Free to Be... Keith Nobbs
A Lucille Lortel Award winner and a Drama Desk nominee for his work in Four, Keith Nobbs lightens up in the Drama Dept.'s Free to Be... You and Me.
It goes without saying that theater awards and nominations don't always go to the most deserving people; but sometimes, of course, the nominating committees and voters for the various theatrical honors do get it right. A perfect example is Keith Nobbs, who received a Lucille Lortel Award and was a Drama Desk nominee this year for his heart-wrenching performance as a hypersensitive gay teenager in Christopher Shinn's Four, which began as a production of the Worth Street Theater and then was picked up by Manhattan Theatre Club for an extended run. In a major change of pace, Nobbs also charmed audiences in the Drama Dept.'s star-studded benefit readings of Free to Be...You and Me in February, directed by Douglas Carter Beane. Now, Beane and company are mounting a full production of that beloved children's show with a cast of four, one of whom is Nobbs. I recently spoke to this amazing actor about his latest project and about what he has already managed to accomplish at the age of 23.
THEATERMANIA: Well, Keith, did you have a good time this awards season?
KEITH NOBBS: It was completely overstimulating. I didn't really have a frame of reference to sort of understand what was happening. Then I went to see Elaine Stritch's show and I got such a feeling of this huge community that I'm a part of. Just hearing her stories, you get a sense of all these productions that existed before that you'll never get a chance to see, all these evenings in the theater that came and went... but they existed.
TM: Working as steadily as you do, it must be hard for you to keep up with other shows.
KN: Yeah. It's so expensive, too!
TM: As far as I know, Stupid Kids was your first big thing. How old were you then?
KN: When we began rehearsals, I think I had just turned 19.
TM: Where are you from?
KN: I grew up in Texas, in a small suburb north of Houston. I lived there till I was about 15, then I moved to New York and I went to LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts -- where the Drama Desks Awards are held. That's my alma mater.
TM: The way I understand it, a lot of people who go to that school don't end up pursuing careers in performing arts.
KN: I think that's the part of the environment that I loved most, as compared to a conservatory. All these kids come in there without the agenda of necessarily becoming a performer. A lot of their lives are in turmoil and, in the midst of that, they're finding a creative outlet for the first time.
TM: Did you consider further training in acting after high school?
KN: Yeah. I don't think I've ever really spoken about this, but my senior year was kind of hellish. I auditioned for six different conservatories and I was rejected by every one of them. My new awards acceptance speech that I'm working on is to stand up there and say, "I'd like to thank the conservatories at Juilliard, Carnegie-Mellon, Boston University, DePaul University, and Northwestern for rejecting me because it's allowed me to be here with you fine people."
TM: You've done Stupid Kids, Fuddy Meers, and Four. An actor really can't ask for better material. So, like any other successful performer, I guess you had a lot of good luck to go along with your talent.
KN: That's been my saving grace. If I don't believe in the material, I'm not very good; I'm so conscious of myself then, of what I'm doing and how it's coming across. But if there's a play or a character that you're able to invest in fully, that takes so much of the focus off of you. It really does become part of this larger experience where you don't feel so responsible. When I think about myself, I get depressed.
TM: Have you ever done a show that didn't turn out well and was difficult to get through?
KN: Yeah. I did the Roundabout production of The Lion in Winter on Broadway and I don't think that ended up being what we all thought it would be. It kind of began as this mythic experience with Laurence Fishburne, Stockard Channing, and [director] Michael Mayer, whom I had worked with on Stupid Kids. For some reason, it just didn't work. [Author] James Goldman had just passed away and he was supposed to have been an important part of the process. I had been lucky enough to meet him and his wife when they saw Stupid Kids; that's when they offered me the part.
TM: The Lion in Winter is a very tough play because its tone is so unusual.
KN: It's a fun tone if you can lock into it... this dark, twisted, family drama. You get the sense of the family completely but there's so much manipulation going on, and it's tongue-in-cheek at the same time. Achieving that balance became difficult. It was like, "Aarrggh!" That's the only play I've been in that really got panned, knock wood. I didn't actually read the reviews but it was amazing to walk out on stage and feel the withholding of the audience after the reviews came out. You felt that you had to work 20 times harder to get them to let down their guard.
TM: There was certainly no problem with audience reaction to Free to Be... You and Me when the Drama Dept. did those benefit readings.
KN: It was like a rock concert! People felt like they were watching their childhood up on stage. The material is so earnest and self-referential at the same time, but so heartfelt.
KN: One of the coolest things they gave me to do is this seven-minute monologue that Herb Gardner wrote for Dustin Hoffman. It's all about this kid who lives on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. His mother tells him he looks like a rat when he cries--and he cries a lot, because he's really sensitive. This kid decides he has to cross the road for the first time all by himself. It's this amazing coming-of-age story, but kind of dark and sad at the same time; the kid's mother is so mean to him and he becomes self-reliant in a way that kids shouldn't have to be. But it's also this beautiful thing where he recognizes his potential for the first time.
TM: That monologue wasn't in the benefit readings, was it?
KN: No, it's from the TV version of Free to Be...You and Me. I'm also doing the song "William's Doll" this time around, and I'm playing Dudley Pippin again. There are just four cast members in the show now: Bob Ari, Debbie Gravitte, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and me. All of the material is divvied up between the four of us.
TM: I've never heard you sing but, obviously, you do.
KN: I actually grew up doing musicals in Texas from the time I was five to 15, but I haven't sung in New York at all. I guess we'll see if I can still sing. I'm going to try, for damn sure!