By Maria Rodriguez
Harrison Smith is a frontiersman. Not the jet-set Monday in Mumbai, Tuesday in Tokyo seeker of adventure, but a lover of the unexplored territory of his own performance, a love he has had to drawn on to play “Johnny” in the Keegan Theater’s current production of American Idiot.
American Idiot, is a rock-opera based on the concept album of the same name by the pop-punk band Greenday, and it is full of the angst and deadened anger of the post-9/11 world.
Johnny, the character Smith is performing at Keegan, is also known as the ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ whose story is followed by the concept of the album American Idiot. Johnny was based in part on lead singer of the band, Billy Joe Armstrong.
Jesus of Suburbia is different from characters Smith has played in the past, not least of all because the character’s makeup includes “eyeliner so thick you can still see it, [even] after washing it for like 15 minutes,” according to Smith. It is just the type of challenge Smith, a chameleonic actor, seeks out.
In past productions on campus, Smith’s broad range as an actor was prominent in each performance. When I met with him for the interview, I brought up productions I remembered seeing him in; Carousel, [title of show], and he mentioned a show I’d seen but did not remember him from.
“I was also in First Light,” he said, alluding to the first-ever undergraduate written and produced play performed a couple years back.
“Really?” I asked, “who were you?”
“The old British guy,” he said. That character, so radically different from the other roles I had seen him in had just jumped to the back of my mind. Typecasting is not in Smith’s vocabulary. The casting director’s first impression is his most familiar foe.
We spoke to some length on his love of range, he has played roles as disparate as a bumbling comic to that tragic figure in First Light. Now he is playing a character familiar to most college kids from their younger days, the concept character from everyone’s favorite worn-through album, American Idiot.
Smith tries to give his all to each performance, and not just in terms of what happens on stage.
“I spend a half hour before the show just getting amped. I’ll drink coffee, I’ll run around and sing, I’ll yell things, I’ll jump into other people’s dressing rooms and start screaming, I have to get REALLY psyched, because it takes everything,” said Smith of his pre-show prep.
Understanding his character’s motivations, the typical work of an actor, took a little more effort than usual because of the lack of a thick script. The show is a rock opera, but by no means presents substance-light characters. To understand the context of his character, Smith did a good deal of research. He watched documentaries on the album, the band, the show, heroin addiction, you name it. And it has affected not just his performance, but what he has drawn from the show.
“Having lived through that time period and been younger, and having different naïve eyes to everything. Like when you’re a kid and you’re like “I’m watching movies this is great!” meanwhile the world’s crumbling. And now to be living in this shift to adulthood, and being the ages of these characters, has been really powerful for everybody in this show. I mean it’s a young cast – a really young cast,” said Smith.
The cast’s youthful visage is partially due to a good chunk of them being drawn from Catholic University.
Recent graduates of Catholic University, Hasani Allen (Tunny), Molly Janiga (Heather), Amy Maniscalco (Ensemble), Christian Montgomery (St. Jimmy), and Stephanie Leonardi (Swing) are joined by Chani Wereley (Extraordinary Girl), who like Smith, is a current student her. This cast and this production is a testament to our Music School’s excellent Musical Theater program.
Smith attributes part of his good fortune to grounding and techniques learned in the classes of Gary Sloan and Tom Pedersen, as well as the fine tuning he received at the hands of his vocal coach, Warren Freedman.
Finding success on and off campus has helped him in both arenas. Performing with CenterStage, the all-student run theater group on campus, taught him how to play intimate settings – a skill now used at the 115-seats of Keegan Theater.
“You can see everything, there’s nowhere to hide on that stage. It’s actor’s nirvana. You’re in a space where what you’re feeling, what you’re doing is made epic because you’re in this small space” said Smith.
And it is a good thing he feels that feeling, because the emotions he is riding during the course of this show do not not with the Ritalin-laden ennui of the mid-2000’s, but for Smith end with a beautiful truth.
“The show just reminds me every day that there’s hope. Through all of this, through all of everything, there’s hope at the end,” said Smith.
American Idiot at the Keegan Theater has recently extended its run through until April 16.
[Edit: This article previously stated that Christian Montgomery was a current student at Catholic University. Christian has already graduated from the University.]