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Actors With Roots: Danny Wolohan

AMERICAN THEATRE

October 1, 2006

He's the guy next door -- but looks can be deceiving

If Danny Wolohan lived in Los Angeles and worked in television or movies, he’d probably get cast as the cuckolded husband, the sensitive caretaker or the honest cop. The 34-year-old actor has the look of the dependable guy next door. His beefy frame, sensible haircut and broad, open face suggest the kind of suburban middle-manager who takes his son to football games on weekends and reads John Grisham novels in the tub. But given that he’s based in San Francisco and works principally with the new-writing theatre ensemble Campo Santo at the city’s longest-running alternative arts space, Intersection for the Arts, Wolohan rarely gets cast according to type.

Since he started performing at Intersection, Wolohan has played, among other things, a drag queen in size-13 red heels, a cop partnered with a foul-mouthed dummy and legendary bank robber John Dillinger. He’s channeled Billie Holiday while lying in a coma, sung about heartbreak in falsetto and danced in multimedia performance art works. And all of this from a junk food¬loving insomniac who describes himself as being plagued by nerves. “If I thought too hard about what I’m doing up there, I would just get too scared,” confesses Wolohan. “It’s easiest just to jump in.”
A serial college dropout and longtime baseball addict, Wolohan started performing in high school as a way to meet girls. The Bay Area native began to act more regularly at San Francisco State in the late 1990s, before eventually earning his bachelor’s degree in drama in 1998. Wolohan’s contemporary, actor Amanda Duarte, began recommending him to casting directors around town while he was still an undergraduate. Auditions ensued at the Magic and Aurora theatres, as well as foolsFURY and Shotgun Players, with some success. Campo Santo co-founder Sean San José caught Wolohan’s performance as Solyoni in Shotgun Players’s Three Sisters in 2000 and began inviting the actor to participate in play readings at Intersection. In 2003 he was cast in the company’s premiere of Denis Johnson’s Soul of a Whore.

The actor’s flexibility and openness made him a natural fit for a theatre company whose collaborative, long-term approach to developing plays by such high-profile authors as Johson, Dave Eggers, Jessica Hagedorn, Philip Kan Gotanda, Naomi Iizuka and Octavio Solis has earned it the respect of audiences and artists nationwide. “My greatest strength is listening to the smart people around me,” Wolohan declares. “I’m not afraid to ask questions.”

While many performers might be put off by the company’s typical two-to-five-year-long play-nurturing process and its close partnerships with writers, Wolohan appears to embrace the challenge. “Eggers is a perfectionist; he’s constantly rewriting,” he says of working with the McSweeney’s editor and bestselling author. “During previews for Sacrament!, I had to learn completely new monologues from night to night.” Working with Johnson was a different experience. “Denis doesn’t let anyone change his words,” says Wolohan of the Jesus’ Son author. “But he understands the challenges actors face.”

It was while working on Sacrament! in 2004 that Wolohan officially became a company member. The play was only his second full production with the ensemble, but his colleagues were as much smitten with the actor’s performance as the loud, aggressive Hand—“a role only Danny could have brought life, humor and empathy to,” testifies San José—as they were with his personality. “Danny is a very generous actor who always gives 100 percent and looks out for his fellow players,” says Campo Santo co-founder Margo Hall.

It’s easy to see why audiences are equally drawn to Wolohan. The actor can make a toad of a character look like a prince. In a rare appearance outside Campo Santo early last year, for instance, Wolohan achieved the perfect balance between arrogance and charm as the smug, Ivy League-educated connoisseur of fine wines and “Oriental chicks” in Asian American Theater Company’s production of Gotanda’s Under the Rainbow. And Wolohan constantly surprises. He doesn’t exactly look like drag queen material (being straight, he even admits to some political discomfiture at putting on a dress—“I mean, would I want to put on blackface to play a black person?” he wonders). Nevertheless, the actor’s turn as a pre-op transsexual in Solis’s The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy in 2005 was at once sensual, hilarious and sad.

Wolohan isn’t sure how he manages to achieve such results. “I’ve done around 20 shows in eight years. You’d think I would have accumulated a set of tools by now, but I always feel like I’m starting from scratch,” he says. “I end up grabbing onto the writer’s words. I try to dive into the text and attach as many of my memories and feelings as I can to it so that I don’t feel like I’m pretending.”

Performing in choreographer Erika Chong Shuch’s physical theatre pieces has presented a new set of challenges. Not only does text play a secondary role in Shuch’s work, but her productions invariably involve dancing and music—both nerve-wracking prospects for Wolohan. He was supposed to play the violin in 2005’s One Window, but was so tense and played so badly that Shuch asked him to whistle instead. Learning dance steps, however, has become easier over time, he says. “I make up a story to explain why I’m doing certain movements. There’s an emotional logic to both movement and text.”

Over the past few years, Wolohan has become such a fixture at Intersection that Jessica Hagedorn is writing a part specifically for him. In February, Wolohan will play a wealthy husband in Hagedorn’s Fe in the Desert. Next summer will see Wolohan as a cross-dressing priest in Johnson’s Des Moines. He’ll also perform in Shuch’s upcoming performance piece about the prison system, 53628, next fall.

Between performing with Campo Santo and following the San Francisco Giants, Wolohan’s schedule is full. He’s not planning on heading anywhere—least of all L.A.—any time soon. “When we’re working with these writers, San Francisco feels like the center of the universe,” says Wolohan. “The plays keep coming. I’m working with my favorite actors. Life doesn’t get better than this.”


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