Two men in municipal outdoor uniforms sit at a table.
Jeb Kreager and Ken Leung, photo by Monique Carboni

Q&A with Jeb Kreager

The acclaimed actor returns to the NYC stage in "Evanston Salt Costs Climbing."

Written by:
Nella Vera
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Jeb Kreager’s impressive acting bio contains many theatrical and film projects that have become cultural touchstones.  He’s had roles in two of the most celebrated plays of the past several years, “Oslo” and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” as well as memorable appearances in TV shows such as “Mare of Easttown,” “Mindhunter,” “The Undoing,” and “Marvel’s The Punisher.”

Along with Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Ken Leung, and Rachel Sachnoff, Kreager currently stars in The New Group’s production of Evanston Salt Costs Climbing,” the highly anticipated new play from Pulitzer finalist Will Arbery. The show is directed by Danya Taymor, who previously collaborated with Arbery on “Heroes,” a Pulitzer finalist that made just about every Top Ten and Best of 2019 Theatre list possible.  Jeb took some time during the first week of “Evanston” previews to chat with us about his first show with The New Group, reuniting with Arbery and Taymor, and how his earlier work in the Philadelphia theatre scene shaped him as an artist.

CV: Your body of work these past few years has been impressive.  From “Oslo” to “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” to “Mare of Easttown,” you have appeared in a lot of prestige theater and TV projects.  Are you seeking a specific type of work at this point in your career? Are there things you are looking for in the parts you accept?

Jeb: All those projects you mentioned were wonderful to make. Great teams of artists who also happen to be great people that I want to work with again and again. It doesn’t always shake out that way. One unexpected benefit was how fun those gigs were when we got to share them with an audience. It’s a joy to feel like you’re in a show that people are talking about – a play that captures theatergoers’ imaginations and stokes discourse, or a TV show or movie that, even briefly, becomes part of an ongoing cultural conversation. For the most part, the only time most actors feel any sense of control or joy is when they’re doing the actual work itself. In front of a camera, that’s the time between ‘action’ and ‘cut’; In the theatre, we get 90 minutes or two hours or whatever where the play and the performing of it is in our hands. Point being, when you’re in something that strikes a chord with people and becomes something notable or zeitgeist-y or whatever, it’s a surprising source of joy.  I think everyone wants to feel as much joy in their work as possible. The goal is to keep collaborating with folks I respect as artists and love as people. And to keep finding joy in unexpected places.

CV:Heroes of the Fourth Turning” is probably my favorite play of the past ten years, and it was thrilling to see it receive so much praise from critics and audiences.  When you started the rehearsal process, did you have any idea that it would be one of the most acclaimed plays of the year?  At what point in the process did the cast realize that this play would be such a cultural sensation?

Jeb: “Heroes” felt special as a play from the time I was invited to do the early readings of it (about a year and change before we put it up at Playwrights). I don’t think any of us thought it would tick so many boxes – it felt wonderfully specific and scary and kind of dangerous in ways that don’t maybe lend themselves to making a show a “hit”. But we all felt in the room that we were making something singular, something unique. I certainly hoped it would strike a chord with people, but it became so much more than that. We had a great play, great creative team, and a great home at Playwrights. And you can have all of that and still not “make it happen” if theatergoers don’t truly engage. On “Heroes,” the audiences stepped up. They ended up being as curious and fascinated and horrified as we were. What a room to be in every night. What a dream come true.

CV: Part of what made “Heroes” so fresh and fascinating was that it felt entirely new – like these characters and their conversations had never been seen before on a stage. And regardless of one’s political beliefs, we were able to see them as real people rather than “types of people.” How did you approach getting into a character that was so devoted to his faith and so steadfast in his beliefs?

Jeb: I’m a big believer in doing your homework; there’s plenty of research that has gone into creating these characters. A lot of reading (much of it frightening). But so much of our work happened on the words. In the script. It’s not a matter of understanding why a character says or does something and then executing that. It’s the reverse sometimes – the discomfort of saying the words until they make a sort of sense is part of the process. It can be almost mantric, meditative. I like to feel prepared just like the next actor does. But there’s plenty to mine in Will’s words. The plays themselves are full of history, and horror, and harbingers. Will would be proud of that alliteration…

CV: Instead of a group of Catholic intellectuals who are debating conservative doctrine, Evanston features a working-class group of characters trying to find a solution to a problem that affects their jobs and lives. Can you talk about what attracted you to this play? 

Jeb: Teaming with Will and Danya was great the first time, so when they asked, I said yes. It feels like a world I know, from a different angle. It’s a good fit in so many ways. There’s a shared language I have with them, and they surrounded us with willing, collaborative creatives (several of whom worked on “Heroes” as well). So, “getting the band back together” was part of the appeal for me. And knowing what comes with that – the good hard work of attempting to solve another of Will’s beautiful puzzles, with Danya’s passion and care guiding us – was what clinched it for me. The “subject” or “theme” of the play was kind of secondary. Maybe the biggest appeal was how different “Evanston” is from “Heroes.” The assignment became “let’s see how this particular team handles this particular story”.

CV: Will’s writing is so rich and sensitive and profound – what makes his characters so complex and fascinating for an audience to watch?

Jeb: They’re searching. They’re struggling. They’re products of their age and, sometimes, the victims. Will writes spectres into his plays; some of his characters live almost in limbo, between states. I think he aspires to show his audiences what they don’t know through what he doesn’t know. The motifs and characters that fill his plays are his fascinations and fears – things that often go unnamed. He’s not writing to show you what he has figured out – I think there’s a desire to understand at the heart of it. He hasn’t figured it out. When we do it right, the audience can’t help but be drawn in because they see something they recognize in Will’s work. Something that maybe they themselves can’t name, but want to.

CV: This is the second time Danya Taymor is directing a Will Arbery play in NYC. What do you think she brings to the project that makes her such a good fit for this material?

Jeb: Having now been in the room for both of their collaborations, I can simply say that she’s all about possibilities. Try everything. It feels hand-in-glove with Will’s work, which begs that openness to every permutation. His work requires a clear vision, but – maybe even more so – it demands an artistic empathy that Danya possesses in abundance. She’s also incredibly attuned to what I call the “collective pH” of the rehearsal room, of the cast. This group of actors in “Evanston”feels so uniquely equipped to tell this story. I’m honored to be a part of that group. And Danya creates a fertile environment for discovery and trial & error that Will’s plays need, being so full of possibility.

CV: “Evanston” being, in part, about environmental issues versus very real economic concerns, mirrors many of the debates surrounding climate change in this country – it’s a problem that many view as a distant threat that doesn’t affect their lives. Do you believe that theater can or should have a role in bringing these issues to the public?

 Jeb: I’m not sure if it necessarily should. But I think it can, and obviously often does. Theatre can raise awareness, allow people to consider different stances, or confront them with the opportunity to take a stance at all. There are playwrights who have dedicated their careers to it. But the theatre is also a place to escape, to simply be somewhere else for a couple of hours. It really can just be about enjoyment, about being entertained, about having a laugh or a cry and feeling a thing in a strange room. Speaking only for myself, I enjoy a thought-provoking issue play, and I enjoy a fun farce or period piece or musical. There’s room for all of it. Dance makes similar space. Visual art and music and poetry and prose do as well. Besides, I’ve never once thought of “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing” as an “issue play”. Something like climate change – or capital punishment, or reproductive rights, or what have you – can hover over a play without it becoming what the play is about. In our case, the weather is just a facet. The salt is a character. The play, to my mind, is about these people. It’s about longing and isolation and disillusionment. I know that sounds neat and simple, but sometimes things can be simple, right? 

CV: You founded a theatre company, New Paradise Laboratories, in Philadelphia – what drew you to Philly?  Do you think the city allows theater artists more opportunity than NYC which is a bit of a fishbowl with intense economic pressures?

Jeb: The core group of New Paradise Laboratories met and began creating work at Virginia Tech back in 1995 (I just turned to dust saying that). Whit MacLaughlin (NPL’s founder and my mentor) had some connections in Philadelphia, and for most of us in NPL who had never lived in a city at all it seemed so much more feasible than New York. Philly in 1998 was a way cheaper place to live, and it was a place where work like ours could gain a foothold because of the then-nascent Philly Fringe – the festival gave us a built-in deadline every September to have a new piece ready to show. There was a burgeoning dance/experimental/non-narrative theatre scene in place there, full of like-minded artists making distinctively different work. We all supported each other, went to each other’s shows, collaborated with one another, partied together, even got married and had kids together. It was a nice bubble to be in. I’ve been in NYC now for longer than I was in Philly – I’m sure a lot has changed. I know it’s still less expensive than New York, but it’s not the land of crazy-cheap rent and undeveloped warehouse space and DIY theatre making it was when I was there. But the artists are still making space for their work, and the theatre scene feels more unified to me as a visitor than it was when I lived there – there’s more overlap of artists doing both devised work and the more traditional regional theatre/seasonal model. Which is its own exciting development. New York has always felt kind of pocket-y to me – there’s a ton of theatre but less feeling of community. And as rents & other economic pressures become more and more ridiculous, I don’t see that changing much. I can hope, though.

CV: What kind of work did you create with your company? Has being in NPL influenced your other work?

Jeb: NPL’s work is highly attenuated, non-narrative, and each piece is a ground-up build. It’s imagistic as opposed to text-driven – it’s steeped in more physical theatre forms like butoh and noh. There’s a pop-culture fascination that finds its way into a lot of NPL’s pieces, but things like the internet and digital technology and AI and such have created both new subject matter and new modes of presentation. Some of Whit’s more recent work has taken place outside of theaters, without actors, without live audiences. I think NPL has always been on the hunt for new delivery systems for theatre – to ask a fundamental question about what the form even is.  I use my NPL training in every show I do – stillness, economy of movement, etc. NPL taught me to trust and use physical proposals to create work, and that comes in handy in everything I do onstage. I feel prepared for moments that need a bit of stylization or non-verbal storytelling. But it’s also great for figuring out practical things like scenery and furniture moves, entrances and exits, quick-changes and such. As far afield from “regular” theatre as it feels, I’m always so happy to experience those moments when my training with New Paradise serves me in a more traditional stage setting.

Lower photo: Jeb Kreager, Ken Leung, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Photo by Monique Carboni.

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