2014 Best Actor Nominee Interview: Peyton Pugmire as Prior Walter in The Umbrella's "Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches"

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Photo by Matt McKee

Photo by Matt McKee

Peyton Pugmire joins us with his Southern charm and impressive theatre knowledge for an Interview to discuss his latest role as Prior Walter in both Parts I & II of Angels in America at The Umbrella in Concord, Massachusetts. Not everyone has the opportunity to tackle these roles in quick succession, but Peyton brings his keen script analysis and acting talents to bring empathy and understanding to the complex role.  In this Interview, Peyton discusses his rich and diverse history onstage, his preparation for the role, and some of his dream roles.  Look for his directing work on The Umbrella's stage this Spring in La Cage Aux Folles.

Peyton, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview.  Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Thanks, Brian!  I feel so honored to be nominated and be in such great company.  I’m from Georgia, so I’m a southerner at heart (after a cocktail or two you might hear the accent).  I moved to Boston in 2002 for graduate school at Emerson College where I received my masters in Theater Ed.  I taught public school drama for a few years, started my own small fringe company, served as Producing Artistic Director of the award-winning Watertown Children’s Theatre, and then landed my current job at The Boston Conservatory (“TBC”) where I am the Associate Director of Theater.  I’m lucky to be so inspired by TBC’s remarkably talented students and faculty on a daily basis.  I act when I can, I really love directing, and I still teach and I coach acting privately.  I love the ocean, Stevie Nicks, my car, my friends, tarot cards, and cooking, and I have three guardian angels around me at all times.   

I believe that Angels in America defies description, but why don’t you try?  How would you describe the plays?

“Gay Fantasia” comes to mind, which is the first play’s subtitle.  The phrase justifies the play’s stylistic topography – dreamlike, poetic, hilarious, serious-as-hell, scary, wacky, historical, etc.  It’s like a musical fantasy.  Very rhythmic, too, with each word and pause carefully placed with tweezers.  It’s mysterious, open to many levels of interpretation.  We joked a lot in rehearsals, wondering what the hell [playwright] Mr. Kushner was thinking as he purged his brilliance onto the page.

What do you think that Mr. Kushner was trying to say with these plays?  How does your character, Prior Walter, fit into these themes and ideas?

To me the story is about surviving adversity.  And refusing to remain stagnant and succumb to sexual, medical, political, social, and religious garbage.  It’s also a period piece, spotlighting the conservative early ‘80s.  Prior is a victim of AIDS, a metaphor for the stigma of homosexuality.  And he’s abandoned by his boyfriend.  Poor guy, and all in Part I!   In Part II, we learn that the Angel actually is trying to recruit Prior to bring humankind to a screeching halt.  Heaven can’t handle the earthly chaos, and thankfully Prior says “hell no” and that he’d rather be sick and feel pain than to stop living.  “More life,” he says.  Hindsight’s definitely 20/20.  I sure as hell wasn’t that clear while rehearsing (laughter)!

What was your favorite moment or scene in the plays?  What was your least favorite?

In Part I, I loved the “KS baby” scene with Louis, although that one really stumped me at first.  It’s a beautifully written scene that lasts all of two minutes but really packs a wallop.  My heart broke each night (backstage lying in the hospital bed) when Joe came out to his mom over the payphone.  And Roy Cohn’s chilling monologue to the doctor in which he demands that he has cancer (and not AIDS).  And a touching, hilarious scene at the end of Act 2 between Ella Chapter and Mother Pitt when Mother Pitt is planning to move to NYC.  And Louis’s and Belize’s café scene in Act 3 with Louis’s monologue-from-hell.  Actors Kendall Hodder and Damon Singletary nailed that comedic timing.  I was never really comfortable during the-man-in-park scene in which Prior (doubling as a hustler) has sex with Louis.   Especially when mom and dad were in the audience.  We didn’t talk about that scene afterwards over dessert. 

Part II was one big blur.  Hahaha.  That script is just crazy.   Overall, I have to hand it to our fearless director Nancy Curran Willis.  She handled the entire piece with such care, patience, and intelligence. 

Did you do any special preparation for the role?

I read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, which reads like a suspense thriller.  Reading it helped me to grasp somewhat the outbreak’s painful mystery for everyone involved, primarily the virus’s earliest victims.  I read some essays by Kushner.  But mostly I was religious about reading the script and defining Prior’s actions.  Line by line, word by word. 

I wanted to avoid the trap of playing only emotion, which would be so easy to do with this intense play, so I pulled out my thesaurus and pencil, and I’d saddle up at a neighborhood bar, people watch, and mark up my script.  Writing an action word for every line.  I was kind of obsessive about it.  Lol.  But it helped me stay physically in each moment.  And not get lost.  But a lot of trial and error.  My erasers got a work out!   

I know that you are also a director.  How do you choose your projects, whether it be acting or directing?

I recently made a list of genres and themes from the movies in my Netflix queue.  They include classics, period pieces, supernatural, drag, gay, journey, overcoming hardships, relationships, comedy, family dynamics, culinary, fantasy, youth, adventure, romance, and theatre.  I particularly like to direct plays and musicals that embody those themes. 

And, if the piece is a play, I like to add choreography or movement and some awesome music.  I like high concept.  I’m not really a political activist so I leave those themes for people who do it much better than me.

What have been some of your favorite roles?  What roles would you love to play?

Some favorite roles:  Prior (obvi), Sister Amnesia (Nunsense A-men), Miss Lynch (Grease), Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Frankie (Forever Plaid) . . . and Peter Pan.

Some roles I’d love to do:  Tom (Glass Menagerie), Kipps (The Woman in Black), Father Flynn (Doubt), Jeffrey (Jeffrey), Brad (Rocky Horror), Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird), either dude in Greater Tuna.

What performing or directing advice would you give young theatre professionals?

Study, read, and just do it as much as possible.  Create your own opportunities.  And, never ignore those instincts.

If I gave you $1 million (I’m not), what would you do with it?

Buy a deluxe, lake house ‘escape’ somewhere in New Hampshire.  

What inspires you?  What disappoints you?

Inspires:  Music videos, music (particularly disco), running, movies, a really good show, nature, the angels.

Disappoints:  fear of failure.

Do you have any upcoming theatrical projects or productions?

I’m directing La Cage Aux Folles at The Umbrella in Concord!  We open April 17.  Next fall, I’ll be directing once again at The [Boston] Conservatory.  Acting wise, I’m still in recovery from “Angels”.  Ha!

Do you have anything else that you would like to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thank you for your readership and support of Boston’s diverse theatre scene!  From community all the way up to regional theatre, this city has a lot to offer its artists and audiences.  And since moving to Boston, I always have found the theatre scene very welcoming, with exciting opportunities just around the corner.  We’re lucky for such abundance. 

I hear the ‘higher ups’ in city hall are currently re-assessing the climate and health of our arts scene, and that is wonderful to hear.  I look forward to innovation and continued growth and being a part of it.