An Officer and an Actor

Elizabeth Parfitt
January 01, 2003

“I have always been fascinated by the qualities of great leaders,” says actor Tyrus Lemerande.

The desire to be a leader himself led him, at age 20, after two years in the Navy, to apply to the Naval Academy. “I had joined up right out of high school and qualified as a nuclear technician,” Lemerande, now 32, remembers. “Then I decided I wanted to be a pilot.”

man on wooden throne covered in flag
Tyrus Lemerande

Tyrus Lemerande as Shakespeare's Henry V, "the consummate leader."

His father had attended the Academy, along with a brother, half-brother, and half-sister. When he was accepted, Lemerande thought his career was set. He would be a “mustang,” one of the few to rise in the ranks from enlisted man to officer. Like the horse, he might be tamed, but he would always retain that wild spirit and survival instinct. “It gives you a special perspective when you make that leap,” he says. “Changes your outlook.”

But when cadet Lemerande blew out his knee in a game of pickup basketball, his dream of becoming a pilot vanished. He continued, was commissioned as a lieutenant, and began a professional career with the Navy. But a new dream was growing.

It began in a somewhat roundabout way. After getting cut from the baseball team and losing a student-council election, he spotted an advertisement on campus for the Academy's theater group, The Masqueraders. The troupe was performing selections from the medieval English Mystery Plays, which recount Biblical events from the Creation to the Last Judgment. By the time Lemerande had finished a ten-minute reading as God, he had won over the director. “He said, ‘I don't know where I'm gonna use you, but I'm gonna use you,'” Lemerande says now. “And I remember walking out that day thinking, I have found my spot at the Naval Academy.”

Over the next four years, Lemerande performed in seven shows. He also participated in master classes with visiting professionals who introduced him to the idea that he could make acting a career.

After graduating in 1994 and receiving his commission, Lemerande took an assignment as a public-affairs officer, first in Annapolis and then at the Pentagon. He served as print-media coordinator for All Hands Magazine, the official magazine of the Naval Academy. But all the while he was thinking of something else.

He made monthly trips to New York for acting classes with Patricia Norcia, a Broadway actor best known for her adaptations of the Draper Monologues, and also a theater professor at Rutgers University. She helped prepare Lemerande for graduate-school auditions. He retired as a lieutenant in 1999, after being accepted to graduate school at Penn State.

It took some adjustment. “It's like having two lives,” Lemerande acknowledges. “But it's been a great adventure so far.” His Navy experience, he says, had prepared him well. “A lot of acting is life experience. When I got here, even though I hadn't been a professional actor, I did have professional experience. I knew how to do a job and do it well.”

And studying acting, Lemerande quickly found, let him look back on the military and better understand some of the values that had inspired him to become an officer. His main vehicle for this exploration was Shakespeare. “Shakespeare raises the same issues of leadership that young officers graduating from the Naval Academy deal with every day,” Lemerande says. Issues like growing up, gaining responsibility, and putting other lives above your own. “There are some people who only care about the pomp of being an officer, the gold braid, the ceremony. And there are some people who know that none of that matters.”

The Shakespearean character he found to best embody leadership was Henry V. “Henry was the ultimate motivator, the consummate leader—always putting his men before himself. He has always been a hero of mine,” Lemerande says. “I've always felt a kinship with him.”

Over the course of three plays, he explains, Henry develops from a callow youth into a mature warrior king. Much like an enlisted man transformed into a Navy lieutenant, Henry is forced to grow up and assume the responsibilities of leadership. “I joke with people that Henry was the original mustang. In a day he went from being ordinary nobility to royalty. That changes a man, it changes his responsibilities.”

man leans over chair and poses
Tyrus Lemerande

Lemerande in a publicity still for the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express.

In the final play in the trilogy, Henry V, Henry takes charge and leads his troops to victory. “They succeed because of the strength of Henry's character,” Lemerande says. “Because of his ability to inspire his troops. The whole play is about the sacrifices those in power have to make in order to protect their country and do their jobs as leaders. As a military person, I know that those sacrifices are extremely difficult.”

When Lemerande learned that the final project required of all M.F.A. acting students at Penn State was to perform a one-man show, it didn't take him long to decide which play to tackle. “I decided to adapt Henry V

That was no easy mark. To begin, Lemerande faced the daunting task of cutting a three-hour script down to one hour. Cutting Shakespeare. “Instead of looking at what I wanted to cut,” he says, “I started by looking at what I wanted to keep.” He knew he needed to retain the structural device of the Chorus character, which provides exposition at the beginning of each act. “Then I went back and looked at the speeches and interactions that shed the most light on the character of the king.”

One of Lemerande's goals was to share his love of Shakespeare's language. “It is a lot easier to provide clarity with a text that is contemporary,” he acknowledges, “because our ears are more attuned to the sounds and rhythms and patterns of contemporary speech. As a Shakespearean actor, you really have to work to make the audience listen to the language, to feel its power. It's amazing how much more accessible the work becomes as an actor, when your goal is to become connected to the audience, rather than to stand on stage making declaratory statements.”

In the final production, performed at last year's Graduate Exhibition, Lemerande portrayed six different characters, on a bare stage, with no props beyond a throne and a flag. Yet, especially in Henry's great exhortations, inspiring his troops and letting them know that they are all fighting together for one great cause, he commanded the entire auditorium. In these moments, Lemerande seemed to draw actor and officer together in the person of a king:

In Peace, there's nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness, and humility:
But when the blast of War blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the Tiger . .
Follow your Spirit; and upon this Charge,
Cry, God for Harry, England, and Saint George.

Tyrus Lemerande graduated in May 2002 with an M.F.A. in acting from the College of Arts and Architecture. Lemerande's performance of A Little Touch of Harry in the Night: A One-Man Adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, earned him second place for performance at the 2002 Graduate Exhibition. He now performs with the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, a traveling theatre company based in Staunton, Virginia.

Last Updated January 01, 2003