When Stephen Underwood was 15 years old, he discovered his unique physical gift: He could hold his breath longer than any of his peers.
“It was a Boy Scouts camp, and we had a contest to see who could swim under the docks while holding their breath,” Underwood said. “I was not a competent or confident athlete, but I had a large lung capacity.”
He won the contest, and has been swimming and diving since.
Now 57, Underwood opens his one-man theater show, “UnderwaterGuy,” at St. Lawrence Arts in Portland this week. It is the final show of the season for Good Theater, the company in residence at St. Lawrence.
Underwood is co-founder of the theater company and partner of Good Theater artistic director Brian Allen.
Allen tells a story about answering a phone call for Underwood at their Scarborough home. Allen knew Underwood was home, but couldn’t find him because Underwood was in the tub practicing holding his breath. “He’ll call you back in five minutes,” Allen told the caller.
“UnderwaterGuy” combines under-water photos and videos with the story of Underwood’s life in the water. It’s about 80 minutes long, with a few props, a large projection screen as a backdrop and a fabric stage set that suggests an aquatic motif.
Underwood appears in casual dress, and tells his story as a monologue with comedic elements. As an actor, Underwood is known for creating multiple personalities with his body and voice, and uses those skills in this show.
He’s been writing “UnderwaterGuy” for several years, and perfected it with the help of New York-based director and acting coach Cheryl King.
The two met at an improvisation camp, and Underwood has taken writing workshops with King many times.
A DIVING LIFE
As director, King helped Underwood refine and focus “UnderwaterGuy” so it tells a theatrical story that’s nearly fully autobiographical. The only made-up part of the piece is a fictional water university. Otherwise, all the stories he tells and the dozen or so characters he portrays are from his diving life.
“We deliberately avoided trying to make it a play,” King wrote in an e-mail. “All the beautiful video was a major part of what we wanted to feature, and play format would not have allowed for that. We didn’t want to contrive something, so we decided to make it funny and captivating, to find out what we loved about his journey and put it on the stage in a coherent story that builds toward a point, in which the audience can go along for the same ride Steve did.”
Although he has been swimming all his life, Underwood began free-diving when he turned 50. That means he dives without an oxygen tank, holding his breath as he explores the depths of a lake or ocean. His personal record is a depth of 130 feet, and the longest he has gone without breathing under water is 51/2 minutes.
His love of water exploration has taken him all over the world, and eventually led to underwater photography and videography. He has filmed in more than 80 Maine rivers, lakes and ponds, as well as favorite diving spots from the Caribbean to the Hawaiian islands. Multimedia elements include his high-def video, as well as slides from family vacations when he was a kid – and a revealing picture of Allen during one of their vacations together.
Audiences who have enjoyed Underwood’s comedic portrayals on stage will enjoy this show, Allen said. It combines the actor’s stage prowess with his personal story and interests.
“To see him bring his writing, his multi-character stuff and his love of the water and his talents of underwater photography together is perfect,” Allen said. “It’s a showcase for our patrons who love him.”
King believes she and Underwood have created a show that’s unique in theater.
“Lots of solo shows are autobiographical, so that part is not at all unusual, but his approach is,” she wrote. “The show is about half narrative and half video, and about half the video is overlaid with narrative, so it’s beautifully melded into a whole. I have never seen a show like what we have created, which is sort of documentary with performance. Or a performance with documentary.”
Underwood grew up in Massachusetts, and his earliest memories are swimming with his family on vacations.
“I’ve always just been really comfortable in the water, and I can swim for a long time,” he said.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: