I'm among the many who can't wait to see Jobsite's production of HIR, opening this weekend (Mar. 9) in Tampa. The play boasts a small yet robust cast, including Jobsite favorite (and with good reason) Ned Averill-Snell. All this week we'll feature Seven questions with... with the cast of Hir and director David Jenkins. We'll start with Averill-Snell, in our opinion one of the coolest guys in the world for hyphenating his last name with his wife's, although he's cast as the polar opposite of an enlightened kind guy in Taylor Mac's show. But we'll let him tell you about that.
You're a Jobsite "regular" in that you seem to get some of the juiciest roles, but it seems, too, you don't take on a lot of work. What about Jobsite keeps drawing you back to performances here?
Jobsite chooses juicy plays I want to be in and around. It’s really that simple. If the roles I get seem especially juicy, that really has less to do with me and more to do with how often the upper-middle-aged white male role is juicy, typically because upper-middle-aged white men have been disproportionately successful at getting their plays produced and, unsurprisingly, they tend to write juicy avatars of themselves. But I never hesitate to pursue a role at Jobsite, especially if David Jenkins is directing, because I know I can count on a good experience. As far as not working very much, I’m not entirely dependent on my income from acting, which is a blessing in some ways but can actually be something of a curse in terms of industry standing — serious actors must only sling hash, you know. But much as I love to act, I’ve learned that too much acting throws my life out of balance, and I’m finally old enough to know it’s all about balance. That said, acting less is not always voluntary — like any actor, I don’t land every role I cast my line for.
What, specifically, about Arnie’s role in HIR, do you find especially rich in light of the #MeToo movement?
Working on the character, I can only think about Arnie as a person. But I’m not unaware that he’s also a symbol, a representation of a crippled, dying white straight CIS patriarchy finding itself totally dependent on, and at the mercy of, the very demographics it has historically dominated and abused. Imagine Harvey Weinstein in a wheelchair, unable to speak, helpless, alone in the care of the very women he so appallingly mistreated. That’s a potent statement, and a rich setup for both comedy and drama, and Taylor Mac uses that setup to deliver both in spades.
Arnie gets the most fantastic costumes — and some over-the-top makeup. Let’s talk about the makeup, because there’s no makeup designer listed but clearly a lot of thought went into its design. Was it a collaborative effort or did you design your own face?
Other than my makeup for the Teddy Roosevelt play I’ve done on and off, I rarely wear much makeup. I work mostly on small stages where the audience is so close that heavy makeup is usually ineffective, so I’m in the habit of finding the character in what I can do with my bare face. Costume designer Katrina Stevenson cleverly conceived Arnold’s makeup from a range of influences (the drag great Divine is one), and she’s been teaching me to apply it. I confess I am a poor student, but then, I always was.
Some reviews of HIR suggest it uses comedy to bring academic ideas about feminism and queer theory to the masses. We might be going out on a limb here, but it seems as though Jobsite’s audiences are already on board with a lot of these ideas. What’s going to surprise the loyal Jobsite fan about Arnie and how he finds his own salvation/escape?
I fear that description may make the play sound like a lecture, and it’s anything but. First and foremost, it’s a comedy/drama about a kooky, dysfunctional family, a You Can’t Take It With You for this millennium. But by flipping the power structure on the patriarch and then confronting the patriarch’s son with a sister transitioning to a brother, Mac injects new dimensions into the form. From that we get laughs we’ve never had before, pain we’ve never had before, and perhaps stuff to talk about we haven’t talked about before. You’re right, the Jobsite audience is pretty savvy, but there’s variety in every audience, and even those of us arrogant enough to consider ourselves woke can get smacked with the ways we’re not as woke as we thought. I know I’ve been smacked. That’s really what Taylor Mac is about. He’s not about turning around the Mike Pences of the world — they’re beyond saving. He’s about showing us fussy liberals that we’re not as open-minded as we think, and making us laugh at the discovery. As far as Arnie and salvation.... You’ll have to come see.
Enough about the play. You’re part of a theater power couple — your wife, Jo Averill-Snell, also has no small amount of theatrical talent. She does lighting design, runs Improbable Athenaeum (a troupe that specializes in staged readings and multi-media performance) and, together with you, raises your daughter. You seem to have a nice balance of rotating shows between the two of you, but what’s the plan for when your daughter comes home and tells you she’s been cast in her first show?
I don’t know, but I know that’s coming. Our daughter is in drama club in her middle school, and attends a wonderful City of Tampa-run summer theatre camp. All three of us working different shows will be a logistical nightmare, but worth it. Maybe when that time comes I’ll stay home and finally work on that next novel, at least until she can drive herself places. She’s talked about acting, but she’s also talked about becoming a stage manager. I want her to do whatever she wants, but secretly I’m hoping for stage manager. A good stage manager is worth her/his weight in diamonds, makes all the difference in how things go, and never gets enough credit. We have too many actors and not enough stage managers.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors and actresses?
I could write a book. But I’ll trim it down to four things I think matter most. Thing 1: Trust yourself. When I see a talented young actor not reaching her/his potential, it’s almost always because she/he is getting in her/his own way, second-guessing, holding back. Just do it. Trust yourself. Thing 2: Trust your director. Yes, sometimes she/he asks for things that don’t feel quite right, and it’s fine to say so. But you can’t actually see what you’re doing, and odds are it doesn’t come off the way you think it does. The director can see you, and really wants you to be good — if you’re good, it makes her/him look good. Trust your director. Thing 3: Over the long haul, the only-good-enough actor who earns a reputation for being reliable and cooperative will do better than the absolute genius of an actor who can't show up on time and then drives everybody nuts once he shows up. If you can be both reliable and a genius, Godspeed. If you have to choose, choose reliable. Ain't nobody got time for geniuses. And Thing 4: Parents of budding actors will knife me for this, but I got this advice and didn’t take it, and it’s sage. Don't study something to “fall back on.” If you prepare a fallback career, you will fall back on it, because whatever it is, it will be easier than acting, and that’s how life works. Be a rounded person. Learn lots of stuff. But career-wise, put yourself in a position where you have no choice but to succeed as an actor or starve to death.
You appeared in your first Jobsite play 15 years ago. George W. Bush was president and Google was in its infancy. The iPhone wasn’t even a thing. What advice would you give your 15-years-ago-self?
“All the worrying you do is not preventing a single bad thing from happening. You are a lucky man in almost every way that matters. Chill out, dude.”
Cathy Salustri is the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact her here.