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Exclusive: Manoel Felciano Talks About Joining A.C.T., San Francisco Theater Scene

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San Francisco native Manoel Felciano has wowed audiences and critics on Broadway. His performance as Toby in “Sweeney Todd” earned him a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Now he’s taking a vacation from New York theater and has joined A.C.T.’s Core Acting Company. I spoke to Felciano during rehearsals for “November,” which is currently running at A.C.T.

Louis Peitzman: You’ve performed at A.C.T. before, but what brings you back to this company?
Manoel Felciano: Well, I had a really great experience with my first two shows here, which were “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “At Home at the Zoo.” San Francisco’s my hometown, and my family is still here, and I’d often wondered about what it would be like to live here as an adult. A.C.T. has one of the few standing acting companies in the country where you can get paid 52 weeks a year just to act and teach. That sounded very appealing. I really like kind of work that they do and [artistic director] Carey Perloff’s artistic vision, and I just really got a good sense of the people and the institution. I felt like it would be a place where I could grow in ways that I couldn’t in the commercial theater in New York, specifically in terms of teaching more, directing and learning about how a not-for-profit theater is run. And all the things that go into that—fundraising and marketing and press. Programming a season, what the relationship between a community and a theater is, cultivating audiences, discovering new audiences, all that kind of stuff.
LP: How is the San Francisco theater scene in general different from what you’d find in New York?
MF: Honestly, I don’t really know, because I’ve just sort of been here for a couple weeks, and then I did the two shows. So I know that there are a lot of very talented local actors, because I’ve acted with them in shows here. And I know from growing up here that there are a handful of very well-respected, nationally recognized theaters here. The biggest difference is New York is mostly about commercial theater, for profit, especially Broadway of course. And San Francisco is maybe a little less so. A.C.T. of course is, by definition, not so. And the great thing is that if you’re not for profit, you can define what you are for. That’s something I was really interested in being a part of.
LP: Are there recent trends that you’ve noticed in theater that you’d like to see more of?
MF: Yeah, I think [the last A.C.T. production] “Brief Encounter” in a lot of ways bucks the trend, and I wonder if the kind of work that they do is easier to sustain in England than it is here. Because they don’t have a lot of the union rules and regulations that we have that can hold back and make the expense prohibitive to develop that kind of work. Because they went into a barn in Cornwall and made this over the course of a couple months, and just all lived together and worked together. That would be, I think, prohibitively expensive to do in America. But what’s great about it is it’s entirely un-star driven. It’s not material that’s particularly familiar to most people—I mean, some people know the movie. And so in a lot of ways, it does buck a lot of the trends that I’ve seen in New York. You’ve got to either have a star or your production has to be based on material that’s previously known to the public: the music of ABBA, Green Day, whatever. Or you gotta put Julia Roberts in something. And increasingly the move to put people whose main recognition factor is from film and television into your parts has now trickled down into the off-Broadway scene in New York. So what I would call the middle-class actor, which is people like me and company members here and tons of other actors in New York and around the country, are finding it increasingly difficult to play the kinds of parts that we want to play in New York. Those parts now even in the off-Broadway theater are going to Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. And those are the parts that 10, 15, 20 years ago we would have had a shot at.
LP: What kind of roles are you drawn to?
MF: Well, part of the reason I came here is I want to play the big parts. I should say, the meaty parts, not in terms of size. But in the great works of the canon. And that is something that I feel like is part of A.C.T.’s heritage and tradition, taking these classics and reinventing them in bold and new ways. Because if you want to really cut your teeth as an actor, you’ve got to play those parts, and that’s also something that’s increasingly difficult in New York. Everything’s focused on new works, new works, new works, regardless if they’re good or bad. If they’re new, we do them. And so, if you want to have an experience where you feel like you’re going to learn from these parts which have stood the test of time in these major works, then you gotta go out of New York. And I figure if I’m gonna go out of New York, I might as well go to my hometown and go to the only other place I’d probably want to live other than New York.
LP: I’ve noticed a lot of theater actors recently making the jump to film and TV work. I’m thinking specifically of the stars of “Spring Awakening.” Do you see that as a trend?
MF: I don’t know if you could mark that as a trend. I would say that’s very specific to that particular show, because it was very groundbreaking and because it introduced new, hot young talent onto the scene in a really exciting way that people got excited about. Those three actors [Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher, Jr.] are really talented and I wish them all the best, because they should be doing that. Most theater actors if they’re going to get film or television offers, depending on the project, are not going to turn them down, because the financial difference is so astronomical. You get paid for a day on a TV show, you get paid what you might get for six weeks in a theatrical run. The flipside of that is that you have much less control over your own artistic process. You are to sit in your trailer for 11 hours and then when you’re called out, you go and you do your bit, and if you’re lucky, maybe you get to do it again, and then you’re back to the trailer again.
LP: Have you done much film or TV?
MF: I’ve done three, four TV shows. Did a couple soaps, a couple that shot in New York. Did a couple films. The film I did is a film called “Uncertainty” with Joe Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins. And that’s actually coming out in the fall, I think. It was in the Toronto Film Festival. And that was really exciting, because that actually had no written script. It had no dialogue, I should say. It had a script but it had no dialogue, so the dialogue was all improvised. So you felt like you had some agency over your own work. But the difference in terms of the mediums is that in film, the director is the storyteller. In TV, the writer is the storyteller. In theater, the actor is the storyteller. ‘Cause ultimately it’s us on stage, seeing all of us in space. The bigger you get, the more the camera tightens and tightens. They require totally different skill sets. I had a great experience learning from that, and it got me excited for doing more. That’s something that may happen more down the line. I know there are some things that get shot here, and the proximity to LA doesn’t hurt. But for now, I want to concentrate on A.C.T. and on the theatrical work that’s here.
LP: What do you like to do in the Bay Area when you’re not working?
MF: Part of what’s amazing for me is to come back and rediscover things that weren’t here when I was a child growing up. I mean, I was just going to go to the Embarcadero Y, which is this gym that I joined. And it’s amazing, because when I was a child, that was all covered by a freeway, the whole front of the Embarcadero there. So nobody would go down there—it was totally useless. But now it’s beautiful. And I run, so I often run down along there over to Crissy Field, which is also something that wasn’t there at all when I was growing up. I also like my little neighborhood that I’m in. Dottie’s True Blue Cafe, greatest breakfast on the face of the Earth. It has a line out the door every day all day long. It’s where I feel like I spend half of my paycheck. And then just on the corner of Jones and O’Farrell is Bourbon and Branch. It’s great. You have to like go online to make a reservation and then they send you a password, and you have to buzz and say your password and they take you into this very beautiful, magical speakeasy with artisanal cocktails. There’s a ton of stuff. My girlfriend lives in the Mission so there’s all kinds of stuff there that I’ve been introduced to: art galleries and good Mexican food. And the whole South Beach area that wasn’t here when I was growing up. And that’s one of the things that I love is that on the one hand there’s high quality high culture: the opera, the symphony, the ballet and all this. Then there’s all this awesome south of Market, up by your bootstraps, little garage theaters and bands and practice spaces and studios. It’s a very rich cultural life here that spreads across all demographics and all income levels. And that’s pretty astonishing for a city of 800,000 people. That’s something that I think we’re sort of uniquely positioned to reach out to at A.C.T., because we can go in both directions. We can reach up to the opera, the symphony and ballet, and we can reach down to the south of Market people. Even where we’re positioned geographically is kind of in-between. I’d be really interested in working with—we’ve got this “Tosca” project coming up in the spring that we’re creating with the ballet. I think that’s a great and significant step forward in the process of collaborating with other artists in the city. My mother [Rita Felciano] is a dance critic for the Bay Guardian, so she takes me to all these amazing modern dance concerts. She takes me to see stuff that otherwise might not be on my radar. There’s a ton of people out there who I feel like, if we could find the right project and the right timeframe—and the money—to work with them, we would be able to provide them a stage and a setting and resources that they might not otherwise have access to, and give them exposure to a demographic and an audience that they might not have access to. And at the same time, we get new and fresh and interesting talented people, and they bring with them their own crowd and their own collaborators. There’s a lot of fruitful collisions to be explored there.
LP: Can you tell me a little bit about “November” and your role?
MF: Well, it’s incredibly funny. It’s the third time I was reading it this morning, and I was just like, this guy [playwright David Mamet] has got a gift for comedy. It’s a presidential, political satire. The guy playing the president, this guy Andy Polk, is so perfectly cast for this part. I can’t wait to see what he does with it. I play the representative of the Turkey and Turkey Parts Manufacturing Association I think that’s what it is. I was actually researching that. I went online and looked up the Turkey Federation of America. And it’s like this trade organization and they’re the ones who select the turkeys that get these presidential pardons every years. So there I am, like, joining this trade organization online, figuring out how can I learn more about this. But that’s about as far as I got. We’ll see where that leads. It’s about the president selling these turkey pardons, and of course with [Rod] Blagojevich, it was so perfect. When I read it, I was like, “Oh yeah, this stuff really does happen.” So I think it’s going to be really topical and timely and funny, most of all. Just really, really funny.

“November” runs through November 15. You can purchase tickets on the A.C.T. website.

Photo courtesy A.C.T.