The Wilma Theater's current production of Theresa Rebeck's play The Understudy, a backstage theater romp where Hollywood meets Broadway,
includes Cody Nickell as the hapless stand-in Harry. DC audiences got to see the talented Mr. Nickell performing In the Next Room, or
The Vibrator Play at the Woolly Mammoth and as Septimus in Arcadia at The Folger Theatre, for which he received
a Helen Hayes Award nomination this year as best supporting actor. Ms. Rebeck' play Mauritius, about the
fanaticism of stamp collecting, was favorably reviewed at The Bay Theatre Company earlier this year. I was able
to interview the actor about a third of the way into the run, which is scheduled to conclude January 30.
DramaUrge: I'm always amazed that the
theatergoing public from our region bypasses Philly, which has a vibrant theater scene with much lower prices and great restaurants
to boot, and heads straight to New York. Currently, your colleague in The Vibrator Play, Eric Hissom, who won
a Helen Hayes Award as best actor in Arcadia, is playing in A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Arden. And this year Sherri Edelen and Joe Calarco won Barrymore Awards for best actress in a musical and best director in
a musical for A Light in the Piazza at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. Other than proximity, what is it that
keeps drawing the acting world, which also includes the movies (the latest How Do You Know), to Philly?
Cody Nickell: I think there are many reasons
that theatre artists continue to be drawn to Philly, many of which you mention in the question above. There is absolutely
a vibrant theatrical scene here with a wonderful collection of local talent. Any actor, or director, designer, or writer
wants to be involved with great work, created in a dynamic environment and I believe Philly has a lot of theatres that offer
those kinds of opportunities to artists. Beyond that, this is such a wonderful city, full of amazing history, architecture
and other wonderful cultural outlets.
How did you come to be cast for the role of Harry? Were there aspects of your prior performances that you were able
to draw on for the part of Harry?
I had seen the New York production of The Understudy and really loved it. I saw that the Wilma was producing
it and reached out to Blanka Zizka, the artistic director, to make sure she knew I was interested in auditioning for the piece.
I also made sure my agents were keeping an ear out in NYC for when the auditions would be. I was brought in to read
for the director, David Kennedy, and the casting director, Laura Stanczyk, got a call back, and then was offered the role.
As to the second question, I think every role I play has a cumulative effect in my career. I learn unique and interesting
things about my process and craft from each project, even though the characters may seem totally unrelated to one another.
Ultimately I think the most important connection to Harry that I have is my personal experience in the professional theatre.
It is wonderful to get to play a character who has had a relatively similar life experience to the one I have had!
DU: The role of an understudy is not generally
well understood by the public. It seems like everyone's learning another role for a play; when is this done?
Is it an insurance policy for theater or is the intent to get the actors to gain a deeper appreciation of the play? How
often do actors step into a role during a typical run?
Each theatre deals with understudies in a different way. Sometimes there is a completely separate understudy cast, sometimes
the understudies come from within the production, often a mixture of both. While being an understudy certainly does
offer a deeper understanding of the play, I doubt that is a specific intent of the theatre. An understudy is absolutely
an insurance policy for the theatre. Many unexpected things happen in life and in the theatre, and canceling shows cost
the theatre valuable revenue, so having understudies means they can go on with the show. As far as how often actors
step in during runs, that really depends on the play. I have been in shows where understudies never go on, and I have
been in shows where several understudies have gone on. If the show is a very physically taxing show, or vocally taxing,
there is more likelihood of someone going out. If the show is during the winter, again, there is an increased risk of
people getting ill and not going on. Every experience in the theatre is unique, which is why many of us are drawn to
the business in the first place. Some theatres don't even have understudies, so regardless of what is happening
in an actor's life, you're going on.
The Understudy is a physical play at times. The American Theatre magazine highlighted movement
programs and actors involved with them in their latest issue. Could you speak a little about your own movement training?
How do you communicate your choices to directors who may prefer another approach or may not be as familiar with your training?
CN: My first experiences as a performer were
as a dancer, and while I never pursued formal training in dance, I have always been a good mover. I studied acting at
Carnegie Mellon University's school of drama, where they had a very well rounded program that included four years of movement
training. That being said, I don't have a specific school of thought that I subscribe to when I am approaching my
work. As I said before, I find each project, each rehearsal process unique, and I try to find the physical life of the
character early on. The director then chimes in with his or her thoughts and like everything in the theatre, through
collaboration a character begins to emerge.
There's a theme of resentment in the play about the status accorded to Hollywood stars vis à vis their journeyman colleagues in the theater. It seems as if brand recognition has more sway than acting talent
at the box office. In fact, this year a Facebook page was established by a group to bring back the Tony Awards to the
working actors on Broadway. Is all this a matter of hype or do you see a cause for concern for the theater?
CN: This is a very complex and interesting
question and it certainly depends on who you ask as to what answer you will get. Brand recognition is everything in
our society, not just the theatre. People are always more willing to spend money on something they know more than something
they don't know. This is not really anything new on Broadway. Celebrities have been drawing crowds in NYC
since the whole show business thing started. The difference between then and now is that those celebrities always had
strong theatrical backgrounds for the most part. Often these days you will have actors making their Broadway debut and
their theatrical debut at the same time. I certainly understand why people who have spent their lives dedicated to the
theatre might find this irksome. I know I have at times. I also understand that in the commercial theater, the
producers have a responsibility to sell tickets, and they are going to do everything in their power to do that.
I don't know. It's tricky. Do I wish that there was more of a willingness on patrons' parts to go
see something because it is great as opposed to going to see it because it has famous people in it? Yes, of course I
do. But that is only one side of a very complex question. In the end, I am very thankful that I get to do what
I love to do.
DU: You have a nice
web site established so agents and fans can track your career. One thing I'm always interested in is an actor's
next play; I'll occasionally go see a show, just to see a particular actor. What are you playing next?
CN: Next up for me is Blithe Spirit at
The Gulfshore Playhouse in Florida this spring. Quick little jaunt down to warmer climates! After that, I will
be back in DC this summer for a remount of Clybourne Park at Woolly Mammoth which I am really
looking forward to. Who knows after that? I am always hustling and like to line up work. I am currently
talking to people about jobs 18 months out. Nothing definite yet, but lots and lots of possibilities which I am very
DU: You are married
to Kate Eastwood Norris - a fantastic actor in her own right - who I've seen perform in DC and Pittsburgh. I see
you've played together in How to Disappear in Portland, Oregon. Do you have any future plans on the drawing
board to appear in a play together in this part of the country?
CN: Hopefully so. Kate and I are always looking for projects together, and sometimes
we get lucky. As I said, I am talking to people about projects over the next 18 months and many of these have roles
for Kate and me and we are trying very hard to make that work. We met doing a show and have had the opportunity to do
four or five plays together since then and we love it. With both of us being successful, we tend to spend a lot of time
apart, so we try to grab every opportunity we can to work together.
DU: Well, here's hoping it happens soon. Many thanks, Cody and best of luck for the rest of
Photo credit: Jim Roese
John F. Glass - January 12, 2011