Matt Raftery, Renaissance Man of Chicago Theater
Darcy Rose Coussens gets some career advice from the multi-talented director, choreographer and actor.
This fall I'm trying to get a broad range of perspectives on theater in Chicago by interviewing a diverse group of artists. Matt Raftery seemed a perfect choice, as he is a triple threat... and then some! An active director, choreographer and actor, Matt took some time to talk with me about how he juggles these roles successfully.
Darcy Rose Coussens: You do a lot of different things -- directing, choreographing and performing.
Matt Raftery: A renaissance man!
DRC: Exactly! I'm doing all three of those things at school, and I'd love to know how you went about pursuing them in the real world.
MR: I got a BFA in music theatre from Illinois Wesleyan University, and I moved to Chicago directly from there. I was really focused as an actor for the most part; I had done some choreography in college but I wasn't really pursuing that right after.
Long story short, I quickly got my Equity card here in Chicago, for Showboat. I did a quick stint in a Broadway show, Beauty and the Beast, moved to L.A. for four and a half years, and found my way back to Chicago. I've been back for almost ten years, mostly as a performer and then slowly, doing a lot of dance captaining and assistant choreographing led me to do musical staging. From there things started to snowball in the choreography realm. Subsequently, that started to land me some directing jobs, as well.
DRC: So your work as a performer and assistant led to other opportunities.
MR: Right, I had done a lot of assisting for David Bell, and after a reading of The Bowery Boys, David said he'd be interested in me choreographing the show. I bring up that show in particular because I got my first Jeff Award nomination in Chicago for choreography for that show. That, I think, gave other people more confidence in potentially hiring me. So things had a step-by-step progression, but there can be a moment when people suddenly look up and take notice of you a little more.
But the directing was definitely gradual. Also, I guess there's a bit of interest in directors who are choreographers as well, depending on the project. To be able to come as a package for that is not a bad thing!
DRC: Yes! I interviewed Rachel Rockwell last year and she said sort of the same thing.
MR: Interestingly, that first show I was in out of college, Showboat, Rachel was in, too. All these Chicago actors, it's so fun to see how people's careers flourish in different ways over the years.
DRC: That brings me to my next question, why do you enjoy working in Chicago?
MR: There is a fantastic community of artists here who are so supportive of each other. There is also a great theatergoing populace in the Chicagoland area, with great respect and appreciation for the arts. I find it to be a very accessible, warm environment to work in, to learn a lot about yourself and learn from so many other incredibly talented people in this city. I definitely choose to stay here, even though I occasionally work out of town. I think Chicago will always be my home base.
DRC: What are you up to now?
MR: I just started directing and choreographing Cinderella at the Marriott. At the same time, next week I start rehearsals as a performer for My One and Only at the Marriott. So, some performing, some directing and choreographing.
DRC: I'm loving being able to pursue all three interests at Northwestern, but sometimes I wonder if I should pick one thing to focus on. It has been working out for you to do it all-- did you ever find that a struggle?
MR: It's an interesting question: Do you want to pick one thing? I think you have to know in your heart of hearts that that thing is all that's important to you. If you find enjoyment in other areas, then I think the more skills you have, it's never a bad idea. I get great fulfillment out of directing and choreographing, but this past summer I was in a play. I hadn't acted in a straight play in a number of years and it knocked my socks off, I had such a great time.
I guess I'm lucky that I find fulfillment in all of those different things because it keeps me working in this field without having to take another job. As long as Chicago will let me continue to negotiate that, I will.