12/16/2013 03:42 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Director John Simpkins and Actor Coby Getzug from Joe Iconis' The Black Suits

Q: John, a lot of the work you do in the world of theater clearly involves developing new musicals as your role as both a director and artistic director. Are there any specific challenges that one faces in your role in doing a musical as opposed to a production with little to no music or dancing at all?

A: Most of the challenges comes down to timing. When we were sitting there after our first preview, it felt as though we just learned exponentially more than when we were in rehearsals because now you have the living, breathing audience there with you. And so we set about a five-day period where we could make the show better, and how we could learn from the audience. So I think what makes a full musical unique and complex in that regard, is that in order to make the changes that we know we need to make is based on what we learned from people. And it takes many, many people in categories and departments that deal with light, cues, music and a full live band on stage. And so I think the pressure of time is the big factor there because you start learning so much about the process, and then you only have a few days to implement the changes you want to make.


Q: Would you embrace work in other mediums such as television and film?

A: Absolutely, 100 percent. I think as a director you have a great opportunity to help writers bring their work to a vision. I think I can add to that process, whether that be in tv, film or theater. I just happened to choose the musical theater path at the moment because it's awesome!

Q: What musicals inspired you to choose the path that you are on now in terms of directing and developing musicals for theater?

A: Any musical that deals with a person in trouble, or a group of people in trouble. And I say that not to take anything away from traditional musicals that are driven by happy characters and or happy endings -- those are great. I just happen to gravitate to shows such as Floyd Collins, written by Adam Guettel, that I love because it's about this dude who is unconformable in his own skin. He only finds happiness a hundred feet underground, caving. I love stories that are about people who are having life issues that they can't work out -- but the musical will allow them to. Another guy I love is Joe Iconis because everything that he has ever done seems like it's about a group of people in peril.

Q: It's safe to say that the world of the Black Suits -- or at least the central theme -- revolves around these young guys who are in search of themselves and their identities. What is it that they are trying to do?

A: They are trying to grow up. This piece is right on the cusp of having adult language available to you. These kids don't have that, but they are trying so hard to figure out how to stay together as friends when life is throwing them all these curveballs. And so they don't know how to say "I love you" to one another because that isn't in their vocabulary yet. So they lash out and express themselves in other ways... Finally, when you add a writer like Joe who has a musical vocabulary that is theater-based, but also very much influenced by rock and roll, what you wind up with is similar to those kids from the film Stand By Me. All our boys are seemingly trying to do is win the St. Ann Battle of the Bands competition. A Long Island church basement band competition. But in reality, what they are really trying to do is to be best friends for the rest of their lives which we know, now being older, is going to be tough --as life will deal all of them different cards. What, in my opinion, is compelling and powerful is to watch them try to hold on to their youth and their friendship.

Q: John, you continue to serve on the National Alliance for musical theater, in which you select -- among your colleagues -- the eight most promising musicals each year. Can you describe how that role and that experience has been so far?

A: It has been an eye-opening process because it gets me involved with everything that's out there. We literally get to read hundreds of scripts every year, and to see what people are writing about. It's interesting to see how writers are responding to cultural, social and political issues. And so for me it's been fascinating to get dialed in to see what writers are thinking on a global scale. Being on the National Alliance enables me to see more than I would normally be able to see as a freelance director.

Q: What are some of the key components that you and perhaps your colleagues look for in the selection process?

A: I can tell you what I like to look for. I like scripts that have a way of telling a story that is more reflective of our current vocabulary and speech. For example there are a lot of people who are in the musical theater who are writing in a style and form that has been popular since Rodgers and Hammerstein. And that is awesome. I love that stuff, but as an artist myself I am drawn to people who are writing in new ways -- fusing visual spectacle with rock and roll, etc. People who are trying to find new ground, which is where I live and breathe. I just love to work with people who are trying to push into a new way of story telling, whether that be a production or writing element.

Q: John, you have directed Blood song of Love, The Plant that ate Dirty Socks, and others. Where does you specific passion lie throughout that process? What keeps you coming back for more?

A: What a great question! I feel as though I find most of my fulfillment in bringing complicated life questions to the stage. One of the reasons I love Joe Iconis' work so much is that in his work we are able to investigate the power of people who come together to make things. And through Joe's vision, we are able to show how important things like art, camaraderie and friendship really are. What makes me tick as an artist is to be able to somehow examine a huge personal and life problem through the eyes of the characters in whatever musical it happens to be. What do we dream about? What do we want most in life? And how can that happen though a musical? Or what do we struggle with the most? The process and the search for the answers to those questions is what drives me. I love musicals like Parade, Floyd Collins-musicals that have weight, truth and historical perspective to them.

Q: Did you look back at your own youth for any added perspective before taking on Black Suits?

A: Well I feel like the older I get, the more that I grow away from that period in my life but feel very nostalgic for it. What I have always wanted to do is to try to maintain a youthful and passionate attitude. Theater allows me to stay connected to that in some ways. It helps when you soon see that you are the oldest guy in the room in there! And I'm not old! I have to look to the youth to see how they talk! We have a couple of young kids in our cast who I think are incredible -- and I watch them and have seen how even Facebook is old news to them now. If it's not Instagram, it's Snapchat. You name it!

Q: Your production of Parade was preserved and is on reserve at Lincoln Center's Theater on Film and Tape Archive. Looking back briefly at all of your work, what do you feel made Parade such a standout, and how do you feel about that honor?

A: It was tremendous, and I am very proud of it. I think what might have made it different was that the original New York production was a fairly massive undertaking. The scope of the original show is huge... as there are actual scenes where there are supposed to be a few town parades. And so the gigantic nature in which the show was originally written was not going to be feasible when I took on the new production. So we looked at the small human story in it -- this guy who was unable to stand up and fight for himself in this murder trial, and why he wouldn't do that. And so that, by reducing the play in such a way so that it came down to just a couple of people, the piece wound up being different and yet just as powerful as the larger, original production. And it was the original director Harold Prince who said, "We have to preserve this; this needs to sit on the shelf next to mine."

Q: What do you want the audience to take with them when they get up and leave the theater?

A: Well, regardless of the their age and whether they ever played in a garage band, were on a football team, on a cheerleader squad or a summer camp group -- whatever. The variation that put them with a group of people that they never wanted to let go of, I want them to be able to conjure up those experiences with huge, fond memories. I want people to try to stay together. I want to see people try to stay close and connected to the people that they value the most, no matter what life throws you. Granted this piece looks at that angle through an adolescence lens, but I think what they'll find (and I certainly did as a 40-plus guy, myself) is that the piece doesn't lose its residence. In fact, the entire experience with these guys has enabled me to remember so much more fondly, and has allowed me to move through my life with a much stronger awareness of the people that I love and what I need to do to stay more connected to them!


Q: Coby, how did the challenges of preparing for your role in Black Suits differ from your last role in The Lieutenant of Inishmore?

A: Well, I was 18 when I did Inishmore and right out of high school. It was my first professional experience. I was super wide-eyed, and really didn't have a clue as to what was going on. I had to learn the character but also master a particular dialect. And then the challenges of the blood and dealing with the special effects made doing Inishmore a challenge in and of itself. With Black Suits, my character suffers from things that I fortunately don't have to deal with. He has issues that forced me to find things in my life which would help me relate to that character.

Q: How old is your character in Black Suits and how old are you here, today, in the flesh?

A: My character is 17, and I am 21.

Q: You mentioned how your character in Black Suits will face a multitude of conflicts. Can you expand on some of those?

A: Sure. My character Chris suffers from panic attacks, and they happen fairly frequently. Throughout the play you will see them in varying degrees from minor frustrations to full-blown panic attacks. John (the director) and Joe (the playwright) gave me a huge packet of articles about panic attacks and a few specific examples of performers who had panic attacks on stage, and my character has one during a performance. And so it's been interesting to read and research panic attacks; learning how panic attacks manifest themselves so differently in various people and how no two panic attacks are alike. Then there are panic attacks that can be brought on just by the fear of having one -- it's such a viscous cycle. And so it's been a challenge to see how I can bring on these attacks through my character through my own lens.

Q: As a young actor, how has it been to work with such an esteemed group of guys such as director John Simpkins and playwright Joe Iconis?

A: It's been unreal. I feel so honored that they welcomed me into their family. I feel so fortunate to be a member in a production that I feel so passionate about. John and Joe are two of the most humble and incredibly talented artists that I could have asked to work with and I am honored to be a part of this production.

Q: You're young, but still old enough to be able to look back at your past and
what it may have been like to forge friendships with guys like the ones in Black Suits. Can you see yourself and some parts of your past in your character?

A: Well I never had a garage band, but my buddies and I would get together and make music videos, play around with cameras, and would always do little projects and so forth. I could definitely relate with my character in Black Suits, as I had my share of those moments that you wished would never end and could stay the same forever.

Q: What's next for Coby Getzug?

A: I would love to start doing some television and film. I'm currently in my third year at UCLA in the theater department and I took a quarter off to do Black Suits. The plan is to go back to school in January and finish up. But I would love to continue to do theater and keep an eye out for television and film as well.

Q: Are there any particular actors who inspired you to pursue your craft?

A: Well I love the work of the actor Michael Shannon of Boardwalk Empire, and all of the actors on Homeland. I've lately been watching this season of American Horror Story and love those actors as well. As a young actor it's really inspiring to see those actors take on and excel in their roles.

Q: When you take your bows after Black Suits has concluded its run, what will you be most proud of?

A: Well, I know that my job through my character is to be able to tell the story truthfully. I want to be able to honor the words of the playwright, along with the director and the choreographer and know that I did the best job I could.