You may recognize Ben Tebbe from the many local ad campaigns he has starred in, including commercials for Comcast, Marsh and Tire Barn. But he makes his real artistic bread and butter on stages across Indianapolis. Tebbe is currently appearing in the Phoenix Theatre's latest undertaking: Avenue Q. The puppet-studded play is known as a "Sesame Street Live" for adults, with themes like racism, debt and Internet porn.
A young thespian
Born and raised in Greensburg, Indiana, Tebbe's acting career began at a young age. "I was very fortunate that I grew up in a family that went to arts events," says Tebbe. "We went to the ballet, to the opera, to the theater. I have a memory that's pretty vivid of when I was five years old seeing Yul Brenner on stage in The King and I in Cincinnati. [After that], I begged my dad to take me along with him to a community theater audition."
He graduated from Marian College with degrees in theater and business, then a decade ago Tebbe made his Indiana Repertory Theatre debut in a production of Amadeus. "I was really a glorified stage hand. I was scenery in a costume," he recalls. But something stuck, and Tebbe has grown into one of the most successful working actors in Indianapolis.
Most with his kind of local success take the leap to big cities with more theaters. But not Tebbe; a Hoosier at heart, he's never left.
"I've never tried. I've not moved to New York. I've not moved anywhere. I've lived in the same house since I graduated college," says Tebbe. "I've always been something of a homebody. I like being close to family. I have nine nieces and nephews, [and] I like being able to go watch them play baseball...or see a dance recital."
Acting around town
Tebbe has found consistent work at various theaters in town. While each theater offers varied experience, there is, in his mind, a common denominator. "Whether I'm with Phoenix or IRT or HART or ShadowApe, I'm working with people who have the same passion and commitment as I do for the work that we are doing," says Tebbe. "[They are] pretty different places in terms of the resources they have, but in terms of actors who are there to do the very best work they can do -- that doesn't change between the theaters."
Every show presents different challenges. Some are more welcome than others, especially in ensemble work, one of Tebbe's self-professed loves in his field.
"One of my favorite shows of all time," says Tebbe, "was Gorey Stories with ShadowApe Theatre Company. I like the precision it requires... aligning those movements. It takes a long time to get to that point. Along the way there are usually hiccups and bumps.
"There was one story I thought we were going to tell in one way, through a waltz. So we worked hours -- days -- on getting this waltz right. And the story wasn't being told the right way. And we kept trying it and trying it. Tensions got high, but ultimately it's all to make sure that the product that we put out is top notch. It can be tricky getting there. It takes a lot of time and a lot of listening to one another."
Working with actors he trusts and respects is a major part of making ensemble movement succeed. The community of actors in Indianapolis has close ties, which help them on stage and off. "We stay connected with each other quite a bit," says Tebbe. "We've gotten together to do readings of different plays. If there are actors in town who also write, we'll get together and give them feedback. We keep ourselves busy."
Tebbe has put his time to good use, securing one of the 2011 Creative Renewal Fellowships. "My creative renewal involves a lot of travel," he notes. "I want to travel and see the rest of the country. I've been to probably 25 of the states. But all of them are east of the Mississippi. I really want to travel out West and see the rest of the country. Experience things I haven't experienced. Talk to people I haven't met before. The nice thing [about] the support we get from the Arts Council is to really think of the creative renewal as a process and not think about product at the end."
Tebbe has a handful of big trips in the works. He plans to see the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Rocky Mountains, the Badlands, the Pacific Coast Highway and the Northwest. "I love to travel," he says, "and yet, being an actor in town if I have the money it probably means I don't have the time because I'm working. And I have the time, it probably means I don't have the money because I'm not working."
Avenue Q on Massachusetts Ave
Before Tebbe hits the open road, he performs with puppet in hand in Avenue Q at the Phoenix Theatre [see infobox]. The show, whichis celebrated for its racy content and inventive use of puppets, won three Tony Awards.
Tebbe's attraction to the part of Princeton was instantaneous. "From the first time I saw a snippet of the show on the Tony Awards, I was, like, 'that's a show I'd love to do.' I just felt like it spoke to my generation. People in their 30s and probably younger too."
Yet emoting via puppet presents a new kind of challenge. "Physically, it's hard," says Tebbe. "On the hand, on the wrist [and in] getting to that point where you are comfortable enough making the puppet express the emotion you need"
Tebbe practices with his look-a-like puppet everyday (each puppet resembles the actor using it). "The slightest tilt of the head can say something," notes Tebbe. "I've started taking my puppet home just so I can stand in front of the mirror. What if I move the puppet this way, or shake the head? What does that say?"
As for the show, there is a lot to love. "My favorite song in the show is one that I don't even sing," says Tebbe. "'There's A Fine Fine Line,' which is a song that Kate Monster sings. There is so much over the top lunacy in the show, [but] it is such a sweet song. It anchors the show in true emotion."
His performance will illuminate the larger message wrapped up in this deranged puppet show. "There is a lot of crazy stuff happening," he says. "I think that's something the show says: there is always crazy stuff going on -- it passes. Just remember to have fun and enjoy life. And laugh at how seriously we take things."
(Slideshow) Ben Tebbe's Performances