Ben Ahlers gets a taste of the big time in ‘The Closet’

FDSH alum plays Matthew Broderick’s son

-Submitted photo
Pictured from left to right are Will Cobbs, Ben Ahlers, Matthew Broderick, Jessica Hecht, Ann Harada, Raymond Bokhour, Playwright Douglas Carter Beane. In the back row are Director Mark Brokaw and Brooks Ashmaskas.

It may not be Broadway, but it’s certainly in the right neighborhood.

Fort Dodge Senior High graduate Ben Ahlers is living out his dream, not to mention stepping closer to his career on the stage, this summer as he appears on-stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival alongside Tony Award winner and Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Matthew Broderick, in a world premiere comedy called “The Closet.”

“I am really, really excited,” Ahlers said earlier this season just before flying off to rehearsals. “A lot of the people in this show are Tony winners, and have just so much experience. I’m really fortunate and really grateful I get to work with them. Not just work with them, but actually do work with them.”

The production, hailed as one of “the best new plays in recent memory” by TheaterMania, is now playing through July 14. Ahlers plays the role of Broderick’s character’s son, working with actors including Jessica Hecht and Brooks Ashmanskas.

“It’s from one of the best playwrights in the business right now, Douglas Carter Beane, who won a Tony in 2007 for ‘The Little Dog Laughed,'” Ahlers said. “And Mark Brokaw, who directed a bunch of really respected plays and musicals off-Broadway and on Broadway.

“It’s great material. I think it’s really funny.”

Ahlers’ work at Williamstown will continue in August when he will perform in the revival of “The Member of the Wedding,” which was written in the 1950s.

It’s the result of hard work and study Ahlers has done at the University of Michigan, where he’s just completed his junior year in the musical theater department.

“It’s through them that I got this opportunity. The chair of our department has been a great mentor for me. His name is Vince Cardinal,” Ahlers said. “Before I headed into this break to go to rehearsal, and I just said, I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been in this level of a production before.

“He said, it’s everything you’ve prepared for. They’re just people who are going to work together to put on a show. Do the preparation you’ve learned in school, handle yourself in the room the way you’ve prepared in shows at school, and go have fun.”

Ahlers credits Fort Dodge with giving him a good start on his career path.

“I was so fortunate to be in a wonderful community like Fort Dodge. They gave me so many opportunities to just fall in love with performing,” he said.

He started out in Creative Concepts shows, run by Cassie Langstaff. He was in a production of “Oliver” when he was six, and once played the mayor of Munchkin City in “The Wizard of Oz.” He later performed in that show again with Comedia Musica, this time as the scarecrow.

“At school I did Billy Crocker in “Anything Goes,” Joe Hardy in “Damn Yankees,” and Jimmy Smith in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” all at the high school. At Hawkeye I was Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is still one of my fondest memories theatrically.”

In college, he said, is where you really start to learn the craft.

“You learn what you have to do to prepare. You learn how to handle yourself in rehearsal, and how to communicate with the director, and dig into the text,” he said.

Last summer Ahlers performed with the Wagon Wheel Theater Company in Warsaw, Indiana, six different shows of 11 performances each — fun productions that provided a good counterpoint for all that hard work.

“That’s the thing, I think when you get into the grind of becoming a better actor in school, you can forget that it’s fun,” he said. “That was a perfect mix of, I was on stage so much, so I found the love of it again. Sometimes when you get bogged down in the technical skill aspect of it, it can get pretty grueling. So to just go out there and do “Young Frankenstein” and “Newsies” and “Footloose,” just to have fun with your friends.”

The current play, “The Closet,” is funny with a lot of heart, Ahlers said. It follows a man who works at a Catholic supply company whose life is going downhill. Things change when a stranger named Ronnie sashays into his life.

“It’s very funny, very witty. Very politically incorrect in a tasteful way,” Ahlers said.

“Member of the Wedding” concerns a black woman living in the south in 1945. As a nanny for two white children, she grapples with having one foot in two worlds, Ahlers said.

Ahlers plays one of the neighborhood boys in that production.

“I think this play is long overdue for a revival. It’s directed by Lila Neugebauer, who is one of the premiere directors of today,” Ahlers said. “It’s starring Tavi Gevinson, who has done a lot of stuff in theatre and film. She’s 21, so she’s my age.

“I’m going to learn from everybody I interact with, and I’m excited to learn from what they’re bringing to the table.”

The university has done a great job of demystifying the business, Ahlers said, and providing opportunities to interact with big-name actors.

Award winners like Broderick can seem almost mystic, he said, but “the reality is they’re just real people, who enjoy doing what they’re doing. And I can learn a lot from them as an actor and as a person. They’ve just had such illustrious careers that I feel really, really lucky to be, not a fly on the wall but a collaborator with them.”

Aside from that, the experience itself is something that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

“I’m really looking forward to being in New York for rehearsals, and taking the subway to rehearsals, and just feeling like I’m on the right track to being a working professional in this industry,” Ahlers said before heading there earlier in the summer. “I haven’t wrapped my head around any of it yet. I’m still kind of waiting for it all to sink in.”