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Early life survival skills help lead Petkoff to acting career

Petkoff in "Fiddler on the Roof"

Alumnus Robert Petkoff, who starred on Broadway last year in “Fiddler on the Roof” with Alfred Molina and who recently opened in a Los Angeles revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest” with Lynn Redgrave, could thank the U.S. military for his career.

His father’s Air Force career kept the family moving around the country before landing in Princeton, Ill., for Robert’s last three high school years.

“All the years of moving around had turned me into a bit of a chameleon,” Petkoff admitted.  “I learned as a military brat how to fit in very quickly in new surroundings, shaping myself in a way so that I could blend in with new social groups. I hated to stand out because that can attract very unwanted attention, especially in those awkward teen years.”

Like many high school boys, Robert was smitten with a theatre-loving girl so he auditioned for plays in a failed attempt to impress her.  But he did impress audiences, who responded positively, and Petkoff was hooked on acting.  When his father retired and the family moved to Princeton, Petkoff was influenced and inspired by Princeton High School drama teacher Dan Martinkus, M.A. ’82.

“He raised the bar for me,” Petkoff said.  “I had to take acting more seriously because the Princeton drama program was more competitive, and he demanded more from us.  I was able to use the chameleon in me to shape myself and yet stand out in a most conspicuous way.  Theatre seemed to be a good fit for me.”

It has been such a good fit that Petkoff has made his living exclusively as an actor for the last 13 years, working in New York theatre, both on and off Broadway; in regional theatres including Chicago Shakespeare; and in London, England, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Dame Judi Dench.

“To perform in London with Judi Dench was a dream come true,” Petkoff said.  “She taught me much about being honest on stage, since she seems incapable of having a phony moment. She also taught me how to behave when you lead a company of actors. She treated everyone around her with absolute respect. No one was ever made to feel they were doing a small part or were just a stage hand. We were all equals.  I carried that to the next play I did.”

In 1999, Petkoff was in his first Broadway show, “Epic Proportions” starring Kristen Chenoweth, as a standby for two roles.  A standby is at the theatre before every performance in case one of the actors cannot perform.  One afternoon six weeks into the show’s run, while he was in the middle of directing a small independent film, Petkoff got the call.

“To say that this was a thrilling moment in my career would be a complete understatement,” he said.  “I would be making my Broadway debut! I had the time of my life that afternoon. I went on quite a lot during the run, but nothing compares to the rush of adrenaline one gets stepping out on a stage in front of an audience for the first time.”

“That debut is one of the moments in my career that really stand out for me. Opening night of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was like that, but of course better because the role of Perchik was MY role, not a patchwork imitation of another actor’s work,” he said.  “The whole experience was incredible, and Alfred Molina, who played Tevye, was a marvelous actor and a hilarious man.”

Although he was in a few musicals at Illinois State, including “Oklahoma” directed by current School of Theatre director Don LaCasse, Petkoff did not see himself as a musical theatre performer.  But then in 2002 he got a call that changed his view.

“Gary Griffin, another ISU grad, was directing ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and wanted to know if I still sang,” he said.  “Apparently, all those years of karaoke and shower singing paid off, and he offered me the part.”  Petkoff, starring as “dab-dab-dab” artist Georges Seurat, took voice lessons during rehearsals and after the musical began in order to build up his voice.  Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips praised his “innate musicality.”

Petkoff partly credits his Illinois State University Shakespearean training, which includes the 1985 Illinois Shakespeare Festival, with making the singing come easier because Shakespearean actors learn to use their voice in a similar way to singers. He says many lessons he learned at Illinois State help him in every theatrical project.

“I know that every teacher I had made their mark on me, whether through direct instruction or through a rehearsal process from a play we worked on together,” Petkoff said.  “I remember Doug Harris not tolerating lazy actors. He would reward a student who might not be as talented as the others, but who worked hard to master a project.  You wanted Doug’s respect because it meant something. I loved Jean Scharfenberg’s Animals class. It was a master class in developing a character in a most imaginative way. The improvisations in that class were epic, and Jean was sometimes ferocious in her demand for honesty from actors.

“Don LaCasse, who directed me in ‘Oklahoma,’ was very gentle with his direction. Don allowed me to make very bad choices in rehearsal and let me discover they were bad without immediately cutting me off,” Petkoff said.  “It sounds ridiculous, but it is actually one of the most important things an actor can learn. If you can’t take risks in rehearsal and dare to be bad, you can never excel.”

Petkoff lives in New York with his wife, actress-playwright-filmmaker Susan Wands.  The production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” directed by the highly esteemed Sir Peter Hall, will make a mini-tour in March, in Columbus, Ohio; New Haven, Conn.; and Phoenix, Ariz., before settling in New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music for performances in April and May.

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