Interview: Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn Discuss AT HOME AT THE ZOO in East Hampton

At Home at the Zoo is performed at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater on August 13th, 14th and 15th.

By: Aug. 09, 2021
Interview: Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn Discuss AT HOME AT THE ZOO in East Hampton

There's no doubt that the COVID pandemic has resulted in the loss of countless lives, caused numerous businesses to collapse and brought enormous tension to those who were forced to live in tight quarters for many months. It also presented enormous problems for those in the performing arts. The lyric from A Chorus Line, "gotta dance, a dancer dances"comes to mind and the pandemic forced dancers to find ways to express themselves. They had to dance; it was in their composition. One group found a way to perform in store windows while appreciative and socially distanced audiences cheered on from the sidewalk.

Actors Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn also found their need to create was stifled during the pandemic. They wanted to bring characters to life and to tell stories but were unable to do so. They did, however, find the internet was a good outlet for them. Urie, who is best known for television's Ugly Betty and Broadway's Torch Song and Spahn, who impressed audiences Off- Broadway in Daniel's Husband have been a couple for thirteen years and were able to nurture each other during the lockdown. Most importantly, they helped each other remain creative.

"Very early we did a couple of pieces on-line," Urie says. "We were one of the first plays on 'Play Per-View', which is still going strong. They do Zoom readings of plays. We joined them with a play Ryan wrote called Nora Highland, then we did Buyer and Cellar. It was a one-character play that we did from our living room and we showed people we could do it. It resulted in a few more opportunities and we did another short play from our apartment. Then Ryan turned Nora Highland into a movie that was shot on Zoom and has been playing in film festivals over the last year. We even got invited to be part of the TV show called The Bite with Audra MacDonald which was shot entirely remotely. Many different couples who lived together appeared in that. They sent us crates of equipment that we assembled and produced in our apartment."

"I think Michael and I deeply benefitted from the fact that we had self-produced projects prior to the pandemic. In fact, we had self-produced stuff for many years so we knew how to do that as a couple," Spahn adds. "Therefore when the world went on pause, we went into that frame of mind. We had previously done a movie in New York and used our apartment as a Production Office, so we immediately went back to that way of thinking."

The live-streamed version of Buyer and Cellar may go down in the annals of history as one of the most splendid results of the pandemic. In it, Urie played a number of different characters and deftly pivoted from one to the other. He was both touching and hilarious. "I couldn't have done it if Ryan hadn't been producing it from the apartment. He was the 'mission control' and was in constant contact with the whole crew that was staying in various places in upstate New York. They were isolated wherever they were and we were performing here in the city."

Spahn adds, "After the whole 90 minute performance, Michael walked off camera and had that certain performance energy about him but there was no audience, no applause: nothing. He just walked over to me and sort of stood staring at me and waiting to say, 'Did it work?' "Urie adds, I sorta knew it was working because we hadn't stopped it" Both men laughed as they re-lived the moment.

When the two of them were questioned about whether they preferred working on stage or film/video, the two of them paused for a moment and Spahn was the first to respond. "I prefer stage work because that's all I've really done. I've made a few films but I haven't had great amounts of experience in front of the camera. I'm not as comfortable there as I am when I'm on stage and I miss that tremendously."

"The rewards of acting on stage arer faster and greater," Urie explains. "On stage you're sharing something with the audience as it's happening and it becomes a collaboration with them. I also love the collaboration of all the artists you work with on TV or film and playing a role that spans a whole movie is exciting. You see, in film you have to know the character's whole journey in the movie because rarely do they shoot the whole film in sequence. You have to pop in anywhere depending on the shooting schedule."

Urie goes on to say, "In television, you're playing a character who grows and changes over the course of time. That's cool and you have different adventures with the character. That's something you don't get to do in theater or the movies because the journey with the character is finite. On TV you can explore how a character changes. However, there's nothing like the give-and-take of live performance."

There was a bit of a pause in the phone conversation when the two actors were asked to play their favorite roles thus far in their careers. Spahn was the first to answer by saying, "I find that when I'm doing something it becomes my favorite role as it's happening. Yet when I think back to when I played Toby Belch at Juilliard, I realize how much I loved it. It was so different from any other role I had been cast in. Beyond that, I've loved so many things I've done. I loved doing the play Gloria I had a long run in Daniel's Husband. That became very special for me. It was the first time I'd been part of something that had transferred twice and we did almost two hundred performances of it. It was a very special show."

Urie had some a few high-profile plays like Grand Horizons, Torch Song and the aforementioned Buyer and Cellar so it was surprising to hear him choose Bud Frump in How to Succeed...which he played in the Daniel Radcliff revival. It was a role he took over during the run. "It's the silliest, most-fun character I've ever played. He's as dumb as he is evil and he gets to sing and dance. It's not the leading role but it's lots of fun. When I did the role I felt I could do it forever. In fact, I sought out another production of the show and played the role a second time. I really loved it."

Urie continues by adding, "This year we hadn't been able to work on stage and I've found myself thinking back on my stage work. Torch Song keeps coming to mind. It's the kind of play where you do everything in one night: you get to cry, you get to laugh, you get to scream, you get to run, and you have to be physically and mentally fit to do the role. That's the play I really think about. It's the play I want to do again; I want that stage experience again."

Right now the two men are preparing a joint appearance in At Home at the Zoo at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, NY. This is a program that consists of two plays by Edward Albee; his legendary "Zoo Story" and the prequel, "Home Life" which will feature Sophie von Hasselberg.

"'Zoo Story' came to us in the thick of the pandemic," Urie explains. "Nathan Winkelstein, who is our director, had the idea of pitching Ryan and me to do the one-act play."

Spahn hastily adds, "Nathan had seen us in an online workshop with Red Hook Theatre where Michael and I were two of the four characters and he came up with the idea that we should play Peter and Jerry."

Urie continues, "Yeah, Nathan had seen us work together on stage, on film and in some Zoom stuff and it gave him the idea that we could all work together. 'Zoo Story' takes place on a park bench and we could do it almost anywhere. That was appealing because at the time theaters were closed and we were grappling with ideas for making theater without going inside. We pitched the idea to several theaters and Guild Hall was looking for some small plays that could be performed outdoors in their courtyard."

"The situation changed when the vaccines became available," Spahn adds.

"With the vaccines, we could move the production indoors to Guild Hall's John Drew Theater and while we were at it, we added the companion piece, "Home Life" and called the evening At Home at the Zoo. Sophie von Hasselberg joined the cast as Anne, Peter's wife," Urie continued.

"This is very exciting," the actor went on, "because Nathan, Ryan and I had been working on 'Zoo Story' on and off for a while and now we added Sophie to the mix, as well as a play Albee had written fifteen years after 'Zoo Story'. It feels like a fuller experience. We have one play written by a seasoned playwright and another play written by that same author at the beginning of his career and was writing about a completely different New York. However, it was a play that stood the test of time about these people who wander the streets of New York and you occasionally have to deal with."

Spahn feels that in our post-pandemic world, "Zoo Story" resonates in a special way. "Now people who have been confined for a year and a half are looking to experience things in a different way. When a play starts with a person sitting on a bench and another person approaches who is possibly not the most stable person around and has been experiencing the world we have been in; that person is in a different space than he would have been in had the pandemic not occurred. I feel that audiences will look at this and feel deeply connected with the characters in a way they may not have felt prior to the pandemic."

Audiences will have the opportunity to judge for themselves when At Home at the Zoo is performed at Guild Hall's John Drew Theater on August 13th, 14th and 15th. Call (631) 324-4050 for tickets.