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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2018

Bay Area Actors Hit the Road

Wednesday, July 18, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Lauren Spencer

As summer heats up, theatre festivals nationwide are in full swing and would-be blockbusters are preparing for a new Broadway season. The Bay Area theatre community is leaving its mark through actors like Taylor Iman Jones and William Dao who have expanded their professional scope to perform in the national arena.

Jones currently plays Mopsa in the Broadway-bound musical comedy Head Over Heels, helmed by Tony award-winning director Michael Mayer. Although Jones previously performed on Broadway as an ensemble member in last year’s Tony award-nominated Groundhog Day, her turn as Mopsa marks her Broadway debut in a principal role, a career goal she has had since she started performing.

Taylor Iman Jones. Photo courtesy Ms. Jones.

“I didn’t think I’d get it, but I wanted to be and was incredibly prepared,” Jone says, describing her whirlwind audition process, “I was off-book for the scene and the song weeks before the audition. I found out [I was cast] the day of my final callback. The casting director actually told me immediately afterwards, I wasn’t even finished packing up my stuff. It was unreal.”

For Will Dao, who is now entering his third season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the move to Ashland hadn’t been a long term goal. “I wasn't even thinking about the potential of a career in regional theatre outside of the Bay,” he says. However, he happened to meet both Alison Carey, Director of OSF's American Revolutions initiative, and OSF director and actor Christopher Liam Moore while acting in an informal play reading at Berkeley Rep in 2012. They encouraged him to audition. Shortly after Dao made a trip to the Festival, attending a production of The Seagull that would convince him to make working at OSF a career priority. 

Will Dao. Photo courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“There was a connectivity and dynamic among the ensemble that was so rich, effortless, and electrifying—something that I believe stems from the fact that OSF is one of the few theatres remaining in the country with an acting company. That level of trust and risk that is taken on the stage night after night isn't built during one production but over years of collaboration,” says Dao. 

Although he was not cast that season, Dao persisted, auditioning until he received an offer to join the acting company in 2015. This season he will play Rocket Wu in the American premiere of Snow in Midsummer, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.

“I've loved her work ever since seeing 410[GONE] at Crowded Fire in 2014,” says Dao, “I'm so excited to work on this project...SNOW is the first all Asian American cast on the Bowmer stage in 83-seasons and the first time in my professional career that I will be playing someone who is gay and Chinese. Believe it or not, for many PoC and LGBTQ+ identified actors, playing someone who is like ourselves doesn't happen as often as you might think!”

Dao and Jones unequivocally assert that taking work opportunities outside the Bay has supported their artistic growth. Dao recalls “sitting in absolute awe” watching OSF veterans Derrick Lee Weeden and Miriam Laube rehearse. “That's been my experience here: Being in the room with these titans of the theater...is like attending a master class with every rehearsal,” he says.

Jones explains that her time in New York has helped  to strengthen her craft with particular regard to auditioning: “In New York you audition more, so I’ve become a better and more comfortable auditioner. The level of talent is out of control and the stakes are higher for the projects themselves so you must bring your A game every time...your stamina builds.” 

Stamina is a vital quality for the two actors who have now experienced developing, rehearsing, and performing a show for hundreds of performances, a departure from  the four to eight week runs they had been used to.

“I see friends posting [on Facebook] about shows that they're opening and within a month or two, they're posting about closing. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, ‘Wait—I’m still in rehearsals!’ or ‘We have 100 shows left!,’” says Dao. The rigorous demands of such a long run have taught Dao the value of prioritizing self-care as a performer. 

“The [OSF] actors view the season as a marathon, not a sprint,” he says, “We give it our all during every show, but we also have to take extreme precautions to care for ourselves holistically, finding ways to protect our bodies and our personal time so that we have the endurance to make sure our show at the end of October is as fresh as the first show in March.”

In Jones’s case, there are the added challenges of touring a show that is being continually revised in preparation for its Broadway opening. This past spring the show had a out-of-town try out run at San Francisco’s Curran theater before heading back into rehearsals. 

“Our days are long, rehearsing changes and cleaning during the day and implementing them at night...letting go of old habits and trying new things can be scary, but so rewarding when you discover new moments or clarify confusing spots. The best part is everyone is there only to make the show as great as it can possibly be, a true team effort,” says Jones.She cites sleep as a non-negotiable when working to meet the show’s demands, especially when on tour: “Depending on how crazy your schedule is, you can be in different climates and times zones on a daily basis sometimes. So you must take care of your body. Rest and recovery whenever you can.” 

While embracing the value of their professional experiences outside of the Bay Area, each actor notes that it is challenging to be away from their community. “Being on the road away from home for long stretches of time is very difficult so you have to really carve out time to stay connected to your loved ones,” says Dao who will return to the San Francisco after this season’s contract in time to marry his partner, director M. Graham Smith.  

Jones experiences a persistent homesickness for her Bay Area friends and families. “I still get jealous seeing all my friends back home performing with each other,” she says.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without my Bay Area theatre foundation,” Taylor says, “I had the opportunity to be a part of so many different types of productions [in the Bay] from classical musicals to brand new plays... I learned how to work professionally, how to handle multiple jobs at a time, what it’s like to make new work, what it’s like to have to put up something with minimal time. I could go on and on.”

For these reasons, it was an especially poignant experience for Jones when she returned to San Francisco to perform Head Over Heels this past spring.  “Being in a Broadway show is one thing and getting to bring it home is just unbelievable,” Jones says. I knew someone in the audience every single performance....This is why it’s the best community around, the love for each other is so real.”

Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.