I've struggled with calling myself an Artist for most of my life. Even as an Actor, it's hard for me to embrace the idea that I am inherently creative, and therefore I am an artist, whether anyone else believes it or not (including me). I've always enjoyed graphic design, tinkering around with photoshopping images and such. In the past year, I've learned to embrace my passion and talent for art, and created lots of things I'd never created before.
In the aftermath of the early close of my solo show Here Lies Henry (among other Covid-related life changes), I turned to graphic design as a way to process through the grief (which sounds dramatic, it wasn't, but it was grief of a sort). I started making these show posters as a gift to my director and friend Elana Elyce, and I had a lot of fun designing them, playing with fonts, kaleidoscopes, colors, and layers. I have rarely had a photo shoot as warm and comfortable as the one I got from Interrobang Ensemble Member Salar Ardebili, so I had lots of great photos to choose from, in addition to the archive photos of the show taken by Emily Schwartz (not to mention the lighting, costume, everything).
So I created some art, and I'm doing that really scary thing where I share it with people. Enjoy!
I’ve been nominated for a Non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Award for Solo Performance for my work in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Here Lies Henry. (For those of you who don't know, a Jeff Award is the Chicago theater community's equivalent of Broadway's Tony Award.)
This is a great honor that I’ve wanted to achieve for decades. It’s awesome - I didn’t know if it would ever happen, and I’m extremely appreciative. Henry was definitely the most challenging performance of my life, and I put a lot of work and heart into it. I’m very proud of the show, and especially the connections I was able to create with audience members. I truly hope we are able to revisit this production as soon as things go back to normal.
I feel gratitude for every element of this experience. Firstly, was the beautiful collaboration with my director Elana Elyce - she thoughtfully curated my performance so I could deliver my most grounded and genuine expression as Henry. This nomination is truly shared with her - she inspired me to believe that I didn’t need to put any extra emotion on the lines, I didn’t need to yell to get attention - I was enough. My meticulous stage manager Shawn Galligan supported me in every way possible from the very first read-through to our final performance. My understudy Josh Kemper was tremendous - I’m so grateful to have had his counsel through this process as an actor and as a friend, as well as the challenge to match his commitment and preparation. Those of us lucky enough to have witnessed his understudy performance will never forget the kindness and humanity he brought to the role. Finally, the designers and ITP company members were so supportive and collaborative throughout the entire process - the whole way through, I was blessed to be surrounded by talented, passionate, smart people.
To be honest, this nomination is extremely bittersweet. Henry opened on March 1, ran for 8 performances (and 2 previews), and closed on Friday March 13, with the 12 remaining performances cancelled. Our strongest review (3.5 stars in the Tribune!) came out on Wednesday March 11 - the same day Tom Hanks announced he had Covid-19, and Coronavirus officially became serious. Our last two shows were sparsely attended - it seemed even if we were to stay open, the audiences wouldn’t necessarily show up. And of course, what was our moral responsibility if I, or anyone on the crew, or even one of our audience members, unknowingly had Covid, and was spreading it to others? It was a painful decision, but we resigned ourselves that we’d have to close early. With my Dad and some close friends in the audience on closing night, we said goodbye to Henry, and cheersed to a successful, shortened run.
I’ve had a lot of difficulty processing the premature end of this show. It was an entirely special and unique experience, presenting challenges I had never had to deal with before. I had no other actors to work off, or commiserate with, or to blame for my bad performance (not that I would ever do that). I struggled with my ego and my self-esteem like never before - as my ego grew bigger with positive responses, my self-esteem somehow plummeted. I was just starting to get into the groove of five performances a weekend, as it became increasingly clear we would be closing the show earlier than expected. So, as my most high profile, best reviewed show was just getting started, everything had to shut down. This has been a blow to my very profession - who’s going to sit in a theater and see a show until there’s a vaccine? And my daytime teaching gigs had all been cancelled the same day as the show. The resulting following month (or two?) all went by in a blur, and now comes a Jeff nomination for my dear cut-short show.
I’m grateful, this is amazing, but at the same time, it’s kinda trivial given our reality at the moment, isn't it? So, I’m as proud as is appropriate, and not a bit more. My best wishes to my "competitors" Scott Gryder and Megan Wells, and all of the other awesome Chicago non-equity theatre artists recognized this year (BERNER! MICHELLE! BRITTANY! YASKO AND SMITH! REW! KEITH THE WIG GUY!). I have some quibbles about some artists that I feel were wrongly looked over - but I will leave those to private Facebook messages, like a professional.
I don’t know when we’ll be able to see Henry again. Hopefully soon.
Thank you to everybody. I love all of you.
Let's have some music! Let's have some fun!
The Cast and Crew of Here Lies Henry:
(top row, from L) Shawn Galligan, Josh Kemper, me, costume designer LaVisa Williams, production manager Richie Vavrina, sound designer Tim McNulty;
(bottom row, from L) Elana Elyce, lighting designer Michelle Benda
All photos by Emily Schwartz
Cabaret is my very favorite play of all time, and Cliff Bradshaw is a role I never imagined I'd get to play. I drew from all of my acting skill and all of my life experience up to this point to create this character. Famously, the character of Cliff is a bit of a cypher - things seem to happen to him, rather than him choosing his destiny. I decided for my performance that Cliff chooses everything - he chooses to submit to the seductive nature of Berlin, he chooses to fall in love with Sally, he chooses to indulge his fantasy of starting a family. These choices are all doomed from the start, but he pursues them full-heartedly all the way to the bitter end.
I was able to draw from my natural chemistry with my Sally Bowles, Caitlin Jackson, to create a lived-in and believable relationship. My fabulous castmates on and off the stage infused all their energy into the show - I wasn't in any of the large musical numbers, but it always felt like we were working together to tell the same story. Staged in the upstairs pub of an Irish restaurant, we could see the whites in the eyes of our audience. It was an incredibly intimate experience which allowed us as actors to make very subtle choices that the audience would pick up on.
This Cabaret was one of the best productions I've ever done, and maybe the performance I'm proudest of in my career so far. I spoke to so many audience members who said Cliff is usually their least favorite character, but that they loved my take on it and I became one of their favorite characters. I took a big risk in this show, in that I didn't try to "play" a character, I used my own personality and just played the character's objectives. For the sake of the story, I became different versions of myself - naive dreamer, suggestible seducee, politically anxious citizen, disillusioned would-be father. It felt like the most honest and raw performance I've ever given.
I am most grateful to everybody at Cowardly Scarecrow, particularly our directors Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts, for trusting me with this role. Of course, I'm so thankful that I was driving Caitlin to rehearsals for Poseidon last spring when she told me they were doing Cabaret, and I begged for an audition. I'm grateful to Maiko for always bringing sweets, to Brittny for her hysterical grunting noises, to Sydney for her va-va-voom AND her brilliant make-up design. To Aaron for his Fraulein Schneider notes that tried to make me break, to Kevin for his casual superstar quality, to Mandy for her heartbreaking take on "What Would You Do?". The whole ensemble worked together to tell this story, which is so dang relevant to our times. It's taken me a month or so to process and fully accept the end of this project, but I will hold out hope that I'll be able to do Cabaret again.
This Saturday, I have the honor and privilege to join the cast for one performance of Pride Films and Plays’ magnificent production of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. It has been an awesome experience watching this cast and creative team construct this beautiful and rich and timely story. I had the benefit of having worked with the director and nearly the entire cast, particularly my overstudy Patrick Byrnes - who I’ve known for almost half my life! His performance as George/Valentina is so layered and vibrant and moving. I have quite the challenge to match his excellence, but I also have the support of this brilliant cast, stage manager, Assistant Director, and the incomparable multi-hyphenate Robert-Eric West, who have taken time out of their schedules to help me prepare for the role. It’s comforting to know they’ve all got my back.
A month or so ago, a friend posted on Facebook a Barbara Walters interview with Harvey Fierstein from 1985, shortly after La Cage Aux Folles premiered on Broadway, along with his hit Torch Song Trilogy. Barbara (or BaBa WaWa, as she was known in my house growing up) was asking Harvey questions that to my 2019 ears sounded absurd - “Is it possible for homosexuals to be monogamous?”, “How do you live publicly as a gay man? - and Harvey answered them as generously and kindly as possible. Being gay was just as natural as the air he breathed, and he explained that most gays he knew were monogamous, as normal as any straight couple. And this was shocking - SHOCKING - to Barbara, and presumably to the millions of Americans who were watching that telecast.
So now to be doing one of this icon's plays is a great honor, and although I only get one shot at it, I’m going to make the most of it. I’ve been running the lines for months, I’ve had my make-up test and costume fitting, I’ve run through the show on the stage in heels. George is one of the most morally complex characters I’ve ever played - his compartmentalization of Valentina, and the ensuing disintegration of that has been one of the most awesome challenges in my acting career. And that I get to do it seven days before I open Cabaret adds extra difficulty and pressure - which would be absolutely crushing if I didn’t have an squad of actors and artists, family and friends, who have been unquestionably there for me if I had questions, or if I needed to run lines, or if I just needed to relax and destress.
So I’m dedicating this one to Harvey, to Mom (always), and to everybody who has believed in me and helped me get to this point in my career - most especially, Casa’s brilliant director Michael Graham. I’m so lucky to have gotten cast with him in a 2012 production of The Cherry Orchard, and since then he’s entrusted me with roles in readings and plays, particularly the amazing experience that was Ten Dollar House. He’s always given me wide breadth to create my characters, offering thoughtful direction that nudged me towards subtle and truthful choices, without telling or showing me how to get there. I’m so grateful to have had his friendship and his artistic partnership. I hope to do justice for him, and Harvey, and Mom, on Saturday night.
CASA VALENTINA by Harvey Fierstein
at Pride Films and Plays - Broadway Stage
Understudy George/Valentina - Performing Sept 28!
Let's start now - we are one week away from tech, and 23 days from Press Opening for the 2019 revival of Hell in a Handbag's Poseidon! Rehearsals have been awesome and fun. This cast is insanely talented and funny funny FUNNY. Without a single exception, every actor is making hysterical choices and cracking each other up near constantly. I've had the pleasure of working with a bunch of these people before, but there's possibly more though that I've admired in other shows or worked with in other non-acting capacities that I'm so jazzed to share the stage with for the first time. Then you've got our wonderful director, Derek Van Barham, who always has specific notes that encourage us to be even more goofy and yet more grounded in reality. Our choreographer Breon Arzell makes such creative choices that vacillate from classical musical theater to drag fabulousness to cartoonish ridiculousness. And then David Cerda's familiar yet updated script, with new songs, that ape the original Poseidon Adventure with love and heart.
This is my second time on the SS Poseidon. In 2009, I got my first major Chicago theatre gig thanks to the brilliant Matthew Gunnels - I outlined some of this when I worked on Bewildered two years ago. I started out in the role of Otis / Crewmember #1, then I played Nonnie's brother Teddy, and finally for one magical night I played that catatonic lounge singer herself. And this time, I get to play Mr. James Martin, played in the film version by Red Buttons. Without revealing too much, Mr. Martin's arc has been quite beefed up in this update, and I'm so excited to share the character's journey with audiences. As well as two awesome new Cerda/Lamberty songs!!
The 2009 production of Poseidon was a life-defining event for me, informing the art that I would create for the next decade, introducing me to the artists that would become my friends and collaborators, and forming the base for my career. I am forever indebted to David Cerda, Matthew Gunnels, Brigitte Ditmars, Steve Kimbrough, Jason Grimm, Trista Smith, and so many others for making me feel at home as an artist in this city - not to mention my fellow 2009 Poseidonites Michael Miller, Elizabeth Lesinski, and even David Lipschutz, who I'm so glad to be joining on this new voyage.
I never imagined myself in this role - it may only be that I'd considered myself disqualified based on my height, which is significantly taller than Red Buttons, who visibly is much shorter than his TPA co-stars. And I'm not a ginger. BUT I can play the "lovable loser" type preeeettty well, and as soon as I started playing with the cadences and vocal qualities of Red Buttons, I was having a lot of fun - which especially in Handbag shows, means you're doing something right. I was so pleasantly surprised at our first read-through, as it was clear that David had spent a lot of time crafting a fuller arc for Mr. Martin. And when I first heard the new songs and lyrics, I was balled over with excitement, and the teensiest bit of fear, that I got to play this pivotal role in the show. I only hope to do it justice.
Curiously, I'm finding a lot of my inspiration for this character (outside of the movie and Red Buttons' work) from Anton Chekhov. In Junior year of college at ISU (2005), I was in a Realism acting class, where we studied Chekhov's Three Sisters. It immediately became one of my favorite plays, and I was cast in one of my favorite roles, Kulygin, the older husband of Masha. Our teacher, the late Patrick O'Gara, encouraged us to live in these characters, even when, like in Act 3, our characters are outside of the action, obscured from the other characters. Kulygin is a beautifully tragic character, who thinks that his life is a comedy - despite the fact that nobody ever laughs at his jokes, if they are even listening to him in the first place. His failure to connect with other humans just reinforces his coping mechanisms, leading to a character who is just desperate to be acknowledged. Admirably, he never stops trying to connect, even when it's clear that his wife wants nothing to do with him, and that he doesn't really fit into this family.
As someone who has been dealing with depression and anxiety for my whole life, I find these characters, Kulygin and Mr. Martin, to be so inspiring. No matter how bad things look for them, they always try to find hope, and share that with those around them. It's a struggle to do that, and it's often a losing battle. But to admit defeat would mean death (symbolically for Kulygin, and quite literally for Mr. Martin), so they keep going. They Keep On Climbin', as we sing in the show's finale. It's an essential life lesson, one that's worth remembering every single day.
So this one is for the passengers in my life who didn't make it to the end, but who enabled me and so many others to survive: Patrick, who encouraged me to dig into those uncomfortable parts of my psyche and share them with the audience; for Matt, who allowed me to be goofy and claim moments in the spotlight, even as a chorus member; and, as always, for Mom (Queen Mary?), who told me to "play it to the hilt", and who I always see in the audience when I'm performing.
This is going to be a very special show - I hope you can see it! Tickets are now on sale!
I just closed one of the more difficult shows I've ever been in - Lifeline Theatre's We Found a Hat. Just because it's a TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) show, doesn't mean we skimped on anything. If anything, we packed two hours of gags and jokes into a tight 50 minute play with music. I had a heavy load of percussive cues (tambourine, maraca, bells), not to mention I learned to play harmonica for this play. Add on some very physical comedy in a heightened style of near-cartoonism, and lots of technical cues, and you've got a very complicated show that needs to move with the swiftness of a roadrunner.
But luckily. when you're working with a company as supportive as Lifeline, with a cast that was game for absolutely anything, and a director and design team dedicated to making the best show possible, you can rest assured that the final product with entertain audiences both young and old. We left it all on the stage, and I couldn't be prouder.
You can check out an excerpt of some of the silly hijinks and the heart of the this special show, below; as well as a glowing review here. On to the next one!