Local thespian Gale McNeeley brings a poet cockroach to life

Photo courtesy of Gale Mcneeley
ONE MAN, MANY HATS: Local actor Gale McNeeley enjoys sporting a bowler cap whenever he gets the chance to play Archy the cockroach in his one-man show, adapted from poems by Don Marquis. McNeeley plays more than a dozen different characters during the program, which he’s staged periodically at various venues over the past several years.

For better or worse, some actors are inseparable from certain roles they play well, often, or both. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, for example—or X-ample. 

This year’s Deadpool & Wolverine will mark his umpteenth appearance as the husky mutant, whose adamantium claws Jackman first donned in 2000’s X-Men.

In similar fashion, local stage actor Gale McNeeley is synonymous with an animalistic character he’s portrayed on and off since the ’80s.

“My friend told me, ‘You’d be playing a singing, dancing cockroach,’ and I thought, ‘Well … that sounds like fun,’” recalled McNeeley, who was approached by a colleague to play Archy the cockroach in a 1980 production of archy & mehitabel.

Soon after getting the offer, McNeeley did a deep dive on the musical and its origins.

“When you’re preparing for a show, you go to the root material. So I went to the poems,” said McNeeley, who then began reading oodles of stories penned by Don Marquis, the creator of Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat.

click to enlarge Local thespian Gale McNeeley brings a poet cockroach to life
Image courtesy of Carey Mckinnon
STAGE PRESENCE: In conjunction with its annual board meeting, the Friends of the Library of Santa Ynez Valley presents a free one-man show with Gale McNeeley.

Marquis originated the characters in a daily column in New York’s Evening Sun newspaper in 1916. 

Described as a cockroach with the reincarnated soul of a human poet, Archy is introduced as a personified insect that sneaks onto a typewriter at Marquis’ office late at night to type out his own poems and short stories, often in first person. Mehitabel is one of multiple recurring characters from Archy’s daily life who he decides to write about.

The reason Archy’s name and poems are usually stylized without uppercase letters—such as in the musical archy & mehitabel—is because he can only hop onto one letter at a time, preventing him from holding down the shift key to capitalize anything.

While McNeeley first played the role of Archy in an iteration of the aforementioned musical, he later developed his own distinct stage adaptation of the Marquis’ poems in the form of a one-man show—which he’s bringing to the Santa Ynez Valley Grange Hall in late March.

“I haven’t done this show locally for a number of years. It’s fun to bring the material back,” said McNeeley, who plays Archy, Mehitable, and more than a dozen of Marquis’ other characters during the two-act program he first arranged in 2016 in celebration of the original newspaper column’s 100th birthday.

For his upcoming performance on March 30, McNeeley will present a free, abridged one-act version of his show—cut to about 50 minutes long—at the Grange Hall. The actor described the local venue as capable of accommodating the level of intimacy he’s aiming for.

click to enlarge Local thespian Gale McNeeley brings a poet cockroach to life
Photo courtesy of Gale Mcneeley
A BUG’S LIFE: Gale McNeeley first played Archy, a personified cockroach with the soul of a human poet, in 1980. In 2016, he celebrated the source material by creating a two-act program to honor the 100th anniversary of Don Marquis’ newspaper column. In 2010, he performed an earlier iteration at the University of Pittsburgh (pictured).

“It’s fun to do a stage version, but it’s also very intimate material, so it’s better not to have a huge space,” said McNeeley, who’s previously performed the show at libraries across the Central Coast and occasionally outside the state. “[The Grange Hall is] an intimate space, and the acoustics are good, so you don’t need sound equipment.”

Hearing McNeeley during the performance is crucial, as he’ll use different voices along with physical mannerisms for each character he’s playing.

“Each character has a certain physicality and vocality,” said McNeeley, who described Archy’s voice as high and Mehitabel’s as low and growly. “How I found Mehitable I’ll never know.”

Over the phone with the Sun, McNeeley teased his take on Archy’s alley cat companion with a Southern drawl-infused delivery of the line: “I’ve had my ups and downs.”

Aside from his prolific acting career, McNeeley is locally best known for his teaching work with Youth ARTS Alive, a Santa Maria-based program he founded in 2017 to provide free arts classes for children.

“We train over 200 kids each summer,” McNeeley said, “in dance, music, theater, and visual arts.”

McNeeley’s latest version of his one-man Archy show is sponsored by the Friends of the Library of Santa Ynez Valley, which will hold its annual meeting at the Grange Hall in conjunction with the program. 

Guests of the performance will have the chance to learn about the organization’s upcoming plans and meet its newest board members. While McNeeley recommends the event to anyone interested in learning about the group’s resources, he especially encourages those who are unfamiliar with the cockroach and alley cat and Marquis’ other column characters to attend.

“If you’ve never met Archy and Mehitabel, this is a great way to meet them,” McNeeley said, “and chances are you’re going to want to go read about them after.”

Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood’s favorite cockroach is Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black. Help him feel less alienated at cwiseblood@santamariasun.com.

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