Jesse Tyler Ferguson is currently starring in David Sedaris' The SantaLand Diaries (see Ann's review), which returns to Pittsburgh after a successful run last year, in which it was paired with Sedaris' Season's Greetings. Jesse has appeared on Broadway (On the Town, which started at the Delacorte and moved to the Gershwin Theatre), Off Broadway (Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told and the revue newyorkers), Hartford Stage (Comedy of Errors), and television (CBS miniseries Sally Hemings). The energetic redhead plays a Macy's elf in The SantaLand Diaries and kindly took some time on the day of first previews to speak with me.
Ann Miner: How does it feel to be doing your first solo show?
Jesse Tyler Ferguson: Well, let me tell you, it's stressful. It's all on my shoulders and I've never had that happen, but it's really exciting. I've never had to carry a whole performance piece. It's actually been really exhausting ... three hours into the rehearsal process, I'm tired of hearing my voice. There are lots of words. Lots of memorization. It's definitely a challenge. But it's really been a good experience so far. I've been a fan of David Sedaris since "Barrel Fever" came out ... he hands it to you on a silver platter. You really don't have to do much with it except say it.
AM: Add a little attitude and try to keep from cracking yourself up.
JTF: Sometimes I get to a place, and I'm like "I'm funny," and I keep laughing and that's not good. The only other writer I've experienced who's like this is Paul Rudnick. He's another one of those writers who hands it to you. The Most Fabulous Story is a great show, it's fantastic. That was one of the best theatre experiences I've ever had.
AM: And working with Lea DeLaria ...
JTF: It's always a pleasure, she's one of my best friends. To be in projects with her is so comfortable. When we moved to Broadway in On the Town we already had such a history from the Park and we spent every day together since then. (laughing) Well, not every day together, I make it sound like we're a married couple ... I see her so much and working with her on stage is like messin' around with your friend. It's so comfortable and it's real fun.
AM: Have you ever sung cabaret with her?
JTF: We did a Christmas show at Joe's Pub two years ago called "Who You Callin' Ho-Ho-Ho - A Very Lea Christmas." It was her stuff and I would come in and do sketch comedy with her and we'd sing some stuff together.
AM: Someone told me that, in your bio for On the Town, you mentioned Starbucks a lot ... you don't have to do that anymore
JTF: I don't have to. It's funny, because On the Town was my first big break. I played Barnaby in Hello, Dolly! and that was the only other speaking role I had before. I was a Cowboy and an Indian in Annie Get Your Gun; I was always in the ensemble. I had this idea to put all these random jobs in my bio: "I appeared on Broadway - at the 84th and Broadway Starbucks - and Off Broadway - at numerous temp jobs." I had so many actors come up to me and say "Oh, I loved your bio for On the Town. It made me feel like there's hope for me. It can happen."
AM: And you did newyorkers. Is all hope for a recording of that revue gone?
JTF: Unfortunately, I think so. We didn't really jump on it soon enough and there was a producer interested in moving us to an Off Broadway venue, but they ended up choosing another play. We were kind of holding out for that and it fell between the cracks, unfortunately.
AM: It seems like something that might sell well right now.
JTF: Yeah, it would. There would have to be some edits, but it's a very positive, funny piece. People really enjoyed it. I'm sad to see it disappear so quickly. It was a great cast, a really stellar group.
AM: And they're all doing well.
JTF: Yes, I talked to Liz Larsen, she's doing Rocky Horror Show. Priscilla Lopez is, of course, always busy. Jerry Dixon is in tick ... tick ... BOOM!. Stephen deRosa is going into Into the Woods.
AM: Back to SantaLand ... is the elf costume fitting well?
JTF: I tried it for the first time last night. It's funny, we have a hand-painted body suit. They couldn't find green and white striped tights so they hand-painted them. I feel like I'm Donna Karan designed - so much labor has gone into it. It's going very well. It's funny, really funny.
AM: There's no accompanying piece this year?
JTF: We considered doing [Season's Greetings] with me in drag, actually. It just was a bad year to do it. It's too dark.
AM: Well, SantaLand is plenty for an evening ...
JTF: I just talk really slowly ... (laughing) We've been adding little bits, but it's running about an hour and ten minutes. With laughs, hopefully, ultimately it will stretch a little bit, too.
AM: David Sedaris is pretty well thought of in Pittsburgh. He was here speaking a couple of weeks ago.
JTF: I actually met him before I came out here, because I knew his sister Amy through The Most Fabulous Story. We were crossing paths and I got to meet David for the first time. That was a pleasure. He's so meek and quiet ... you know that something's always brewing.
AM: The City Theatre does some really good things. It looks like a great season this year.
JTF: I'm really impressed with everything. I knew Tracy [Brigden, Artistic Director] from Hartford Stage and it looks like she's done a fantastic job with this space. I think she's been very smart about her decisions ... what to improve and what to continue to let grow.
AM: They like to produce new works, like Squonk Opera's Burn which is playing on the main stage next door. Can you hear them?
JTF: A little bit; they're quite loud. We're actually going to be running simultaneously and there are a few moments where it's quiet on my side and loud on theirs.
AM: What have you got coming up next?
JTF: Lea and I are thinking of writing something together. We have a few ideas. And I'm thinking about putting together ... it was an idea before I got this, but this has boosted it a little more ... my own sort of cabaret type show in New York City. A lot of humor, a lot of satirical stuff. I try to keep my head above water, busy, and artistically satisfied.
AM: Are there any dream roles that you've always wanted to play?
JTF: I always joked that I'd love to head an all-male production of Annie. Adam in The Most Fabulous Story was so great. I love those big, juicy roles that go through such an interesting journey. I'd love to do something like that again. I'd like to get into more Shakespeare. At Hartford Stage, Mark Brokaw cast me in Comedy of Errors and I had the best time doing that.
AM: You also did the Summer of '42 workshop, right?
JTF: I worked on that over the course of two years, here and there. I'm so excited for them. They're going into previews soon. I need to give David [Kirshenbaum] a call to congratulate him. Unfortunately, I'm too old to be in the show. For workshop purposes, you can get away with it, but a 25-year-old man playing 14 ... they would have to hire Eartha Kitt to play Dorothy.
AM: And you also did a reading or workshop of Corpus Christi.
JTF: Yes, that was interesting because after that reading - it was a week long process - after that ended is when the article came out that leaked what the story was about and started all the controversy. That was a little scary, actually. My mom said, "Can't you do a normal show that's not going to endanger your life?"
I'm sure Mrs. Ferguson is happy to know that Jesse is doing the irreverent, but comparatively "normal", The SantaLand Diaries, hand-painted tights and all.
-- Ann Miner