BWW Interviews: Eric Petersen, Shrek in Shrek The Musical at Atlanta¬'s Fox Theatre, April 26 ¬Ė May 1.
You may think you know that big, green, grumpy-but-loveable ogre, Shrek, from the hit movies, but when Shrek The Musical takes the stage at The Fabulous Fox Theatre, audiences will be introduced to Shrek, Donkey, Princess Fiona and all their fairytale friends in a new and exciting way - on stage and in song. Behind the green makeup and ogre-worthy costumes will be Eric Petersen, who shared with us a little about his journey to this production, what it's like transforming into an ogre and how the important message of loving yourself can be heard loud and clear in this exciting telling of that well-loved story.
BWW: Eric, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I am excited to hear about the show and I know our readers will be too. We are really looking forward to Shrek in Atlanta!
Eric Petersen: Great!
Let's start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career. Specifically, how did you get into the theatre business??
Well, I am originally from Chicago, I grew up in the west suburbs and I loved living there. I went to a small school, Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois where I majored in Theatre. I did well at Bradley and when I graduated, I went to work at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan which was a cool, but hard experience. I moved to New York right after that and started doing very small children's theatre tours, readings, and off-off-off-off broadway shows. I also got involved with a lot of workshops, working with young writers, choreographers and directors at the beginnings of their careers and as we got older everybody wanted to help each other out, so a lot of connections were made in the early days. I did that for a few years and my first big break was when I was cast as William Barfee in the first national tour of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which actually kicked off at the ALLIANCE THEATRE there in Atlanta. After that I did some small TV things, and then was back working in Michigan with my wife who I had met that summer, doing a production of The Full Monty. My agent called and asked if I could get to New York the next day for an audition for an immediate replacement in Shrek the Musical - the Papa Ogre/Shrek Understudy. So I talked to the director, who happened to be my wife, and she gave me a pass. I flew to NY, auditioned and was very lucky to get it, which was a major milestone in my career and a major goal of mine. So I said, sorry honey, you will have to find a new Dave, and was with the Broadway production for 6 months or so, and I actually got to go on for Shrek a few times, which was pretty cool. Then, when the national tour came about , I was cast as Shrek full time and that brings us to today!
Before you got involved with the musical version, were you a fan of the movies?
Yeah, I actually auditioned for the original workshop four or five years ago so I knew that the project was happening and at the time I had seen the first and third movies and loved them. Then I saw the show on Broadway when it opened and thought it was really good and I especially thought that the role of Shrek was great. It's funny, twice in my career my wife has turned to me at a show and told me I was going to play a part one day. She did it with Spelling Bee, and that happened, and when we saw Shrek on Broadway she said "You are going to be Shrek one day." But I always loved the movies and once I got cast I went back and watched all of them closely and re-read the book by William Steig. What is so sucessful about the movies and about the musical is it is really fun for all ages. The kids obviously love the characters and the story and seeing a talking donkey and the princess and Shrek burping and farting, but what made the movies so successful and with our show as well is the adult humor that flies over the kids head that make it an enjoyable experience for parents too.
And with the show being based on a very popular movie series, do you find that creates challenges with being "new"and unique or is it a bit of a positive since most of the audience is at least familiar with the basic story?
It is a little bit of both. Obviously the pluses are when I come out on stage for my first entrance, I know that the audience is already in my corner. It has nothing to do with me as Eric, they just love Shrek. I don't need to explain to them who I am and hope that they like this character, I know they do and that is a great starting place. There are challenges in it, in that people want what they know from the movies, they want Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy and they want to hear those voices and those characters. So the trick for us in the show is to give them what they expect to a certain degree so they don't feel betrayed. If I came out as Shrek and was painted blue with a Jamaican accent I think the audience would revolt. We know who Shrek is, he is Scottish, green, and grumpy. So I have to stay within the confines of that established character, but what I think is the exciting part of playing this role is getting to stay within that but live as I would. I try to approach every character not as someone who tries to change themelves, but look for those things that I have in common with that character. For instance, the first time Shrek realizes that he might have feelings for Fiona, I can't imagine how an ogre would react, all I know is how I reacted the first time I fell in love, being honest but staying in the parameters of the character.
Let's talk about Shrek for a minute. Obviously you have the parameters that you mentioned before and the things everyone expects but he is also a very emotionally "human" character. Would you say it is hard to convey that as an ogre?
No, I don't think it is very hard because the only real challenge is getting the emotion out through the massive layers of makeup I am wearing and the costume. But actually feeling the emotions and seeing them through the prism of an ogre is not that hard, but I do have to make any facial movements a little bit bigger so it reads through the prosthetics. I find I am always riding that line where it is big enough through the costume and makeup but not so big that it looks clownish. Its always the trick of finding that balance.
Now that you mention the makeup and costume, it looks to be quite a transformation from man to ogre, is it not? What is that process like? How long does it take?
Well, I get to the theatre two hours before the show and start my makeup. We do an hour-and-a-half of makeup before every show, just to get the face makeup completed. Essentially I wear a foam latex cowl that covers the back of my head and shoulders with those famous Shrek ears protruding from it and there is a cutout where my face is and then we put three prosthetic pieces on my face, one on my forehad, on over my nose and cheeks and a third over my chin. We paint all those and blend them together. The only thing that is actually my face that the audience can see is my upper lip and my eyelids. Eveyrthing else is covered by prosthetics. As you can imagine, that inhibits your facial acting so it really all comes from my eyes, my eyebrows, and combining what I am doing with my face physically with my body. Once we get the makeup on, I put on the fat suit which is about 40 punds, then the costume, then the boots which give me 3 inches of lift. Then I put on the ogre gloves and I am good to go.
And I imagine that the transformation allows you plenty of time to getinto character?
Yeah, I don't really have to do much soul searching before I go on the stage, I just look in the mirror and I am ready.
So, what part of playing this role do you like the most? What do you look forward to the most each night?
It's a lot of things, but I would say as an actor the most rewarding thing to do is have a character that completely changes within the course of the show, especially for me. A lot of times I play character parts like the sidekick or the goofy friend. So what I think is cool about Shrek is he is a leading man but doesn't know it. So, that is exciting for me as an actor to get to play Shrek starting at point A being grumpy, alone and happy about it and then get to go through that journey of finding friendship for the first time, love for the first time, accepting it, learning maybe to accept himself, totally accepting himself, and asking to be loved. He has such a transformation by the end of the show and that is so awesome to experience as an actor.
And the underlying theme of being yourself and loving who you are is quite prominent in the stage production, is it not?
Definitely. I think that was an underlying theme in the movies, but it wasn't quite as in your face in the musical. For instance, there is a song called "Freak Flag" which is pretty blatently saying you have to be happy with who you are and the rest of the world can learn to accept you or they can get out of here. It's very plainly said by the fairytale creatures and then the story of the principals tell the story too. I have a great line at the end of the show where I say "Once upon a time, to look like us would be a pity, but now we know that beautfiul ain't always pretty."
I know you have played Atlanta before at the Alliance, but will this be your first time on stage at The Fox?
Yes, I am very excited to be at the Fox!
So thinking toward the future, do you have a dream role that you would one day like to play? What's th next role your wife is going to say you will one day play?
I could answer this two ways. First, I would hope that that dream role hasn't even been written yet. Like I said before, when I first got to New York I was part of a lot of new shows and that is probably one of the most rewarding things you can do as an actor, get to work on something new where you might have even a tiny bit of input on how a character is written or songs or written. So, I like thinking that my dream role is in the mind of a 27 year old composer somewhere who hasn't forumulated it yet and five years from now writes an amazing Broadway show starring me. Of stuff that is already written, I have always wanted to play The Phantom and would love to play that part ten years from now when I am a little older.
Eric, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
I guess one interesting thing is the fact that my wife is on the road with me and we have with us our nine-month-old daughter who was born on the road. We found out we were pregnant when I was finishing my run on Broadway and my daughter Sofia was born in Chicago, our opening city, during the third preview. Me, my wife Lisa and my daughter are all traveling around the country together. The rest of the cast flies between cities, but we bought a minivan with a Baby on Board sticker on it and we drive together between shows. It's great.
SHREK THE MUSICAL will play The Fox Theatre, for one week only, April 26-May 1, 2011, as part of the Broadway Across America – Atlanta 2010-2011 season. Tickets are available through authorized ticket sellers at The Fox Theatre Box Office, Ticketmaster outlets, online at www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. Orders for groups of 15 or more may be placed by calling 404-881-2000.