Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Daniel Morgan Shelley to portray Nat Turner in Lucy Thurber’s The Insurgents at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF)

Daniel Morgan Shelley © 2011 Lia Chang

Daniel Morgan Shelley © 2011 Lia Chang

Daniel Morgan Shelley is rehearsing in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for the world premier of Lucy Thurber’s The Insurgents, in which he portrays slave rebellion leader Nat Turner and a character named Jonathan. In addition to Shelley, the cast of The Insurgents features Cassie Beck as Sally, Cary Donaldson as Jimmy/Timothy McVeigh, John Ottavino as Peter/John Brown and Stacey Sargeant as Harriet Tubman/Susan.

Directed by Lear deBessonet, The Insurgents runs in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University, along with new plays by Kyle Bradstreet, David Mamet, Sam Shepard and Tracy Thorne. The four-week festival, consisting of 93 performances, will be held July 8 – 31, 2011.

Daniel Morgan Shelley © 2011 Lia Chang

Daniel Morgan Shelley © 2011 Lia Chang


Performances for The Insurgents are at Frank Center Stage, 260 University Drive in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The performance schedule for The Insurgents is Wednesday, July 6 @ 8pm (Preview — no advance tickets sold), Friday, July 8 @ 8pm (Opening Night), Saturday, July 9 @ 2pm, Sunday, July 10 @ 6pm, Thursday, July 14 @ 8pm (post-show discussion), Saturday, July 16 @ 8pm, Sunday, July 17 @ 1:30pm,Wednesday, July 20 @ 2pm & 8pm, Friday, July 22 @ 8pm, Saturday, July 23 @ 2pm, Sunday July 24 @ 6pm, Thursday, July 28 @ 8pm, Saturday, July 30 @ 8pm, Sunday, July 31 @ 1:30pm.

Single ticket prices to the 2011 repertory are $52. Four-show and five-show ticket packages (CATCards) are available, ranging from $100-$225. Discounts for students, seniors, active military personnel, and groups are also offered. For the Theater Festival Box Office, which is open off-season Monday to Friday from Noon to 5 p.m., call 800-999-CATF (2283) or visit www.catf.org.

Jennifer Blood (Desdemona) and Daniel Morgan Shelley (Othello) in Oberon Theatre Ensemble’s OTHELLO at Off-Broadway’s Kirk Theatre @Theatre Row, directed by Cara Reichel. Photo by Ann Bartek

Jennifer Blood (Desdemona) and Daniel Morgan Shelley (Othello) in Oberon Theatre Ensemble’s OTHELLO at Off-Broadway’s Kirk Theatre @Theatre Row, directed by Cara Reichel. Photo by Ann Bartek


I sat down with the Chicago native to talk about his career path in New York, where he has resided for eight years since first moving to the East Coast to attend The Juilliard School’s Drama Division.

Shelley discovered his love for acting at Thornwood High School in South Holland, IL. “In my sophomore year of high school, I had an English teacher named John Knight who liked my voice and encouraged me to join the Speech Team, specifically the event of Radio-Speaking,” said Shelley. “It was not my forte and I gravitated towards humorous acting instead. I auditioned for other things and began my acting training with coaches Darcelle Williams, Cheryl Frazier and Knight.”

He attended Columbia College for a year while pursuing an acting career in Chicago. A friend who had been accepted to Julliard suggested that he audition.

“After two attempts, I was accepted,” said Shelley. “I knew how high the stakes were. I thought it was going to make me the greatest actor in the world and give me more of a foundation for my craft.”

“Juilliard conducted showcases for the graduating class in New York and LA, and I got an agent right out of school,” said Shelley.

Joan Valentina and Daniel Morgan Shelley The Public Theatre’s production of The Old Settler in Lewiston, Maine. Photo by Janet Mitchko.

Joan Valentina and Daniel Morgan Shelley The Public Theatre’s production of The Old Settler in Lewiston, Maine. Photo by Janet Mitchko.


While training at Julliard, some of his favorite credits were Eugene Smith in Black Russian directed by Marion McClinton, Romeo in The Listener, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, Snug/Cobweb in Joe Dowling’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Duke Senior in As You Like It, directed by Ralph Zito.

After graduating with his BFA from Juilliard, Shelley made his professional acting debut and got his Equity Card for his role as Husband Witherspoon in The Public Theatre’s production of John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler, directed by Janet Mitchko, in Lewiston, Maine. New York theater credits include the Music Theatre Group’s workshop of Susie Ibarra and Yusef Komunyakaa’s experimental opera Saturnalia, directed by Daniel Fish, in which he plays Paul Bolivia, a U.S. marine who returns to Bangkok with his fellow Marine who saved his life after an attack in Ramadi; Clinton in HATER, Sam Buggeln’s adaptation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope at the Ohio Theatre (Soho Think Tank’s Ice Factory Festival), the title role in Othello, directed by Cara Reichel (Oberon Theatre Ensemble). Regional theater credits include Thami in My Children! My Africa!, by Athol Fugard, directed by Ralph Zito (Chautauqua Conservatory Theatre Company); Romeo in Romeo & Juliet, directed by Christopher Edwards (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival); Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet and Blindman/Con in Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death, both directed by Alfred Preisser (Classical Theatre of Harlem; and Sam in the National Tour of Addy: An American Girl Story with Seattle Children’s Theatre, directed by Linda Hartzell. On TV, he played an ESU officer on “Law & Order.”

Daniel Morgan and Shannon L. Dorsey in The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller. © 2010 Lia Chang

Daniel Morgan and Shannon L. Dorsey in The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller. © 2010 Lia Chang


In February, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the New York Times Critic’s Pick The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller, a new play by Jeff Cohen, based on the short story by Christopher Stokes, and directed by Alfred Preisser.

New York Times critic Rachel Saltz called Shelley’s portrayal of a troubled artist cannibal headhunter on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, “excellent.” Martin Denton of nytheatre.com said, “the ensemble is excellent, anchored by a strong, sympathetic performance by Daniel Morgan Shelley as Designing Man. The New York Post said The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller was “well-acted, particularly by the charismatic Shelley.”

Daniel Morgan Shelley as Mercutio in the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Romeo & Juliet.  Photo by Ruth Sovronsky

Daniel Morgan Shelley as Mercutio in the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Ruth Sovronsky


“I have worked with Daniel before on two other projects, Romeo and Juliet and Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death,” says director Alfred Preisser. “I’ve been impressed by his work and the way he approaches it. Putting him in the role of Designing Man meant that the play would rise and fall based on the way he created that character, since 40% of the dialogue is his, and the play is seen entirely through his character’s eyes. I love what he’s done with the character; he’s fused the ultra-modern concept of a sensitive artist with the archetype of Rousseau’s “Noble Savage”. Dan’s acting is understated and real, the audiences feel him and as a result, the play works.”
Helmar Augustus Cooper as Mr. M, Daniel Morgan Shelley as Thami Mbikwana and Vanessa K. Wasche as Isabel in My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard at the Chautauqua Conservatory Theatre Company, directed by Ralph Zito. Photo courtesy of Daniel Morgan Shelley

Helmar Augustus Cooper as Mr. M, Daniel Morgan Shelley as Thami Mbikwana and Vanessa K. Wasche as Isabel in My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard at the Chautauqua Conservatory Theatre Company, directed by Ralph Zito. Photo courtesy of Daniel Morgan Shelley


What has been your favorite role?
My favorite role so far was Thami Mbikwana in My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard at the Chautauqua Conservatory Theatre Company, directed by Ralph Zito. It’s without a doubt, my favorite Fugard play. The character has an abundant wealth of intelligence but also rage at the injustices that surround him and his people. This conflict manifests itself in the relationships with the other two characters of the play: his teacher, Mr. M and his friend/partner in an English Literature Quiz, Isabel. It was such a roller coaster ride to play Thami who is stifled in his ability to communicate with his black teacher who he feels doesn’t understand him or the struggles of their people, but can communicate with his white female teammate…who he feels doesn’t understand him or the struggles of his people. It’s a beautiful story, full of people who love each other and can’t express it.
Merritt Wever, Nick Dillenburg, Noah Weisburg (back of his head), Colby Chambers, Zoë Winters, Daniel Morgan Shelley in Hater at the Ohio Theatre, writer/director Samuel Buggeln's fresh, contemporary adaptation of Moliere's The Misanthrope.  Photo courtesy of Samuel Buggeln

Merritt Wever, Nick Dillenburg, Noah Weisburg (back of his head), Colby Chambers, Zoë Winters, Daniel Morgan Shelley in Hater at the Ohio Theatre, writer/director Samuel Buggeln's fresh, contemporary adaptation of Moliere's The Misanthrope. Photo courtesy of Samuel Buggeln


What are your dream roles?
Orlando in As you Like It. I want to play one of the princes in Titus. Cory in Fences. Any of the male characters in the Brother/Sister Plays, Young Blood in Jitney, Citizen Barlow in Gem of the Ocean. August Wilson is my favorite contemporary playwright. Stephen Adly Gurgis is my favorite living contemporary playwright.

Who are the directors you would like to work with?
Kenny Leon, Edward Hall, Liesl Tommy, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Julie Taymor, Christopher Nolan, Spike Lee, Michael Mayer, Clint Eastwood, and Michael Grief

What are you most passionate about?
I love the theatre. Be it live or on-camera, I am absolutely in love with the connections that actors have with an audience. It’s my passion – to connect. I love that I am a part of the centuries old tradition of the Thespian, the Griot, the Jyrau, the Bard, the Ashik. Storytellers. Carriers of the Oral Tradition so that the people remember who they are and where they come from. Without that, how do we grow? Theatre is society’s mirror and I thrive on being a part of that mirror. Giving Life to characters – a voice – a body – an existence – a fully realized person for the purpose of telling a story and connecting to an audience. Theatre is a community practice with the potential for a circular exchange of energy between audience and actor. An intimate relationship is established with an audience. It is entertaining and it is healing. Theatre is Magic – to genuinely create living, breathing characters who only existed on paper before I gave them life and having an audience connect to that character is Magic. And I will do this until I die.

Other Articles by Lia Chang
Photos: Yellow Fever Playwright Rick Shiomi Explores New Territory with An All-Female Cast
Photos: Working Theater’s Production of Rob Ackerman’s CALL ME WALDO at Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex through March 11, 2012
Photos: Larry Bryggman, Denise Burse, Peter Jay Fernandez, Tim Hopper, Arliss Howard, Kobi Libii, Mary McCann, Neil Pepe, David Pittu, Steve Rosen, Sheila Tapia, Debra Winger at Atlantic Theatre’s Opening Night of Gabe McKinley’s CQ/CX
Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, starring Colman Domingo & Scott Shepherd in The Alice Griffith Jewel Box at The Pershing Square Signature Center through March 11, 2012
Linsanity: Sport Illustrated Cover Guy New York Knicks Starting Point Guard Jeremy Lin
Broadwayworld.com Photo Flash: Library of Congress’ IN REHEARSAL Exhibit
Up Close and Personal with Darren Pettie, Star of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
Multimedia: Promises, Promises’ Stars Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes at Lord & Taylor Fifth Ave
Coming to America through The Angel Island Immigration Station
Celebrating my mom – AN ACTIVE VISION: BEVERLY UMEHARA…LABOR ACTIVIST…1945-1999
The Dish on Susur Lee and Shang
Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang. Photo by Brianne Michelle Photography

Lia Chang. Photo by Brianne Michelle Photography


Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist.

All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2011 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at lia@backstagepasswithliachang.com.

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