Stepping into character
Growing up in tiny Hartwick, Iowa, Jim Benda was “the kid who was always putting on shows in his back yard.”
For the past 15 years, the Des Moines banker has been a perennial performer at Des Moines’ theater venues, appearing in 30 productions that most recently have included “La Cage aux Follies”, “Damn Yankees” and “The Sound of Music”. Currently, he’s portraying Horace Vandergelder, a bumbling but wealthy shopkeeper in the Playhouse production of “Hello, Dolly!”
“I think I’m unusual in community theater in that I did no theater work in college or at any time in my younger days,” said Benda, who by day is a vice president with Bank of America’s private bank. “I really just got involved with it when I moved to Des Moines 15 years ago. I always think the bravest thing I ever did in my life was to walk into my first audition blindly for a play. I started with a small part, and over the years just got more and more involved.”
While a prelaw student at Drake University, Benda was so busy that it never occurred to him to audition for any productions, he said. “At the time, I thought to be an actor you had to have special training. It just never occurred to me it was something I could do.”
After earning a law degree from Drake University, Benda moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Federal Reserve System and later for a trade association. Returning to Iowa, Benda moved to Grinnell and started a law practice in Victor, his hometown.
His present work as a trust officer with Bank of America provides the regular hours that make acting possible, he said. “Being in regular practice would have made it more difficult to do anything like theater or any other outside activity.”
Acting has always been personally challenging, Benda said.
“I think most people consider me sort of quiet and reserved, and it’s just nice to confound those expectations,” he said. Despite years of performing, Benda said he still gets butterflies each night before he steps onto the stage.
“Overcoming that, I always joke it’s a little bit like bungee jumping — I know I’ll probably survive, but it takes nerve every night,” he said. “Some people jog or run marathons as a personal challenge. I act.”
Benda said he’s enjoyed each role he’s had.
“I’ve been lucky to do a wonderful combination of musicals, drama and comedy,” he said. “Certainly the part I have now has been wonderful, though from the actor’s point of view, whether it’s a large role or small role, they’re all rewarding.”
To prepare for his time on stage, Benda spends a lot of time rehearsing in front of a mirror.
“I try to find a voice for each character,” he said. “Horace Vandergelder doesn’t talk like Jim Benda talks. I just try to find a speech pattern that works. I tend to be in a lot of ensemble shows where you play multiple parts, where each time you come on stage you’re a different person. You just try to find that voice, how that character would stand and express themselves. I observe people and I sometimes pick and choose characteristics from people I talk with. Maybe some of my clients don’t realize I’m interpreting them on stage.”
Because of the time commitment required for each production — five weeks of rehearsals, seven days a week prior to “Dolly’s” four-week run, for instance — Benda tries to limit his theater involvement to one or two shows each year. He has each Monday and Tuesday off from performances during the play’s run, which are the days he reserves for business travel.
Besides appearing onstage, Benda is the treasurer and legal counsel for the StageWest theater company. He has also served on the Playhouse’s fund-raising committee.
“Acting is sort of the glamour part of being involved with theater. But to me, the art in general is very important,” he said. “I try to be very supportive of it not just in performing but helping making sure that the performances can continue. It contributes to the vitality of Des Moines, and I think Des Moines does appreciate the diversity we have. We have big, classic Broadway-type shows like “Hello, Dolly!” and we have edgy shows as well, and a lot of communities don’t have that.”