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When asked what three words he would like people to use to describe him as an actor, Jeff Moore responds, “Not. The. Problem.”
All joking aside, Moore takes the work of putting on a play seriously. But he didn’t always look at things that way.
He says he grew up imaginative, absent-minded, sensitive, competitive and at times defensive. He dreamed of being a veterinarian and playing football for Notre Dame.
“Neither of those have happened yet,” he says.
He was involved in speech team and forensics in high school but did not get into theater until college. “I was stuck in a rut at IPFW,” he says. “Bad grades, no focus, no one’s fault but mine.”
He took a semester off, but he “felt like there had to be more to life.” He auditioned for his first play, Luther, at PIT (Purdue-Indiana Theatre) and he was cast under the direction of the late Larry Life.
Life approached him privately after the audition and asked if he was a student, as he did not recognize him, but recognized his inherent theatrical talent. Moore told him he was taking a semester off and was uncertain about coming back.
Life told him, “You should come back. And you should study theatre. And I’m going to help you.”
“That moment changed the direction my life has taken,” Moore says. “I’m very grateful for his faith and his bull-headedness.”
He did return to IPFW and studied theater before transferring to Eastern Michigan University, where he continued his theatre studies and earned his bachelor’s degree. “I was fortunate to have a lot of performance opportunities,” he says.
One of his favorite college productions was Noises Off. “Our whole cast was just rock solid,” he says. “It was such a pleasure to go out every night and know we were all on our game and could just play to the hilt.”
The consummate professional, Moore appreciates the professionalism of actors like these.
“I like actors who memorize their lines,” he says. “I like actors who are generous, who know when to give focus to their scene partners and know when it’s their turn – actors who aren’t afraid to make choices, who do their homework and who don’t waste time at rehearsal.”
He has seen his share of negative stereotypes among actors so plagued with self-doubt they feel the need to tear down other actors to build themselves up. He admits to his own struggles with self doubt, the fear that he will disappoint.
“I don’t take praise or compliments gracefully,” he says. “There’s always a nagging feeling that it’s undeserved or misdirected.
“But I’m working on that,” he adds. “It’s not a quality that I want my children to learn.”
He also respects the boundaries between actors and directors.
“[There is a] difference between making a suggestion to solve a problem in rehearsal and telling other actors what to do when it’s not their problem. That’s the director’s job.”
Moore himself has done some directing in his career but prefers acting. Still, he understands that his job as an actor is help the director achieve his or her vision, even when it conflicts with his own.
He says he only experienced true conflict with a director twice, both times at grad school at I.U. He calls the experiences “frustrating creatively and chafing personally.”
“Sometimes a director wants it ‘just so,’ and you wonder why they cast you in the first place if there is no respect for what you bring to the role,” he says. “But ultimately, you have to find a way to collaborate. It’s not your play; it’s their play. They’re in charge. Once you accept the limits, it’s easier to find freedom within them.”
Competitive by nature, Moore also found creative freedom when he started auditioning for roles to challenge himself rather than proving himself to others.
“The competition is with yourself,” he says of the audition process, “because the decision as to who gets what role is out of your hands. So, it’s not about ‘beating’ anyone; it’s about showing what you can do.”
When he is cast in a role, Moore says he doesn’t bog himself down too much in research or create a backstory or biography for the characters he plays.
“I respect that others do,” he says,” but I don’t want the character work get in the way of the story. I serve the play, not the other way around.”
In serving the play, Moore says he memorizes the script “as faithfully as possible.”
The script for his current play, Misalliance at First Presbyterian Theater, was written by George Bernard Shaw.
“Shaw is so smart, and witty, and talky,” Moore says. “You’ve got to be nimble and dexterous and fluid with the language. It’s a workout. Shaw is brilliant and funny but has things he wants the audience to think about and question. You can’t just be a mouthpiece for the playwright. You’ve got to really invest in your character’s wants and needs.”
To find his character, he often borrows from other characters he has seen, including some unexpected ones. In Misalliance he plays John Tarleton, a tycoon in men’s underwear. “I have in mind the character of Daddy Pig from the Nick Jr. cartoon Peppa Pig,” he says, “which I’ve watched a lot with my five-year old.”
From there, he adds or subtracts other character traits from life or his imagination.
“I let the direction and blocking I’m given by the director shape everything else,” he says. “Sometimes some reading or biographical or historical research helps, but ultimately it’s about what’s happening on the stage, and so I try to keep my energy and focus on that story.”
Although competitive by nature, he hasn’t let his ego get bruised when he fails to get roles he auditions for. “I usually feel that I did my job the best I knew how with the resources I had,” he says of these auditions. “And then I move on. There are too many other roles to do to look back with regrets.”
An expert at “bad guy” roles, he would like more opportunities to play against that type more often. “I think I have a knack for playing loud, obnoxious or angry characters,” he says. “I can do subtle. I really can, but I’m usually not cast for that quality. I think I get cast a lot because the director knows I can go big and ‘drive the bus’ if needed, and I’m not afraid to.”
Two of his favorite roles allowed him to “drive the bus” in different ways. In one he played Ui, a Hitler spoof, in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht. In a very different role, he played a homophobic Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp who learns his daughter has been killed at the camp.
“He goes all in on his anguish,” says Moore. “It was hard, emotionally, for me to recreate that every night. I have four daughters, so in a way it was easy to find that fear. But it was just exhausting to give that grief its due.”
Offstage, having four daughters, he says, took him out of the center of the universe. “That,” he says, “is a great quality for an actor to have.”
He met his wife, Heather Brackeen, in 1995, after a Fort Wayne Civic Theatre production of Barnum she was in. They remained casual acquaintances for three years until they were dining at Henry’s with mutual friends.
“She ordered a salad,” he recalls. “I ordered chocolate cake. We both liked what the other had ordered and split it. That was the start. I was attracted to her smile, her eyes, her buoyant attitude, her quick sense of humor and her laughter.
“And that she wanted my chocolate cake.”
Then came four daughters – all of whom perform (“as much as I try to discourage them”) – and his wife gave up theater to raise them. She recently joined three of the girls in the cast of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the joint production of the Fort Wayne Youtheatre and the University of Saint Francis School of Creative Arts. “I don’t think I can describe [how excited she is to be back onstage],” he says. “She misses [performing]. So, to have a chance to be in a fun role, as Augustus’ mom, Mrs. Gloop, and to have that experience with three of her girls – that’s special. She’s just delightful in the show. I had forgotten she can sing. It’s nice to be surprised by someone you think you know.”
After Willy Wonka, the girls continue to be busy with dance classes, school musicals, show choir and various performances at school, church and the community. “It seems non-stop,” says Moore, “but I’m glad they have an interest in creative pursuits.”
He and his wife have instilled in their daughters their own sense of pride and professionalism.
“Our guideline is usually, ‘If you’re going to do it, then do it the best you can. Otherwise, don’t waste your or anyone else’s time.’”