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Craig Wallace before his performance in Jennifer L. Nelson’s “24,7, 365” at The Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Though I met Craig Stephen Wallace, he of the resounding voice and commanding presence, about twenty years ago, I’ve seen him more in the past year than in all the years before, owing to seeing the respected thespian in multiple productions. I’d heard of the DC-based actor’s ascent over the years through our friend, filmmaker Kelvin Phillips, so when familial responsibilities brought me back to my native Washington, I checked out the prolific performer as he robustly embodied embattled arts administrator Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” doting father Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair” and bourgie bro’ Beau crossing the tracks in “24, 7, 365.”
Fresh from an end-of-March appearance with John Lithgow in “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony,” at the Kennedy Center, Craig went straight into rehearsals for a unique Folger Elizabethan Theatre adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. We caught up for a very quick, but yummy bite at Capitol Hill lunch fave, We the Pizza to discuss his journey from an only child, “a shy kid who loved books, TV and music” to a confident, respected member of a thriving theater community.
Born and raised in Rochester, New York Craig stumbled upon his calling in high school when given a choice to take American Literature or Drama: A Practicum. He selected the latter thinking it was the easier of the two. The instructor, actress Betsy Bourcy “saw something in me. I fought her tooth and nail but she forced me to audition (for the role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls.) It was a watershed moment in my life, I never looked back.”
He spent his undergraduate years at Howard University deejaying frat parties and hosting college radio under the moniker Synbad Starr. “Truth was,” he says, “I was an egghead nerd trying to find myself.” He relishes those days. “College taught me how to have an opinion. At Howard I learned how to think, graduate school taught me how to act and in that progression I found myself.”
An internship at The Folger was a career-making move. “I was watching the actors tackle the language and I knew that I wanted to learn the skills to tell classical stories. I also love the music of poetry and how rhythm plays such a vital part in speaking verse text. I did my first Shakespeare play, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in 1987 when the Shakespeare Theatre Company was at The Folger.” He has since then covered most of the Shakespearean canon: from comedies “Twelfth Night” to “Troilus and Cressida;” tragedies “Hamlet” to “Coriolanus” and histories “Henry V” to “Richard II.”
Bardic: Caius Ligarius in “Julius Caesar,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) Othello in “Othello,” (Folger Theatre) Brother in a Caribbean-set “Much Ado About Nothing,” (Folger Theatre) Escalus in “Romeo and Juliet” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) and in “Antony and Cleopatra” (Shakespeare Theatre Company)
Upon receiving his MFA from Penn State, he might have headed north with Broadway dreams but he returned south to the District “because of a job opportunity. I stayed because I kept working. There was, for me, no real reason to leave. This is a flourishing theater community. I believe there are 80 professional theaters in the DMV region. I’m not sure it’s as diverse as it could be. I’m not saying there is racism involved, but in region where there are a lot of people of color, there should be more of us onstage….and I’m not sure if that’s our problem or theirs….probably both right?“
Though he works steadily as an actor, he “began teaching acting at George Mason University just to supplement my income. These days, in addition to GMU, I also teach for The Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Theatre Lab and serve as a Folger Theatre teaching artist at Cardozo Senior High School.”
His passion for theater is shared by his girlfriend, Kimberly Schraf, whom he met when they both appeared in a 1994 production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope.” They once again graced the same stage in last Fall’s production of “Sabrina Fair” with Kim in the deliciously witty role of Julia Ward McKinlock. She has also narrated over one hundred books on tape including Little Altars Everywhere, Bee Season and The Best American Short Stories of the Century.
Outstanding Supporting Actress Nominee (for “Show Boat) Kim and Craig at the 2010 Helen Hayes Awards.
When asked about his influences he says “I have always been inspired by Malcolm X. He is discipline personified. Just got the new book on him, can’t wait to crack it.” He adds, “I do have directors and professors in my life that have given me insight on myself and my acting and I found them to be very helpful in my career.” In that career he’s breathed life into the words of not only Shakespeare, but such esteemed playwrights as Anton Chekov, August Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Howard Sackler, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner (whose “Angels in America,” secured Craig a 2000 Helen Hayes Award nomination for his portrayal of the nurse, Belize.)
Clockwise from left, an illustrious career: Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” (Everyman Theater) Usumcasane in “Tamburlaine,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) “The Underpass” (Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University) Beau in “24, 7, 365,” (Theatre of the First Amendment) Flip in “Our Lady of 121st Street,” (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)The Mayor in “Fucking A,” (Studio Theatre) Brother in “Much Ado About Nothing” and Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson” (The Hangar Theatre)
Clockwise: Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” (Round House Theatre) Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair,” (Ford’s Theatre Society) The Aviator in “The Little Prince” and Booster in “Jitney” (African Continuum Theatre Company)
Craig was invited in 2006 to join a coterie of esteemed speakers at a birthday tribute to Abraham Lincoln at the White House. He honored the 16th President of the United States by reading an excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation.
On the staging of “Cyrano” he says rehearsal has been intense, “we started blocking the first day…As all good art it’s gonna get ugly before it gets pretty.” Of his role as the villainous DeGuiche he says, “I just want him to be full-bodied and complex. If we do it right, you will hate him at first, but come to an understanding about him by the end. Phew!”
De Guiche taunts Cyrano (Eric Hissom) Photo: Carol Pratt
What’s next on the horizon? “I’ve got some upcoming acting and directing jobs after Cyrano closes. Looks to be a busy summer and fall! I’m just beginning to direct. I’ve already directed a couple of things (“Tommy J and Sally,” “Mio Cuore – My Heart” and “Children of Medea”) and I’m still learning.
As I finished my ginger root soda, he bounded off to rehearse the show I look forward to checking out next week. (The Folger Elizabethan Theatre production of Cyrano runs through June 5th.)
And without further ado, Craigslist:
1. Storm. Craig and Kim fell deep in doggie love eight years ago with the arrival of a gorgeous Husky mix in their lives. “Together we are three the hard way! And I love every minute of it.”
Snow Storm: in her element, achieving canine Nirvana.
2. Funk. “The music, the way of life.” On his Facebook “About,” he says simply, “I’m just livin’ and jivin’ and diggin’ the skin I’m in.”
Classic funk: the landing of the Mothership.
3. Watching TV. As a child, it was “cartoons, of course and all the PBS fare–Sesame Street, Electric Company, etc. As a teen, I was big into Twilight Zone, then 60 Minutes. For years I never missed it.” Some other faves include Treme, the Law and Order franchise, Dexter, Damages, The Wire and Flight of the Conchords.
The Treme opening sequence. Music by John Boutté.
4. Newspapers. Especially the Sunday papers.
He consistently reads the The Washington Post, natch, and the Sunday New York Times.
5. Shakespeare. The work of the Bard has been integral to his double-decade career.
“Once you get the hang of it, it is really a wonderful feeling to have his words roll off your tongue!”
6. Getting to know a new city when I work outside of DC.
His role last year in the pivotal role of “Boy Willie” in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson took him to the Hangar Theatre in the college town and gateway to the Finger Lakes, Ithaca, New York.
7. Cooking. “I look at the food section of The [Washington] Post every Wednesday. If something looks good, I’ll make it.”
“My specialty is roasting whole chickens on the grill.” Photo via Healthy Delicious.
8. Collecting music. The former DJ still has vinyl and says, “When I get time to find some room in the house, I’m going to set up me stereo, pull them out and have some fun.”
Some of the albums which “changed the way I think about music.”
9. Having Cocktails. He’s not beholden to any particular watering hole. “It’s more about the company than the spot.”
Photo Morgan Sheff via Cocktails and Cologne.
10. My Home. After intense immersion in scripted lives it’s always good for him to return to his own.
Photo, Chris in Plymouth.