Local actor Charles Swan leaves the classroom.
By Donalevan Maines • Photo by Mark Hiebert
Actor Charles Swan, a star of the upcoming musical The Andrews Brothers at Stages, just finished two years as an openly gay teacher of theater arts at South Houston High. “I’m an open book as far as that is concerned,” he explains. “And my school district creatively allowed me to address that in my classroom.
“Our poor children, they think gay is an adjective,” says Swan, 27. “So as soon as that filtered into my classroom, I confronted it head-on. Both years, we studied The Laramie Project, which is about the murder of Matthew Shepard, and I used it as a tool to help them see what comes of hate and bigotry.
“I also brought in other plays that deal with other social issues: Ragtime, about racism; and Parade, religious differences, how a gentleman was wrongly accused of a crime because he was Jewish.”
Swan recently played Ralph Berger, the sweet, idealistic son in a lower-middle-class Jewish family, in Clifford Odets’ classic drama Awake and Sing!, which garnered rave reviews in its extended run at Main Street Theater in the Village.
“I am a lot like Ralph,” says Swan. “I am ambitious, optimistic, and a dreamer, and there’s an entire world out there to explore. But I didn’t know anything about belonging to a family like the Bergers. Ralph slept on a couch in the living room. I always had a space that was uniquely mine. My parents were hands-on parents, but they were hands-off at the appropriate time.”
Swan’s father is a school administrator and former teacher. “One spring day the drama department asked my dad if he knew any little kids to play the kids and pickpockets in Oliver! and he said, ‘As a matter of fact, I think I do.’ That was my introduction to the stage,” says Swan.
“But I don’t think I was bitten by the acting bug. I think you’re born with that,” he adds. “I was always singing solos at church, and acting out stories.”
After graduating from high school in Pasadena, Swan was off to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater with an emphasis on dance. It’s also where he teamed up with his Andrews Brothers co-star Holland Vavra-Peters, a former Miss River Oaks and Miss Fort Bend County in the Miss Texas Scholarship Pageant in the Miss America program.
“She is a dream!” he gushes. “We used to get thrown out of shop class. We all had to take crew, but whatever possessed them to trust me and Holland with power tools, I’ll never know!”
When Vavra starred in The Spitfire Grill at Stages, her love interest was played by her future husband, Brandon Peters, with whom Swan had performed in the stage musical Footloose. “I was the one who introduced them!” says Swan. “And now they just got married!”
All four actors in The Andrews Brothers “are really good friends,” says Swan. “We are so fortunate. I mean, the premise is hysterical: Holland is the diva star of the show, and Casey Burden and Ross Chitwood and I are brothers who have to go on when The Andrews Sisters don’t show up. We are going to have tons of fun, and hopefully we will create something wonderful. It couldn’t come at a better time because people need a little escape.”
Swan says he became familiar with The Andrews Sisters’ music when he performed in the Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals production of Over Here!, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman’s follow-up to their World War II musical Victory Canteen that starred Patty Andrews.
Over Here! led to Swan being cast in his first national tour. “It was the Marilyn Monroe musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” he says. “I tap-danced my way across the United States. It was the stereotypical bus and truck tour.”
In contrast, the gig at Stages is just a bicycle ride from where Swan lives along Shepherd Drive. But when The Andrews Brothers closes on Aug. 30 (or later, if it’s extended like The Great American Trailer Park Musical was at Stages), Swan plans to follow his star to the bright lights of Broadway.
“First, I wanted to teach school and I’ve done that,” he explains. “They are the next wave of voters, they will be voting on issues important to us like gay marriage, and they are really bright and intelligent and smart.
“You can’t just look at how they do on the TAKS test and tell anything,” he says. “That is a Band-Aid for a broken system that is gushing blood, and I refuse to believe that schools are doing what they should be doing to empower those children. They are rich, fertile ground, but the way the system is, it just shoves some of those kids under the rug, and I want nothing to do with that.”
Chatting with Swan, one begins to see that gays and lesbians who came before Generations X and Y, the ones who nobly battled the slings and arrows of the Reagan-Bush era, paved the way for everything good that’s yet to come.
“I have been unusually blessed with the most supportive, beautiful, and, I think, flawless parents,” he explains. “My parents are proud Democrats, and I was exposed to that kind of shop talk all my life, so in 2009, we are thrilled about [President] Obama, what he’s doing, and what he’s going to do.”
He adds, “Hopefully in my lifetime I will get married [to a man] and we will have children.”
For now, Swan has an appointment with makeup and a mirror. Will his character, Max, transform into a beauty? “I hope to God so,” he says. “I hope she’s a fierce little vixen.”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.
The so-called “Greatest Generation” is back . . . but this time in drag!
In the musical The Andrews Brothers, it’s 1943, and Maxene, LaVerne, and Patty are headlining tonight’s big USO show in the South Pacific. But when a flu outbreak quarantines the girls, scruffy stagehands Max, Lawrence, and Patrick cook up a way to save the day. Will three wigs, a whole lotta heart, and the help of a G.I. pin-up girl save the day? Will mistaken identities, madcap mayhem, and unrequited love have audiences rolling in the aisles when The Andrews Brothers opens Friday, July 17, at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston? • Charles Swan, Casey Burden, and Ross Chitwood play the slapstick title roles. Holland Vavra-Peters adds pizzazz as pin-up Peggy Jones. • The Andrews Brothers promises a rollicking tribute to the music of World War II, featuring hits such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Mairzy Doats,” “Slow Boat to China,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” and “Stuff Like That There.” The show is directed by Leslie Swackhamer and choreographed by Krissy Richmond. Steven Jones is the musical director, as he was for Stages’ recent hit Grey Gardens. • You can sneak a peek at The Andrews Brothers’ antics in a prior production at www.youtube.com/watch?v=-071j4KkJYY. — D.M.
The Andrews Brothers plays July 17–August 30 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Tickets and more info: 713/527-0123.