Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.
NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Chew has an award-worthy reputation for playing complex leading men with a heroic and intelligent charm and skill. His Henry Higgins in The Lyric Stage Company of Boston's My Fair Lady was no exception and Chris expanded his usual acclaim to new heights by tackling this iconic and oft-misunderstood role. In his Interview, Chris talks about his diverse (but similar) roles in 2015, why he believes Henry Higgins is misunderstood, and how the Boston theatre scene has changed over the past few years.
Hi, Chris, and thanks for joining us for an ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview. Can you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself?
Hi, Brian! I have been fortunate to be part of the Boston theater scene for over 15 years now and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I live way out of town in the woods with my wife and two kids, and I find the long commute (70-90 minutes) somewhat therapeutic on most evenings. Coming into town for a show, I have plenty of time to warm-up vocally and separate the day’s events from whatever show I am working on, and likewise heading home gives me plenty of time to unwind before walking in the door and heading straight to bed! I am the principal of a public middle school and get up early in the morning to head off to school every day.
Talk to us about your acting roles in 2015. How were they similar? How were they different?
Interestingly, I was able to play two different well-known characters who are often considered monsters in their own right, but I found to be very endearing. I started the year getting my ogre on and tackling Shrek with Wheelock Family Theater, and I then did my best to understand Shaw’s brilliant character, Henry Higgins, with the Lyric Stage Company.
They both have very serious social problems and find it difficult to relate with others. However, Shrek operates on gut and instinct and is painfully aware of how the world feels about him. Higgins is the smartest person in the room, and has no clue how his actions impact those around him or really what others think of him.
How was your Henry Higgins different than other productions? How did you discover your portrayal and interpretation? Why?
Scott Edmiston created an environment where we were able to play from the very beginning, and he encouraged all of us to dive deeply into what made these characters tick. He gave me a lot of freedom to explore the joy and passion that Higgins has in his work. As an educator, I have had amazing opportunities to work with students and adults across the spectrum of autism and I really felt like today’s Higgins lives somewhere between Sherlock and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. He would be more comfortable communicating with them than anyone else. That was a really enjoyable to thing to explore and it helped me not get bogged down in the seemingly mean approach many have with Higgins, but rather live in his unapologetically high expectations of everything, including himself.
What have been some of your biggest challenges in theatre? Professionally? Personally?
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to play a lot phenomenal roles and they have all come with their own challenges. But I would have to say staying healthy across the board, both physically and mentally, throughout the grueling schedules has probably been the most challenging.
The biggest personal challenge has been learning to balance a family with the demands of the theater schedule. That starts by learning when it is okay to say no to too many commitments, and not being afraid that another offer will never come along.
Do you believe that Henry Higgins is misunderstood? Why or why not? Do you believe any other famous characters are misunderstood?
I absolutely believe Higgins is misunderstood! I think he is on the autism spectrum, while he is often portrayed as a jerk. I don’t think he is mean at all. I also think he admires Eliza’s persistence and takes her for granted because he can’t understand why she would not want to stay.
How has your day job influenced your night job?
Being an educator has informed how I approach my character work. I look for the humanity and integrity in every character I create and I think carefully about what I attach my name to as it can have an impact on my effectiveness and integrity as an educator, as well.
When you are not at the theatre, what can we find you doing? Relatedly, for what do you wish that you had more time?
If I am not at school, then I am with my family at home or going to my kids’ events and supporting them there.
What are some of the roles on your bucket list? What are some shows or productions on your bucket list? Why?
Luckily, I have been able to check a lot of them off, but my dream since high school has been to play Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I hope I get that chance before I am too old!
What advice would you give yourself at 20 years old? 30 years old? A year ago?
Stay active and drink a lot of water!
How have you seen the Greater Boston theatre scene change in the past few years? How do you anticipate (or hope) that it will change in the future?
The explosion of additional theater companies has been awesome! The energy and opportunities to collaborate with so many phenomenal artists is inspiring. The community seemed smaller years ago so much that it felt more like being in Whoville shouting: “We are here! We are here!” just to try and get the public to notice great theater was being created in Boston and not just shipped in on tour.
Now, there is so much activity that it is virtually impossible to not notice the wonderful range of locally-produced theater. I am very proud to be a part of that!
Do you have any upcoming projects?