Interview: Matt Clarke of ROGER AND GENE at Space 55

Matt Clarke: A Phoenix Theatre Luminary on New Works, Shakespeare, and Finding Joy in Every Role

By: May. 15, 2024
Interview: Matt Clarke of ROGER AND GENE at Space 55
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The Phoenix Metro Theatre scene is a tapestry woven with diverse talents, and Matt Clarke is a thread that adds a unique vibrancy to the pattern. Known for his positive energy, dedication to the craft, and enduring collaborations with dear friends and fellow artists like Cody Goulder, John Perovich, and Ashley Naftule, Clarke has become a beloved figure in the local community. In this exclusive interview, we delve into Clarke's experiences, inspirations, and the driving forces behind his passion for acting. From stepping outside his comfort zone to embracing the thrill of new works, Clarke's journey is a testament to the power of collaboration, self-discovery, and the unwavering pursuit of creative expression.

JB: Can you describe a time you had to step outside of your comfort zone for a role, and how you approached that challenge?

MC: Ooooooo, yes. It’s become a running gag that whenever my regular collaborator Cody Goulder directs me, he finds some way to coerce me into dancing. It should be noted that I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Long ago, when I was but a Punk-Ass Teen Matt Clarke, I won several disco dance-offs. Alas, the rhythm and boogie has abandoned me in my old age. Is this Cody’s idea of a sick joke; or is it his way of showing me I’m capable of more than I believe? The world may never know.

The Phoenix Theatre scene is vibrant and growing. What excites you most about being a part of this community?

Two words: NEW WORKS. Theatre that is diverse, local, fresh, absurd, thought-provoking, refreshing, original, uncomfortable, creative, weird, complicated, personal, furious, hilarious, and genuine. I regularly lament seeing Annie produced 4+ times in a single season within our same small valley; BUT, I’m able to sleep at night knowing we have a such thriving new works community. As anemic as arts funding is in Az, I am thrilled that our guerrilla community of artists and collaborators (companies like Space 55, B3, Brelby, Ronin, and Stray Cat) strive to read, workshop, produce, and highlight new plays by local artists as well as AZ premiers. The All Puppet Players run hilarious riffs that are often more clever than the classics (and not-so-classics) they parody. The local chapter of the Dramatists’ Guild holds regular readings for plays in development. The big companies may get the major funding, but our underground is the true soul and distinctive artistic lifeblood of AZ theatre. Theatre the likes of which could never be made elsewhere. When I picked up acting in high school, I was taught that the highest honour I could work towards as an actor was performing Shakespeare. Sure, we talked in passing about other writers and movements in passing, but ol’ Billy Boi’s work was always regarded with religious reverence. It wasn’t until I got to ASU, and got a chance to work with MFA playwrights, that it seriously occurred to me that new plays were being written. I mean, duh, plays are always being written, but that happens in NY or LA or Chicago; not here in the PHX. Sharing the development process with these creatives (some of whom I still consider some of my closest and dearest friends), opened my eyes to a whole new world, and community. We’ll never have another Shakespeare (Beckett, or Wilson, or Parks, or Ruhl, or Lorca, or McDonagh) if we don’t focus on up-and-coming playwrights and put in the effort to develop their work. I consider myself lucky to have stumbled into this community, am grateful they’ve welcomed me in, and look forward to doing my little part to keep fresh theatre alive and growing.

Many actors find inspiration and learning in roles that contrast deeply with their own personality. Is there a dream role that you find fascinating for this very reason?

I only have 3 dream roles: Grant Mazzy in Pontypool, Bottom in Midsummer (an idea that I think gets funnier the older and balder I get), and Titus in… well, Titus. I’m attracted to Mazzy and Bottom because I see bits of them in myself (that sounds wanky, but I’m not changing it). Titus though, is a different beast. His stringent loyalty to country, adherence to tradition, and strict militarism are all traits that low-key terrify me in real life. Personifying those traits, and his unwavering dedication to them, would be a fascinating challenge. Not-to-mention, all the fun you get with his downward spiral into insanity (or is it), and the dinner scene complete with pie. Who doesn’t love pie?

Theatre is a collaborative art. Can you share a story about a time where working with another performer – whether another actor, a director, or designer – elevated your work or outlook?

I don’t have a single story, so much as a deep-seeded gratitude for the supremely creative folks whom I am lucky enough to regularly collaborate with. Folks whose presence always makes me want to put my best foot forward. Director-wise Cody Goulder and BJ Garrett come to mind. Cody’s manic energy and genuine enthusiasm make every rehearsal a playground where anything can happen, and the sky’s the limit. He’s always bursting with ideas and can’t wait to hear and build upon yours. BJ’s calm, but supportive nature makes every rehearsal and performance space a safe place. When he casts you, you can feel how much he genuinely believes in your abilities and wants to see you at your best. Both directors have precise eyes for details and treat New Works with the gravitas and respect of a multi-million- dollar production. When your director is as supportive, creative, insightful, and intelligent as these two, you naturally put your best foot forward to meet them at their level. When it comes to playwrights, I am in constant awe of John Perovich and Ashley Naftule. Both are intelligent, clever, hilarious, and absolute pros. Their mastery of their craft makes my job is easy. If you just follow and trust their words, your performance is naturally escalated. And you should trust their words, they word real good. Finally, there’s Antoinette Martin-Hanson, and I can’t pigeon-hole her. She acts, dances, plays instruments, writes (plays, poetry, and music), choreographs, and excels at all of the above. Not-to-mention, she has the patience of a damn saint (she’s had to choreograph and dance with me several times. Thanks again Cody). When you’re working with someone so skilled, you have to do your best just to keep up! Cody, BJ, John, Ash, and Toni: Thank you for trusting me with your art, and for making me a better artist and person.

What first drew you to acting? Can you pinpoint a moment that solidified your desire to pursue it?

Loving movies and being Chicanx! Haha! Growing up in a Mexican family, storytelling was in our blood. Everything was an adventure. It was never “I went down to the Agua Fria riverbed”. Every person you ran into, and every single drop of spicy escandalo you ran into along the way was just as important (if not more so). Eventually, that simple trip to the river to get planting soil was its own epic for the ages! Movies were more affordable and accessible than theatre, and my Madre, Tia, Nanie (abuela), and I were obsessed. We’d be at the movies at least once a week, and watching everything from home videos to AMC and TCM. I developed an appreciation for movies and storytelling across all genres from Period Drama, Award-Fodder, and Classics to Action, Horror, and Smut (ok, I may have developed my affinity for those last two genres on my own with the help of my Tio Ruy). Eventually I put one and one together to make 3: I realized movies were just another form of storytelling; like we did every day, and actors were just the folks making it happen. In high school, I got into theatre as a (hopeful) gateway drug into film acting, got hooked, and have been doing it since. The moment that solidified my desire was during Junior year of high school in the lobby after a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. There was the whole meet and greet thing. Several audience members approached my costar (the Flute/Thisbe to my Bottom/Pyramus) and I, saying that they were able to follow our whole performances, laughed throughout, and that we made them actually care about Shakespeare (if only for that evening). High praise from high schoolers. I figured if I was capable of making highschoolers care about the bard, maybe I should stick with this. A parent also told my costar and I that we reminded them of the Blues Brothers, and I’ve honestly been chasing that high ever since.

Everyone has moments of self-doubt. How do you overcome challenges and stay motivated to keep creating?

Oh, for sure! Like plenty of other actees, artists, and creative types, I struggle with depression and anxiety, and have for most of my life. Sometimes the negative thoughts get hard to ignore. Who’s that philosopher/writer who said that everything’s already been written? What do I have to contribute that someone else couldn’t do better? What is the worth of this silly little thing that I do? Hell, there was a stretch after some very negative theatrical experiences that I dropped out of ASU and considered myself retired from acting. I returned to finish my degree in pieces, mostly avoiding performance outside of my class and capstone. When I finished that capstone (John Perovich’s Missing Grace, a performance and production I’m still proud of to this day), I looked at myself, my slipping memory, my craft… and felt I had nothing more to give. I have always been lucky to be surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends. Folks I am always grateful for. Some of those friends are also artists. Those artists kept pulling me back in. Like a career criminal in a stylishly violent flick, I kept getting pulled in for one more job. I got back into it because I was asked to, as a favor, because there was someone I’d always wanted to work with, to support a friend, or because I wanted an excuse to hang out with them. Eventually, I found my love for it all again. It’s been a long journey, and I’ve barely begun to consider myself un-retired within the last year or so, but I’m glad to be back. Nowadays, when I doubt myself, when the negative thoughts are winning; I think of the folks who always pull me back in, the friends who never miss a show (thank you Jim-Lad, Jake, Tim), and the family who support me; and remember: Even if I don’t see something worthwhile in the things I create, people I trust and respect with all my heart do. Then there’s the Daughter-Kin. I continue doing this so she sees that our art (even when our arts differ), even if it is small or silly or isn’t always valued by society… Our art will always have worth, is fulfilling in ways nothing else is, and can grow and live with us as long as we practice it. I realize that was a super clunky way of saying all that, but sometimes feels don’t have words.

Your reputation for being a positive presence is well-known. How do you bring this lovely energy into your rehearsal process and performance?

First of all, whoa. Thank you SO much. I’m melting over here. Honestly, I’m just super happy and honored to be there. Being allowed to act, entrusted with a script, and trusted to bring a collaborative vision to an audience: That shit is mad humbling. As long as folks cast me, I’ll continue being happy to be there. I also believe everyone deserves a space to create, or even just exist. There will always be folks more experienced, knowledgeable, and talented than I am. My work will someday be forgotten; that’s the ephemeral nature of theater (and one of the things I love about it). But if even one person remembers me for creating a safe space for them, or a comfortable environment to create in, then I’ve made an impact I can be proud of.

If you could put on a one-person show based on any topic, fictional or non-fictional, what would it be about?

I’ve actually been bouncing around an idea for a while about 3 (mostly-true) intertwining stories about love, sex, loss, and coming of age during the mid- aughts. Debauchery, laughs, and heart abound. I’ve told the three stories countless times over the last decade and a half, and only recently realized the thematic connections while considering capstone projects for a potential post-grad degree (that the -Vid put on hold). I envision the set as a bar. There would be general black box seating as well as a small handful of seats at the bar where I’d serve themed cocktails related to the stories (putting my years of bartending experience to use). I have no idea what logistics and insurance would look like for such a thing, but fuck it, I think it’d be cool. *shrug?*

See Matt in Space 55's Roger and Me

June 7-16

Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm

Sundays at 2pm

Pay What You Want show on Thursday the 13th at 7:30pm

Venue: Metropolitan Arts Institute

Tickets $20 ($22 online with a convenience fee)

Get Tickets here.


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