Wesley Dean Tucker was just 5 when it came to him in the middle of the night.
"I remember having a dream that my mom was tap dancing," the senior at Naperville's North Central College says. "When I woke up the next day I told her I wanted to take tap lessons."
It was the start of what, so far, has been a lifelong fascination with the stage and theater for Tucker, who has emerged during his time at North Central as a dynamic triple threat: an actor, a singer and a dancer.
This weekend, the downstate Mason City resident will take on a new role as he directs a production of Steve Martin's 1993 comedy "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" in Meiley-Swallow Hall.
Tucker has performed in countless stage shows starting in fourth grade, helped choreograph a recent North Central production of "Pippin" and even directed a 20-minute piece at the school.
But this is the first time he's directed a full-length play. Imagine the responsibility of working with an 11-member cast. Think about the pressure to put the best possible face on Martin's comic brilliance. He must be nervous, right?
Not a chance.
"I'm not the one on stage, the actors are," he says. "I've never had a problem with nervousness."
Albert and Pablo
There are two things Tucker thinks you should know about "Picasso" before taking one of the roughly 230 seats in the theater at 31 S. Ellsworth St. for the show's three-night run that opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15.
First, it's a good bet it's going to challenge you and make you think. Second, it's going to make you laugh. This is, after all, Steve Martin.
Imagine you're pulling up a table in a Paris bar called Le Lapin Agile. It's 1904 and you're eavesdropping on a fictional conversation involving three very familiar principle characters: a 25-year-old Albert Einstein, a 23-year-old Pablo Picasso and an unnamed rock 'n' roll superstar who bears a striking similarity to Elvis Presley.
(Yes, we know Elvis wasn't born in 1904, and neither was rock 'n' roll, but get over it.)
Each of the central figures is on the verge of accomplishment and fame, and each thinks he holds the key to the greatest idea of the 20th century. They're young, they're egotistic and, on this night, they're more than happy to debate the value of different art forms - from painting to music to science.
"The comedy is very random, very sarcastic, very dry," Tucker says. "It's very Steve Martin."
It's also very smart, he says, an attribute the cast and its director have come to appreciate more and more over the past three weeks of rehearsals.
Every night, Tucker says, a new light bulb seems to flip on and "we'll understand a new joke as a group and we'll think, 'Wow! Steve Martin really is a genius.' "
It isn't the kind of show you can watch with something else on your mind, he says. "You have to pay attention."
'A joy to work with'
Brian Lynch has been paying attention to Tucker on and off since Wesley arrived at North Central.
Lynch, the college's longtime fine arts director, calls Tucker "a joy to work with."
There's no debate Tucker is a strong singer, dancer and actor. He speaks four languages - including sign. But perhaps most impressive, Lynch says, is his ability to get along with people. In a profession where gargantuan egos are the norm, that's very welcome.
"We've really, really grown to appreciate his talent," Lynch says.
Tucker has focused much of that talent on musical theater, appearing in North Central productions ranging from "Cats" and "Singin' in the Rain" to "West Side Story" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
Still, Lynch says he's not at all surprised Tucker is trying his hand at directing.
"He's such a strong dancer, and that lends itself to getting involved in choreography," he says.
From there, Lynch says, it's a fairly short step to directing.
"You get that eye where you want to be able to control the whole production," he says, "you want to paint the whole picture."
Painting the picture
Before he could put his theatrical brush to "Picasso," Tucker had to submit his proposal - along with other would-be student directors - to the college's theater faculty. Members pick only the best to be featured in North Central's Student Director Series and the shows (there are four this year) traditionally operate with smaller budgets and younger casts than other productions.
Two of the three main actors in this production - Erik Eiseman from Freeport, who plays Picasso, and Mike Kintz from Bolingbrook, who plays Einstein - are sophomores. Brad Morrison of St. Charles, who portrays the musician, is a freshman.
All of them, though, have bought into the production and Tucker's vision for it.
Tucker himself says he loved the script from the moment he first read it.
He's been to Paris twice, and even stood outside the real Lapin Agile, which is now a cabaret. "I had a pretty thorough vision before we even started rehearsals," he says.
Still, pitching "Picasso" was somewhat risky because North Central isn't known for its comedies.
"I wanted to give our comedic actors a chance," he says.
Every production has its challenges, of course, and this one is no different.
For one thing, Meiley-Swallow features a thrust stage, which means the audience is on three sides. Tucker says much of his focus has been on ensuring all audience members get the same theatrical experience, no matter where they sit.
The other is to pull together a production with just three weeks of rehearsal and with only three shots to get it just right on stage. "It's just a short burst of energy," Tucker says.
Life is a cabaret
It's been a long time since he was 5, but Wesley Tucker still has dreams.
The kid who first appeared on stage as a fourth-grader in Lincoln's New Salem has spent the past several years auditioning for theater groups and hopes to snare some roles once he gets his degree this spring.
A career on stage, of course, would be perfect. But his real dream involves something more. He can see this one without even closing his eyes.
"I would be owning my own cabaret," he says, "and running it with American actors in Paris."
If you go
What: "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, April 15-17
Where: North Central College's Meiley-Swallow Hall, 31 S. Ellsworth St., Naperville
Tickets: $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors
Info: 630-637-7469 or northcentralcollege.edu/show