Damon Daunno may sing about being an outsider on the inside but his star power has been steadily rising since his turn as Orpheus in Hadestown which concluded its successful run at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Hadestown has recently announced both a Canadian production in the fall of 2017 and a full cast recording to be released later this year. Orpheus’ gift was music, and Daunno’s just might be the same. He has fallen into the world of indie theatre, ruled by frequent collaborators Rachel Chavkin and Dave Malloy, the powers behind this season’s Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
Currently, Daunno is rocking his way through Beardo, a new musical staged in St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint. Beardo is directed by Ellie Heyman and produced by Pipeline Theatre Company, with book and lyrics by Jason Craig and music by Dave Malloy. The character of Beardo is an abstraction of Rasputin, and Daunno brings magnetism and appeal to a character of whom history doesn’t necessarily view favorably. Beardo encourages everyone in the room – audience included – to shake up their lives and “get loose.” Daunno sat down with Stage Door Dish to discuss spirituality, his unexpected career path and having sex in a church.
I’ve never seen you do something normal. You always pick really interesting projects. Can you talk about that a little bit?
It’s become exciting to recognize that in hindsight. If I’m totally honest, rather than me choosing these projects, it’s sort of these projects choosing me. I’ve certainly auditioned for a whole number of straight and narrow commercial ventures, and it just seems like the only people who want me around are the lefties, you know? So rather than feeling boxed in by that it feels very freeing. It’s been exciting to look back and build new friendships with people who think in very unconventional ways. The handful of shows I’ve gotten to do are all potent in their unique approach to theatre, which I am super grateful for. It inspires me to explore that, and to own it rather than being like, ‘gosh, why can’t I get myself in this one room?’ Well, there are plenty of rooms over here that are psyched to work together – so bring it on. It’s been a fun jump to go from something like Hadestown to Beardo.
There are a lot of interesting parallels in the shows. Right now, you’re playing in Dave Malloy’s crazy universe, inside of a church playing this really provocative show. First of all, this entire universe is mayhem and interesting – the base level of people. And then putting something so provocative into a church must be a whole different thing. So you have two levels going on there.
I think that was no accident on the part of Pipeline. I think they were excited to take this piece and put it in an extra layer. The space itself becomes a character. That particular church, especially, is so charmingly dilapidated, and it’s so beautiful on a practical level performing in that space. Singing in church – there’s really nothing like it. But at the same time, having sex in church . . . there’s also really nothing quite like that as well. So that’s been really terrific, and Paster Foster, who runs the church, has just been the biggest champion. She’s such an an amazing woman with amazing energy, and has really embraced what we’re trying to do. So it feels like a safe space to just treat it like the sacred space it is and go get loose, you know? It’s actually really good for character work, because he’s got this relationship to God – whatever that means to the audience . . . I know what it means to me. And it’s a nice reminder that we’re not getting rowdy and raucous and weird and wild just for the sake of it. On some dramaturgical level, there is a sort of holiness to that according to Beardo.
What is your idea of his relationship to God?
I think on some level, he feels called upon. He feels like he’s got a direct connection, which I really dig, and which I feel like most people can find in themselves, deep down, if they really listen and hone into their intuition. There’s that sort of bigger, more spiritual part of who you are, and if you want to call that ‘God’ or use it to call up to God – whatever it is, I think his inner life really drives his car, and his particular God. I don’t think he thinks of God as a man in the sky, but he definitely has a lustful friend. He really thinks he’s helping – that’s the big thing. I do believe he’s connected to God because I think he’s trying to do the Lord’s work – wake people up, shake people up. He just does it in a really sordid way, I suppose.
You, as Damon, are working inside of the church and have a relationship with the pastor now. What has that been like for you personally?
Really quietly profound. I think whatever your religion is, or whatever your credo and beliefs are, there’s something really beautiful about just being in a church and respecting the authority that runs it – the community of that authority. You can dissolve the titles of saying ‘This is a Lutheran church that believes in Jesus.’ That may not be for me particularly, but there is still something deeply connected about the purity of the space and trying to access a sort of holy connection to your fellow man on a deep, profound level – not in a religious way, but in a quietly spiritual way. That’s been really lovely. But the process can be difficult, and this was a rushed process. It’s a wild show, so sometimes it was easy to get overwhelmed. Sometimes Pastor Foster would just come around and say one or two lovely things, and I’d have to go off into a corner and cry real quick, and then just get back to it. That’s something I’ve been really grateful for.
I feel like in Hadestown and Beardo, there’s the central message of the song “Why We Build the Wall” versus the idea of ‘we have an outsider in the inside.’ Because it feels so relevant, can you speak to that a bit?
I think the wall in Hadestown was a bit of an oracle, like your individual walls. Do you want to be a banker or a poet? On a more concrete level, do you follow your heart or your wallet? But still, that sense of ‘us versus them’, and feeling like we’re okay because we have something they don’t – that speaks very bluntly to what’s actually happening in reality, which is just absurd. But similarly, the outside versus the in . . . I’m an outside man on the inside. There are several lines in the show about being inside, not outside on peasant dirt. People on the outside are ‘dirty’, and people on the inside are ‘chosen.’ And that’s extremely timely as well. I do think this is a play about classes of men, and ‘us versus them’, and the silent millions raising their voices and ousting the bigots in power. At least, I think that’s what he’s trying to do. It didn’t really work out too well for him, but maybe it’ll work out better for all of us.
It’s so interesting how you interact with the audience in this show. How do you approach that?
I love it – I love it so much. I’m really grateful to have an audience to play with. It’s my safe space, for both Damon the actor and Beardo the character to embrace the audience. It’s almost like a confessional booth from The Real World, where you just have to get something off your chest or vent. But I think my relationship to the audience is sort of twofold – one, it’s an outlet. I need them, and I like them, but they’ve also been watching me. And I know that, and how it affects you when you’re being watched. You behave differently than when you’re not being watched, or when you don’t think you’re being watched. I think that can also be a fun layer to think about in terms of God. Is your relationship with God one in which God is always watching your sins, repentance, and guilt? So I think the audience is just that – it’s a physical manifestation of my psyche, my relationship to myself, that I need to just vent. I sort of press ‘pause’ on this whole game for a second and check in. But also it’s this all-seeing eye . . . you’re watching me do the good and the bad and I have to acknowledge that. It’s always fun to have a cheeky moment or two as well, and throw in a nice little improvised joke. If someone seems uncomfortable, you have to sort of poke at it a bit.
Has there been a moment like that so far?
Yeah. I love it. In the beginning, there’s a moment where I get a message from my head friend telling me to suck out the sadness of a particular individual. That sort of revs me up sexually, the idea that I am a ‘healer’, but it really turns me on and is a huge part of Beardo’s manifesto. You can always tell if someone is like, ‘Oh God, please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me.’ And of course, that’s who I’m going to pick. This one lovely lady just clearly didn’t want me to do it, so I had to do it. She was laughing and looking away, but I wasn’t going anywhere until she surrendered and looked at me. We had a little connection for a few seconds, and I got to sort of riff on that for a while. In the end, it worked. I think she was happier once it was over.
It’s such a profound show, and Hadestown is as well. How has that changed how you view life, death, and love . . . either as a professional performer or as an individual?
That’s a great question. Empathy is a huge part of the acting process for me – understanding your character and what moves them. What makes them want to fight, or have sex, or cry? What is life to them? Beardo is an abstraction of Rasputin, who is largely considered an evil man. So I had to disregard those labels and find the heart of Rasputin as much as I could in research. It’s similar with Orpheus – they just want to help. I think they have these special abilities, because Rasputin really was a healer. In investigating these people, you wind up making sense of it all and totally agreeing. It sort of reaffirms your own spine a little bit. I think ultimately, finding the positive stuff and recognizing that they’re both underdogs on some level trying to help, and making sense of their strange abilities in a place that doesn’t always want them, feels pretty consistent with professional acting. I wind up coming out of these plays feeling more grounded in my beliefs in terms of fighting for good, connecting to people on a deeply empathetic level, and standing for love – finding that openness in myself.
When I came into Beardo, I was curious to see what they’d do. There was no scope in my brain that I ever could have envisioned what Beardo actually was. Can you talk about transforming the actual Rasputin into this incredibly provocative, interesting, smart show?
It’s an abstraction of the life and times of Grigori Rasputin. I did a ton of research. I watched a lot of documentaries. I read a bunch of essays and stories and listened to a bunch of podcasts to get familiar. What’s amazing is that there are so many different accounts of who this person was and how he behaved, depending on the angle or even the ear. It’s politicians – they get voted in, and then they get ousted. They are loved, and then they’re proven to be unhinged. The important thing that I needed to digest was that this isn’t a museum piece – this is not Rasputin on stage. This is Beardo, and there is a difference between Rasputin and Beardo. It was great to know all that stuff about Rasputin, and to have it secretly in the back of my mind, but I needed to free myself physically and emotionally rather than play this vague idea of a stoic, shamanistic, Siberian man that would’ve put me in a false stance. That might work for another kind of play that I would be happy to investigate, but Beardo sets this place on fire a bit. He goes around and fucks with people in a healthy way that I think is very consistent with Rasputin, but the writing and the world is open to much more than that. I like having a more physical track. I like having some humor and some surprises. I didn’t come in intent to play it a certain way. In fact, it was a big struggle. There are three major parts of this play, and I struggled in the first couple of weeks to really find the one person who goes through all of this. I could play scenes for scenes’ sake, but I had to say, ‘Oh, that’s this moment, but who is this person actually?’ How is he changing people and how are people changing him? It’s an actual journey. At that point, it almost helped me to not think about Rasputin at all. You do all the research, and you do all the practice, but then you just forget it and go find Beardo. I think that can only happen through doing a hundred different drafts of a scene or a song or an arc in your mind. All the affectations burn away gradually and you’re just left with ‘Oh, I know Beardo. I like this guy. He’s a loose cannon.’ So that’s sort of been the process.
I want to talk a little more about Dave and Rachel. You’re working with people who I consider some of the greatest in theatre today. The way they cast and present a show, and basically everything they do, is so energizing and reminds me why I love theatre. So I can’t even imagine how liberating and expressive it must be to be playing within those worlds as an actor. How is that for you, and what have you learned from these incredible artists?
Oh man . . . so much. It’s been so truly epic. Rachel is an unbelievable director and an unbelievable collaborator. She really knows how to run a room in an authoritative way, but also in a really generous and open way with her actors. She loves real casting – she wants whoever is right and best for the part. But I know diversity is a huge thing for her, which is just tremendous, because it’s sad and weird that we even need that. She is definitely at the forefront of that sort of thing. So it’s this lovely mix of feeling safe and at home and in collaboration, but under the tutelage of a real driver. And Dave is just an absolute maniac of talent. The show is written for a string quartet, so you hear these unbelievable musicians play these beautiful songs, and you’re like ‘Oh, yeah, Dave wrote this. This isn’t Tchaikovsky or something, this was actually Dave writing this.’ And then five minutes later I’m playing a song on ukulele singing about my penis, and there’s a lovely eclecticism. I will say that I’ve had some unfortunate little knocks and stuff with the biz – everyone has at some point – but I have been really lucky that the jobs I do get to work on are with really good people and they’re meaningful pieces of theatre. I’ve worked a lot with this British theatre company Kneehigh, and with Emma Rice, who is now the Artistic Director at the Globe. She was sort of the first real genius I ever met who took me under her wing. I’ve worked with them for a few years now, and have learned a ton about authenticity, generosity, and teamwork, truly. I hadn’t really seen anything like that in the States until I met Rachel Chavkin. It’s that similar aesthetic that just reinforces what I believe to be true, which is generosity and teamwork and authenticity. Daniel Fish is another director I’ve worked with who I truly think is genius. And Ellie Heyman, who directed Beardo, is very much of the same cloth. It’s been sort of funny – that’s why I say they chose me. I’m open for business, and I love theatre and acting, but I wind up gravitating towards a specific type of community . . . which I’m now super psyched about, but for a while it sort of confused me. It just reinforces a sense that I know what I’m doing, and I do prefer working this way. A lot of really great work comes out of that.
I feel like all of the work I’ve seen you do says something important. Why is theatre, especially new musical theatre, important?
The theatre is extraordinarily important because it gives a voice to not only the voiceless, but also to the absolute voiced. It’s a gigantic mirror, and you’re allowed to smash it up and show people the ugly and the hopeful at the same time. People need that desperately. It’s not just distraction – it’s inspiration on a deep, spiritual level. There’s a reason we’ve been storytelling since the dawn of time. There’s a reason we go to theatre and we weep. And there’s a reason we go home and put those songs back on. We’re suspended in time and space for a minute and we get to examine what’s happening . . . especially now. I’m sure every generation feels this way, but boy – things are really getting out of hand. It’s important to bring a voice to this. It’s not even offering solutions, or saying it should be a certain way – it’s just offering a lens to let people come to their own manifestos about what should be happening. It will never stop, and I think it’s important for youth to get involved and witness more theatre. Not everyone has to be an actor, but it’s really terrific. I love things like student matinees, because it’s so important to expose kids to theatre who wouldn’t normally see it, especially nowadays, when theatre is so expensive – that’s a real shame. It’s great when young generations get to share in this. I remember being twelve, seeing Rent on Broadway, and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ And that was a show which opened up all sorts of stuff that was really crucial to be spoken about and sung about and investigated. We’ve got to make stuff that lasts and matters . . . and stuff that doesn’t last, but does matter. We’ve got to experiment a lot.