This month’s edition of “Theatre Talk” highlights song and dance man J. Michael Zygo (currently in “Once” on Broadway). The SUNY Geneseo Music (Voice Performance) grad, class of 2001, chats with CM about trying everything you can get your hands on in college and maintaining confidence by being yourself.
CM: If you could describe being an actor in three words, what would they be?
MZ: “Challenging, rewarding, and wonderful.”
CM: What was your main objective/goal for yourself when you studied theatre in college? What did you hope to get out of your studies and experiences?
MZ: “I don’t think I had a very specific end goal – I started out as a biology major and I realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in a lab…I came to music because I knew that I loved it, I knew that…there was potential to make a career out of music and theatre…I guess every young actor aspires to be on Broadway. It wasn’t until after the fact that my wife and I got into the real world of acting that I realized it was a possibility.
CM: What experiences in school helped solidify that you wanted to be an actor or performer?
MZ: “I tried to get my hands on as much as I could when I was at school. One of my favorite things that we did was [work with] one director who would do the musical over the winter break. We would sacrifice a week of our winter break to come back early and we as the cast were also crew. We built the set and we picked out costumes, we did everything. Those are some of the most rewarding because we were part of everything…Just being involved in everything I could possibly get my hands on…that was the most beneficial thing…”
CM: On a side note, how do you handle competition in an environment like that?
MZ: “Just keep an open mind and have the confidence…it sounds kinda cheesy just to say ‘Go in and do your best,” but handling the competition is just part of the process. Try and single yourself out by learning as much as you can…learn tricks, like learn how to play the guitar or learn how to juggle. Those are the things that got me all the jobs that I’ve gotten so far.” [Author’s note: Mike has been part of the national tours including “Oklahoma!” and “Rock of Ages.]
“Know what your strengths are and play to them, but also, if you know you’re not a very good tap dancer, go take a tap class. Don’t be afraid of those things and go after them…In college, if you have a chance to take a class as an elective…take a class you know nothing about, because the more knowledge you can bring to the stage, the more depth you have on your characters and the closer you can get to the honesty of the characters.”
CM: If you had to pick, what’s the most valuable thing you learned from your college theatre experience that you carry with you?
MZ: “Be nice to everyone, because the people that you work with, they’re your peers in college, but you never know who is going to be the next choreographer that has the ability to hire you. You never know if you’re going to be working with somebody from college, maybe ten years down the road. For instance, in ‘Once,’ I’m working with Lucas Papaelias, who Jill and I went to college with. He was a senior when we were freshman and he was one of the most talented actors I’d ever seen on stage. I looked up to him…and now I’m in a show with him and I’m the dance captain, so I have to give him notes. It’s a mutual respect. Just be kind to everyone because everyone’s got something to bring. Everyone’s got gifts.”
CM: Are there any other tips you would give college theatre kids today who are studying now or getting ready to go out into the world and audition?
MZ: “Be you, because you is good. You is great. You’re the best you that will ever be. If you can infuse a little bit of yourself in every character that you do, that’s gonna make that character that much more honest. Just be honest with all of your character work. When you walk in an audition room, they want to see you, they want to see what you can do and what you can bring to it. So just be you, let them see you.”