Currently performing in the role of Bruce Bechdel for the national tour of Fun Home, alumnus Robert Petkoff shares a little from his life as a stage, screen, and voice over actor with senior Spanish and theatre studies major, Drew Burningham’17.
Why did you attend Illinois State University?
I was living in Illinois and looked at ISU among many choices. The theatre department had a reputation for having a terrific acting program and that was my primary interest. Having a scholarship didn’t hurt.
What’s been the most exciting thing about being a working actor?
Actually, just getting to make my living as an actor. I’ve gotten to work with actors who are my heroes like Dame Judi Dench and Bryan Cranston and that’s a lot of fun, but getting to do a job I love to do is incredibly satisfying. Not everyone gets to do that, so I appreciate how fortunate I am.
Who inspired you growing up?
I was influenced by classical actors like [Laurence] Olivier as much as method actors like [Marlon] Brando. Someone like Olivier could play with language in a way that was meticulous and witty. Brando was exciting because he was so unpredictable and natural. In both cases the common factor was imagination. It’s key to making any performance worth watching. It’s what makes any character unique.
You moved around a bit growing up, and now that you are an actor you’ve had to move a bit as well. How do you move yourself so easily?
I think moving a lot when I was a kid made it easier to do as an adult. You learn how to quickly adapt to different circumstances.
Where has been your favorite place to live?
Where I live now: New York. It has everything in the world you could need, anytime you want it. You pay a higher price for that but I think it’s worth it.
What has been your favorite career experience?
I’ve had quite a few: Getting to perform on Broadway, singing for 1,800 people a night. Doing comedy sketches with Dave Chapelle. Performing in London with Judi Dench and Emily Blunt. Playing Romeo or Hamlet or Sweeney Todd. As I’ve said, I’ve been very fortunate.
What characters have been the easiest to relate to and to bring to stage? What’s been more challenging?
I felt Romeo was easy for me because I could relate to everything he goes through. I loved language from early on so Shakespeare wasn’t as challenging for me. As for more challenging, I’m playing Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home now in the national tour and he’s as challenging a character as I’ve come across. He’s not a simple man. Very complex, very layered. It took a long time to get inside him.
What has Fun Home helped you learn about yourself and the world?
Living truthfully is the healthiest way to live.
Why did you want to get involved in the production of Fun Home?
As an actor, I really wanted the challenge of playing Bruce Bechdel. I had some hesitation about going on the road for a year, but my wife reminded me that I went into this career to play roles like Bruce so I couldn’t say no.
How will you go about helping the world with this new knowledge from Fun Home?
Well, I don’t set out to help the world per se. That’s a daunting task. What I can do is tell the story as honestly as possible. If audiences come and see the show and are changed a little bit in the way THEY see the world, then perhaps I’ve participated in something that will nudge the world in a better direction. The more we can see others as more than OTHER and recognize our commonality, the better off everyone will be.
What are some challenges with a touring production?
Obviously packing up everything and moving every few weeks can get old, but getting to see the country and more importantly sharing this story more than makes up for that. Staying in hotels can get old. You don’t realize how much you miss having a kitchen until you DON’T have one.
You are in the Woody Allen movie, Irrational Man. What was it like to work with the cast and director?
Most important for me in that experience was getting to work with Parker Posey, who I love as an actress and discovering she was just a great, funny woman in real life. Woody isn’t the kind of director that’s going to hang out with you between takes. He was efficient and professional.
The 40th anniversary of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF) is this summer, featuring Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I Heart Juliet. Have you ever been a part of these casts?
I did Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at ISF in 1985. I remember playing Cloten in Cymbeline as a punk replete with black eyeshadow and piercings. That was fun.
Is there a Shakespearean role that you’ve wanted to play, but haven’t yet?
I want to tackle Macbeth or Richard III. I’ve come close with Richard twice but other projects conflicted. I had the chance to play Henry V twice and passed due to other things and will always regret not getting to play him.
Why do you think the arts are important today?
The arts are vital because they allow the communication of ideas in a form that is at times gentler and at times more impactful than simply stating something outright. In an age where everyone spits out their thoughts and opinions on social media those things become cheap and easy and ultimately can get lost in the deluge. Artists take time to craft ideas and deliver them in an elevated form that can enable audiences to consider new thoughts and ideas they might reject otherwise or never be exposed to.
Is there any advice you’d like to give to our students?
Do the hard work to become better at what you desire to become. Your imagination is your most important tool but it will be less effective if you don’t have the other tools to communicate that imagination. Diction, movement, voice work. These are very technical things that you want to master so you can forget them and focus on creating. Once they become second nature will you be able to share your creations effectively. Actors are storytellers so it doesn’t matter how creative we are when telling those stories if the audiences can’t understand what we are telling them.