A seemingly absurd theme park encounter more than two decades ago changed the trajectory of Chase Padgett’s career.
The actor-singer-musician, then a high school senior in Florida, was visiting Universal Studios Theme Park when he was squirted with water by a “mystic talking fountain.” The fountain asked the teen what he wanted to do when he grew up. Padgett said he intended to move to Chicago and study improv with The Second City comedy troupe.
“The fountain said ‘Cool, don’t do that.’” Padgett recalled. “‘You need to go check out a place called the SAK Comedy Lab here in Orlando.’”
It was a head-scratcher of an exchange, but Padgett followed its instructions.
“That conversation with that talking fountain ended up changing my entire life,” he said.
The voice behind the theme park installation turned out to be that of Jay Hopkins, Padgett’s future improv coach at the SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando who has been the voice of the fountain character for some 20 years.
In the decade following their serendipitous theme park meeting in 2000, the pair went on to develop a friendship and artistic partnership that has resulted in numerous collaborations, perhaps none more popular than “6 Guitars,” their one-man, tour-de-force show starring Padgett, which premiered in 2010 and has since criss-crossed North America and played to tens of thousands of theatregoers.
It’s returning to Toronto’s CAA Theatre this week for the first time since 2018, after its previous engagement in March 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“I’ve been wanting to do this particular run of shows in Toronto for years,” said Padgett. “To be back here feels like the start of a return to normal.”
In “6 Guitars,” Padgett plays six different guitarists, each coming from a different musical background: blues, jazz, rock, classical, folk and country. The two-hour show weaves together music, comedy and improv into a story that follows the six characters and their relationship with guitar music.
“It’s an exploration of music, particularly different styles of music, and how everyone thinks they’re so different, but there’s something to be found in all these different styles that actually brings us all together,” said Hopkins, who is the show’s director and co-writer.
The show’s development process, which began in 2007, just after Padgett graduated college, is grounded in improv theatre. While most playwrights start with an outline and type their scripts on a computer, Padgett and Hopkins conducted mock interviews.
Padgett embodied each of the six characters, improvising answers to Hopkins’s questions about their lives and musical careers. The pair recorded those mock interviews and used the transcripts to create story arcs which ultimately formed “6 Guitars.”
“It was so much fun just creating the show spontaneously that way through improvisation and videotaping it so not to let (those moments) disappear,” said Hopkins.
Though Padgett is about to mark 700 performances of “6 Guitars” over a decade (not including a two-year pandemic hiatus), the piece continues to be a work in progress. He’s expanded the piece from one act to two and added additional songs. In July, he added a backing band for the first time in the production’s history.
“It’s an iterative process,” said Padgett. “I know what it’s like to do a show that’s set and done. It becomes a museum piece.
“For me, I want this to continue to grow as I continue to grow.”
Padgett draws upon his previous experience as a theme park entertainer to keep “6 Guitars” fresh. (The 39-year-old performer admitted Florida theme parks have played a surprisingly large role in his development as an artist.)
While a music student at the University of Central Florida, Padgett picked up gigs at Disney World and Universal Studios.
“It was such a valuable entertainer education,” he said. “You really learn the skill of entertaining and holding an audience’s focus when you do it seven times a day, five days a week, for years.”
But Padgett credits the show’s unbridled success largely to its core message, which has remained untouched since the production’s inception.
“The key strength is its universality,” he said. “It touches on the beauty, and the sort of secret divinity, folded into every song and melody.”
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