A Q&A with Sam Gregory, CSF’s go-to ghost
Take a look at Sam Gregory’s history with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and you’ll notice a curious pattern: He’s played a lot of ghosts.
Gregory first spooked audiences in 2013 when he appeared as Banquo’s ghost in “Macbeth.” Two years later, he had a turn as the spirit of John Barrymore in “I Hate Hamlet.” And just last year, he haunted audiences as Hamlet’s dead father.
You’d think someone who excels at unearthly roles might be intimidating or mysterious in person. But with Gregory, nothing could be further from the truth. The Colorado actor, who has appeared in eight CSF plays and no fewer than 46 productions at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, is one of the most honest, affable people you’ll ever meet.
This summer, Gregory gives up the ghost to play three characters that are very much alive: the eccentric, tax-averse Grandpa Martin Vanderhof in “You Can’t Take it With You,” and the assassin Tyrell and ever-loyal Lord Hastings in “Richard III.” We took a moment to ask him more about his background and his history with CSF.
How did you get your start in acting?
The very first Shakespeare role I ever had was Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I was 12. I fell in love with acting while I was playing that role, and it kind of launched my career. When you’re a kid, you really believe in everything you’re doing and saying on stage.
Did you intend to focus on Shakespeare as a professional?
No, I fell into it. I went to [The University of California] Berkeley, and when I graduated, I joined the apprentice program at California Shakespeare Theater. At the time, even in Berkeley, [Shakespeare festivals] didn’t think much about gender-bending, so they needed a lot of men. In typical Shakespeare plays, there are about 10 men for every one woman in the cast. It ended up being great training. I think if you can do Shakespeare, you really can do anything. The stakes are high, the language is tricky—it’s extreme theatre! So anything else, comparatively, is easy. I’ve now done, I think, about 28 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays.
How did you wind up in Colorado?
In 1992, a director I’d worked with in Berkeley, Donovan Marley, was doing a show at the Denver Center [for the Performing Arts]. An actor dropped out of the cast, and Donovan asked me to come out to replace him. After that, I popped in to Denver for plays here and there. In 2005, while I was living in New York, I was asked to be part of the company. I knew I was going to like Denver—I find it’s as close to a California lifestyle as you can get in the country. Don’t tell the natives I said that.
What’s been your favorite role at CSF?
I really loved playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It was the first non-Shakespeare play CSF did outdoors, and it was also the first time they used microphones on some of the actors. Of course, Gregory Peck was such an iconic Atticus Finch, and I thought I’d compare miserably. But the experience of playing that part was so joyous. I also had fun playing the ghost of John Barrymore in “I Hate Hamlet.” You can do whatever you want with that role.
What keeps you coming back?
I think it’s the people. It’s a nice mix of excited new people and old friends. I love working with undergraduates and graduate students from CU alongside the professional actors I know well in the Denver area. In other productions, you’re often working with people who are all in the same place professionally, and it feels more like a job—it’s all very professional, but it doesn’t have the same passion and joy. There’s a great pleasure in working with people who are in it for the fun of it, who really enjoy grabbing pizza after rehearsal and going on hikes together. Plus, the audiences are so great and enthusiastic. There’s nothing like performing in the summertime up in Boulder.
You’ll play the grandfather in this summer’s “You Can’t Take it With You,” and Leslie O’Carroll will play your daughter. That seems odd, considering Leslie has played your mother before…
Oh, it gets even weirder. The first time we were related to each other in a play, we were in “The Diary of Anne Frank” and we played husband and wife. We were also married in a play called “When We Were Married.” And then she played my mother in “Tartuffe” last year. Clearly, we’ve both reached an age where no one can gauge what’s an appropriate relationship between us!
Why do you think the characters you play span such a wide age range?
Lots of young actors start off playing the classic ingenue and then they slip into character roles as they age. That’s what happened to me, and it was kind of freeing, because character roles often don’t demand an actor of a specific age. If you box yourself into only “young leading lady” or “young leading man” roles, you’ll have a pretty short career.
You seem very comfortable acting in comedies, if your turn as the Player in last year’s “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” is any indication! Do you think “Richard III” will be the more challenging play for you?
I’m actually more confident when it comes to “Richard.” I’ve done it once before, and I’ve seen it a few times. I think rehearsing comedies is more difficult than tragedies. When you’re in rehearsal for a dark play, everyone’s always joking around and trying to make light of it. When you’re rehearsing a comedy, it’s very serious. There’s a lot of pressure knowing you have to make people laugh, trying to plot out the exact timing you need to get a joke right. Comedy is a game of precision. With tragedy, there’s more room for error.
Speaking of room for error, there isn’t a lot of it for public figures these days. Do you feel a lot of pressure as an actor to keep the personal and professional separate on social media?
It’s only lately that I’ve discovered I have to be more careful about things I post on social media. When I was on MySpace, I thought, “It’s just me and my friends, I can say whatever I want.” I’ve taken that philosophy to other media with disastrous results. We may call it “social media,” but I think it’s more “public media.” You have to leave the personal behind and realize that social media is really PR. Younger generations of actors understand that. The most successful actors I’ve ever known are the ones who are really nice but are a total mystery to me. I have no idea where they stand on any issue, political or social. They’re so good at saying just the right thing that they could be ambassadors. I’m not like that—I have a tendency to bare all.