2014 Best Director of a Play Nominee Interview: Nancy Curran Willis for The Umbrella's "Angels in America, Part I and II - Millennium Approaches and Perestroika"

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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.

Nancy Curran Willis boasts many years at directing theatre at all levels across the Eastern Massachusetts region.  Her ability to create epic plays and musicals, while sustaining the humanity and rich storytelling, make her a cut above the rest.  In her Interview, Nancy describes he work on Angels in America through motifs and directing moment to moment; her theatre adjudicating experience; and her busy  2015-2016 season!

Nancy, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  Who are you, what do you do, what are some of your theatre experiences and background?

Theater is something that’s been in my blood since early childhood. I grew up in Wakefield, MA with actor parents who met working at a professional theater in Lowell (well before MRT), my father’s hometown.  My Dad was an actor/singer who specialized in comedy, and Mom was a brilliant dramatic actress and a real “actor’s director.” That ended when they got engaged and my Grandfather took my Dad aside and suggested that he “find real work” to be able to support his family.  But the love of performing was never really left behind. My mother had lied about her age in high school and was cast in a show for The Quannapowitt Players (“QP”), a community theater formed by the two contiguous towns of Wakefield and Reading. She returned there as an actress/director as soon as I was old enough to play in the parking lot with the other theater brats, while they rehearsed. It wasn’t surprising that 20 years later when I had a family of my own, I followed in Mom’s footsteps and dragged my kids to QP to play while I worked on sets, sold tickets, ushered and served as President and member of the board for twenty years. It was there that I learned everything I know about producing, directing, stage managing and running a theater company. A theater brat with larger-than-life crazy actors for ‘rents, meant that my life was full of comedy and tragedy. A burnt roast became fodder for my Dad’s imitation of Julia Childs while Mom fumed, tossed the roast on the floor and stormed out the door and my brothers and I laughed hysterically. So, I guess my ability to work with actors was learned at an early age!  

The first play I directed was The Boys Next Door for QP, 25 years ago. We took a cutting to the New England Theater Conference drama festival held back then at Brandeis University, and won Best Production. It had been 38 years since QP had won the festival and that show had been directed by my Mom. Things do come full circle!  I had many years and much success in community theater while building a career in “Corporate America” and raising my three children as a single mom.

Anxious to see how professional theater worked, I had the pleasure of being the Assistant Director for Rick Lombardo at New Rep on a play called Beast on the Moon, my first professional experience. Not long after, I left Corporate America (and the salary) behind, and I began my journey into Boston area professional theater as the Managing Director of Gloucester Stage, which led to my joining with Jason Southerland in a collaboration of many years with Boston Theatre Works, the highlight of which was winning an Elliot Norton Award for Direction in 2008 for BTW’s Angels in America. Since then, I have directed for many professional, community and high school theaters with almost 10 years as guest director at Newton South High. I have been an adjudicator for Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theatre, Irene Ryan, and area high school festivals, as well as directing 3 to 5 shows a year, which retirement has allowed and my husband graciously puts up with.

What is your history with Angels in America?  How did you decide to direct these plays?

As mentioned above, my history with Angels started with my collaboration on BTW’s production. While that shared experience was highly successful professionally and personally, I never quite got over thinking on a purely personal level, there were some things left on the table that I wanted to explore further given the opportunity. I also felt that performing this important piece of theatrical history in the midst of Boston’s theater community in the South End was a little like preaching to the choir. I wished for the opportunity to bring this epic, important play to the suburbs but knew it had to be for a company that could provide the technical support and resources that I wanted to explore further in a production of my own. And then it happened. Brian Boruta, Artistic Director for The Umbrella in Concord, put out a call for directors for their 2014 season and Angels was on the list.

Talk to us about the story.  It’s epic. How did you make it manageable for yourself, your actors, your production team, and, more of all, the audience?

I actually had a very simple theory on that and not a very original one: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.  I found that if you approached this material from the outside edge and got caught up in the magnitude of its themes and issues, it was easy to get lost in the hugeness of it. Instead we focused on managing that by working in small beats, each with its own journey and objective; stringing them together beat by beat, and hoping that three hours later, you’ve told the whole story and done justice to Kushner’s words and world.

On the technical side, keeping the world of the play in one location supported simple scene changes indicated merely by furniture placement and lighting. This allowed the theater magic called for in Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia” to be captured through creative/inventive costuming, lighting, sound and specific special effects.

For the audience, I felt it was important to bring out the humor of the two plays, especially the absurdity of Perestroika, which is a crazy mess structurally in comparison to Millennium. I felt strongly we needed actors who could personalize this journey for our suburban audience. Not from the perspective of an AIDS play but from the perspective of the relationships: of caring for a loved one with a terrible disease; of marriages that fall apart; of trying to fit in where you don’t belong; and of coping when your religious beliefs are in conflict with who you are. I directed a play about the hope for “more life” and wanted to use the power of drama and comedy to reinforce that theme.

How were these productions different than your other directing projects?  How were they similar?

Angels in America is rather typical of the type of theater that I like directing the most. I tend to gravitate towards epic storylines, dramatic through lines and big ideas. I also tend to like dark comedy that comes out of tragic storytelling. Some of my work along those lines are: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, The Laramie Project, Cabaret, A Piece of My Heart, Jekyll and Hyde, to name a few. I also love material based on real people and true stories such as Diary of Anne Frank, The Miracle Worker, Grey Gardens, and Breaking the Code. And, anything by Sam Shepard or David Mamet!

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What were some recurring ideas, images, or motifs in the plays for you?  How did you reinforce these in your directing?

Probably the most recurring image for me in thinking about Angels was the importance of the Angel of the Waters atop the Bethesda Fountain in NYC’s Central Park. The statue references the Gospel of John, which describes an angel blessing the Pool of Bethesda and giving it healing powers. Kushner places several scenes at the fountain throughout Angels Part I and Part II. In fact he ends the play at the fountain with Prior Walter wishing for “more life.” That image drove the set design and the importance of the Angel to our production.  I wanted to make the Angel of the Water a metaphor for “more life” at the end of Perestroika, thereby giving hope to anyone needing to wash themselves clean. As a living metaphor, it would be enacted by the actress playing our Angel, Sharon Mason, who was swathed in a concrete dress, atop an 8 foot platform, covered in grey make up to replicate the statue. At the end of the play, with a nod of her head and a slight smile, she motions to Prior and as the fountain came to life with water flowing. We owe a huge thank you to set designer Brian Boruta and costumer Elisabetta Polito for pulling that one off.

What are you reading right now?  What is on your “To Read” list? Do novels or non-fiction ever inform your directing decisions?  

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t do much reading for “fun” these days. Most of my reading is based on research for upcoming or proposed directing projects. Presently I’m reading two books on Bonnie and Clyde, my next directing project: Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, and My Life with Bonnie and Clyde, a biography of Blanche Barrow, married to Clyde’s brother Buck who became one of the gang and the only survivor who wrote her memoir from prison. I have a vast library of play scripts and librettos and one day hope to actually read all of them!

Take us through a typical Saturday for you.  What are you doing?  Who are you with?  What do you have planned?

Well this particular Saturday, I am in my office, in front of my computer answering your questions. Other than that I would either be at a theater working on tech or spending time with my kids and grandkids. Most Saturday evenings, find me either attending a performance of my own show or supporting friends by attending their productions.

Tell us about your adjudicating background.  What is that like?  How does it help you as theatre artist?  What are some of the challenges?

I’ve been a consultant for Eastern Mass Association of Community Theaters (EMACT) for 20 years and have adjudicated Irene Ryan and several high school level festivals. It means that I see a lot of theater, which drives a curiosity and interest in the growth of our theater community and the nurturing of the next generation of theater artists. Key to being a good adjudicator is in being able to mix criticism with praise. At all levels of adjudication, you want to encourage good work while pointing out areas for improvement.  Finding that balance is a huge challenge of the job.

Another challenge is being in the position of adjudicating the work of your friends and peers making sure you are always evaluating without prejudice one way or the other.  My own directing work has benefitted greatly from being an adjudicator. Having to think about why a production or performance resonates or why it does not is something I use to inform my own projects. It continues to draw you into the role of observer (audience) and always reminds me that is the most important role of all.

How do you think the Greater Boston community theatre scene has changed?  How about the Boston fringe and professional scene?  What has stayed the same?  What do you hope will change in the next year?  Five years?

Frankly, I’m envious of the strength of the fringe theaters in Boston now since I was a part of the fringe companies that didn’t make it back in the day. It feels like Boston is more accepting of the companies that do new work and more opportunities for new directors and actors who want to get a start in the business.  And even more importantly, the number of amazingly talented actors and actresses, (several of whom are fellow nominees here) who have chosen to make Boston their theatrical home.

I also believe that the quality of theater at all levels is consistently reaching new heights. High schools are tackling material like Laramie Project and Spring Awakening. Community theaters are producing New England Premieres like Bonnie & Clyde, the Musical at The Umbrella (shameless self-promotion) and newer works by contemporary playwrights like Mamet, Shepard, Rebeck, Lindsay-Abaire, Dietz, and LaBute to name but a few. I believe the quality of community theater in our area has grown tremendously in the last decade with groups taking amazing risks doing edgy, new and challenging material. As the quality and body of work our audiences are exposed to at all levels continues to rise, I’m convinced the numbers of butts in seats will follow which is the ultimate goal for keeping theater alive.

If your best friend spoke at an award ceremony for you, what is one word that you hope that he or she uses to describes you?  

I think you’d get many answers depending on which friend you asked!

There is really no way to answer this without sounding like an egotistical idiot so I will leave it as a simple: NCW, my friend.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions? Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

My personal projects for next season include: Bonnie & Clyde at The Umbrella in the fall; Proof for Concord Players in the winter; and Israel Horovitz’ My Old Lady for Quannapowitt Players in Reading in the spring.

I’d like to thank you and ArtsImpulse for the attention being given to theater at all levels in our community leading to their success and growth. I also would like to thank The Umbrella for being a huge part of that growth and mostly I want to thank the actors and designers who spent well over a year with us on Angels in America, Parts I and II. A director is only as good as the talent on the team. With special shout outs to: Peyton Pugmire, David Berti, Kendall Hodder, Damon Singletary, Kevin Brown, Jennifer Shea, Liz Robbins, Sharon Mason, Jim Barton, Cathie Regan, Brian Boruta and our amazing tech team who gave Angels in America the wings that allowed Kushner’s words to soar!

2014 Best Set Design Nominee Interview: Brian Boruta for The Umbrella's "Angels In America: Part II - Perestroika"

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 John Burke

Photo by John Burke

Brian Boruta, Director of Performing Arts for The Umbrella in Concord, Massachusetts, took on the behemoth task of designing the sets for both Angels in America: Parts 1 and 2 in 2014.  Not only did he survive the process, he thrived, creating a larger than life, spectacle-heavy set worthy of a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Set Design nomination.  In his Interview, Brian discusses his creative process as a designer (he has also done lighting and sound design for other shows), the unique collaboration at The Umbrella, and his guilty pleasures (we promise that we won't judge, Brian). 

Brian, introduce yourself to our readers.  What is your role at The Umbrella and how did you get this position?

Well, I’m a Gemini with a double Capricorn moon and I have a . . . Oh. That wasn’t what you meant? Sorry . . .

Currently, I serve as the Director of Performing Arts for The Umbrella, a multidisciplinary arts center in the quaint ‘burb of Concord, MA. I came to the building six years ago as a performer, and, after doing several shows here, took over the program in 2012.

I guess I was just lucky. For many years, the program struggled to get going, and, in 2011, the Board voted to support an expansion of programming with some generous sponsorship. I threw my hat into the ring when they were looking for their first full-time Director. Right place at the right time, as they say.

I oversee all theater programming, as well as collaborating with some wonderful local artists on film and concert series.

What were some of the challenges of designing a set for Angels in America?  What was harder, Part I or Part II?

Well, simply put, Tony Kushner is an asshole. Not literally, of course. I don’t know him personally, but his script is incredibly demanding of designers, asking them to create this world in which anything is possible. Between the two parts of the show, there are almost 50 set changes including a trip to Hell, Heaven and everywhere in between. How do you fit all that on stage? How do you make a flaming book erupt from the ground? How do you fly an Angel in a theater with no fly space?

Kushner is kind enough to give the designers license to “let the wires show,” as he says, but, still, the level of production that he asks for is daunting and certainly added some new tricks to my bag.

If I had to choose one, I would say that Part 2 was harder. For one, it’s longer, and the evolution of scenes is less structured. The world has literally fallen apart around these characters, and you, as the designer, have to create that with them.

I also owe a whole lot of thanks to Sharon Mason, who played our Angel, for all her bravery. Nancy and I wanted this moment for the end of Part 2 when Prior is urging the audience to celebrate “more life” as he stands in front of the Bethesda Fountain. We thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Angel on top of the fountain was actually Sharon, in full costume and makeup as a living statue, and she reached out to him in the final light cue and the water started to run over her feet.” Poor Sharon was 13 feet in the air with a mammoth of a dress, standing on an 18 inch square platform and standing still for ten minutes. It must have been hell for her, but, for me as a designer, when that water started flowing, it was perhaps one of my proudest moments.

Have you previously designed sets?  What has been your favorite?  Did any prior set designs help or inspire you for your set design for Part 2?

I have! Prior to working for The Umbrella, I was the Technical Director and Events Manager at Wellesley Public Schools. I got to work with students to design scenery, lighting, and sound, and I also freelanced my time out to other groups as a lighting and scenic designer. All told, I’ve probably designed almost 3 dozen shows at this point.

If I had to pick one, I think I would say that Red was my favorite. It was a real ‘environment’ piece. We stripped the space of its soft goods, and installed seating risers on stage supported by some 400 paint cans and did our best not to hide anything in the theater, but to reclaim it, as Rothko would have done in his studio at The Bowery in the ‘50s.  The whole space just became this incredibly rich tapestry, almost a palette itself, which continued to evolve throughout the performance run since the actors were using it and painting live on stage.

I can’t say that any one set inspired me for Angels, but I think that I learned a little something from each one along the way and Angels pushed me to use just about every trick that I had in order to pull it off.

Talk us through the process from when a show is selected until when a set is built and complete.  How do you prepare?  Who else helps you?  What steps do you take?

I’m not very good at designing literal shows. I’m not shy about saying that, either. I think, as designers, we all have a specific approach and skill set which either helps us or hurts us when working on certain projects.

For me, I like to take the source material and find the strongest visual metaphor or symbol. For Side Show, we had these fabric panels draped from a center point on the stage out towards the wings which served as a sort of deconstructed cyc throughout the show, adding color and texture to the action. When you stood back and looked at them all fully lit, they resembled a tent under which the "Side Show" took place and, no matter where the Hilton twins went, they were always underneath that tent.

For Angels, it was Bethesda, the final scene of the show. Prior says that “this was [his] favorite place in the world.” And so it felt appropriate that this place should be carried with him on his journey to his ultimate destination, through destruction, despair, in the face of death . . . whatever.

Photo by Meghan Donnelly

Photo by Meghan Donnelly

I couldn’t very well just place a giant fountain on stage the whole time, though, so we decided to work with the archways and terrace behind fountain as the dominant imagery. Archways, for me, symbolize passages to new places, thresholds (of revelation), entry and exit.  It felt powerful and somehow correct. As the play progressed from Part 1 to Part 2, the structure actually disintegrated and fell apart, which was cool, and it allowed Nancy [the director, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Director of a Play Nominee for The Umbrella's Angels in America, Part 1 and Part 2] a lot of freedom in terms of movement on the stage while still maintaining this almost monolithic structure lurking in the background.

I really have a fantastic team. My Technical Director Al is a wonderful problem solver and The Umbrella’s own Executive Director, Jerry Wedge, is an architect by training who made a move into nonprofit arts management, so he and I have a fun time just wandering the stage sometimes discussing possibilities and hashing out ideas.

Are there any shows for which you would want to design the set?

After Angels, I almost never want to design a set again. No, no, I’m joking.

It’s hard to put my finger on any one piece that draws me in as a designer, but right now I’m really drawn to environment pieces, like Red, which allow you to create a space in which both the actors and the audience can co-habitate and create a really ephemeral experience together. Every performance ends up being different that way. I just think it’s such a cool paradigm to explore because you aren’t creating a picture as much as you are an experience. 

What other technical positions have you held?  Which do you find the most rewarding?  The most challenging?

As a freelancer, I’ve been a lighting, sound, and scenic designer. I’ve dabbled in props. Really, the only thing you’re not likely to ever see my name next to is costume design. I tried to sew a seam on a table cloth once and stabbed myself with the needles so I just stapled the damn thing together.

I think they all present unique challenges. The most exciting challenge of all is finding a way for them all to play together in a harmonious design. For the last 2 seasons at The Umbrella, the sound, lighting and scenic design teams have remained almost entirely the same which has been really fun for us. Seif, our lighting designer, and I have built a really great relationship working together. When I design, I have his aesthetics in mind too, and like to provide him with fun opportunities to integrate lights and scenery and every time I hand him a design. I like when he bounces ideas back at me for how we can up the ante a bit even more. 

What is the best play or movie that you’ve seen recently?  Do you have a top 5 of favorite plays?  Do you have a favorite production that you saw in 2014.

Tough call!

I really liked The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne was amazing. Though, I may be biased. #swoon.

My top 5 is always evolving. Right now, I can’t seem to get enough Sam Shepard (The Umbrella will be doing True West this fall!) and The Color Purple is on loop in my CD player. Side Show will forever hold a place in my heart even though I thought the recent revival was a bit too cheap for my taste.

One of the absolute best things I saw in 2014 was Company One’s production of AstroBoy and the God of Comics. It was definitely not for everyone, but I like really weird shit, and it was maybe one of the most brilliant ensemble pieces I’ve seen in a long time. 

What is your guilty pleasure?

Real Housewives. I figure I get enough culture in my daily work that I’m allowed to go home, pour a glass of wine, and watch trashy reality television. #bloop

How do you see the Greater Boston theatre scene changing?  How is The Umbrella responding to these changes?  What is The Umbrella’s mission and how does it address the needs of the Greater Boston theatre community?

Big question! I could go on for hours about this, but the Greater Boston theatre is in a sort of renaissance right now thanks to the huge success and national recognition of our large professional houses, like A.R.T. and Huntington.

But the growth isn’t limited to the professional houses. There is so much support for our fringe scene, and even theaters in the burbs are drawing audiences out of the city.

I think if you look at the rhythm of theatre programming as a whole, not just now, but throughout the ages, it tends to ebb and flow based on the needs of its audience.

Today’s audience demands art as activism, leveraging artistic voices to create global discussions around relevant issues. Audiences aren’t afraid to engage with this kind of work which is really exciting. 

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Here at The Umbrella, we pride ourselves on producing bold, daring, and innovative work. Informally, I like to say that we produce “shit that matters.” We like to push boundaries and really encourage those discussions to happen.

I think the only reason we can get away with doing this kind of work is BECAUSE of that renaissance. Audiences are trusting Boston theaters to produce strong, solid work that fulfills these needs and because of this, they’re buying tickets and we are developing artists who are capable of meeting and exceeding those challenges. It’s a really rich scene and it’s fun to be a part of.

The Umbrella was nominated for a number of ArtsImpulse and DASH Awards.  Why do you think that reviewers and audience connect with The Umbrella’s work?  What are some of its strengths?  How has the Umbrella grown in the past few years?

You know, we’re just not like anything else around here. There are many other local presenters in the area, but so many of them are producing time-honored standards and family-friendly shows. Mind you, I fully support them, but I felt that in order to really make a good go at it here in Concord, we had to take a different approach. It’s a fresh new voice, which I think audiences out here really like.

I think we really excel at being willing to take risks and having the technical team to meet those challenges. As I said, I’ve had the same design team for the last couple seasons now, and they have really gotten comfortable with what this tiny little theater can and cannot handle. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of knowledge OR the relationship that they have all built with each other.

I think it’s because of them and because of the incredible talent that has taken notice and started auditioning for our shows and joining our teams that we have been able to expand our programming so quickly. Back when I first got here, we were doing one or two shows a season and scrambling for audience members. Now we are producing four or five shows per season. Our current production of Tartuffe has sold over 90% of its total capacity. It’s all about building trust with your audience and trust with your team. If you build it . . .

What’s next for you?  For The Umbrella?

A vacation?

After Tartuffe closes (we have two shows left!), we move on to La Cage Aux Folles, which I am also designing and which has been just an absolute joy. We have a fantastic director (Peyton Pugmire, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Leading Actor in a Play Nominee for The Umbrella's Angels in America, Part 1), and the show promises to be all kinds of tawdry, glitzy entertainment.

I’m also really lucky to be working with a group of students at Merrimack College on a production of Next to Normal. Having done the show before, it’s been really great delving into the material in an academic setting.

After that, I honestly hope to be able to perform more. It’s been a while since I’ve laced up my tap shoes, so who knows.

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

Remember, only you can help prevent forest fires.

2014 Best Actor in a Play Nominee Interview: David Berti as Roy Cohn 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 Kippy Goldfarb

Photo by Kippy Goldfarb

David Berti packed a heavy punch as the spit-fire, unsympathetic Roy Cohn in both Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika.  However, he impressed because of his sensitivity and vulernability in Cohn's journey as a person and character.  David is nominated for 2014 Best Actor in a Play for Part I: Millennium Approaches, and we couldn't be happier to interview him.  In his Nominee Interview, David describes his rehearsal process and approach to Roy Cohn, his understanding and appreciation for the Greater Boston community theatre, and even in what period of history that he would choose to live!

David, please introduce yourself to our readers.

I was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts at St. Lukes Hospital 61 (yikes!) years ago.  I came to Boston in 1971 to attend Boston University School for the Arts.  I fell in love with this area and I never left.  I’m married to a wonderful and talented director, Donnie Baillargeon.  We live in Waltham.  My day job is as the Registrar at New England Law Boston.

What do you believe that Angels in America is about? How does Roy Cohn fit into this epic story?

Someone once told me that there are two motivators in life – love and fear.  Angels is about both.  I’m of an age to remember vividly what it was like in the early 1980s, when AIDS first reared its ugly head.  I remember the fear we all felt, that we’d be the next ones to catch it and die.  But that was nothing compared to the fear that the country felt – gay men became pariahs.  One of my friends was hospitalized with AIDS very early in the crisis, and he told me that the kitchen staff at the hospital refused to enter his room at meal time, even wearing a mask.  He said that they would put his tray on the floor and slide it over to him.  “Angels” captures that fear  -- in Louis’ inability to stay with Prior once Prior’s AIDS is full-blown; in Roy’s utter denial that he has AIDS.  But there is also great love – Belize’s love for his friend, Prior, for example.  That’s the way it was back then.  We took care of each other because we knew that no one else would.  My friends and I drew closer as the crisis worsened.

As for Roy, he’s the perfect example of some of the men that I knew back then – they were motivated by both love and fear.  In Roy’s case, there was his love of power and his fear that his homosexuality would be made public.  For all his bravado, Roy was just a scared little boy at his core.

What drew you to audition and perform in Angels in America?

I like playing complex characters that have serious flaws – and Roy Cohn was always the #1 role on my bucket list.  He was full of unbridled ego and yet terrible self-loathing.  He was a Jew who had no respect for Jews; a man who slept with men but refused to identify as a gay man, especially after he was diagnosed with AIDS.  He went to his grave swearing that he had liver cancer.  I think he even believed that lie himself.  The challenge of making him a real human being really appealed to me.  I knew that I had to play what was in the script, but I also wanted to give him some humanity.  I didn’t want him to be a caricature.

Two other things drew me to this production: the director, Nancy Curran-Willis, for one.  We had done two previous shows together, and I knew if anyone could do justice to this show, it was her.  Nancy has a strong vision when she directs, but she also collaborates with her actors and expands that vision as rehearsals continue.  An actor can’t ask for more than that from a director. 

And then there were the remarkably talented people I saw at the callback auditions.  I just knew this was going to be something special.

What were some of the challenges of performing in a two-part play with rehearsals over many months?

Living with Roy Cohn for almost a year wasn’t easy.  When I would get home from rehearsals some nights, I behaved like I was shot from a cannon because I was so pumped from Roy’s energy.  Also, at my age, learning Roy’s “boatload” of lines was a true challenge.  One of the many joys of being in the production was working with some of the best actors, tech, and artistic people I have ever known -- and there was not a diva in the bunch (not counting me, of course).  We were together for almost a year and there was never a cross word. We liked and respected each other and we enjoyed being together, offstage as well as onstage. 

When we came back to do Part Two, it was like a reunion of old friends, and we couldn’t wait to get started telling the second half of this important story.  It was a very special experience and one that I doubt will come my way again. 

How do you prepare for a given role during the rehearsal process? Did you do anything differently when preparing to play Roy Cohn?

Playing a real-life character is always somewhat easier because you can find background information on the person in books and all over the internet.  In this case, I read Roy Cohn’s autobiography, which was fascinating.  Learning how the man viewed himself was very helpful to the creation of the role.  He didn’t see himself as a monster, of course; he thought he was a crusader with a mission in life – to identify and destroy the people that he felt were ruining the country.  Communists and homosexuals were at the top of his list.  He was once approached by a group of gay teachers who were suing a school system for dismissing another gay teacher.  Roy listened intently and told them that they had an excellent case.  They asked him to take on the case and he replied that he would be on the other side, fighting to keep the teacher out of a job.  When they asked him why, he said: “Because you people have no business teaching young people.”

What role(s) have you related to the most? Why?

I really had to think about this one – I think that I’ve related to just about every role that I’ve ever played, in some fashion.  It’s so clichéd, but actors use parts of themselves to create every character.  When I played Guido in Nine, it was my Italian heritage;  I was raised with men who behaved as he did.  When I did Man In Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, it was my love of old movies and theater that surfaced.  As far as Roy goes, I could even relate to him on some level.  As a gay man who was closeted for too many years, I know that kind of fear of being found out.

How do you see community theatre changing?  How is Boston responding to these changes?  What do you think that community theatres can do differently?

The talent in community theater is extraordinary.  The fine productions I have seen in community theater are every bit as professional and polished as many of the Equity productions I have seen.  I do think that community theaters need to get their message out better, but that often costs money, and you also need a PR person willing to take on the task.  It requires a lot of time, and since most people in community theater have day jobs, it can be daunting to take on that role. The one thing we don’t always have is the financial resources of the Boston-based theaters.  We have our “angels” (no pun intended) who support us, but many community theaters rely on ticket sales to finance their next productions.  If we had a few more donations, our productions would benefit greatly.

Tell us a funny audition or performance story.

My first role in community theater was in Company at Vokes Players in Wayland.  I hadn’t done a musical before and on opening night, I was beyond nervous; I was panicked.  In one of the songs, “It’s the Little Things You Do Together”, I had one solo line.  I forget the exact line, but I do remember that when it came my turn to sing, what came out of me sounded something like: “Bff vzz da vcxd hgy tonethr!”  Some sort of gibberish that would have sent Sondheim through the roof.  I was mortified, and when I exited from the scene, I left feeling that I couldn’t go out there again.  But then the absurdity of what I had just done onstage hit me and I started to laugh.  I had to cover my mouth so the audience wouldn’t hear me shrieking with laughter like a crazy person.  

I had my back turned and I suddenly felt the hand of my director on my back, and he said “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”  He thought I was crying.  When I turned around, I did have tears streaming down my face, and when the director saw that I was hysterical with laughter, he stared at me like I’d lost my mind, and finally said: “You need to pull yourself together before your next entrance.”

What are you currently reading?

An excellent biography of Walt Disney, another complex. difficult man.  There’s no doubt that he was an innovative genius, but he also had a mercurial personality.  He could be magnanimous, petty, supportive and something of a dictator.  Interestingly, like Roy Cohn, he was intensely anti-communist, and in 1947, he went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named three former animators as communists.  He also accused the Screen Animators Guild of being a communist front.  One doesn’t think of Mickey Mouse’s creator as being a “Red baiter.”

If you could live in one time period, when would it be?  What would you do?

Another great question.  Some friends and I were talking about this the other night, while discussing – what else? – Downton Abbey.   I do love the late 19th century/ early 20th century with the beautiful clothes and manners.  And it was an exciting time for inventions that began to sweep the world – the electric light bulb and telephone, etc.  Still, I do love my modern conveniences (like air conditioning) and when I see old photos of men in Boston in the early 1900s walking around in the heat of August with suits and starched collars, it gives me pause.  If I did live back then, I’d like to think I would be a working actor, though the truth is I’d probably be a law school Registrar!

What is one thing that you would like to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Simply this – there is no question that the theater in Boston is richer and more diverse than ever before.  But the same thing is true of the community theaters in the suburbs.  There are good theaters everywhere that are just a short drive for most people living in the towns and cities outside Boston.  There have been so many outstanding community theater productions, just in the last year.  I urge your Boston readers to find these theaters; I think that they will be pleasantly surprised.

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.