Q&A: Wright goes from backstage into the spotlight at NYSTI

Chi Wright grew up watching the inner workings of the New York State Theatre Institute.
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Chi Wright grew up watching the inner workings of the New York State Theatre Institute. Backstage, in the wings and in the house seats, the student in NYSTI’s Theatre Arts School spent a decade there, witnessing 80 productions from first rehearsal to final curtain.

And even though NYSTI was such an important part of his training, the 33-year-old actor has never played a part in its productions until now. Wright is playing the role of Ross, Thane of Scotland, in NYSTI’s current run of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

The actor, known as John Wright in his youth, said it is a privilege.

“Being on the same stage with actors like Carole Edie Smith, John Romeo, John McGuire and David Bunce, who I watched in countless shows, it’s wonderful,” said Wright.

Wright was raised in Selkirk and attended The Doane Stuart and the Hawthorne Valley schools. He finished high school, as a performing arts student, at the Walnut Hill School. His undergraduate work was completed at Lesley University, where he wrote and performed in his critically hailed autobiographical play “The Crystal Stair.” Last year, he graduated from Columbia University’s master of fine arts program in acting.

Wright’s credits include Clitandre in the off-Broadway production of “The Misanthrope” and Carle in “Scapin” at The Classic Stage Company. He has played title roles in “Othello,” “Ivanov,” “Oedipus Rex” and “The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket” for which he received the New England Theatre Conference’s Moss Hart Award.

In part, he credits his stage success to his youthful experiences at NYSTI.

Q: What kind of effect did NYSTI have on you as a child?

A: I started when I was six years old in 1980 when it was the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts. My mother worked there in public relations and I spent every school day off and Saturdays at the theater until I was 16. It was an amazing time. As a young person, it was the most significant time. It laid the foundation for me. It gave me a strong sense of working as an artist, to be part of an incredible community of actors who were engaged full time in creating art.

Q: Did you know then that you wanted to be an actor?

A: My route was circuitous. I had other interests. When I went to Walnut Hill, I became interested in movement theater. It was a nice way to find my way into theater, but just through the body. When I went to graduate school, I was focused on acting and the craft, how to approach text.

Q: You have done a lot of classical theater. What attracts you to the classics?

A: What attracts me is that it is such an opportunity to work in a way different from the modern drama. In general, the modern drama is all about subtext, what the character is not saying. There is a stifling of emotion. At the dramatic moment, the character will reach for a drink or a cigarette. Characters try to steer away from the accident.

In classics, characters steer into the accident. Macbeth encounters three witches and goes on a vision quest with them. In modern drama, Macbeth would have run away or pulled a gun on them.

The classics are archetypical stories that go toward more emotional, psychological states where the characters lose control and abandon sensibilities.

Q: Is there less creative space in the classics to develop a character?

A: The language is so wonderful that there are so many ways to approach a line. Every time you see the play and see someone different in the role, you see and hear new things. The classics are always reinventing themselves. There are so many places to go with the language of Shakespeare because of the nuances and poetry.

Q: Tell me about Ross. Who is he?

A: He is the messenger. He gives the news from the battle frontlines and news of Macduff’s family. On a more human side of him, he cares deeply about Scotland.

Q: You have a universal look. Does it allow you to play everyman?

A: My mother was French-English-Irish. My dad was African-American, Native American and West Indian. People have thought I was Middle Eastern, Moroccan. I’ve been mistaken for a lot of things. This does lend me a certain level of versatility.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: After “Macbeth,” I am returning to the city to shoot an independent film, “Poonam Banerjee,” produced by Phantom Twin Films. I will also be directing a play at Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan. And, of course, auditioning.

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