April Matthis: “If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it”

I have always wanted my body of work to serve how Black people see themselves. I’m very careful about the roles I choose and the projects I support. I believe in the power of narrative in civilization. The way we treat people — who we see as valuable, human — is informed by the stories we’ve been told. I […]

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I have always wanted my body of work to serve how Black people see themselves. I’m very careful about the roles I choose and the projects I support. I believe in the power of narrative in civilization. The way we treat people — who we see as valuable, human — is informed by the stories we’ve been told. I want to tell stories about Black women that are surprising, subversive, singular.

As a part of our interview series with the rising stars in pop culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing April Matthis.

April Matthis is a two-time OBIE Award winner and a fixture in the New York theater scene. She most recently starred at the Roundabout Theatre in Lydia Diamond’s acclaimed TONI STONE , the story of the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. Her upcoming feature debut, FUGITIVE DREAMS, will premiere at Montreal’s 2020 Fantasia Festival online.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Despite being a pretty shy kid, my immediate family has always known me to be a secret ham. I created elaborate dramas with my Barbie and Michael Jackson dolls, recorded pretend sermons and interviews with my baby sister, and would always improv around the kitchen with my mom. But it was a performance studies class taught by deaf queer artist Terry Galloway at the University of Texas at Austin that got me to explore that side of myself publicly. Once I learned that all human behavior could be considered performance, I was emboldened to audition for a community theater production of A Tale of Two Cities, and that sealed it for me. Acting just made so much sense.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

One Halloween I was performing a children’s show matinee at HERE Arts Center. There was a tall, beautiful woman who came with her toddler and a man wearing a trucker hat pulled over his eyes. I remember thinking it was a bit weird, so I kept my eye on them throughout the performance. I noticed that the mom was remarkably sweet and patient with her little one when she got fidgety, kissing her and rubbing her arms instead of scolding her to be still. Once the show was over, we went backstage and someone said, “Hey! Did you see that David Bowie and Iman are here with their kid?!” We all freaked out, but tried to stay really calm when we greeted all the families at the curtain call. I think they appreciated that we treated them like everyone else. But of course I gave them an especially weighted thank you for coming to the show.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During the run of that production of A Tale of Two Cities, I started trying out some bad, hackneyed acting habits I’d seen other (bad) actors do in other plays over the years. Like when my friends were in the audience, I’d look DIRECTLY AT THEM when I was talking, or break character and smile or wink. Once I did it a few times, though, I realized that I wasn’t in the moment of the story, and that my friends were more embarrassed than amused, and that it was probably distracting to the rest of the audience because it was self-indulgent. So I stopped.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Dare I share? They feel too nascent to discuss. What I will say is that I have a couple projects brewing with collaborators I have long admired. One’s probably for theater, and the other is a tv series. The theater one is very much taking notes on “this moment”, and the tv one is an idea we kicked around a few years ago that we now have the time and bandwidth to take seriously. What’s particularly exciting about that one is that it feels written already, like it exists in our shared creative brain, and that we only need to write it down.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Ralph Lemon leaps to mind. He’s a multidisciplinary choreographer/writer/director/visual artist. Together with MacArthur Genius Okwui Okpokwasili, we made Scaffold Room, a “lecture-musical”, which premiered at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Ralph’s a quietly striking artist — he pushes you to your aesthetic and physical limits, but never raises his voice. We bonded over our love of David Bowie and Amy Winehouse. During a residency at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, I was skipping around on a break, excited by the vast space of the lobby we had all to ourselves. Ralph took notice and incorporated that moment of levity into a dance I performed in the piece. Except now I had to do it in heels.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I think it’s hard in our industry because our work is where most people escape to for fun. But I think we engage in arts and entertainment differently because we know the players and we know how the sausage gets made. As hard as it is, I think it’s great to step away from your media devices. Take a break from the trade publications and social media feed and pay attention to the non-acting things that interest you. What in science are you curious about? What textiles please you? What manual skills would you like to master? What’s great is that something seemingly unrelated to the business can inspire a new story that hasn’t been told, and lead you back to the work with a fresh perspective.

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Again, I say follow and trust what interests you. Your own taste and aesthetic values are great teachers and guideposts. Do work that you would want to see. Some of the best advice I got was not to worry about gatekeepers in the industry, but to connect to fellow artists, and the business part of the industry will follow. Particularly for actors, I’d stress the power of doing readings and workshops of new plays. It’s a great way to meet playwrights and directors who’ll see you shine in a low-stakes environment, and will remember you as the play gets closer to production. I would also suggest building relationships with everyone in the room. It was the lighting designer Mark Barton who recommended me to Elevator Repair Service, a theater company that has taken me around the world in the last decade and become a family to me.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

I love a slow morning. This is a discovery I made once my husband started taking our son to school. Once I had the place to myself, I’d turn on NPR or my favorite podcast, make breakfast, and then play a design game on my phone while I drank my coffee. I wouldn’t answer emails or do anything important before I had completed the game. Now that we’re all home together, I still do this when I can. It helps me get my bearings, especially given how hard the headlines can be these days. Also, what’s been great about this time is I’ve been able to attend my friends’ online yoga classes. Sometimes I even get to catch up with them after the class is over.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Take care of your body. I started in experimental theater and the older actors always told me, “your knees are the first to go.” I thought they were kidding, until I snapped my knee jumping rope in a children’s show. I’ve had issues ever since. Which leads me to…
  2. If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it. Shows, artistic impulses, relationships come and go; there’s only one you. After the show is over, nobody will take you to the doctor or follow up on your injury.
  3. It’s okay to say “no.” One of the best acting workshops I took was with the legendary Laurie Carlos. She gave us an exercise where we literally had to repeat that word as long as we needed to. I repeated it so many times another participant burst into tears, overcome by its power. As a young black woman growing up in the Christian South, I had been conditioned to appease. It’s a lesson I often need to remind myself — the power, the freedom of NO.
  4. Trust your aesthetics.This has been my strongest personal directive. I follow the artists and work that excite and challenge me, and not what I think others like. Listen to yourself when you feel something isn’t working. Be kind and patient with yourself, but take your instincts seriously.
  5. Watch the veteran in the room. This is not necessarily the oldest person (although it often is), but the wisest. Watch how they approach creative disagreements, what language they use to appeal to the director/writer/producer, when and how they joke, and when they’re serious and focused. I’ve gained so much passive knowledge just from observing the most professional people. They’re often kind and slow to complain, so when they have a legitimate grievance, people listen. These are the people who work a lot, because they know how to protect their artistry and handle themselves in any room.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My grandfather always said, “If you can’t be good, be careful.” This man was a teacher and a chemist, a deacon in our church, and a pillar of our community. But he had an impish side. Growing up in a conservative environment, I didn’t really feel permission to be transgressive until I was off on my own in college. Oh, the stories I could tell from those days! I will say I was mostly “good”, but I always had that sense of self-preservation when I wasn’t. I think a career as an actor has best allowed me to explore and indulge that impish side. I have license to be as bad as any character can be written.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people for whom I am grateful. I’ve gotten so much help and encouragement along the way. One lady I can’t thank enough is Marjorie Eliot. She hosts weekly jazz concerts in her home to honor her sons Philly, Mikey, and Alfie, who passed away. I met my husband Sedric at her concerts (he plays tenor), when she invited me to sing standards from The American Songbook at her Saturday singers’ workshops. She later invited me to sing at the concerts on Sundays, and that’s where I learned a lot about my voice in performance. It was so different from the singing I had grown up with in church, which I always felt too incompetent to perform. (The alto belt was not innate.) Her workshops helped me find my own voice. Her example of being fully an artist and a mother has been encouraging too. She told me, “Your children need to see who you are.” That advice has stayed with me. It gave me permission to pursue my career when so many people told me I had to choose between acting and motherhood. You actually don’t.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have always wanted my body of work to serve how Black people see themselves. I’m very careful about the roles I choose and the projects I support. I believe in the power of narrative in civilization. The way we treat people — who we see as valuable, human — is informed by the stories we’ve been told. I want to tell stories about Black women that are surprising, subversive, singular.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I love the work of Todd Haynes. His films have often coincided with my interests at the moment. Velvet Goldmine was pivotal in introducing me to the transgressive world of glam rock and was my gateway drug to Bowie. Far from Heaven, inspired by Douglas Sirk melodramas, came out when I was developing a solo piece around Mahalia Jackson’s arresting “Trouble of the World” in the problematic but wrenching Imitation of Life. I’d love to work with him.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m most active on Instagram (@aprilmatthis). But there’s also Twitter (@april_matthis), where, thanks to TONI STONE, I have a tiny baseball following!

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!

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