Ben Viccellio finds himself--and accolades aplenty--at Kenyon

Benjamin W. Viccellio '98 says he came to Kenyon to find himself. While the English and drama major admits that may sound melodramatic, perhaps even a little trite, he swears it's true.

And find himself he did. Originally attracted to Kenyon because of its literary reputation and his interest in writing, Viccellio took a detour into acting and playwriting, contributing impressive performances in many College productions and three times winning the James E. Michael Prize in Playwriting, an award established in 1978 and given each year to the student who submits the best original script to the judging committee.

Viccellio is the kind of actor who steals the show. His performances create a buzz. He's a student that audiences believe really has a future in acting. Acting, however, isn't his only ambition. Writing and directing are also strong aspirations as he prepares to enter a three-year master of fine arts program at the California Institute of the Arts this fall. Viccellio wants to do it all.

The son of a U.S. Air Force general, he moved a lot while he was growing up. Four years at Kenyon grounded him, helped him overcome the depression induced by living with cystic fibrosis, and gave him a dream to follow. Viccellio speaks with the wisdom and insight of a man who is older than his twenty-one years.

"It's been a little weird being here for four years," he says. "I've never lived anywhere for four years. I'm not really into fate and all that stuff, but I really believe I was meant to come to Kenyon."

When Viccellio says he's interested in a career in the entertainment industry, he emphasizes the word entertainment, gently mocking those who insist they make films and not movies, or that they produce short plays rather than skits. "To me, if it doesn't entertain, it's not good. If you have a message, great; but you have to entertain."

Much of Viccellio's ability to entertain comes in the form of comedy. "I love to make people laugh," he says. In this year's Bolton Theater production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, for example, his portrayal of a character reminiscent of Groucho Marx brought laughter and rounds of applause from the audience. Viccellio's energy on stage brings actor Jim Carrey to mind. When that particular subject is broached, Viccellio gives the impression it's one he's weary of discussing.

"When people say I act like Jim Carrey, I'm like, okay, yeah," he says. "I adore the guy, but it's ridiculous to say someone is trying to be like someone else," he says. "All great artists steal from each other."

It's impossible to look at Viccellio's life without discussing cystic fibrosis, a congenital disease of the mucous glands, with which he was diagnosed at the age of two. "There was a period in high school when it influenced everything that I did," he says. "I was very woe is me, poor pitiful me, I'm sick and I'm going to die. That was such bull****."

It was during this phase that Viccellio's mother often came to the rescue. "My mom would always say, `Ben, go out and do something,'" he recalls. "That's always stuck with me, and I think that's why I've done so much at Kenyon."

While his extracurricular life at the College limited itself mostly to theater, Viccellio was involved in many aspects of it. During his first year at Kenyon, he helped found Beyond Therapy, a student-run comedy group that produces an hour-long show each semester. As his senior-thesis production, he put on the one-man show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, a series of character sketches for which he won the 1998 Paul Newman Trophy. Viccellio often spent more than three hours a day rehearsing and working out the kinks in the production.

Written by Eric Bogosian, an actor, playwright, and stand-up comedian, the seriocomic Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll contains monologues by a variety of characters, including rock stars, homeless people, and businessmen. Each sketch centers on a theme relating to drugs, music, or sex. Viccellio says the performance was a highlight of his career as an actor at Kenyon.

Viccellio often had to make time for leisure. Even the dinner hour could turn hectic for him, as peers approached him in the dining halls to make new requests of his talents for their productions and remind him of standing obligations. To get away from e-mail messages, telephone calls, and other distractions, Viccellio made frequent trips to Columbus to see movies, although he confesses that his tastes are not all that discriminating. "You learn what not to do from the crap that's out there," he says. "If you're only going to see the best, you're missing a lot. Sometimes you have to see the worst in order to know what the best is."

In the plays he writes, Viccellio tends to use themes from his own life, often focusing on cystic fibrosis. A work in progress centers on finding a cure for the disease and the possibilities that the cure might bring. "If there were a cure, I would definitely want it," he says. "But it's been part of my life for so long that I don't know what it would be like to live without it."

In the College's 1997 production of the Nicky Silver play Pterodactyls, directed by Associate Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod, Viccellio played a character who goes home to die of AIDS. He describes the role as one that was very close to him. "The character was stuck. He didn't want to die, but he didn't want to live, either," says Viccellio. "That's where I was in high school."

Viccellio shows no fear on stage and admits that he isn't self-conscious in the least when he performs. Through his autobiographical writing, he's done enough self-analysis to arrive at a concrete sense of who he is. He sees his image as something he can put on a table and examine. "Since I can look at it, I'm not afraid for others to look at it," he says.

Four years at Kenyon turned Viccellio into a thinker. He says he's much more cerebral now than he was as a high-school student. His experiences at the College also gave him a passion for acting and a dedication to his craft. He credits his professors for bringing out his talents and teaching him the basic skills that he will always have as an actor.

While there is a most serious side to this young man with the bounding energy who loves to make people laugh, he isn't sure that he has a message for the world. He does have a message for his fellow Kenyon alumni, however: "Get me a job," he laughs. "No one gets anywhere without some help in this business."


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