Some young theatre artists spend so much energy in search of an artistic home in Los Angeles or New York City—the Big City and its implicit big success!—that the idea of finding a creative haven in the regions is often never considered. For years, Sam Mossler (he/him), an actor, playwright, and screenwriter from Florida, sought success on the coasts and found some, before finally landing on a productive and unexpected creative place: his hometown of Sarasota.
Mossler, who peddled screenplays in L.A., lived in New York City on and off, acted regionally, and had a play produced Off-Off-Broadway, moved back to Sarasota in 2016. He returned to be with his longtime partner, Nicole Hancock, and to seek creative refuge in the embrace of Florida Studio Theatre, where 37 years earlier he took theatre classes as a child, won a student playwriting competition, and later served as a teaching artist and TYA playwright in the 2000s. Always there was “plenty of bartending in between,” he wrote on his website.
Since his return to his old stomping grounds he was immersed in what friends say was one of his two great joys: acting onstage. (His other passion was writing.) Mossler appeared in six plays at FST in recent years, including How to Use a Knife (2018), Other People’s Money (2018), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2019), The Nether (2020), the title role of Kunstler (2020), and The Legend of Georgia McBride, which never opened in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He had finally found home.
On Oct. 21, his friends, family and colleagues were shocked to learn that Mossler died of a heart attack in his sleep that morning. He was just 45.
Hancock (she/her), his partner since 2012, said that Mossler was in some ways both an introvert and an extrovert: happy to write alone in a room but equally thrilled to be in the rehearsal room or the spotlight, where he blossomed, often in character roles. She said he had hoped for stardom elsewhere but appreciated in his dawning middle age a wealth of opportunities in Sarasota—including a reunion with a community of lifelong friends and colleagues, and close proximity to his parents, who live in Bradenton.
“Coming home and being able to be respected as an adult in a place where you grew as a kid is rare,” Hancock observed.
Mossler had come to realize what more and more artists are finding, especially in pandemic times: You don’t necessarily need to be New York-based to be creative. If you don’t act locally, you can audition remotely. And you can be a creative writer anywhere. Among his writing projects was a long-gestating novel, a political satire, Hancock said.
As a writer, in recent months Mossler adapted the myths of Icarus and Persephone for FST’s Theatre for Young Adults program as part of the Playwrights Project that commissioned new plays during the pandemic. An FST spokesperson confirmed that his Greek myth plays, under the title Thrilling Tales of Gods and Mortals, will be produced there in coming seasons. Mossler was also involved in FST’s sketch comedy program in recent years.
From an early age, the bear-like, sweet-faced Mossler looked older than he was. Mossler wrote on his website that even in the visual and performing arts (VPA) program at North Sarasota’s Booker High School, and later Florida State University, where he earned a BFA in acting, he played “mostly old men and priests.” For the FST production of Jeffrey Sweet’s Kunstler earlier this year, Mossler played the controversial lawyer William Kunstler at age 76. Playwright Sweet (he/him) caught a performance.
“I liked his work very much,” Sweet wrote in an email. “Sam was close to the Kunstler I got to know from my research. He had Kunstler’s impishness and showmanship and idealism. Sam and I had a lovely post-show drink at a rooftop bar across the street from the theatre. It was obvious he was loved. I very much enjoyed our conversation and wanted to know more about his writing. I have a strong sense of playwrights being a band of siblings.”
Improv, acting, and writing were in Mossler’s blood from an early age. FST’s director of education, Josh Ford (he/him), and FST lead teaching artist Adam Ratner (he/him) have been pals and collaborators with Mossler since childhood, when they were in the group of young performers who created what is now known as FST’s Kids Komedy Club in the late 1980s.
Explained Ratner, “I met Sam when I was eight years old here at FST. He was coaching me on my very first acting piece. He was 10. It was a Shel Silverstein poem about sitting on your own head. Sam treated it like a true professional, giving me notes on how I should feel about having my butt on my head. I knew then that I had met my soul brother. Sam and I have been best friends for over 35 years. He is the yin to my yang. We performed and wrote together from that point on.”
Ford added, “When I met Sam I was 11 and he was 13. We were in middle school. The film of Little Shop of Horrors had been recently released and Sam and I both loved it. He had a copy of a script of the play and we spent many study hall hours poring over it. We immediately began writing plays together. Sam introduced me to FST, and by extension to many people who would be touchstones throughout my life. It was based on his friendship that FST became my artistic home. Ultimately, Sam brought people together. He listened to everyone and was able to find the best in them and make it better.”
“I had the good fortune to grow up at Florida Studio Theatre,” Mossler said in an interview for the FST website earlier this year. “I was a very hammy child. My mother knew I’d need a place where my skills could thrive. She sent me to FST’s performing arts camp at the age of nine. They fostered me, not only as a performer, but as a writer. [In 1991], I became a part of the inaugural season of FST’s Young Playwrights Festival, and that was super encouraging.”
In FST’s first Write-A-Play program that year, he won the top prize for his oddball musical titled Dating Tips from a Real Blowd in the Glass Cat. He was a high school freshman.
“It was a musical about a young beatnik who was unsuccessful in his romantic pursuits,” Mossler said in FST notes. “He falls in love with a perfect woman, and then finds out that she’s an alien. Some of my childhood idols from theatres all over town were acting out my words onstage. That set me on the right trajectory.”
Kate Alexander (she/her), FST’s current associate director at large, mentored Mossler when he first came to FST through children’s theatre classes. At the time, she was director of education. She recalled the moment she met him: “There he is, Sammy at eight years old, wearing a defunct church blazer—perhaps it was from a previous year and now his mom lets him wear it for play—a thin 1950s black tie, and a vintage fedora hat barely holding down his moppy black hair. He cradles a thrift-shop, ratty Frank Sinatra album under his left arm. Frank, his current hero. He craves this music. He is full of glee—happy to be in the dark theatre. I adored Sammy, right from this moment.”
Friends talk of Mossler’s big, dark eyes, and how he would lean into a conversation. Those “deep eyes” that Alexander saw when he was a child actor suggested “the seminal intelligence, kindness, innate glee, talent, and love for humanity that was to be the hallmark of the man and the artist,” she said. “He was my artistic son.”
From 2005 to 2008, as a teaching artist for FST, Mossler taught playwriting and acting at schools across the state of Florida and penned five TYA shows for the initiative.
Absurdity, theatricality, and a desire to break form colored his play The Ghost of Firs Nikolaich, a sort of sequel to The Cherry Orchard, in which he also played Firs, the ancient servant. It appeared in three different Off-Off-Broadway venues in 2002. His Florida-set screenplay, The Green Flash or Walter Ruddy in Repose, about an aged children’s TV star who bonds with a woman searching for purpose, was later adapted into a play that had some development by FST.
Mossler’s screenplay Og’s Utopia was a semi-finalist in the Austin Film Festival. He also penned and appeared in the short film Theseus and the Minotaur (2013). His other produced plays include The Sexes: According to Dorothy Parker, co-written by Candy Simmons (New York Comedy Club, 2001); The Inquisition (The Push Push Theatre, Atlanta, 2006); Carmen Miranda: The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat (Hudson Backstage Theatre, Los Angeles, 2010); and Ante-Mortem, co-written by Josh Ford and Adam Ratner (Florida Studio Theatre, 1996).
Mossler also played a mean ukulele, his friends said.
Samuel Arnold Mossler was born in 1975 in Bradenton, Fla., to Terry and Dr. Mike Mossler, who survive him, as does his brother Mickey Mossler. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory may be made to the Sam Mossler Scholarship Fund at Florida Studio Theater.
Kenneth Jones (he/him) is a New York City-based playwright, lyricist, and librettist. Best known for the drama Alabama Story, he writes about his own work—and advocates for other theatremakers—at ByKennethJones.com.
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