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Artfully curated by Culturadar

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March 1, 2013

Much ado about Denis Butkus

Let’s get the basics out of the way first: Denis Butkus is a veteran New York actor who is currently appearing in Theatre for a New Audience’s acclaimed new revival of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. He has also appeared in four other TFANA productions – The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and Othello – and done stints on Broadway in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and all three parts of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia. So, he knows his way around some Shakespearean verse, the endless curlicues of Stoppard’s intellect, and a mammoth rotating repertory schedule.

But he’s also a tireless supporter of new writing and new talent. As an Artistic Associate with the downtown independent theater company Rising Phoenix Repertory, Butkus has produced, developed, and/or appeared in new plays by the likes of David Adjmi, Keith Reddin, Mark Schultz, Crystal Skillman, Daniel Reitz, and countless others. As one of the Literary Managers for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, he has been instrumental in producing staged reading of over 70 new plays for their Theaterjam I & II programs and their F*@KING GOOD PLAYS Festival. And as a teacher at Primary Stages’ Einhorn School of Performing Arts, he’s training the next generation of powerhouse thespians.

So, you see, Butkus is one of New York theater’s true renaissance men.

We recently spoke to him about the myriad of projects he has going on right now, the advantages of building lasting professional relationships, and the value of getting out of one’s comfort zone.

Culturadar: Congratulations on the recent opening of your show. How's it going so far?

Denis Butkus: Thanks, Michael. Much Ado has been a great challenge for me. I think it’s a beautiful, flawed, complex play. It has these moments of laughter, love, and warmth and these darker more sinister moments that are mysterious to me. This production really walks the tightrope between the two and that can be tough when folks come expecting a comedy and feel the carpet pulled out from under them at key moments. But that’s really what Shakespeare was trying to do, I think, challenge his audience by showing how amazing and destructive love can be, all at once. I mean he had to reach the groundlings in the front, but also pitch it up to the lords and ladies in the gallery – which meant he had to do more than just crack broad jokes, or witty banter, he had to go deeper – he had to do both. I think he’s asking us to do that and we are attempting it every night, which is both challenging and rewarding. That most of the play is actually in prose – rather than blank verse – is telling. It’s the first Shakespeare I’ve ever done where I have no verse to speak. Plus, I’m on the more sinister side of things – playing Conrade, one of Don John’s boys – and it has been interesting making mischief in the play. It’s not something I get to do very much and getting in touch with my hooligan side is fun and surprisingly powerful.

CR: This is, I think, your fifth time working with Theatre for a New Audience and director Arin Arbus. What keeps you coming back and what do you like about working with them?

DB: Wow. Yes. Five years. Five Shakespeare plays. All thanks to Arin and Theatre for a New Audience. I’ve got a huge amount of love and respect for Arin. She’s really given me the chance to grow through failure and success and it’s been one hell of a ride. Why have I kept coming back? I think because she demands an investigation into the truth of Shakespeare’s text and she has an opinion. She’s not afraid to strip it down, clarify the language, illuminate the characters, and make straightforward theater about people and how we really connect. Not to mention the fact that she always assembles a company of some of the finest actors in the world – really, these people are fantastic artists and their loyalty and devotion to her and Theatre for a New Audience is remarkable – it’s infectious, really. I’ve grown up as an actor with these people, at this theater, doing Shakespeare. Part of me is acutely aware of the powerful impression that has made on me – I mean, they’ve been incredibly honest and loyal to me, and that goes along way in my book. At the same time I am also aware that I’m standing at a crossroads in my career, and this theater is in transition. This is the last show at The Duke – we’ve done all five plays Arin has directed there – before Theatre for a New Audience moves into their beautiful new theater in Brooklyn this fall, which is huge for them because they’ll finally have a home. And me? Well, I just started grad school at NYU – which began last year when I spent nearly five months traveling to Southern India, Abu Dhabi in the UAE, and then Cairo, Egypt - and over the next few years, I’m going to be looking at things through this new rubric and really questioning what I want from the work that I do, and how I can expand as an artist by getting out of my comfort zone. So it’s the end of an era, and as they say, you have to mind the end as the beginning.

CR: In addition to being an actor, you wear many other hats. You've been an Artistic Associate with Rising Phoenix Repertory for many years now. How did that come about and what are some of the things you like most about doing that?

DB: I think RPR embodies what being a theater artist is all about: rigorous reinvention, tenacious dedication, and unbridled honesty. I’ve been watching Daniel do it for the last fourteen years and I think he’s on to something. Rising Phoenix does artist driven, project based work, and we really believe in exploring new models of creation through collaboration and partnerships. It all came about because Daniel wanted to make his own work and I jumped on board after we graduated from Juilliard together, because I had never thought about making theater that way – “How can we find a way to work with people we trust and respect and also support them as artists?” I mean, that’s the core of what we do, I think. Part of it was also that I just was no good at waiting for auditions to come up while working a day job. I got depressed, jealous, resentful – all that bullshit. I needed to get out of that pattern. Rising Phoenix has become a real anchor for me to avoid that trap. It’s given me a chance to think about writing, directing, producing, teaching – all these other things I do now, outside of acting. Going to grad school came from all this, I’m there because of RPR – to hone and learn new skills, to get out of my comfort zone and do shit I’ve never done before. Look, I’m human, flawed, and still have an ego, so I’m not saying I’m immune to narcissism – but at least I will always have a way to challenge that and come out the other side with RPR. I feel like I could bring anything to Daniel and say, “Hey man, I’m thinking about doing this crazy thing, what do you think?” And he’d say yes and then bust his ass to make it happen. He’d be honest with me about whether it sucks or not and he’d keep me true to myself. No matter what. RPR has empowered me to go out there and make my own way, choose my own projects, and take ownership of my work. This kind of support and friendship is rare, and I’m seriously lucky to have found many, many people who will throw down like that for me – many of whom are company members of RPR – but I’ve got people like this in all corners of my life. It makes me feel really wealthy and all these people keep me driven to ask myself the tough questions, make hard decisions, and put myself out there.

CR: You and your Rising Phoenix cohorts, Daniel Talbott and Julie Kline, are also the Literary Managers at Rattlestick. I know you got your Equity card acting in a Rattlestick show, but how did that eventually lead to being one of their Literary Managers?

DB: I’ve been in this conversation with David [Van Asselt, Rattlestick’s Artistic Director] ever since I worked for him as an actor. The first time I met him he had a hammer in one hand and a shop vac in the other. He’d been pulling 80-hour weeks doing everything for Rattlestick – from building the sets to doing the bookkeeping – and I was like, “Who the hell is this guy? How can one man keep a theater alive?” Well, that’s just it: work. Work really hard. Do everything you can do. Believe. I learned a great lesson from him that day about what it takes to stick to it and have faith. If you build it, they will come. A few years later, in 2008, he’d been without a lit group for six months and needed help catching up on submissions and programming readings, so he called us and we took it over. Almost five years later he’s become a real mentor to all of us – and an amazing supporter by letting us do all of the other work we do, outside of Rattlestick. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about working with playwrights and producing theater from him. It’s been really inspiring to watch how our roles at the theater have evolved from reading scripts and programming readings to becoming part of David’s artistic staff and support network.

CR: You're also returning to Primary Stages' Einhorn School of Performing Arts to teach an acting class for the winter/spring semester. How did you start doing that and what do you like about it?

DB: I never thought I’d ever teach – I resisted it for a long time, never thinking I had anything to give, but it turns out it’s directly in line with everything I have been doing for years. In 2010, Tessa LaNeve [the Literary Manager of Primary Stages and the Director of ESPA] called me up and asked if I wanted to try it. I jumped in and was surprised to find out that I really love it. I’m working with my future collaborators. I approach my class from an actor’s perspective – that’s what I am first and foremost. So we get into a room and rehearse, collaborate, and experiment. It’s a great introduction for me to talented people willing to work and learn, that’s what ESPA is all about, and I’ve learned as much my students as they have from me over the past three years.

I’ve also started working with students individually – I keep it cheap ($25 an hour) and straightforward, like my class. We get into a room and work on auditions, sides, and monologues – that kind of stuff. Sometimes it’s helpful to have an outside eye before you go on a big audition. It helps with confidence and relaxation.

CR: What drives you to be consistently involved in so many different organizations?

DB: I think it started as just wanting to remain involved and busy within this community, but it has grown to encompass what I think it means to be a whole artist. In this day and age, you have to be nimble to survive. For me to really thrive, I have to test that flexibility by learning how to work with many different artists and companies by seamlessly shifting between the wearing of all my different hats. Rising Phoenix, Rattlestick, ESPA, and Theatre for a New Audience - they all test that for me in a myriad of complex ways. I continue to seek out new companies, as well. I’m working with a really exciting company right now, Theater Mitu. These folks are amazing – they travel the world seeking out world performance techniques and create really cutting edge productions with this training method that they have devised as a group of committed, resident artists. We did August Strindberg’s A Dream Play in Abu Dhabi, UAE last fall, and it totally blew my mind. I want to be challenged, I want to work with people that inspire me, and I want my comfort zone to be rocked. So far, all these companies share these values with me. You can’t beat that kind of synchronicity.

CR: You must have some upcoming projects to plug. What's up next for Rising Phoenix, Rattlestick, and ESPA?

DB: Sure, here they are.

Much Ado About Nothing continues its run through April 6th. They have an amazing Under 25/Student discount of $10 tickets. Come one, come all.

Theater Mitu will premiere their new work Juárez: A Documentary Mytholgy this summer, and I’ll be working with them on it and traveling with them to Ciudad Juárez.

For Rising Phoenix, Daniel is writing a play that will premiere sometime this fall. I don’t want to say too much, but he’s writing it for me and the very talented actress, Jelena Stupljanin, who is hands down, amazing. It’ll be performed in the backroom space at Jimmy’s No. 43.

And, here’s what’s on at Rattlestick right now.

CR: And where would you, personally, like to see your career go from here?

DB: That’s a great question. I’ve jumped into NYU for grad school to get my M.A. at the Gallatin School, to try and get real specific about just that. But I’m also hoping to use that time to really investigate what kind of artist I want to be, and practically apply the answer. I’m interested in the weaving together of my life and work, so that they exist in wholeness, rather than at odds with one another. I was at a dinner party awhile back and one of the guests was peppering me with all of these questions about what I was studying, and what I would use the degree for, and when I’d explained what I was up to – mind you I’ve just started so it’s all pretty vague – they said “You know, I think it’s wonderful that you are going back to school for a completely impractical degree.” I sort of laughed it off at the time – yeah, studying ancient performance techniques, myth, and stuff like that is not what anyone would call practical - but then I got really pissed off by the nearsightedness of the comment and my lack of ability to defend my thesis. Ancient performance techniques and myth are at the very root of what I do as a storyteller, that’s the foundation that I’m going to use to jump into the future, they harmonize humanity. I’m interested in the future and an exploration of that harmony and why things are so disharmonious for so many people in the world these days. I want to investigate what it means to empower artists to make the work they believe in, to tell compelling stories on stage, and in film, and television and support them in those endeavors. I want to seek out sustainable models for creation by using my ability to work with many groups of diverse collaborators and new partners. I want to support myself with my work. I’m not going to be just any one kind of artist anymore, that much I know. I’ll probably call the degree some super pretentious multi-hyphenated amalgam of my experiences. But my guiding principles will always be to take risks, seek out new perspectives, and recognize when I am functioning within my comfort zone. To do this, I have to surround myself with collaborators that keep me grounded, honest, and focused on the forest and the trees – because without them I am nothing. I want to see more of the world in a major way, and I think telling stories is a really palpable, active way to achieve connection between cultures and communities. I want to reach larger, more diverse audiences and I want to do it all through art. So that’s where I’ll start, maybe you can ask me again in four years and we’ll see if I’ve figured out how to make an impractical, idealistic degree practical and effective.


Michael Criscuolo is a New York-based writer. He writes periodically for American Theatre magazine and has written extensively for, where he was a staff reviewer for nearly a decade.  He holds a BFA in Drama from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. 

Production photos courtesy of Theatre for a New Audience.  Top: Denis Butkus by Gerry Goodstein.  Center: Denis Butkus and Paul Niebanck by Henry Goodman. 

Posted at 4:14 PM

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