Backstage at The Players Theatre a gaggle of senior citizens — all of them women — are sashaying and singing show tunes and channeling Hollywood sirens and comediennes from Mae West to Bette Midler.
Sitting at a desk off to the side is their director, Jared Walker, in a Hawaiian button-down shirt and jeans, rattling off suggestions and music cues as 75-year-old Ruth Berkel works the room.
“Now, basically you come in and go bada-bada-bump,” Walker says, using his pen to gesture Berkel’s next move.
“Do you want me to land on his lap?” asks Berkel, swinging her hips.
“No, let’s not go that far,” Walker replies. “I know what kind of heels you’ll be wearing.”
Berkel pouts, shrugs and walks off stage. Crowned this year’s Ms. Florida Senior America, Berkel, a retired Sarasota High School teacher and Latin dance instructor, has worn high heels her entire life. She knows whether she can handle landing in a man’s lap.
Walker turns to face his partner, Eric Berkel, the group’s choreographer and Berkel’s only son, and shakes his head as if to say, “Your mother.”
Up next is Lois Lane, playing the sardonic Phyllis Diller in a wild, blue wig; a big, pink overcoat; and an oddly misshapen — not to mention — disconcerting baby bump.
“Lois Lane is her real name,” Walker whispers. “Like Superman’s girlfriend.”
He’s smiling before she even begins the number.
The Players Follies, a 55-and-up theater troupe, is embarking on its second year. Walker, 44, is a theater jack-of-all-trades with acting, directing, choreography and costuming credits at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, the Banyan Theater Company and the Manatee Players — to name a few. He helped organize The Players Follies last January, after spending two years working with the Sarasota Senior Theater, another 55-and-up entertainment troupe.
The group is rehearsing bits from “20th Century Foxes,” a vaudevillian romp they’ll perform at a surprise 50th-birthday party at a law office on Cocoanut Avenue. It’s the first time the women have been asked to perform at a private party, so energy levels are high — hence Berkel’s desire to land on the birthday boy’s lap.
“I love being the guy who creates the process,” Walker says. “Acting was my living for awhile, but I’ve paid my dues. My legs are tired.”
On the contrary, those who’ve worked backstage with Walker say he’s tireless. They joke that when he signs onto a project, he and the Berkels come as a package deal — a trifecta of talent known as “The Jared Walker Team.”
Walker grew up on Florida’s east coast and studied music and theater at Shenandoah Conservatory, in Winchester, Va., before moving to New York City to act.
Like many New York stage actors, Walker needed a second job, so he started working for an A-list events company, which catered some of the city’s biggest galas.
“One time, I was standing in the green room with Meryl Streep and Harrison Ford, just sort of looking around at all these famous actors thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m here in my tux, backstage with these people,’” Walker says.
Walker pauses as Berkel flits by in a Carmen Miranda costume and precariously high platform heels.
“My life in New York was theatrical in a whole different way,” he says. “I don’t miss it at all.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Jared Walker is not alone in his pursuit of the director’s chair. Many Hollywood actors and actresses have directed and/or produced their own films.
• Woody Allen, one of Hollywood’s most famous actor/directors, is rumored to have cast France’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, in his next project.
• George Clooney directed “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and, in 2007, produced the Oscar-winning thriller, “Michael Clayton,” in which he starred.
• In 2006, Brad Pitt produced “Running with Scissors” and “The Departed,” followed by “A Mighty Heart” in 2007.
• Drew Barrymore has produced and starred in two “Charlie’s Angels” movies, “Fever Pitch” and “Never Been Kissed.”
• Clint Eastwood’s directing credits include the Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River” and “Unforgiven.”