By Pat McAndrew, Editor-in-Chief, All About Solo
Jake Austin Robertson, who recently performed his solo show, “MADMAN,” at Theatre Row in New York City, received an M.A. in Acting: Classical & Contemporary Text from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. Jake is originally from the little village of Lombard, Illinois, where he was raised by two wonderful moms. His creative exploits have seen him perform at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, create full-length improvised musicals, devise new work from Scottish plays to immersive haunted history pieces, bring a Polar Bear to life for hundreds of toddlers, and travel with a research grant to the beyond the Arctic Circle. All About Solo caught up with Jake and discussed his solo show, “MADMAN.” We hear about his inspiration from Nikolai Gogol, while connecting to his past.
Pat McAndrew: How did you discover theater and, more specifically, solo performance?
Jake Austin Robertson: I have been doing theater since I was six years old when I played Tiny Tim in my local church’s Tony Award-winning production of “A Christmas Carol.” My experience with solo performance outside of dressing up in my great-grandma’s robe and slippers and entertaining my family in character was when I put up my Princeton acting thesis, the precursor to my solo show, “MADMAN,” which I’m currently performing Off-Broadway.
What inspired you to create “MADMAN”?
When I first read Nikolai Gogol’s surrealist short story “Diary of a Madman,” I was surprised by the kinship I felt with a miserable Russian clerk who rejects his reality by reinventing himself as the King of Spain. It was the clerk’s profound loneliness paired with his desire to escape himself that rang so true with the broken boy of my past who had remained closeted for almost a decade, doing everything he could to be anything but who he was. The commiseration between this absurd story and the real pain of my childhood inspired me to write this show.
Why is “MADMAN” important for today’s audience? Who is this for?
This show is for a 14-year-old Jake who felt as alone as anyone could possibly feel. But it’s also for every kid who’s ever felt that they wanted to escape from who they were, for every person who’s felt the outside telling them they were wrong, so they started believing it. It’s for anyone who finds magic in books, who finds themselves reflected in the pages. It’s for all the Madpeople of the world.
What is your favorite part about performing this show?
I treasure the chance to share my story with people, but what is so incredible to me is the opportunity to use theater to create something even more universal and captivating than the reality that inspired it. In the show, I get to collide the world of a Midwestern high-schooler with the fictional world of Gogol’s madman. The amazing challenge in doing it solo is that I am responsible for bringing all the elements of those worlds to life, for transforming from a lonely teenager to a talking dog to the King of Spain. I get to invite the audience along for that crazy whirlwind of an adventure.
What were some challenges that you faced in developing your solo piece? I imagine drawing inspiration from Gogol was not an easy feat!
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to weave the stories together to form a single narrative, how to take this absurd piece of Russian fiction published in 1836 and combine it with a dramatization of my adolescence in Illinois in 2007. Not to mention, I had to write my own story, to put my memories—my trauma and my triumph—into words. But somehow, through some crazy gay Russian muse, the words began to flow, the characters from my past began to come alive before me, and before I knew it they had melded with those of Gogol’s story to form a complete whole.
How does “MADMAN” speak to other work you have done?
This piece is unquestionably a culmination for me as an artist and as a person. This show combines such a wide range of my experiences: my background in Russian, my work as a comedy writer and a character actor; there’s subtle realism and fearless farce, clowning, poetry and Cher karaoke. Almost every bit of me is ingrained in this piece of theater. The shadows of my past self as well as the characters I’ve played make appearances, whether it’s a groaner from Groucho Marx or the heartbreak of Hamlet. It’s a mosaic of my own madman.
What do you hope the audience walks away with after seeing your show?
I hope that they feel that in the course of a little over an hour they saw a world come alive, that they saw into the soul of some fellow humans and felt their pain and shared their joy. I hope they don’t know whether to cry laughing or laugh crying. I hope that they leave with a little less fear of their own madness and a greater appreciation of the fearlessness it takes to stay true to oneself.
Written and Performed by Jake Austin Robertson, jakeaustinrobertson.com
Sept. 23 at 7:30pm, Oct. 14 at 4pm, Oct. 17 9pm
Director: Sara Morgulis
Original Text: Nikolai Gogol
Translation: Constance Garnett
Photo cred: Scott Cadenhead
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
Author: Pat McAndrew, Editor-in-Chief, All About Solo
Pat McAndrew is a NYC-based actor, writer, and consultant . As an actor, he has performed Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, and in various locations throughout New York City, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. His one-man show, REEL, was performed in the 2017 United Solo Theatre Festival and featured in the new documentary, Electronic Crack. Using his background as an actor as his foundation, Pat consults with individuals and organizations on how to communicate effectively and build deep, meaningful relationships in the digital age. He is the Founder of The Low Tech Trek, an organization devoted to discovering a better balance between human interaction and how we use technology. He is a member of Village Playback Theatre, Endless River Arts, and Svaha Theatre Collective. Pat holds an MA in Theatre from Villanova University. Check out patmcandrew.com for more information.