New challenge thrusts lawyer onto stage

Published May 22, 2007

The easiest, safest answer was no.

There was Glenn Claytor standing in a restaurant in Spring Hill meeting Saul Liebner for the first time.

A veteran community theater director, Liebner was impressed with Claytor's stature and his clear, deliberate way of speaking.

Claytor stood straight at 6 feet 1. Months earlier, he had a decent but unsuccessful run for the state House.

Liebner was looking for a black man to play the role of down-on-his-luck South African playwright Solomon Mantutu in Neil Simon's 45 Seconds from Broadway at Spring Hill's Stage West Community Playhouse.

Most of us would have said no without hesitation. And Claytor had a handful of good reasons why he could dismiss it as a bad idea.

He's 70. The last time he appeared on stage in a play was as Tiny Tim in his older sister's high school production of A Christmas Carol back in segregation era Washington, D.C., during the early '40s.

Politics and theater are similar. Some would even argue that politics is theater. But as somebody who still harbored political ambitions, it was a gamble. What if he made a fool of himself? Claytor had enjoyed the campaign against Republican Robert Schenck for the 44th District seat last fall. If he spent the next few years meeting the right people, talking about the right issues and the tide turned favorably, he could still end up in Tallahassee.

That would cap a fairly successful professional career as a developer, planner and attorney. But if he messed up on stage, would those loyal Neil Simon fans forgive him? Laugh if you want, but for a man with political ambitions, this is serious business.

This is about being prepared to take on a challenge, about never being too old or settled to try something new.

Claytor and his wife, Dolores, read the script and he liked it. Then he showed up for the audition. This was one of the few times in Claytor's life when being a black man definitely worked in his favor. None of the other men invited to try out for the role showed up.

But acting takes effort. He soon learned that theater, even community theater, is hard work. The cast rehearsed two hours a night, three nights a week for two months. This wasn't something he could have done if he were working full time and had young children.

"I gained a great deal of respect for the craft," said Claytor, whose role as Solomon is pretty substantial, though not the lead. Between performances, he is constantly repeating his lines so as not to forget them. This weekend, he will appear in the final three performances of the play's 10-night run.

"You have to be committed," he said.

It helped that Claytor identified with the role of Solomon, who couldn't find anyone to produce his play in New York and worked as a waiter to survive. His was a dream deferred.

"He worked hard; he came from humble circumstances," said Claytor, who had dropped out of high school at age 17 but later returned to earn a high school diploma. He obtained a bachelor's degree - in eight years- and a law degree while working several jobs and raising a family.

Obstacles didn't stop Solomon; they didn't stop Claytor. And they shouldn't stop us.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.