Alumni spotlight: J.T. Backes

Academy alumni J.T. Backes returns to First Stage this season, taking on the role of Artistic Intern on Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer™: The Musical. J.T. also joins our Theater In Education team as an adjunct teaching artist. This past spring J.T. received his B.F.A. in Musical Theater from Viterbo University. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with J.T. about Sherlock Holmes, fond First Stage memories and more!

How long have you been involved with First Stage?
I’ve been involved in First Stage for a LONG time. I started First Stage classes in 2000 when I was just eight years old. I’ve done several First Stage shows as a young performer including: Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I’ve also done a few new play workshops as well, including: The Quiltmaker’s Gift and Bunnicula. I was also the last original member of Organized Chaos, the First Stage improv comedy team taught by Patrick Schmitz. I joined that in 2005 and graduated from the group in 2010. Finally, I taught improv for the Academy alongside Alex Grindeland in the summer of 2011.

J.T. (left) in The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 2002
What is your favorite First Stage memory?
Back when I was a wee lad, I was in First Stage’s production of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. I believe that I was still in elementary school at the time and the big “thing” at that time was called the flipper dance. I’m sure it’s still better than this modern day “twerking” thing. Anyway, I did this for John Maclay one day and soon he became so dependent on it that I had to do it as part of his preshow warm up before every performance. Who could have thought that imagining your left and right arms as flippers could catch on so fast? I know I didn’t. I thought it was super silly. To this day if I bump into John Maclay, the request for the “flipper dance” is still being made.

Each element of this show is so darn specific: the color and period costumes, the incredible set, the lighting and exciting special effects, and of course the remarkable cast that brings Eric Coble’s piece to life. Our director, Jeff Frank, has a brilliant vision, but he is also up for collaboration. I love that aspect. This is a world premiere piece and we have the privilege to create something no one has ever seen before. And we are doing just that. Both of the young performer casts add their unique flavors to their characters and the adults create unforgettable moments throughout. Todd Denning has created unbelievably intense fight scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. My favorite thing about working on this show is seeing how it’s all coming together. I can’t stop thinking about how cool this show is going to look.

How did your time at First Stage prepare you for your current path?
If I had to boil down all I’ve learned at First Stage into a single phrase it would be “to make choices.” First Stage built inner confidence that brought out my inner worth –worthiness as an artist and as a human. This is something First Stage does better than anyone else. The Academy is a safe place to be you and take incredible risks without fear of consequence. This environment wasn’t merely established in a rule book. Teachers and students choose to treat others with respect and choose to give to each other wholeheartedly without need of incentive. I’m sure if you asked any First Stage Academy student, they would tell you that some of their life-long friends were made through this organization.

What would you like to say to current Academy students?
This craft is by no means an easy one. It takes true dedication, resilience, and an open mind. If acting were easy everyone would be doing it! We are artists that are given a color palette and our job is to paint something for the whole world to see. And that takes time and patience. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional you always want to fail big. Only from there will you learn how to grow. Whatever the situation, always be you! That is something nobody else can replicate. Take risks, fail big, and be you.  

See J.T. Backes on stage this season in Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street IrregularsRudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer™: The Musical and Big Fish.  

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