Trace Pope is a 23 year-old, NYC based actor who is currently focused on stage acting and classical works. He was born and raised in Longview, TX and is a recent graduate of LAMDA in London. He is also my best friend. This interview took place in the Panera Bread near Union Square where Trace wore a tasteful outfit of muted colors and natural fabrics. His hair was tousled. Slightly.
Ok, so let's pretend we've never talked about acting. Tell me a bit about how you got interested in theatre.
I don’t think I realized why I was interested in theatre until very recently, but I started acting when I was a kid. I remember going to see a production of The King and I in Dallas when I was 6, and I saw all the kids on stage and thought “People my age can do this?” So, that made me want to do it. I was already a singer and liked singing at church, so I did musicals as a kid and a little opera in our community theatre. It was always fun, but when I got into high school I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep doing it. I was more interested in marching band and music, but then I missed doing theatre, musicals, and acting, so I got back into it towards the end of high school. I don’t know why I like it, haha.
Well I guess some people are drawn to it because of the attention or getting to be on stage, and other people are drawn more towards the process. What were you more drawn to?
This is the thing. I never enjoyed the part of it that’s onstage in front of an audience until the past year and a half. I enjoyed the process and the rehearsal, diving into a text, studying a character, watching actors in movies, and thinking about how to get into a character’s body. I’ve never enjoyed the actual performance part until I went to grad school. I started to realize that I had to frame it in my mind, “What is the point of theatre in general? What is the point of being an actor?” I realized that I’m facilitating a story that is part of something larger. Understanding that I was more of a cog in the machine, that I’m part of the overall fabric of telling the story, allowed me to realize the point of it. It’s not about you as an actor. Can you facilitate this person’s emotions, , this characters thoughts and choices and objectives enough to get the overall story across? That is what moves people, or makes them realize something about themselves they didn’t know before, or realize there is something else in the world. What enlightens people is the overall story. Once I realized that, then I enjoyed the actual part of being onstage. I learned how to do that well, how to take my strengths and weaknesses and mesh those together to bring a character to life. Realizing that it’s not about my performance took some pressure off me. Obviously I have an ego and want to be known as a good actor, but even if I screw up, the story can still be told. The audience member can still find something else in another actor or in something with the set, or a line someone says. That is worth it for me.
Can you walk me through how you went from being interested in musicals in high school to deciding what to major in in college, and how that all happened?
When I graduated high school, I thought I wanted to do musical theater. I still love musicals. There’s something a musical can do on stage that nothing else can. I ended up going to Emerson my Freshman year of college, dropping out of the musical theatre program before school started, and doing the acting program instead. I thought maybe since I had a good handle on the music part I should use college to focus more on the acting part. Also I didn’t want to dance, so that was a thing. I started doing the acting classes there, but I still didn’t understand why I was spending so much money. The exercises didn’t make sense to me. Why is rolling on the floor and breathing helpful? I didn’t understand. Now I know what that does. I just wasn’t in a place at that point to understand. It wasn’t helpful for me.
I couldn’t figure out the point of acting, so I didn’t know if I actually wanted to do it. So I took time off. I moved in with my mom for a semester, but still didn’t know where I was going to go to college. I ended up going to the University of Texas at Austin because I had friends there and was automatically admitted from my high school grades. I had always loved reading, and one of my best friends was an English major. He was like, “Just do that, it’s easy.” So I did that, and then of course I ended up loving it, and it was everything I didn’t know I wanted. It was reading books and analyzing, and it started to challenge a part of my brain that had never been challenged in high school. I missed acting though, so I started getting into theatres in Austin and doing work there, which ended up being a lot of Shakespearean stuff. I was working with a lot of classical texts, which I found I had a knack for, but it was a pretty generic knack. I could understand the Shakespearean text and speak it pretty well naturally, but I didn’t have much training or process. I couldn’t really articulate what I was doing to make it work. I just loved those classical stories, which is part of the general fascination I have with language, and where else would you go but Shakespeare?
Yeah, I think that’s a love you and I have shared over the years. We’ve always been dabbling in English, language, theatre, and art, sort of back and forth. Ok, so you graduated from UT with a degree in English and then you decided to go to grad school. How did that come about?
I kind of auditioned for graduate school on a whim. While I was in undergrad at UT, I studied abroad in London and worked for a theatre company there. While I was in London I saw a production of Othello at the National Theatre and Rory Kinnear was playing Iago. That was the first time in my life that an entire production of Shakespeare was crystal clear to me. In most Shakespeare productions I usually got the gist of it, but there were things that went over my head. I thought it was my fault I didn’t understand, not the production. Until I saw Othello, and then I realized it lies in the actor to make the language come across. I wanted to learn how they were doing it, so I looked up where Rory Kinnear went to school, saw that it was LAMDA, and I wanted to go there to learn how he did what he just did. So, I applied for it, I auditioned for it, and walked out of the audition room thinking it went terribly. I literally called my mom and said, “Well I’m not going, I’m not going to get in.” Then I got coffee with a friend and forgot about it. Then months later I got a call from the head of the Drama school offering me a place in their grad program to study classical theatre. He gave me a week to think about it and I took every minute of that week to think about it. I was very back and forth as to whether or not I was going to go. It was the end of my senior year, I had already made plans with other people to move to Dallas. I wasn’t prepared to up and move to another country. But everyone I talked to said I would be stupid not to go. You were definitely one of those people. I went and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. The professors at LAMDA were able to explain acting in a way that made me understand exactly what all these hippy dippy voodoo exercises do. It became much more of a physical thing. It was about marrying the text with the physicality. That led to me understanding what the whole point of acting and theatre was.
Haha, yes I definitely was one of the people that told you to go! I think regardless of the program, just the opportunity to be abroad and learn about a different culture is such a rich experience. Can you speak to the differences you experienced as far as theatre or culture in the UK and US?
Part of the culture in the UK is a reverence for theatre, and just for the spoken word and language in general. To them it makes sense why you would be an actor. Being an actor is a very viable career choice to them. You don’t get that sense in the US at all. So yeah.
I think they have a different relationship with language in the UK as a culture than we do. I’m speaking generally about the population of actors in the UK and the population of actors here. Actors over there, in their daily life, will use words that are more specific.
Like in a recent interview I saw Eddie Redmayne in he used the word 'rapacious.' We don’t really hear most American actors speaking with that kind of vocabulary.
Exactly, we say “awesome” and they say “exhilarating or spectacular.” They have a relationship with language that allows them to use more of the depths of the English language. We use a fraction of it, while they are exploring it more fully. Here there’s a stigma that using big words makes you seem pretentious or something like that. Over there all words are fair game. That helps them as actors communicating with each other and communicating with directors because it is so much more specific.
You and I are both pretty passionate about education, whether it is public school or higher academia. Could you speak to the differences you observed in the university system in England compared to the US?
So in the US, you basically start with 100 and you get points taken off. In the UK you start with 0 and you get points added. I think that’s a harsher, but a more conducive academic experience. It’s the idea that when you start at hour 0, you aren’t offering anything yet. When you improve you’ll be rewarded, but the areas that lack aren’t something you are being punished for. But here it’s like you are saying you walk in the room and offer everything or something equal to 100 points. I don’t want to be punished for the things I do wrong, but rewarded for the things I do well. We are all starting at neutral, and that’s what they do in England. I found it way more useful. They are so much more accepting of failure.
I am a huge fan of that approach. I also think it would help students be less entitled to a certain grade. Doing the minimum doesn’t deserve a 100. But I digress…Ok, so you went to grad school, you came back and moved to New York. Walk me through what your day looks like now.
Ok, so I usually wake up really early every day because I’m either going to work at TKTS or I’m going to an audition. If I’m going to an EPA I get up at 6:00 and try to be there at 7:00. That’s for an EPA that will allow you to sign up for the waitlist at 8:30. If there’s not an EPA I get up at 8:00 or 9:00 to get to work. If there’s an EPA I want to go to, I will schedule my tutoring job in the afternoon. If they can’t see me at the EPA before lunch I just don’t get seen, which sucks, but whatever. So then I would go to my tutoring job in Brooklyn. And now that I’m in a show I’m going from work to rehearsal.
What are you rehearsing for currently?
I’m rehearsing for Much Ado About Nothing at Brooklyn college. It’s a part of their theatre department season, and all the cast members are either BFA or MFA acting students. But, the director of this production directed me when I was at LAMDA in grad school, and they had an actor drop out during the rehearsal process, so they just needed someone to come in quickly. He called me and hired me to come in as a replacement, which is great. He’s an amazing director. He starts rehearsals by saying there are some ground rules. They are:
1. If you move, it has to be while you are speaking. Don’t move while someone else is speaking.
2. Look at the person who is talking.
3. If you break either of those rules, do it for a purpose.
Those 3 rules solve so many problems and make the production so much cleaner in general. It’s a pretty economical way to direct a piece.
Yes, I got to see the show and agree that the blocking was very clean. I especially enjoyed the actor playing Benedick, what a splendid performance! It was the first thing I’ve seen you in since we were 17 doing Once Upon A Mattress. We’ve both improved quite a lot since then, ha! Can you tell me a bit about how you get roles? Through self submission?
I’m constantly checking Actors Access, Playbill, and Backstage, and if a project comes up that’s in my type and age range, I submit for it. I go to as many auditions as I possibly can. If they hire me I’ll deal with the scheduling issues later. This is cliché, the whole bit about looking at auditions as a chance to perform a one man play…I never felt that way. Now I really do think of it as that chance to practice what I do. Auditions don’t suck anymore and if they aren’t enjoyable, they are at least manageable. There’s less of a sense of nerves or pressure. It’s more about something I can control. I know how to do a good job now.
What about the rejection? Everyone deals with it in their own way. Do you have a certain coping mechanism or mindset?
It comes and goes in waves. I don’t necessarily feel like there’s a peace just because I’m in something currently. I’m always thinking about the next thing. The solace I find is in talking to other actors and having an unadulterated spout of “I’ll never get cast again, I suck.” I like getting that out of my system and allowing a space for that so I can move on from it. We all have those doubts. It also helps to have confidence in knowing what I’m good at. It helps that I have a part time job at TKTS that I love. It’s never a chore because it’s with people I love talking to who are all connected to this business. Tutoring has also been great because it allows me to turn off my theatre brain and focus on algebra or something more practical. It’s a bit of a breather from everything else. For the 3 hours I teach, there’s nothing I can do about my career as an actor. I’m just explaining equations, etc.
Is there any advice you would give to other actors or people considering acting as a career?
Figure out why you want to do it. It took me 20 years to figure it out, but now it’s easier to keep going because I figured out why. Keep acting. Keep doing shows. Keep auditioning. Keep trying to figure out why you love this. Make sure it’s for the right reasons. If it becomes too much, take a break. I took an 18 month break and then decided it was something I had to keep doing. I remind myself to keep thinking about the long game. Don’t just think about next month. Relax and know this takes time. At 23 you don’t have to have it all figured out. There’s still time to get wherever you are going. Just keep doing what you have to do to get there.
To keep up with Trace, see his website at www.tracepope.com.