The actor-musician is playing his 10th engagement in Jonathan Tolins' comedy Buyer & Cellar, this time as a last-minute replacement for a canceled staging of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? January 19–February 3 at the Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans. The solo show casts Cearley as a struggling L.A. actor who finds himself working in Streisand's Malibu basement, and striking up a relationship with the Oscar-winning artist. (Click here for tickets.)
It's a busy time for Cearley, who starred in the Chicago premiere of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas this past fall and will make his solo 54 Below debut February 9 at 7 PM in an evening titled I Didn't Recognize You with Your Clothes On. Joined by a full band, led by pianist Lance Horne, the evening will mark Cearley's first solo show in over a decade. (Click here for reservations.)
Cearley has also been seen seen on Broadway in All Shook Up. His Off-Broadway credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pageant, Sex Tips…, and Cupid & Psyche. Regionally, he has performed in Little Shop of Horrors, An Act of God, Next to Normal, and The Rocky Horror Show. He also co-conceived and starred in the actor-musician version of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Cearley shares why it's a gift to be back in Streisand's basement and why it's important not to be like everyone else.
Where did you train/study?
Nick Cearley: I grew up in Fairfield, Ohio, right outside the Cincinnati/Dayton area and went to Fairfield High School. I went to Boston Conservatory and got my BFA in Musical Theatre.
Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor standout?
I loved my college experience, but I think about the teachers who helped me prepare for going to college as making quite an impact. Particularly one of my high school drama teachers, Kathleen Sullivan (“Sully”). She sadly passed away while I was still a senior in high school in the middle of the year and in the thick of directing and coaching me on all my college auditions. She really took me under her wing and pushed me further in my acting specifically than I had ever been pushed before. I still find myself thinking of her coaching my Shakespeare monologues and how invested she was in my future happiness in the arts.
This is the 10th time
you've appeared in a production of Buyer & Cellar. What are the
challenges of the role? How do you think your performance has changed
I always joke that it’s only one line. One 100 minute line! Having done this show now with 10 different directors, 10 different scenic designs, 10 different cities across America, and so on, it has changed a lot and hardly at all. And is so fun to hear how the different parts of America react differently to different references throughout the piece. Whenever I get to do a role, I assume when the show closes, we hang that experience up and move on. It’s a gift to revisit a character and get the opportunity to play with it again. I am still learning and hearing things new ways. And to then get to do it for so many years, it’s truly wild to think about for me. As time passes and as the world changes, things have hit differently (I have done this role now over the span of three presidents). Also, when this play was written, Barbra was 68 and had not yet written the colossal memoir that she just published.
This play is a work of fiction (though brilliantly written by Jon Tolins to feel so very real) about the only other book she penned, which was the coffee table book My Passion for Design, which is about her estate. There’s a scene in the play where she talks about not writing a memoir (because “what’s left to say?”). And now that scene feels slightly more comedic being that she finally did, and it's 992 pages.
The biggest challenge of the role when I learned it was simply how to memorize it and get from point A to point B. I wanted to do this show so badly when I first saw Michael Urie’s incredible performance; I remember calling every theatre I'd ever worked for and saying, “I have to do this show for you when it is available.” For the first production in Sacramento that I did, which I auditioned for blindly, I remember showing up two hours before rehearsal to go through the show and movement before the day began, and then I stayed two more hours to review what we learned so that I could incorporate the physicality to the words. I also remember many nights falling asleep and waking up with the script on my chest.
Now, the biggest challenge, I think, is listening to each specific audience and not taking for granted where I “think” they’re going to find a laugh. I am always checking in with them to make sure they’re still listening. Every city’s audience has a different reaction to every scene, and I just can’t take how an audience has responded before for granted.
Have you read Streisand's autobiography? Has it affected your performance at all?
I just started it! It is daunting to know [the audio version] is 48 hours, but I am very excited to see how she tells the stories that are also told in the play. I find her hysterical because she’s truly one of a kind. I like to channel the goofball Barbra from the What’s Up, Doc? era because, after all, Buyer & Cellar is a comedy. Though she has changed so much throughout the years, at her heart, she is a pretty brilliant “funny girl.”
You're also going to perform at 54 Below solo and with your clothes
on! What led to this new show? What can audiences expect?
Before The Skivvies, I loved doing cabaret shows and concerts and doing very similar “out there” musical arrangements, involving mash-ups and medleys that have a specific comedic angle to make you think of a song in a different way than you have heard them before. So, that will happen again. My dad was a DJ, and so I have grown up playing the “this song sounds exactly like that song” game as long as I can remember. It is in my blood. And I think because The Skivvies are so nontraditional in the cabaret setting, I am trying to think out of the box to be, in fact, more traditional but still keep my edge that makes me “me.”
Also, I have already asked permission to bring my pup Pippa. I hope she’s available.
What made you decide to become an actor? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
In the third grade, we did The Wizard of Oz, and my teacher told me I should audition for Scarecrow. But I remember having just seen a production of that show at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, where the Wicked Witch of the West was played by a man. So I told my teacher that the Scarecrow didn’t really speak to me and that I wanted to audition for the role of the Witch. So I did, and she gave me the role.
Shout-out to Mrs. Napier for thinking out of the box in our very small Ohio town! From that moment on, I was addicted.
What do you consider your big break?
I am not sure if I could cite a “big break.” I feel like I don’t let jobs or shows define me as a person. I know a lot of people associate me as “the guy from The Skivvies,” so maybe when that started to take off and we started getting more traction and attention, it sort of forced people to pay more attention. But when we started, we truly didn’t have a “big picture” plan. It all grew very organically, and I don’t take a moment of it for granted.
However, I do hope we are still doing it when we are 80!
How did you get your first job in the theatre?
As I mentioned, I grew up outside Cincinnati, Ohio, near Kings Island theme park. I was hired as an usher, and I was watching the show fantasizing about being in them. The character dancing role of Scooby-Doo opened up in the show titled Scooby-Doo and the Polter-GUEST, and I stalked everyone I could to get an audition. So I did, and I got it. I had just turned 16, and I remember I didn’t even have my license yet. I was in the process of taking my driving classes, and my parents were taking me to work for rehearsals. It was my first paycheck as a performer in a fully costumed character complete with giant body pod and a head and paws and all that. I loved it. Ultimately, I got promoted to the singing character in the Scooby-Doo shows for the next two years as Shaggy. That was my high school job.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
I wish someone would have told me long ago to embrace what made me weird and unique. I remember when I was auditioning for colleges and training, I thought I wanted to be like everyone else I saw up there. But, ultimately, my own uniqueness is what I wished I had embraced. I play a lot of instruments, and I remember when I first went to school, I sort of let all that go to concentrate on being a cookie-cutter version of a musical theatre performer. When I learned my strengths were my musical abilities and originality, I felt more free in all my artistic areas.
What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
That my light and love for the entertainment industry hasn’t gone out. It is so easy to get jaded and complain about everything that doesn’t go as planned, as this business comes with no rules, an invisible corporate ladder, and a lot of rejection. I still genuinely get excited to create and make art with other people, and I haven’t lost that spark and obsession. I am very proud to be able to continue to create and work regularly.