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posted: 6/1/2012 6:00 AM

Bartlett High School grad trades engineering for acting

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  • Once Levenix Riddle took an acting class, "instantly the bug bit and that was it."

      Once Levenix Riddle took an acting class, "instantly the bug bit and that was it."

  • Levenix Riddle, left, plays one of the members of an oddball roller derby team in Pine Box Theatre's "The Jammer."

      Levenix Riddle, left, plays one of the members of an oddball roller derby team in Pine Box Theatre's "The Jammer."
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Pine Box Theater's roller derby-inspired show, "The Jammer," runs through July 1 at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago.

      Pine Box Theater's roller derby-inspired show, "The Jammer," runs through July 1 at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 

Levenix Riddle is a left-brain kind of guy working in a right-brain kind of profession.

Growing up in South Elgin, Riddle -- Vinnie to his friends -- was a math and science wiz who loved solving problems. The sense of accomplishment that came from uncovering the answer appealed to the Bartlett High School graduate who enrolled in the University of Illinois as an engineering major, graduated from DePaul University with a theater degree and now counts himself among Chicago's working actors.

Inspired by Q in the James Bond films, Riddle initially wanted to be an inventor, perhaps design roller coasters or work with NASA. But his feelings changed after a couple of years and a couple of internships.

"Engineering wasn't my passion anymore," said Riddle, now 26.

His departure from the U of I left his parents less than overjoyed. His decision to pursue acting concerned them even more.

"They thought I was taking the easy way out, that acting wasn't hard work," Riddle said. "They probably thought I was trying to rebel and possibly, in my own way, I was."

He enrolled at Elgin Community College where his right brain began to assert itself.

He took an acting class because it was the exact opposite of engineering, he said, and "instantly the bug bit and that was it."

Although skeptical initially, his mother came around after seeing her son perform at ECC.

"The first time she saw me she said, 'OK, I get it now,'" said Riddle, who's currently appearing in Pine Box Theater's "The Jammer." "It took my dad a little longer to get onboard."

Still, his parents insisted on a college degree, which Riddle says he wanted for himself. Encouraged by his mom, he applied to DePaul. Soon after he graduated last year, he earned his first professional acting job understudying a role in Pine Box's "A Girl With Sun in Her Eyes." He went on several times, once with only three hours notice.

"They were so supportive. It was a great experience," he said of the ensemble led by artistic director Vincent Teninty. "They brought me in and treated me like family."

Roles at Profiles Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theater followed. When Pine Box called and offered him a role in its roller derby-inspired "The Jammer," Riddle jumped at the chance.

"I'm really comfortable on wheels," said Riddle, who has been Rollerblading since he was 10 and says it's his primary means of navigating the city.

Set in New York City in the late 1950s, the play doesn't actually require the actors to skate, although theatrical magic makes it appear as if they do. It centers on a young man who joins a roller derby team and meets an array of unusual characters, all of them outcasts who find acceptance and fulfillment in the roller derby.

Riddle said what he most admires about Chicago's theater community is the work ethic.

"I've been lucky enough to be in 50-seat theaters and 500-seat theaters and there's no difference. Everybody works hard to put on a good show," he said. "That workman's mentality has been instilled in me since day one at DePaul. Everyone was trying to put on great work they're proud of and passionate about."

So far, acting has worked out, though it's not the easy path his parents once thought. But for Riddle, surrendering to the right side of his brain has proved immensely satisfying.

Moreover, he still puts his science training to use, breaking down the role, analyzing the script, solving the puzzle of the character. Coming up with that solution, he said, is every bit as gratifying as finding a double integral.

"Every night it's a different puzzle," he said. "Every night a different solution."

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