His Great, Big, Wonderful Life
By Joan Tupponce
Maybe it’s the playful glint in his eye that draws people in. Or perhaps it’s his easy smile or his quick wit. Whatever it is, actor Scott Wichmann has a special quality that sets him apart from the crowd. “He is blessed with a uniqueness,” says Virginia Rep’s artistic director Bruce Miller. “There is not a second Scott out there. No one is ever going to mistake him for someone else. He is instantly recognizable. He’s a terrific asset in any production.”
Scott last wowed audiences with his hilarious portrayal of the dastardly pirate Black Stache in Virginia Rep’s Peter and the Starcatcher. This month, he is recreating his role in This Wonderful Life at Hanover Tavern. The show, which he performed at Barksdale (now Virginia Rep) in 2008, is a one-man stage adaptation of the beloved holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The 42-year-old Massachusetts native began acting at an early age. “The very first time I remember him performing was when he was about three or four,” says his mom, Bonnie Wichmann. “He was in preschool. He did the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, complete with sound effects. He acted it all out by himself.”
Never shy in front of a crowd, Scott says Jack and the Beanstalk had an extended run. “Every relative heard it,” he says with a smile and a sly chuckle.
When he was six, the family moved from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Vermont and later, Pennsylvania. “We moved around a lot and I had to learn to make friends fast,” Scott says. “I was an extroverted kid. I was very outgoing and social…the classic class clown, and that worked better with some teachers than it did with others. I started bringing characters in from television and trying them out along with jokes and impressions. I was staging elaborate plays at recess.”
When he was a little tyke, his mom remembers watching him fly around the house in his superhero garb – a towel pinned around his neck. “He would be Superman or Spider-Man,” she says. “One day he jumped off the top of the bunk bed and broke his foot. I still have the cast.”
Scott tried on different characters like most people try on hats. His friends would always indulge his artistic creativity and his vivid storytelling. He once did a production of Batman and Robin during recess. “I asked a friend, Teddy, to play Batman because I liked being the age-appropriate sidekick,” he says. “I can still remember the kids’ names and the way we were on the playground. That doesn’t go away.”
He realized that acting was his calling when he appeared in a fifth-grade production of Alice in Wonderland and played the Cheshire Cat, complete with a cane, straw hat and a pink sweat suit his mom plumped up with cotton. “I got up to sing this song and it was different. You could feel people sit up. I just let it all go. Something inside me said ‘That’s it,’” he says, adding, “I don’t know that I ever thought of myself as anything else. No one in my family said ‘Knock it off!’ My whole family down the line has been firmly in my corner. Not everybody has that.”
Scott got his first big acting break when he was cast as Nick at age thirteen in A Thousand Clowns at the Scranton Public Theatre in Pennsylvania. (Interestingly, he performed the role of Nick’s dad, Murray, in the same play at Hanover Tavern in 2011.) “I was the only kid in the cast of adults,” he says of playing Nick. He noted that the show was directed by Jason Miller, who starred as Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist and wrote “That Championship Season,” which went on to win the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for drama. “They were encouraging. I went from having basketball aspirations to the theater truly opening up to me as a possibility.” Definitely a wise decision, considering this giant on the stage is all of five feet, five inches!
His mom made sure Scott made it to rehearsals every night and watched in awe. “I saw what he did,” she says. “His whole face lit up when he was up on stage. He turned on. I thought, ‘Okay, he does it so well. He’s a natural.’”
The family moved back to Pittsfield the following year and Scott participated in a 4-year drama program at Pittsfield High where he was involved in every type of show, from Shakespeare to Man of La Mancha.
His mom admits she didn’t know he could sing as well as he did until she saw him sing something from The Phantom of the Opera in a show in ninth grade. “My sister and brother looked at me and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us he could sing like that,” she recalls. “I said ‘I didn’t know!’”
In Man of La Mancha, his senior play, he performed with fellow schoolmate, actress Elizabeth Banks of Hunger Games fame, who also recently appeared in and directed Pitch Perfect 2.
Scott decided to focus on musical theater when he attended Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. “I was the character guy. I got to play all the fun character roles,” he says. “And I made lifelong friends.”
After graduating in 1995, he worked as a toy demonstrator in the Star Wars section at FAO Schwartz in New York. “I played laser play all day. I know the movie like the back of my hand,” he says, adding that he has already purchased his tickets to the new Star Wars movie opening this month.
Two years later, he starred in the one-man show Enchanted Laboratory at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg and appeared in 2,212 performances over the course of two years. “I had seen that show for three summers as a kid when I came to Virginia Beach on vacation,” he says. “That show is what brought me to Virginia. I wasn’t thinking seventeen years later I would put down roots here.”
His stage work at Busch Gardens, coupled with his work in The Lost Colony in Manteo, North Carolina, eventually led him to Theatre IV in Richmond. Since 1999 he has appeared in a variety of shows for Virginia Rep and Theatre IV including Wizard of Oz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Say Goodnight Gracie, The Producers, Olympus on My Mind, and Peter and the Starcatcher. He has also appeared in productions in Kentucky, California, and Washington, D.C., as well as the television series, Turn, and the films Lincoln and Shooting the Prodigal, which is currently in post-production.
Bruce Miller recognized Scott’s talent when he saw him perform in Theatre IV’s production, Arthur Ashe Champion of Honor. “He took on a variety of roles which is something that plays to his strengths,” Miller says. “He was fantastic in each of those roles. I have been doing everything I can to encourage his career and increase the opportunities he has to work at Theatre IV and Virginia Rep.”
Back in 2000, Miller asked Scott if there were any shows he would be interested in doing, and Scott replied, 1776. “I have been saying that for years,” Scott says. “It’s my favorite show. The scenes are so riveting that you forget it’s a musical.” But the show has yet to be produced by Virginia Rep, a fact that Scott doesn’t let Miller forget. “The reality is before I leave this earthly sphere I am going to produce 1776 with Scott as John Adams,” Miller says. “It’s the role he is supposed to play. He’s the right age now. I know he would be fantastic.”
John Adams sings “Is Anybody There?”, Scott’s favorite song in the show. “I could jump on the table and sing it now,” he says, pushing his wiry physique back from the table as if we were going to spring into action. “It’s how I feel. You can make things happen. You have a voice. You can’t do that in many parts of the world. You can’t do that in Afghanistan.”
A Navy reservist, Scott knows Afghanistan. He was deployed to the tumultuous country for eight months during 2012. He also completed an 11-month deployment to the country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
He was thirty-four and performing in the first run of This Wonderful Life when he decided to join the Navy Reserve. “It was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” he says. “I can’t imagine that window being shut.” His mom was not as thrilled with the decision as her son was. “I said, You don’t want to do that, and he said, ‘Yeah Mom, I want to give back,’” she says.
Scott is currently trying to change his job specialty in the Reserve from logistics to mass communications. “It will open up a wealth of opportunities,” he says, adding that when he joined, he questioned whether he could be a reservist and have a career as an actor. “The answer is, yeah, I can. One has strengthened the other.”
A man of perpetual motion and unending energy, Scott also serves as an adjunct professor at the VCU School of Business, teaching a course on making business presentations. In his spare time, he has written a total of seven plays for Theatre IV. His latest is Hiawatha, which is on tour now.
Chase Kniffen first directed Scott in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It was a daunting task for Kniffen because of his artistic admiration for Scott. “You have to keep your energy up when you work with him,” he says.
He learned that Scott is a collaborator. “He is incredibly professional and his work ethic is incredible,” Kniffen says. “He is always searching for a better answer, a better idea.”
On stage, Scott makes acting look effortless, but the reality is he puts a lot of effort into each role that he plays. “He is hard on himself. He never stops trying to make it better,” Kniffen says. “Sometimes you have to say, Scott it’s great – you are there, and he trusts that.”
Scott’s comic intuition and timing come naturally. He’s not afraid to step out of the script and ad lib if it’s called for at the moment. During a 2005 production of Scapino at Barksdale, for example, he scampered up the steps and plopped down next to a man who had fallen asleep and began talking to him. He also spotted former Richmond Times-Dispatch film critic Daniel Neman in the audience one night and commented in his best Scapino-inspired Italian accent, “Dan Neman, how come you no like-a Star Wars?”
“So many great comedians are great actors first and have great comic skills second,” says Miller, noting the work of Robin Williams and Danny Kaye in particular. “Scott is very bright, and I think often, that is the number one quality an actor has to have. It enables you to focus from the first minute you walk on stage to the curtain call, and that is a hard thing to do. Sometimes I think if a bomb fell on the theater in the middle of a performance, Scott wouldn’t be thrown. He would make a clever comment on what happened and keep going.”
Scott’s challenge at the moment is trying to navigate his responsibilities and find balance between work and life. “I want to say ‘yes’ to everything,” he says. “My brain is always going. It’s difficult to relax and shut it off. I need to learn how to relax sometimes, but sometimes having opportunities is a good problem to have.”
There are two things that will automatically draw his attention away from work. The first is sports (specifically Boston sports – the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins). “I’m insanely rabid and obnoxiously well-read about them,” he says. And, the second is his girlfriend of the past two-and-a-half years, actress Eva DeVirgilis, whom he recently performed with in Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Hanover Tavern.
“She is amazing,” he says of DeVirgilis. “The thing that draws me to her is that she has incredible compassion. She acknowledges her own creative fear and pushes through it. She is very inspiring in that way. She put herself out there honestly and that is really inspiring.”
DeVirgilis, a Scranton, Pennsylvania, native, moved from New York City and burst onto the Richmond theatre scene in 2011 starring in Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. She followed that with I’m Not Rappaport. Her breakout moment, however, was her starring role in a one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. An actress, makeup artist, and motivational speaker, DeVirgilis is the creator of the TED talk “In My Chair,” a makeup artist’s perspective on beauty, where she tells the stories of women who talk about the way they see themselves. “It’s an incredible gift to be able to speak on behalf of women,” she says. Scott encouraged her to tell her own story as well as her clients’ stories. “He was there for me when I did the TED talk,” she says. “He said, ‘Share from your heart. Talk about yourself. Tell your own story.’ Now that talk has had over a half a million views [on YouTube]. It changed my life.”
As for working with Scott, DeVirgilis says she got to “act with the very best,” when she appeared with him in Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Tavern. “It was tough because we had a combative relationship on stage. Sometimes it got a little tense, but our respect for each other grew more. I have never worked with anyone more talented.”
She describes Scott as a storyteller at heart who lives passionately and fully. “He really, truly cares about people and about our country. He cares about being the best person he can be.”
The two care about each other’s success and push each other to grow artistically.
“If I am being too safe, he says go further. I try to support him as well,” she says. “He gets me – so lucky me.”
Scott’s recent deployment to Africa brought the couple closer together. “I don’t come from a military family,” DeVirgilis says. “Through Scott, I’ve experienced what other military families experience to keep us safe and protect our country. I grew through that process. I am infinitely grateful for his service and for everyone in the military serving.”
The most important thing about their relationship, she adds, “He laughs at my jokes and he loves my Italian cooking.”
Scott is appreciative of all of the opportunities he has had so far in his career, but there is one wish he would like to fulfill and that relates to his favorite actor, Michael Keaton, who was nominated last year for an Oscar for his role in Birdman. Scott first saw Keaton in the film Night Shift when he was nine.
“There was something about him,” he says of Keaton. “He was like the cool uncle you want to spend the afternoon with. When he was back in the big time in Birdman and nominated for an Academy Award, I watched the Academy Awards at six-thirty in the morning in Djibouti.”
During an interview Scott heard Keaton respond to the question “Do you want a big career or a big life?” with the answer, “a big life.” That stuck with Scott who has emulated Keaton’s acting abilities. “It’s neat when you can also emulate your favorite actor in your life,” he says. “He’s the man. Maybe one day I can work on something with him.”
Scott’s attention at the moment is on This Wonderful Life and how he can bring the same element to the stage that the legendary Jimmy Stewart brought to the screen. “I have always been struck by the earnestness in Jimmy Stewart’s performance,” he says. “There is something about that movie that speaks to people. They want to know their hard work counts for something. All the things we deeply value are what that film is about. This is an opportunity to bring these things to life.”
He finds that people who have seen It’s a Wonderful Life over and over (and there are many of them!) find something almost spiritual in the character of George Bailey. “There is an understanding that happens. I can’t put my finger on it, but the magic happens,” he says. “I am hoping we put the ingredients in place the same way. I think we will be able to do it.”