Staging a career

One of the area's best actors returns in a new play and talks about the future

click to enlarge LOCAL GEM: Actor Brian Shea - Anthony Salveggi
Anthony Salveggi
LOCAL GEM: Actor Brian Shea

Brian Shea, one of the most talented actors in the Tampa Bay area, has been named Best Actor three times in the Weekly Planet's Best of the Bay awards, appeared on every major stage in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and excelled in everything from Shakespeare to Proof to Waiting for Godot. A couple of years ago, he was turning up on so many different stages (Jobsite, Stageworks, American Stage) that you could hardly go to the theater without finding him in front of you. But recently there's been a dearth of Shea sightings: His last local role was in Dial M for Murder last January.

The Shea scarcity is about to change; the 36-year-old thespian returns to the public eye in Richard Greenberg's Three Days Of Rain, the opener of the new season at American Stage. I sat down with this essential Bay area performer at a café in Tampa, and we discussed his career, his past and his latest role. As always, he was courteous, good-humored and soft-spoken. You'd never guess that he's perhaps the most sought-after actor in our part of Florida.

Shea is feeling the need to make some changes in his professional life. The time has come, he says, to build a profile with producers outside the Bay area as a prelude to joining the Equity actors union. "I've put all my eggs in one basket," he says. "And I'm needing to branch out my network. What I need to do is really work hard as to getting, say, the Hippodrome in Gainesville or Florida Stage [in Manalapan] to really know me."

Once these theaters have the chance to hire him as a non-union actor, they'll be more likely to work with him after he joins Equity, he says. So Shea's been arranging for auditions and is waiting to set dates.

Of course, this leads to the inevitable question: Why does Shea stay in our area, with its limited opportunities, when he might try his luck in New York or L.A.?

"Well, when I first got out of college [at USF in 1993], I started getting work very quickly here, and good work," he says. "And my family's here. And so this is a comfort zone. And to move to L.A. or New York or Chicago, well, that's foreign territory, I know no one there ... It would be, you know, starting from scratch. And that's daunting."

But if he's not planning to leave town, as his fellow actor (and good friend) Colleen McDonnell has, he still thinks he can expand his profile here in Florida by adding directing and writing to his resume. And he's about to act in his first full-length commercial film, AniMania, a locally produced comedy about a (fictional) voiceover actor "who apparently falls from grace and has to not only put his life together but somehow has to save the world."

Shea plays the hero's nemesis — an evil voiceover actor — a role that didn't exist until the producers saw Shea at an audition and were so impressed with his work, they had the part written for him.

I asked Shea if he could articulate his reasons for acting. "I've thought about it," he says. "Why am I in this business that's so hard financially and emotionally, and work is so scarce because there's so many of us?" The answer, he says, is simple: "I feel the most fulfilled when I'm performing on stage."

That doesn't mean it always came easy. "When I was a teenager, I was nervous as all get-out," he says. "I mean, my first audition [for a high school play], I threw up into the script ... I was standing there, and I was so nervous. They were looking at me, and they were concerned because my face had turned white, my voice had gotten very, very low, and [an old stutter] came right back ... And I walked off the stage into the wings, I had the script in hand, and just regurgitated, in the wings, over the script."

But even in the face of so much anxiety, he eventually had to admit that acting was his calling. "I was nervous, scared, petrified, but I had this — it sounds so corny — this calling to do it," he says. "I mean, my parents and good friends were saying, 'You know, Brian, if you can find anything else that you want to do for your life, that's a lot more secure, please do it.' Nothing has come close. I get the most out of life performing on stage."

Because he's ineligible for union gigs, Shea can't support himself solely with his acting income, so for the last nine years he's worked part-time at Barnes & Noble in the Tyrone Square Mall area of St. Petersburg. He says his employers there have been "great, very understanding when I need the time off." Still, he would've liked USF to prepare him better for the financial realities of his calling. "I wish that they had given us more of an education as to the business, the survival of it," he asserts. He notes, very tellingly, that of all the actors who graduated in '93, he alone is still trying to make it professionally. Maybe, Shea suggests, he's able to do it because "I'm a single man, so I don't have a spouse and children that I have to think about." But he also admits that he's had moments when he can't help but worry about his career choice.

Finally, we talk about his latest roles: Ned and Walker Janeway, father and son in Three Days of Rain. "Ned Janeway is a Frank Lloyd Wright type of architect, world-famous, and his children, especially Walker, have felt they have lived in his shadow for too long," explains Shea. When the play begins, Ned Janeway has died and Walker, his sister Nan and their friend Pip have gathered for the reading of the will. Walker discovers his father's journal, where he sees the cryptic phrase "three days of rain." Act two flashes back 35 years, and we discover precisely what that journal entry was about. It's not anything that Walker or the others had imagined.

So here's a new challenge for Shea: to play a father and a son, one celebrated, one eclipsed, one with a secret, one trying to discover it. If there's any actor in the area who stands a good chance of making it work, that is Brian Shea. He's a gem among local artists and one of the reasons our theater scene can compete with others. Kudos to American Stage for bringing him back to public view after several months' absence.

It's not a moment too soon.

Three Days of Rain will

run Sept. 6-Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., and 3 p.m. Sat. and Sun. $22-$35. American Stage, 211 Third St. S., St. Petersburg, 727-823-PLAY.

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