Madison County Red Raider running back/linebacker Dayton Gresham remembers his first acting role. He was a plant.
“I was a puppeteer my first show; I was just a big old plant for Little Shop of Horrors, because I was the only guy that could lift it up, because I play football,” said Gresham with a smile.
The 17-year-old Madison County High School senior has earned a reputation on the football field as a hard-nosed runner, not easily taken down. He’s also known for his acting chops.
“Dayton is certainly one of the most gifted actors we’ve had at MCHS in my 14 years here, but his work ethic, attitude and desire to always improve truly set Dayton apart,” said Madison County drama teacher Brian Jones. “When he came in as a freshman, I knew that he was talented, but he hadn’t developed a passion for acting yet. I knew once that happened, he would be something special.”
Jones said the light switched on for Gresham in his sophomore year and that “since then, he’s grown exponentially as an actor.”
“In his first leading role, he tackled a very tough role and completely nailed it,” said Jones. “I had parents from other schools come up to me at one act competition and rave about his performance. Since then, Dayton has continued to find ways to learn and grow as an actor.”
Gresham is the second Red Raider football player to perform on stage in recent years, with MCHS graduate Christian Shupe also taking turns between shoulder pads and stage cues.
Gresham says he’s drawn to acting because it’s really fun. He remembers some of his different roles at MCHS, including “Once On This Island,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “The Addams Family.” He also performed in the Arts Oglethorpe community theater production of “Mamma Mia!” then he had the lead role as Conrad Jarrett the MCHS one-act production of “Ordinary People.”
“His (Conrad’s) brother drowned and his family is coping,” said Gresham. “And his friend commits suicide and he had just attempted suicide before the play started and it’s just his family going through it. At the end his mother ends up leaving.”
Gresham won the Region 8-AAAA “Best Actor” award for the performance, beating out a North Oconee senior who had won the honor the previous two years.
Gresham recalled the emotions of the audience.
“I remember every time we performed everybody was crying and it’s like, dang, you’re crying,” he said. “I don’t like that you’re crying, but I’m glad I made you cry.”
Of course, an actor sometimes has to cry for a part in a believable way. Gresham is asked how much of what he performs is rooted in actually feeling the emotion versus portraying an emotion.
“It depends what it is,” he said. “You can take something personal and use that energy to portray something. But you can’t draw too much of one thing, because then you become dull and it doesn’t make you upset anymore.”
Gresham says he does emotional challenges to try and improve as an actor.
“I do this thing where I wonder if I can test some emotion,” he said. “It’s something I just do in my room. I come up with it on the spot, something like, improv this monologue. And that’s how I test my emotional flexibility.”
Part of the allure of acting, Gresham says, is being able to imagine living another life.
“You get to step into these other lives, especially the plays we do based on real-life situations, like the 9/11 show we’re going to do in one act,” he said. “It’s called ‘110 Stories.’ It’s about actual people from 9/11. It’s like you’re stepping into that and you’re learning. You’re having sympathy for those people.”
Gresham said he’s known in the Red Raider locker room as the “theater guy.” He said he likes to sing in the locker room, adding that Cortez Davis is a good singer.
“He has a nice, deep voice,” said Gresham. “He just doesn’t know it.”
Gresham said it’s hard to believe that football is over. He said the friendships on the field have been great.
“Brock McElroy, Brady Bates, Chandler Phillips, Nolan Hill — a few of them quit and came back this year,” he said. “And man, just having that last season with them. I’m talking like 5 years old, we were playing together. We were really good when we were little, just having fun. You know, this moment never came to mind back then. You think it’s like until forever. And then you have that last game, and it’s like, dang, you’ll never step on the field with that same group of guys. And you’ve been doing it for 12 years straight. It’s not a good feeling.”
Gresham said he hopes to play football at the next level. He said he’s been talking to some schools, but doesn’t have an offer at the moment.
In college, he expects to work toward being a teacher and coach.
“I’ll probably go into some form of education,” he said. “I want to teach something. I’m not saying I want to teach physics or something like that. I want to come back and help the younger generation. I feel like I have a good teaching ability and I feel like I can come back to a football field and teach what I’ve learned.”
Right now, he’s focused on learning everything he can about running a drama department. He spends hours each week under the direction of Jones in the work-based learning program.
“He (Jones) gives me scripts to read and so I learn more about theater,” said Gresham. “He’s taught me almost every single thing I know about the theater; every single bit has been straight from Jones.”
There’s far more in the drama productions than people realize, he says. For instance, he said the drama department’s tech crew has a hard job that people don’t really appreciate.
“You got people mashing cues,” he said. “They got cues every 15 seconds. They got to hit just right where everything starts and I personally couldn’t do it, because I get so glued onto watching the show. They’re not watching the show. They’re listening and watching for their cues. It might be a toe tap, something you got to watch on stage and you have to do something right then and keep on going. They got a book, but by the time the show comes, you can’t be looking at that book. The show is nonstop. There are slipups, but I think we do a great job.”
Gresham also said people need to look out for Jake Venable, younger brother of former MCHS drama standout, Tate Venable.
“Jake had to live up to his brother’s expectation,” said Gresham. “And people don’t quite know, but he has really grown in his capability in the last couple of years and in the next couple of years people are going to notice that Tate’s not the only one in the family who can sing. Jake can sing. He’s really good at singing Frank Sinatra. …Everyone has a voice. It’s finding it and working on it.”
Gresham said people need to pay attention to the MCHS drama department.
“Theater departments in a lot of schools don’t get as much attention as they should,” he said. “We have a little boxed theatre, but we put on great shows.”
Gresham wants to go out and see great shows, too. He said he doesn’t worry about being financially rich, but he likes the idea of having enough money to travel and see much of the world, especially Broadway.
“I want to explore,” he said. “I’ve done all this theater stuff, but I’ve never watched a Broadway show. I would be at Broadway all the time if it were up to me and tickets weren’t so expensive and now with covid and everything. That’s going to be something in my usual annual schedule.”
In the meantime, Gresham will continue learning about the art of theater. The “plant” placed on the stage has grown.
The Madison County Drama Department is rehearsing its one-act play, 110 Stories, a documentary-style play about 9/11, which it will perform in January. (The Georgia High School Association has moved the one-act competition from the usual October date to late January/early February.) MCHS is also planning a musical, “Guys and Dolls,” in early May.