It only takes the encouragement of one person to change the trajectory of another’s life for the better — and for many in the Shoreham-Wading River and Long Island theater communities, that one person was Jeff Bennett.
Mr. Bennett, a beloved theater teacher and founder of Bare Bones Theater Company in Northport, died Jan. 4 at age 81. He worked at Shoreham-Wading River High School for almost 20 years and after he retired in 1997, the school fittingly renamed its theater the Jeffrey Bennett Auditorium.
Bare Bones Theater Company, which is no longer in operation, began as an acting class for adults in the early 2000s after Mr. Bennett retired from teaching, and grew to stage high-quality productions of plays such as “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Good People,” “The Pavilion” and even original works. Most productions were presented in the upstairs studio at the Posey School of Dance in Northport.
In the words of those who knew him, if the world truly is a stage, the lights are dimmer without Mr. Bennett’s presence. Since his passing, many have flocked to social media to express their sorrow, as well as their gratitude for having crossed paths with the late director.
Mourners described Mr. Bennett as “an artistic visionary,” a “remarkable” teacher, director and theatrical producer and a “powerful soul.” He was also credited by many for igniting their love for theater, being their “biggest supporter” and being someone who cultivated a “chosen family” within the theater community.
Mr. Bennett often shared advice with his students over the years, including a common lesson from improv: “Always say yes.” He encouraged everyone to apply this to all facets of life.
Almost everyone who paid tribute to Mr. Bennett called him a “friend.”
Tom Vogel graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School in 1980 and met Mr. Bennett when he first started teaching at the school. His friend asked him if he wanted to try out for the school musical, “Guys and Dolls.”
“I was a sports guy — theater and singing, I don’t have any talent in either,” Mr. Vogel said. “That was the first time I really got close with Jeff, who was just supportive; no matter who you were or what your talent was, he never spoke down to you — he had a positive outlook on anything.”
Mr. Vogel got emotional talking about how school was difficult for him and how Mr. Bennett “made it so much easier.”
Four years ago, he and his theater buddies had a reunion and one of his friends brought Mr. Bennett as a surprise. Even after 43 years had passed, Mr. Bennett amazed Mr. Vogel by how much he remembered, such as the not-so-theatrical student’s first performance on stage.
“I don’t think I would have had the life I have now if I didn’t meet him,” Mr. Vogel said, getting choked up.
Patrick Sherrard, who has worked in the theater profession for some 35 years, described Mr. Bennett as one of “the greats” and a “prominent force” in school classrooms, theaters and performance spaces across Long Island.
The first time he met Mr. Bennett was when he filled in for another actor at one of his acting workshops. He continued to participate in Mr. Bennett’s programs and eventually landed a lead role in one of Bare Bones Theater Company’s first productions.
As a writer and director himself, Mr. Sherrard welcomed any constructive criticism and advice from Mr. Bennett, who always made time to give some words of encouragement or travel to see a former student’s production.
He added that one of the best compliments he ever received was from a friend who was putting on an improv show. He was elated to see Mr. Sherrard in the audience and said to him: “You are my Jeff Bennett.”
“Getting critiqued by [Jeff] was like being coached by Spielberg to me,” Mr. Sherrard said. “When you worked with him, you were on a journey to make his vision come true.”
News-Review managing editor Lee Meyer, who began taking Mr. Bennett’s acting class when he was 16 years old, worked closely with him at Bare Bones Theater Company in several different capacities, including directing and acting in multiple productions.
Mr. Meyer said Mr. Bennett became “an incredible mentor” who treated him as not just a student or colleague, but as a peer.
“For more than half my life, Jeff was also a caring friend, a trusted confidant and a larger-than-life presence who offered gentle guidance but was never patronizing,” Mr. Meyer said. “Jeff’s passing has left a painful hole in my heart, but the powerful lessons he taught me both on and off-stage will never be forgotten.”
Mr. Bennett’s family is asking for privacy at this time; however, a GoFundMe has been set up to benefit his wife, Sherri. To donate, visit http://tinyurl.com/JeffBennett.