Soap opera star Walt WIlley offers acting tips to Joliet students
Known to "All My Children" fans as Jackson Montgomery
Published: Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015 8:12 p.m. CST
By BOB OKON
JOLIET – To be or not to be?
That was not the only question Karen Perez faced while rehearsing her role as Hamlet for an all-female performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
“What’s your moment-before here?” actor Walt Willey said to Perez, a Joliet Central High School senior. “You’re probably getting pretty tired of hearing moment-before. But it’s important.”
“I’m really depressed,” Perez replied.
“I don’t know if you’re depressed,” Willey said. “But you are in despair. Depressed is not a very active word. Despair is.”
Pointing out that Hamlet is called “the melancholy prince,” Willey advised Perez to explore the meaning of “melancholy” to understand the character more deeply.
“Of all the royals dealt with by Shakespeare, Hamlet is probably the least confident,” Willey said.
Soap operas and the Old West
Willey’s biggest acting success came as the character Jackson Montgomery in the soap opera, “All My Children.”
He was easily recognized by the women who made Willey show his identification card before walking through the metal detectors just like everyone else as he arrived at Joliet Central last week. Then, they insisted on taking pictures with him.
Observers of Willey working with high school students might gain a new appreciation for how much experience and knowledge of theater an actor might have before appearing in soaps – even one such as “All My Children,” which had a 41-year run before the final episode in 2011.
“My mom adores him,” said Infinity Frazier, a senior at Joliet Central, who performed a scene from Shakespeare’s “Richard III” for Willey. “She was like, ‘I love him. I used to watch him in “All My Children.” ”
The show, which will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Joliet West High School, explores the life and times of Wild Bill Hickok, the Old West legend who grew up in Troy Grove, not far from Willey’s hometown of Ottawa.
Willey has done the show at 20 high schools since 2012, sharing his time and a portion of the proceeds with school theater departments. The Joliet high schools will get 20 percent of the proceeds from the two shows.
Before his public performance, Willey will do a “Wild Bill!” show for students. Hickok is not the familiar figure to today’s students that he was when Willey was growing up and Westerns were a TV staple. But students get interested in the man who was a spy for the Union army during the Civil War before going West, where his legend grew as a scout, gambler and gunfighter.
“When I do it for the students, I’m always amazed at the questions afterward. They want to know more,” Willey said.
Then, he said, “I’m always surprised when I don’t just get questions about ‘All My Children.’ ”
High school theater
Willey appears to enjoy what he’s doing.
He and Joliet Central drama teacher Joe Hoyt got into a spirited discussion about high school theater and the quirks of student actors.
“I thought, if you could do all guys in Shakespeare’s day, why can’t you do all female?” Hoyt said to Willey, commenting that male actors playing female parts when Hamlet was first performed. “To me, a piece like ‘Hamlet,’ you have to have talent. We have that talent.”
“As long as it’s not seen as a gimmick,” Willey said. “I would hope the judges understand the state of theater today in American high schools, which is try to find three guys.”
Getting guys to perform in high school theater has become a challenge, Willey said. That was not a problem when he was an Ottawa High School student.
“We got the girls, and we didn’t have to have concussions on Friday nights,” he said. “It made sense to me.”
Hoyt said Willey’s work with students re-engages them. Hearing him talk about such things as moment-before and motivation gives renewed importance to what they learn in drama class.
“It’s great when you bring in someone who the kids see as an expert,” Hoyt said. “All of a sudden, they say, ‘We know that!’ ”
Listening to Willey talk about Wild Bill Hickok, it’s apparent he follows his own advice about learning a character’s depth. He rattles off facts about not only Hickok but life in the Old West.
He talks about reading Hickok’s letters and finding the words “onceth” and “twiceth,” which helped him learn the way Hickok may have talked.
He talks about Hickok wearing his hair long after it was no longer fashionable because men who fought in the Civil War were cutting their hair short to keep it from becoming infested with nits in camp.
He talks about Hickok’s marksmanship and style of actually “shooting from the hip,” which made the phrase part of the American lexicon.
“I think you have to understand the world a man lived in to understand the man,” he said, “just like these kids here trying to understand Shakespeare.”
If you go
What: “Wild Bill! An Evening with James Butler Hickok”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Joliet West High School auditorium, 401 N. Larkin Ave.
Tickets: $20 in advance; $25 at the door. Order by phone at or online at showtix4u.com.