Randy Kohlruss — an aspiring actor from Clovis — played a sociopath on speed this summer in a local production of “The Who’s Tommy,” a rock musical. A reviewer called him “a standout.”
He wasn’t supposed to be able to play mean and menacing characters. At least, that’s what a teacher at a famous acting school in Hollywood told him. His eyes were too gentle, the teacher said.
“I worked on the character in ‘Tommy’ more than on any other I’ve ever played,” said Kohlruss, a 2012 graduate of Clovis High School. “I tried to capture the frustration I feel in not being exactly where I want to be in life right now.”
Kohlruss is back in the Valley after a stint in Hollywood helped hone his skills but also hit him hard emotionally. Yet he’s not giving up on becoming a professional actor.
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Performing has given him an identity and helped him understand himself and others since he was a boy.
Kohlruss started performing at age 8 at the Cynthia Merrill School of Performing Arts in Fresno. “The people there made me want to stay,” he said. “They were passionate about performing, and I was passionate.” Kohlruss performed there — it later became the California Arts Academy — until he was 16.
Shy as a boy, he at first played supporting roles in productions — many of them musicals based on well-known stories. “I liked singing, and I liked being someone else. Classic literature also fascinated me, and performing in front of an audience made me feel good,” he said.
Kohlruss also performed in shows at Clark Intermediate School, and at Clovis High he found a supportive drama teacher in Susan Kehler. “She helped me a lot in four years,” Kohlruss said.
One of his biggest roles at Clovis High was playing a man who dresses as a woman in the musical comedy “Sugar.”
“It was good to stand out, even if you were in a dress,” Kohlruss said chuckling.
At Clovis High, he discovered that he preferred acting roles to singing roles. “I like talking, and that’s not as self centered as it seems. I like the reality of acting. The honesty of it is great. The more I can put myself in someone’s shoes, the happier I am as a performer,” Kohlruss said.
After high school, he tried community college but quit and spent the next year convincing his parents, Craig and Donna Kohlruss, that he needed to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Hollywood. They finally agreed.
The academy has many well-known alumni. Jessica Chastain, Paul Rudd and Adam Scott are among a younger generation of graduates, while older graduates include Robert Redford, Kirk Douglas and Danny DeVito.
Kohlruss took classes in acting, movement, stage combat, voice and special dialects, Shakespeare, theater history and more.
Other lessons came from living in a city where many people are chasing a career in show business. “There are not a lot of nice people in L.A., at least that I knew,” Kohlruss said.
He went to Hollywood planning to audition for television or movie work but left without having done it, in part, because of a breakup with a longtime girlfriend.
“There were too many things going on in my head to focus,” Kohlruss said.
He returned to Clovis last fall. Two big opportunities came this summer at StageWorks Fresno, a theater company run by Joel Abels, the drama teacher at Clovis North High School.
Kohlruss got the part of Cousin Kevin in “The Who’s Tommy.”
“Kevin was a little nuts, to put it mildly,” Kohlruss said. “He was a sociopath on methamphetamine.”
Donald Munro, arts writer for The Fresno Bee, wrote that Kohlruss’ performance captured “the crackling appeal of this show: He practically palpitates with a ferocious, sleazy intensity . . .”
Kohlruss next appeared in “Casa Valentina,” another summer show presented by StageWorks Fresno at Clovis North’s Dan Pessano Theatre. “Casa Valentina” tells the real story of a group of men in the early 1960s who met at a hotel in upstate New York to dress as women.
While the play had humor, “It was not men dressing in drag to be funny,” Kohlruss said. “Honesty and reality is what I was striving for.”
His character was Michael/Gloria. Michael was a former fraternity boy who bragged about his sexual conquests, graduated from an Ivy League school and owned a business. Gloria, who wore a blonde wig and dressed stylishly, was a combination of Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe, Kohlruss said.
He was “a little fearful” of playing the role because of the Valley’s conservatism, he said. “But once I decided to do it, I owned it. It was scary, but theater is always scary,” he said. “Capturing the masculine part of the character while wearing pantyhose was tough.”
Abels, who co-directed “Tommy” and acted in “Casa Valentina,” said he “truly enjoyed” working with Kohlruss. “From a director’s standpoint, he is an intensely dedicated actor always making choices and searching for the truth, which absolutely comes through on stage,” Abels said. “Working with him as an actor is great, too, as there is always so much to work with in a scene. He is the real deal.”
Kohlruss hopes to keep acting locally while attending Fresno City College.
In December, Kohlruss will appear in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which tells the backstory of Peter Pan. StageWorks Fresno will present the show at the Fresno Art Museum.
Performing keeps him focused on his goal of returning to Hollywood.
“I can just see it,” Kohlruss said of a performing career. “I have a strong support system of family, friends and loved ones who see it, too. I don’t want to let them down, and I want to be happy. This is what I’m happy doing.”