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How Chris Myers' latest gig merged his professional, political and personal life
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles.
Sometimes an actor seems born to play a role. In the case of Chris Myers, who won a 2014 Obie Award for his performance in An Octoroon, he was also an activist born to portray Jeffrey, a shy convicted murderer with a secret in Whorl Inside a Loop, currently playing at the Second Stage Theatre. The prison drama is a heavily fictionalized take on the experiences of cowriters Sherie Rene Scott (known for her Tony-nominated turns in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the semiautobiographical musical Everyday Rapture) and librettist Dick Scanlan, who jointly led a personal narrative class with inmates in Sullivan County's Woodbourne Correctional Facility in 2011. But when Myers was cast, the playwrights had no idea that he too had spent time teaching offenders, at the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx and an outreach program for recently incarcerated youth in Brooklyn.
"About two years ago I really started getting into social justice and activism work," says Myers, a fifth generation New Yorker who honed his acting skills at the Harlem School of the Arts and Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School before earning his BFA at The Juilliard School. "As I learned more about prison reform, it became an issue that stuck out to me. But as an actor, I wondered what I could do. Then I saw Cornel West speak at Columbia University and he mentioned that every week he teaches at a prison in Rahway. I realized that if Cornel could make the time, then I could, too. I had to fill out all this paperwork and get fingerprinted, just like in Whorl, before I was able to start."
Although Myers' background undoubtedly informed his audition, he thinks his experience essaying multiple parts in the same show is what helped him land Whorl, in which he also plays Scott's young son, a white conservative named Bob, and Hillary Clinton. "In most NYC shows I've done I have been double or triple cast," he says. "I no longer delineate between character acting and leading man acting. I have been tasked with going to so many places, it just feels natural to take a hard-left or hard-right turn. Playing a white person or a woman or a child, I no longer wonder, 'How am I going to pull this off?' Of course it's still a challenge every night. Can I do it better than the night before? Am I honoring these people and these identity groups? But the mystification of it, that's gone. I find so much fun and joy in doing this kind of work."
Whorl has been a particularly gratifying experience for Myers because of its collaborative nature. While Scott (who also stars) and Scanlan share author credit, additional material was supplied by five of the prisoners they worked with in Woodbourne, including Myers' character's namesake, Jeffrey Rivera, now out on parole. And Myers says the playwrights were always open to the cast's suggestions, too. Over years of development, "they brought in actors to play and workshop, and I heard the process was highly improvisatory," says Myers. "Even when I got there and we only had four weeks, we were making changes. My character Bob didn't exist until we started rehearsing. It was created for my presence in the play. And we were all always adding one-liners -- someone would make a suggestion and we would get new pages. Everybody has a lot of those moments sprinkled throughout the show. Dick and Sherie engineered the play and are responsible for the top-down storytelling, but they allowed us to create moments that are true to the play and characters and our natural abilities."
While Myers plays a few real-life people in the show, he says he intentionally steers clear of doing impressions. "The origins of some of these characters exist in the real world, but the job was never to impersonate," he explains. "When I did meet Jeffrey, I examined his body language and speech patterns, but maybe 20 percent of that landed on stage."
Of course, Myers is much more than a theatre actor. He's currently in preproduction on his own web series called Guap (about gentrification and money in NYC), he's about to make his TV debut in the movie The Breaks on VH1 this fall, he moonlights as a DJ, and then there's his activism. He recently penned a passionate editorial about the urgent need for prison and policing reform. But don't write him off the stage just yet. "I went to Juilliard because I wanted to do the classics and have a life in the theatre, all that," he says. Then he adds, half-joking, "And yet I checked my bank account recently so I'll have to do other stuff, too."
Raven Snook is the associate editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Joan Marcus