Is Paul Potenza the Lon Chaney of Tampa Bay? Chaney, the film actor dubbed “The Man of 1,000 Faces” for his ability to transform himself into grotesque but sympathetic characters via physical alterations and heavy makeup, lived and worked in the 1920s.
An even century later, there’s Paul Potenza, who plays the hideously deformed title character in The Elephant Man, the Tampa Repertory Theatre production of the dark British drama opening Thursday. Potenza was last seen in Jobsite’s Dracula as Renfield, the bug-eating asylum dweller, and before that as the grumpy narrator of the freak-show musical Shockheaded Peter.
He’s been performing on local stages for 40-some years, and the CV is full of odd, weird, left-of-center characters. Edgar Alan Poe in Edgar & Emily, a tortured, alcoholic poet living in squalor in Annapurna, a mentally disabled abuse victim and murderer in The Pillowman.
“They’re probably a safe haven, because you get to hide behind more,” he says. “I know that I wind up enjoying them. You can really disappear.”
There have been others, lots of others – he once stole the show as persnickety Felix Unger in The Odd Couple – but it’s the weirdos that Potenza inevitably makes his own and burrows into.
Playing John Merrick in The Elephant Man has been on his bucket list for a while. “I am not a leading man,” he states. “Certainly with John Merrick, the physical demands of the role … I understand that I’m not going to be able to do it forever, so given the opportunity I’d like to try. Without making a fool of myself.”
In the Tampa Rep production, directed by Emilia Sargent, Potenza is joined by Christopher Marshall as the doctor who discovers Merrick in a carnival sideshow, the object of fear and contempt because of his grotesque features.
Potenza is playing Merrick without the use of prosthetics.
“Towards the beginning of the play,” he explains, “Dr. Treves describes the afflictions and physical abnormalities of John Merrick. From the size of his head to the problem with his jaw to his lip turning over. To the right arm being enormous-sized, the left hand looking like a paddle and tuberous roots.
“As he describes them, I become them.”
Theater is truly a labor of love for the Oldsmar resident, who’s worked – often – at every professional house in Tampa and St. Pete but never bothered going after an Equity card, because he already has a full-time job, thanks very much.
Potenza has owned Design 1 Jewelers, in Clearwater’s Countryside neighborhood, for 42 years. He does jewelry design and repair, and is a certified goldsmith (a sign by the front door says as much).
“I got my piece of paper from a school, but it certainly did not make me a goldsmith,” he says, adding that the school in question (Gem City College in Quincy, Illinois) “gave me some skills, but it’s how you put those skills forward.”
He put them forward by working hard, six (and more) days a week. He signed on as an apprentice at Design1 in 1979, after deciding to pull the reins on his probably pointless psychology studies at St. Petersburg Junior College.
That was just a couple of years after he’d moved to Clearwater, at the age of 17, with his parents. Dad sold his successful Queens, N.Y. cement business and retired to Florida; as the youngest child and the only one still living at home, Paul had to come with them, something he deeply resented at the time.
He got over it.
Everything changed when Paul’s cousin Louis moved to the area and started picking up acting gigs with the Royalty Theatre Group.
Paul Potenza’s first show, with the Little Theatre of Clearwater, was the western melodrama Dead-Eye Dick, or a Game of Gold, based on the old-timey dime novels about heroes and villains.
“I played a character called Chet Pussy,” Potenza laughs, “a bartender. They put you in a semicircle for the audition, and my heart was coming out of my chest. I was trying to combine Jerry Lewis with Walter Brennan, something like that. And they just loved it, and I got cast. And I’m still friends with many of the people from that show.”
(Potenza insists he was not a “cut-up or impersonator” as a kid; his world revolved around The Honeymooners and old horror movies on TV.)
At his new friends’ suggestion, he began reading plays. “That was a big thing for me,” he says. “I was basically a sports page guy. If I didn’t have to do it for school, I wasn’t going to do it.”
His interest in theater dovetailed with his increasing skill as a jeweler. Eventually he bought out the co-owners of Design 1.
As his confidence as a performer grew, so did his resolve. To audition for the role of Mozart in Amadeus, “I studied for a year … if I wouldn’t have gotten that role, I don’t think I’m acting any more.”
He got the part.
Once he thew himself into stagecraft, “I never stopped. I used to do three, four plays in a year, no problem. I’d go to work, then go home, shower, change, rehearsal, and then off to O’Keefe’s – the Sardi’s of the South – where all the theater people hung out. It was awesome.”
He auditioned, and was chosen for, a Stageworks production of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s moving, semi-autobiographical play about the AIDS epidemic. After that, Potenza says, “I met a lot of people who were working in a different echelon of theater. More professional. You were getting paid for it. And I made my way.”
Potenza married actress Roz Guzzo 32 years ago. They remain blissfully happy together.
He and David M. Jenkins, who founded Jobsite in 1998, became thick as thieves. Potenza performed with the Eckerd Theater Company, The Loft Theater, Tampa Players, Stageworks, freeFall and American Stage, as well as Jobsite.
He put a lot of stock in his friendship with David Frankel, who taught theater at the University of South Florida and co-founded Tampa Repertory Theater.
“We were good friends,” Potenza explains, “but our friendship was based on the New York Yankees and not on theater. I would see him at the theater, go talk at the theater, we’d see each other’s plays. He did a play called Yogi – It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over. He played Yogi Berra.
“We hung out. We’d get lunch, have a catch, go to Yankees games. We just did it for years.”
The Elephant Man was on a short list of shows they wanted to do together. “The person that plays John Merrick has to take it on, physically as well as mentally. And that always fascinated me.”
Frankel greenlit The Elephant Man in December 2019; he died the following March from cancer.
Then Covid happened, Tampa Rep closed down, schedules went out the window, venues became available, then unavailable … and three years later, Paul Potenza finally gets to transform into John Merrick.
Does he get nervous? Sometimes, sure.
“What I’m about now is the most preparation,” he says. “I go to my read-throughs off book, basically. I want to absorb words. I don’t know that I can do it without that any more. I want to be incredibly prepared, so that the physical, and what happens with working with someone across the table from me, because I don’t have to worry about the words. It’s a stress that I’ve removed, and that’s a big deal.”
In March, he’ll direct David Jenkins and Summer Bohnenkamp in the stage adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery at Jobsite.
Working with gold – on the jewelry bench, or in a rehearsal room – is something Paul Potenza finds quite fulfilling.
“This is a gift,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of dreams come true. So many plays … I don’t take it for granted.”
For tickets and information on The Elephant Man, click here.