or, A Character Actor’s Dream Season.
by Jacob Keith Watson
This past season, I was fortunate enough to have joined the Broadway casts of Hello, Dolly!, The Phantom of the Opera, and Carousel, as well as takeover my first principal role on Broadway. It has been such a marvelous blur, but now that Carousel is in its last few weeks, this is as good as time as any to look back and process what this year has truly meant for me, as a student of theatre, an artist and as a human.
In the spring of 2017, I was performing in the Broadway production of Amélie at the Walter Kerr. Sitting backstage with fellow ensemblists Destinee Rea, Trey Ellett and Emily Afton, the announcement for the Broadway revival of Carousel was released on Playbill. I remember telling them Carousel was going to be the next show for me. There was something about it that just felt right and Enoch Snow had always been a dream role of mine. I wanted it so badly that I told myself to go to the ECC, because if I wasn’t able to get an audition for this show, I would be kicking myself. The ECC came, I attended and performed 32 bars of my go to legit song, “Lonely House”. Cut to a couple of weeks down the road in a voice lesson with my voice teacher Mike Ruckles. We were chatting about the upcoming Carousel revival, and I asked if he knew anyone involved…he did. He told me to hold on for a minute, sent a couple of text messages and we got back to our voice lesson. I checked back in with him later to see if he had heard anything and he mentioned that a Carousel appointment was already in the works before his text, but there may be something else on its way.
Next thing I know, I got a self-tape request from my agent to be a vacation swing in Hello, Dolly! So my wife and I set up our makeshift self-tape studio in the living room of our apartment and went to work. We sent the tape in on Friday and the offer came in Monday. Unfortunately, the dates conflicted with dates I had already verbally agreed to perform at The Phantom of the Opera. My agents and I chatted, and decided to just ask the wonderful people at Phantom if this could be worked out. The worse they could say is “no” and I still have a job in a Broadway show. However, graciously Phantom released me from my agreement and even asked for my Dolly schedule to see if I could join them when I wasn’t with Dolly. In the midst of all of this back and forth, I was going through my rounds of auditions for Carousel. The offer comes in for Carousel which includes a workshop in that fall, which landed in the middle my time with Dolly and Phantom. It was just one more exciting challenge to undertake.
Moving out of the excitement of actually receiving these offers then working out the kinks of the scheduling and moving into the rehearsal processes was an entirely new challenge. The year before I had my first go at the infamous and awesome “double duty” while performing Phantom at night and rehearsing for the out of town tryout of Amélie. It turned out be only a small taste of what was to come for fall 2017. Rehearsals began for my first track in Hello, Dolly! on a Wednesday, there was a mini spacing put-in rehearsal with the full ensemble on Friday and my first performance was the next Tuesday. The Thursday of my first week with Dolly, I started learning the other tracks I would be performing down the road throughout the fall. I was in and out with Dolly for a few weeks, then the workshop of Carousel begins. There was, luckily, only a couple of weeks where I was performing with Dolly during the Carousel workshop. However, I needed to find a time to learn a new track over at Phantom because I was set to begin performances on the Monday after our workshop of Carousel finished. The stage management found some time at night after the workshop rehearsals to teach me the new role with the dance captain at Ripley Grier. Carousel rehearsals went on hiatus at this point until official rehearsals began in January, and this is where my back and forth with Dolly and Phantom really took off.
For a month and a half, I performed a couple of weeks with Phantom, went back for a week at Dolly then back to Phantom, etc. My contract with Dolly finished and I was full time with Phantom only at that point. However, on one Sunday (which is Phantom’s day off,) I was walking out of church with my wife and I received a text from Dolly stage management saying something along the lines of “Hey! Any way you could be at the theatre by 1:30?” I hopped on the subway and performed what was my final performance as well as my only split track with Hello, Dolly! From there, I was with Phantom through the holidays and the first two weeks of rehearsals for Carousel. The craziness of my brain processing multiple shows had been replaced with the creative process of creating a new production of Carousel.
Looking back, it truly was an incredible time in my career. Not only for my resume but largely because of the things I learned and the magical people I met. You never know what you are capable of until you push yourself to the limits. However, in times like these, you learn to really need people. This wasn’t about me. It was about all of the people along the way who showed me grace, flexibility, support and strength. The lessons I learned directly reflect the people I met and have in my life. There were a lot of skills I considered strengths that were tested, as well as skills I considered weaknesses that grew exponentially. Time management, being able to shift my focus and creative abilities quickly from one project/character to another, attention to detail, learning to give yourself over to the moment rather than a pursuit of perfection, these are all things that were tested and grew during this season.
Some areas of my life that caused growing pains were self care, being present in my life outside of performances, patience…when you’re moving so fast between projects it becomes incredibly difficult to take a day off. Any time I had at home, I was working. It preyed on the workaholic in me. Days off, never felt like days off. Thankfully, my incredible superstar of a wife and human Elisabeth showed me more grace and patience than anyone along the way. She was my rock during this incredible and challenging time. And we have, over time, worked together to find our ways of turning off from these busy work weeks. Days off have now become sacred to us.
As I write this, the answer to the question “How to become Broadway's busiest chorus boy without being a ballerina” seems to have answered itself. It requires hard work, diligence, and foot forwardness. However, there is so much more than that. First and foremost you have to surround yourself with the right people. The kind of people who will tell you the forever true clichés of “you’ve got this” and even “you have to slow down, it’s a marathon not a sprint.” People who will stick their necks out for you because they believe wholeheartedly in you. Those people make you who you are.
Secondly, you have to understand that 99% of what we do in this business is out of our control. The only thing you can do is show up with a strong work ethic, the abilities you have available in that moment, and try to learn as much as you can along the way. Finally, learning to be grateful. When things get tough, when you are exhausted from multiple rehearsals in a day, or even simply doing eight shows that week, you have to remain grateful. It really is the key to pushing through those times where you feel overwhelmed or insecure. Stop, and sit in that gratefulness for what has been and for what’s to come. Ultimately, I’m still not sure I really know what I did to deserve such a special moment in my career, but I do know that I will cherish the past season forever.
And, by the way, I’m totally a ballerina.