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Lilly director sinks his teeth in

Known as an actor, Damon Kupper also teaches and directs - and finds it's all cake
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Briauna Simmons-Yager, 12, talks to a giant cat during a rehearsal for the Oregon Children’s Theatre production of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.”

When Damon Kupper isn't performing, something he does very well, he's often giving lessons about the meaning of performance.

And he might be even better at that.

Kupper is most visible as an actor and a fixture at Third Rail Repertory Theatre, a troupe that hasn't stopped opening eyes and winning awards since its inception in 2005.

Not a conventional leading man, Kupper is known for bringing physical precision and a clarion, pitchman's voice to roles like the narrator in last season's 'Pavilion' at Third Rail.

He was widely lauded earlier this season for fusing those skills to a character of genuine depth in the Third Rail drama 'Grace.'

Yet performing is only a piece of the puzzle for Kupper, who has long made his living in and around theater.

He made his debut directing an Oregon Children's Theatre production Sunday with the opening of 'Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse' at Keller Auditorium. The play will be seen by thousands of local schoolkids as well as the general public before the run ends this weekend.

'The acting has always been like icing on the cake,' says Kupper, 39. 'I'm cool with the cake. There's kind of a greater good in creating good actors.'

In the theater profession, where outsize egos are never in short supply, Kupper is something of an anomaly: a performer who adamantly downplays his own skills while talking in lofty terms about the importance of sharing information and ideas.

'I've met actors that don't like teaching,' he says. 'For me, it's all part of the same process: storytelling. To me, there's something very humbling about really communicating.'

'Damon has respect for every person he works with in every situation,' says Oregon Children's Theatre's artistic director, Stan Foote, who has worked closely with Kupper in educational programs involving young audiences. 'That's how I knew he could direct.'

For Kupper, who grew up in the central California coastal town of San Luis Obispo, the limelight may be in his blueprint. He says he's got two preachers and a politician in his family tree.

'One of the things that's great about Damon is that he doesn't need a script,' says Slayden Scott Yarbrough, artistic director at Third Rail. 'He's got a real innate sense of what it is to be an entertainer, and he brings that to his work. That's one of his biggest assets.'

Kupper, who holds down teaching gigs that reach everyone from elementary school kids to local college students, spent weekends clowning and making balloon animals at the Portland Saturday Market when he came to town four years ago. Foote says that background is evident in 'Lilly.'

'It's not the straight, realistic vocabulary you see in OCT shows,' he says. 'It's a little more stylized, a lot more physical.'

Foote says the production will feature enough clown work, puppetry and special effects - along with Kupper's heightened stage style - to have 'sort of a circus feel.'

'His style is so physical as an actor. As a director there's a physicality, too. There's this lyrical quality with the movement of the body, almost combining dance and theater. You get the sense of animation with this picture-book world.'

'Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse' is based on a series of popular children's books by Kevin Henkes. Lilly, a mouse, and her mouse friends face a series of challenges involving issues like bullying and resentment of younger siblings.

The play features young stars from recent kid hits such as 'Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing' and 'The Secret Garden.'

He speaks their language

Briauna Simmons-Yager, the da Vinci Arts Middle School sixth-grader who portrays Lilly, gives Kupper high marks.

'He gives criticism, but he does it in a nice way,' she says. 'I really like him. He definitely likes kids.'

'I think it's about being able to speak their language and treat them with respect,' actor Cecily Overman, one of several adults in the production, says. 'He's able to really connect with the kids.

'He's a very gifted performer, but he can go to different realms because it's not just about him and the performance aspect.'

Kupper says he developed his affinity for nonprofessional actors when he used drama therapy to help victims of domestic violence in California.

'I love the opportunity to work with nonactors,' he says. 'A lot of it has to do with creating an environment that's safe for them. That's very critical - finding a way of working that respects them.'

The same goes for children, he maintains. 'It can be a certain sensitivity to their world and what they're dealing with,' Kupper says.

Actor's ready to stretch

Kupper's wide embrace of the theater also serves as a hedge against the unpredictability of the actor's life, a concern for a man who married two and half years ago and now has a 6-month-old son.

Not that Kupper's happiness relies on individual accomplishments on stage.

'I don't need that for my ego,' he says. 'Even if I'm acting up a storm, it depends on who you're with. If you're on a team, you're hoping the whole dragon boat crosses the line first.'

That said, colleagues such as Third Rail's Yarbrough say it may just be a matter of time before audiences see more from Kupper the performer.

'I think it'd be really interesting to see him cast in something kind of dark,' Yarbrough says. 'He's such a nice person, it's difficult to see him in that kind of role, but he's really kind of fearless. I don't know what he can't do.'

For now, he's doing quite a bit.

'To be a working theater professional, he's wearing a lot of different hats,' Oregon Children's Theatre's Foote says, 'and I think he's wearing them pretty well.'

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