A surprising number of actors get their start in Fort Wayne theater and go on to work professionally in big cities – New York, Hollywood, Chicago. Billy Dawson has come literally full circle and has forged a professional music theater path back here in Fort Wayne.
Dawson’s road to professional theater was an unusually easy one, but it started, as such roads often do, in childhood. He describes his childhood self as “weird, and I mean that in the best possible way. I was an only child so my imagination was my best friend. I certainly had a sense for the dramatic.”
His family considered him a born performer, and he certainly made the most of his imagination and talent for the dramatic. He was also introduced to a diverse selection of music early on by many members of his family.
“My grandmother used to sing gospel music with her siblings on the radio way back in the day,” he says. “My cousins, Logan and Levi, are in a band called Dag and the Bulleit Boys.”
His first experience with live musical theater was a production of Beauty and the Beast that he attended at the Embassy Theatre as a small boy. Although he was too young to remember much about the performance itself, he says, “I remember feeling that magical buzz in the air before the show, and it was all just so grand to me.”
It wasn’t until he was a 5th grader at Weisser Park Elementary that he got his first taste of the stage himself.
“We were doing a play called The Nightmare,” he says. “I was auditioning to play the lead boy, and I held my music up to my face so I couldn’t see anyone. The director said, “Lovely voice,’ but I didn’t get the role. However, I was cast as half of a singing floral couch and the rest is history.”
His next role was a duckling in Honk!, a musical telling of the Ugly Duckling tale with Edwards Productions.
Although his experience playing singing water fowl and musical furniture didn’t tell him he was destined for a career on the boards, his role as The Baker in Into the Woods his senior year at South Side High School did.
“That is the role that showed me I could train to this professionally,” he says. “That was the moment that I truly fell in love with performing.”
Throughout high school he also performed with the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, Arena Dinner Theatre and the Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
“I also sang the national anthem for the Komets once and would love the opportunity to do that again,” he says.
After graduation in 2009, Dawson attended IPFW’s Department of Theatre for about three years. However, felt pulled in another direction.
“I made the choice to take a leap of faith and left before I finished the degree,” he says. “Luckily, I was still able to get work without it.”
However, he cautions, “If a young person considering going to school for theater is reading this and thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just quit school and go for it,’—don’t. My experience was rare and lucky.”
He is also quick to point out that he has nothing but praise for the school.
“I proudly consider myself an IPFW alumnus,” he says. “That department taught me so much about myself as a person and a performer. It taught me to always be honest onstage. One of my favorite pieces of acting advice has been, ‘Don’t act, just be.’”
His experience at IPFW also taught him the discipline that is required for a life in the theater.
“Show business is not easy, and it takes a lot out of you emotionally, physically, and monetarily,” he says. “I’ve seen many talented people crumble and quit because of the challenges that come with being a performer. I support anyone who has the guts to make their life in the arts, but I advise everyone – including myself – to buck up and do the work.”
Upon leaving IPFW he headed straight to Chicago and began auditioning. He lost track of how many auditions he had before he booked his first job (“When they say ‘100 “no’s” to every “yes,”’ they aren’t exaggerating”). Eventually he booked a role as one of the four core singers in The People’s Passion Play with Quest Theatre Ensemble. “We called ourselves The Bible Belters,” he says.
From there he started “making connections and auditioning for anything that I could,” he says. “Theater performers don’t have the right to be too picky, especially when you’re just starting out.”
As he gained experience, Dawson learned even more about performing do’s and don’ts, including the value of collaboration.
“Very few things I hate more than a performer who is only focused on themselves,” he says. “Luckily, those people never last too long in the business.”
Although he found himself missing doing straight plays like he’d done at IPFW, he soon discovered that the Chicago musical theater scene was a completely different entity from straight theater. The audiences, he found, were also different from the ones in Fort Wayne.
One of the last musicals he did in the Windy City was The Producers, in which he played the flamboyant Broadway director/performer Roger DeBris.
“Every night during ‘Springtime for Hitler,’” he says, “I had a moment to flirt with someone in the audience. Let’s just say that some of the responses were ... unexpected.”
As good as Chicago theater was to Dawson (he appeared in nine musicals and two operas, and earned membership in the American Guild of Music Artists union), after four years he started to feel the call to return home to his roots. He and his partner of six years, Andy Planck, another former Fort Wayne theater star who found professional theatre success in Chicago and elsewhere, decided to take what they had learned from Chicago theater – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and bring it back home.
And thus, the Three Rivers Music Theatre was born.
“We pay all of our actors and staff, and have a relationship with Actors Equity Association,” says Dawson, who is employed by the company as both a performer and the marketing coordinator. “While other theater companies certainly run in a professional manner and have had professional actors direct and perform on their stages, we are the first contractual professional theater company.”
The company’s affiliation with the actor’s union means they will be hiring Equity actors for their productions and in a few seasons they will be able to offer local actors Equity Membership Candidate points toward eventually joining the union themselves.
Dawson is currently playing Jamie in the Three Rivers Music Theatre’s first production, The Last Five Years, which opened April 1. He considers this to be the greatest performing challenge of his career.
“First, it’s very vocally difficult,” he says. “I come out belting my face off at the very beginning and have to have enough voice left to do my ballads at the end.”
The other challenge comes from finding the honesty of a character who is very different from himself.
“As a person, I speak with my hands, and have a very expressive face,” he explains. “Jamie is teaching me to trust the stillness. I can’t rely on my usual ‘bag of tricks,’ and I have to really lose myself in the role.”
Although a Hollywood film based on the musical was recently released, Dawson says the live theater production is a bit different. Nevertheless, he says, “the audience can expect a very real story, told by very capable storytellers, with some of the best music to ever come from a musical.”
Dawson considers himself lucky to be back in his hometown that still values the arts so much. “There is so much room for art in this incredible city, but only if we support it,” he says “The developments that the Fort Wayne arts communities have been so exciting and we are thrilled to be a part of it.”