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INTERVIEW: Grayson DeJesus on Playing the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie

An excerpt from the New York Times’ April 2, 1945 review of The Glass Menagerie‘s opening on Broadway. 

In two weeks, the Guthrie Theater opens its new production of The Glass Menagerie on the Wurtele Thrust Stage in Minneapolis. This classic chamber drama is no stranger to the Guthrie Theater, for whom this will be the play’s fifth presentation. The company first presented Tennesee Williams’ play in 1964 (the company’s second-ever season), with further productions in 1979, 1988, and 2007 (during its first season on the banks of the Mississippi).

This time around, The Glass Menagerie is being directed by Joseph Haj and stars Remy Auberjonois as Tom Wingfield, Carey Cox as Laura Wingfield, Grayson DeJesus as Jim O’Connor (“The Gentleman Caller”), and Jennifer Van Dyck as Amanda Wingfield. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine caught up with Grayson DeJesus to talk about his career and approaching a role in this iconic play.

Actor Grayson DeJesus. Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.

Where am I catching you in the rehearsal process?

I am currently in the Latitude 45 Apartments, where the Guthrie provides actor housing. In terms of rehearsals, we are in our final two days in the rehearsal room and are moving into the Wurtele Thrust Stage on Sunday for a spacing rehearsal. On Tuesday, we start tech week and 12-hour tech rehearsal days.

What edition of The Glass Menagerie are you using – the 2011 edition with a preface by Tony Kushner, or an older one?

I’m not sure which of the published versions we have, but I think that we’re using the one that has fewer stage directions than the published Broadway version. Our dramaturge, Carla Steen, gave us the essay on The Glass Menagerie by Tony Kushner and I read it – it’s a really good essay.

Do you recall when and how you first encountered The Glass Menagerie?

I do – it was my sophomore year of high school. We studied it in Drama 2, when our theatre teacher had us do scenes from The Glass Menagerie. Everyone got to choose, and I remember a lot of people picked the big argument in Scene 3. We also we compared the two film versions – the 1985 one directed by Paul Newman with John Malkovich and Joanne Woodward, and the 1973 Katherine Hepburn movie.

To be honest, however, I have not seen a production of The Glass Menagerie since we worked it on high school, and had not picked up and read the play again until I was preparing for the audition this summer. It’s such a famous play that the plot and story are well within my memory, but it wasn’t until I got the audition that I sat down and read it again.

The 1-on-1 scene between the Gentleman Caller and Laura has been called the greatest scene in one of Tennessee Williams’ best plays. This scene turns on a fundamental misunderstanding or assumption – as an actor, how do you approach what’s going on? What do you see as going on in Jim’s mind?

It’s a hell of an intimidating thing at the onset. When I’d tell theatre artists and friends that I was playing The Gentleman Caller, they’d say something similar – that it’s one of the best-written scenes. When working on it in rehearsal, however, it’s just so well-written and builds so naturally.

I do think that every character in this play is a survivor of their circumstances, and that’s something that we talked about in rehearsal. Although Jim is more socially capable than the other three characters, I think he’s going through a lot in his own circumstances. The power’s out, he’s sitting at a stranger’s house by candlelight, and he’s found this connection with this young person who knew him in high school, and it brings up his former glory.

That means a lot: Jim’s a person who did really well in high school, and so when Laura brings up his former glory, while also opening up herself as the scene progresses… Laura has a sincerity that is beyond any encounter that he’s had in maybe the last several years. While Laura goes through a lot, I think Jim has been through a lot as well. While Laura’s enchanted with Jim, I think Jim’s also completely enchanted with her over the course of that long scene – until, of course, it all changes.

You’re a graduate of the University of San Diego/Old Globe Theater MFA program. What was your experience like with the special professional training opportunities at the Old Globe?

I had a wonderful experience. What’s really interesting about that program versus other MFA programs is that it’s 2 years instead of 3 – but you don’t get summers off. Around your fall-to-spring class schedule, you also do a 5-month summer repertory contract with the [Old Globe] Equity company for your two summers. You essentially train during the academic year, but apprentice with a professional Shakespeare company in the gap from spring to fall. You might be in the ensemble, but also get some supporting roles.

The program is a little different now under its current leadership, but while I was there we were doing 3 plays simultaneously (in repertory). Jumping between those three plays – a comedy, a farce, a tragedy, sometimes – was just as valuable as the training and the classes and working with the professional company.

Grayson DeJesus in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of The Lion in Winter. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr., courtesy of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Your program bio lists a lot of Shakespeare and period play credits (e.g., The Lion in Winter). Is this happenstance from studying at the Old Globe, or a specialization that you were pursuing?

It’s probably not a coincidence that my program focused on classical theatre and I ended up booking it professionally. I’m not pursuing Shakespeare specifically, but I love the classics.

Of course, as actors, we book any worthy material that gives us a paycheck – but I think the training may have lent my style and skills to a lot of classical theatre.

I’ve also done a little film and television, which is interesting because I think my look can be intense…so I tend to play criminals and vulnerable people on film/TV, but more educated characters on stage.

What was your path from San Diego to New York? Did you always have moving to NYC on your mind, or was it something that found you with a particular role and production?

It’s kind of a crazy story, but I’ll keep it short. I was being pursued by an agent in Los Angeles while in grad school, but my friends at that time were living in New York. Since I had that professional connection, however, initially moved to Los Angeles for film/television work.

As often happens, that agent didn’t fully accept me into her office, and that opportunity came to an end – so I jumped over to New York City. While I was following the connections I had there, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of my best friend’s apartment. It was cramped, but we had very little rent to pay.

Actors sometimes have to put themselves on tape for stage auditions. I’d done that for the Warhorse national tour when I was in Los Angeles – and I got a callback for that production while I was in New York. Since I was living in the city, I was able to go to both callback rounds, and I ended up getting a contract. As a result, I was able to get up and go and tour 30 cities with a really beautiful play with the puppetry, the drama – and three weeks in Minneapolis (in 2013, I think).

After that, I had even more connections and signed with agents in New York. I’ve been based there ever since.

So, buses aside, being on tour was a net increase in your personal square footage?

Absolutely! At our first stop, for rehearsals in Boise, Idaho, they gave us townhouse suites with kitchens. After sharing a 1-bedroom in Brooklyn with two of my friends on top of each other, it was great. I had a king-sized bed.

Hopefully moving back to New York City wasn’t too constricting after that…

Well, what you give up in personal space in New York, you gain in arts and culture – and excitement.

What’s up next for you?

About 16 days after I close The Glass Menagerie, I will be starting Pride and Prejudice at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. I’ll go back to New York and see my friends for a couple weeks, then I’ll pop into some Jane Austen in St. Louis, for their holiday slot.

I’ve worked out there once before and it’s a good company, so I’m excited to do that.

You were in a show at the 2019 Minnesota Fringe Festival right before rehearsals began at the Guthrie – did you close down your New York City lodgings before leaving town, or are you subletting your digs?

If you have a room that you can sublet, it makes the financial equation much more helpful. When I left, my subletter was taking my room through October…but I offered him an extension, so he’s keeping the room ’til January, and I’ll be rent-free through then!

Previews for The Glass Menagerie begin at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN on September 14, 2019.

Basil Considine