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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Interview With Professional Stage Actor Christopher Guilmet: Bobby Asks His Earliest Acting Hero Some Questions

Christopher Guilmet, actor and one of Bobby's earliest theater heroes
Photo courtesy of Mr. Guilmet's website
Greetings all, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I will be your host today at Theater is a Sport.

I am very pleased today to offer you an interview with one of my earliest theater heroes and fellow Dover-Foxcroft boy, Christopher Guilmet.  I first saw Chris onstage in a high school production of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, and I remember being enthralled with his character (Jerry) and with the actor's charisma.  Even at my young age, and not understanding the script completely, I knew that I wanted to be able to make people "feel" something by a performance, the way that Chris's performance made me feel something.  Looking back, that was probably also a moment that influenced my ambition to become a playwright, to see such brilliant words brought to life. 

Christopher Guilmet was born in New Hampshire and grew up in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, a town with a population under 5,000.  Since becoming a professional actor, he has been seen on stages in New York City, Los Angeles, and Edinburough Scotland, just to name a few.  In addition, he was actively worked as a composer, having written dozens of songs for Amazon's online greeting cards, as well as several short musicals. 

All right... I'm going to stop rambling, and let Chris talk to you in his own words.  This is a very important interview for anyone intersted in purusing a life of acting to read, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do.

BOBBY KENISTON:   Like me, you grew up in Dover-Foxcroft, ME, which, as you mention on your website, has a small population. How did growing up in Dover-Foxcroft effect who you are as a person or as an actor?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  I consider Dover to be my hometown. When people ask where I'm from, I say "Dover-Foxcroft. You haven't heard of it." In reality, my family moved to Dover when I was 10 years old. Before that we lived in Fairfield (and I was born in New Hampshire: I'm a closet flat lander). I was bullied rather badly in Fairfield, and when we moved to Dover I remember being so relieved that I was getting a fresh start in place where no one knew me as a victim. I learned that it was possible to reinvent yourself. Also, I attended a Gifted and Talented program in music and theatre for three years in high school that was a huge benefit to me. Once every two weeks I spent an entire day studying music, and the last year I did it studying theatre.


BOBBY KENISTON:  I know you fell in love with acting during high school. I had the great pleasure to see you in productions of "Godspell" and "The Zoo Story" (the latter was the first thing I ever saw that made me want to be an actor). Was there a particular role in high school that "sealed the deal" for your desire to pursue acting as a living?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  Godspell sealed the deal. In retrospect I believe that the creative experience of the show, which is ensemble in nature and powerfully emotional, seeded a desire in me to pursue a career as a storyteller. I distinctly remember, though, the moment during the curtain call at the first performance when I consciously decided I wanted to be an actor. When I got home from the show my Mother asked how it went, and I told her it went so well I thought I wanted to be a professional actor. She said, "Don't you want to eat?"


BOBBY KENISTON:   You studied at the University of Maine in Orono. Would you say there are benefits to attaining a Bachelor of Arts as opposed to a Bachelor of Fine Arts at a conservatory program?
(Bobby's Note:  Any student thinking of pursuing a life as an actor, please read this response and take notes!)
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  There is nothing wrong, I think, with deciding on a career path as an actor and going to a professional program (i.e. BFA). However, an actor's job (all artists' job really) is to embody the vast array of human experience, and that is difficult to do if you don't spend time with humans. My last four acting jobs swing between Nazi and 17th Century Puritan. If we concern ourselves with ONLY the study of "acting" then we don't really learn about being human; we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.
 
To be frank, I flunked out of college my first go-round. I was far more interested in doing plays than studying, or even going to class. Some years later, I decided I wanted to finish school and went back to college at The University of Washington in Seattle, where I was living. My favorite class, hands down, was Geology.
 
The best actor is a curious, well read, well rounded person. Someone who reads the paper every day. A Liberal Arts education, which requires a sampling of many different ways of seeing the world, is a necessity. There's plenty of theatre to do at a college. If, after four years of school, you still want to be an actor then go seek further training – an MFA, or taking acting classes, or just go out and act in everything and anything someone will cast you in. Every minute on a stage is training, and everything you can learn about the world is fodder for your art.


BOBBY KENISTON:   Some of your early professional work was at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine, including playing Jack in a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest". How did working at the Penobscot prepare you for future professional acting work? Any fond memories you'd care to share about working at the Penobscot?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  The Penobscot Theatre hired me immediately following my flunking out of college, so in a sense it reenforced a laziness that I continually must fight against. That's the negative.
 
The Positive was that I was lucky enough to have my sole job be the creation of theatre. I worked as an actor, sound designer, assistant to the marketing director, and occasional janitor. It was an incredible education.
 
I am still friends with many of the people I worked with at PTC. Several are still actively working in theatre: one teaches theatre at a university; two (who are married to each other) work in New York City as a scenic builder and a seamstress; another lives in Italy working in Italian movies and running his own theatre.
 
I also spent two summers, while still in college, working at The Theatre at Monmouth. Those two summers taught me more about acting and theatre than my four years at UMaine. It is a repertory company, so by the end of the summer the actors are performing in four different plays at the same time. On two show days, it's one show in the afternoon and a different show that night. I thought, in my early 20's naïveté, that my career would look like those two summers of classical theatre. It didn't turn out that way, but it was still a formative experience that I was most fortunate to have.


BOBBY KENISTON:   When I was a youngster, and you were appearing in "Barefoot in the Park" with my parents, I remember asking you if you wanted to be rich in famous (in my defense, I was a youngster, and you were kind of my hero).... you answered that you would rather be "rich and successful". Does that answer still hold true? Has your notion of the definition of "success" changed since you were in your late teens and early twenties?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  In *my* defense I was also a youngster, all of 19!
 
I have long held that the measure of true success is how you are judged by your peers. Fame and success are different. Some very, very lucky people are famous because they are successful, but they are not successful because they are famous. So, yes, I guess I still think the same thing. Who doesn't want to be rich?


BOBBY KENISTON:   I know this is a standard, somewhat obvious question, but, for young people, a pretty important one: What advice would you give to a senior in high school who has ambitions of pursuing the life of an actor? Any tips for navigating the unsteady waters of an admittedly uncertain career path?
 (Again, students, have your pencils ready to take notes!)


CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  An actor needs a very thick skin. Acting cannot define you. Have other interests, other concerns. Acting is what you do, not who you are.
 
Now, if you are coming out of high school and want to pursue acting: get a BA at a liberal arts college known for a great theatre program, learn as much as you can about everything you can theatre related and otherwise, and then – if you still want to be an actor – start your career by going to grad school or taking acting classes, or auditioning for whatever you can, or all of the above.
 
But, and I can not stress this enough: acting is a profession of rejection. I am auditioning for far more jobs than I get. People are constantly telling you, directly or indirectly, the myriad was in which you are flawed. Understand that acting is a profession, not an identity.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   When you get a new role in a play, what are the first things you do (besides read the script) to prepare for the rehearsal process? What kind of "actor's homework" is expected when you are an Equity actor?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  It entirely depends on the role. Anything that is period I will want to find out as much as I can about the time and place. If there is source material - say, a play based on a book - I find it useful to study that material. If there is a version of the play I can watch, I will do that. Anything I can lay my hands on that helps me to imagine the life of the character I will look at.
 
That said, the single most important thing I can do is learn my lines. It is impossible to act effectively with a script in your hand. The real discoveries happen when you can see your scene partners' eyes.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   As a drama teacher, I find that many students are nervous about making choices, preferring to have me tell them what to do (not all, but a good number). I try to break them of this habit. How important is it for you as a professional actor to make bold choices to bring to the table?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  Bold choices are everything! Theatre is a collaborative art. I am not collaborating with the director if I wait to be told what to do. I assume that my point of view is valued, or I wouldn't have been hired. The director will tell me if they like what I'm doing or want me to adjust my performance. My choices feed their vision, and vice versa. I like to find the extremes of what I can do in the role. If I know where the boundaries are, then I know how much room I have to roam.
 
What's difficult for young actors (it was true for me) is that the desire to be *right* often overwhelms everything else. We're here to tell stories and (hopefully) make art. And if the choice I make is wrong, I want to be wrong and strong! Rehearsal is the place to suck.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   I have visited the Antaeus Company website and am impressed by the body of work they put on there. What's it like being a member of their Ensemble?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  Working with Antaeus has been a high point in my creative life in LA. The company is dedicated to not only classical theatre - my first love - but its ethos is centered on process rather than product. Every week there are several readings of plays, initiated by company members for the experience of reading the play aloud. Sometimes we will take a specific text and study it for several weeks. Also, the wealth of knowledge in this company is a gold mine. I have had the privilege of working alongside some of the best actors in the country. Everyone involved at Antaeus is here because they have a deep love of the theatre. I never imagined something like this existed in LA, but I am profoundly grateful that it does, and that I have found a home there.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   Any fun or embarrassing stories you'd like to share from your experiences on stage?
 
CHRSTOPHER GUILMET:  Too many. Being an actor is the most fun job I've ever had. I did once get my hand stuck in my hair onstage, because I had used so much product to keep my hair in place. Actually, that was in the "Barefoot in the Park" I did with your parents.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   I know you have done your share of classics (and are currently working on "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller). Do you like to research the time period and the history behind the plays you perform in?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  Yes and no. I like to have as much information I can about the time and place of the particular story, but I have to place the text the author has given me as the most important source. The Crucible is a great example. The events of the Salem Witch Trials actually happened, but they didn't happen exactly as Arthur Miller portrays them in his work. As an actor, my primary job is to bring the author's text to life. If there are instances (and the are) where the playwright's work and history diverge, I must adhere to the playwright's version.
 
Having a good working knowledge of the time period of a play is invaluable, though. The people of Shakespeare's England had a much different world view than we do, and knowing that is extremely helpful in playing those parts. Knowing something about the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Puritans will help me make choices (hopefully big choices) with John Proctor.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   As you know, the name of my blog is "Theater is a Sport". Do you agree that theater is a sport? Care to share any examples when theater has felt like a sport to you?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  I had a professor in college who said "If you leave the stage and you are not breathing heavy, you're not doing it right." Theatre will make you sweat if you're doing it right. Theatre requires an enormous amount of mental discipline, physical stamina, and emotional resilience. I played sports in high school, and did plays, and they exhausted me equally.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   I'm sure that along the way, there have been a number of people who have offered you help and encouragement or mentorship. Would you like to share any of the advice potential mentors have given you over the years?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  The best acting advice I was ever given: "Read the play." Everything you need to know about a character you are playing is contained in the words the playwright has written. Research is good, but you MUST look to the text first.
 
Also, ignore the stage directions, unless you agree with them. They usually aren't the playwrights but are notes from the stage manager of the first production.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   Feel free to plug any upcoming productions or projects....
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  Antaeus' production of The Crucible, followed by Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in St. Louis.
 
BOBBY KENISTON:   And finally, any final words to students young and old about pursuing a life in the theater?
 
CHRISTOPHER GUILMET:  There is no other reason to pursue a career in the theatre other than love. I will never be rich or famous, but I hope to continue to be successful in that people continue to want to work with me and value my contributions as a theatre artist. This is an old trope, but if there is anything - ANYTHING - you can do that will fulfill you professionally, by all means go do that. The will always be a way to scratch your theatrical itch without subjecting yourself to the rejection and uncertainty of a professional acting career. But if, like me, you are saddled with the inescapable desire to do nothing but this, and are happy having a terrible day job to make ends meet in the times your are not working (and there will be many, many times you do not work unless you are extremely lucky) then best of luck. It's an impossibly hard, infuriating, frustrating, glorious, immensely gratifying career.
 
I would like to once again thank Christopher Guilmet for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions.  I cannot stress enough to my students how valuable these answers are for anyone interested in pursuing a life in professional theatre.

If you would like to learn more about Christopher Guilmet, please visit his website, www.christopherguilmet.com.  If you would like to learn more about Antaeus, please visit their website at http://www.antaeus.org/

If you would like to learn more about me and my plays, check out http://www.brookpub.com/default.aspx?pg=ab&afn=Bobby&aln=Keniston, or http://www.histage.com/author/authorinfo.asp?AuthorID=528, or http://www.hitplays.com/default.aspx?pg=ab&afn=Bobby&aln=Keniston, or, finally, http://www.playscripts.com/author.php3?authorid=1113.

You can also become a fan of Theater is a Sport on Facebook!  https://www.facebook.com/#!/TheaterIsASport

Tune in tomorrow when I'll be talking about how to break a script down into "beats" for directing purposes.  Until then, remember:  theater is not only a craft and an artform--- it is also a sport!

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