BWW Interview: Beau Gravitte at Ridgefield Playhouse
Connecticut has almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to seasoned performers who settle here while still finding opportunities to act close to home as well as in New York and Hollywood. One of our favorite couples is Beau and Debbie Gravitte (née Shapiro), who add so much professionally to venues such as The Ridgefield Playhouse. If you are not from Connecticut, you ought to understand that The Ridgefield Playhouse is one of those places that are very special to performers as well as audiences. It is not a glorified school auditorium, but a professional venue with seating up to 500 people for film, theatre, and concerts with appearances from nationally popular, award winning performers and directors. The Gravittes' unwavering commitment to The Playhouse and to the Ridgefield area is remarkable.
On September 9, Beau, associate artistic director of the legendary Actors Studio, will direct a summer workshop production of Old Times by Nobel Laureate playwright Harold Pinter. "This is my baby," says Gravitte. The play features Chris Stack, Beth Manspeizer, and Sayra Player, and is being presented with the generous support of Artistic Director Ellen Burstyn. This is a premier production of what was developed in Ridgefield during an intensive two-week workshop, and a sneak peak of The Actors Studio's first production of its fall season in New York City. Burstyn says, "These are three of our most talented actors, and under Beau's inspired direction I'm sure it will be a wonderful production."
Like the Ridgefield Playhouse, The Actors Studio is exceptional as a place where professional actors, directors, and playwrights can hone their skills in a university setting with a high octane platform. Its list of alumni is higher than the tallest basketball player, and Gravitte's credentials aren't bad, either. His professional background covers just about everything. BWW asked what he prefers to do most and why. "I guess I never thought of it that way, he says. "As an actor, you follow the material, wherever it offers itself. But looking back, it was always the theatre that gave me the roles that meant the most, that made a difference in my life, my career. And it's funny, those roles, those bedrock experiences that define my career seemed to come out of nowhere, unlooked for, and almost always just what I needed. Gravitte created the role of Roy Johnson in Broadway's Light in the Piazza and appeared in The Good Wife, Gossip Girl, Doctor Doctor, Palomino, For Better or Worse, Trapper John, One Life to Live, and many other shows.
Did he always want to work in show business? "No, oh my Lord, no," he recalls. "I was pre-med in college, had the grades, Baylor University, on my way to Dr. - hood. But [I] was just miserable, on the wrong track for all the wrong reasons. I literally stumbled upon the theatre department and its resident genius, Patricia Cook, who became my first mentor in the theatre We are still good friends I changed my major from pre-med to acting/directing in the theatre I didn't hear from my family for over a year." After Baylor, he came to New York and three months later he got his first role. It was in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. "I immediately got my ass into a great acting class, taught by Peter Flood, and I also got my ass into therapy, as well. Tuesdays and Thursdays I would run from Peter's acting class to my therapist's office. My head was spinning, let me tell you, In all the right ways. It was an amazing time. Somewhere in there, I became aware of the work that was going on at The Actors Studio - knew that it was important, what I needed - so I auditioned, and became a member."
As with many actors, getting work is not just a matter of auditioning. "As I get older, people know [my] work," he says. "I'm on time. I'm prepared. I like to collaborate, as long as everyone agrees with me," he jokes. His most challenging role so far has been Doc Adams in Thulani Davis's Everybody's Ruby at The Public Theatre. "I played opposite Viola Davis - a fierce actress and one of the funniest people I have ever met. Doc was violent, racist, an evil man. I had to beat Viola into the dirt every night. And fall in love with her along the way I would go onstage for those violent, dark scenes, commit all the way down to the ground, and then come offstage and fall apart It was tough, but also so powerful - to push those boundaries as an actor To get near The Edge, and stare into that abyss director Kenny Leon created one of the most amazing, creative, and safe environments I have ever witnessed Most of that stunning cast was African-American - and I'm telling you, what I lived through and learned backstage was as important as what happened onstage. [It] changed my life fundamentally." He feels that he should seek out roles in Shakespeare's works because "it's time" to do that in his career.
Gravitte is interested in helping others with theatre. He worked at the Wooster School in Danbury for three years. "The school administration asked me to create a Theatre Department for them [because] they had none. So I gathered a few like-minded people - we worked our butts off, and made something out of nothing. Modest, modest beginnings, but I'm happy to say it is up and running, healthy and doing good work. My time there was very important - I learned how to manage a staff, a budget, how to work within a community of educators. And I do honor the profession - always have. I will watch any play, any movie, anything at all with a teacher or teaching at its center. Funny, I've never played one onstage I'm always playing doctors. Must be the pre-med...."
On a more serious note, he says, "My position at the Studio allows me to create projects, or to take part in projects created by my fellow members, which is a huge privilege." The Ridgefield production of Old Times is "a sort of out-of-town-tryout....The cast is made up of Studio members....We will have one performance in Ridgefield, and then take the production back down to the Studio in New York, where it will open the fall season. The idea we are working with is a kind of summer collaboration between the Studio and The Playhouse - that perhaps every summer we could bring a creative team up to Connecticut, work on whatever project has bubbled up at the Studio, and then bring it back into town in the fall. We'll see how it goes."
Old Times will be performed on Friday, September 9 at 8:00. Tickets are $40.00. The Ridgefield Playhouse is located at 80 East Ridge in Ridgefield. (If you are using a GPS, use the address 76 East Ridge Road. Turn uphill onto Governor Street and take a left into the parking lot.) For more information, call 203-438-5795 or visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.