As life under the sea comes to life this week at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, one Oklahoma man will be center stage, as the understudy of Prince Eric.
James Shackleford, a 2012 graduate of Oklahoma City University, has spent the last few years, since April 2013, working as part of the touring cast for The Little Mermaid, as the prince's understudy.
The performance opens in Tulsa on Tuesday, Aug. 29, and continues through Sunday, Sept. 3.
The schedule includes 7:30 p.m., shows on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m., on Friday, 2 and 8 p.m., on Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets may be purchased via phone at 918-596-7111 or 800-364-7111, in person at the Tulsa PAC Box Office, or online at MyTicketOffice.com.
For Shackleford, appearing in The Little Mermaid not only gave him his first taste of a touring Broadway show, it also helped him earn his union card as a professional actor.
Initially the Kansas City, Missouri, native was in the ensemble and the member of the cast on the swing. He eventually added the understudy role to his repertoire.
In one scene of the play, when Prince Eric is knocked off the boat into the water, Shackleford serves as the double, using his flying skills to portray Prince Eric drowning until Ariel can save him.
He hopes to take the stage as Prince Eric in October when the tour moves to Las Vegas, while the actor who portrays Eric leaves the show for a brief time for another obligation.
Shackleford said after more than four years, and 400 shows, the Little Mermaid has become part of his life - bringing pieces of his childhood into the adult world.
"It's a show for all ages," Shackleford said. "Most assume it's a show for children. The director reimagined it in 2013, and it's a very honest and genuine story, for both adults and children who come."
Shackleford said he loves the humor and drama which flows through the musical storyline.
He said his favorite scene comes, as the chef chases Sebastian under the table - and he, as part of the chef's crew, chase the sea creature through the room.
"It's very fun to be apart of," Shackleford said with a laugh.
Being part of a show for four years has taught Shackleford patience, as he's learned to keep an ongoing show fresh, for new audiences.
His contract with the show continues through November. He is unsure if the show will be continued on the road, or if he'll move to the next chapter in his career.
In addition to the Little Mermaid, Shackleford is also part of the USO, often traveling to military bases with a small group of performers.
The USO has taken him to Japan, Australia and throughout the United States, from "Alaska to Florida and everywhere in between."
"I love it," Shackleford said. "It's so fulfilling as a performer. On mos days, the show stars with the [audience] sitting stone faced.
"As soon as the show is over, they are passionate, shaking our hands. We meet wonderful people, hear stories, meet families and kids. It's very emotional for [the performers]. It's incredible. It makes me speechless to think about it. I'm very fortunate to do it for four years."
As for the Little Mermaid, Shackleford said he hopes audiences remember that while the show has the basics, familiar to most from childhood, it has a storyline that contains some powerful lessons - ranging from King Triton and Ariel's father/daughter relationship to the relationships between Ariel and her sisters.
"It's a genuine, honest storyline," Shackleford said. "[The director] has focused, to make it as the original that Hans Christian Anderson did, and bring the story down to reality."
One thing with Shackleford
One person who inspires you?
My mother. She had a wonderful voice - it's where I get my talent. She pushed me and inspired me to pursue [my career]. She's always there to motivate me, talking to me on the phone, bringing me inspiration and motivation during the hard times.
One book that's stuck with you?
Since I've been on tour with the Little Mermaid, I've read the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I've read every single book he's written. I'm now two-thirds the way through The Winner Stands Alone.
In the last four years, I've read 20 some books by Coelho. He's an uplifting, spiritual writer, but not overly religious. He's a fiction writer, but has a way of writing that is so free flowing. He's easy to read and understand. They are simple stories, with simple messages. It's been very helpful to me in life.
One thing that might surprise people?
My quirkiness. In my headshots, and when you meet me, I always seem like I am very straight forward. But I have a quirky side. I love Star Wars, Harry Potter, Superhero movies. I'm very passionate and nerdy about those things.
One thing you can't live without?
Coffee. I love the best coffee shop, cold brew, black coffee. It is the best. Or I like regular coffee with vanilla and almond milk. I wake up every day, with coffee. It's small but essential.
One piece of advice you've been given?
When we do talk back sessions with the audience members in some cities, or with student groups, I often get questioned about pursuing this career.
Pursuing the career is very difficult. It's hard to hear a lot of no's. But if it is what you really, truly want, then pursue it. Put everything else to the side and do it. You can't have a Plan B. If there's anything else you can make a plan about, if any other career interests you at all, then do that.
There are so many other people behind you, passionate about the theatre and performing, who would love to take your spot.
I've pursued it, and I haven't looked back since. This is my job. Definitely for life. Despite the highs and lows, if I put the work in, and fully dedicate myself, it's very, very worth it.