Jonny Orsini, who plays Ned in The Nance, is an exceptional performer, but in one sense he's like many of the other young actors I know in New York: he didn't do theater in high school. Maybe they were too busy with other activities. Maybe their taste in music didn't include show tunes. Both these reasons applied to Orsini, who grew up in Cheshire, CT, which is 14 miles north of New Haven.
"In high school, I was involved in sports - hockey, skateboarding," Orsini said. We were sitting in his dressing room, located along the men's floor of the Lyceum Theater's backstage. (The women are housed a floor above.) "I was shy, and not very interested in performing."
Partly as a result of growing up in a politically-minded family (his father was the mayor of Cheshire for 8 years), Orsini developed an interest in journalism, and he enrolled at Suffolk University, in Boston, intending that field as his major. "But," he explained, "right away I met an actor who got me to check out the theater department. I realized that acting in theater is about more than musicals." Orsini added: "I learned how to love doing a play in a black box, with only 90 seats, and ripping my heart out."
Our discussion of emotional exposure got Orsini to talk about his "Nance" character. "Ned is a challenge to play because he's so open-hearted. He's so unprotected. There's a kind of bravery in that, because most people are so emotionally defended." Orsini is rightly reluctant about how he approaches the character from a technical point of view, other than: "It involves thinking about Ned before he got to New York, and what his life was like. Like most people who move to New York, even today, he comes here hoping to become the person he knows is inside of him."
Orsini's interest in the construction of a person's emotional life is one reason he reads widely. He mentioned a book called The Brain That Changes Itself,by the psychiatrist Norman Doidge. "The author writes about how adaptive the brain is. He argues that if you take yourself deeply into the imagination of something it's as if you live the experience - up to 80 percent of it."
Orsini said such imaginative identification helped him understand why making a short film four years ago called Cigarette Candy, directed by Lauren Wolkstein, had such an effect on him. "I played a Marine dealing with PTSD, and even though we only filmed for about 4 days it took me a month to feel normal again after we were finished."
And what's on Orsini's dressing-room table right now? Running with the Mind of Meditation, by the Tibetan lama Sakyong Mipham. "It's a fitness program," Orsini said, "but it talks about the relationship between meditative states and physical movement, including running long distances. Since I'm a runner, and since I'm doing eight shows a week right now, the book interests me for a lot of reasons."
P.S: This week, the Theater World Awards announced that its 2013 Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theater for Outstanding Performance in a Broadway or Off-Broadway Production would be given to Orsini for The Nance. Congratulations, Jonny!
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com