Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Tyler Michaels in the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The new face of Twin Cities theater is also one of its most unrecognizable. And that’s not just because Tyler Michaels is still establishing himself (he won Emerging Artist at the 2014 Ivey Awards) or because his biggest role to date (the Emcee in Cabaret) found him swinging upside down from a trapeze, but because, physically, he so completely inhabits his characters that the kid from Bloomington becomes invisible.
It is that knack for utter corporeal specificity that drew Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling to cast the young actor as Puck in what will be Dowling’s final Guthrie staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play he first directed during his inaugural season two decades ago. “There’s a potential energy to that character that I find in myself,” Michaels says. Sounds like a perfect fit for Dowling’s coursing, ethereal Shakespearean adieu.
Catch Michaels during the Guthrie's February 7–March 29 run of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Below, excerpts from an interview with the young actor.
Erin Kincheloe: Tell me about your decision to specialize in physical theater.
Tyler Michaels: Me and my buddy in college saw this guy named Tomáš Kubínek, who's I think an Austrian solo performer. He came to our college and did this weird, weird solo show. Just bizarre. Super physical, super nonsensical, almost absurdist. He did this thing where he called a random audience member up onto stage and had him bend his knees. He [Kubínek] climbed up on his knees and hooked his leg around the guy's head and stood there without his hands. We were like, What is happening?! How can he do this? How can one guy make an audience member do this with him, and how can it be so physical and so weird and so funny? Everybody went out that night after the show to have a drink or go party or whatever, and me and my buddy just stayed in the green room trying to figure out how he did that. Like, let's play with this. So we partnered up throughout a lot of college really exploring that physical stuff, I think directly inspired by him.
EK: Your performance as the Emcee in last year's Cabaret was as physically demanding as this version of Puck will be. They seem to be similar in other ways—mischievous instigators, omnipresent. Are you connecting them at all?
TM: They're definitely similar. I think there's a far more magic quality to Puck than there is to the Emcee. I think physically, they're very different. I think intellectually they're probably very similar: they're tricksters and they're always one step ahead of the audience and everyone around them.
EK: How are they different physically?
TM: There are a lot more directions you can take it. You can make a fairy really earthy and really grounded and on all fours, very close to the ground. Almost digging up that dirt, utilizing that. Or else flying through the air and never touching the ground. It's elemental: You could play it as the element of air, very wispy and quick and flighty; or fire, very hot; or like I said, very earthy. But I think the Emcee is a real person, even through all of that, even being one step ahead and being omnipresent, he's still an entertainer and he's still the operator of this theater space, so he has to be a human. And Puck doesn't have to be that at all. He can truly be anything within the limitations of what you have in the script.
EK: So you'll have discussions with Joe Dowling on that. You've worked with him on My Fair Lady; are you comfortable around such a legend?
TM: Definitely. I was extremely intimidated by him at first. The first two weeks of My Fair Lady rehearsal I was like, "I don't want to do anything wrong." I was scared to try things, not because of anything that Joe did, but because of my own—I'm at the Guthrie Theater and I don't wanna mess up. I remember two weeks in and I'm wracking my brain at home just going, "I don't feel good, I don't feel like I'm doing anything. I just gotta try things. I just have to try. If he yells at me, so what?" And I came in the next day and tried stuff and he was like, "Yeah! Great! What about this?" And then I realized he's very open to collaboration and also willing to tell you, "Don't go in that direction." Joe is very good at telling you what he wants of a character in an extremely positive way.
EK: Your theater career is booming in Minneapolis; have you considered leaving? Doing film?
TM: My experience with what I've been doing recently has been so wonderful. I think one of the big things that Jonah and the Whale has given me is like: Can this work? Can I do this thing that I want to be doing, which is creating work? Alongside my performance career, also directing and creating and inventing new theater. And I think that from my perspective that's been a success and something I want to keep exploring. I think it's far easier to do that here than in New York City.
That's not to say that I couldn't find it in New York, but . . . a few things: I don't want to lose my identity as an artist, and I've established that here, or I'm pretty close to establishing that here. And I want to create work real bad, and I think I can do that a lot easier here. And there's, I think, more support for that kind of work here, to create new work and to found new work. And there's support for it maybe in New York or LA, too, but there's just so much more of it. This community is small enough that you know who you're working with but big enough that you can still make an impact, I think. Like Peter Rothstein doing All is Calm? I mean that's just everywhere right now. I think it's in Canada, New york, down in California—it seems like they're just doing it everywhere. That came from here. That's so cool. He's definitely a creator that I look up to. I want to do that kind of work.
EK: You mentioned your work with 7th House Theater, directing Jonah and the Whale?
TM: If I'm going to create new work, I want it to be that kind of work. There's this idea that I've been throwing around of what kind of work I want to do, and I've coined it as "total theater." I want to do theater that has movement and music and dance and beautiful words, and crazy soundscapes—literally just pulling from anything and smashing it into a show.
EK: That sounds very over-the-top, but Jonah was very stripped down.
TM: Yeah, which is also very important to me, is a very curated piece of art. It's easy to put a lot of things on a stage and make a show and see what sticks, but to curate that and make it into something poignant and specific—this is a term I've come to know really well—there is specificity in simplicity. To make something very, very simple, you have to be extremely, extremely specific about it.