Home, Home on the Stage
June 1, 2017
As a child, Brock Graham had already decided on his career: he was going to be a writer. Spurred by an elementary school Young Authors victory, he spent a good portion of his time reading and writing stories.
"One of the great things my parents always did was encourage my imagination," he says. "They always responded enthusiastically whenever I would be creative."
That creativity branched off into a slightly different area of storytelling just before he started middle school.
"When I was ten or eleven, I saw a production of the musical Into the Woods at Leo High School," he says. "My sister was Snow White. I remember being completely enamored with it. It made me fall in love with theater."
He was content to be an audience member for the next few years, but the summer following his freshman year in high school changed his life forever.
The IPFW Department of Theatre needed a teen chorus for Bye Bye Birdie. Graham auditioned with two of his friends.
"At the audition, I sang the same song that the guy before me sang," he says, "so when I did my slate and told them what song I was going to sing, they laughed a little bit. I know they were laughing at the fact that they had just heard the song, but I immediately thought they were laughing at me."
His insecurity didn't stop him from singing, but he says the experience was "pretty traumatizing."
Nevertheless, he was cast.
"It was all really almost overwhelming," he says.
His friends were also cast but weren't able to commit to the schedule and dropped out before rehearsals started.
"I knew absolutely no one in the show," he says, "but I really wanted to do it, so I stayed in it."
The experience not only fulfilled him personally and creatively, but it influenced the course of his life for the next several years and beyond.
"I came to really trust the staff and faculty at IPFW," he says, "and I did a lot more productions there while still in high school."
The positive experience onstage didn't change his opinions of the audition process, however.
"To this day, I hate auditioning," he says. "I'm just the worst at it. I always get nervous."
To help calm the nerves, Graham says he becomes as familiar as possible with the material before the audition.
"It's really important to have an idea for a character or characters you want before you go into the audition," he says. "Directors can tell when you already have an idea for a character, and they usually like that. They want you to make strong and defined character choices. A lot of that comes with being confident in the material, so you have to go in to the audition knowing as much as you can about it."
Once he's cast, his preparation is similar.
"I try to be as familiar with every aspect [of the script and character] as possible," he says, "But I also like to leave a lot of discovery for the rehearsals."
What makes theater so fulfilling for Graham?
"The simple and the most honest answer: I like attention," he says. "I think that's a basic component for a lot of actors - taking the risk of drawing attention to yourself and being validated for your efforts. I don't think it's a bad thing. It's a great motivator."
But it's not only the affirmation and recognition that appeal to him.
"It's just a lot of fun," he says. "It's so cliché, but the feeling of having an audience respond to your performance in any way is really unmatched. It's always amazing whenever that feeling occurs."
Graham has appeared in 23 shows in the past 16 years - half musicals, half straight plays. Upon graduation from Leo High School he went to IPFW to study theater. "I didn't take school seriously and ended up dropping out after two semesters," he says. He also stopped doing theaterfor the next nine years.
He did, however, take classes "here and there" during those years.
"I had a different major every time," he says. "First it was psychology, then general studies, then communication."
In 2013, the then-28-year-old appeared in a joint production of Oliver! by IPFW and Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
"That was when I decided to go back to IPFW as a theater major with an emphasis in acting," he says. "It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I've been a full-time student ever since."
Graham says his experience with the department from the age of 15 helped influence his decision. "IPFW puts on some of the best theatrical productions in Fort Wayne," he says. "The amount of talent in the faculty and staff at the IPFW Department of Theatre is immense."
One of the greatest lessons he's learned about acting is the importance of sincerity, particularly in comedy.
"One thing I always believe in when it comes to comedic acting is that the character doesn't know they're being funny," he says. "They believe sincerely in what they are saying or doing, and that's what makes it funny to the audience. When it comes to acting in general, I think that the more the audience believes in the sincerity of your performance, the more heartbreaking or hilarious it can be. I know that's really simple but I think that's all it takes."
Another of Graham's strengths as an actor is his ability to convey emotions using his face.
"You can read my expressions like a book," he says. "I don't hide my emotions well at all. It's not very convenient for real life, but it works great in acting."
He also acknowledges that his age is a help rather than hindrance.
"The fact that I'm 31 helps a lot, because life experience is very important to acting," he says.
Something many actors complain about is typecasting - but not Graham. He says he's been lucky to have played a wide variety of characters, particularly in comedies, which he tends to be drawn to.
"I've had leading roles, I've had minor character roles, and I've been in the chorus a lot," he says. "Recently, I've been British a lot."
He's currently playing a Brit in the Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit at IPFW.
"It's a farce written in 1941, and it's just filled with dry British wit alongside outrageous situations," he says. "I've really had to step up my comedic abilities. This play is all about pacing and timing, because so much of the humor comes from that."
His character also has "a very defined emotional arc in the show," he says, "and I've really had to focus on conveying it as clearly as possible."
The biggest challenge of the role has been memorizing the lines.
"It's the most dialogue I've ever had to learn for a show," he says. "It was honestly harder to memorize than a Shakespeare play."
Director Craig Humphrey spent two weeks working with the cast on dialect.
"Craig is a master of the standard English dialect we use in the show," Graham says, "which is extremely helpful because the accents have to be very specific."
Working with Humphrey has been a highlight of this production for Graham.
"Craig is one of my favorite directors I've ever worked with," he says. "He lets you explore characters freely, but he's great at pulling you back if you need it and giving you an idea of where the character should go. He also knows comedy. He's great at finding unexpected gags to throw in. He has very clear ideas of what he wants visually, and I think that comes with him being a very gifted designer."
When he's not onstage, Graham has been focusing on school, but he manages to find time for other interests.
"I read all the superhero comics and see all the movies," he says. "I also try to see as many theater productions as I can. Occasionally I have a social life."
He doesn't have any set plans for after graduation, but he isn't ruling out graduate school.
"Ideally I would like to be successful in theater in some capacity," he says. "Chicago or New York City are options."
For now, he says, he is enjoying watching and working with members of the Fort Wayne theater community.
"There are amazing actors here in Fort Wayne, and a lot them I've been watching for years," he says. "This city has such great talent and allows for so many opportunities in theatre."
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