You’ve been seeing his face everywhere. Staring intently from under a fedora with a beautiful, mysterious woman whispering sweet somethings in his ear, Company Member Kohl Sudduth has become the face of Radiance. He stars alongside Kelly AuCoin, Ana Reeder and Aaron Roman Weiner in our first World Premiere production of the year, which (thanks to Hurricane Sandy) now begins performances Wednesday, November 7th. We caught up with Kohl in between rehearsals to talk about his journey to Labyrinth, his inspired forays into playwriting, and his deep love of the great outdoors. Check it out.
So, Kohl — where are you from? What got you started acting?
I grew up in the cornfields and rolling hills of southern Ohio. When I was 14 or so, I came to New York and saw Steppenwolf’s production of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ on Broadway. I remember ‘Al Joad’, running onstage and doing a cannonball into swimming hole that seemed to magically appear beneath the boards of the stage. It seems quaint to think of it now after so many years living in NYC, but given my farm town upbringing, I’d never seen anything like that in my life. It was shocking and exhilarating. The journey of that play totally transported me–experiencing joy, the sadness of loss, the power of self-sacrifice, people making impossible decisions–a whole range of emotions and experiences well beyond my 14 years. Also, as my brother Skipp Sudduth was in the cast, I got to go back stage and meet these incredible actors. I’d just seen these people bring this very moving story to life and here they were backstage, just regular human beings, just like me. I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect, it had a huge impact on my life, changing it irrevocably. Up to that point, it’d never occurred to me that a person could make a living telling stories.
And how did you get involved with Labyrinth?
Some years ago, I was acting in a Steve Martin movie called Bowfinger in LA one summer. A cast member found out I lived in New York and kept telling me that I needed to come check out his theater company called “the LAB.” For reasons I don’t understand and still regret, I chose not to take the suggestion. Fortunately, I got another chance in auditioning for Judas Iscariot for Stephen [Adly Guirgis]. It’s ironic that I got cast because I gave a pretty awful audition. I was acting my ass off, screwing up the words, fumbling with this pack of cigarettes because of a bad acting choice…it was ugly. I was trying way too hard to do way too much. Stephen stopped me, held a piece of paper a few inches from his face and said something like, “I don’t care if you have to read the whole thing like THIS. Just read the words on the page.” I did exactly what he said and he decided to cast me. It quickly became apparent that the actors in Labyrinth had a whole other gear of intensity that I couldn’t even begin to access. I saw how much they supported each other. I experienced the demands for good work that the director, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, placed upon others and upon himself. I felt the bar rising very high, well beyond what I thought I could reach, and the need to do all I could to meet it. They trusted that I could do the work. I felt the unconditional support of a community of exceedingly talented artists who have since become good friends. After going to the Summer Intensive, I was invited into the company later the next year.
The last time Labyrinth audiences saw you on stage was in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot – what have you been doing since then?
As an actor, I’ve played ‘Suitcase’ Simpson in a long running series of murder/mystery movies for CBS based around Robert Parker’s Jesse Stone character played by Tom Selleck. I think I did that for like 8 years or so, making 1 or 2 movies a year.
I was also encouraged to try playwrighting after doing a workshop with [Labyrinth Company Member] Brett C. Leonard at the Intensive a few years back. I did some writing as part of an exercise Brett gave us and then we all went to eat lunch. During lunch, Brett told John Ortiz that I’d done some interesting stuff in the exercise. Ortiz encouraged me to write a play for next year’s Intensive. Encouraged, I should say, in a very direct way. He said something to the effect of, “I’m putting your play in a spot on the list for next year’s Intensive called “Untitled Kohl Sudduth.” I’d never written a play before. Writing that play became the focus of my year. Dead Letters was given a workshop at the Intensive and later at the Barn Series. Company Member Julian Acosta continues to develop it in LA. Enough people have told me there’s a decent play somewhere in there that I’ve slowly become inclined to believe that they’re not just humoring me. It’s not super crazy to think it’ll be produced sooner or later. I wrote another play called Wildhorn under the skilled guiding hand of Radiance playwright Cusi Cram and I continue to develop that play as well. I’ve written a short film called Red Hook and Falling that is now financed. We shoot in Brooklyn this winter with Snorri Sturlson of Snorri Bros Productions directing.
I also got married to an intelligent, beautiful and supportive woman who has nothing to do with the entertainment industry.
Good idea. Now, at the Intensive this past Summer, you lead a meditation workshop. You are also quite the outdoorsman. Do those parts of your life inform the way you think about theater? Or about art in general?
I’m kind of unsure how to answer this question, but here goes. A little explanation first…I’ve practiced for several years within a local Zen tradition. What I call ‘practice’ means sitting daily, doing regular multi-day meditation intensives, and consistently working with a teacher. For me, meditation is just very practical, an ordinary part of my daily life. There’s nothing particularly mystical about it. It’s about being fully present to the one place life is actually happening, right here and now. It means learning how to show up for life in a genuine way and learning how to learn from past mistakes. In my experience, there’s a vast difference between the sentimental idea of ‘being in the moment’ and the reality of showing up for everything that comes along with being alive. Meditation is the most effective way I’ve found to try my best to do that.
How this relates to acting and life in the theater is probably pretty obvious. The only place that life is happening onstage in a scene is in the present moment. If I’m not really present and I’m caught up in my own thoughts or whatever I’m experiencing emotionally, then I’m not really listening to my acting partner and I’m not really responding to the circumstances of the scene from an authentic place. I’m like an automaton going through the motions. Not only does that feel horrible, it doesn’t serve the play or the audience.
I’m also unsure how to answer about how my experience with the outdoors effects how I think about art in general…Off the cuff, it makes me think about the artists I turn to for inspiration—not just for inspiration to try to make art, but sometimes just to make it through another day. Poets like Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder, artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Maya Lin, writer/activists like Bill McKibben, shakuhachi masters like Watazumido, even bushcraft teachers like Mors Kochanski—all their work illuminates a constant dialogue with the natural world. That really speaks to me. For me, true wildness, the natural world left alone, offers the greatest works of art I’ll ever see. I’m thinking right now of the symphony of Valle del Silencio in the Torres del Paine region of Patagonia. It’s fairly remote and, per it’s namesake, very quiet. Then a kind of rumbling thunder music born from mountains shedding gigantic boulders shatters the air and the echo reverberates back forth across this valley that’s hemmed in by steep, several thousand meter walls. Then, just as suddenly, it returns to utter silence. As I think about it, it’s wild to reflect that Valle del Silencio is doing that right this very moment. Other experiences that come immediately to mind are seeing the lichens that grow in perfectly concentric patterns on rocks in the highlands of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Also the incredible six-foot wide fan shaped ice sculptures created by sub zero temperatures and gale force winds on top of Mount Algonquin in the Adirondacks in winter, just to name a few of my past experiences. I’m not sure exactly how these experiences shape how I think about art, by there is no doubt that they shape my life and what I value–the fact that it is a moral imperative to care for our planet. I don’t know. I’ll need to reflect on that a bit more.
Sure. So, what are you looking forward to about the Radiance rehearsal process? What speaks to you about the show?
Looking forward most of all to collaborating with Cusi Cram, Suzanne Agins, Ana Reeder, Kelly AuCoin and Aaron Weiner. I’ve known Cusi for some years and have studied writing with her. I’ve loved and supported her work for a good while and the chance to work with her directly to bring her vision for this play to life is an incredible opportunity to learn. I’ve found Suzanne Agins to be a skilled and insightful director who helps me see beyond the limits of what my imagination can come up with on it’s own. Ana Reeder is a very generous and powerful stage presence. She’s so giving with her internal life and with her imagination that it’s good damn fun to come to work. I’ve known Aaron for some time and he’s a very good guy and a talented actor, so getting to spend time with him is always good. I’m getting to know Kelly, but his talent is obvious and he really makes me laugh. I look forward to getting to know him better. There’s also the gift of doing this play at Labyrinth, working with Danny Feldman, Robert, Willie and the whole staff. It’s very simple really. I love walking through the West Village, going to work on a play that I love and that I feel brings benefit to the world. There’s nothing lacking.
As far as the play itself, I think Radiance tells an important story that needs to be told. When Cusi first sent me the play, I read it immediately and then watched the episode of This Is Your Life around which the play is based. It was brutal TV watching. It was one of the most subtly violent things I’ve ever seen. The gall that the producers of that show had to bring victims of the Hiroshima bombing face-to-face with the co-pilot of the plane that bombed them—well I don’t know what to say. It’s beyond reckoning. It’s a wonderfully complicated story filled with mixed motives and cross-purposes. Everything that makes for good drama is found in this story. What attracted me most to the story is that it is just a great idea for a play. An inspired idea that Cusi came up with to tell this story. Set the play in the bar that the co-pilot of the Enola Gay went to get drunk in before he went on national television. He was clearly drunk in the episode. An episode that is straight from the history books. That’s a very interesting idea. Another thing that really attracts me to this play is the chance to learn about the dawn of the nuclear age and the primary players involved. I love research. Lastly, the biggest draw is to try to tell the story of the after effects of the Hiroshima bombing in an even-handed way. I’m remembering something Meryl Streep said in the documentary they made about doing the recent production of Mother Courage. She said that as an actor, her job is to be the voice for the dead. That really resonated with me–giving voice to the dead–to try to understand them intimately, to try to clarify what causes these things, to try to clarify how it can be that humans are capable of creating such extraordinary and beautiful cultures and at the same time we destroy these cultures through greed and aggression over and over and over again. It’s a chance to try to understand war’s insatiable desire to propagate itself. I highly value any chance to cultivate more insight into this part of human consciousness. This play is an excellent vehicle for such cultivation.