An interview by Grant McGowen
You’ve probably seen the toothy, handsome young actor Joe Sykes around Atlanta theatre (most recently in Actors Express’ Wolves and Next Fall). If you don’t know him on a personal level, you might be surprised to learn he’s a natural goof, incredibly meticulous, and really as charming off-stage as he plays onstage. Joe will be starring in Lesyle Headland’s Assistance this April at Pinch ‘n’ Ouch Theatre, directed by his former UGA professor George Contini.
What’s it like working with your former UGA professor?
I really enjoy working with George Contini. He’s a positive energy and very supportive of his students and his actors. He creates a relaxed atmosphere that allows us to explore and do all the bullshit that actors need to do to create a play. He’s open; he listens to ideas. Everyone can connect with George and he makes you feel comfortable. Always. He helps you have fun.
Directors and teachers are very similar. You want to please them. You want their feedback and you hope it’s positive (because aren’t we all so sensitive?) George is honest and is able to find where you are as an actor (ranging from your level of ability as a performer to the development of your character). He knows what you can and can’t hear and more importantly what you need to hear. He delivers his direction and teaching lessons differently to each individual based on their needs.
I hadn’t seen George in 10 years but the rapport we had at Georgia was still present. I still wanted to know what he thought about my last performance (Wolves at Actor’s Express). He told me. He made me feel good. He translated the positive aspects of that performance into what we’re trying to tackle now with Assistance. I’m much more confident in my abilities than I was in college and I’m excited to see how my former professor takes advantage of that. But more so, I’m excited for him to teach me again.
You work with Out of Hand Theatre. How do you create the physical life of a character?
I create a mask; a full body mask: the walk, the sounds, the hair, the shape and the movement of the body, and how these traits change according to the presence of other characters, the given circumstances, and emotion in general. You know? Like everyone else does. As this play is based in reality, I’m not going too far from my self to create these qualities, but still there is a change.
And really, for this show, my Out of Hand training bleeds into how we’re creating stage pictures. OOH is heavy in exploring Viewpoints, a subject that I think can be simple and esoteric at the same time. A goal is to understand the play sans dialogue, with only movement. If an audience can watch movement only and understand what’s happening and how the relationships work then our stage pictures have been successful. I think specifically of Assistance’s last scene where Nick and Nora stand on opposite sides of the set. We won’t give anything away, but the blocking tells a story. I also enjoy how we’re repeating images from scene to scene. We’re able to give a lot of information to the audience by showing rather than telling. We express office hierarchy, love, chaos and all sorts of things just through our patterns on stage. My OOH Viewpoints training translates into every performance arena, but it’s one of those things that you don’t know is working until you step back and see what you’ve made.
You’ve been seen in numerous Atlanta productions including most recently Wolves at Actors Express (and we’ve already confirmed those fangs are REAL!). What’s something nobody knows about Joe Sykes?
I don’t like my feet. You’ll never see me in sandals.
You love to talk shit, but not in a mean way. Anything you want to shit talk about right now?
Never in writing, Grant McGowen.
Anybody’s ass you really want to kiss?
I don’t kiss anybody’s ass. That can be a problem. I should kiss more ass, I’d probably get more work. That’s what my parents have been telling me anyway.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
The first job I had out of college was the worst. I was temping with Randstad and they got me a job serving samples of gas station sandwiches at Racetracs and QTs outside the perimeter. Breakfast shift was horrible: I’d drive to Loganville at 4 in the morning to cut up crappy bacon, egg and cheeses and talk people into buying them. I had to work until all the sandwiches were gone. One time I hid 50 sandwiches in my car, left early and then dropped them off at a homeless shelter off of Cobb Parkway.
The best job I’ve ever had was working on v/h/s with Dave Bruckner. Now on Netflix, check it out!
Have you ever been fired?
I’ve never been fired, but I have been laid off. I worked at Ideacom Technologies for 5 years. They downsized, like every company did during Bush’s second term, and I was one of the first they let go. It was the best thing that ever happened to me though. That place was soul-crushing. Everyone who I worked with was cool, but I don’t give a fuck about phone systems (you know, when you have to dial 9 to get an outside line and all that?) I was customer service, so whenever someone had a problem with their phone they called me and I sent someone to fix it. Customer service sucks because everyone is mad at you all the time. I did learn one valuable lesson: When someone is mad at you, let them speak until they are finished. Repeat what they have just said back to them, to let them know that you’ve understood them. Often they’ll say the same thing again, and then you listen and repeat it again. Do this over and over until they’re calm and they know that you get what they’re saying. Then put them on hold.
As an actor, do you work from your life experience or from your imagination?
Personal experience mainly, then I fill in the gaps with imagination. Drawing from life experience can be detrimental to your constitution, but anything that is good usually hurts, so just go with it.
What’s the biggest mistake actors make?
Smoking cigarettes, not understanding the architecture of the page.
How do you approach acting in comedy? Do you approach drama any different?
I don’t do anything differently in the approach. In performance, comedy asks actors to listen to the audience more. I have to remember that I’m doing this for them, and I can only speak when they’re ready to hear the line. As I’m essentially a selfish person, this can be difficult, especially if they don’t laugh when I want them too. I’m working on it though, finding the balance of what I think they should hear and how they should hear it and what they enjoy.
Assistance takes place in an office. How do you keep it interesting?
Speed. I really hope we get this show to 80 minutes.
What’s your favorite line in Assistance?
I like this particular sequence…
Nick: …Is it really eleven?
Nora: Maybe I have this all wrong. Maybe I should’ve married for money–
Nick: Yay feminism!
Nora: –Instead of earning it. It’s eleven pm at night!?
Nick: Those who marry for money earn it. My Aunt Gloria said that.
Nora: Jesus. Did we eat dinner?
Nick: Nope. And also I don’t have an Aunt Gloria. I tricked you!
How do you feel about the modern day rush of technology?
I don’t like it. It’s overwhelming. I don’t care about that kind of stuff, and I should because my ignorance hinders my career, but whatever, kids should read more books.
Where can we catch you after a show?
At a bar. But not Manuel’s. The lights are too bright there.
And in the heart of James Lipton:
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
N—–, especially when I say it.
What turns you on?
What sound or noise do you love?
Busy, busy street sounds.
What sound or noise do you hate?
Birds at night.
What is your favorite curse word?
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
Anything in middle management.
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
You made it!
Grant McGowen is the Producing Artistic Director and the founder of Pinch ‘n’ Ouch Theatre. He is a playwright, director, teacher, and actor. At the theatre, he most recently directed his play Let’s Make It, and performed in Some Girl(s) by Neil LaBute. He will also be appearing in Assistance by Leslye Headland, this April.
For more info on Pinch ‘n’ Ouch Theatre visit: www.pnotheatre.org.