by Ray Sikorski
SONOMA COUNTY, CA – It’s not unusual for a visit to a theater to bring out the performer in a child. Sometimes such a visit can seal the deal of a lifetime. For Patrick Varner, that visit was backstage at Phantom of the Opera in San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, at the tender age of five.
“It was mind-blowing at the time,” says Varner, now 17. “Being a five-year-old kid and standing on the stage of this theater where there’s more than a thousand seats, and seeing the chandelier up close and personal… It had a long-lasting effect on me that has never gone away. That was sort of the end of everything – it was like, ‘All right, this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
Varner has remained true to his word. After arriving back home in Santa Rosa, California, he implored his parents to sign him up for theater classes, and – except for a brief stint where he feared being labeled a “theater nerd” in middle school – he’s been at it ever since.
Varner’s talents were spotted early on at Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School, where he landed the second male lead as a freshman in the school’s production of Kiss Me Kate. A natural singer, Varner wasn’t so at ease with all the dancing his role in the musical demanded.
“When I got this part, it was like, ‘Aw, crap, what do I do? I was totally a fish out of water. Just completely uncomfortable; I didn’t know what was going on.”
But Varner seems to be a kid who finds his comfort zone, and goes ten steps beyond it. After the success of that performance, he took on more and more roles each year, and not just at school – he could also be found at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. While he considers comedy his forte, he also embraces emotionally challenging roles, and strives to be a performer who can play anything. Last year, on top of four or five school productions, he entered four categories in Sacramento State University’s Lenaea Festival, including a manic performance in Becky Mode’s Fully Committed – a one-man show featuring 42 different characters.
“It was insanity,” he says of the experience. He won best performance by an actor, and gold in the one-act category.
He followed that up this year with another slew of successes, including winning a $10,000 scholarship in the Steve Silver Foundation/Beach Blanket Babylon competition. He plans to attend Boston University in the fall.
“I’m excited to be challenged,” he says. “I’m excited to be beaten down and built back up again.”
Despite his early successes, Varner harbors no illusions about the life of an actor. During a summer acting program in New York, a teacher who had played successful parts on Broadway surprised him by revealing he had auditioned for a voice-over role for a bank commercial in New Jersey. “He said, ‘You know, you gotta pay the bills somehow,’” Varner recalls. So, while he relishes an acting future in New York City, Varner also has his eyes on the dynamic community that he witnessed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.
“That’s what I’m really wanting to do right after college,” he says of the Festival, which features new plays as well as fare from the Bard. “But, who knows, after four years, I’m sure that will have changed hundreds of times.
“I think my closer goals right now are just to work, wherever that means I go. … I would love to be a working actor, expressing myself creatively, regardless of financial stability,” he says. “Well, I mean, financial stability is definitely nice, but I am not opposed to living off of Top Ramen.”
Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.
Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:
- Fred Curchack: helping, teaching and entertaining (with spontaneous songs)
- Broad Comedy: a cross between Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live and the Vagina Monologues
- Jeffrey Weissman: embracing comedy as life’s work