This month for our Backstage interview we talked to actor Kevin Matthew Reyes, a recent acting school grad making his professional debut in three different roles in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s workshop production of The World of Extreme Happiness, as part of our New Stages festival. Read on to hear this California-transplant’s perspective on the play, the future and the dynamic theater scene in his new hometown, Chicago.
Place of birth and/or hometown?
||Kevin Matthew Reyes
I was born in Fremont, California—in the Bay Area—but I haven't really been back there for longer than a week since leaving for college five years ago. I went to school in San Diego and spent summers working in Los Angeles. I did a whole lot of my growing up there, and in Barcelona, Spain, where I studied abroad for four months. I feel equally at home in all four cities, actually less so in the city I was born in. Whenever people ask where in California I'm from, I can never say one city definitively. I feel like the first part of my life was in Fremont and ended when I left for university. The second part, which I'm currently in, has been in the next three cities, and now Chicago.
First professional role/production you were in?
You’re lookin’ at it!
Favorite professional role/production you were in?
Well, this one, but not only by default of being the only professional role on my list so far. In one show I get to play a revolutionary, a rock star and a little brother, and they’re all fantastic characters in a fantastic story. Also, this has been the best possible first professional production to be a part of. Everyone at the Goodman and everyone involved—all these people with far more experience working in professional than I have—has been fantastic to be around. Only for about the first 10 seconds on day one did I feel like a rookie. And Jonathan Berry, our director, was one of my instructors just this past summer at The School at Steppenwolf. That familiarity and love I have for the way he works helped make this a really easy transition from learning from him as my instructor to working with him as my director. Man, I just hope he’s not getting sick of me already!
Dream role or production you hope to be in in the future?
I’m not sure how much I ever really think about that in terms of existing plays and productions. I hear these workshopped plays sometimes get the chance to have a world premiere here at the Goodman. If that happens with this play, I'd consider myself insanely lucky to have a shot at getting to explore these characters and this world some more.
As for a dream production that doesn't exist yet? I've got two best friends back in California, Chris Cortez and Andres Ramacho, who are also Filipino-American actors. We all kind of look alike, but are each very different individuals. I'd get such a kick out of being in a show with them where we all played brothers or something. Paul Rudd would play our alcoholic, adoptive father. And it’d be directed by Christopher Nolan, in his stage debut. Oh, and we'd be performing on the moon. You know—as long as we’re dreaming.
Role you know you'll never get to play because of your age/sex/race but would love to play in an alternate universe?
Well, in terms of roles and being able to play them, I've been taught to never limit myself. I think the awesome/scary thing about life and theater is that you really never know what can happen. So the only way something becomes impossible is if I validate it with self-doubt. Is it all right then if I give you another sort of dream role I'd love to play one day?
I think Roy Cohn from Angels in America is one of the greatest characters ever written for the stage. There's something so ugly, human and therefore beautiful about him that I'd love to sink my teeth into. Also, he terrifies the poop out of me, so that must mean he's a character worth embracing.
Production or role you've experienced as an audience member that left you speechless?
I saw a production of In the Heights a few years ago that just about blew my socks and undies off. A great example of "never say never." Before that, I doubted that hip-hop and rap could ever successfully make its way into a musical. Never again, man...never again. I also saw a touring production of August: Osage County. Boy, that play just dropkicks you in the face and doesn't apologize.
Biggest onstage flub and how you handled it?
I was in a show in college that had a pretty complicated fight sequence. I had to run down the length of the stage, and then get blindsided in the face by a chair right before I got to the exit. One performance, there was newspaper on the floor and I slipped while running. I ended up sliding on my knees, but because I'd slipped, my arms didn't make it up in time to protect my face from the staged chair smack. Fortunately, I ended up doing like a Matrix slide under just under the chair. I felt the aluminum graze my nose. But then we had to deal with the fact that I'd dodged the knockout blow. Thankfully, my scene partner (the ever-inventive London Park) did some quick thinking and kicked me down from behind and then sort of sat on me until the reinforcements showed up. Good times.
Pre- or post-show ritual?
I've got one real meaningful ritual I do before every rehearsal and performance. I was introduced to this by a great friend and director of mine, Joshua Brody, back at UCSD. He took this dedication ritual originally from Peter Sellars and slightly adapted it into a more private version. Before each rehearsal and performance, I choose someone not involved with the production who I love very much. I hold them tight in my mind and dedicate my work that day to them. For me, it's a really important reminder that everything we do is always, ultimately, to be shared with other people. Without people on the receiving end, there's no one for whom to create these wonderful stories for. And art without an audience is just masturbation...which isn't as fun as the other thing. Another thing I do is listen to character-specific playlists. Music has this great way of getting to the core of certain truths in a way that words and reason never will, so I find that really helps me in preparation.
As a sort of bookend ritual, once I cross the threshold of the playing space I announce my name and the name(s) of my character(s) before each rehearsal and performance, and then I thank the space for serving as our vessel after each rehearsal and performance. There's a really magical thing that happens in theater where a group of people come together to transform a bare room or stage into a world where collective dreamers come together to love, lose, fly and even slay dragons. I mean, how many other professions let you walk into a room with a bunch of people and say, “Dudes. We're going to slay some freakin’ dragons in here. And it’s going to be awesome.” So, I was taught to always honor and acknowledge the space that let you come in and live out your dreams.
Favorite thing about working in Chicago?
There's a real beautiful heart and soul in Chicago theater that's woven into the very fabric of this city. You feel its pulse from the improv joints to the intimate, 20-seat houses, all the way to the Albert stage at the Goodman. It's electric. And that heart and soul is cultivated by the people who work here. And not just the artists, but the administrators who help make it happen, too. They really are all tapped into this current that continually churns out an honest and imaginative brand of art that's incredibly fulfilling to witness. And maybe I'm just a naïve 23 year old, right out of college, in severe debt, and blinded by romantic dreams of grandeur. But right now in my life, I'm okay with that. My wallet might not be full, but my heart is literally overflowing.
...Okay, not literally. That was a bit extreme. But you know what I mean.