How did you get started in theater?
When I was in 9th grade, I was never really in
the "in" crowd I kind of spent a lot of time alone.
Toward the end of that year, however, I started
to hang with a few guys a year older than I was.
Our common love was baseball we played
every day nonstop. It was really a great time
actually having a group of friends for the first
time. At night, when the ballgames were over,
I would go home, do my homework, and play
video games by myself. Little did I know, that
my friends were all out together, and hanging
out with girls! I thought: "Hey, how can I get
involved in situations where there are actual
GIRLS?" And then I remembered that my
baseball-playing friends all were involved with
the school drama club, and that they would
periodically try to get me to join. And I would
pretty much ignore them, being content playing
baseball by day and The Legend of Zelda at
night. But what was this? There were GIRLS in
the drama club! Lots of them! Pretty ones! So, that summer, I made up my mind to audition for the winter musical, or do some tech work backstage anything that would get me involved with the drama club. I attended auditions for Follies, (yes, I was spoon-fed on Sondheim), and I guess the director thought I was good, because I was cast in a principal role! So there you have it I became an actor.
What hooked you?
Easy question. The rehearsal process for Follies was like any rehearsal process lots of fun and playful social interaction. I never socialized with girls before, and here was my chance! I would look forward to rehearsals all day through school, just counting the minutes until I could spend time with my new friends. Follies changed my life and brought me out of my shell. The beautiful experience culminated with my solo curtain call on opening night. The cheers, the applause, the real validation gave me a natural high that can never be replicated. From that moment on, the whole theatre production process became like a drug to me I just kept on wanting more. So I kept auditioning!
What inspired you to be where you are today?
Today, I enjoy a career as a clinical psychologist. I have not acted "professionally" in over 8 years. But I always missed theatre, and it was difficult at times to let it go and concentrate on my studies. However, I remembered years ago, I was working with this phenomenal actor named Duncan (I forgot his last name). We were doing The Cherry Orchard in downtown Manhattan, and Duncan was a full-time architect! And he still had time to act in a New York production! I guess Duncan indirectly taught me that you can have a career and still pursue your passion.
What was the first play you ever saw? Ever performed in?
Follies was the first play that I ever was exposed to!
Did you study acting?
Yes, I received a B.A. with honors in Theatre Arts from Brandeis University. After college, I took more classes in acting, voice, movement, combat, whatever anyone would teach me.
What was your first audition like?
I remember it being really long! It was weird because I really wasn't nervous until I was onstage. And that was only because I was never onstage before! But I got through it, and I guess I did well, because I was cast. It got back to me later that week that I apparently "came out of nowhere" and took a role away from an actor who was pre-cast!
How do you choose what play you will audition for? The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.
Wow. My answer to this question is different now that it would have been 8 years ago. At this point, since it is so rare that I get to do theatre, I am very choosy about the project which I plan on pursuing. I will only audition for a role or piece that I love. There are a bunch of those in the archives of plays some I have played already and I would want to re-create them, others are great roles that I have not yet played. That's about it, unless someone comes across with an original piece that has a character with whom I fall in love. As far as directors go I can work with just about anyone who is open-minded. The theater space is also not as important I've run the gamut from a 10ft x 5ft storefront space production of Twelfth Night, to singing at The Grand Olde Opry.
Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject.
It's part of theatre. Any director who dares to put up a show always has one or more roles in which she/he envisions a particular performer playing. I have directed plays with this approach, it helped me to visualize my conception of the piece. However, if a performer comes to my audition and impresses me more than the other actors up for a given role do, this performer will get the part, regardless of who I originally had in mind. I have been pre-cast, I've been beaten out for roles due to pre-casting, and I beat pre-cast actors out for roles. It's all part of the audition game. I guess my advice on this subject is to come to auditions with your game on, rock the collective world of the production staff, and just hope for the best.
What types of parts do you normally play? Do you feel typecast?
No, I really haven't felt typecast since college. Here's my theory on typecasting: If you want to be typecast, you can be. But if you don't, you can learn not to. It's all about the personality, ego, and vibes you project to the casting director. In college, I, (as was everyone) was naturally attempting to search for who I was. That's what we do in late adolescence and early adulthood. So I was always projecting an aspect of my personality during auditions that made me feel secure, comfortable, and wanted. In all reality, this speaks to my notable insecurities at the time. I projected the macho, tough guy attitude, and therefore I was cast in those types of roles (e.g., Miles Gloriosus in Forum). Remember, I wasn't cool in high school, but I wanted people to think that I was cool in college. If I acted "cool", I could be typecast in "cool guy" roles. Anyway, as I got older, I became more comfortable with my true self, and allowed different, less "attractive" aspects of my personality to emerge both onstage and off. I started to play all kinds of roles and became less of a "type." I did A Midsummer Night's Dream twice in one year, and played Puck and Bottom two completely different "types." If you don't want to be a "type" you need to be comfortable and flexible with regard to your personality, and let your true self emerge in auditions. By the way, this theory also applies to beating the "pre-cast" system. I'm going to stop here in the interest of time I can go on about this stuff forever!
When directors look at a certain role, what do you think they see as a "Dan Wagner" type?
Well, I would hope that a director who knows me and knows my work would consider me for any role! I mean, we all have physical attributes, strengths, and weaknesses. I'm not really a dancer, so I don't think any director would consider me a top choice for a dance role. I am a singer, so a vocal lead is a possibility. But I try to keep myself in the director's mind for any role that requires sensitivity, comfort with the full range of emotion, and ability to convey real interpersonal connections onstage.
What is your approach to developing your character?
Most importantly, I use my scene partners to elicit aspects of my character's personality. I just let it happen, as a participant in my environment and with my scene partner. The director also plays a huge part. I thrive on feedback from the director's objective eye it's amazing how quickly a good director can fix something that doesn't quite work! So, I come to rehearsals extra-sensitive to environment, scene partners, and direction. Then, I let the character naturally develop, using whatever parts of my personality that come out onstage.
Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite?
Jerry Lukowski in The Full Monty. What a role. Played him at CAP in March-April '06.
What do you think were your best roles? Your worst?
I'm still pretty amped about Jerry. As far as my worst role goes, I had a tough time in Tony n' Tina's Wedding. I played Johnny Nunzio, the younger brother of the groom 7 shows a week for a year in Boston. Don't get me wrong, the experience taught me worlds about both improv and characterization. But that was the tough part: I had a hard time doing both at the same time. This show seemed to call for cartoon-like, over-the-top, stereotypical Italian-American characters, but it was entirely improvisational. For some reason, my naturalistic style of developing a character did not work as well for me in this play, and I struggled during the run. I guess if I did it again, I would think more along the lines of Commedia or Looney Tunes.
What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why? How well do you think you met the challenge?
When I was 21 years old, I played Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha! It was a college play, so the oldest actors were no more than 21. Needless to say, playing the age was a huge challenge. However, I believe that I did the best that I could with this obstacle by focusing on other aspects of the character. I tried not to get caught up in Quixote's age, but rather his center, movement, voice, and psychological process. Quixote is delusional and psychotic, fighting hallucinated knights and dragons, and loving his Dulcinea. I found it fun and challenging to become in touch with this psychotic process "seeing the world as it ought to be." He is not simply a "madman," his perceptions and beliefs are real. When I focused on these aspects, I believe that I nailed Don Quixote as well as any 21-year-old could have done!
What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time?
MacBeth. Hands down. I played him in a college acting class, and I guess I held back with much of the emotional content. I was too scared and uncomfortable with certain aspects of my own personality, and therefore I didn't give my MacBeth much to work with. This definitely read onstage. If I were to play him now, it would be entirely different. I would be more fearless.
What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future?
Aside from MacBeth? Okay here's the short list: Hamlet, obviously, no explanation needed. Grantaire the most underrated role in Les Miserables; Sweeney Todd, Billy Bigelow, Che. If anyone did a stage adaptation of Bull Durham, I would kill to play Crash Davis. I guess these are roles that require serious, in vivo self-exploration through the journey of the piece. Real stuff will happen!
How do you feel when you perform?
Ultra-sensitive to my environment and to my scene partners.
What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing?
My passion for the role that I am playing. Enjoying the moment, because moments do not last. Giving everything I got to the moment and to my scene partners. Believing that my contributions make it more fun for the rest of the cast and crew. Knowing that my work adds to the Gestalt of the production is all the motivation I need.
During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?" Why do you do it?
Because I love it. Period. I love opening night jitters. I get opening night jitters before every performance. The day I stop getting pre-show jitters is the day I stop doing theatre. On the other hand, I frequently get severe post-show depression, and every time I experience that, I ask myself why I do this to myself! I work hard, play hard, and love hard, and when it ends, I crash hard.
What is your favorite theater story?
Ha. So many to remember it's like overload! Here's one: National tour of A Christmas Carol. We were all New Yorkers in the one-horse town of West Plains, MO, and we wanted to go out one night. We had a hard time finding anything, but eventually we ended up at the only local bar. At first, the locals "didn't take kindly to us city-folk," and it didn't help matters that Michael, one of our cast members was dressed in fabulous drag. It was uncomfortable, but as the whiskey flowed, both country and city-folk realized that they had something in common: drinking! By the end of the night, we were all dancing and singing together, and playing all sorts of drinking games. And Michael was the hit of the party! It reminded me of that movie, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack up on stage?
Not that I remember I guess I always have had good scene partners to cover for me! Actually, I dropped a line on stage once that I remember, and it was noticeable. It wasn't too bad, though, we got through it. I cracked up on stage once when one of my friends was in the audience, shouting out heckles toward me during the blackout before my scene. But luckily, as soon as the lights came up, I regained my composure!
What was your worst theater experience?
I did Two Gentleman of Verona in Manhattan for the worst director ever. He was mean, closed-minded, arrogant, and abusive. Pretty tough to work with such a person. Needless to say, his presence made the production not so much fun to do. Someone in the cast actually called Equity to complain about him!
What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
I was suffering from a severe cold, my voice cracked marvelously on a high note, and I saw audience members react to it! Yikes!
Why do you perform at the theatres you do?
Because they cast me.
Do you think regional theatre will continue to grow on L.I.?
I hope so! Yeah, I think it should. Why wouldn't it?
Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with?
A great many on so many levels. I learn so much from every actor with whom I work everyone affects me. But here are a few on Long Island with whom I worked: Mark T. Cahill, Jason Trigger, Mark Weekes, Donna Maggio, Jerry Maggio, Louanna Factora, Rob Farley, Marcia Feingold. There are some younger performers on Long Island who I think are great: Gina Naomi Baez, Jess Murphy, Jess Cameron (Ader), Lindsay Lauffer. And my wife, Miri, is a sensational actor and the best director for whom I ever worked.
Who is your favorite performer?
Anyone who doens't hold back. Ian McKellen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Steve Martin.
Favorite L.I. performer?
How do you maintain your career and do theater?
I keep in mind the notion that in order to obtain true mental health, one must effectively work and love. Career is work, theatre is love. But I love my career and I work hard when I do theatre. It sounds cheesy but it really is balancing fantasy with reality: I try to make real my dreams and make my dreams reality. I work hard in my career so I that have time for my passions. Everyone needs an outlet for fun I have theatre and baseball.
Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. theater?
Cause it's fun!
Do you find that your family supports your love of theater?
I do. I find that those who are dear to me support just about everything that I do. That is why they are dear to me. And I also find that I enjoy giving back to my family and friends through my work in theater when I perform, I am given a chance to show my loved ones a different part of myself. I am always so grateful to friends and family who come and see my plays.
How has performing enriched your life?
The short answer: It has helped me experience myself and figure myself out at just about every developmental level of my life. It has helped me to relate to people and honed my skills for communication.
What brings you the greatest joy?
Just having fun and being with cool people.
What really irks you?
Closed-minded, ignorant people. Also bad drivers.
If you won LOTTO tomorrow, you would:
Pay off a lot of student loans and credit card debt! Then, I would buy a big house and put up everyone I care about. I'd invest the rest, and just live off of that, and take care of all my friends and family. Other than that, nothing would really change: I'd continue to work part time as a psychologist, act, and play softball.
Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking?
I'd have to paraphrase Derek Zoolander and say that there's more to life than being really, really, really, ridiculously good looking. If I were rich, I would build the Dan Wagner School For Kids Who Can't Read Good And Want To Do Other Stuff Good Too.
What's your favorite word?
Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there?
"We are the Champions" by Queen.
Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire?