Michael Stiggers never saw himself pursuing a professional career in acting, much less living in the Big Apple with a Broadway stint under his belt. But now he’s doing just that.
Performing was always in his blood. He started doing theater at Troup County High School in LaGrange, as well as show choir, but people were constantly trying to bring him down to the “reality” of theater life. “People always told me I needed to find a real job that will last and make you money at,” he says.
He did shows at Columbus State University, where he majored in theater education, and as he approached his final year, he had mixed feelings about which direction to head. Did he want to be a drama teacher or a performer? “I knew I had the teaching and the experience and was qualified (to teach), but I was terrified,” he says. “In the back of my mind I wondered what if I could do it on stage. I knew I had a voice.”
He ultimately auditioned for a role at Legacy Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Stiggers got the part, and that was the beginning of his professional career. Soon he was performing regularly all over Atlanta, including Les Miserables at Aurora Theatre and Born For This at the Alliance Theatre. The actor was also part of a terrific ensemble in Horizon Theatre’s The Toxic Avenger.
When Born For This moved to DC, Stiggers traveled with it and had the nerve shortly after to relocate to New York — just over a year ago. It was a scary move, though. “Part of me said, ‘Why leave a comfortable state and come to something unknown?’ It was terrifying, but the things that are scariest in your life are worth doing.”
He went through the actor grind, landing a catering job to make ends meet and auditioning here and there. His persistence paid off when he got cast in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in May of this year as a vacation understudy, going on for the first time August 10 as one of The Drifters. His first time on Broadway was mind-blowing. “I couldn’t feel the ground,” he says. “My mom and dad were there and some other family and friends flew up just to see me. That meant the world to me. Looking back, it was a blur that entire day.” He was on for a month and is still on call when an actor takes time off.
Despite the competitive nature of the business, his castmates embraced him. “Everyone was so welcoming and giving, telling me if I needed anything to let [them] know,” he says. A few weeks ago he got more good news — he is joining the national tour of the musical starting next year and going through June.
A life as a New York actor has been an adjustment but one he has relished. “I never thought I would be one to make this my day to day,” he says. “It’s exciting — coming from the woods of Troup County. I absolutely love New York — you gravitate to it. One of the things I love here is that you see so many different types of people.”
Nonetheless, he has fond memories of his time in Atlanta and actually returned to the city to play Danny Zuko in Serenbe Playhouse’s Grease earlier this year. “That is a role I never thought I’d be able to play,” he says. “The Atlanta community is so intertwined with each other. You do a show here and that exposes you to a number of people from other theaters. One opportunity opens the door to another.” He is certainly game to come down again if another plum role pops up after his tour ends.
Broadway shows for the holidays
I interviewed Stiggers last weekend while in New York City for the American Theatre Critics Association’s annual conference. Here are my quick takes on several Broadway shows that I can recommend for holiday trips to the city, and their chances of eventually coming to Atlanta.
Come From Away — Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street
It was the critical darling of 2017, sweeping the critics’ awards for Best Musical. Yet when the Tony Awards rolled around, Come From Away got overshadowed by the Dear Evan Hansen juggernaut. ‘Tis a shame, because it’s one of the most joyous, perfectly staged musicals I’ve ever seen.
Come From Away tells the story of a Newfoundland community that took in 7,000 stranded passengers after 9/11. It’s humane, funny, sad, terribly moving and hopeful at the same time, filled with memorable music and tremendously appealing characters. At 100 minutes, it flies by too.
Chances of it playing in Atlanta? A national tour seems a possibility down the line, but I’d much rather see Alliance Theatre or Aurora Theatre do it than have the intimate feel get lost at the Fox Theatre.
Afterglow — Davenport Theatre, 354 West 45th Street
S. Asher Gelman’s tale of three millennial gay men opens with a bang, after a sexual three-way. Josh (Brandon Haagenson) and Alex (Robbie Simpson) are young, gorgeous and about to have a kid. They’ve also employed the oh-so-trendy open relationship status. Their latest conquest is Darius (Patrick Reilly), a massage therapist in New York having trouble connecting with others. Yet Darius takes more of an interest in Josh than Alex.
At times the play is as wishy-washy as its characters. Alex declares one moment that he needs space and minutes later is jealous that Josh is spending time with Darius. The play can be a little preachy and very sudsy. As well, it can be hard to muster empathy for the leads, but to their credit the trio of actors create real people, especially Reilly. The guys get naked — a lot — but what is surprising is how exposed they become emotionally. Afterglow isn’t great, but it’s certainly watchable and worth discussing afterward.
Chances of it playing in Atlanta? Actor’s Express and Out Front Theatre Company should strongly consider it. The play is marketable as hell — and by the time they get it, the script issues might be worked out.
The Band’s Visit — The Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street
Based on a 2007 film of the same name, the musical follows an Egyptian Police Band that winds up in a faraway village in the Israeli desert after a border mishap. Soon the locals — including café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk) — are finding temporary homes for the musicians until a bus can come the next day.
The cast is led by Tony Shalhoub, but the standout is Lenk. Its music and lyrics are by David Yazbek of The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels fame — and it’s not a stretch to say that the score outshines the narrative. It’s a spare show, one that is deceptively simple, and one where not a lot happens. Yet it’s also imaginatively staged, with some terrific, authentic numbers (including a dandy closing one by the band). The Band’s Visit is unlike any musical you’re likely to see — and I say that in a (mostly) positive way.
Chances of it playing in Atlanta? Too early to tell. The show has literally just opened on Broadway, but it’s very well-liked so far. It may not be commercial enough for a national tour, but a regional theater could easily do it — and Atlanta would be a welcoming audience.
The Play That Goes Wrong — Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street
Those looking for high-brow entertainment should turn their nose up and look elsewhere. This show within a show farce finds the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society putting on a performance of The Murder at Haversham Manor.
There’s chaos before the production begins, and things hit rock-bottom quickly. It’s the kind of show where an actor dies onstage and can’t quite stay still, with fellow performers accidentally stepping on him, and where props never behave like they should. This London import has some perfect timing among its ensemble and a hyperactive set (the deserved winner of a Tony Award) that’s a three-dimensional character.
I’ve never seen a show as physical, with actors jumping, leaping, falling, being hurled. (The chiropractic visits for the cast on off days must be a fortune.) Pound for pound, The Play That Goes Wrong is the funniest show I’ve seen in ages.
Chances of it playing in Atlanta? Terrific. I doubt the Alliance would renovate their space and then have a show that literally comes crashing down every night, but it seems right up Aurora’s alley, especially since the company has staged such farces as Noises Off successfully in the past.
The Theatre Critics conference
The American Theatre Critics Association annual conference brought together critics from across the country. The conference had some intriguing panel discussions including “From Page to Stage: The Journey of a New Musical,” in which members of the creative team of the new The Band’s Visit — which just moved to Broadway — talked about the challenge of staging and marketing their just-opened production.
Another panel rounded up original performers from Stephen Sondheim musicals, including Len Cariou of Sweeney Todd, Harvey Evans of Follies, Pamela Myers of Company, Kurt Peterson of Follies and Teri Ralston of Company and A Little Night Music. It was terrific to hear these veterans wax poetic about their experiences and their interactions with Sondheim and the likes of Angela Lansbury. Also over the weekend, EGOT winner Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen talked about the challenge of turning their Frozen into a Broadway musical and keeping intimate touches to it. Lopez is no stranger to Atlanta. Two of his earlier works have been produced here — 1001 Nights at The Center for Puppetry Arts and The Dancing Handkerchief at Theatrical Outfit.
Most fascinating, though, was a panel called “Dramatist and Drama Critics Continuing the Conversation,” with one table of playwrights (Sarah Ruhl, Doug Wright, Robert Lopez and Kirsten Childs) and another table of critics (Adam Feldman, Sara Holdren, Janice Simpson). The critics discussed the challenges of modern-day reviewing — including the loss of any full-time roles and complaints of lack of diversity — and then playwrights told their side. Wright, playwright of War Paint and I Am My Own Wife, says his husband David turns parental controls on on Wright’s computer to keep him from reading reviews during a show’s run, while prolific, articulate Ruhl (In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) described how, with the advent of social media and reviews that are posted quickly, the usually joyous opening night parties can turn into a “zombie apocalypse” with a 9:30 p.m. online bad review. Informative without being confrontational, it is a panel discussion that needs to be done in some form locally.