When I received the responses to the questions I had come up with for this week’s interviewee, I was over the moon excited. I believe each of his answers encapsulates why I started Master Chat Mag. With each scroll of the mouse I learned something new about what it means to be a Broadway performer and how to do it well. To say that Bobby Steggert is insightful would be an understatement as would saying he’s a good actor. This Tony Award Nominee knows how to give a genuine performance and genuinely great advice. Enjoy!
When did you catch the theater bug?
I was cast in a little Christmas play at a local church when I was in the seventh grade. I knew nothing about being on stage, but the experience of that first public performance was transportive for me. Time disappeared. I had been so engaged that I literally became unaware of the passage of time. It had begun, and then it was over. I knew that night that I would be a professional actor, and I have always used that experience as a reminder of what’s important – If you can completely lose yourself in something, it’s probably worth pursuing.
I read that after you were the valedictorian of your high school class, you attended some pretty high profile theater schools (NYU Tisch and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts). Can you describe your time at each school?
NYU was the social and developmental training that I needed as a human. I was in the middle of this huge, fascinating city, on my own for the first time, meeting an incredibly diverse variety of people. I had the space to learn who I was. The school is at its best in encouraging creativity, exploration, independent thinking. And New York taught me how many different stories we all have. It opens your eyes whether you want them open or not.
London then became the kick in the pants that helped translate that new personal awareness into a more practical application. Shakespeare requires intellect, dexterity, skill, and size. British teachers were tougher, more demanding, and blunt. But they demanded a bravery and guts that are invaluable.
Can you tell our readers why it is important to get formal training?
I have a complicated philosophy about formal training, actually, and I believe it is both very important and not at all. If someone has real talent and a true, authentic understanding of themselves, their emotional life, their body, then formal training can only help them in their development, because they will always know how to apply the skills they learn in a personalized, organic way. But to go to acting school and get a degree from a top program, and then to not do the important personal work… it becomes a useless endeavor. A great actor is someone who knows himself and is observant of the world and the people around him. That can’t be taught. The best training no matter what is to activate your curiosity.
You made your Broadway debut in 2003 in “Master Harold” …and the Boys. Right? Can you talk about your experience of being a new Broadway actor?
I was completely intimidated. I was cast as the understudy for the lead role and remember sneaking up the stairs and sitting quietly in my little dressing room trying not to make a peep. It took me a few years to actually believe that I belonged on Broadway – it was the pinnacle, and a fantasy. It didn’t even feel possible. It was only until subsequent Broadway shows that I realized it’s all the same – there are some brilliant things on Broadway and there are some brilliant things in tiny 100-seat theaters in the middle of nowhere. At first, it was completely overwhelming to me, but to be honest, you can only really succeed if you get over it and simply do the work you were hired to do.
You joined the cast of All My Children for a few episodes in 2005. What was it like to be in a soap opera?
I did All My Children for about a year, and it was the strangest experience I’ve ever had as an actor. I kind of equate it to Shakespeare in a strange way – you’re asked to interpret very heightened text (in this case not even close to as well written as Shakespeare), and to do it in sometimes operatic circumstances. I held people at gunpoint and crap. It was fun and ridiculous. I also learned that I never want to be really famous. When you’re on a soap, you’ll be surprised how often you’re recognized, and it always felt a little creepy.
Actors often say how soap operas are really valuable training. Did you find that to be true?
I did find it to be a good self-motivator. You have to learn lines extremely quickly, sometimes in just a few hours. And because the dialogue was often so bad, you had to find a way to make it believable, very quickly. Also, there’s kind of no one watching you very closely. They care more about what your hair looks like than how you’re acting. There’s a different director every day, I met the executive producer only twice. So you’re sort of on your own, and I learned to make my own choices and take ownership of them – a big lesson anywhere.
After being in many other Broadway and Off-Broadway productions you starred in the revival of Ragtime where you earned a Tony Award nomination! How did that job come about?
Sometimes the most significant jobs don’t seem as such when you first begin. The Kennedy Center in DC is one of my favorite theaters in the world- I’m from Maryland and it’s where I first went on theater field trips as a kid. When I heard they were producing a big revival of Ragtime, a show that I listened to on repeat when I was in high school, I was just interested in doing a great show in a great theater near my hometown. But the short answer is that I auditioned for it and got the job.
The show ended up being a really beautiful thing. Everyone involved cared very deeply about it, and I think the audience could feel that. Its transfer to Broadway and all the attention that came with it was really a surprise. But it changed my life and I am so happy it did.
Where were you when you found out you were nominated?
I had been told that I’d probably be nominated by people who follow those trends, but I didn’t quite believe it. The show had closed several months earlier and I had assumed that we would be forgotten. The night before the announcements, I was resolved not to let it freak me out, so I turned off my alarm and resolved to sleep through the morning. But when I woke up and checked my phone at 7 am, there were already a few missed calls and several texts, and I knew without having to look any further. My first reaction was one of shock, then gratitude, then I called my mom and she cried.
Can you describe the night you attended the Tonys as a nominee?
It was very important that my parents be with me. They have supported me with every resource they have – time, money, emotional support. It was a bigger deal to me that they get to be there than anything else.
The ceremony itself was long and I certainly didn’t expect to win. I most remember sitting next to my mom, sharing sips out of a flask that one of my favorite actors, Boyd Gains, had given me as a good luck charm. We had a wonderful time sharing in both the wonder and the absurdity of it all.
You recently played Kevin in the new play Harbor at the Westport Playhouse. How did you develop him and did you work closely with Chad Beguelin (the playwright) in the process?
Kevin is a wonderful character to play because he is entirely adaptable. He is a creature of his environment. It was such a challenge to feel like one person when he was with his husband, and then become a completely different person with his sister. But it was a wonderful thing to realize that both were true. That was the key to him. And when those environments clash, and he must make a choice, it is the first significant one he’s had to make his entire adult life. Nothing is better than getting to play those life-altering moments.
Chad was very hands-off, and extremely supportive, and what I found most helpful was to observe his humor. It is a particular blend of intellect and adolescence that enabled us all to have a stronger hold of the humor in the play.
What’s the most important thing that you could ask for in a cast mate/scene partner?
All that is important in a scene partner is that they truly listen. If they do, they are present and aware, and can respond to whatever you give them. If both actors are there, then you have it made.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors and actresses?
Remove all expectations of status, attention, stardom, glory, spotlight. Those things will temporarily come to some who focus on it, but they last with those who are ultimately focused on telling the story with every bit of their authenticity. I have had the luxury of receiving some of that attention, and the best thing it has taught me is that although it’s nice, it’s empty. The only thing that lasts is the self satisfaction of knowing that I threw my whole self into something.
What’s your all time favorite play/musical?
I really loved Caroline or Change. It was monumentally performed show with a beautiful, difficult, complex book (very rare in musicals and probably due to the fact that Tony Kushner wrote it), and a score that was both memorable and singular. It had the perfect blend of style and truth.
Do you have a dream role?
I don’t. I think it will be written. And I can’t wait to pick it apart and live inside it. ♦