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Best of the Arts

Best of the arts 2022

How actor Paul Melendy pulled off one of the toughest jobs in theater

Paul Melendy in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," his solo show at Greater Boston Stage Company, in which he played all the characters.Nile Scott Studios/Maggie Hall Photography

When Paul Melendy approached playwright John Minigan about adapting “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for a Greater Boston Stage Company production, he was thinking of a traditional staging with an ensemble. But Minigan, who had worked with Melendy on “Maltese Walter” and “Noir Hamlet,” thought a solo performance could showcase Melendy’s skills. Melendy has developed a reputation for physical dexterity and vocal inflections in productions across Boston-area theaters, including with the Gold Dust Orphans, Gloucester Stage Company, Underground Railway Theater, and Wheelock Family Theatre.

“It was a terrific opportunity for Paul to do Paul,” Minigan says.

In the October run of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at the Stoneham theater, Melendy, 40, played all the characters in the spooky story of itinerant teacher and choirmaster Ichabod Crane who falls victim to misinformation that leads to a terrifying escape from a headless horseman.

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“My actor friends in New York say you need to do a one-person show to get seen and show off your skill set,” Melendy says.

But he admits he was terrified at first.

“With a 50-page script, not one moment off stage for 85 minutes, memorizing and developing characters became my obsession,” he says.

“I started memorizing the script in June, spending two to three hours [on it] every day,” a time that coincided with his toddler’s naptime. “So that when we got to the 2 1/2 weeks of rehearsal in September, I was off-book on day one.”

Committing the words to memory, he says, took concentration, and lots of practice. But he says it helped that he thought through what each character might sound like, and then sketched out their spaces — Ichabod’s room here, the horses there, the classroom door over there.

“When I got to a certain place in the script, I knew I needed to be a certain character who appeared in a specific spot on the stage,” which helped connect the characters to the words.

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But both Minigan and director Weylin Symes also left room for “Paul to do Paul.”

That meant Melendy improvised some scenes, including Ichabod Crane’s rendition of “Amen,” and a hilarious dance sequence.

Paul Melendy in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" at Greater Boston Stage Company.Nile Scott Studios/Maggie Hall Photography

Minigan says they initially planned to include a Dutch hymn in the show and had the lyrics printed out phonetically to make it easier for Melendy to learn, but they tossed it when they realized this moment had to be the equivalent of the show’s big production number.

“Ichabod is showing off for Katrina [Van Tassel, the wealthy young woman he has decided to marry], and so I came up with a melody,” Melendy says. “But rather than a full song, it’s just ‘Amen’ that goes on for several minutes. I improvised a little at every performance depending on the audience reaction.”

Melendy took the same approach to a dance sequence at the Van Tassels’ harvest party.

“It needed to feel off the cuff, weird, awkward, but also endearing,” he says.

No matter how much he prepared, Melendy says everything shifted when the audience entered the theater.

“I don’t think ‘Paul’ arrived until the first preview,” he says. “But that audience was so vocal, I stepped out of character and began to respond, while mostly staying within the story. There were occasions where I digressed a lot, and I would just stop and say, ‘Where the heck was I?’ or ‘Wait, I already said that.’ ”

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Some of the fun of live theater happens when things don’t go quite right or something unexpected happens.

“It was thrilling to have the freedom to explore, to be the one telling the story and know the audience is willing to go for it, no matter what,” says Melendy, who performed the show 18 times.

Is Melendy planning on reprising “Sleepy Hollow” any time soon?

“Not yet,” he says. “I need to take a break from that complete physical and mental workout. You have to be completely present, and not one fiber of your being is at rest.”

Playwright Minigan says with a laugh, “Paul suggested my next script be 85 minutes of silence.”