BWW Interview: ACTOR MARC-JON FILIPPONE
One of the benefits of working in theater is meeting nice people like Marc-Jon Filippone.
I met him a few years ago and it was a pleasure working with him.
MCL: You've been in the Buffalo theater world for a while. When and where did you start acting?
MJF: I have been a performer all my life. As a child, I put on plays and produced and starred in lip-sync shows (of Broadway musicals) in my West Side backyard with friends from the neighborhood. In 8th grade, I went to a production of SOUTH PACIFIC at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, a high school known for it's excellent music and theater education and knew where my future was headed. Four glorious years with fellow performers, many of whom are still my closest friends. Three fully produced musicals my senior year. Following graduation in June, Gabriel Milanese, our faculty leader, left the school and became Entertainment Director at the Statler Hilton Hotel downtown and, in September, I was singing in a nightclub in that hotel with a show group that opened for national jazz acts. He then formed a Production Company, The Committee For Youth and The Arts, which produced musicals presented during the Spring season at Artpark in Lewiston. A decade later, this group was re-named Upstage NY. Upstage was the only true summer stock in this area. It produced 3 shows a summer, performed in rep, and was training no collegiate program could offer. Hence, I never took an acting class nor did any productions while in college.
MCL: What made you want to be on stage?
MJF: That desire was inherent. I was never afraid to get up in front of a crowd.
MCL: Any local mentors?
MJF: Of course, the previously mentioned Gabriel Milanese. But, I was primarily a singer. I considered myself a "singer who acted". During my days with Upstage NY, I was cast in Jacques Brel IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS. The director was Thomas Martin, an actor/director who also served as Artistic Director with several professional theater groups. His influence and confidence in me was so tremendous, that, by the end of that experience, I was an "actor who sang". And that changed both my perspective and was the impetus to branch out into non-musical theater roles. Another mentor was the late actor John Buscaglia, whose comic timing was impeccable. I learned a lot watching and later performing with him.
MCL: Best advice you were given you still use on stage?
MJF: The majority of my career has been in comedy. Early in my career, a well-known comedic actor told me, "Get on. Get your laughs. And get off." They certainly don't teach that in any college acting class! A few years ago, I was playing the part of Grasshopper in JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH at Buffalo's Theatre of Youth. I shared this tidbit with the 11 year old playing James, an accomplished little guy with years of acting school under his belt. After the last performance, this young actor, his dad, and I were having lunch and the father asked his son, "What did you learn from this experience?" Without hesitation, he said "Get on. Get your laughs. And get off." to his father's horror. I was both proud and mortified.
MCL: What roles turn you off and what kind do you look for?
MJF: I am always up for a challenge. I learned a long time ago to never accept a role without reading the script first. I have made a few regrettable decisions in the past. As a character actor in the 'business' for quite a few years, I know my capabilities, but, every so often, I am offered something that pushes my limits. And, that regenerates you as an actor.I have been blessed by my long time friendship with Jay Desiderio, who has directed and produced theater in his restaurants with his brother Bob for 35 years. I work for them often and their theater is, by far, my favorite venue. Jay has given me opportunities in both comedy and drama. No roles really 'turn me off'. If a director has the confidence in you to give a character life and depth, I'm up for anything.
MCL: What role do you dream of playing and haven't?
MJF: Hmmm. Most of those dreams have come and gone as I'm just too old for those roles. But, two where I am now age appropriate are Tevye in FIDDLER and Tony in THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. I haven't done a musical in 5 years but am thnking about dipping my toes back in where my roots lie.
MCL: Tell us about some of your favorite roles. Do you want to repeat any of these roles?
MJF: Funny you should ask. I have done a number of shows multiple times, including THE FANTASTICKS, a show I've done 4 times and have played a different role each time. My favorite musical theater roles have been Alfred/Sam in ROMANCE/ROMANCE, The Chairman in DROOD, Mack in MACK AND MABEL, Nathan in GUYS AND DOLLS. Non musical favorites include Oscar in THE ODD COUPLE, Phil in GREETINGS, Max Levine in HEAVEN CAN WAIT. But my favorite in Father Tim Farley in MASS APPEAL. That show changed my life in many ways. It has made me look at life differently regarding how I conduct myself as well as appreciating my personal relationships. I am currently in the beginning stages of forming my own Production Company and plan on playing Father Tim again in the near future.
MCL: What's some advice for those new to acting?
MJF: I am a firm believer in natural talent. Sure, classes can teach you techniques that are invaluable, but, I have met scores of young actors, graduates of the fine programs at Niagara, Fredonia and UB, who have the ambition, drive and education, but it doesn't translate on stage. I guess if I were to give advice, it would be to take any roles you can, in any theater, to get as much experience as possible and learn by observing and asking questions of directors and actors whom you admire. The college environment is completely different from the world of professional theater. I coach actors in audition prep. Picking the best song or monologue to showcase yourself is paramount for success.
MCL: Who do you admire in the theater world?
MJF: Wow! I admire so many people who have affected my life in theater in a myriad of ways. I most admire character actors, working stiffs you may not even recognize from role to role.
MCL: What's Buffalo, New York Theater like?
MJF: Theater has changed in this town tremendously since I began. Professionally, besides Studio Arena Theatre, all we locals had was dinner theater. At its peak, there were at least a dozen going at one time. And they primarily did musicals or comedies. Dramas were produced solely by community theaters. By the '80's and '90's, the scene changed and professional companies were forming resulting in over 20 companies today and we're still growing. The Theater Alliance of Buffalo is a great asset to this city. Holding their series of mass auditions every years gives everyone a chance to showcase their talents and, in many cases, actors are now booked for shows up to a year in advance. A far cry from where we began. It's ironic that, years ago, we used to go to Toronto to see theater. Now Toronto audiences are coming here to see productions fresh from Broadway runs.
MCL: What are some of the good and bad changes in local theater since you started?
MJF: I think I've already mentioned quite a few. I hesitate to mention any bad changes, but, I believe many local companies have become 'rep' companies, using the same actors show to show and year after year, making it hard for young actors to 'break in' and get much needed experience. At Desiderio's, a few of us are part of the regular company and work there often, but, we just finished a long run of HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and the young actor playing the lead, who dazzled in his audition, Brett Klaczyk, less than a year out of the excellent Niagara University theater program, shone in the role, surrounded by a supporting cast of veteran actors. His 2017-18 season is quickly filling up. The point here is that talent usually wins out.
MCL: You have a new show going on. Please talk about it. Why did you choose this part? What's the show about? Why should people see this show?
MJF: I am opening May 5th in a two person comedy, KALAMAZOO, written by Michelle Kholos Brooks and Kelly Younger, at The New Phoenix Theater On The Park in downtown Buffalo. It is an endearing show about a widow and widower who venture into the world of online dating, egged on by their children, to find a new lease on life. Told in eight scenes, Irving and Peggy's love story is truly universal, age non-withstanding. Originally written as a couple in their 70's, we are playing them a decade or so younger. I actually did not not choose this part. An advantage of being an actor for so many years in this city is that roles are now offered to me. The director is a long time friend, Sheila McCarthy and my co-star is Betsy Bittar. And, I believe I wasn't first choice for the role. But, that never matters to me. I've made a career playing roles turned down by other actors. People should see this play because, simply put, everyone can relate to this couple. That awkward first date. Their blossoming new love following the loss of a longtime partner. And, it's extremely funny.
MCL: Finally, what else is coming up for you in 2017?
MJF: Honestly absolutely nothing is set in concrete. I have a few irons in the fire. As I previously stated, I'm working on setting up my own company. I spent a season and a half at a small theater, producing and in administration, and loved every minute. I also worked as a producer/actor on a feature film in the blossoming Buffalo film community and loved it. Acting, I will most likely be doing a serious drama this winter and a show or two at my favorite venue, but the advantages of retirement (33 years with NYS) gives me the freedom to live my life as free as a bird. Quoting a few lines from KALAMAZOO, "Life is for the living. You're never too old to be young!"
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