Hometown Storyteller Making His Way on Stage and TV
You may recognize Fort Dodge native Ben Ahlers from the many school and community theatre productions he has been in over the past several years. He often shared his talents in acting and singing with the Fort Dodge community, starting at the age of six. Even at that young age, he had dreams of making a career as a stage and TV actor. In hopes of reaching his goals, he has been furthering his education at the University of Michigan. As his dreams are starting to come true, he is eager to share his experience with the community he loves and will always call home.
What attracted you to begin a career as an actor?
I decided I wanted to pursue a career as an actor when I was able to recognize and appreciate the power and importance of storytelling. Human beings have been telling stories around campfires since the beginning of time, and I feel challenged and invigorated by taking on that responsibility.
Was there someone local that inspired this career? Or was it someone you saw on TV or stage that inspired you to take on this career?
My mom, Susan Ahlers Leman, was always my hero growing up. She performed around the community fairly consistently during my childhood, and I always found myself in awe of the magic of theater because of that. I was truly able to see my mom “become” other people in a story, and that hooked me from then on. As I’ve continued to meet people over my journey into figuring all of this out, many of them have inspired me in different ways of how I can be a better artist and person. The impetus, though, was that I really just couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.
What was your very first show?
My very first show was Creative Concepts’ production of Oliver, directed by the late Cassie Langstaff. I was six years old, and I played an orphan and pick-pocket.
Of the roles you have played, amateur or professional, which is your favorite?
Originating the role of Jack O’Reilly in Douglas Carter Beane’s new play, “The Closet,” this past summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival has to be at the very top of the list. I was so lucky to work with the most talented, generous, and hilarious group of individuals I’ve ever met. Clowning around with Matthew Broderick, Jessica Hecht, Ann Harada, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Ray Bokhour every day for two months was an absolute dream come true. It was a master class in acting every night I was able to share the stage with them, and it was the first time I was able to recognize, confidently, that I was able to really pursue this as a profession.
Have you progressed in your acting career as you have expected?
Honestly, no. I could’ve only dreamed of the opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to have come my way over the past year. I know that this is only the beginning. There will be highs and lows like everything in life. But I’m very grateful that these opportunities have presented themselves early in the journey.
What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of my siblings. They’re the most intelligent, hard-working, supportive people in my life. I care about them so much, and they all are passionately pursuing their dreams. I can only hope I’m half the brother to them as they are siblings to me. They inspire me every day, and I’m a very proud older brother.
How different is it to act on camera version than a theater play?
Acting on camera is a lot smaller. The camera is very close. You don’t have to project to an 800 seat theater. It’s all very intimate. That’s taken a bit of adjusting to, considering my theater background and training, but it presents a challenge I like to take on every chance I get. Most TV shows and films shoot scenes out of order, so the actors have to be specifically imaginative on set in order to understand where they are in the story. On stage and in movies, you can read the script and know where you’re going. An exciting (and daunting) aspect of TV is the fact that you have no idea what will happen next until you receive the next episode’s script. It keeps you on your toes, for sure.
Do you prefer stage acting or film? Why?
Stage acting and film both fulfill me in very different ways. During the process of putting up a stage show, I feel like I’m a part of a small troupe of actors, tucking away to put together a project. It’s intense and challenging, but there’s a magic in that work manifesting itself in a run of performances over the course of a few weeks or months. On camera, it feels like more of a steady job. I get to talk with the same people every day, get to know their lives, all while working and piecing together parts of a final product, similar to a group of people at an office. The intimacy of film acting also excites me because it necessitates a personal, authentic relationship to the material that always poses an exciting challenge.
Do you have a certain type of character that you feel you might gravitate to?
I gravitate toward people with flaws. I think most people are trying their best in this life, but some of them seem to make more mistakes than others. I really value stories that uncover the humanity of those people, and I look forward to the opportunity to tell their stories and explore their lives.
What have you learned from the directors that you have worked with?
I’ve been very lucky to work with some absolutely incredible directors. They’ve really pushed me to trust myself and my instincts. Supporting me and allowing me to fail or mess up as I figure out the most honest way to contribute to the stories I get to tell has been the most helpful, both for the project at hand and how I approach all the material I come across.
What have you learned from the more seasoned actors you have been able to work with?
This past summer, I had a few conversations with some of the more seasoned vets that really changed my mindset as I move forward. They told me that I need to believe that I’m good enough to be there. You don’t have to be tortured to be good. You don’t have to beat yourself up. Attacking your work with enthusiasm and joy will usually yield better results. As I continue to get out of my own way, the better my work becomes, and that’s from the help of the people who’ve been around the block a few times.
Where have you received your education on acting/music?
I’ve bounced around music teachers ever since I was very little. My first real voice teachers were both in Fort Dodge: my aunt, Shelly Bottorff, and Bruce Perry. My most extensive and foundational work came from them and the unparalleled education I received at Fort Dodge Senior High from Joe Svendsen and Matt Drees. I’ve also worked with the Broadway Dreams Foundation. And I’m currently finishing up my last year of work towards my Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Musical Theatre from the University of Michigan.
Have you received any special recognition or awards for music or acting?
I was lucky to be recognized in high school for both music and acting. I was selected to the Iowa All-State Choir each year of high school. I was also All-State in Speech during my junior year in Acting and Musical Theatre Performance. At the University of Michigan, I’m the recipient of the Tisch Scholarship and the Donald R. Shepard Scholarship.
It looks like you are going to absolutely take off and be a household name very soon. How do you think you might handle that new popularity?
One thing I’ve learned fairly quickly is that nothing is guaranteed. I always try to focus on the things I can control. I have an amazing family and group of friends who are just as supportive as they are humbling. I really, really love what I get to do, and focusing on the work and the amazing people I get to interact with on a daily basis will help me, as Coach Miller used to say during Homecoming Week (about the football game), “Keep the main thing, the main thing.”
Can you tell me about what you are working in right now?
Right now, I’m in the midst of filming a recurring role in a new NBC show called, “The Village.” I play Liam Kelly, a street artist in New York. The show is set to premiere in March of 2019. It’s been such a joy working on this material with this group of people, and I’m excited for the chance to share it with the world.