Chris Rutherford as Keith Haring: Memories illustrated 

The actor channels the late great artist in a play by local theater legend Jeff Norton.

When Keith Haring: Radiant Child appears at freeFall Theatre this Saturday (as a fundraiser for Metro Charities of Pinellas on World AIDS Day), one key figure will be missing: writer/performer Jeff Norton, who was murdered two years ago, but whose influence continues to be felt in Tampa Bay area theater.

Listen to Kerry Glamsch, longtime friend of Norton’s, and director of this production: “I closed down a bit when Jeff was murdered. Emotionally. I just sort of had to shut down a bit.” And, at first, reading his Haring script “was very unnerving because I heard Jeff. So this has been a journey. Hearing now Chris [Rutherford] do this, I’m able to embrace it more. So it’s been more of a healing journey.” After all, “I always thought of Jeff as an older brother.”

Another person who remembers Norton fondly is Stageworks producing artistic director Anna Brennen, who 21 years ago encouraged Norton to attempt a play about Haring, the celebrated artist who died tragically of AIDS in 1990.

Norton, she says, “would come and sit on my floor and he’d read what he’d written. … He’d improvise — it was an incredible, organic process. … He was a very physical actor. What I found strong and beautiful is when you watched him [as Haring] come to grips in silence with the realization that he had a disease that would kill him — sooner rather than later.” Brennen admiringly remembers Norton performing the piece at the Tampa Museum of Art, and then moving it to a gallery on North Miami Beach. The show, she says, was “pure Jeff.” Meaning? “How does one describe somebody who was unique?” she answers.

And then there’s actor Chris Rutherford, to whom falls the daunting task of both impersonating Haring in this new production, and memorializing Norton. “I met [Norton] when I was a teenager,” Rutherford remembers. “I saw him in a couple of shows, in a Park show at American Stage, and I saw him in The Three Musketeers at USF. And I met him briefly, but I remember him being pretty excellent. … And I remember seeing him in Wit, and he had a very strange Noh theater kind of embrace at the very end of it, one of the first times that I felt I was really seeing theatricalized emotion through movement. So I always had a pretty high level of respect for him.” Rutherford worked with Glamsch to transcribe a video of Norton performing the piece, and says that while his own interpretation will necessarily be different, he’s sure to find inspiration in some of what he observed. “I do think that I will not be able to get away from at least some of the delivery of his first half of the show that I saw,” he says.

As for the play itself, it’s an affecting and illuminating introduction to Haring’s life. Writer Norton shows Haring as a likable, approachable Pennsylvanian-turned-New Yorker, one who rises from being an anonymous graffiti artist to become one of the most celebrated creators on the American scene before his untimely death. According to Norton’s script, Haring was unpretentious, disarmingly sincere, and increasingly attracted to social activism. He was also an anti-elitist who hated the fact that original art was out of reach for most would-be buyers, and who in response opened a New York store offering inexpensive merchandise with his art printed on it. He took flak for that decision — but Glamsch insists that it be remembered that “he was sending a lot of that money to nonprofits, to AIDS prevention, children’s organizations, arts organizations.” Expect Glamsch — one of the best directors in the Bay area — to turn the monologue into a multimedia event.

“I just spent about 20 hours going through and finding slides, art that is specific to the time that he’s talking about, films, music, that sort of thing, so that we have something other than just a guy on stage,” he says. Glamsch partly researched the play by viewing a documentary about Haring and another about the artist’s friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Glamsch says that Haring drew his famous cartoon shapes with amazing facility; watching him at work, he sensed “that he just practiced so much that there was a life coming through him — whether you call that God or the collective unconscious ... that thing that mystics and artists and religious folk believe flows through everything.”

Glamsch is trying to make sure that that force will be present in Saturday’s performance.

“One, it’s a benefit, it’s a good cause. And two, I just think that it’s a really sweet, loving message.”

And will he make any special effort to pay tribute to Jeff Norton during the evening?

Not necessary, he says: “I think the whole show is a tribute.”

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