The actor arguably most closely associated with Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse is finally back on stage for the first time since March 2020.
Tom Walljasper of Moline is treasuring the time in the current hit “Beauty and the Beast,” which also features his wife, Shelley, another longtime Circa veteran. This is his 99th Circa show, and Shelley’s 45th.
“Most couples have jobs that take them away from each other for most of the day. If the hours at the end of the week were added up, maybe their time apart would be greater than their time together,” Tom said recently. “In 36 years of relationship, the longest consecutive stretch that Shelley and I have been apart…was three weeks. It was HELL!
“I want to be around Shelley as much as I can! I fell in love with her when I was a teenager, and all I’ve ever wanted in life, was to share every breathtaking moment with her,” he said. “And the idea that we are together, in both of our chosen professions, just adds to the seconds of the day I can delight in her company.”
“I love being in a show together,” Shelley (who plays Mrs. Potts, as Tom is Belle’s father, Maurice) said. “He’s my biggest cheerleader. We take care of each other. Little moments of affection like a kiss or a touch during stressful times, usually rehearsal, help get me through to the next moment.”
During one scene in the beloved Disney musical, “I have a moment upstage with Tom when we are not the focus. As a good hostess, I ask him if I can get anything else for him and he tells me something different every night,” Shelley said.
“When Tom and I are in a show together and places are called, it’s tradition to share a little good-luck kiss,” she said of the start of each show.
Longtime theater colleague Tristan Tapscott, who shares the current stage with him as Cogsworth, is thrilled Tom is back at Circa.
“Tom is an important part of fabric of Circa ’21,” Tapscott said recently. “He raises the bar of excellence, which pushes us all to be even better. Tom brings delicate a balance of playfulness and utter seriousness and style to his work that really inspires everyone around him.”
From “Kinky” to “Beauty”
The last time before “Beauty” that Tom was on the downtown Rock Island stage was the closing night of “Kinky Boots,” March 14, 2020, before COVID shutdowns. He said recently it really wasn’t hard to be away from theater.
“So I asked myself why? First off, I had other people in life, besides those ‘strangers in the dark room’ that needed my presence,” Tom said by e-mail. “I have also deduced during these wacky times, after reflection, inspection, and dissection, as long as I am surrounded with circumstances that fill my deep creative cavity, I am not one of those individuals who needs or longs to be in a show.
“I NEVER have been. But I HAVE been extremely enthralled with telling stories ever since I was young,” he said. “In ANY capacity. Or creating characters. Or scenarios. And seeing what happens when those characters have obstacles, and scenarios become intrinsically, drastically, urgent situations. Is it a funny outcome?
“Or is it NOT funny at all? Is it dreadful? Is it sad? You know, all the questions one would typically ask. And I ADORE the immersion stories allow. The escape. That has been a blessing for me during my entire life,” Tom (father of three daughters with Shelley) said. “I could always get away, and hide within some kind of creativity.
“But I think I’ve realized NOW…that I am limiting my capabilities when I label myself as ‘an actor,’ which I’ve called myself for years,” he said. “I thought that is what I did. But that’s too constricting. It’s just part of what I do…it’s not what I do.”
Tom has learned to personally hate labels of any kind. “It’s like when Daniel Levy said (as David on “Schitt’s Creek”) for any situation…’I like the wine. Not the label. Ya know?’”
Tom said he had an epiphany that his creativity, “which has been my strength for many, many, many years… is a greater desire to appease than acting or being in front of an audience. It’s not what I necessarily sought out to do,” he said. “Performing was just a tool to feed my creativity addiction. And, of course, every now and then, help to buy some groceries and gas.
“But that was an important aspect of myself to discover! I yearned for creativity. And a by-product of that was I yearned for stories. But I didn’t necessarily yearn to be an actor,” Tom said. “I just found it to be the nearest outlet. And a way that I could put food on the table and diapers on butts!”
During his two-plus years of off time, he found other ways to keep those creative juices pumping.
“I wrote a lot. I also produced, edited, and compiled a birthday film for my little grand dude, I helped my daughter with a project at her school, I helped another daughter produce a film for her senior presentation,” Tom said, noting he also acted in the pilot for the new series “Complete Bull,” filmed in northeast Iowa.
As a video gamer, he also loved playing Skyrim VR. “It’s so rad!!!” he wrote.
Coping and missing Circa magic
Tom came back for the summer show since “Beauty and the Beast” was originally scheduled for 2020, the “last show from the dreaded 2020 shutdown season that I had a signed contract for. It was very important for my psyche to honor this contract,” he said.
Since he makes his living as an actor, Tom has gotten used to being financially challenged. Did the break hurt that way?
“Some would say it was hard on us financially to BE in show biz for so long,” he wrote. “Look, Shelley and I have been on the lower spectrum of finances since we became young parents in 1987. It’s a massive deep hole to dig out of. When we took our vows in 1988, the words ‘for richer and for poorer’ bellowed through the church, but Shelley and I have yet to experience ‘the richer.’
“Not to mention…being in show biz, in an area where there is little opportunity, and only one professional theater? That doesn’t bode well for those of us who know nothing but creativity,” Tom said. “However…we’ve managed. And obviously both of us have been gifted with some talent so…we survive.
“And we prefer happiness over worry! We love each other. And we love our girls. And our girls are proud of us. And I, myself, can’t imagine what it must be like to be the kid of a show biz parent,” he said. “Ew! That’s why my girls are my heroes! So…yeah! But the real lesson is…When you’ve never had money, it’s quite easy to learn how to live when you don’t have money.”
Of missing Circa (the former movie theater marked its 100th anniversary last year), Tom said besides the venue itself – “with its history, and architecture, and uniqueness, you would think it would be all of the performers. But the turnover in show biz is so fluid. New faces, new personalities, new stories…constantly,” he said.
“But Shelley and I have been at Circa for so long, there are a TON of people in that building who have been there throughout Shelley and I, and our children’s lives. Not just the ‘show people’ but the lovely folks and joyful souls who make the Circa experience what it is,” he said.
Of what Tom missed least, he cited the WHBF tower across 3rd Avenue.
“Those stupid birds who perch on that tower across the street from Circa, and shit on all of our cars while we’re in the theater doing the show,” he said. “Didn’t miss that one bit!”
Shelley back since the first show
Shelley’s last pre-pandemic show also was “Kinky Boots,” then she returned in the first show Circa did after being closed — “Savannah Sipping Society,” which opened Sept. 9, 2020, with a four-woman cast.
Due to state rules, at the time the capacity for each performance was limited to only 50 people in the 330-seat venue. Plated dinners were served in lieu of the traditional buffet, which continued permanently. For the safety of guests and staff members, temperatures were taken when patrons arrived and face masks had to be worn to enter the theater, when interacting with the staff and whenever guests were away from their tables.
Then, that winter Circa shut down again, reopening in mid-March 2021, with the Church Basement Ladies in “You Smell Barn,” including Shelley, but not Tom in the iconic pastor role he filled so many times before.
“I was blessed to be able to work when so many other theaters were shut down,” she said, noting she’s been in five Circa productions since 2020, and has music directed three children’s shows.
“I love that moment when you are teaching the music and then you go back and run it with all parts together and it sounds wonderful,” Shelley said. “I love creating harmonies. My goal as a music director is to help the actor learn their part, no matter what it takes. Everyone learns music differently, so I try to adapt to their abilities. Because I am an actor too, I understand the learning process.
“Honestly, I enjoy performing more than music directing,” she said, adding she was nervous getting back onstage post-COVID, “but I get nervous every time I start a new project,” Shelley said.
For “Beauty and the Beast,” filling the teapot role first immortalized by the legendary Angela Lansbury, she said: “I was nervous to live up to the expectations of others, especially with the title song.
“I enjoy playing Mrs. Potts because she is a lot like me,” Shelley said. “We want to make everyone happy and we both deeply care for the people in our lives. The costume is challenging. My left arm gets tired holding it up all of the time and with all of the hoops, thick material, and a big headpiece, it’s heavy and hot.”
30 years of memories
While Shelley has acted at Circa since 1978, Tom has regularly since 1992.
Those performances coincided with the new riverboats that were arriving in the QCA. Groups “would come into town, enjoy some wonderful entertainment at Circa, and then lose all of their money on the boats,” Tom recalled.
“But (this is when Circa still had a buffet) the audience would eat and go through the buffet line DURING the show. So besides the fantastic Gershwin and Cohen medleys happening on stage, and the hilarious vaudeville type scenes and jokes being delivered…all you could hear were people talking, dishes clanking, glasses clinking, and obviously NO ONE was interested in the show,” he said.
“I thought. ‘This is bizarre, man! How can these actors and performers at Circa 21 do this every night?’”
“It was like nothing I had experienced as an actor. And to be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting to work there anymore because I didn’t like it,” Tom said. “Then I was informed that for every other production at Circa, all of the eating and commotion happened before the show, and at intermission. ‘Well hell’ I thought, that makes SO much more sense.”
He and Shelley have been in several shows together, starting with “Father of the Bride.”
“When our girls got older, we had more opportunities,” she said of Bristy, Myka and Krianna. “Our kids grew up at Circa, either sitting in rehearsal or being in the show with us, especially Krianna. Tom told the story of ‘Father of the Bride.’ I remember putting a sleeping bag under my dressing room table for Myka (number 2), to fall asleep while Tom, Bristy, and I did the show.
“Honestly, just having the opportunity to work with a plethora of wonderful artists from around the country, is a beautifully powerful thing,” Tom said. “If you’re a smart performer, you can utilize the limited time you have with these colleagues, and learn from them! Philosophies. Techniques. Reasons we pursued and continue in this profession. You also pick up on both good AND bad tendencies that all performers have.
“Shelley and I have had the lucky happenstance of working in projects with our children too. All three girls have worked at Circa,” he said. “Seeing the delight and enthusiasm just ooze from their essence always brought an enormous smile to my face. Also, observing through their eyes, what these other artists are bringing to the table, and how important good preparation, self-understanding craft, and a strong work ethic can enhance how well you convey and tell an immersive story.”
Tom loves sharing a story from his Church Basement Ladies (CBL) shows, “a genuine reminder for artists of all types…Be humble. Or suddenly, and without notice, your viewership will MAKE you humble.”
After every CBL show, there is a “Joyed It Line” — where all the actors do a “meet and greet” in the lobby.
“Because people will continuously, and more often than not, QUICKLY scurry up and utter ‘We enjoyed it,’ it naturally always comes out as ‘Joyed It,'” Tom said, noting his playing the pastor in CBL 2, after he had done the first CBL twice.
“In the lobby, when it was pretty empty at this point, this sweet, lovely woman started to approach me. She was probably in her nineties. I could see the tears streaming down her face…and I just knew she had had an extremely powerful reaction to the show,” he recalled. “As she approached, she reached her hands out and grabbed mine. Wow, her hands were cold. I totally remember that.
“She then cupped my face in her hands and hugged me for a long, long, uncomfortably LONG time. She then just gazed at me…and in so so many elegant words, told me how wonderful she thought I was,” Tom said. “She went on and on and then she had a ‘secret’ to tell me. I knew this because she did the ‘come closer I’m going to whisper’ body communication.
“So I leaned down and…she hit me with the zinger. Beautifully concise and enunciated at perfection. She whispered, ‘You were way WAY better than the guy last time,'” he said. “Then she left. Like a spirit in the night. BTW, if you weren’t aware…I WAS the guy last time!”
Fond theater reminiscing
Tristan Tapscott said that at 17, he was lucky enough to work on one of the Walljaspers’ original musicals — a comedic adaptation of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that was to preview on September 11, 2001, and open the very next day.
“Driving to the theatre that day, I was certain we were going to close the show, or at the very least postpone the preview, but Tom made it very clear that what we do is an important escape for others from what is happening outside,” Tapscott recalled.
“It was our job to do the show as planned, and let the 30, 40 people that were there get away from all of it,” he said. “We were the distractors from chaos, if you will. That was one of the ‘wow’ moments, you know? One of those moments where I learned why the arts are so important, especially in times of peril.”
Tapscott ran the old Harrison Hilltop Theatre, Davenport, and he and Jason Platt in 2011 directed the macabre masterpiece “Sweeney Todd,” casting Tom and Shelley as the leads — the title role of the demon barber and his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett (another part originated by Angela Lansbury).
“When Jason and I first cast Tom as Sweeney Todd, it raised eyebrows because he wasn’t the logical choice, but to us he was the ONLY choice,” Tapscott said by e-mail. “He has a fine voice, but it was his ACTING that I really wanted to showcase. And he delivered.
“He. Was. Frightening. He brought so many layers and nuances to the table I knew he would be as he’s the only actor to actually scare me in the theatre — first in 2006’s ‘The Pillowman’ and then, of course, in ‘Sweeney Todd’,” he recalled.
“He surprised many of his fans and critics with both performances — he’s well-known for his comedic chops at Circa, but the dude can act circles around anyone with an unmatched sincerity, grit and intensity,” Tapscott said.
Tom also shone in the wildly funny lead role in Circa’s “Shear Madness,” which ran in both 2016 and 2019.
“On the other hand, Tom is a comedic genius. I was lucky to share the stage with and Brad Hauskins in a one-of-a-kind show called ‘Shear Madness’,” Tapscott said. “Some of it was scripted, some of it was outlined and some of it was all up to us to navigate within the scope of our characters and the show drowning upon what happened.
“There are few actors as quick — comedically — as Tom. His mind just works differently and he’s leagues above all of us,” he added.
Loving life, on and off stage
One last story Tom shared was rehearsing for Circa’s “Grumpy Old Men” (2019), when Shelley’s set-moving responsibilities included moving a bush by the show’s fence.
“Now, please keep in mind Shelley and I are goofy, silly, not afraid to be raunchy with words, ‘lovebirds,’” Tom said. “So, having the sense of humor we do, I went up to Shelley and said ‘Hey foxy! Nice bush!’
“She gave me that ‘Ha ha, very funny’ look and I continued ‘If you’d let me, I could saunter over tonight…and gladly give it a trim. I can do wonders with a bush!’,” he recalled. “She gave me that glorious Shelley smile…although Lexi, our deckhand, who was employed at Circa for the first time, didn’t see Shelley’s reaction to me. She only heard what I had said. (We found out this next part later that day and had a good laugh about it.)
“Lexi went up to our stage manager at the time, and mentioned that ‘We may have a sexual harassment, or inappropriate work environment situation happening’,” Tom said. “The stage manager was obviously concerned and asked her to explain what she had witnessed. After Lexi told her, the stage manager paused for a moment, and said… ‘That’s just Tom and Shelley. They’re married!’”
“Beauty and the Beast” continues at Circa, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, through July 16. For tickets, call 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or visit circa21.com.