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Tim Behrens (and Pat McManus) Serve up a Rollicking Good Time

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SANDPOINT, ID-  Is it truth or story? The truth is Patrick McManus and Tim Behrens make good stories, or as Rancid Crabtree might say “a gall dang pack of lies.”

Patrick McManus is America’s foremost outdoor humorist. He grew up in a story- telling family just north of Sandpoint on Sand Creek. At dinnertime, rather than watching TV, the family sat around and told stories of what had happened during the day. Pat liked to put humor in his stories and he said  “I also learned structure; if I had a punch line coming up I had to get all the right parts of the story so the line would work”.

Living on Sand Creek as a child, Pat was given a lot of material for his stories. He and two of his friends climbed to the top of Sand Creek Mountain when he was only eight years old. “It got pretty dangerous when one of my friend fell off a cliff,” he said.

Tim Behrens, the actor who plays the many characters in the four McManus one-man plays, came from an acting family. According to the McManus web page Tim, “Avoided acting like the plague…until some moment of deranged alchemy got him onto the stage for the first time at age 32.”

He then became the managing/artistic director of Centre Theatre Group in Spokane for 6 years and then the marketing manager and reader for the audio book company, Books In Motion.

While at this job he started working on his Master of Fine Arts degree at Eastern Washington University. His adviser was Patrick McManus. When asked if he had read McManus’ work he said, “ Pat was my adviser. I knew I had better read all his books.” As Tim’s adviser Pat read his work and advised him to “keep acting.”

Last Saturday at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint their collaboration came together again.

Scrambled McManus is the fourth show Patrick has written. All are based on his famous stories and characters. With only six unfinished stools and a hall tree with a few props, Behrens spends two hours giving the audience almost believable but always-hilarious situations between the many “friends” of McManus.

This show is not for wimps. Each chuckle, each guffaw, each belly laugh is first fully developed in the imagination before it boils forth. With Behrens’ less-is-more acting style and McManus’ brilliantly funny words the stage is alive with people, animals, forests-  even a mummy. Tim wants the audience to take part and do their work with their imaginations as he delivers the stories to them. In one scene the theater goes to total darkness. In this darkness the audience has no trouble seeing two young scared boys in a rotten burlap tent they can’t get out of running across a dark back yard onto a dark porch gathering up a huge dog, now so scared it can’t get out a real bark, into a dark kitchen where a near naked man is drinking a glass of salt water. This scene, which no one could see except in their minds, must have lasted 5 minutes and left people convulsed with laughter and begging for mercy.

When the actor was asked what energizes him he said, “After about 20 seconds people start to laugh; a little later the coughing begins. This is clearing and once that happens a wave of energy comes onto the stage that I try put back down so it goes out again and completes the circle.”

Growing up, McManus had wanted to be an artist. Pat said, “In the 7th and 8th grade at Farmin School there was an outstanding teacher.  My painting of the dam on Little Sandcreek hung in the Elks for several years.”

While a student at Washington State College he started writing. His web page says of his first writing, “Every week we had to write a little essay for class. My first half dozen essays came back with F’s. Bit by bit, however, I became fascinated with writing and began to spend as much time on writing essays as I had once spent on drawing pictures. This diligence paid off with a major breakthrough: I received a D!” After graduation and a short stint at the Daily Olympian, in Olympia, Washington, he got a job with Washington State University in their publications department. This allowed him to get a Masters degree, and then it was off to Eastern Washington University teaching English and journalism. Teaching, he says, was a “bad choice! Bad Choice!

Serious writing seemed to be the door open to him so he decided to write every day from 7 PM till 9 PM seven days a week. “I kept this schedule up for about 15 years but after six months I was selling to international magazines.” Meanwhile a college teacher with more seniority bumped him out of a class he was supposed to teach. He needed the money. To console himself he went down to his sister-in-law’s dock and wrote two stories. “I sold them both for more than I would have made teaching the class.” In 1982 he quit teaching and wrote full time.  

After McManus and Behrens met, Pat kept after Tim to do some of his stories in a one-man show format. Finally Behrens said yes but no script came for McManus. In the spring of ‘92 Behrens reserved the Panida Theater in Sandpoint for a McManus play. He then called Pat and told him of the arrangement. McManus didn’t seem to believe him and had to soon leave for a book promotion tour.

In June Pat was in Sandpoint and a friend said he had heard there was a McManus play coming to town. Pat called Tim and wanted to know what was going on. Tim reminded him he had booked the Panida, and Pat hug up and went to work. In July the first act was done and Behrens started rehearsing with Jack Delehanty as the director. Pat was still touring and the second act didn’t come until September for an October 2 opening. But Tim got the show up with the help of Jack for opening night. He did take a 15-minute break during the first act to go back and study the script. People in the audience thought he had had a heart attack, but he came back and finished the show.

When McManus was asked if he ever makes himself laugh while writing he said, “I sometimes get a funny feeling, and might chuckle a little. But that’s good. That means it usually will be funny.” He added “but writing is hard work. Teachers don’t always tell their students that, but it’s hard work.”

Patrick feels that story-telling is something that has vanished with TV.  When at Sandpoint High School, Pat was a member of the liars’ club. To be president you had to tell a lie everyone would believe. Pat said they met every morning in the gym. One morning Pat started a story about how one of their friends had been killed. Everyone said he was lying but then another friend came in and substantiated the story. People were starting to believe it and some were almost in tears when the supposed victim of the fatal accident walked in. Pat had planned on the first friend and they were working together; he had not planned on the victim to come walking through, however. But it did get him the Presidency of the liars’ club.

Tim says that the start of the play was “really a fluke.” After that first show in Sandpoint he got a call to bring the show to Dads’ Day at WSU in November. They asked what his tour arraignments were and how did he need to be paid. Tim said, “You mean I get paid and what’s a tour?” He says in reality they lost money for the first three years after the ‘92 opening. Only in the last few years have the shows and tours really been profitable.

In addition to the show Behrens also teaches acting classes. He describes this as “sheer pleasure.”  In some poor communities he has worked in he has even waived his fees. “I really work these people,” he said “but the work is a joy for me.” In his web page it says, “My objective is to familiarize class participants with some of the tools of the acting profession, to give each opportunities to use some of these tools, and then to allow them to build on that base. (All this with as much joy and humor as possible!!) If the workshop can incrementally broaden the imagination of the skill base of one or a dozen students, I will consider the time a success.”

The run of McManus Comedies has not been without a price. In ’97, while doing 17 shows in 22 days in Oklahoma, Tim contracted Legionaires Disease. He finished the run and his wife Leslie had come down so they could drive home together. When they left Oklahoma, Tim had a slight cough. By the time they were in Denver he had a high fever and went into the hospital. Soon he was on oxygen and then in Intensive Care for three weeks. Denver was not used to seeing Legionnaires Disease because the climate is too dry there for it to spread. “I’m real lucky,” said the actor when talking about the experience. The good from this is he now schedules with more organization and his wife travels with him on his tours. “We have a marriage,” he said happily.

About two years ago Tim developed arthritis in his hip. The pain became extreme and the physical requirements of the show required almost constant prescription medication. Last June 22 he received a new hip. Our Sandpoint show last Saturday was the third on the new titanium. “There are some stories I can’t do because of some limitations,” he said, “but I am generally without pain and the doctors say it is coming along well.” To this audience member Tim worked very well around the limitations- I didn’t see any. When we spoke on the phone on Wednesday I told him a friend of mine, a nurse, would be with me at the show. “Oh good, there’ll be a nurse in the house. I’m glad.” All she did was laugh. No professional services were necessary. 

The house was not full at the Panida last Saturday. This is unusual for a McManus Comedy. There is a lot of sadness in our world right now, and a light show might seem out of place to some. Laughter, however, is a bodily function and helps with the grieving process. A show like this is not intended to take away from the seriousness of any situation. It will, however, help us heal and work through the grieving process.

The show was intended to be a study of story. Just what is a story and how does it work, or maybe Rancid had it best: “It’s just a gall dang pack of lies.” As Tim and Pat know, the story is in our minds. They give us the situation and the characters but we make the picture. That’s why the stage only has six unfinished stools and a hall tree.

Add Behrens’ live, and McManus’ words, and we have magic.


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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

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