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A man of many faces

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If you have seen Shelbyville resident Cook Farmer perform on stage, you might not recognize him in your neighborhood. After all, he tends to look a bit different every time.

By Lisa King

“If you’re good, you’ll come off the stage sweating!”

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That’s how Cook Farmer, a Shelbyville resident of 8 years, views his avocation of acting in community theater, a “hobby” he said he has pursued since he was a lad of 12 years old.

Now, 48 years later, having performed in “so many plays I can’t remember them all,” he is preparing for his latest role in Harvey at the Shelby County Community Theatre.

The play, which opens Feb. 15, is patterned after the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film about an eccentric man who has an invisible friend – a 6-foot-tall rabbit – whom no one else can see except the man’s psychiatrist, Dr. Chumley, played locally by none other than Farmer.

How is he preparing for the role?

His wife, Donna, is the person who can answer that question, but she won’t divulge the details and spoil what she expects will be a surprise for those who will attend the play.

But she said she knows the character because her husband really gets into every part he plays – whether a Shakespearean parent, a town drunk, an eccentric businessman or whatever.

“I live with the character that he’s playing the entire time he’s in rehearsal,” she said. “If the character has a particular accent, then I hear that accent throughout the day, every day, until the play is over.”

Howard Cook Farmer – he eschews that first name, he said – is a native of Louisville who works as a quality control technician for Shepherd Communications. He said he fell in love with acting as a boy when he saw his older brother in a play.

And he said he never would forget his first performance, which took place on the steps of the public library in Jeffersontown.

“I was just a little kid, and I had just come off the baseball diamond,” he said. “I was hot and sweaty, and the high school drama teacher [at Fairdale High School] came walking by, and I said hello to him. He looked at me and said, ‘Do you think you’d like to be in a play?’”

Thus began a love affair with acting that with has taken Farmer to many states, including New York and North Carolina, touring with a college group as a young man, performing in community theater and enjoying every minute of it.

And audiences always seem to enjoy and embrace the many characters Farmer has created because he likewise embraces those characters and translates that effort onto the stage in a way that can make you laugh, cry and think at the appropriate times.

And, as Donna Farmer said, there is his immersion in his role.

Such as the time he shaved his head to play a 70-year-old man in Over the River and Through the Woods (2008).

“Was I surprised he did that? Well, no, he does things like that,” she said with a chuckle.

“Well, it’s my art and I love it,” Cook Farmer said. “Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, and I love to act. So to me, that means creating the character.”

His favorite role?

“I would  have to say Don Quixote,” he said. “I did that in Lawrenceburg a while back. I absolutely loved it. That character had a lot of heart.”

Farmer is a very versatile actor, especially since he has been performing at SCCT, where he has worked in 12 shows and directed six. He has played all sorts of characters, from the town drunk in The Homecoming to Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet (2010), to a female impersonator, well, sort of.

That was a memorable role, he said, when he played the part of a woman in Til Beth Do Us Part. That is, he portrayed a man who dressed as a woman.

“I was impersonating a British dame to fool Beth, but then, of course, the real British lady showed up,” he said, laughing. “What else would you expect to happen in a farce?”

Of course, dressing like a woman included wearing high heels, in Farmer’s case, a pair of pink, size-14 spiked heels, tied around his ankles with pink ribbons.

He said he did all right trying to walk in them, until he tried to exit the stage.

“My heel caught the door sill, and I went flying,” he said. “The audience was sitting there watching every bit of it, of course.

“So I got up, and turned around, and said, in a feminine tone, ‘Watch that first step – it’s a killer.’”