BWW Interview: Jeff Deglow of INTERRUPTING VANESSA at Childsplay
Jeff Deglow is a beautiful actor and a delightful human being. We met through Childsplay, for whom we are both Teaching Artists and for whom he is performing in their wonderful production, Interrupting Vanessa, currently on tour in the region. He somehow found the time to answer a few questions - and that is not easy when one is touring and teaching in the schools.
JS: I am so interested in how you wound up in the Valley of the Sun. You're from the most heavenly region - I don't know how you can stand the heat here (though the winter/spring are divine). What wonderful series of fortunate events brought you to us?
JD: I originally hail from a pretty small town in the Rocky Mountains in Canada [Banff], and from an early age, I always knew that I would find myself in America for work. The series of fortunate events that got me to this place in my life, and career, is a combination of training, planning, and following the work. Upon graduating high school, I moved to NYC to pursue my education and training; which led to staying two extra years for work. I felt the wind at my back and I looked across the pond for my next adventure. Though, in a weird twist of fate, ended up back in Canada for what was to be summer of work. That summer turned into a 5 year stint in which work (and falling in love) consumed my prospects and attention. While work was ample, my desired-focus shifted, and I went back to NYC.
The next 4 years were an exciting time for personal and professional growth. I made my return to the Off-Broadway scene with works at La Mama Theatre and The Public Theatre; I was lucky to do some touring and regional work as well, including works at the incredible Williamstown Theatre Festival. My arrival in Phoenix was anything but expected; a short contract brought me to the desert, but continual work offers have allowed me to stay. The market here has surprised me as it's certainly not as barren as I thought the desert would be. I have been offered many exciting opportunities which I will forever be grateful for; I have been able to maintain steady work here, stepping into some dream roles and have returned to on-camera work (including 3 weeks of filming for the launch of the ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Note 7).
You and I share an addiction - to research. In my view, it is the most interesting and satisfying aspect of playing parts. Do you remember the first part you delved into in this way, and what inspired you to do so?
Yes, research and script analysis are without a doubt some of my favorite parts of this line of work. In college, I had this incredible teacher - and mentor - who struck fear in his students with his demand for meticulousness both onstage and in the preparation phase. While I utilized this approach - and many of these lessons - in preparation for my roles to follow; my early career was very heavy in creating new pieces that demanded a different attention to the work.
The first time I really found my own method of preparation was the summer I did Cabaret. It was an out of town contract with a great company, which was exactly what I needed in my life. I was working with a dream-team of talent and creative minds at the top of their game (including my childhood hero who was Artistic Director for the season). I had a small but exciting role, and a whole summer to develop it. I was used to having larger roles, in shorter contracts; and while I had felt satisfied with what I brought to those projects, something changed this summer. I had this incredible script to work on, a character who has been modified through different versions/revivals of the show, and this wonderful source material - based on a true story. How could I not delve into this? Well, simple. Many wouldn't. But there was a maturity that overtook me that summer to rise to the level of the people in the rehearsal room. This was a turning point for me. It was through this process of preparation that I realized what my college professor meant in demanding his approach. It was the summer I learned that my job as a performer is that of a storyteller and not just some ego-driven need to be seen. Telling this story required an understanding of time, place, politics, environment and much more. Reading the source material and exploring the world of the play helped me flesh out a character who didn't have a lot on paper in the script. It was the first time I truly felt like I had created a character who "lived" on stage and research allowed me to be grounded in the reality. It was the homework that allowed me to listen, react and interact with the other characters on a more heightened multilayered level - and what a show to do that in. Cabaret is written in that very that very format. By investing in the research while creating this character, I was able to continue to grow throughout the course of the run, and not in some self-indulgent way, but in a real "coming to understand human nature through the eyes of a character". It was a magical contract, that changed the trajectory of my artistry forever.
In Childsplay's Interrupting Vanessa, you're playing the part of a father who is deceased and is alive in the imagination of his daughter who is having a hard time moving on. Can you unpack the story for us, and your work in it, the challenges and joys of it?
Interrupting Vanessa is a very sweet compact play; it is slow, compassionate, and very concise. It does not pander to its audience, and is not superfluous in its story telling. It is beautifully paced and allows for audiences of different ages to enjoy it. The message of holding on, and moving on, is gentle and very organic in its writing. Adults experience a very different play than the children do. It is such a joy to be part of telling this story.
My work in this show is very interesting in its structure. My cast members and I often joke that a music stand could do my job, as I spend the majority of the show on stage reading a newspaper. However, ironically, while my track itself is very pedestrian and inactive, the development of this role was deceptively difficult. The character of Dad is the manifestation and memory Vanessa's deceased father. No one else can see him or interact with him, and throughout the course of the play he serves different purposes depending on what she needs from him - sometimes he is a playmate, sometimes a father. In the early stages of developing this character, I went about it in my usual way. Who is he? What details are there in the script to flesh him and his history out... I wanted to build a traditional character study for him until I realized, that this wasn't helpful. The study of the character is not one of a grown man with his own history and story, but rather the interpretation of what a child might think a grown man would be. For example, his name throughout the play is simply Dad, and when he discusses his wife, he refers to her as "Vanessa's mother". Of course, this man has a name and once lived a whole life of his own, but the man we are seeing is just Dad; Vanessa has yet to even learn that her parents have identities outside of being her parents. Furthermore, throughout the show, Vanessa creates many fabrications in which Dad sometimes challenges, sometimes he buys into and sometimes he even encourages. His reality is constantly changed based upon the whims of an 8 year-old girl and her imagination. Also, as he doesn't exist in the same world of the play, he is only privy to what Vanessa wants him to be engaged in... as an actor, the information-mapping became more difficult than originally anticipated. And for that, rehearsals were very interesting and informative; many times I had to ignore my actor instincts to react to things being said or done. I had to discover the conceit and device of Dad: when is he engaging and why. He is not of his own mind, but of hers. And while he has an imaginary friend quality to him, he is based on a person that once lived and raised Vanessa. He still has his own opinions and even knows his reasons for posthumously being there. One of the most tragically beautiful aspects of this character, and his journey, is that he wants what is best for Vanessa and knows that her holding onto him like this isn't it. He knows, and encourages her, to let him go so that she can move on in life.
OH! I just suddenly remembered the film, Truly Madly Deeply. Alan Rickman's character returns as a ghost to the sweetheart who simply cannot get over his death. By the time the film is over, he has helped her move on, with no discussion or processing but just by being irritating and needing the heat up because he's a cold ghost, when she's a warm human and can't stand the temperature turned up so high, etc. Is the Dad's character doing anything along those lines?
OMG! You are brilliant to put that together without having seen the show. It's funny you should mention that... two-fold. First, during the rehearsal process, our director, Debra K. Stevens, continually referenced that movie in relationship to my character. So yes! Yes, it is VERY much like that. Secondly, the reason I think that is very funny is because Alan Rickman is the celebrity most people relate me to. Love this connection you put together.
You are too kind to point out how brilliant I am! Okay - I'm a dork. But, seriously, and I hesitate to ask, because I'm afraid you're going to leave us - What's next for you?
One thing that is always exciting, and dually terrifying, about our line of work is that long term projections aren't always easy. I am currently contracted to teach/direct with a few local companies until the end of Summer; and then, in the Fall, I will be doing a lot of traveling. As an artist, I feel it is important to take time and recharge. I have forged out a month of travel for myself, including a trip back to Canada for a wedding, two marathons in LA [Jeff RUNS!], a couple music concerts, and a trip to Europe. I will take three weeks to explore in Germany, re-visit France (two more marathons there) and a lengthy stop in London to see some theatre and visit some friends. I took a similar trip 8 years ago, and came back to my life with a whole new set of goals and action plans. For that reason, I am leaving the future open. I want to explore, sight-see, stroll, listen, journal and see what the world has to offer. I am looking forward to seeing what the new year holds in store for me.
Ouch. I just hope that your adventures bring you back to us before too long, Jeff. Thank you, again, for taking the time to talk with me. Happy trails, and please stay safe and in touch.
Learn lots more about Jeff at his website - JeffDeglow.com.