Broadway actor arrives late, entertains Berkeley crowd
The Yale Daily News October 5, 1999
By Bibi Lesch
Michael Cerveris arrived 90 minutes late for a Master's tea on Friday, but students did not complain.
Cerveris, who has starred in several musical theater productions since his graduation from Yale, including "Titanic," "Tommy" and, most recently, the smaller-scale "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," spoke with about 25 students at a Berkeley College Master's Tea on Friday.
By 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, about 40 people were waiting in the house of Berkeley Master Harry Stout to hear Cerveris speak. At 4:30 p.m., Stout entered the room to announce that his guest had been held up in traffic and would arrive in around 20 minutes.
Cerveris had told Stout he understood people might have to leave, but he would be willing to talk even to only five students -- he was not turning back.
One hour later, when Cerveris finally entered the house, it seemed as if there would not even be five members of the audience. But as he sat down, the room seemed to fill magically. By 5:35, 25 people filled the room.
Stout said that unlike at most Master's Teas, Cerveris came with no talk to give. He only wanted to answer questions, so that, he said, "[he] can tell [students] what [they] want to know."
He discussed his background in theater and the path he took from Yale to the stage. At Yale, he majored in Theater Studies, which he said was a tiny, rather insignificant major at the time. Cerveris said the chair of the department did not believe much in technique.
"I didn't agree with the idea much at the time," Cerveris said. "But now I don't think that [technique] is as important as just being educated and curious."
Cerveris was interested in acting even before he came to college, but he chose Yale over a more theater-oriented conservatory because he wanted a good academic grounding. He said he reasons that if he is to play people with interests other than theater, he had better get some experience with them.
Cerveris spent a great deal of time talking about his experience with "Hedwig," his latest, most daring production. The show, meant to be played in a small theater, is essentially a one-actor production, although there is one other small character role.
It requires the lead actor to dress in drag for part of the show, which Cerveris said he found was, to his surprise, "an empowering kind of thing to do."
"Hedwig" is "so extreme there's a place for every aspect of your personality somewhere in the character," he said.
But the major reason he took the part was also a major reason he decided to come to Yale. Essentially, "the things I was most afraid of were the things I should do," he said.
When Cerveris decides to do something, though, he really does it.
"Hedwig" has been playing since 1992, and since then Cerveris has done eight shows a week over the course of six days, with one week off every 8 to 9 months. (Editor note: Michael played Hedwig in New York 7/8-8/3/98 and 1/4-8/7/99 and will open the show in Hollywood on 10/31/99, not since 1992 as stated in article)
"You sacrifice a lot of your life," he said. "It starts to wear on you psychologically."
"Hedwig" isn't the first show he has been so dedicated to, though.
"Tommy," for which he is more famous, involved 1304 performances on his part.
"But," Cerveris said, "Who's counting?"
After all this, making a movie might seem much more appealing -- more money for less total time spent. But Cerveris seems to prefer the performing life.
"I like the small room and the fact that there's less spectacle," he said. "It makes you work harder."
He said he also believes that not just movies but big theater productions as well can often lose sight of the acting, and that the sets and costumes that make big shows so impressive can detract from the spirit of the show.
When a set is forced by physical constraints to be creative, "it engages your mind in a way that movies can't," he said.
But when asked if he had no interest in doing movies, he was quick to clear up any confusion.
"Oh, no, I would love to do movies," he responded. "I've done a few, but mostly the kind that air on USA late at night."
Regardless of whether he has a big name, Cerveris has a set of loyal fans at Yale.
"It was definitely worth staying," one student said when the tea came to a close.
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