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'Measuring' up to high standards

The elaborate set for Matt Hardwick’s stage play “The Measure of a Man” was built by the writer/actor/director/producer over a 72-day period. Special photo

The elaborate set for Matt Hardwick’s stage play “The Measure of a Man” was built by the writer/actor/director/producer over a 72-day period. Special photo

MEASURING UP

WHAT: “The Measure of a Man” Stage Play

WHO: Written/Produced/Directed By Matt Hardwick; Starring Demond Wilson, Dennis L.A. White, Carl Payne, T.C. Stallings, Nina Nicole

WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center

TICKETS: Civic Center Box Office, Ticketmaster Locations, www.ticketmaster....

Carlton Fletcher

carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com

ALBANY — When Albany playwright/actor/director/producer Matt Hardwick called former “Sanford and Son” actor Demond Wilson’s agent and broached the subject of Wilson performing in the first stage play Hardwick had ever written, it became immediately apparent that his chances of landing the actor were slim and none.

“Demond’s agent told me he hadn’t been in a stage play since 1998,” Hardwick said.

Unperturbed, the playwright asked the agent to at least make sure that the actor saw a copy of the play.

“A short while later, I got a call, not from Demond’s agent but from Demond himself,” Hardwick, who is bringing his play “The Measure of a Man” to the Albany Civic Center Aug. 2, said. “He told me my play was the most well-written script he’d ever read. And just like that, he was in.”

Wilson’s surprising decision to star in “Measure” is just one of the elements that have made the Albany-born Hardwick’s story so compelling. From his decision to leave an administrative post at Marine Corps Lostics Base-Albany and put all his money and time into bringing his play to life to the 72 consecutive days he spent building “Measure’s” elaborate set, Hardwick’s story is a testament to the power of belief.

“Why did I spend 72 straight days — 63 of them by myself — working on the set for this play?” Hardwick said during an exclusive interview. “I’ll tell you why. Because when I went to (Mt. Zion Baptist Church) Pastor Daniel Simmons and asked him if he knew of somewhere I could build the set for my play, he asked me only one question: ‘Can you build it in half a gym?’

“He didn’t question me about my plan or when I’d be working or who would be working with me or any of the things that you’d expect. When I told him the space would be plenty, you know what he did? He took his key (to the Mt. Zion gymnasium) off his keyring and gave it to me. He didn’t question me; he believed in me. And I couldn’t let him down. He’d given me the most essential tool; he empowered me with belief.”

Hardwick grew up in a close-knit, single-parent home in Albany, one of nine children. (“That was a theater within itself,” he joked.) He fell in love with writing at Radium Middle School and started acting in and attending church and community plays at a young age.

A jock as well as an artist, Hardwick played football at Savannah State College for two years after graduating Dougherty High School. But he returned to his first love, the theater, and came home to Darton College for two years to study the art. His acting dream all but withered on the vine, though, when audition after audition in Atlanta yielded precious few opportunities.

“I gave up,” Hardwick said. “I had two other loves — cutting hair and lifting weights — and my mother told me I should pursue careers in those.”

Hardwick attended barber school, landed a job at a local barber shop and eventually opened his own shop. He became a personal trainer, running from gym to gym — in between haircuts — to work out with clients before incorporating both of his passions into one business: Elevations Barber, Beauty & Fitness at 2215 E. Broad Ave.

“’Elevations’ because that’s my philosphy of life,” Hardwick said. “When you reflect on your life, you should see elevation, rising up, in every aspect of it.”

Hardwick thought he was content to have combined two of his passions into a career — he also took on the responsibilities of health and wellness director at MCLB-Albany — until Simmons gave him a call three years ago with an unexpected request.

“I’d become Pastor Simmons’ personal trainer, and he called me one day out of the blue and told me he’d been asked to proof the script for a movie being produced by Sherwood Baptist Church,” Hardwick said. “I’d never said a word to him about acting, but he said there was a part in the movie script that made him think of me.

“He asked if he could submit my name for an audition.”

Hardwick relented, but he didn’t get his hopes up. He’d seen too much disappointment in the past when he’d tried to make a go at an acting career. But shortly after he auditioned for Sherwood’s “Courageous,” he got the call that changed his life.

“They called and said I’d gotten the part in the movie,” Hardwick said. “I just broke down. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I could never make it out of Albany acting, and here I was acting in a movie in Albany.”

The shoot for “Courageous” ended on July 6, 2010. On July 7, Hardwick started writing what would become “The Measure of a Man.” By Thanksgiving, he was finished.

“I honestly feel God annointed me,” he said of writing the play. “I’d steal away and write, and the words just seemed to flow out of me. I could see the action taking place in my head, even the colors of the walls on the set.”

Hardwick built “Measure’s” elaborate set mostly alone, and in June of last year, he brought his play to the Albany Municipal Auditorium.

“Everyone talks bad about the people of Albany, saying they won’t support you,” the auteur said. “But that first performance sold out; we had to turn people away at the door. The great people of Albany came through for me when I knew that I could not make it without them.”

“Measure” has since played to rave reviews in Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, Columbus and Fayetteville, N.C. After its initial run, experienced actors Wilson, Dennis L.A. White (“Notorious”), Carl Payne (“Martin,” “The Cosby Show”) and T.C. Stallings (“Notorious”) joined the cast.

“God’s grace just continues to cover me,” Hardwick said. “When I reached out to Demond, Carl, Dennis and those guys, they jumped on board. And they’ve all told me they’d be with me as long as the play runs.”

The message-themed play and Hardwick’s hand in every element of it has led many to compare him to Atlanta superstar writer/producer/actor Tyler Perry, a comparison Hardwick welcomes.

“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘That’s that dude who’s trying to be like Tyler Perry,’” Hardwick says with a grin. “Man, I take that as a compliment. He’s the guy who laid the blueprint for what I’m doing.”

Buoyed by the success of “The Measure of a Man,” which Hardwick is bringing to the much larger Albany Civic Center for his second hometown showing, a performance that will be recorded for DVD distribution, the man who had all but given up on his dream of acting and writing after years of bitter disappointment is on the verge of Tyler Perry-like success.

“I’ve completed one screenplay and I’m working on the next one,” he said. “I haven’t shopped it yet, but the one I’ve finished is so good I guarantee it is going to make it. I know God is with me.

“I look back at the time when I was working from 7 (a.m.) to 4 (p.m.) at the Marine base, 4 to 8 (p.m.) at the barber shop, and then working on past midnight on the play set, and I wondered how I was going to make it. But God finally convinced me: ‘If you’re going to put 90 percent of yourself into your job at the Marine base and 10 percent into the vision I gave you, you’re going to get a 10 percent reward.

“So, man, I went all-in. And my belief in God and the belief of the people surrounding me has propelled me ever since.”