My Name is Zack and I Love the Theatre
In the fall of 2009, Michael Miller asked me what it meant to be a young actor in New York City. The question came within the context of a larger question he has been posing to the country for several years: Why is the stage actor not seen as an essential part of our national culture? What I think the question comes down to for me is why stage instead of film? Why, when I dream of doing my best work, do I imagine myself on a stage rather than in a film? And more to the point, why do I still believe in the live theater, when to do so as a young actor smacks of naiveté to the realities of show business.
I grew up in a theater town around theater people. When I was 14, my father became a judge for the Joseph Jefferson Awards, the annual Chicago theater awards given in recognition of excellence in the field. He had been a life-long lover of the theatre and a small-time theatrical producer in Chicago. Being a Jeff Judge meant you received two free tickets for every show in town.
At around the same time he began studying to be an actor. Prior to this, he’d sold tape recorders and televisions, and raised a family. What changed? My mother passed away after a two-year struggle with Lymphoma. Being a Jeff judge and then an actor were the first steps my father took in an effort to make sense of his life without her.
My mother’s death, the departure of my two older brothers to college the following year, and an innate adolescent recklessness was a heady cocktail.
As a response, I retreated, at times quietly, and at other times with rage, but always away from him. I was lost and confused, and he wasn’t doing much better. His sadness only made me rebel even more, ashamed and overwhelmed as I was by his emotions. Only months before, the spacious Chicago townhouse I had grown up in was bustling with the energy of a family of five, and now my father and I were roommates, awkwardly trying to navigate towards common ground.
I felt trapped and enraged, forced into being my father’s only companion. Guilt was finally the reason I went with him to the theater. At first it was a chore. I went with him because I convinced myself he had nobody else, and that it was my responsibility to keep him company. But what began as a chore, over time became a passion, and ultimately, a calling.
By the time I finished high school I had gone to over 200 shows in just about every equity, non-equity and officially wacky stage in all of Chicago. Before I knew it, I was going to shows 2-3 times a week, and on nights when we weren’t at the theater, I helped him learn his lines for class or an audition. At the same time, I auditioned for high school musicals and began taking acting classes as electives. During a time in which communication had been strained and challenged, the theater provided us a place to examine the stark reality of our mutual mourning.
I can remember the first time I heard Shakespeare. I was 16 and Hermione was pretending to be a stone statue in Winter’s Tale. Her husband, Leontes, believed like everyone else that she had been dead for 16 years, and yet this statue was incredibly life-like to him. I remember so clearly sitting forward in my balcony seat (at the old Chicago Shakespeare location in the Ruth Page Dance Center on Dearborn in downtown Chicago) and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father crying.
Then I looked at the stage and Leontes was crying. My eyes shifted between these two men mourning the loss of their wives, and as Hermione eventually “comes to life” and embraces her husband, he says, “O, she’s warm. If this be magic, let it be an art as lawful as eating” and something in me cracked and opened, and for the first time I heard Shakespeare.
Prior to this, Shakespeare had been obscure and virtually unintelligible to me. In this single moment I felt like a secret passageway had been unlocked and light was shining in. Shakespeare was writing about loss in a way that was illuminating my life in 1995 and that rocked my world. That single moment humbled me to my father’s pain. I began to hear his loss and his pain, and when I started to do that, I began to accept him a little bit more than I had before.
In the midst of the quiet turmoil at home, watching plays allowed for dialogue without really speaking to each other. First in silent contemplation, then slowly over months, we began to discuss the work.
Whether we were talking about AIDS in “The Normal Heart”, or companionship in “Orphans,” the theater offered an opportunity to tip toe around the all-too salient reality of our circumstances. Actors and the theatre became our community of peers who spoke in a way that we could relate to. The depth of their needs, their loss, their pain and their courage was all too real to us. And each week that we filed into Steppenwolf, The Goodman, Victory Gardens, Red Orchid, Apple Tree, Raven, About Face, Chicago Shakespeare, Court, Next, Northlight, Redmoon, Shattered Globe, The Theater Building, Writers Theater, and many others, we waited, with great hopes, to encounter others like us; people seeking ways to communicate.
Moreover, we waited for them to further our dialogue at home. We waited for them to summon her; the empty space we circumnavigated around, the quiet that waited for us back home. The actors and the play were our mediums, capable of raising the dead. It was only through the plays that we began to make sense of our loss. The empty house that we found ourselves in when my mother passed was now, five years later, filled with greater love and understanding. I believe the only reason that ever happened is because of the theater.
In 2008 I received my MFA in Acting from the University of Tennessee and moved to New York to pursue a life in the profession. It was a rigorous and risky three years of training but the experience had given me the foundations to begin. I sat down for lunch with Michael Miller to catch up and talk about ways to advance my career. Michael and I had gotten to know each other quite well while I was a student at The Actors Center from 2002-2004 and he had recently seen my work in the showcase.
I was back in the city after a summer of regional work and was doing the hustle…like you do. I was already a little tired, and a little unsure of what the heck I was doing and why I was doing it. I was fortunate to have signed with an agent, but the path was still unclear. I knew that a conversation with Michael would help me gain some perspective. As is often the case with Michael, the conversation you intend to have becomes the conversation you need to have, and it wasn’t long before we were discussing the big issues. I left the lunch inspired to write some things down about why I love the theatre. I’m so glad I did. What I wrote is excerpted here in the journal and ultimately gave Michael the idea to offer me this forum.
For the past two years, I have had a pretty standard existence for a young actor in New York City: some regional work, some student films, casting directors who love me, casting directors who don’t love me, an industrial, more showcases than I’d care to admit to, and after all that, I’ve started my own theatre company. Oh, and I cater and wait tables with some of the finest acting talents I’ve ever met. And although it’s only been two years, I can honestly say that it’s felt like 20. The learning curve has been steep and at times unforgiving. Most often though, I feel determined and inspired to make something beautiful of this pursuit and I feel blessed to have a community of friends who feel the same way.
We spend hours hashing out our complicated love/hate for the American Theater in various bars, coffee shops and Chipotles throughout the city. We are a generation of American actors who LOVE the theater and want to figure out what our role is in shaping it. In between helping each other run sides and coach each other through important meetings with casting directors or agents, we grapple with the idea of making art, not just booking the gig. We apply for non-profit status, we research cheap rehearsal space, we write our own work and above all, we keep the faith. This is always a dangerous exercise, all this sound and fury will most likely signify nothing, but we persist, like boats against the current. There has to be a group of us devoted to the health of the live theatre in this country, right? Because if there weren’t, then something incredibly necessary would be lost, right?
This is what my column is about. I want to bring to this journal some of the conversations that are being had out there. From hosting a roundtable series, to interviewing fellow actors who are working around town and throughout the country, this column will be a voice for my generation of theatre makers who are carving out their place in the American Theatre. I’m interested in where we have gone wrong, and where we have gone right, so that we can continue to create a community of theatre artists committed to making beautiful work. Change is always part of the American Theatre, and this column will be examining what that change is all about from my perspective and that of my peers.
Please join me!