Tuesday, January 19, 2016

PHX STAGES Q/A: Jesse James Kamps

by Gil Benbrook

From hero to villain, comedy to tragedy, Jesse James Kamps has played a wide range of Shakespearean roles in his career. He is an Associate Artist of Southwest Shakespeare Company and also the Artistic Director of Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival. Currently appearing as Iago in SSC's Othello, Kamps is originally from Cleveland where he was also a founding acting company member with the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival and also has co-starred in several classics with SSC, including playing Vanya in Uncle Vanya last season.

Kamps is one of the most talented and well respected actors in the Valley, and he took a break last week before Othello opened to sit down and answer the PHX Stages Q/A:

Name: Jesse James Kamps

Where you were born and or raised: Cleveland, Ohio

What brought you to Arizona?  I was coming to Phoenix from California quite often to perform with Southwest Shakespeare Company. I really loved it here and when an offer came from SSC for an entire season of work, including some absolute dream roles, I packed up and moved to Arizona.

What your parents did/do for a living:  My father was an optometrist and owned a restaurant while I was growing up. My mother owned and operated a baking business for many, many years.

Siblings:  Brothers: Kris, Todd, Michael and Jordan; Sisters: Tamie and Katie. We're a big, raucous, complicated bunch, and I wouldn't have it any other way. They're all so different, live all over the country now, and are just the greatest.
Day job/part time job (if not acting full time): I work for St. Francis, a Local Seasonal restaurant in Central Phoenix. My father owned a restaurant and I grew up in the industry. I absolutely love it!

First show you ever saw:  It was a school performance based on the works of Shel Silverstein, performed by Cleveland Signstage Theatre in spoken English and American Sign Language simultaneously. I was utterly captivated. Funny enough, it was the company that eventually gave me my first professional job: a national tour of Treasure Island, fourteen years later.

Moment you knew you wanted to perform for a living: I played Nick in Herb Gardner's play, A Thousand Clowns when I was twelve. When that show opened, there was no going back. I never wanted to do anything else.

The one performance you attended that you will never forget:  Deaf West's production of Big River. First off, I think it's one of the greatest American musicals, I really do. Jeff Calhoun's direction and Linda Bove's beautiful ASL translation, combined with Tyrone Giordano's tour de force performance as Huck Finn - it was magical. I saw it four times!

First stage kiss: Karen Shriner in Snow White when I was in high school. I played The Prince. Closing night, Karen and the entire cast played a prank on me that I'll never forget - when I kissed her toward the end of the show, she didn't awake. Didn't come back to life. Nothing. I felt like Prince Failure.

with Allison Sell in Uncle Vanya
Southwest Shakespeare Company 2015
photo by Mark Gluckman
Best stage experience you’ve had so far acting? I played Vanya in Uncle Vanya at Southwest Shakespeare Company last year. Chekhov is my favorite playwright, by a mile and Vanya's been a dream role of mine for as long as I can remember. Harold Dixon directed it and I got to work closely with some very good friends. It still seems like a dream.

What has been the most fun or fulfilling aspect of your current/ most recent show? Right now I am playing Iago in Othello and wow... Holy crap, where do I start? It's just a beast. He's an absolute monster! Pure evil, but it doesn't feel that way in the moment at all. It's very straightforward. The best thing about playing him is in the intense, close connection you have with the audience. You get to take them by the hand at the very beginning and walk them through the entire play. They know all of your motivations, all of your plans, and really become your accomplices throughout the play. They even laugh, surprisingly enough, as things keep going your way. And then in Act Five, Shakespeare removes Iago from much of the action as the play begins its downward spiral. The audience then just has to sit there helplessly and watch as the horror unfolds. It's great.

Most challenging role you have played onstage? Treplev in The Seagull. A hopeless unrequited love, a mother you are desperate to please no matter how impossible, intense personal jealousies, professional failure, deep depression, self-obsession, narcissism and a self-destructive streak leading ultimately to suicide? All in your mid-twenties?! There's a lot going on there.
Any upcoming or side projects you can talk about? I am currently the Artistic Director of Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival and we are heading into our second season this year with Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. We have an incredible core company of artists and I cannot wait to get back to work with them. Founding this company with my partner in crime, Dawn Tucker, our Executive Director, has been the most satisfying artistic endeavor of my career.

What was the first show you performed in and what did you learn from it that you still use today? Our Town. I was eight years old and I played Wally Webb. I think I must've missed some entrances because sometime mid-run, I was assigned to a child wrangler and I remember being very embarrassed. I no longer miss entrances.

Leading role you've been dying to play:  Cyrano de Bergerac
with Maren Maclean in Much Ado About Nothing
Southwest Shakespeare Company 2012
photo by Stacey Walston
Leading role of the opposite sex you wish you could play:   Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. I've played Benedick twice and while he may be quicker, she is far more intelligent and cuts much deeper. It's my favorite relationship between any two characters in Shakespeare and I'd love to explore the other side of that duo.

Guilty pleasure show you’d love to perform in: Guys & Dolls. I did it in high school and would do just about anything to do that show again.

Pre-show rituals or warm-ups:  I do a crazy in-car vocal warm-up on the way to the space and usually go though all of my lines at a very rapid pace. As for rituals, I'm a little weird about where my space in the dressing room is located.

Worst flubbed line/missed cue/onstage mishap:   I played Lucius in Julius Caesar when I was fourteen and one night I forgot to give Brutus the letter that informs him of the entire conspiracy to kill Caesar. Never mind that the sole reason for my entrance was to deliver the letter or that the letter's arrival drives the action for the next twenty minutes of the show - it's the most important prop in the play. I'll never forget it.
Worst costume ever:  Anything that involves shoes that don't fit.

Best costume ever:  The Earthworm in James & the Giant Peach: Pink silk pajamas, puffy purple bunny slippers, coke-bottle glasses, a satin smoking jacket and a fez!

Your go to audition monologue/song: Rick's monologue from Six Degrees of Separation, The St. Crispin's Day Speech from Henry V and "Mack the Knife"

Worst audition experience: I was once kept to read at a callback for over six hours. Fifteen minutes after I left, I learned that the role had long since been precast.

If you could go back in time and catch any performer or show, what would they/it be? There are so many! Paul Robeson's Othello, Richard Burbage on the opening night of Hamlet, but my All-Timer would have to be Julius Caesar at The Winter Garden Theatre, New York in 1864. During the height of The Civil War, it starred Edwin Booth as Brutus and John Wilkes Booth as Mark Antony. That would be something!

with Liam Thibault in King John
Southwest Shakespeare Company - 2014
photo by Devon Adams

Famous past stage or screen star(s) you would have loved to have performed with: Charles Laughton, Katherine Hepburn, Raul Julia, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons

Actor/actress in the Phoenix area you'd love to perform with: Again, so many! I'm a huge fan of Ron May, David Barker, David Dickinson and Katie McFadzen. I adore their work and would love to work with them on stage. And, as always, I would jump at any chance to work with Allison Sell again.

Your personal acting idols: Frank Langella, Rory Kinnear, Julianne Moore, Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen and Andrew May
Performer you would drop everything to go see: Andrew May. I grew up watching Andrew's work at The Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater. I've never been moved as deeply by an actor's work, nor laughed as hard at any actor in my life. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to see him in War Horse at Gammage. He's a force of nature.

Current/recent show other than one of your own you have been recommending
to friends: You know, my girlfriend Emily and I went to see Beau Jest out at Hale Center Theatre in Gilbert and just had a ball! So much fun.

Favorite play(s):  Henry IV Part One, Amadeus, Twelfth Night, Cyrano de Bergerac, Six Degrees of Separation
Favorite musical(s): Sunday in the Park with George, Big River, Hair, Passion, Carousel
Some favorite modern plays/musicals: August: Osage County, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Proof

Stephen Hotchner, Emily Mohney, Jesse James Kamps, and Clay Sanderson
The Merry Wives of Windsor - Southwest Shakespeare Company - 2015
photo: Michael Simon
Favorite showtune of all time: "Loving You" from Passion 

Most listened song/music on your iPod/Phone? Right now, it's The Guess Who Anthology.

First CD/Tape/LP you owned:  Michael Jackson's Thriller

Last good book you read:  "The Crossing" by Cormac McCarthy

Must-see TV show: Louie

Guilty pleasure binge watching tv show: Game of Thrones

Last good movie you saw: The Hateful Eight

Favorite movie: Lawrence of Arabia

Music/book/movie that makes you cry: The  Marsielleaise scene in Casablanca gets me every time. I've probably seen that movie thirty times and it always kills me.

Favorite restaurant in the Valley: Blue Adobe in Mesa. So homey, such great food and so close to work.

Favorite cities: New Orleans, Vancouver, Santa Barbara, London, Memphis, Toronto and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Sports teams you root for: All my Cleveland teams: The Browns, The Cavs, The Indians and The Ohio State Buckeyes. I hate The Pittsburgh Steelers like Iago hates The Moor.

Something about you that might surprise people: I can wield an axe and split wood like a freakin' lumberjack.

Special skills:  American Sign Language, stage combat, and I can drive anything, anywhere, in any condition. I can back up a trailer around a corner in Manhattan at 5:00 PM in a blizzard.

Career you would want if not a performer: A chef, no question.      

Worst non-theatre job you've had: I once waited tables at a restaurant where country line-dancing was compulsory.

Best non-theatre job you've had: I worked as a camp counselor for The Girl Scouts of America in my early twenties. I was paid to lead hikes, go canoeing, assist in the construction of popsicle stick houses, nap under trees and we had access to the cookies year-round!

Three things you can't live without: cheese, coffee and my hiking boots
Words of advice for aspiring performers: Keep doing it. We all need a break from time to time, to be sure, but rust forms faster than you'd expect. Find the kind of work you love and thrive on as soon as you can and focus. Be honest with yourself about who you are, what you are right for, and what you're not. That alone can save you a lot of heartache and disappointment.

What you love most about theatre in Phoenix: The people. I have worked all over, and many of the loveliest, most talented and dedicated actors, directors and designers are right here. Some folks say this is a small-ish theatre community, considering the size of the city. If that's true, the quality certainly makes up for it. Each and every show I've done in Phoenix, I've worked with someone new that absolutely blows me away!

with Emily Dawn Mohney in King Lear
Southwest Shakespeare Company - 2015
What you think needs to be changed/improved/different about theatre in Phoenix: I'm surprised that so little classic American drama is produced here. Phoenix audiences almost never get to see the works of Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, William Inge, etc. There have been a few productions since I arrived, some good ones, but I can count them on one hand. With as many quality companies as we have in this city, this continues to baffle me season after season.

And, the “Inside the Actors Studio” 10 questions:
1. What is your favorite word? Light

2. What is your least favorite word? Squash. Noun, verb - doesn't matter. It sucks.

3. What turns you on? Warmth and laughter

4. What turns you off? Negativity

5. What sound do you love? An audible gasp followed by murmuring.

6. What sound do you hate? Breaking glass

7. What is your favorite curse word? Fuck. It has no rival.

8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Being a chef, running a kitchen.

9. What profession would you not like to do? Law Enforcement.

10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Here's your script, rehearsals start at noon.

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