Interview: Actor and playwright Scott Watson

The appeal for me in this job is that every day is different.
– Scott Watson

Scott Watson is a New York-based playwright and actor of stage and film. He just finished up a run as Grumio in the New York Classical Theatre production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. In the following interview, he discusses his thoughts on Shakespeare, life as a working actor, and the importance of social media. 

  • THEATERIFIC: Let’s start off easy. How did you get into acting? What was your first experience and when did you get the “bug”?

SCOTT WATSON: It was 1993.  My father, Dr. Watson the Entomologist, transported our family from the ho-hum town of Reed City, Michigan (population one thousand eight hundred and two) to Gaborone, Botswana on Fulbright.

Private British school. Westwood. Uniforms. Sweaters in the desert heat. Headmaster’s dusty cane, just-in-case. Feeding giraffes in Kenya. Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa. Petting a wildebeest. Losing first tooth on safari in Chobe. Schoolyard fight against pugnacious, Italian Vito and his Zimbabwean crony Dembe. Bird watching. Lilac-breasted roller. School play. Lead roll. Three Billy Goats Gruff. Taking the stage as the Big Billy Goat. Defeating the Troll.

Surrounded by the United Nation of children dressed as goats and bridge dwellers, I found acting in Africa. I looked into the cavernous blackness that always hangs above the audience’s heads and found an endless comfort, a beautiful void to fill.

  • How did you transition into acting professionally?

I moved to NYC three months after graduating college with $39 dollars in my pocket and my first month’s rent paid. It was a heady mix, that giddy first-love feeling that everyone gets when they touch down in the city mixed with the harsh reality that I barely had enough money to eat. A bag of rice and beans goes a long way. Luckily, I was able to land a job within my first two weeks here and carved out the needed stability to start pursuing acting.

There are some amazing insights in the book An Actor Prepares to Live in New York City: How to Live Like a Star Before You Become One by Craig Wroe that will be invaluable to anyone looking to move to the Big Apple to pursue acting. Unsexy stuff like budgets, union jargon, and job boards that really make up the day-to-day of an actor’s life.

You have to view acting as a business to work professionally, so you calculate your start-up costs (headshots, website, reel, etc) knock those out and start submitting. The top platforms for self-submission are Actors Access, Backstage, Playbill and Casting Networks. Most of these charge a monthly or yearly fee for their services, but it’ll pay for itself once you book your first gig.

I started working professionally one gig at a time, all through self-submissions by the four websites listed above.

  • According to your resume, you’ve performed in 13 Shakespeare productions. What is it about Shakespeare’s work that keeps drawing you back as an actor?

Shakespeare is an accidental focus. There’s a wonderful Shakespeare festival where I attended college called the Grand Valley Shakespeare Festival that allowed me to appear in a Shakespeare show every year. I also began working with a professional touring company called Pigeon Creek Shakespeare based upon my growing Shakespeare credits from college. My resume became Shakespeare centric, so when I moved to NYC I naturally gravitated towards Shakespeare productions, of which there are many, because Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years and you don’t have to pay royalties on his works.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays are a mess, some are masterpieces, but there’s an undeniable beauty in mounting the stage and putting on the mantle of a character that’s been played countless times before over the past 400 years. How many Hamlets have there been? How many Richard III’s ? But each actor, each individual, brings something new to each part. You forget about the arcane nature of the language quickly and instead focus on the larger than life, fantastic stories and relationships that have made the plays timeless. I keep coming back because there’s always a new angle, a fresh take on any part and any play in Shakespeare’s canon.

  • You have over 30,000 Twitter followers. How important is a social media presence to an actor’s career? How has it helped yours?

As an actor, you are your own business, and social media is the single most cost-effective way of marketing yourself. Twitter is my platform of choice, as it’s very easy to reach out with a quick electronic handshake and meet new people. Just saw an influential casting director? Save the postcard and send them a thank you tweet. In a world dictated by bankability and brand power, you have to build a brand name for yourself, and there’s no better place to do that then on social media.

  • I assume that acting is your primary job. Describe a typical day in your working life.

I try to have at least three or four auditions per week. Every weekday is a flurry of submissions to projects across the four platforms I mentioned. If it’s a shoot day, I’m up at the crack of dawn and hopping a courtesy shuttle to somewhere and eating a delicious craft services breakfast. If it’s a rehearsal day, I pack my backpack full of office supplies and spend the day with the cast rehearsing and prepping. If it’s a performance day, I hit the gym in the morning to build energy and then hit the ground running for the play. The appeal for me in this job is that every day is different.

  • How can you describe the difference between acting for stage and acting for TV? How do you prepare for each? Do you have a preference?

TV acting and stage acting are comparable to musical theatre and opera, or modern dance and ballet. I learned stage acting first, with a live audience, so that informs my acting in all other mediums. And I feel that acting on the stage before you act on screen is beneficial, because there is a learned focus to maintaining a reality onstage that I’ve found invaluable to film work. On a set, so many people are whirling around you, adjusting lights, powdering, that when they finally call action it’s like the starter pistol going off in an Olympic race. With a theatrical background, you’re much more prepared to leap right into a character and ignore the countless distracting factors whirling about you.

I love both mediums equally. I love the reality of film work, the precise nature of acting for the camera, but I also love the energy of a live audience.

 

  • Who do you look to for inspiration? Who were your mentors? Do you still stay in touch with them?

I was lucky to have many talented and inspiring teachers. Timothy Locker single-handedly ran my high school drama program, and without him I wouldn’t be here. Karen Libman, Ian Borden and Roger Ellis were probably my most influential college professors, and in terms of idols in the professional world, I adore Gary Oldman, Woody Harrelson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Hanks.

  • Think back to all of the people you’ve worked with throughout your life. Who are the most memorable? Which actors helped you elevate your craft? Which directors were incredible visionaries? Which were just nice people?

I’ve had so many amazing experiences with talented people that it’s difficult to single everyone out. In terms of talented theatrical directors who really pushed me to expand outside my comfort zone and take risks, I have to highlight Karen Libman, Ian Borden, Claire Shannon Kelly, Christopher V. Edwards, and Sean Hagerty.

  • When and why did you begin writing plays?

I’ve always love to write stories and was a creative writing minor in college. It was only natural, then, for me to gravitate towards the perfect pairing of my two main interests, acting and writing.

So many plays written today are too clever, too symbolic, too obsessed with selling a singular message. I love shades of grey, multiple interpretations and subtext to facilitate a discussion rather then drive it exactly where you intend.  

  • How many have been produced? Where?

I’ve had quite a few of my play produced across the country. Particular favorite performances include “Wet Glue” at the Richmond Shepard Theatre in NYC and “Pound” at Stage Door Productions in Fredericksburg, VA and Durango, CO.

  • What is your personal definition of “making it”? How does one know if it’s been achieved?

“Making it,” is working. You are a business. How would you describe success in business? Profits are up, costs are down. Acting is the same. Making it means making a sustainable wage as a freelancer.

  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Move. Don’t wait. If you want to be an actor, and you don’t live in a place with professional acting opportunities, you must move ASAP.

  • What advice can you give to people who want to act (or write, or direct, or produce) for a living?

Do it. Move someplace where it’s possible. But stabilize your life first. No one is a good actor when they’re worried about what’s for dinner.

  • What advice can you give to people who want to become better actors (or playwrights, or directors, or producers), but not necessarily do it for a living?

Write truth. Act truth. We’re surrounded by it all day. Listen, record, and write.

  • What do you do in your spare time? (Theater related, or not)

I love animals, so I volunteer at the Brooklyn Animal Shelter

  • What are some of your favorite credits?

Hard to choose favorites. Anything against type is always amazing.

  • What are you working on next?

I’m taping an episode of “A Crime to Remember” at the end of the month, then onto Drunk Shakespeare Off-Broadway and the Adirondack Shakespeare Festival upstate.

  • Where can people find you?

Please follow me on Twitter at @scottymwatson

 

Interview – Composer Brett Steinberg on the process of creating Absolute the musical

The following is an interview with writer/composer Brett Steinberg, who is nearing the end of production on his original musical, Absolute. The result of a two-year process, Absolute is set to open on June 26th in Westport, Connecticut. In this interview, Steinberg recounts the process and challenges of staging a new, original musical with modest means. 

  • THEATERIFIC: What is your background in regard to theater and music? How long have you been involved in the arts?

BRETT STEINBERG: I’ve been in around 10 different musical theater productions including RENT, Godspell, Pippin, etc. I’ve had experience directing short vignette scenes and have learned the ins and outs of being in an ensemble and the lead in shows. I’ve learned both perspectives and all of the cast has as well. I’ve been consistently involved in music and theater for around 7 to 8 years now and have recorded over 4 records and played over 100 shows. Many cast members are going to schools such as NYU, Northwestern, Emerson, etc. for theater and have been in even more productions than me – for some, many more.

  • Give us a brief synopsis of the show.

The show is about community. It’s about 5 people, who are all distinctly different and come from different backgrounds, but live in NYC together. These unconventional souls ultimately come together in Brooklyn to learn something different from each other and themselves. What many of the characters thought they wanted in order to be fulfilled is challenged by the separation from each other and their home that they endure. It’s a coming of age story about what matters most and what we need to stop denying and depriving ourselves of.

  • What inspired you to write this musical? You’ve spent a great deal of time working on this show. When was the exact moment that you knew you had to write it?

I was in RENT a couple years back and it changed my life. I am in love with rock and alternative music and I am fascinated by the idea of a musical – showing/telling a story of characters you care about. The songs mean more because there is greater context given to the audience. You care about the characters and thus the songs mean that much more. The fusion of modern rock and a modern context within the model of a musical is extraordinary when it works. I needed to create something of my own, with my own voice, that met that criterion.

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Cameron Riolo (L) and Brett Steinberg
  • Take us through the process of casting the show. How did you find the actors? What was the audition process like?

It’s really a cast of friends whose one true love is theater. Only my talented friends would be crazy enough to join a show in which there initially was no production team/company backing us, no built in audience, no guaranteed funding. Now we have an entire team working with us and funding for a legitimate set. It’s a cast of the most talented creatives I know who believe in theater, believe the vision of the show and love performing. They’re friends I’ve met through theater and have shown me first hand how dedicated and passionate they are. I’m honored to have every single cast member of the roughly 25 person cast.

  • Do you find rehearsals more or less challenging with completely new material? How do you help the actors find their characters?

Definitely more challenging, but we have studio recordings and instrumentals of every song that I recorded in my home studio setup. We have a very intuitive cast and a director who specializes in creating characters with depth and three-dimensional qualities.

  • How collaborative is your process?

Very. Something like a musical such as “Absolute” requires more than one person working on it. It simply must be a collaborative process, or the show will suffer and maybe not even get off the ground. We have choreographers, a director, producer, vocals leader, live band, stage managers, a set designer, lights/sound person, costumes designer, etc. Every person has a role that is imperative to the show and specific to their knowledge and ability. Communication is key – we all are interconnected within this complicated and rewarding process.

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From left: Brett Steinberg, Axel Mark and Barry Stein
  • It’s difficult to produce any show. How challenging is it to find funding for a completely new show, as opposed to a well-known play or musical? How successful have you been and how close to your goal are you?

It’s never easy to have people invest their own money into something pretty unprecedented and unfamiliar. We have reached out to our friends, family and fans (acquired through various other projects I’ve been involved with). The funding campaign has been so successful and such a humbling experience. It’s inspired us to go above and beyond any expectations and really put on the best musical we can.

  • What are some of the creative ways you’ve come up with to promote the show? How do you get people’s attention?

We’re looking into performing at high schools in and around the neighborhoods surrounding Toquet Hall in Westport (the venue we are performing it at). We are also utilizing social media (twitter, instagram, facebook, tumblr) to get the word out. It such a simple/easy way to let anyone and everyone know about the show.

  • Then, how do you convert that attention into ticket sales?

It’s all about giving the people a taste of what we’re about (a couple songs to listen to, a promo video, promo pictures/updates, etc.) so that it’s enough for them to know about the show and be intrigued, but little enough so that they feel inclined to check it out. Also, this is a new musical – people who come to the shows June 26-28 can say they saw it first. There are only a couple opportunities right now to see this entire production live for only $5.

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The venue: Toquet Hall in Westport, CT
  • What are some of the most significant challenges that you’ve faced and continue to face from the show’s inception until now?

Everything haha. It’s all very hard, because we are doing EVERYTHING ourselves – budgeting, blocking, choreographing, conducting, ticket sales, etc., but the biggest challenge right now is making sure that every logistical challenge is met within the next couple weeks. We are working tirelessly day in and day out to meet our goals and have every intention of achieving them.

  • How have you dealt with those challenges?

Collaboration and communication. We frequently have Skype calls in which every member of the production team voices questions/comments/concerns/updates about our progress. We give ideas and work through each logistical barrier with forwardthinking.

  • What do you hope to come away with when the performances are over? What is your ultimate goal for this show?

Besides three shows that we are all extremely proud of and gained experience and knowledge, we are planning on recording the show to put it online, inviting industry reps, and pushing the show to bigger stages and opportunities. This is the creation of the show and the beginning of hopefully a bright future for it.

  • What else have you written and composed?

I have created music through a solo project under my name (Brett Steinberg) for three years and have released three full-length records under that. I was in a band called Run On The Sun, in which we released an EP. I also am in a new band called Kalimur, which just released our debut full-length record entitled “Ghosts We Used To Know,” which I am extremely excited about!

  • Show information and details:

The shows will be on June 26, 27, 28 at Toquet Hall in Westport, CT at 7pm. Tickets are $5 (TIX link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/absolute-a-new-musical-by-brett-steinberg-tickets-16303002720) and they are selling fast, so get them while you can. Spread the word. We can’t wait to see you there!

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From left: Sarah Zygmont, Zach Dobryn and Brett Steinberg