‘OSLO’ opens on Broadway to critical acclaim with theatre alumnus Jeb Kreager

From left to right: Jennifer Ehle, Jeb Kreager, Jefferson Mays

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Theatre

May 26, 2017

Daveisha Gibson, a graduate in the M.F.A. program in Arts Leadership at the School of Performing Arts, recently spoke with theatre alumus Jeb Kreager about his Broadway role in "OSLO," navigating his career path, and his advice for aspiring theatre students. 


April 13 marked the opening night of the Broadway run of “OSLO," a “rich drama of quixotic politics” written by J.T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher. Presented at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, the political thriller captures the complexities of peacemaking in the 1990s between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Interwoven with dark humor, the show amplifies the role of human ambition in political affairs. “OSLO” was named Best Play of 2016-17 by the New York Drama Critics Circle and Outstanding New Play by the Outer Critics Circle, and its initial Off-Broadway run in the summer of 2016 recently won four Lucille Lortel Awards.

The show won Obie Awards for Ensemble Performance and Best New American Theater Work, and is also up for two Drama Desk Awards, and is nominated for seven Tonys. With a “cast of characters, of widely varied temperaments and ideological stripes,” the New York Times writes, “by the end, this production’s vital ensemble makes you feel you have come to know every single one of them.”  

Joining this ensemble, in his Broadway debut, is Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts alumnus Jeb Kreager.  In a phone interview, Kreager discussed the characteristics of working on “one artistic pursuit” and the nature of acting as a career. He expressed with sincerity, “If you think of auditions as job interviews—and they are—we (actors) go on a lot of job interviews.”  Comparing the acting profession to baseball, he added, “If you are right three times out of ten you are in the Hall of Fame. That’s how hard baseball is. For us, if you can book one out of every eight or ten auditions that’s really doing something. That means you are working. It’s something that’s hard to wrap your mind around as, let’s say, the parent of a new arts grad, or the life partner who isn’t in the field.”

Pursuing happiness and employment in the arts is different from other professions. Kreager, mentioning the ups and downs, went on further to say, “You have to really want it—you want to book everything and you want everyone to want you in their show—but that’s not going to happen; you have to be ready to let it roll off when you get disappointed. Disappointment and the handling of it are hugely important. You will be disappointed and you will question why you are here, why you are doing this: and the reason is, because you love it.  ou need to tell stories. You need to express yourself through lighting design, costume design, stage management, arts management, or whatever field your degree—and life—brings you to, and you better absolutely love it, because it’s really hard. I know it sounds cliché, but be ready to fight."

Kreager summarized talent as an “other-worldly thing that nobody can put their finger on” for which there is “no rhyme of reason about who can do it or why.” He resolved, “You have to be willing to open a door when it’s in front of you. But there also has to be something going on behind that door when you open it."

The Virginia Tech alumnus credits his involvement in “OSLO” to saying yes to a reading at The Lark, the new play laboratory based in New York City dedicated to supporting playwrights, where Rogers was in the audience. A post-show conversation led to readings and, eventually, a spot in the cast of Rogers’ play. Kreager agreed to do the reading believing the experience “was going to be a good thing no matter what. Worst case scenario, I got to perform. I’d make people laugh.” Thinking back, he added, “But this business is such a mix of ability, hard work, timing, and luck. You do the reading because you want to meet people, and because you want to show them that you do good work. It was a fun role for me. It was a good play and I made the playwright happy. But we wouldn’t be talking about “OSLO” if J.T. wasn’t in the room that day."

Where are you from? What year did you graduate from Virginia Tech?

Stuart, Virginia via northern New Jersey.  I finished my degree in the fall semester of 1997, but I waited to graduate with my buddies in spring 1998.

What drew you to Virginia Tech?

Initially communications and baseball drew me to Tech. The plan was to walk on and make the baseball team, and take journalism classes—I thought I wanted to go into sports broadcasting. A year later, I’d been cut from the team and switched from communications to theatre.

What are your most memorable experiences as a student within the School of Performing Arts? 

There are a few. My first class was an Intro to Acting class for non-majors (I was still a Communications major). I loved it. We didn’t have a drama program at my high school but I had done a few community/school shows—“The Sound of Music,” “Oklahoma!,” “Hello, Dolly!,” and a silly ‘high school hijinks' play—and I enjoyed performing, but had definitely not considered it as a career. So, I take this Intro class and it’s great and I really enjoyed myself. We had showings of our final scene work—I was doing a scene from "The Odd Couple”—and a few folks from the department came to see the showings. As I recall it was Greg Justice, Tony Distler, and maybe Don Drapeau, maybe Barbara Carlisle? So we do the scene, and we get laughs, and it goes great, and afterward Greg and Tony approach me and ask what my story is, what am I studying, etc. And then they ask if I’d ever considered trying theatre more seriously. "If you have any interest in joining the theatre department, you just nailed your audition.” I transferred out of communications the next semester.

My first show was “He Who Gets Slapped” in Studio Theater. Andy Belser directed, and he kind of changed my life. Thinking about theatre as a physical act, using your body to convey story, accessing emotion and meaning while running around and shouting and sweating—it was very exciting.  My character had no lines but we turned it into this presence, this fully realized thing that had impact on the world of the play and the other characters. I was in awe of that. I had always thought of acting as a 'stand and deliver' art form. 98% of what I knew about acting was from movies and TV. One night after rehearsal we went, as a cast, to see a dress rehearsal of a workshop that was going up in the black box. The director was the new M.F.A. directing candidate, Whit MacLaughlin. I remember the cast of that show having a hard time describing what they were making. There was no script;  the jumping-off point for the “piece" was a series of Goya etchings. And it sounded like dance—they worked out together. Strenuous exercise. Breath work, yoga. We were pretty interested to see this thing. So, we go see this show, “The Sleep of Reason,” and I’m sitting next to my castmate, Matt Saunders, and we sit there for an hour and watch this show with our jaws dropped open, literally gripping each other’s arms watching this incredible, beautiful, meaningful, and completely indescribable thing. It barely felt like any theatre I knew. It was so full of emotion without a spoken word. It was installation art. I know it sounds grandiose, but it was like all of a sudden my life had been changed by these two directors in one month.

Loooong story short, 20-plus years later, Whit, Matt and I are still company members of New Paradise Laboratories. And I haven’t worked with Andy in quite awhile, but he’s still a very important person to me, and has done great things with The Gravity Project, at Juniata and UNCW and now at Penn State. He’s someone I really look up to. These are some of the most important relationships in my life. And Bob Leonard’s directing classes, and learning theatre history from David Johnson, and dialects class with Patty Raun!  Lots of great memories. And valuable experiences.

According to the New York Times, “OSLO” is a "rare play by a living American playwright” on Broadway, "which is dominated by musicals and play revivals.”  In your opinion, what makes “OSLO” a beneficial addition to Broadway at this time?

It’s a true story, for one thing—and a perfect emblem for a conversation that we should be having right now. It’s a play about trust, getting past fear, past ignorance. To say that it feels timely, given our current divisive political climate, is an understatement. There’s nothing like it on Broadway right now.

If you were the speaker at this spring’s School of Performing Arts commencement ceremony, what advice would you give to graduating students? 

Build the toolbox. Classes, readings, yeah—but relationships. Every practical step you take—doing a workshop or making a design proposal or sending a headshot—is also an opportunity to interact with another professional in your field. Take advantage. Always be ready to show what you know. And if you don’t know, find out. 

Find something that brings meaning and enjoyment to your life that has nothing to do with your career in the arts. Preferably something you could make money doing when you need to. For me, it’s carpentry. I enjoy working with my hands, you can see your progress, and you finish with something tangible—whether it’s a masking flat or a bookcase or what have you. In many ways, it’s the polar opposite of acting, and that’s so valuable to me.

Learn to be flexible. There are tons of ways to navigate your career. I always say, "hold on tightly, but let go lightly.” Don’t get too high or too low for too long. You’ve got to want it—that goes without saying. But if it’s gonna be a long career, enduring the ebb and flow is key.

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