Broadway’s Billy Porter Visits Rider's Westminster College of the Arts

Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical discussed career development with aspiring actors.
Thursday, October 10, 2013

“Remember it’s not about you, it’s about service to the music and the art,” said Tony Award-winning actor Billy Porter during his recent visit to Rider University.  Meeting with the students in the Musical Theatre Lab, Porter spoke about his career and answered questions from a panel of five students and the rest of the class.  He also led a master class with two Musical Theatre majors: freshmen Demarius Copes and junior Heather Baisley.

Billy Porter graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama. He also has a certification from the Professional Program in Screenwriting at UCLA. He’s been seen on Broadway in Grease, Smokey Joe’s Café, Five Guys Named Moe and Miss Saigon. Currently he appears as Lola, a role created around him, in the Tony Award winning musical Kinky Boots, now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. In 2013, Kinky Boots was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical, Best Choreography, Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Musical.

During his visit, Porter answered questions ranging from his days in college and how he balanced studying and social life to what it was like originating a role on Broadway and working with such successful artists including Cyndi Lauper, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Mitchell.

A writer and director as well as a stage and screen actor, he shared both the good and bad times in his life.  He said that he’s happy his career didn’t follow the path he originally expected, recalling a time when the work stopped coming in.  He said that if that hadn’t happened, he would have never taken the initiative to begin writing and directing.  He credits that experience with broadening his theatrical horizons and teaching him so much more than what he had learned solely as an actor. Thanks to his branching out, he’s had a successful career in the business for more than 20 years.

Although he originally wanted to head straight to New York City out of high school, Porter said that he’s glad that he took the time to concentrate on school.  He encouraged Rider students to do the same: to be patient and to learn, because they will get to the city eventually and it’s better to go prepared than not. He reminded the students, “This business is not linear. Get comfortable with the unknown to stay present and available. Create! Write, direct and teach. Allow yourself to change your mind. If you don’t keep learning in the theatre, you won’t be able to keep creating.”

Demarius sang first, performing “Lost in the Wilderness” from The Children of Eden. Heather had planned to sing from The Children of Eden as well, but Porter urged her to find something else, stressing that it’s important for the person hearing the audition to like the material and for it to be modern. After joking together and looking through her repertoire book, they decided on “Ready to Be Loved” from Edges. After the students performed, Porter asked the audience to name the verbs that described each character’s objective in singing this song, reminding the singers to connect with the audience. When auditioning, he told the students, “You want to pull the room in and connect with the audience, without asking them to give anything back.” The second time that Demarius and Heather sang, their performances had dramatically changed, and Porter exclaimed, “Where am I? I’ve never heard of Rider University!  I’ll be back!”

Porter closed the evening reflecting on the challenges of getting to and staying on Broadway today. “Research has to be done; you must love the material you’re choosing.  If you’re not sweating and out of breath, you’re not doing it right.” He asked the aspiring performers to remember, “Don’t hold back, continue to put one foot in front of the other, even if you’re not the best in class. Most important, he said, was something his friend Jennifer Lewis had shared with him: “The elevator to success is broken... Take the stairs.”

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Billy Porter spoke to students in the BLC Theater