Every year, hundreds and even thousands of young actors, newly minted by universities and their drama schools, arrive in New York. Repertoire-ready, they dream of playing Hamlet -- and end up working at Hamburger Hamlet. Those, today, are not my stories. No, today's text is taken from the lessons of Zach Appelman and David Pegram, young members of the War Horse cast, who are among the happy few managing to move to the city with employment. Their stories are their own, but in a broad sense they represent the stories of almost the entire War Horse ensemble, replete with young actors making not just their LCT but their New York debuts.
Appelman grew up in Palo Alto, and Pegram in Houston, and since it's asking too much of me to construct every sentence of this blog posting as a seesaw between the two men, let me adhere to alphabetical order (note to young actors: if you call yourself A.A. Aah, you'll always have top billing in an ensemble cast) and start with the Californian.
"I went to Palo Alto High School," Appelman told me the other day on a rehearsal lunch break, "but I wasn't a Stanford faculty brat. I wasn't really in theater in high school; I did wrestling, track and field, martial arts." It wasn't until Appelman got to UC/Santa Barbara, and took an acting class to fulfill a course requirement that he got hooked. "Acting combined so many of my interests. It engaged me physically, and also tapped into my interests in storytelling and history."
It was in Santa Barbara that Appelman says he developed a love for Shakespeare: "I like epic stories, and that's a main reason I am so attracted to his work." Perhaps it would be truer to say that as an undergraduate (he later got an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, Class of 2010) Appelman deepened his interest in the Bard. "My grandparents took me to see my first Shakespeare play when I was 10. It was Henry IV, at the Old Globe. They had expected to have to take me home at intermission - they expected that I'd be bored. But the fight scenes got to me. I had to stay."
Talk of Bardic onstage conflict arises again when I asked Appelman where he was when he received the news, last fall, of being cast in War Horse. (He plays Sgt. Fine and ensemble roles.) "I was in my apartment in Chicago, about to head to the theater for that evening's performance of Romeo and Juliet." (Appelman was Tybalting.) And his reaction? "I was surprised and excited, and then tried to focus and get through the R & J fight call without stabbing anyone with my rapier."
And where was today's other blog subject, David Pegram, when he got the call to War? "I heard from my agent, when I was at home in my apartment in Jersey City. I jumped around the room in excitement."
Like Appelman, War Horse was not Pegram's first professional gig after finishing school. (Pegram got a BFA in Acting from Rutgers, last spring.) He was in a production of Nathan Louis Jackson's Broke-ology, a few months ago at TheaterWorks in Hartford, a play that had its New York premiere at LCT.
Pegram's interest in performance is longstanding: he went to The High School for the Performing and the Visual Arts in Houston. "My mother always encouraged me," Pegram said, even though, he says in a line reading gracefully tinged with appreciative irony, "She and the rest of my family are in the medical field. I'm the odd man out." (Pegram's mother is an eye surgeon, his father a rheumatologist, and his sister a cancer researcher.)
Pegram, who is part of the trio animating Young Joey in "War Horse," and who portrays the character of David Taylor and other roles in the ensemble, has more than medicine in his lineage. His maternal grandfather, Dave Pope, after whom the actor was named, was an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, and played in the 1954 World Series.
"I had a teacher in college," Pegram said, "who used to say something that made me roll my eyes then but that now, in War Horse, I realize is so true: 'Actors are athletes.'" Pegram elaborated: "In this show, we have to learn the fundamentals. We have to be agile and mentally sharp. We can't relax, and we have to stay ready for an impulse." Pegram observed that working as a horse in the production is akin to playing basketball. "We're a constantly moving organism."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.