Theater can be tough to break into.
But Jacob Shipley, a Cropseyville native, makes it look easy in his lead role in “Amazing Grace: The Musical,” a Broadway touring production coming to Proctors on Saturday.
Shipley plays John Newton, who comes from a family of slave traders and, through much hardship and a whole lot of character development, becomes an abolitionist. The show is based on the life of Newton, who also wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” hence the title.
Newton is an intense character to play: He starts out as a rebellious drunkard who has little respect for those around him. But after being confronted with slavery, the slave trade and becoming a slave himself, Newton begins to come to terms with the horrible reality of his family’s business.
It’s one of Shipley’s first roles since he graduated last year from the Ithaca College theater program. He landed the role just a few months later – impressive by any recent graduate’s standard.
But he credits his teachers and theater programs in the Capital Region for most of his success. After performing in a few shows at Tamarac High School, Shipley began taking lessons with Jim Charles at C-R Kids.
“He taught me how to sing, which was desperately needed,” Shipley said of Charles.
He went on to become more involved with C-R Kids.
“They were incredible. They taught me so much,” Shipley said.
Shipley was also in a Curtain Call Theater production, and even performed at Proctors with the Schenectady Light Opera Company in its production of “Thirteen.”
“All of these get me into [theater]. It was a lot of fun,” Shipley said.
Shipley’s family is a creative bunch, but not necessarily in a theatrical sense. His parents run Smith and Jones, a Troy-based advertising agency, and his sister is a photographer. It was his grandmother who always dreamed of being onstage.
Unfortunately, she grew up during the Great Depression, and was told to get a more stable job.
“I’m from a family of artists, but not really a family of performers. It’s really cool getting to fulfill my grandmother’s dream,” Shipley said.
Here, Shipley talks about how he’s achieving that dream through “Amazing Grace.”
Q: How did you break into this so quickly [after graduating]?
A: Great question . . . luck? That’s how it goes, right? I was doing a show out in Ithaca, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Hangar Theater, and I just saw a call for this on Playbill, and sent in a video because I couldn’t get down to New York City. They liked it and called me in, and liked me when I showed up. A saying that my friends and I got from our teachers at Ithaca is “Opportunity is luck meets preparation.” You can do half the work but the other half is [luck].
Q: Was it difficult to play such an [at first] awful character?
A: It is difficult. I do want to highlight that nothing that I do onstage is nearly as difficult as what the members of the African ensemble do. They’re portraying slaves and I can’t even come close to imagining what that must be like for them, having to step into that past, which is a very real past and also not that long ago. We have a slave auction in the show . . . we’re not mincing words. We’re not making it seem like it’s better than it is. I’m selling my friends on the stage, and so I have to distance myself from it in that moment. Our writer, Chris Smith, talked about that, saying he had to write it as if he was selling washing machines. There are some really horrible things that happen onstage, but they’re real things that happened to people and [it’s] important that they [are] told. I’m really grateful for the ending because if I didn’t have that redemption, then . . .
As a group, we’ve come together after the shows to leave what we play on the stage.
Q: Do you feel like this is a story that’s important to keep alive and keep retelling over the years?
A: Yeah, we’re seeing it a lot now that our community is so divided, that the world is so divided for a multitude of reasons. But this show is about love and support, and making sure everyone is treated equally and fairly. It’s about love, redemption, about somebody who has done horrible things realizing that, and working to become a better person and make up for the wrongs that he’s done.
Q: What can audiences expect from the production?
A: There are scenes [like the slave trading scene]. We also have a love story. We want the audience to take in those horrible moments, but we balance it out with some comedic moments, too. At the opening of the second act, we’re in Africa and the African ensemble comes onstage, and they perform a song that is heavily influenced by traditional African dance. The woman playing Princess Peyai, Shannon Johnson, used to work with “Step Africa” and she is [amazing].
The performance is amazing and it’s something we rarely get to see.
Q: Do you plan to visit family while you’re in [Schenectady]? And is this the only time they can really see you on tour?
A: Yup, this is pretty much it. My sister is coming up from New York. Old teachers and friends are going to come by and see the show, which is kinda crazy. I saw touring shows at Proctors. I saw “Wicked,” I saw “Spring Awakening,” “Lion King,” [when I was] growing up. It’s really kind of insane that I get to perform on the stage that I’ve been idolizing for so many years. It’s really exciting to be back.
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
How much: $20-$60
More info: proctors.org