Jim Stewart inhabited theater like it was a character in a play.
Theater was the way he connected to other people, it was his gift that he continually shared with others.
He could teach a shy actor how to do a spit take. He saw a potential Hamlet reciting performance poetry in a Janesville coffee shop. He let the players instead of the props occupy the stage. He had a vision for the characters, but instead of telling his actors what to do, he would lead them to it.
Stewart, 53, left this earthly stage May 8 at University Hospital in Madison. He is survived by his three children, Kate, Andrew and Danny, and a large cast of actors that he inspired, encouraged and supported.
Stewart’s theater career spanned his whole adult life. In the early 1990s, Stewart co-founded the Rolling Meadows Arts Center in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. He also spent time as the artistic director for the Warminster Community Theater in Warminster, Pennsylvania. After his family moved to the Houston, Texas, area, Stewart acted and directed at the University of Houston and a variety of community theaters and also worked as a production assistant at both the Houston Children’s Theater Festival and the Houston Shakespeare Festival.
Stewart moved to Janesville in 2015, and in the few short years he was here, he worked with Stage One, Beloit Civic Theatre and Janesville Little Theatre, serving as an actor, director and board member.
The amount and quality of work he did was especially impressive because shortly after he arrived, he suffered a massive heart attack and stroke that left him with significant loss of function in one arm and leg.
Four years later, during the month before he died, he was directing two plays: “Three Tall Women” for Stage One and “The Dixie Swim Club” for Janesville Little Theatre.
Theater seemed to keep him going.
Actors and friends who worked with him said he stood out from other directors.
“He was a very collaborative director,” said Mike Mugnani, who shared a stage with Stewart and was directed by him, as well.
Stewart had a good understanding of character, Mugnani said. He helped actors inhabit their characters in a way that went far beyond reading lines in an affected voice.
But it wasn’t his way to tell actors how to read or interpret, said Michelle Dennis, who worked with him in a variety of shows.
“He asked a lot of questions,” Dennis said. “He’d ask, ‘Why do you think the character said that?’ or ‘What was the playwright’s intent?’ And then he’d let people think about it.”
Stewart gave people the tools to become better actors—tools they could take with them after the show was over.
Dennis, who has been in a variety of shows, said Stewart helped her become Big Mama in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Jim had this way of kindly, gently, prodding people to do a little better,” Dennis said. “I’m really grateful to him for helping me find that character inside of me. He asked me questions, helped me investigate. He showed me how to let go of Michelle and be Big Mama.”
Pat Thom, who has worked with a variety of theater groups, said Stewart made a “remarkable impact” on the local theater scene in the few years he was here.
“Jim had a directing style that encouraged actors to stretch beyond their usual limits while feeling comfortable doing it. He was definitely an actor’s director,” Thom wrote in an email to the Gazette. “Being an actor himself helped Jim to connect and develop trust with his actors. This created a safe environment where actors could explore, reach new depths and create more fully developed characters.”
Stewart was the man who saw Brandon Todd Pederson’s potential.
Pederson was reading performance poetry at Mocha Moment. Stewart was there to see his daughter perform on one of the many musical instruments she plays.
Stewart recruited him to play Spike in “Vanya, Sonja, Marsha and Spike.”
It was Pederson’s first time on stage.
“He had more confidence in you as an actor than you had in yourself,” Pederson said. “He helped me fall in love with theater.”