In Theatre Trip’s “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most inspiring people in the theatre industry. And today we’re doing a special feature on A.J. Shively – an amazingly versatile NYC-based film, television, and stage actor.
You might best know A.J. as Billy Cane in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star on Broadway. He was also in the world premieres of both The Royal Family Of Broadway and Paradise Square. And on top of that, he was a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical!
So what initially inspired you to step into the theatre world?
“It’s hard to pinpoint a singular moment when I was bitten by the theatre bug. My family is full of film buffs, theatre aficionados, and avid readers. I was born a sucker for a good story. My grandfather used to bring me movies to watch with him when he came to visit. One visit, he had recorded a TV broadcast of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin, and I very quickly had the whole thing memorized, commercials and all. The moment I realized that I could be a part of these other worlds that I loved so much was after I saw the national tour of Big. The cast was full of kids, and I asked my mom how they got to do the show. She found the Columbus Children’s Theatre, I did a show with them that summer, and I’ve never stopped.”
Have you always been comfortable in the spotlight?
“I’m still not comfortable in the spotlight! While there are definitely a lot of actors who love the spotlight, I think there are even more of us who like to disappear into the story every night. I know a performance is going well when, even though I’m onstage, I feel like I’m in private. I can get fairly anxious and have had to learn how to battle stage fright. For me, the more aware of the spotlight I am the worse my nerves get. As long as I’ve done my homework and can sink into the story and lose myself in the eyes of a scene partner, I feel right at home. That all goes double for auditions!”
What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in your career so far?
“I could give a million answers to this question which I guess is its own answer. It’s been a challenge trying to understand the difference between being driven and holding myself to unattainable expectations. When I first graduated from college, I told myself that I would only get a haircut if it was given to me for a job on set. That’s how often I had to be on set for things to be going well. I also felt like I was being lazy if I didn’t learn a new song for every audition. Setting small, achievable goals for yourself can be extremely helpful. But these wild ideas about what it meant to be hardworking and successful had the actual effect of taking my focus away from telling stories, the whole reason I fell in love with theatre.
The immense pressure I put on myself landed me right in the center of the spotlight we were just talking about and gave me massive stage fright. I started giving myself little games to play to take some of the pressure off. Like before an audition, I sometimes make a rule that afterward, I’ll have to write down what everyone was wearing so I can be sure I was present and clear-headed in the room.”
“The more of the world you’re open to, the more you have to inspire you.”
And what has been your happiest career-related moment?
“Again, there are so many! I’m thinking of hearing the band playing the Bright Star score for the first time, and having the same feeling in my gut when I first heard the band play the score of Paradise Square, the new musical I just did out at Berkeley Rep. I’m thinking of getting my first TV gig and being so excited about it, then getting the call sheet and finding out my scene partner was Brian Stokes Mitchell (Ragtime was the first show I saw on Broadway and his performance got me addicted to musical theatre). The happiest moments, though have been spending time with the amazing people I’ve met. There is nothing better than having my parents and siblings visit to see a show so they can hang out with the cast and I can show them off to my theatre family.”
Between your stage, film, and television appearances, you are a very versatile actor! Do you prefer being onstage or onscreen?
“Thanks, I’m really happy to have had so many different experiences. I’ve always wanted to try everything, so I guess I’m in the right business. I’m pretty bookish and nerdy, so the research and discovery of rehearsal have always been my favorite part of a process. I love the collaboration with a director and playwright in a theatre process. I love discovering new moments in a story that I’ve been living in for months, sometimes years. That said, I’ve never done a multiple-episode story arc, and I’m really curious to take a character through different stories.”
What advice would you give those who are just starting out with acting?
“I always say stay curious. Read a lot, watch films, go to museums. If you want to do musicals, take voice lessons, learn an instrument, do yoga or tai chi or anything to help you move gracefully. The more of the world you’re open to, the more you have to inspire you. There’s an amazing Phillip Seymore Hoffman quotation that’s helped me a lot that I’m going to absolutely butcher. But here goes: if you want to be an actor, act! You don’t have to be in a show to do it. Read plays out loud with your friends. Make a short film with your friends. Remember that when you’re auditioning for a show, someone has paid for that studio space and given you those five minutes to act. Just act.”
“Stay curious. Read a lot, watch films, go to museums. If you want to do musicals, take voice lessons, learn an instrument, do yoga or tai chi or anything to help you move gracefully.”
I’m sure you already know this, but you have a gorgeous voice! Do you have any tips for taking care of it, especially before a show?
“Hahaha! Thank you. I just try to get the lyrics out clearly! If there’s one magic word for good vocal health or just good health overall, it’s hydration. During a run I usually only warm my voice enough to make sure my soft palate is high, the back of my tongue is stretched, and my articulators are firing. If I do a full half hour lesson before every show, I’ll start to tire myself out. I will do a full half hour physical warm up before every show (yoga, stretching, foam roller, that kind of thing). That unlocks the breath and helps me focus. Breath is also a great remedy for stage fright! With all that said, I’ve spent my 10,000 hours in voice lessons and know my instrument well. And a simpler vocal warm-up only works if you’re well hydrated and physically very warm.”
Can you tell us a bit about what was it like to work with Steve Martin on Bright Star?
“Oh man, it was an absolute joy the entire time. I’ve never been in a rehearsal room that was more stress-free. Steve, co-writer Edie Brickell, director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Josh Rhodes, and music director Rob Berman collaborated effortlessly. The whole process was full of heart, and that came from the top down. Of course, Steve is funny, but he’s also warm and brilliant and prolifically talented. He was always there with a word of encouragement when you needed it. He’d listen to the scenes with his eyes closed and come up and tweak a line, changing a three-syllable word to a two-syllable word, and all of a sudden the line would get a huge laugh. On breaks, he would whip out his banjo and noodle around. It was just the best.”
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three things would you have with you and why?
“Well, to be practical I would take a large supply of sunscreen because I burn like crazy. I’m going to assume that the water is clean and the food is plentiful and varied, more of a stranded in paradise situation. I think I’d take Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (that counts as one, right?). He creates such specific worlds and vast stories, and those books are his opus. I can definitely disappear into those over and over again. I’d also want a dog for company. Or wait, I just assumed I had to be alone. Could I have my girlfriend, and can she have three more things?”
What’s next for you?
“Like I said earlier, I really like the creativity of the rehearsal room, specifically doing new works. I’ve been really lucky to be a fly on the wall watching people like Steve Martin create. I love watching everything come together. Last year I did the world premiere of a new musical called The Royal Family Of Broadway inspired by the Barrymores written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, choreographed by Josh Bergasse, and directed by John Rando. About a month ago I closed the world premiere of Paradise Square, a new musical about an integrated community in New York during the Civil War written by Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, Marcus Gardley and Larry Kirwan, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, and directed by Moisés Kaufman. Next, I hope to find another great story to tell led by another team of brilliant minds.”
What did you think of this interview with A.J. Shively?
Are any of you working as or aspiring to be an actor or actress? We would love to hear all about what you’re up to in the comments below! And in the meantime, you can check out even more of our theatre interviews with inspiring people in the industry.
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Author: Stacy Karyn
Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She has a TESOL drama certificate, a BA in theatre, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.