Sunday, January 17, 2010

Revisiting performances of 2009 with Jonathan Groff, Colman Domingo, and a tunnel boring machine?

So, I got a new laptop for Christmas (finally!), and as I was transferring my files I came across some questions I had sent to my friend, Jonathan Groff (of Spring Awakening fame) at the end of last summer. A host of circumstances didn't allow me to get these up here in a any sort of timely fashion, and I was going to wait until he makes his Glee debut this spring, but then I figured: why not post them now? A little randomness never hurt anyone. And it's always nice to think back on shows from the past year - only helps to strengthen those neuronal connections in an art form so transient that to revisit a particular performance relies solely on the salience of its memory. Poetic and scientific, yeah? That's what I'm here for! Ah well, once again folks, happy new year ... 18 days in!

As it says in the parens above, Jonathan originated the role of Melchior in Broadway's Spring Awakening. A musical where angsty nineteenth century adolescents sing their inner-most feelings into a hand-held mics, Spring Awakening opened in 2006 and won the Tony for best new musical in 2007. Critics praised the energy and freshness it brought to the form, while fans flocked to the stage door nightly to catch a glimpse of the hot young cast. I interviewed Jonathan for the first time in the beginning of Spring Awakening's run, and we've been in touch ever since. Small world: We actually have a mutual friend, who now stars as Belle in Beauty and the Beast down in Disney World. She was the one that introduced us initially.

Since leaving Spring Awakening, Jonathan has starred in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions of Hair (2008) and The Bacchae (2009). He also performed in Craig Lucas' A Prayer for My Enemy (2008) and The Singing Forest (2009, also at the Public). This past summer, Jonathan made his debut on the silver screen. Sporting an only-slightly-ridiculous wig (Jonathan had showed me some photos on his phone before the movie came out), he played the role of Michael Lang in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock.

I think that'll do for an intro ... so without further ado, the Q&A (dated Aug. 31 2009):

Stage Synapses (SS): So, your run with The Bacchae ended last night. This marks your third show with the Public. Any reason you keep coming back?
Jonathan Groff (JG): I love the Public Theater. And nothing compares with performing in the Park for two reasons. First of all, the tickets are free and the audience spends HOURS waiting for them in the park, so you get to perform the show for people who REALLY want to see it. And then you are outside! There is nothing more magical than performing outside in the heart of New York City… truly, nothing compares to it. I feel so lucky that I got to do it two summers in a row.

SS: Speaking of repeat performances – aside from doing two Craig Lucas plays in the 2008-2009 season, you also performed in Hair and rehearsed Taking Woodstock simultaneously. Claude and Michael Lang may be very different characters, but what is it about them that you were drawn to? Did the two ever inform each other?
JG: I was drawn to Claude because at that moment in my life I really connected to his quest of self discovery and his desire to break free. After spending two years buttoned up in 1891 Germany, letting loose and playing Claude was just what the doctor ordered. The thing that drew me most to Michael Lang was the fact that I got to jump into the skin of a 24-year-old guy who made Woodstock happen and didn’t even seem to break a sweat. Michael was and is a fascinating man, and getting to spend time trying to figure out how he operates was life changing. The research for the projects informed each other way more than the characters did… to me they were two totally different people from the same era.

SS: The Bacchae included, how has performing in these period pieces helped you to grow as an actor?
JG: Part of the joy of being an actor is getting to learn something new in each project that you take on. Getting to learn about and explore the 60s opened up my mind and my heart. And for The Bacchae, I took a trip to Greece as preparation and explored the ruins and immersed myself in the ancient history. Taking the time to really embrace these different times and cultures not only informs the particular role you're playing, but also develops your mind and spirit as a human being.

SS: You’ve shown me pictures of you visiting Michael Lang when you were rehearsing for your role in Taking Woodstock. It seems like you really do your homework. What’s something you typically do to prepare for a performance?
JG: Every project requires a different kind of preparation. But, I always do as much research as I can about the person, the time period, the events of play, etc. And then when it comes down to the performing of it, you throw all that away and focus on the acting and hope that all of that research has, in some way, informed what you’re doing. Research is great, but you never want to see an actor showing you the homework that he did while he’s performing - you want to see him living in what is happening.

SS: Since your Broadway debut in Spring Awakening, you’ve been a critics' darling. Now you’ve also won over the hearts of movie reviewers. How does that feel?
JG: Reviews are tricky. A positive review can effect you just as negatively as a bad review can. I read all of them because I believe that knowledge is power, and I believe that what I do onstage means so much more to me than what someone writes about it. I love what I do way too much to let someone’s opinion, positive or negative, get in the way and steal my joy.

SS: Yet, even though the raccoons may have been supportive, The Bacchae generally received press not of the good kind. (New York Magazine taking a shot at your boxers. That’s just low!) How do reviews, positive or negative, affect your performance?
JG: (see answer above!)

SS: Yeesh, I feel like I’ve been asking you some intense questions. Onto something more fun. During our first interview when you were still in Spring Awakening, you showed me some of the crazy things fans had brought to the stage door. Anything new to add to the collection these days? A bottle of wine, or a bong perhaps?
JG: Hmmm… great question! The latest was actually a beautiful picture that someone drew of me with quotes from The Bacchae on it… it was awesome!

SS: Totally unrelated, but I’m curious … in Taking Woodstock which was most fun to ride: the helicopter, motorcycle, or various animals of the equine variety? You really do have the most sweeping entrances.
JG: Definitely the horse. Taking those two weeks of horseback riding lessons was one of the highlights of the entire experience!

SS: I know you just filmed a little indie flick somewhere out West. (What was the name of that again?) But now that you’re wide open employment wise, what can we expect to see from you in the future? Do you ever see yourself living in Hollywood?
JG: I don’t think that I am allowed to talk about the indie flick, since they aren’t done with it yet… But honestly I am just looking for the next challenge. It can be in film, movies, or TV, it doesn’t matter to me, I am just looking for the next project that makes my heart leap out of my chest, whether it’s because of the material, the actors, the director, the role, or hopefully all of the above!
Wrapping up some other 2009 news, I don't think I ever posted the link to my Philadelphia Inquirer story on Colman Domingo and his one-man show A Boy and His Soul. (I remember that there was something weird about waiting in my freelance contract.) But now I think we're good to go! Here she be:
(Oh, and check out the audio link at the top right of the article. I feel like everyone misses it!)

Producer Elizabeth McCann has picked up A Boy and His Soul, so 2010 looks to be an exciting time for Colman. In addition to revisiting his own material in a commercial transfer, he'll also be performing the final Kander and Ebb musical, The Scottsboro Boys, at the Vineyard Theatre. Previews begin Feb. 10.
Finally... (and this last thing is totally unrelated to the theater or neuroscience, but I'm really proud of it all the same) ... my final project for my seminar in J-School was on the tunnel boring machine that will be used to create the Second Avenue subway. I went to see the machine 3 times, getting an increasingly-detailed engineering lesson with each visit. Well, I came to love the big lug so much that I made it its own website for my final: There's text, pics, a map, some silly video (made at 2 AM in the J-School's 5th floor radio lab while listening to "Last Midnight" from Into the Woods) - enjoy!
PHOTO: Jonathan Groff (Melchior) and Lea Michele (Wendla) in Spring Awakening / photo by Joan Marcus courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

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