It's difficult to find words to describe the overwhelming pride we have felt seeing Jonny Orsini emerge as a prominent Broadway actor in the past two years. Last season he played Ned, Nathan Lane’s love interest, in the world premiere of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance and he’s now in rehearsal for the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke, which previews in October.
I’ll never forget the excitement I felt waiting for Jonny’s first entrance in The Nance. Not surprisingly he was in full command of his role exuding great charm, wit, intelligence and sensitivity throughout. Jonny lit up the stage.
His winning “The Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence” for the performance in The Nance and his nomination for an Outer Critics Circle “Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play” were icing on the cake.
Jonny met us after the performance, took us for a backstage tour of John Lee Beatty’s spectacular set, and introduced us to Nathan Lane and other cast members as they were leaving the theatre. It was clear that everyone in the cast shared the same genuine affection for Jonny that we had for him when he was an undergraduate working in the Theatre Department.
From small beginnings…
Jonny’s success and the success of many other Theatre Department students was a dream when I began my work as director of academic theatre and professional performing arts programming at Suffolk University in 1982. We were an interdisciplinary academic program performing in what was then called The Suffolk Auditorium. We had fewer than 10 majors and minors and only a handful of course offerings. I was the lone theatre professor – a one-person band.
Thirty years later, I had the honor of speaking before an audience of 1,200 on the Boston Common about our distinctive Theatre program. The occasion was a celebration of Suffolk University’s new educational partnership with the venerable Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. I spoke of our three theatres, including the beautifully restored Modern Theatre in Boston’s revitalized Theatre District; our academic program–now nearly 90 majors and minors strong; and our very talented and committed faculty and staff, which has grown to 14 over the past 30 years. I was able to boast of our gifted and successful alumni now working in many of Boston’s most respected theatres, some of whom had created award-winning theatre companies of their own. Several of our 2012 graduates are now in professional internships – at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage, London’s Globe Theatre and The Juilliard School in New York. Most thrilling of all, though, was Jonny Orsini appearing opposite Nathan Lane in a Broadway show.
How did all this happen?
Theatre takes off at Suffolk
Things really began to change when we became an independent department in 1999, after having been linked to the Department of Communication and Journalism for many years.
Becoming an independent department meant that we could, at long last, hire a full-time acting/directing specialist–the brilliant Wesley Savick. Students flocked to his classes and to audition for his productions. Jonny – known then as Jonathan – was a Communication and Journalism major when he heard about Wes. He became a student in his acting class and before long was regularly appearing in Theatre Department productions.
It was a joy to watch Jonny on stage – always winning, always magnetic, always real.
Jonny also was a gifted director. His production of the Tennessee Williams play 27 Wagons full of Cotton was one of the most fully realized student-directed productions in our history.
Jonny was responsible for a number of firsts in our young department – then just over five years old: He was our first student to win a major role in a professional production while still an undergraduate and the first to be nominated for the prestigious Elliot Norton Award for Best Actor in a field of seasoned pros. The play was Douglas Carter Beane’s A Little Dog Laughed, produced by Company One and directed by Sean LaCount, their artistic director. (Jonny’s success led LaCount to cast a number of Suffolk students in his productions over the years.)
The Boston production of A Little Dog Laughed was so successful that Jonny was asked to lead the company on tour at The Hartford Stage – our first student to go on tour with a show at a major regional theatre and later our first student to be cast in a leading Broadway role.
These considerable accomplishments did not come easily or by chance. Jonny has been as disciplined an actor as any I’ve encountered, always working to develop his craft and making careful choices about roles and scripts. No sooner had he moved to New York then we were receiving emails about his roles in professional readings and student films. Before long, he was being cast with increasing regularity.
I knew that Jonny had reached new heights when he was cast in more high-profile films and the world premiere of the David Rabe play Early History of Fire off-Broadway in 2012. Soon thereafter he was appearing on the stage of the beautiful Lyceum Theatre in The Nance with Lane and an ensemble that included Broadway stalwarts Lewis J. Stadien and Cady Huffman
Unspoiled by success
Jonny joined us for a light lunch between the matinee and evening performances of The Nance. Once again he was as charming and as unaffected by his success as could be. I learned that he had been up for the leading role in War Horse just before being cast in The Nance. When I asked him to explain his success as a working actor, he replied, without a trace of affectation: “It’s fun.”
I spoke to Wes Savick a few weeks ago after he caught one of the final performances of The Nance. He too, was struck not only by the excellence of Jonny’s performance in the show but also by how impressive a human being he had become. It was clear that he was not taking his success for granted – Jonny was still riding his bike around town and auditioning for shows several times a week throughout the run.
We were thrilled to learn that Jonny was cast in Macbeth this season, and we can’t wait to see it.
As I look back at my 30 years at Suffolk University I marvel at how successful our students have become and how Jonny Orsini is one glorious example of that success.
–Dr. Marilyn Plotkins