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An Interview with Anna Szapiro and Johnny Smith: Making the Move from Philadelphia to New York

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Following a year of critical acclaim in Philadelphia, which culminated in nominations for both for the Barrymore Award for Best Ensemble, the talented young couple Anna Zaida Szapiro (nominated for A Knee That Can Bend with Orbiter 3) and Johnny Smith (who took home an award for his work in Inis Nua Theatre Company’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning) just recently made the move to New York City. Before settling in to their new address in Brooklyn, they finished out their time in Philly with featured roles in EgoPo Classic Theater’s season of Russian Masters – Smith as Ivan in Delirium (an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) and Szapiro as Nina in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

I met with Anna and Johnny in New York, after the closing of their Philadelphia shows, to discuss the transition, their backgrounds, future aspirations, and common interest in creating and devising, as well as acting.

Anna Szapiro. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

Anna Szapiro. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

Deb: What immediate impressions do you have of the differences between the theater communities in Philadelphia and New York?

Anna: I can’t really tell yet, other than it’s so many times larger! It’s a little intimidating, because there are so many different groups, styles, and genres within the overall theater community, so I feel that I need more time to explore it all.

Johnny: Yes, I would have to say the same thing. I’ve met some people, but there’s so much here and I don’t know about all of it, so I can’t make a general statement. But I’m anxious to get to know it.

Johnny Smith. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

Johnny Smith. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

Has the transition been challenging?

Anna: For me, it’s been hard to start building a foundation in New York, because I had to go back for the show in Philadelphia, so I wasn’t able to jump right in as fully as I would have liked. I haven’t yet built a network of theater artists, but having so much family here has made it easier; they’ve been so supportive, and my brother lives just about a block away. Not being around my old friends is difficult, though I did get to see them for The Seagull and I’ll continue to see the people I’ve known in Philly for the past five years.

Anna Szapiro in The Seagull. Photo by Dave Sarrafian.

Anna Szapiro in The Seagull. Photo by Dave Sarrafian.

Johnny: Logistically it was a nightmare for me, because I had surgery before I moved, so I was set back a month after closing Delirium. I’m a shy person by nature, and I’m feeling it with New York actors, especially after knowing everyone in Philadelphia and feeling comfortable there for almost ten years. This move is definitely forcing me out of my comfort zone, so it’s scary, but in an exciting way!

If you could have one of your wildest dreams come true in New York, what would it be?

Anna: That’s a really hard question, Deb; I don’t know. I think one of the things that’s so unique about New York is that so many people are able to see the shows – they have long runs and big audiences. When I did A Knee That Can Bend by the amazing Emma Goidel, I knew it touched people and I wished we could have done many more performances, so that more audiences could see it and respond to it. That would be very special, to do a show here that moves people and doesn’t just disappear in two weeks.

Johnny: Well, if you want to talk about the wildest possible dream, mine is to host The Late Show!

What’s your first creative memory?

Johnny: I did school plays because I was the class clown, so my teacher could direct my energy. In sixth grade, I was making fun of the teacher and it embarrassed him, so he gave me the choice between detention or auditioning for Crazy for You. I had so much fun at the audition, I knew I wanted to do it! He had me read for five or six parts, and then I was cast as Billy, who enacts death scenes.

Anna: The first thought that came into my head was looking at Georgia O’Keefe paintings with my Dad. I grew up in Washington, DC, so we had a lot of free museums and we would go on father-daughter dates. In the fourth grade for my birthday we went to The Phillips Collection and I loved her work there; of course I didn’t understand the sexual content until later. But related to the theater, for third grade graduation we did a skit about bullies; I was one of them. I had the line, “I like to play volleyball,” and the other kids loved it and made me say it over and over and over. In college, I majored in Art History, and didn’t really start doing theater seriously till after graduation. But I believe that there’s no divide between the arts.

Johnny: And theatrical storytelling is always a combination of all the arts.

How did you end up in Philadelphia, since neither one of you is a native?

Anna: I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut for college, where I was an Art History major, but I also took theater courses. During my senior year I had a week off, and had an existentialist crisis: I wanted to act! David Jaffe, who was a Professor at Wesleyan at the time, asked if I would be interested in applying to Headlong Performance Institute in Philadelphia, which had a relationship with our Theater Department. I applied in July, and moved to Philadelphia in 2011.

Johnny: I was just riding the waves of life! I attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania with my friend Sam Sherburne, who’s also an actor in Philadelphia. Though we were in different high schools – he went to Indiana High and I was in neighboring Blairsville – my small town didn’t have a community theater, so we met in his home town, when we did Winnie the Pooh together; I played Tigger. At the end of college, Sam applied for a grant to do a show in the Philadelphia Fringe, and he got it. I started doing some plays and sketch comedy, and went to work at Eastern State Penitentiary in the seasonal Halloween event Terror Behind the Walls in 2007, and then again in 2012. Then I stuck around. I had a job, doing sketch comedy nights at Walking Fish Theatre, and built up my resume, acting with The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.

Anna: In 2011, I had my first gig with Philly Shakes, and that’s where I met Johnny. I was already committed to staying, since I’d grown so fond of the city and the artistic community while I was a student at HPI; I had a reason to invest in Philadelphia, and then Johnny was a huge bonus. I entered into the EMC system [Equity Membership Candidates] while working a day job at Di Bruno Brothers cheese and culinary shop. Then I did a Fringe show, Scout, with Fur Collective in 2012, co-devised and performed From the Swamp to the Stars as a member of No Face Performance Group, and worked as a standardized patient, until I got my first professional role in regional theater in 2014, in Azuka Theatre’s Tigers Be Still.

You were both nominated for a Barrymore Award last season in the category of Best Ensemble. Why did you decide to move to New York now, after such a successful year in Philadelphia?

Anna: I had a really great 2015-16 season in Philadelphia, but the move was separate from the success; the decision was in the works before that. I had family in New York City, and I’ve always wanted to try living here. My parents’ house became available this past summer, so the puzzle pieces came together, with exact timing. The opportunity presented itself and I jumped on it!

Johnny: I hope to continue my work in Philadelphia, but I wanted to take some time in New York to consider the potential outside. I want to be able to have choices, not just in theater, but also in other media – sketch comedy, film, and TV; I want to immerse myself in all of it.

Anna: If we are our own business, there is more access in New York City to the different markets.

Anna Szapiro in 901 Nowhere Street. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

Anna Szapiro in 901 Nowhere Street. Photo by Plate 3 Photography.

What has been your favorite role to date, and your best experience?

Anna: Can I have two? First is Virginia Langley in 901 Nowhere Street with Sam Tower + Ensemble, which we presented in the 2015 Philadelphia Fringe; I birthed that woman 100%, so I just love her because I made her and I’m the only one who ever played her. A devised piece is very different than learning a scripted work, but in a scripted character, I love Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull, which I just closed in February with EgoPo. The more I got into that script, the more I loved it, it’s so beautifully written. I’m still sad that the show is over and I don’t get to play her again. She’s brave and reckless and naïve, but she does it – so that’s been my favorite experience.

Johnny Smith in The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. Photo by Katie Reing.

Johnny Smith in The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. Photo by Katie Reing.

Johnny: For me, my favorite is always the most recent! But the experiences I value most are The Diary of Anne Frank with EgoPo and The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning with Inis Nua. I enjoyed getting to know Tom [Reing, who directed] and working with him. It was my first Equity role, but I felt so much respect from him as equal collaborators. As for characters, I flew to LA in January to do more work on  Shithead the movie, which is due out this year. It’s a feature-length indie film that takes place in fictional America, about an addict trying to get his drug-of-choice chenko. I play the lead Jordan, which I pretty much devised. We filmed in Voorhees, New Jersey, over the past two years; it was originally supposed to be two weeks! I was more immersed in the process than originally planned; we would run with my ideas and film them. Jordan is a heinous individual – a real shithead! – so it was such a catharsis for me to be this character.

Johnny Smith in Shithead. Photo by Mike Morelli.

Johnny Smith in Shithead. Photo by Mike Morelli.

Anna: I’m in it too, and my character is also a heinous person. She wasn’t part of the original script, but was created in reshoots.

What do you miss most about Philadelphia? 

Anna: All my favorite spots! Restaurants that I always went to that became my hang-outs and were almost like a second home to me, where they know me. I knew so much of the city so intimately that I miss the command I had of it; I don’t like being a perpetual tourist.

Johnny: South Philly Comics was in my neighborhood, and I liked going to see the guys there on a weekly basis. I also miss my puppet-show buddies, so I’m hoping I can create something similar here.

What do you love most about New York? 

Anna: New York affords a certain level of anonymity, so you can do whatever you want and be whoever you are, without having to worry about what people will think. There’s no judgment here, and there’s a wealth of all kinds of different and eccentric people.

Johnny: I like being able to go out for groceries in the middle of the night! Everything is open here – we have all the conveniences.

Where do you hope to be five years from now?

Anna: I would like to have finished a graduate school program. I would also like to be in a place as an artist where I feel more confident about being able to sustain the life as a vocation, to feel that I can confidently say I’m proud of my decision to do this, and to be able at that point to make serious financial investments for my future.

Johnny: I want to be more concrete in my thirties, less abstract than in my twenties. I know what I have to offer, and I want to polish that product, especially by being involved in the sketch comedy scene. I do dream big, and I’m confident in it!

Thanks to both of you, and best wishes for continued success in New York, Philadelphia, and everywhere your career takes you!

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