Bruce A. Young plays Lefty, the loveable urban street person, in “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” currently playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Last season, he played Gonzalo in “The Tempest.” Throughout his acting career, Young has been involved in creating remarkable and innovative theater. We visited over lunch at the Standing Stone Brewing Company in Ashland.
EH: When did you first become interested in acting?
BY: When I was in grade school, I was walking by a community theater, the stage doors were open. They were rehearsing and painting outside. I wandered in with big eyes, and said, “Can I help?” It was such a great little community theater, they were very inclusive.
EH: You went on to study theater?
BY: I went to college in Austin, Texas, St. Edwards University. They had a program where they would invite actors from Los Angeles to come do a play. We worked with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Al Lewis, Jackie Coogan, all these old stars. They all had their stories about how they got their start and what it was like now. It was fascinating.
From there, I went to graduate school at Illinois State University. Then it was a natural slide up to Chicago. We were always doing crazy things in Chicago. I got a job a with lunch-time soap opera called “Lakeshore Live.” A movie theater had opened up for lunch, so that the corporate people around could come in and see a half-hour show. It was five days a week, a different show every day. It didn’t last long, but it was fun while it lasted.
I worked with Bob Falls at the Goodman Theater. Then I became a member of the Organic Theater Company that specialized in a taking literary work and turning it into a play. They did a Ray Bradbury piece, “Huck Finn,” Edgar Allan Poe.
They also did original work. We would go out and study a subject, then we’d come back and improvise how the characters would behave, write it down and organize it into a play. We went to emergency rooms. We took night shifts, we sat, we watched. The original “ER” TV show was developed that way. We were the play before the television show.
With artistic director, Barbara Gains (who now is the artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater) we started the Chicago Shakespeare Workshop in a bar on Lincoln Avenue. We did “Henry V.” We had to run through the bar with our swords to get to entrances. From that humble beginning, came the Navy Pier multimillion-dollar facility doing world-class theater. I stayed with them for five years while I was back and forth to Los Angeles doing a TV show.
EH: How did you come to OSF?
BY: I met Joy Dickson (the OSF casting director) in Minneapolis at The Playwrights’ Center, which provides a company of actors to playwrights for readings of their work.
EH: How do you approach a part once you are cast?
BY: Mostly it’s about seeing what the play needs. I want to know, “What’s my purpose?” Once I understand what I am supposed to achieve, then I find the humanity that makes the character live and breathe.
EH: What is it about theater that makes people so passionate?
BY: You get that suspension of disbelief, that overwhelming emotion and that cathartic energy that is exchanged between audience and actor — and within the audience. That’s it for me. I don’t know any other job that gives you that.