This week Playbill checks in with A.J. Shively, who co-stars in Classic Stage Company's Off-Broadway revival of Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally's A Man of No Importance. The show continues through December 18 with outgoing artistic director John Doyle at the helm.
Shively plays the rugged bus driver Robbie Fay in the musical, which is about an amateur theatre group in 1960s Dublin. The group's leader, Alfie Byrne (Emmy winner Jim Parsons) is determined to stage a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome despite the objections of local church authorities.
Shively received a Tony nomination for his performance as Owen Duignan in Paradise Square, and he was also seen on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles and a Drama Desk-nominated turn in Bright Star. His additional Off-Broadway credits include February House, Brigadoon, Unlock’d, and Things to Ruin. Film and TV audiences may have seen the actor in Julia, Bull, Hunters, Homeland, Madam Secretary, The Blacklist, Younger, Nobody Walks in LA, From Nowhere, Syrup, and HairBrained.
What is your typical day like now?
A.J. Shively: Now that A Man of No Importance has opened, a typical day consists of cooking a nice breakfast, having a good stretch or maybe even a gentle workout, and having some kind of class or lesson. My nights are still blissfully spent making music and art at Classic Stage Company with my incredible AMONI company.
Are there any parts of the role or the musical that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past two years?
A few things feel poignant about this piece through the lens of the past two years. In this production, the full cast is on stage the whole show, and the band is onstage with us. The audience is fully visible, and we use a lot of direct address. This theatre space is very intimate, and it acts like a community resonator. That feeling of ever-present community, even when not central to the action, has been poignant for me. Within the piece itself, there are themes of absolute acceptance and the vulnerability/danger of being fully who you are that I feel are timeless. At the current moment, I'm struck by the contrast of the lack of empathy that authority figures have for "the people" compared to the vast empathy individuals are able to feel for each other.
What are some of the challenges/rewards of performing in such an intimate space?
Being immersed in the audience allows for a much deeper human connection. It's the kind of feeling that can only be experienced in live theatre. I hope everyone in the audience feels it as strongly as we do on the stage.
On a more personal note, I grew up doing shows at the Columbus Children's Theatre, which also has a three-quarter stage, so being in this set-up feels like coming home [Ed note: A Man of No Importance is performed in a thrust configuration].
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I want to remind audiences of how many people it takes for any given production to happen. Diverse casts (ethnically and otherwise) are incredibly important as the most visible segment of a company. It's important to also be aware of who has written a piece, who's producing the piece, who's designing the piece, who's backstage running the piece, etc. To have this truly American art form, musical theatre, look like the American people, we need to remember to look beyond who's playing what roles. If you see something you like, find out who made it, and see more of their work! And, to people in power, maybe it's time to consider making some space.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
In 2020, when the entertainment industry shut down, I took an office job. It was an amazing group of people and a great company to work for (shout out to The Greene Grape in Fort Greene, Brooklyn!). I had always considered what I did for a living to be on the outskirts of American society. But the experience of working in a more traditional setting allowed me to see that being an actor is, fundamentally, just a job. It's a calling to be an artist, and there is a very specific skill set—but, in some visceral way, I came out of that experience feeling more like I fit in.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
New works are my favorite, and I'm involved in the development of a couple of new musicals at the moment. I love watching a writing team and a director find a story together and being able to develop a character who helps hold up some small part of that arc.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
There are so many ways to classify the word "change." I'm inclined to give to organizations like the Red Cross, which provide help when things have gone wrong. I'm also inclined to give to organizations that help prevent things from going wrong, like the Entertainment Community Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund. Whatever way you decide to effect change, CharityNavigator.org is an incredible resource to find fully vetted organizations for any cause.