compromise. In addition to reconciling his comedic preferences with those of Bradley, Kearns and Pritchard, he had to interact with a succession of "guest stars" including Todd Schuck and Dan Johnson.
Bradley and Kearns took the benefits of that experience with them when they moved to L.A. last winter; once again, Hurtgen finds himself following in their footsteps. Having the three longtime partners back together in the land of sunshine and plastic surgery, though, won't entail an immediate resumption of familiar activity.
"Doing live sketch shows as DCO is not the main goal, but it may happen in a year or two," Hurtgen foresees. "Maybe we don't want to risk the name right away."
In the meantime, he'll be pursuing voice-overs, scriptwriting, class work, and live-performance roles -- all while counting on his supportive sensibility to make the right impression on astute casting directors.
"If I have equal talent and equal drive as another actor, [the decision] will come down to, 'Who is more personable? Who is easier to work with?'" he reasons.
Let me guess: It's the one with the Emo Phillips records, right?