We Built America: Friendship on the Erie Canal

Though I didn’t write about it here, I was fortunate enough to have been cast in Capital Repertory Theatre’s production of The Secret Garden in the winter of 2014. We ran for a month, and it was a life-changing experience. I hadn’t appeared on stage as an actor since 2011, when I played the role of Seymour in a production of Little Shop of Horrors at my alma mater, SUNY Albany. I made so many friends, with most of whom I still keep in touch. That production was staged in the actor-muso style, meaning I was also seen playing guitar and viola on stage. But if that production revived my love for acting, my participation in CapRep’s TYA tour of a new show, They Build America: The Workers of the Erie Canal, revived my love of people.

Without psychoanalyzing myself on the internet, I’ll say that in the past few years, I haven’t had many close friends. I’ve met so many great people through work, BMI, and Stockade Kids. But many of those relationships have been based on proximity and convenience. But I can truly say that I’ve made five close friends during my six-week engagement with They Built America.

But it was not all smooth sailing. First, the rehearsal process was intense. We had only 14 rehearsal days, eight hours each, to put together an hour-long show in which four actors play 20+ characters complete with costume changes. The show also featured a number of songs from the Erie Canal era (did I mention this was an educational show for kids that toured all over New York State?), and I was made the musical supervisor, meaning I was tasked with making sure we stayed in tune and sounded good. I learned how to play banjo in three weeks because our director thought it was sound good. There was a lot to do in a very short amount of time. Secondly, we had issues with a cast member that ultimately led to his being let go from the production. A replacement was brought in for the final week (week 4) of the tour. It would be extremely unprofessional to discuss the details of that. However, what I can discuss is what I learned from having observed this person during rehearsals and on tour. It was a masterclass in unprofessionalism. While I’ve always believed that I’ve always behaved professionally in the theatre, my cast mates and I found ourselves on our bast behavior at all times. His actions were a reminder of what happens to personal and professional relationships when trust is broken, both on- and backstage. Actors don’t go into a production alone. We depend on each other. The show falls apart if even the smallest of characters doesn’t pull his weight. But in a show with only 4 actors who also act as the orchestra and stage crew, each person must be focused 100% of the time. This show taught me focus and reminded me how to trust other people (something that hasn’t always been so easy for me). It also taught me how to be proactive. When things were at their worst, it was with the support of the rest of the cast and stage manager that allowed me to be able to discuss the issues we were having with our director and theatre management. I learned to stand up for myself and the standards of my art. And that brings me to week 4 of the tour. That week is the reason I wrote that I learned to love people again.

I was fortunate to share the stage with Jared A. Barton, Erin Ouellette, and Kristyn Youngblood. On the other side of the table were stage manager Charlie “C.W.” Owens and director Margaret Hall. I love these people. After our former cast member departed, there was a tremendous weight lifted from our shoulders. Jared stepped in to fill the role, we had an extra rehearsal to integrate him into the show, and we finished the tour with ten amazing shows (two shows a day). Our van rides to and from locations were filled with non-stop laughter and genuine conversation about innumerable subjects. Each day gave birth to five new inside jokes. Each day my heart grew. We found new moments on stage each performance, including that final show in Schenectady, NY, during which we gave the strongest performance of our tour, giving so much energy, buoyancy, and sincerity to our characters, to the point where I found myself actually elated and deeply troubled when my characters felt those emotions. In the final moments of the show, I have a moment where I turn to Kristyn (we play brother and sister who, at the end of the show, find themselves reunited after a year apart) and explain why the workers of the Erie Canal weren’t allowed to march in the celebratory parades when the canal finally opened. In that moment, I felt she was really my sister, as if we’d spend our entire lives caring for one another. That’s how close I felt to my fellow actors (and Charlie and Margaret, of course). That feeling hasn’t faded. I hope, if they read this, I’m not sharing feelings which aren’t reciprocated. But I can’t imagine, after the taxing and equally satisfying experiences we shared on this tour, they don’t feel similarly. We’ve got plans to go out for Indian buffet in the coming weeks.

Equally exciting for me was the fact that I was able to join Actors’ Equity because of this show. I never thought it’d ever happen. I consider myself lucky, but know that it wouldn’t have happened without many things coming together serendipitously. I went to college with Charlie Owens, who was taking submissions for CapRep’s EPA call this past summer. It was because of his Facebook page that I knew CapRep was holding auditions. It was fortunate for me that Secret Garden was looking for a violist. And when Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, the director, found out I also played guitar she was thrilled, as Secret Garden has a guitar book as well. Maggie told Margaret that she should look at my résumé when Margaret was casting They Built America, and that’s one of the reasons I was looked at for the TYA tour (I didn’t even know CapRep did these things). It was a series of fortunate circumstances that led me to be cast in They Built America, and I’m grateful for every person who helped me get to this point in my career.

I have a feeling I’ll be sharing more good news on the acting front with you all in the very near future. Stay tuned.

1 Comment

  • Erin Ouellette says:

    You’re feelings are not unreciprocated at all. I love all of you guys tremendously.

    This was so beautifully written, Justin. I tend to resort to humor for all of my feelings, but you’ve managed to summarize exactly how this experience struck me as well. And I do think of this as not just a production, but an experience. Because the story that was created wasn’t just on the stage but in the rehearsal rooms, in the long van rides, over at the Merry Monk and the other little places we ducked into to grab a quick bite between shows. That’s where the story of this cast and crew was made. And it was an amazing story, one that I’m honored to have been a part of.

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