A Winning Labor for the CMU Stage: Christopher J Essex
November 30, 2017
On stage, Christopher J Essex can look intimidating, especially when he is dressed in a royal navy-blue military outfit complete with gold dressings on his shoulders and knee-high black boots. As King Ferdinand in Carnegie Mellon University’s production Love’s Labor’s Won, Essex plays a king desperately trying to save his country, Navarre, from being split between France and Spain. At 6’3” with the ramrod straight posture of a king, he commands the stage and the audience’s attention with his deep thundering voice and regal countenance that’s only broken by his passion for his country and the fair French Princess Isabelle.
Off stage, however, Essex is relaxed and down-to-Earth. He walks down the stairs in Carnegie Mellon’s drama building, Purnell, and greets me with a tired smile and hug. “You mind if we go get food?” he asks, after saying hello. “I need lunch.”
He’s just gotten out of jazz dance class. Though Love’s Labor’s Won is a play, Essex is a Musical Theatre major. He’s dressed comfortably in grey sneakers, black pants, a grey t-shirt with “Pi Kappa Alpha” (his fraternity) printed on the left breast in maroon, and grey coat. The grey compliments his blue eyes that shine out from under the grey and maroon Carnegie Mellon University baseball cap that’s perched on his head.
We walk out of Purnell and across the Cut to the University Center. The sun lights up his face, and I see the shadow of stubble that covers his jaw. “When’d you see the show?” He asks, passing through the revolving door in the UC.
“Friday night – opening night,” I tell him, trying to keep up with his long strides.
He nods thoughtfully as he starts bounding up the stairs. “It’s only getting better!” He says brightly. “You know, we were too in our heads Friday night. We had a lot to work through.”
He gets his food and again we snake our way back to Purnell. He takes me through a labyrinth of corridors behind the stage of the Philip Chosky Theatre and into a classroom. He sits, sighs, and smiles at me expectantly.
The 21 year old grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his mom. At three years old, he started martial arts training and now holds a second degree black belt in Karate. He started going to see theatre at six years old and began acting in third grade at his school. Once he started, he said, he loved it. His first role was a waiter in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, a show about Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, sharp shooters back in the 1870s. “There was nothing too crazy about that,” he says, laughing. As fate would have it, the summer after his sophomore year, Annie Get Your Gun was also Essex’s first professional Equity show and he played the lead, Frank Butler, at the Ozark Actors Theatre in Rolla, Missouri.
Essex did theatre through high school and, as he put it, “I decided that I wanted to do this.” He auditioned for nineteen schools to make sure that he got in somewhere. Carnegie Mellon University was his dream school and he says that he “got lucky that things worked out.” Anyone who has seen him perform and knows him personally, however, knows that it wasn’t luck but hard work and talent that got him to where he was.
“I’ve grown a lot here as an artist and as a person. I found what speaks to me and this career. Now it’s senior year and I’m doing my senior shows, and it’s really cool. It’s what you look at as a freshman and say ok, I’m going to do that. And here I am.”
Essex likes to challenge himself and this past summer was nothing if not challenging. He kept an incredibly busy schedule that is indicative of his work ethic. Essex played Johnny Cash in Million Dollar Quartet at the Maples Repertory Theatre in Missouri in June, starred as Emile de Becque in South Pacific at the end of July at Interlakes Summer Theatre in New Hampshire, and wrapped up his summer as Rum Tum Tugger in August in Cats the Musical also at Interlakes Summer Theatre. “It was an eventful summer for sure,” he says, taking a bite out of his sandwich.
While performing in the opening weekend of CMU’s Ragtime last spring, Essex was simultaneously auditioning for Million Dollar Quartet. He was asked in his audition if he played the guitar. He laughs as he tells the story. “I walked into an audition and they heard that I had a really low voice, and they hadn’t been able to cast Johnny Cash. They had everything else; they were really excited about who they had except for Johnny Cash. So, they asked me if I played guitar. And I did not play guitar at the time, but I told them that I ‘wasn’t the best.’ That was my response. I said, ‘I can play guitar but I’m not the best,’ and that was enough for them. They asked me to record myself playing a Johnny Cash song and send it into them. I asked them to give me a week.”
He was then given a week and he taught himself Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” He recorded himself singing and playing. “I shot those two songs and it was really bad. We opened Ragtime then Friday night I went into the studio and recorded the songs. They were really poorly played and I told them I wasn’t the best but I told them that if they gave it to me I’d show up for it and they just said, 'Ok.' So they gave it to me. So I had three months to learn twenty-three songs. The first day we played through the score, we had a week and a half before we opened and, you know, now I play guitar.”
After that, he auditioned for South Pacific. “I was cast in South Pacific but a big thing with the casting was finding out if I realistically could do the show. I finished Million Dollar Quartet and then South Pacific opened the week after I closed Million Dollar Quartet. They would’ve already been in rehearsal for two weeks and as the lead coming in, that’s not really what you’re looking to hear. So I said, “I think I can do it. I know you don’t know me, you’re taking a huge chance. But if you give me the role, I’ll come in off book [script memorized], I’ll learn my blocking [stage movements] in a day, and we’ll just start doing it.” And they said, “Ok, we’ll see!” So once I got Million Dollar Quartet up on its feet I would spend the days just learning South Pacific. I had to learn a French accent because I wasn’t going to have much time with the dialect coach once I got into rehearsals. So I spent weeks on that, learned the music.”
Once the show closed, Essex flew from Macon, Missouri to New Hampshire. He got in on a Monday morning and met the director and the actress playing Nellie. Tuesday morning, he had a put-in rehearsal of Act I and the entire cast ran Act I in the afternoon. Wednesday they did the same thing with Act II. Thursday they had a full run, and after that Essex only had two runs that weekend before tech. “It was exciting. It was a huge challenge because I just wanted to challenge myself. That was a huge part of the summer for me.”
Even during South Pacific Essex didn’t get a break. He was in rehearsal for Cats the Musical while he was performing South Pacific. “I think I’m a fine dancer, but Cats is known for being just so dance heavy. I was not the best dancer in our group by any means. We had people who were dancers first, and then me. But I was playing Rum Tum Tugger and the cat is modeled after Mick Jagger. He’s kind of this rock star cat who comes on for some badass songs and joins in some of the dances. It was very challenging, very vocally demanding and physically taxing. It was tough, too, because I was in the second weekend of South Pacific and I was in rehearsals all day for Cats singing stuff like Mick Jagger and then I’d have to switch and sing Emile de Becque. It was a lot.”
Despite all of his hard work, Essex maintains that he’s been very lucky in life. “My mom was very good about not hindering me but also not letting me give up on something that I’d spent so much time in and that I enjoyed doing. She wasn’t going to let youthful ignorance get in the way of something that was right for me. I consider myself very lucky in life. I’ve had to work very very hard to get here and to stay here and to continue to grow. But I’d say that I’ve gotten really lucky. I was chosen to learn here [CMU], chosen to do shows that I think are right for me, chosen to get a chance to challenge myself in a professional setting. People took a lot of chances on me this summer and didn’t know who I was and I just got lucky they did. And it worked out and the right shows happened at the right times for me.”
In a dream world, Essex would love to play Emile de Becque again. “I was really young to be doing it but they made me look older so it worked.” He’s quick to say that he’d love to play the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera and Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. They’re roles that he connects to but has to age into.
For Essex, he looks for roles that have a tough exterior but mean well and have a big heart underneath. He likes the journey of breaking that exterior over the course of the show to show the big-hearted person inside.
I tease him that these are characters that are a little like him. He laughs. “Yeah, yeah it’s very much like me,” he concedes. “Which I think is right to be doing. To do things that you connect with on a personal level. These are stories that I tell well and enjoy telling.”
In Love’s Labor’s Won King Ferdinand is like that, which is why, when auditioning, Essex hoped to be a part of the show. “I wanted to be in Love’s Labor’s Won. I just really enjoyed the script and again it was something that I saw a character I could connect to, which was King Ferdinand. Another stubborn tough guy with all this toxic masculinity, and he’s just broken down throughout the show by a trusted best friend and woman who, through it all, just loves him so dearly.”
Currently a senior, he hopes to hit the ground running as fast as he can and as long as he can when he graduates. To that end he’s also currently filming a horror movie, Here After, giving him an exhausting schedule that he powers through. “I got lucky with that movie because only Matchmaker people were allowed to audition for it,” he says sheepishly, “because we were in rehearsal for Love’s Labor’s Won and the film’s rehearsal and shooting overlapped.”
His friend and classmate Kate was cast in the upcoming film Here After, and she asked the director if he had cast an important role, and he told her that he wasn’t happy with the actor he had in mind. That was when she suggested he speak to Essex about the role. “He brought me in, read it, and I was his choice. And I got lucky that he took the chance on me even though I have no time to be rehearsing with them or doing a lot of the things that he really wants me to be doing, and I just got lucky that he trusted that it would work. As soon as I’m free we get started.”
In ten years, Essex would like to be at a place in his career where he doesn’t have to worry about where his next job is coming from. Then he can focus on starting a family. “That’s the dream for me. That’s the time when I can find my partner, find the opportunity to start raising kids, all the while being able to do the art I do as work but not worrying about when the next job is going to come. It’s not an easy quest, so I’m prepared to do what comes my way and do it with 110% of what I’ve got,” he says earnestly.
“Then when the next thing comes, the next thing comes, and I just keep going. There’s no job that’s too big, too small or not worthy or not right. As long as it’s all with the objective of my life of getting to the place where I can settle down then it’s fine. I have aspirations, and I have plans.”
If theatre doesn’t pan out the way he hopes, Essex sees himself pursuing country music. It’s been a big part of his life, and he loves country music and respects the artists and the genre. He thinks it's a sign that before his senior year he had a job where he had to learn the guitar. It’s something that he’s wanted to do for a long time but didn’t have the time to do. Million Dollar Quartet gave him the chance to do it. Since then he’s been constantly playing and giving little concerts and cabarets. He’s going to see what country music holds, and if it doesn’t thrive immediately he’s not going to place too much emphasis on it. “I have the opportunity that that’s not the only thing I can do. I have the opportunity to act, sing, dance, and do theatre, so I think it’s going to be a collaborated effort on everything to make the dream work.”
Essex has loved his time at CMU and is enjoying just being a senior. Despite being a senior, however, Essex doesn’t seem to have senioritis. He’s diligently working and preparing for when he graduates; his website will go live in January, he’s in CMU’s The Drowsy Chaperone that opens in late February, and he continues to audition for roles outside of CMU.
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See the last few performances of Love's Labor's Won. Tickets here