Alumni spotlight: JJ Phillips

It’s a bird, It’s a plane…  It’s First Stage alumni JJ Phillips on stage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater!

First Stage Alumni and Milwaukee native JJ Phillips makes his Milwaukee Repertory Theater debut as Superman in The History of Invulnerability.  JJ has spent the last few years working in and around Chicago and has appeared in The North China Lover, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Lookingglass Theatre Company, Jeff Award Nominee - Best Supporting Actor in a Play); Fat Pig and Leveling Up (Steppenwolf Theatre Company) and Punk Rock (Griffin Theatre Company, Jeff Award – Best Ensemble).  He studied at The School at Steppenwolf and under Daniel Cantor at Northwestern University.

When were you involved with First Stage and how long were you a student/young performer?

I began taking classes at First Stage in 1995, when I was 5 years old.  I remained involved and enrolled with First Stage for over a decade, before eventually turning my focus to theater classes and productions at Nicolet High School.  During my time with First Stage, I also had the great pleasure of performing in 3 different productions as a Young Performer:  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (as Claude Herdman) in 2000; Treasure Island (as Jim Hawkins) in 2002; and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (as Peter) in 2003.  All of these experiences were invaluable to me, and I still carry them with me on every project I have the pleasure to work on.

What is a favorite First Stage memory?
I still vividly remember the closing night performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  In the play, the three youngest Herdman boys (or Wisemen) steal a Twinkie from a child in their class that they like to bully.  On closing night, we three wiseguys decided to add our own special little ending to the story, so we stole the last Twinkie from the props table to give back to the boy in our final scene with him.  Stage Management found out, and told us we could not use the prop for the scene as they didn’t want us to change any of the staging, dialogue, etc.  So instead, we ran to our dressing room to round up all of our loose change, brought it out into the scene, gave it to the boy and said, ‘Here, go buy yourself a Twinkie.’  We got a bit of a scolding, but the audience loved it and the look on the boy’s face as we dropped over $3 in change into his hand was priceless.  Plus, they brought me back to do two more shows after that, so it all worked out in the long run.
JJ Philips and Bob Amaral in Milwaukee  Repertory Theater’s 
The History of Invulnerability. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

How has First Stage prepared you for your current career?

The First Stage Academy motto “life skills through stage skills”couldn’t be more accurate.  Not only do I use the fundamentals every day on stage, in rehearsal, or at auditions, but I also learned to trust my creative impulses and imagination from a very early age, which has carried me throughout my career.  In addition to the vast amount of acting acumen I gained from First Stage, I also learned a lot about myself, and who I want to be not only as an actor, but as a friend, son, and even, at times, mentor.  It allowed a shy, awkward kid the opportunity to explore, helping me find myself and my confidence at a young age, which has given me the ability to play a wide variety of roles, from a U.S. Marine, to a nerdy fly on the wall, to Superman.

What has been most exciting about coming back to Milwaukee to perform at The Rep?
The most thrilling element is returning to a city for which I have a deep passion, performing on a stage I grew up idolizing, and even getting to meet and work with some of my idols as well.  I take great pride in being from Milwaukee, and always have my raggedy Brewers hat on hand wherever I travel, to remind myself, and others, where I come from.  Being able to return to my home and perform in front of members of the community I grew up in (sometimes over 1,400 in a single day!) is a true blessing, and I’ve cherished it immensely.

What drew you to the role of Superman in The History of Invulnerability?
When I first read the script, I was floored.  It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and I wanted desperately to work on the piece.  It possesses so many elements of some of my favorite theater, from The Glass Menagerie to A Christmas Carol, and yet there is something thoroughly unique to the style of story-telling, with its use of comic book punch matched by equal levels of heart and realism.  Getting to play a type of Superman that had never been seen before was just icing on the cake.

Did you have a favorite superhero as a kid? Who is your favorite superhero?
Ironically, I hated Superman growing up.  I thought he was boring, as is mentioned in the play, and was always annoyed that he was impervious to almost everything.  Getting to step into the tights has definitely changed my opinion; however Batman and Spiderman will forever be my favorite superheroes, simply because they’ve always possessed more vulnerability.

What else you’d like to say to current First Stage Academy Students and Alumni?

I would just love to encourage all those students taking classes to continue to explore your dreams, and take advantage of all of the wonderful resources you have at First Stage.  None of my dreams would have become a reality if it weren’t for the numerous people in my life who have extended a helping hand along the way, and many of those people in my life have been my teachers and peers like the ones I met at First Stage.  And for Alums, always remember and cherish the memories that First Stage gave you, and reach out to them whenever you can; they’ve fostered quite the rag-tag family that now extends across the country, and even the world, and I will forever be grateful for all of the wonderful stories I have from my time at this amazing institution.

Learn more about The History of Invulnerability now through May 4 at The Rep.  If you go, keep your eyes out for First Stage alumni Elyse Edelman, and current students/Young Performers Max Pink, John Brotherhood and Luke Brotherhood.  The History of Invulnerability is recommended for ages 16 and up.

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