A dark green plastic mat covered in patches of spilled paint is draped on the floor of Michael Yarema’s makeshift art studio. An unfinished painting sits on an easel at the end of the room. Splotches of different-colored paint cover his hands.
“A bunch of crazy birds” is what he calls his series of paintings. “Frustrated doodles” is how he says they began.
Yarema, 33, is a professional actor at the Gaslight Theatre, which is in its 36th season. But he’s also a painter; the Tucson native became interested in painting when he was living in Los Angeles, where he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for a year.
There he worked for Y-Que, a business famous for creating pop culture items such as a “Free Winona” T-shirt after actress Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting. He learned how to screen print when he was there, and that’s when he started experimenting with art.
After a few years in L.A., Yarema moved back to Tucson when an opportunity arose for him to perform at the Gaslight Theatre full time — he had previously worked there as an understudy.
Tarreyn Van Slyke, one of Yarema’s co-workers at the Gaslight, has worked closely with him for years.
“He gets a little mischievous twinkle in his eye when something clicks for him, either about a role he’s playing or when something happens onstage,” she said. “Watching him perform is so genuine you sometimes feel like you’re looking at 10-year-old Mike discover a joy of acting over and over again.”
When Yarema was in about the sixth grade, he was in a church play at Casas Adobes Baptist Church, where he played the small role of an old man in a story about the prodigal son in the setting of a quirky town picnic. His mother says he stole the show.
“I remember there was a song,” he recalled, breaking into song and snapping his fingers. “You know that one? I was supposed to be in the background and during one of the musical rehearsals I decided to do this huge kickline by myself.”
His musical director was not pleased because they were supposed to do a full run-through without stopping, but his teacher decided to add the kickline in the show, he said,
“All the parents thought it was funny because it wasn’t just a bunch of kids standing there like deer in headlights,” Yarema said. “It was some kid being an idiot.”
When he got to high school — he grew up in Oro Valley and attended Canyon del Oro High School — he got even more involved with drama and performed in several plays.
Naturally, his mother, Sherrill Curry, made a scrapbook with photos and fliers from the plays he was in.
“I was trying to keep stuff after (high school) but it just became too overwhelming because he was in so many things,” said Curry, who now lives in Mayer, Ariz.
Yarema auditioned for the Gaslight Theatre when one of the musical directors saw him in a show at Pima Community College and encouraged him to try out.
The Gaslight Theatre began long before it was ever in Tucson. Owner Tony Terry got a summer job driving a tour bus in Skagway, Alaska. He had been involved in the drama department at the University of Arizona, so when he realized that tourists in Skagway didn’t have any entertainment, he thought a melodrama theater would thrive.
Following a tough year in Skagway, Terry, with the help of his brother and some friends, opened the Gaslight Theatre in Tucson.
“The Gaslight Theatre is like a rose growing in the desert, against all odds,” Yarema said.
The theater produces spoofs of popular movies and shows. It just finished its run of “Buccaneers of the Caribbean,” a parody of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “A Smalltown Chirstmas” is onstage through Jan. 5.
The shows have a script and a storyline, but the actors have a lot of room to explore and feed off the audience.
David Fanning, an intermittent actor at the Gaslight, said if the actors have fun, the audience has fun in response because they’re in on it with the actors.
“It’s a different type of theater because it’s not truly improv but not straight theater either. It’s a hybrid between the two,” Fanning said.
That’s where Yarema comes in, according to Fanning. Peter Van Slyke, writer and director at the Gaslight, writes things knowing that someone like Yarema will embellish it and make it funnier than what’s written, Fanning said.
Yarema’s a smart actor, and that serves him very well, Fanning said.
“Mike is an incredibly intuitive performer. He’s very perceptive and can read the audience and his fellow performers in a wonderfully unique way,” said Tarreyn Van Slyke. “He always feels fresh, nuanced and spontaneous, even if it’s something he’s done before.”
His talent has continued to grow over the years because he practices every day, Terry said.
“The same pleasant unpredictability you find in Mike’s performance is something you can see in his paintings as well,” said Tarreyn Van Slyke. “They’re spontaneous and fantastical.”
Painting birds began accidentally when Yarema was frustrated one day and was throwing different paints down and playing with India ink. He thought one of the blobs looked like a bird — so he turned it into a bird.
“After that I just got obsessed with painting birds,” he said. “For me it’s a simple idea: two eyeballs, a beak, and an expression. The rest of the body just goes along with it.”
You never know what’s going to come from the end of his paintbrush, said Tarreyn Van Slyke.
When Yarema paints, he tries to create a character, like in the theater, he said.
“For the theater, I have to fit inside the story and move the story along. In my little world of painting, none of that really matters,” Yarema said.
Yarema has started experimenting with realism lately, and that’s where he’s stalled.
“This one” — he points at a realistic painting of a cactus wren standing on a cactus plant in the desert — “I’m not done with it yet. I’ve got to slap on a top hat or a bow tie to make him stupid and goofy. They have to have something that doesn’t make any sense, because I don’t like to take myself seriously.”
His mom said his artwork conveys much of his humor.
“I’ve had people tell me that his art makes them smile,” she said. “When you look at one of his pictures, it brightens your day because you just have to laugh.”