Parade continues Tues.-Fri. at 8 pm; Sat. 2:30 and 8 pm; Sun. 1:00 and 6:30 pm; through Nov. 15. Tickets: $20-$80. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 213.628.2772 or centertheatregroup.org.
Morphing between mediums is every actor’s dream. Few expect to do it under such intense media scrutiny as former Grey’s Anatomy star T.R. Knight who recently traded in his TV scrubs for stage suspenders and singing lessons. That the late “George O’Malley” (whose dramatic demise dominated this season’s premiere) has audiences leaping to their feet for his professional musical debut is a surprise to no one but theater-lite twitterati.
Knight plays Leo Frank, the Jewish pencil factory manager whose anti-Semitic lynching in 1913 Atlanta for the alleged murder of a 13-year-old female worker is the subject of the critically lauded Donmar Warehouse revival of Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Tony Award winning musical Parade now at the Mark Taper Forum. He couldn’t be more the polar opposite of his doomed character.
In separate conversations with LA Stage the day before previews and at the show’s opening night party, Knight is open, earnest, self-deprecating and sincerely humbled to be cast in the midst of Broadway musical veterans. He is well aware he was not an obvious choice for the part. For one thing, his most recent musical was a college production of Camelot. Unless you count singing at a benefit party Knight helped organize for the Grey’s crew during the writers’ strike that featured fellow cast mates Chandra Wilson (Avenue Q, Chicago) and Tony winner Sara Ramirez (Spamalot.)
“I’m not a singer,” he admits midmorning before final tech. “But the writers were losing so much money. We all performed at this even though I was out of my element. I mean, I followed Sara Ramirez! I don’t even know where you get that voice! That’s the first time I had sung publicly in a very long time. The last musical I did was during my ill-fated college time,” he laughs. “I was Squire Dap. It’s not really a tough singing role there.”
So how did a self-described “theater geek” turned unexpected television star come to play such a coveted role as his first professional outing since his very public parting of the ways with his series?
“It wasn’t an offer,” he stresses. “Erika Sellin, who is the casting director at CTG, got in contact with me and asked if I was interested in auditioning for Parade. It’s a beautiful work. The music is so excellent. I auditioned thinking the worse they can do is say no. The best they can do is say yes and I can work my ass off to try to learn how to sing in two months. So I studied six hours a week to get me in shape. I’m behind other people’s games, people who have been doing this their entire lives, but I’m doing the best I can.”
Those other people include Lara Pulver, who reprises her Olivier-nominated role as Lucille Frank from the Donmar Warehouse production, as well as Broadway veterans Charlotte d’Amboise (Chorus Line, Chicago), Michael Berresse, (Kiss Me Kate, The Light in the Piazza) Davis Gaines (Phantom of the Opera), Christian Hoff (Tony Award, Jersey Boys) and David St. Louis (Harlem Song, Rent) plus Ovation and LADCC Award winner Deidrie Henry (Yellowman). Knight himself has two Broadway credits, the 2001 revival of Noises Off and Tartuffe two year later. Despite that, he acknowledges his Grey’s Anatomy visibility was a factor in his Parade casting.
“I don’t think I would have gotten this role without Grey’s,” Knight admits. “I don’t think I would have been thought of for it without that and I’m very grateful. It would be disingenuous to say otherwise or not to admit it being one of the reasons they would put up with someone who is a novice at singing. But they’ve been very patient with me. I’ve had to let go a lot and just realize I am where I am. Luckily, that’s been changing week-to-week and sometimes even day-to-day. I just have to keep doing that until the final performance.”
As to what it’s been like transitioning back to the stage after being in front of the camera, Knight points back to his Minneapolis theater roots as his touchstone.
“I’ve been away for five years so there’s a certain kind of finding your sea legs again. But I’ve been involved with theater since I was five, so that’s 26 years before I started Grey’s. That was my world so it’s not an unfamiliar one which is great because at least that is my anchor for this show. Because the singing is such a completely new element, it takes me out of any sort of comfort zone.”
From Stage Tyke to Broadway Vet
Knight’s first role was Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater, which he played for three years. Various community theater and high school shows followed as did a brief stint at the University of St. Thomas. When attempts to get into drama school failed, he worked locally in the vibrant Minneapolis theater scene doing Brighton Beach Memoirs for a year at 19 and Journey’s End among others by local playwrights. He was then accepted as a member of the Guthrie’s professional company performing for two seasons under its artistic director Joe Dowling. Knight left for New York after that but would return twice to star in Ah, Wilderness and Amadeus.
“I think I carried the baggage of not getting into the training programs so many of my friends were in,” he states. “It’s very much a pedigree, you know and that’s never been my thing, it turns out. Mine was kind of the school of hard knocks. Learning through doing. I had wanted to move to New York for a while and finally it became clear I needed to see what it was about. It was a scary place. An exciting place. But a lonely place at the start.”
Knight says he initially found enough work to keep him in town then went through a streak of bad luck. A director dropped him from a show, his agent fired him and he couldn’t find another one who was interested. Ironically, that same director would lead him to a Drama Desk nomination several years later for Off Broadway’s Scattergood.
“It was Doug Hughes,” he laughs, when asked what cad did the deed. Hughes recently did double duty in LA directing nearly back-to-back productions of Oleanna at the Taper and Farragut North at the Geffen Playhouse. “I mean fired from a play, come on! It was miscasting. I had worked with Doug before and it was just an offer but it wasn’t a good fit. I was struggling with it and clearly he was struggling with his decision as well. Hands down he is one of my favorite directors. I ended up doing a two hander with him and he really is phenomenal. The third show we did together (Scattergood) he just called me up. I asked him if he promised he wouldn’t fire me again. It just shows the kind of ridiculous ups and downs of this world of acting.”
In the last down before the up, Knight became a reader for casting agent Jim Carnahan. After several months, he was offered Amadeus at the Guthrie and took it. While away, Carnahan started casting the Broadway revival of Noises Off and told Knight to get back to NY to audition for the part of Tim Allgood, even though the actor had no money for a call back or that the farce was scheduled to start before he was available. Knight came and got his first Broadway role with one audition.
“Maybe because I had spent so many months with Jim he knew enough about me,” offers Knight, still awed. “I don’t know what it was. You’re always grateful when people stick their necks out. And actors need people to stick their necks out for you. To take a risk. Because once they do, a lot of times other people follow. I’ve been very grateful to have a few of those opportunities where someone has believed in me.”
As “the perpetually fatigued young company manager,” Knight earned praise from New York Times critic Ben Brantley — “Mr. (Michael) Frayn has made a few revisions, including an introductory speech from Tim to bridge the second and third acts; Mr. Knight delivers it with enchanting haplessness.”
“Oh! I’ve never heard that,” he exclaims. “Or not that I can remember anyway. I read a review about me that kind of soured me. Part of me never believes it when actors say they never read them and I always did. How can you not? But then I got one of those that was pretty harsh and I shied away. The actual performing of Noises Off was such a joy to do. The energy and the tightrope of doing a farce. The delicate balance. It’s so hard but so much fun. The show is pretty flawless. I mean it’s arguably one of the best farces created. Michael Frayn tells you everything you need to know. You should try to fill it but not try to overdo it because the second you do, the audience will tell you it doesn’t work.”
Knight knows from firsthand experience. “I’d go through these nights where this one moment would work and work and work. You know the audience is with you because of their response. One day you think, well what if I give it a little extra…” he laughs. “And all of a sudden, it bottoms out. Then it takes about another month to get it back because you’re like, shit. What did I do?”
The original cast ran for seven months of the show’s ultimate 384 performances at the Brooks Atkinson without a complaint from Knight. “In my two experiences of doing almost a year runs, you think you’d get bored. But I never got bored. At least the way my memory works. I loved the challenge of honing it and working it and finding stuff. It’s maddening when you find so many great things the week before you close!” he laughs. “Really? I’ve worked on this for a year and just this week I discover this all of a sudden?” He laughs. “But that’s part of it.”
When asked about the irony of Entertainment Weekly reviewing the show in 2001 with nary a mention of Knight to him being the magazine’s cover story this past July, he chalks it up again to the rollercoaster of acting.
“I think the best tools an actor can have are being as self aware as possible and not having the entitlement gene. Those serve you the best!” he laughs. “If those could be taught somehow. Not having the entitlement gene allows you to really be grateful for the work. Experiencing not having work and knowing what that struggle is makes your appreciation go way up.”
Stage Versus TV Actor
From Noises Off, Knight would go on to Tartuffe on Broadway with Brian Bedford directed by Joe Dowling and Scattergood Off Broadway with Brian Murray directed by Doug Hughes, both in 2003. Knight says he appreciated the opportunity to work with these gifted older actors.
“That play was so beautiful and that character was so odd,” notes Knight of Scattergood. “He was this pathologically shy, stuttering student who turns out to live in a completely different reality and is so disturbed. Part of the joy of working with more experienced actors than you is that you get to be a sponge. If you open yourself up enough, you learn a lot. You see what’s good and what’s not so great for you. Maybe I would have been this way anyway but because I didn’t do that, every experience is school for me. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
2003 was also the year Knight was cast in his first television series, the short-lived Charlie Lawrence starring Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf. TV guest spots and other roles with theater companies like Primary Stages would follow before being cast in the soon-to-be juggernaut of Grey’s Anatomy in 2005. As a stage actor turned TV star returning to the boards, Knight says he completely empathizes with theatrical actors losing roles to those with higher TVQ. He was once one himself.
“I was one of those actors who would walk down the streets in New York and see roles that were going to people who had been in television series. The feeling of frustration. Not that I necessarily would have gotten the role anyway, you know what I mean? They were going to be cast. I’m not that short sighted. Not like some my fellow actors who say, ‘Well that’s the only reason they got it!’ There could be many reasons. It certainly didn’t hurt and it certainly gave a lot of people a leg up. I know it mattered to a lot of producers. That was a huge part of the push for me to try to get a series in Los Angeles. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and one of the lucky ones to get one.”
He might also be one of the lucky ones to line up a Broadway show this next season in a revival of the Ken Ludwig farce Lend Me a Tenor to be directed by Stanley Tucci. A first reading held this spring in New York featured Alfred Molina, Tony Shaloub, Marian Seldes, Jan Maxwell and Knight as Max. According to Knight, they did a second reading with cast changes but for now nothing is remotely official except his feeling of disbelief at being among the talent pool considered.
“That kind of got leaked as things constantly do,” he notes. “I get a little nervous before you’ve signed on the dotted line. I think they are still putting a cast together for it as far as I know but the play is fantastic. You feel kind of like, who doesn’t realize I shouldn’t be here? Are they going to realize it before I start talking? OK, we’ve reached intermission and no one’s realized it yet! I mean, come on! Alfred Molina, Tony Shaloub, Marian Seldes, Jan Maxwell… You want to just sit in the audience and watch them. It’s humbling and exciting that some person even thought you should be in the same room as these people. It’s flattering beyond all get out.”
The subject admittedly makes him leery. “I don’t want to say anything more than that. There’s all that kind of superstition. This is my first experience where I’ve had to talk about something before it’s actually been out – job wise. It’s in the works and I should know soon.”
Before the Parade Passes By
Those plans could be tempered by the success of Parade‘s LA run and its own future Broadway designs, potentially setting up the ultimate dream dilemma for any actor: which Broadway show should I do? But talks of such possibilities are far from Knight’s mind. Right now he is most concerned about portraying a character deeply imbedded in playwright Uhry’s personal life. His uncle owned the pencil factory Leo Frank managed.
“His grandmother and Lucille Frank were friends,” Knight explains. “There’s a photo of Lucille and Leo that his mother is in as a small child. He’s very connected. It’s been wonderful having him around in this process, to hear him talk about it and share his insight. It’s a rare experience once a play’s already been up to get a chance to have the writer with you. He’s a kind and generous man. I’m very happy to have made his acquaintance and been entrusted with his work.”
When asked whether the cast and creative team discussed the similarities between the angry unrest and ethnic distrust rampant within the play’s 1913 story and those exhibited at this past summer’s town hall meetings, Knight said absolutely.
“Everything in this play parallels everything about those town hall forums,” he notes. “Whether you’re talking about the birthers and racism or anti-Semitism or people taking away jobs or the healthcare system, it’s all fear. In this play, just 50 years prior, the South had lost the Civil War. There were people alive who were survivors of that war and there was great animosity towards the North coming in and changing their city. Making it industrialized. Great anti-Semitism. Leo Frank embodied both. He looked different and talked different and acted different. So he stuck out.
“Theater has to be political I think, even if it’s bordering on sheer entertainment and I think Parade is very relevant. It’s very timely.”
At the opening night party, Knight is relaxed and happy to finally have the run begin. Fellow Grey’s Anatomy cast mates Justin Chambers and Melissa George are on hand to celebrate. The opening night audience leapt to their feet for curtain call. Knight is quick to point out that the response is for the entire ensemble.
“This cast is so amazing,” he emphasizes. “We were just talking in the dressing room tonight. We get along really really well. It’s nice to have that. Makes a big difference. They’re all really cool people, too. It’s truly an ensemble piece. You know what I mean? We all rely on each other. And it’s great to have such cool people to rely on.”
When asked whether he’s relieved to have opening night behind him, Knight says he sees it more as the launching point for his continuing journey toward self-improvement. “It’s wonderful to open and really nice to be at this stage,” he admits. “We learned something new every day at previews. A bunch of mistakes you can only discover on your feet. I’m looking forward to what I can learn here on out. I’ll still be working with a musical director twice a week to keep it going. I’ll also be taking voice lessons. I want to see how much progress I can make until November 15!”
Images by Craig Schwartz