There was a time that Robert Vestal would have proclaimed competitive wrestling to be his life. When his back gave out, it put an end to that dream but not without shining a light, a spotlight, perhaps, on another.
Vestal, writer and director of a new radio play called The Bullfrog Lover, which is a fable derived from interviews recorded by anthropologist James Mooney in the 1800s with the Cherokee. It is performed by Cherokee high school students from North Carolina with Vestal's guidance.
The 35-year-old, who is Cherokee himself, attended the University of Chicago and took a few theater classes in his senior year when he was injured. This prompted him to try out for a couple of plays and he has been acting ever since.
In 2002, he began working with the Los Angeles-based Native Voices at the Autry, an organization dedicated to developing Native American playwrights, on a play called Jump Kiss. It was here Vestal began learning about his Cherokee heritage, something he knew little about growing up.
"It is interesting to explore one's own heritage, to look back on one's history," Vestal said. "What I find very interesting is Native American theater, which is really, in my opinion, an infant. So I look at this time as a great opportunity to find, create and discover what Native American theater is."
Native Voice's producing executive director Jean Bruce Scott said she has been continually impressed with Vestal as he transitions from acting to writing and directing.
"He's got that star quality that's hard to define," Scott said. "When you see that kind of actor you just want to snatch him up right quick."
Vestal also works with youth in the Autry's Young Native Voices program as a mentor to aspiring playwrights through directing and as an actor in their plays. Working with youngsters has always been something of a passion for Vestal. Listening to much of the same music and having some of the same colloquialisms helped him gain the trust of the youth he has taught, said Native Voices artistic director Randy Reinholz. He added that Vestal has a natural ability to relate well to teens. Sometimes the female students pay him a little extra attention.
“The girls think he’s terribly hot,” he said with a laugh. “They are always like ‘does he have a girlfriend?’ He’s so humble about it.”
After college, Vestal traveled with an acting troupe that performed for children. As a side job he was also a substitute teacher. Although he enjoyed working with Native youth it also reminded him what a difficult job can be, especially when it comes to discipline. Still, putting together The Bullfrog Lover was memorable at the very least.
"At the end of the week it was the most rewarding thing I had ever done in my life, which is not an exaggeration at all," Vestal said. "It was just amazing you know to see where it had gone and watch it come together and watch the kids shine on stage."
For youth that might want to enter the business as he did, he has some advice: "Find someone else to look up to because I don't know that I am the person to look up," he joked. "Really," he said more seriously, "just ask yourself what you want to do and listen. Your heart will tell you what you want to do and then go do it. Pursue your art."
Vestal himself has come a long way in his craft from where he was younger. It's a little strange, he said, to look back and think about his attitude toward acting then versus now.
"I think it was one of those things and I think there are other people like this too. I would do it if I got discovered. Like I wouldn't want to do the work or whatever it would take to become an actor but if I got discovered I would do it," he recalled.
For now, Vestal is continuing a series of YouTube comedy posts online and is working on a screenplay for a television pilot. He will be featured as an actor on a web series called It's Always Smoggy in L.A.
His ability to act and imitate transcends his profession. Reinholz swears by his impressions of politicians, actors and even his own friends like Reinholz.
Though Vestal is modest, Scott, a friend and mentor, is certain he has a long career ahead of him.
"I keep thinking any minute he's going to be 'discovered,' even though he's been acting a while, and be this mega star on a sitcom."
By Nancy Kelsey