What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am the Assistant to the Director of the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at The University of the Arts. I perform and teach with Opera Philadelphia and I am a communications consultant in the Philadelphia live arts industry. Recent and upcoming guest speaking credits include The University of the Arts, Temple University, Villanova University, ArtsTechNJ, and Theatre Communication’s Group.
Where are you based out of?
I’m based out of Philadelphia, PA but have worked regionally on the east coast for multiple companies. I grew up outside of Boston, MA with fellow guest blogger Ashley Talluto. (Hi, Ashley!)
When did you start your training?
I started in preprofessional productions and intensives at about 9. I worked consistently until late middle school when I started really training, attending more classes, and auditioning. For a dancer, I started training “late” around 13 or so, but my facility towards dance stemmed out of my work as a musical theater performer. The musicality, the expression, the rigorous schedule mirrored that of a theater production, so I quickly caught on and found dance was an outlet I wanted/needed. It wasn’t just something to support my theatre training, but a new love and passion.
As a singer and actor, my first professional training was with North Shore Music Theatre with their Stage 4 and Youth Performance Academy programs. This professional regional theater offers comprehensive training to aspiring talent in all performing arts disciplines. Beyond the unparalleled training, I met a plethora of fellow performers who went on to Broadway, television, film, and national tours. Even as teens, the training and development we underwent formed us into professional level performers.
At the same time, I trained with several dance schools and their competition teams. Most notably, Nancy Chippendale’s Dance Studio truly opened my eyes to competitive dance and Broadway-style choreography. I felt at home at Chippendale’s because they were adept at training boys and young men in multiple disciplines. I never felt like the elephant in the room and was held to the same standards as every other dancer on my team. Competing with Chippendale’s introduced me to other dance leaders in the industry, many of whom I would cross paths with again in a professional setting.
When did you decide you wanted to be a performer?
I don’t think I ever had an “Aha!” moment about my professional career. It developed out of moving toward and reaching each step on my way to becoming a professional. I set goals and continued to work toward them until I reached a professional level. One of the first times I realized this was something greater than I imagined was when I was working at a local pharmacy in my hometown during high school and left for about a month to work on a ballet. Working alongside the ballet company didn’t feel like “work.” It felt right and I knew it was the best decision for me. When I tried to go back to work in the pharmacy after a few weeks, they had omitted me from the schedule moving forward. This was the first time I had to really examine taking a gig over a day job. And as a fledgling dancer, I knew from then on the road wouldn’t be easy, but it would be worth it.
What was your first professional job as a dancer?
Like many performers, I worked on a lot on professional productions before I ever got paid for them. My very first paid gigs were choreographing and teaching for summer intensives at theater companies during summer breaks from college. I didn’t go the normal route of summer stock because I really liked working with students and having the chance to share my own choreography in a fully produced setting. I also got the chance to teach additional disciplines – Audition Technique, Voice and Speech, and Musical Theater Performance.
I taught at two programs that would later greatly impact my personal and professional life – Stoneham Theatre and Appel Farm Arts and Music Center. One of the unique aspects of the arts is that your students quickly become your colleagues. This happened with both of these programs, as many of my students are currently pursuing performance degrees or working alongside some of my professional contacts. Also, your contacts and coworkers can lead to additional work and opportunities, which is what came out of working at a regional cultural epicenter like Appel Farm in New Jersey.
While people often advise not to say no to any opportunity in the arts, I think it’s imperative to know when to say no and your worth as an artist. That being said, sometimes connection and increasing your network is more important than a paycheck.
Who were your mentors and what roles did they play in your growth as an artist?
I thought a long time about how to answer this question. I would love to say there was a teacher or coach that guided me to where I should go, but I was always very headstrong even as a kid. I didn’t spend years and years under one teacher, I moved around until I found what felt right. Now as a teaching artist, I know everyone who taught me was excellent at doing so, but I wanted to try everything and take from everyone.
Honestly, the people I felt who most impacted my professional life before I went to college were my parents. They realized my passion was more than a fleeting interest in the spotlight, it was all consuming. I read playbills like comics and collected stage credits while my peers played video games. My parents researched what to do next, where I should study, and what institutions matched my talents. While they were never stage parents or pushy in any way, they guided me to what was next and monitored my training needs. They drove me countless hours to auditions, to classes, and to performances. When I was really young, they would drive me to my performances hours away, stay to see the show, and then drive right back home when it ended late at night. This was a routine we shared for years, school night or not. I think being a professional child deepened my relationship with my family because we spent so much time together and were able to share the experience of creating.
Once I went to college, the professors and instructors I had were required to be currently working in the industry outside of the University. This was a great asset that I, admittedly, did not take enough advantage of as a student. I felt like I finally had my feet underneath me during my senior year of college when I started to get guidance and feedback from my professors that would profoundly guide how I later approached my work. The Tony-nominated Forest McClendon’s teachings stick with me to this very day. He is an ultra-positive but critical coach who gave my class honest feedback, introduced us to talent agents, and brought back experience from the front lines of auditioning. Of course, my movement and dance teachers -Tracy Librizzi, Rachel Kantra, Bill Buddendorf- were also incredibly impactful on the training I received. Once I went to college, I found it easier to connect with teachers and coaches, but for the first part of my life, my parents were my coaches and for that I am forever grateful.
What’s your favorite memory on stage?
I love a good rotating turntable onstage and I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few. The first was in Honk, Jr. at North Shore Music Theatre that encompassed the majority of the stage. There was a music cue that the stage started to turn and the choreography moved in the direction of the turntable. It was one of those moments as an early performer that I recognized the power of theater production and technology.
There was a large rotating turntable in Opera Philadelphia’s Silent Night that served as trenches and battlefields of World War I. It was also raked, which means it is raised on an incline, so more of the surface is visible since one edge is higher and one is lower. The opera is incredibly cinematic and there is a poignant moment where the soldiers bury their fallen comrades. The scene freezes and then rotates so the audience gains an entirely different view of the scene.
It is very challenging to work in the round, since you have to use different points of reference when you set staging. Usually the methods are the clock -11 o’clock, 6 o’clock, etc.- or degrees – 90 degrees, 180. It’s always a challenge, but it always makes for a memorable experience.
What is your favorite place you have ever performed?
I’d have to say my high school’s auditorium holds a special place in my heart because I spent so much time there as a young performer.
Professionally, it would have to be the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. I graduated there and have since performed there pretty consistently. It houses a majority of the touring companies that come through, so it’s always exciting to see how transformative the space is even though it’s from the 1850s. In that sense, I’ve “shared” the stage with these tours since we share rehearsal space and as I often perform on the stage just weeks after the tour leaves. The energy and history backstage are palpable.
What has been your greatest triumph to date?
Being a multidisciplinary artist, I have a few accomplishments that mean different things to me. As a performer, my proudest moment is performing in the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night with Opera Philadelphia. There are few times that you step into a first rehearsal of a piece that has had huge acclaim and begin to reconstruct that success with the show’s creators. Since the opera takes place in real time, it was a challenge to live in the war-torn world of the opera for hours at a time without leaving the stage.
As a communications consultant, my proudest moment is working with the international tour of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem before, during, and after the production’s tour stop in Camden, New Jersey. I grew up admiring the artistry and athleticism of Cirque and never imagined I would ever be a part of it. I recruited, trained, and managed all onsite employees in five departments in back and front of house positions. To share a lunch table with Cirque artists, learn how the tour travels, and watch the entire operation break down into trucks was an honor and a pleasure few get to experience.
What were the largest obstacles you’ve had in pursuing your professional career?
There were some major obstacles I overcame to get to where I am today. The major one has always been balancing family and work. It’s common for performers to be away from loved ones for long periods of time. I’ve missed birthdays and holidays for work. It’s a tough part of what we do, but I know my family supports me in whatever venture I take part in.
Another major obstacle is finding the right time to jump full time into the arts. It took me a long time to feel comfortable to leave day jobs behind and only pursue the arts. The major turning point was when a studio invited me to teach a sample lesson and I had to turn it down due to work. I could have lined up a teaching gig, but I was standing in my own way.
In a broader sense, it’s taken me some time to learn how to network and follow up without feeling a little funny about doing so. Once I started to meet decision-makers in the industry, it became easier to reach out to ask for recommendations or ideas. It was difficult to ask for help or for introductions, but now I can’t imagine where I would be without asking for help. “You won’t get fed if you don’t come to the table.”
Was there a particular performance that changed your life or changed you as a performer?
The first opera I performed in, The Italian Girl In Algiers, with Opera Philadelphia. It was my first taste of a collaborative work environment with international artists. Opera is very unique in that most directors and opera stars are from all over the world and usually specialize in a composer or a character type. Language barriers in the rehearsal room are ever presents and it can be a challenge to find a language everyone can understand. Spanish and Italian are typically safe bets.
Anyway, I was fresh out of college and recovering from an injury when I stepped into rehearsals last minute. The Assistant Director started setting a scene that required strong character work and over-the-top choreography. Instead of demonstrating, he would verbally string together combinations that I would dance. He made minor tweaks and would ask me to incorporate them – hands here, head there, hit this mark. We kept at it until he liked what he saw and he finally said, “Wow, you’re like a Rockette.” That was a great feeling: to impress someone who made their living doing this piece, excel at the demands of the show, and fully recover from an injury that I thought might compromise my career.
Little did I know, the rehearsal room had concrete under wood paneling and not sprung floors. I hobbled to rehearsal with some serious shin splits over the next few days, so it also ended up being a lesson in maintenance and knowing your limits. It was a life changing experience in that I still perform with Opera Philadelphia six years later and am a short list performer for movement pieces they produce.
Oh, and as an audience member – War Horse. It completely reinvigorated me to get back on stage. It is the type of theater I love and I was lucky to get a backstage tour of the show.
Do you have a pre-show ritual or superstition?
My pre show ritual, especially for operas, is to abstain from food and caffeine a few hours before curtain. I like to do a full warm up from head to toe. I spend a lot of time breathing and centering my breath. I drink a ton of water to stay hydrated. I love to listen to Top 40s to get amped up. Right before I enter, I love to make silly faces with cast mates to release any anxiousness.
No superstitions to adhere to. I like to think rehearsal prepares you for anything that might go wrong, which I why I am a huge supporter of fight call and the like. I like to settle in the rehearsal removing any sense of unknowing or unsettled energy.
What inspires you to keep going?
My major inspiration to keep going is the belief that performance is an integral part of the human experience and acts a window to society. The most prolific creators are known for their unapologetic or innovative way of approaching the art. As someone who is trained to bring these stories to life, I crave that storytelling aspect of performance. It’s mutually beneficial because what brings the performer into unfamiliar territory leads to the largest personal gain. And sometimes you get to play a dancing Alligator, like I did in Opera Philadelphia’s Magic Flute last season, and you get to bring joy to thousands of people every performance.
Where do you see yourself in 15 years? Will you still be performing?
This is a tough one. Finding a career path in the arts is challenging since you usually have to go where you can get work. In 15 years, I like to have an advanced education of some sort, more collegiate speaking credits to my name, a wider rolodex of creators and colleagues, a few more passport stamps, and some sort of legacy to leave. I’d like to be happy and healthy somewhere with my family and friends creating pieces for young audiences. I will always have dance in my life one way or another and I hope to pass along my love of the art to the next generation.
What are your goals outside of dance?
My goals outside of dance and performing are to spend more time with my family, travel more, work more effectively, and to become a go to person for connecting creative types. I’ve never been one for the family/house/kids dream. I wouldn’t turn away from it though. I just think there are things I want to accomplish while I still have expendable time and energy.
What advice would you give to dancers looking towards collegiate study or currently pursuing a performing arts degree?
Having gone to a competitive program, I can tell you that the easiest part of earning your degree is getting accepted into a reputable program. It’s very difficult at times to stay enrolled in a highly competitive program because of money, injuries, and street. The attrition at conservatory style programs is high because of these factors and also because people often underestimate the demands of the program or realize they want a more traditional college experience.
I would advise those beginning their college search to seek out current students or graduates of a program they are interested in for better idea of how they can best prepare for the audition and how to navigate the program. A BFA is a tough choice for students who also want to study other things at the same time, maintain a job, or want a college experience with homecomings and pep rallies. It’s a very concise program of study for those committed to taking their performance to the highest possible level. It’s competitive, exhausting, and completely rewarding.
For those currently enrolled in such a program, my advice would be to play nice. Just like in the audition scene of Center Stage, every student was considered the best dancer at their hometown studio. In college, you have to learn to drop that pretense because every classmate and every professor is now your professional network. Many professors hire their students or recommend them for work. It’s your job to be on the short list of recommended students, not to criticize others. When school ends, your own worth ethic is the only one that matters. That’s not a pass to put down others; it’s a reminder to work on yourself regardless of outsiders.
Robert Battle, the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey, spoke at the commencement of The University of the Arts just last month and one of his statements stuck with me. “Pay attention or you’ll pay for it. Pay attention long enough and you’ll get paid for it.” I love this sentiment because it speaks to the student within all of us. It’s not enough to just show up to class and expect to better yourself; it has to be something you work for every second and even once you land the gig.
As a male dancer, what would you tell other male dancers just starting out?
When I first started dance training, I had a large learning curve ahead of me. I ended up taking varying levels of styles to catch up. I would take class with younger student and classes with advanced level students. This was slightly embarrassing but it helped me immensely.
While there were a few people who gave me slack for taking part in dance, I silenced naysayers by the quality of my skill and opportunities I gained as a dancer. There was no doubt that I stood out as a performer and anyone who poked fun of my interest understood when they saw me in performance. From competition, I learned that there were many more male dancers out there who shared my interest and wowed me with their technique. I was so impressed by one school’s male dancers in particular that I sought out training there to finish out high school.
A strong dance background aided me greatly when I auditioned for musical theater college programs. I think it set me apart from the competition since most singing actors are not as well versed in dance technique and performance. Once I left college, my affinity towards partnering and social dance were vital assets to my career. Even in social situations, the taunting I received as a teen has been replace with men telling me they wish they knew how to dance and lead a partner like I can.
Don’t ever give up. The dance industry will always need well trained and versatile male dancers, especially of color. Dance can open many more doors than sports ever will. That’s why many athletes turn to dance to support their physical regimen.
Do you have any advice to give to other dancers whether they are just starting or in the thick of it?
My advice to performers just starting out would be to stay positive, fortuitous, and cordial with your peers. I started working with Opera Philadelphia in 2008 from a recommendation through a classmate who was working in production at the company. It’s vital to network and stay in contact with people you work and train with. Personal recommendations are crucial in the small world of the arts.
I had a professor in my last semester of college who had us calculate just how much training we had received – hour by hour – from when we had started training as kids. The purpose of the exercise was to show that you should never be nervous walking into an audition room or attend a call. We had spent the majority of our lives preparing and could rest easy that technique was now engrained with everything we did. Now it was time to enjoy the process.
For those in the thick of it, I would say that very few highly successful performers luck into a great contract. Of course, being at the right place at the right time certainly helps, but I think it’s more important to be prepared when a huge opportunity presents itself. Being prepared includes going to class, meeting the next person, trying a new avenue to achieve something. Great jobs rarely land in your lap; it’s up to you to make opportunities come your way.
What music are you listening to right now?
Pandora. Top 40s. Some operas, some showtunes.
List five inspirations.
The moment before the curtain goes up.
A child’s first time peforming.
A first rehearsal.
My family’s well wishes.
Creative types that share your aesthetic.
Max Vasapoli is a seasoned educator and communications consultant in the Philadelphia live arts industry. Since receiving his BFA in Musical Theater from The University of the Arts, Max has worked with theatres like the Arden Theatre Company, Stoneham Theatre, Off Broad Street Theatre, and Theatre Exile. Vasapoli performs and teaches with Opera Philadelphia where he was seen in the Opera On The Mall broadcasts of Carmen and Nabucco, the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, and on news segments like CBS Philly’s Love the Arts in Philadelphia, 6ABC Loves The Arts, and WHYY’s Friday Arts. Recently, Max worked alongside Cirque du Soleil’s international tour of Totem in Camden, NJ. Recent and upcoming guest speaking credits include The University of the Arts, Temple University, Villanova University, ArtsTechNJ, and Theatre Communication’s Group.
Photo Credit: Top photo by Robert Mannis, bottom by Kelly & Massa Photography