Carlson sets stage in local theater scene
After seven years of dating, Lyzz Willms thought she knew Bryan Carlson pretty well, so even she was confused when her boyfriend crawled out of a giant plant while the cast of “Little Shop of Horrors” took its final bow.
It was Aug. 2, 2013, the last show before closing night of The Theatre Project’s staging of the kooky musical. As the cast turned to thank Audrey II, the oversized plant that feeds on human blood, Carlson, who wasn’t in the show, emerged from the plant’s mouth.
“I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’” Willms said.
Carlson walked toward Willms and got down on one knee in front of the audience.
“My first thought was, ‘Great, I have to clean your pants,’” she said, laughing now because she should’ve known the man she fell in love with in the theater was proposing in the most meaningful way he could: on stage.
“I had always hoped he would propose in the theater,” Willms said.
Getting engaged on stage held significant meaning for Carlson as well, because, other than Willms, performance art is the greatest love of his life.
Carlson, 24, has been involved in local theater since he was 5, becoming one of the most recognizable faces — and voices — in community theater and Colorado Mesa University productions.
“It’s always been a part of who he is,” said his mother, Beth McBride.
Within the past four months, Carlson appeared in CMU’s spring show “Legally Blonde the Musical,” played Marius and Enjolras in High Desert Opera’s winter productions of “Les Miserables,” and performed in CMU’s November 2013 comedic play “Hay Fever.”
“What I love most about theater is that adrenaline rush of stepping out on stage,” Carlson said. “I love the vulnerability of being up there in front of all these people. I get to ignore what’s going on and be someone different.”
McBride said she should’ve known her son was destined to project his voice and attract attention to himself the moment he was born.
“It was so loud that when he was screaming the doctor had to leave the room,” she said.
It wasn’t until a failed experiment with youth soccer — “He could run like the wind, but he liked to tie games because no one lost and everyone was happy,” McBride said — that his parents decided their 5 year old needed a new hobby. McBride was introduced to theater in her son’s kindergarten class.
“He was very into pretending,” McBride said. “That seemed more up Bryan’s alley.”
Carlson, who has always been great at memorizing words, found his calling. He remembers a moment from childhood where he made a mistake — he got hit with the stage lights in front of the audience — but didn’t get nervous. He was hooked.
“That was more of an adrenaline rush than chasing a ball down the field,” Carlson said. “I mean that hit, I remember it being so much fun.”
Carlson has appeared in nearly a dozen professional shows locally through the former Cabaret Dinner Theatre and current High Desert Opera but “can’t even count” the number of other unpaid community theater roles or CMU parts he has played in the past 20 years.
One of his most memorable roles was the 2006 rendition of “Footloose,” where he played the Rev. Shaw Moore. It was the show where he asked Willms out. He was at Central High School and wore sweater vests. She was at Fruita Monument High School and wore a blue mullet.
“He still took me in,” Willms said with a laugh.
It’s odd now to think that after high school graduation in 2008, for as much as Carlson enjoyed theater, that he fooled himself into thinking acting wasn’t the right fit. He’d been told job opportunities were scarce, so he went to Mesa State College, now CMU, to major in history.
“In high school, I let a lot of other people do the talking for me, and I listened to them instead of listening to me,” Carlson said.
He dropped out after his first year and went to work full-time at Barnes & Noble Booksellers’ café. He became café manager within 18 months.
About two years ago, his younger brother, Ben, who recently graduated from CMU with a musical theater degree and lives New York City, asked Bryan to audition for “Comedy of Errors.” The four leads were sets of twins, and Ben thought he and Bryan, separated by about 18 months, could pass that test.
But Bryan was no longer a student, something that at that time was a requirement to audition for a CMU show. Ben — “the yin to my yang,” Bryan said — convinced his older brother to re-enroll.
Carlson once again became a history major, but not for long.
He was cast as Antipholus of Syracuse in “Comedy of Errors.” During rehearsals, director Peter Ivanov said something that changed Carlson’s life.
“(Ivanov) said, ‘You took a note, corrected it and didn’t think twice. I don’t know why you aren’t a theater major,’” Carlson said. “When he asked me why I wasn’t a theater major and moved right on, it was a moment when I sat back and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m not a theater major.’”
Carlson, a junior, is now majoring in acting and directing. He reduced his hours at Barnes & Noble but still works there between shows.
“They’ve been amazing,” Carlson said.
His co-workers attend performances. Cafe customers recognize him and offer compliments. Some regulars bring programs when they go to New York City shows.
“It’s a consistently humbling experience how much support I get from these people who only know me from across the counter,” Carlson said. “In a business like this, having that support system is the best thing.”
Carlson still has at least a year before he enters the “real world,” but he’s thinking Los Angeles might be nice. He’ll have more opportunities to work in live theater or films with his interest in stage combat.
Carlson got involved in martial arts at Martial Arts Research Systems after high school and doesn’t want to stop.
His interest isn’t lost on CMU Theater Arts Department head Tim Pinnow, a certified teacher and sanctioned fight director with the Society of American Fight Directors.
“He said he wanted to choreograph fights and stunts,” Pinnow said. “It’s not something you hear very often.”
Where Carlson and Willms, an elementary education major and community theater actor, will end up is unclear, but they’re ready to do whatever it is together.
“Honestly, with Bryan, I fell in love the first time I met him,” Willms said. “I heard him sing, and it was over. He’s my other half. It’s that simple.”