Theatrics aside, CMU's Chris Fowler plays basketball with real character

He froze. Just for an instant. It happens to the best of them, every now and again. But this was happening to Chris Fowler on stage, in front of hundreds of strangers, the spotlights above burning like so many heat lamps.

“I could see he lost his line; I know the thing,” Central Michigan theater professor Keeley Stanley-Bohn recalled. “It was on his face. He just stayed focused, stayed within the moment.”

More than that, he kept going. And recovered. Unless you had the script to the play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in your mitts last fall, you’d never have known that he’d fumbled in the first place.

[caption id="attachment_3237" align="alignright" width="150"] TUESDAY ON ASN: Kent State at Central Michigan, 7 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)[/caption]

“It wasn’t the exact line, and in the end, he got back on track and continued, live and in front of an audience,” Stanley-Bohn said. “I remember talking to Chris (later) and saying, ‘How did that go?’

“He said, ‘It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced.’ This is a big long monologue, and he handled it like a pro. I know one of his great things as an athlete is his ability to focus in and I think that you have to (have that) as a Division I athlete. And he has laser focus. That served him well, particularly in that moment.”

Whether running the point or tackling a monologue, the game plan is the same: If the first option gets taken away, improvise, baby. Then run it again.

“It all ends up as entertainment,” said Fowler, the CMU point guard whose Chippewas are shooting for their fourth consecutive win Tuesday on ASN against Kent State. “One of the major components of theater is the audience that’s watching. Spectators are (there) for entertainment. Without (them), there is no college basketball, there’s not a theater department. That’s why it’s big. That’s why we do what we do, is for those that watch and support us.”

All the world’s a stage, as the saying goes, and Fowler knows it better than most. The senior out of Detroit is also a theater major, living out his passion for performance on the court with his love of the arts off it.

“It was something I had a passion for in high school,” said the 6-1 senior, who opened the week averaging 16.8 points and 6.5 assists per game against MAC opponents. “I had so much fun, and so (after) high school, I wanted to learn more about the craft and study it. So I decided to major in it when I got to college.

“It’s a lot like athletics, which is why I’m so accustomed to it. The preparation. The mental and physical side. The rehearsal hours, all leading up to the performances. Which is why I got along with the people in that area so well.”

That, and it’s one of the few corners of Mount Pleasant where he isn’t recognized within a few seconds.

“I felt like just another actor,” said Fowler, first bitten by the acting bug during a high-school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“Most of them didn’t even know I was a basketball player until later,” he added. “The only way they knew is because I wear my stuff into class or they might see something in the school newspaper that they read. At first, they’re in shock. And then after that, they don’t really care. And that’s part of why I enjoy being around them. They’re so interested in their craft. I’m just like them.”

Plus, he’s had it just about to here with the “pathos” side of the equation. A senior season that was supposed to follow a feel-good narrative instead opened with a wicked twist: Fowler missed the first five contests because of an issue with the lower part of his right leg, and spent much of the first half of the season trying to get his mojo right.

“I’ve gotten back my strength, in terms of doing my exercises, just as I was doing before the year,” the CMU guard said. “Any athlete knows it takes some time to get back in rhythm, game speed.”

It’s coming. Over his last six games — four of them Chips victories — Fowler’s averaged 17.8 points and 6.7 assists, helping the MAC’s preseason darlings to start bearing some teeth again. CMU is starting to take off at the right time, just like their point man.

“I have to learn all over again how to trust it, my ability to take contact, and things like that,” said Fowler, who grew up learning a thing or to about toughness — big brother Bennie is a wideout with the Super Bowl-bound Denver Broncos. “Just rhythm and timing, pace … (once) your doctor clears you and you’re ready to go, it’s the mental aspect that takes a little time in terms of trusting your body and jelling the way you did before the injury.”

As someone who endured six knee surgeries before he’d turned 20, it’s a familiar drill. With familiar scars.

“When you look back on it, there’s nothing about me that I would change,” Fowler said. “Those knee surgeries taught me lessons that I never would’ve imagined being taught. … those surgeries are a blessing from God to really give me an opportunity to become a better person.”

A well-rounded person, too. When Fowler was assigned Stanley-Bohn as his theater adviser, it turned out to be more than a little bit of kismet: Her dad hails from Kentucky — she grew up a Wildcats hoops fan, true blue to the core — and her husband coaches the sport.

“He’s very unassuming. I didn’t know who he is, and we just actually started talking about basketball,” Stanley-Bohn said of Fowler. “I love basketball, so when he started talking about playing basketball, I thought, ‘He’s probably on the scout team.’ I had no idea he’s as talented as he is.”

She’d find out soon enough. Fowler made his CMU stage debut — travel and basketball schedules had made auditioning a time challenge — just before the start of the season, playing Spike in the aforementioned production. And playing it with, by all accounts, gusto.

“So his character had to kiss and sort of make out with this lead actress, so I had to ask about that,” Stanley-Bohn recalled. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’ And he’s a charmer. He actually had to do a reverse strip-tease. It’s hilarious. (Spike), because he’s from L.A., he’s very athletic, he has a very nice physique and as an athlete, he’s in good condition. He likes to run around with no clothes on.”

Every performance, Fowler’s character would prance a bit in just his running shorts. Every performance, another character would ask him to put some clothes on. Every performance, Fowler would do so, slowly. Suggestively.

“It brought down the house every single night,” Stanley-Bohn said. “He had this song in his head, moving to this song. He even did a little bit of Whip/Nae Nae.

“He comes off as very serious, very focused. But he’s a little kid at heart. And he likes to make people laugh. He’s a little bit of a clown.”

And a little bit of a bridge.

“There was a good number in the athletic department that came and saw me,” Fowler recalled. “And there’s a good number of theater people that have told me that since I’ve been in the program, that they’ve come to their first basketball games. So I think both worlds, since I’ve gotten in them, have reached out to one another. It’s been a lot of fun over here. You don’t have to be in theater to be a character. And you know a lot of athletes have some character in them. It takes a real character to draw a charge sometimes.”

It takes a real competitor to hang in with the show-biz game, cutthroat as it is. Fowler’s mentor thinks he’s got more than enough chops.

“Basketball is going to take him as far as it can take him,” Stanley-Bohn said. “But I believe, definitely, he could have a career in this, because he (possesses) all those elements I’ve talked about. He is very talented as an actor. He has very good analytical skills, which is why he’s achieved so much (athletically). I know his heart is in basketball, but if he ever decided not to follow the roundball anymore, I think he would be fine. I know he would be fine.”

Above: Whether running the point or tackling a monologue, the game plan is the same for Chris Fowler: If the first option gets taken away, improvise. (Courtesy CMU Athletics)
Middle: Fowler, second from left, performs in Central Michigan's production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher Durang. (Courtesy Keeley Stanley-Bohn/CMU)

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