Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.
Acting Up Stage/Studio 180’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s heart-wrenching drama Parade was one of the best productions of 2011, earning 5 My Theatre Award Nominations (including Best Production, Best Ensemble, Best Actor- Michael Therriault, and Best Actress- Tracy Michailidis). The standout performance, however, came from Bermuda-born triple threat Daren A Herbert, one of our Best Supporting Actor nominees for his phenomenal turn as Newt Lee and Jim Conley. Daren’s an amazing talent, but he’s also one of the nicest guys we talked to in the entire series. Read on for more evidence.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first experience with theatre. Hur burburbur burburburburbur. I guess the earliest would be being one of the three wise men in the Christmas pageant in nursery school. My nursery was called Lyceum, in Bermuda. I think that’s probably the earliest one on record.
And since then your IMDB page lists about five different careers you’ve had. How did you land on performing?
Well, I got very lucky. I guess most of my life in Bermuda I didn’t ever—I never considered performing as a profession. It’s not really the case on the island. So I used to do it a lot for fun, on the side. I did a few semi professional gigs, perhaps. I used to dance a lot, and by way of this dance company in Bermuda, called United Dance Productions. I used to perform with them on a regular basis, and the lady who started that company, Suzette Harvey, she was an alumni of The University of The Arts, in Philidelphia. And just through a combination of things, through her, one of her mentors, who was still on faculty at the Dance Department there, they managed to hook me up with a scholarship in about ’98, to go over and become a dancer. So I went over and started there, and within a week I had transferred over to the Music Theatre program and yeah, kept going from there. And that’s the first time I guess, that I actually saw that it could be a profession, that there were people who were there studying to do it for a living. And I go, “Oh, I can—yeah, I can keep up with these folks. Yeah, I can do this for a living.” And so I put my foot on the gas and just kept on pushin’.
Is that when you first started singing?
No, I used to sing in Bermuda as a kid as well. I used to sing at church, I sang—my dad was a musician at church, so I sang in some of the youth choirs, sometimes with the grown-up choir. I sang reggae and dance hall. I was part of a duo in my teenage years, we did dance hall music. So I had always sung in some capacity—I used to do Blues, whatever I could get into, really. I used to really enjoy performing but again, it was not as a profession, it was just to do it. But I did a lot of gigs on the island, and a little bit of traveling as well, as a result of it.
You said that you transferred into Musical Theatre within a week. Have you always liked the medium, or did you just take to it when you were first exposed?
Well, it was a combination of elements. At the time, they were getting ready to do a play in the Musical Theatre Department that I had already performed in, in Bermuda. It was Once On This Island. They were doing a production of Once On This Island at the school, and I was quite familiar with the piece, so I went in to audition for it, you know, and I knew some of the songs already, so I sang, and one of the auditors, she goes, “How come you’re not in the Music Theatre Program?,” and I replied, “I would love to be,” and then we went through the steps you had to take in order to do that. I had to meet with the department heads and pull the transfer, but I was just glad to be off the island and to be in school…and the dancing was kicking my butt. Being a dancer for 8 classes a day—I had never done anything like that, ever. I didn’t even take formal dance classes on the island. And I used to do it ’cause there was only a handful of guys that would even get onstage to dance, so I did pretty much anything and everything on the island. I danced with the Pacific Ballet, I danced with modern companies, a lot of contemporary and interpretive dance, whatever I could get into. But I got to that school and I saw—oh my god, I saw how rigorous, amazing, expansive the dance world was. And I knew I wasn’t equipped—I was 22 at the time, and every night that one week, I spent every night in traction after classes, and I was like, “I don’t know if I’m gonna make it through a whole year. I don’t know if I’m can make it through a whole semester.” But I just happened to get lucky, you know, that they were doing that production, and that the right questions got asked at the right time to pull off the transfer to Music Theatre, and once I was there I got exposed to stuff that I wasn’t even familiar with. I remember from young, like enjoying Mary Poppins, and all the musical movies from when we were younger, Pollyanna, Summer Magic, all that kind of stuff, The Wiz, you know. But it never occurred to me that I could do that kind of stuff for a living. That was just amazing imaginative stuff. But then I got into the Music Theatre program and realized that other people do this for a living.
What was your first professional job once you got out of school?
I did school there, in Philly, then I did grad school in UC Irvine over in Southern California, and then upon graduating from that I moved up to Los Angeles and I went in for the west coast premiere of Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party. So that would be the first one out of grad school. That would be … ‘05? ‘05-‘06. Right out of grad school and that would have been my first one. My first pro gig, in LA. It was in a small little theatre too, called The Blank, but Michael John was involved, he came out. He as part of the auditioning process, also—there were a lot of, there were some pretty good artists involved—Valarie Pettiford, who was in formerly in Fosse, and a bunch of other shows. Jane Laneir, was the choreographer, and she was also in the show. Nathan Lee Graham, who played the same character he played in the New York, Broadway version, and you know, Sally Kellerman, the illimitable Sally Kellerman as well. So that was my first gig out, and it was just—it was mind-blowing, but at the same time, it was a small company, so it was not a particularly big deal. But amazing music, amazing performers. Yeah, it was like a godsend.
What’s been your favourite role to date?
My favourite role to date? Hmmm. That’s a difficult one. The last two that I’ve done in Toronto have been highlights for me, for sure. The Toxic Avenger one, only because I had never heard of—I don’t think there is, or ever will be anything as crazy, and maniacal, as lunatic, as lunacy-driven and -riven as that piece. I thoroughly enjoyed myself with that. That thing used to work my ass. It used to kill me every night and I used to love coming back everyday. Parade was also fantastic, ‘cause I got to bare out some fangs, and utilize a lot of the work that I do, even now, in class—in acting class. And I got to incorporate that into what I do in musical theatre, so I guess, somewhere between those… two. Sure, I’ll list those two. Plus, they’re the ones I did in Toronto. I mean, I’ve done others, and I’m currently working on Intimate Apparel, which is another dream role of mine, but there are others on the list that I don’t think I’ve even touched yet—I’ve not gotten to do, quite yet. But I will.
In Parade you played two very different parts. Tell me about Newt first. He sort of hides in the background as much as possible, doesn’t he?
Yeah. Well he, he’s kind of a product of—well, they’re both products of their time, of that time period, down South, with a lot of backlash—a lot of not-so-nice things were happening as far as black people were concerned in Atlanta at the time. Newt was an older guy, so he was more of one of the survivors of Reconstruction, Post-Civil War, Post-Slavery, and he was one of those guys who were just trying to survive, not getting into any trouble, you know, keep things going. And he ended up being caught up in something that was way bigger than him, way above his head, something that he couldn’t understand. So yeah, he tried his best to stay in the background, and then he kind of got dragged into the light, kicking and screamin’, so you know, he did his best to survive that experience. Because he knew it didn’t take much for him to end up dead.
And your other character, Jim Conley, is dangerously charming. How did you sway the ensemble and the audience with such a crass character?
Well, he’s built that way. *Laughs* But JRB, the composer, the writer, and even a lot of the source material too, he really was—he really was built that way. You know, he was kind of—I wouldn’t say that he was the antithesis of Newt—but he was a type of—I guess some people would call him a New Negro, in that he wasn’t down with all the morays and the restrictions, and the things of the time. He’s kind of a, more of an equivalent of a Jack Johnson approach to living as a black man in America at the time, except he didn’t have any saving grace. At least Jack Johnson had boxing. Jim Conley was just… Jim Conley, a sportin’ fella, I guess, they would call him of the time. It was a pleasure to do—it was awesome and fantastic and a ball and a blast to get on stage and do that but also, I mean, how he actually fit in the story of the time was so amazing to read about. They manipulated him, to an extent, and he, in return, manipulated everybody else right back. They were all kind of servicing each other’s needs. So, yeah, it didn’t take much. And he was trying to survive as well, I mean, he had to stay alive, but somehow, someway he had to find some other motivation, some higher calling than just avoiding being hanged. He wanted to have some fun, some power. He wanted to wield what little power they were giving him at the time, so he did it with aplomb. Everything he did was over the top, and you know, what was asked of him, he gave that plus more, what he was told not to do, he did that and more, so he was like the king of contrariness, I guess. He was a pleasure to play. And I just enjoyed pulling the strings of all the people who I was working with in the cast, and definitely in the audience, but more so who I was working with on stage, because I figure, I pull their strings, other people’s strings will get pulled just as a result.
The director’s note pinpointed Jim as probably the real murderer. Did you try and play that at all?
Um, I did so much—I read so much of the source material, and I tend to—I would just repeat what they all said, the conclusion they all came to. But it was inconclusive, and I liked that fact. I didn’t play him as some kind of maniacal rapist. I played him more as a guy who was caught up in something, once again, that was bigger than him. Now whether he did it or not, we even had Q & A’s with audience members on different nights. I said the same thing every night: “There’s no way to prove it, most of the evidence points in his direction, but at the time, they didn’t care. They weren’t even looking for that. They had a result that they were looking to get, and they did any and everything they could to get the result they wanted. So ultimately, it didn’t matter if he did it or not. It didn’t have anything to do with what was going on with Mr. Frank. They just wanted to hang this Jew.”
You mentioned Jason Robert Brown; he’s famous for his insanely hard vocal parts. How did you prepare for that?
Kinda, diving in. Just doing it, really. It was hard, it was hard on the parts, it was hard to do—especially with all the running around, and additional behaviors—but… that’s the job. So, I try my best to reach it. To meet it. To come and meet the material. So whatever he put on the page, take that, and go nuts, basically. And whatever I was incapable of, find a way to reach it. If not reach it, then find a way to get to the essence of what’s being communicated there. So it was basically me chasing, chasing it, until I was at a point where I felt like the story’s getting told—the essence of the story is definitely getting told and I’m having fun. So that’s basically the way I approached it.
Do you have a favourite moment from the production?
I think I most enjoyed working with Jay Turvey, the interactions. We did something a little bit different with the chain gang song, we did some thing a little different with that—we trimmed the song up, and incorporated the theme, and cut a bit of the music. I enjoyed that approach, and I loved working with Jay, because we had a real back-and-forth going with that. It took us some time. I mean, we didn’t know each other before that at all, but we got to a phase where we were playing, we were going at it like prize fighters. Within the music, within the structure of the scene, the material we were saying, the way we were looking at each other, I mean, I had to watch him like a hawk. So I think that would have been one of my most favourite moments, jumping through that. And then of course, going buck-wild and just, raping somebody in the audience, literally, during the song. With my eyes, of course, not physically. So I think that would have been one of the highlights for me, of that production.
You touched on this a bit earlier, but if you could play any role in all of musical theatre, which would you choose?
Oh. Goodness gracious. I have a short list of ones I’d like to do. I don’t care how we do it—concert, reading, all-black casting, whatever have you—but somehow, someway, I wanna reach out and hit Coalhouse from Ragtime. I wanna take a stab at George from Sunday in the Park with George, cause I think—I just wanna try it, damn it. I can’t even justify it in any other way than, I just wanna do it. There’s even some straight stuff that I wanna hit that I don’t think typically gets hit—like, The Crucible. I would love to do a production of that. And, you know, I don’t know if I have to be John Procter, but just somehow, someway, get that stuff in and out of the mouths of me, and maybe even some other black people, just to see how it lines up. But there are some, that I don’t think have been written yet. I mean, I see how people are digging into the crates and digging out all kinds of already existing material, and making it into a musical and so forth, and I think, I think there’s some projects that could do with a treatment like that. One example would be, To Sir, With Love. Just because I don’t think—there’s not that many pieces in the music theatre canon with a black leading man, you know? There’s maybe Coalhouse, and that’s an ensemble piece—there’s Fela now, and there’s the ensemble pieces, the one from Kander and Ebb last year, the minstrel show. I can’t even get the title now. But yeah, there’s a bunch that I would love to sink my teeth into. So, yeah, one by one.
And what are you working on now?
[I just finished] Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, out here. I [played] George, the… the—I don’t know what to call him. He’s not a pro-tag, he’s not an an-tag. He’s just there. He’s just there. George is there.
And if you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?
Definitive. Definitive. Hmmm. I don’t think I’ve done it. I don’t think I’ve had it yet. *Laughs* I think I feel like I’m still working towards something—something brilliant, something revelatory, something amazing, something that really exposes the core of me. I’ve done it in little bits and pieces, with parts and work along the way, but I’m looking to jump up and really expose myself. Again, I gave it the old college try with George, here, but I don’t think I’m there—I don’t think I’ve done it yet.
Any plans to come back to Toronto anytime soon?
Oh, I pray so. Oh, goodness. Oh, yeah. I’ve done two out of the last three winters out there, performing on stage, and I would love to come back. I even did a little bit of tv work while I was over there, last time. So yeah, oh yeah. I’ll definitely get back to Toronto. That is my aim, that is my desire, that is my wish.
Is it your favourite of the places that you’ve performed?
My favourite? Oh…. my favourite. I wouldn’t go that far. But I do like to perform in new places. I mean, something about going somewhere I’ve never been before always appeals to me, and the first time it was great, the second time it was awesome as well, but yeah, there’s a few, there’s a few—I still would like to touch down, and do something on the stages of New York. I would also like to do something in London, you know? There’s a bunch of places I would still like to touch. I would like to try Australia. I guess, anywhere where they’re doing an English-speaking production, I’m game, so. Yeah. I’m wide open.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Um… *Singing* um um um um. Well, I’d like to express my gratitude, at the nomination, and even at the request for the interview. I really do appreciate it.