Steppenwolf Theatre Company has a brand-new show titled The Qualms, and one actor in the cast is playing for our team. Paul Oakley Stovall has built quite an impressive resume over the years.
He was last seen in Steppenwolf's Words on Fire. He earned a Jeff nomination for Play On! His Off-Broadway credits include Dessa Rose and Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. National tours have included RENT and Once on This Island. Some film credits are The Company and Shortbus.
For the past six years he has served as an Obama administration advance associate, and is a member of the Actors' Equity Association.
The Qualms is the eighth play by Bruce Norris that Steppenwolf has produced. The play is set at a beachside home where a gathering of friends turns into a polyamorous smackdown. Instead of sexual escapades, things turn into an unhealthful debate about sex, racism and status.
Stovall plays Ken, a character who has an open relationship with Deb, leading to lots of laughter. After opening night, Windy City Times went backstage to get the dish from a man with no qualms about wearing a Speedo.
Windy City Times: Hi, Paul. Start off with a little about your background.
Paul Oakley Stovall: I am from Chicago. I studied at The DePaul Theatre School. I'm just Chicago through and through. I've lived other places since I graduated such as New York for eight years. I did regional theater so you can say you live somewhere for three months at a time if you get a nice long run. I've done pretty much every regional theater; now I am back in Chicago for a few years. I've been back a couple of weeks now.
WCT: I read you started writing when you were very young.
Paul Oakley Stovall: I started writing poetry then joined About Face Theatre as a company member. We had a winter festival of new works and they knew I had done musicals so they had me sing songs between the scenes of the other esteemed writers that were going to present new works. I just told a lie and said that I write. I had abut 16 hours to go home and write a play. I came back and presented a scene from it, because that's all I had. It went over very well. It became Immediate Family and was at the Goodman. I just stayed with it.
WCT: What a crazy story.
Paul Oakley Stovall: Challenge yourself is the lesson, not to lie...
WCT: Fake it until you make it!
Paul Oakley Stovall: I'm still faking it today.
WCT: Where does the name The Qualms refer to?
Paul Oakley Stovall: Once I read the play I wasn't sure about the title because the word just means possibly having a few reservations about something. It can mean having a few problems or something that makes someone uncomfortable. When I saw Greg Stuhr act as Chris in what I consider to be the lead role, then I understood it is about his list of qualms about people, people of color, possibly gay peoplenot just prejudices, but he's prickly.
WCT: Talk about your character, Ken.
Paul Oakley Stovall: He is, according to the playwright, not gay. I just thought this idea of masculinity and femininity was interesting. The director, Pam MacKinnon, didn't tell me to play it one way or the other because those words can trap you. She just told me to be comfortable in my skin because the actions that you take tell the story.
Some people have said he comes off stereotypically gay at the beginning but, at the end, he's pushing the guy through the table. He's quite protective of his loved one. He's the only one in the house that has the nerve to tell the guy to get out. Everyone else wants to placate him. Do we take the outside of someone and say, "He's feminine and not strong?"
I am very interested in the gay community about what is strong, what is masculine, what is being a man and what does that mean? I like to play with this idea that Ken sits however he wants. He protects like the true alpha. He's the true alpha on that stage.
WCT: Did they want the role to be played by a gay man?
Paul Oakley Stovall: I'm going to be judicious and say they gave it to the best person for the role. [Laughs]
WCT: Fair enough. You obviously have a lot of fun with that character.
Paul Oakley Stovall: Sometimes too much fun!
WCT: The show tackles a lot of subjects.
Paul Oakley Stovall: It is hard to even remember not to eat the extra piece of food because you have a line coming up. That's how detailed everything is. It seems like we are in an environment where we are high and drinking, all very chill, but that show is so meticulous.
WCT: So it is very choreographed?
Paul Oakley Stovall: Oh, yeah. What you are talking about with all of the subjects, if the person who is starting the new subject doesn't really come on top of all of those overlaps the whole play sucks in because you are being shy with saying your overlap line. We had to figure out through trial and error who has to cut through and keep the motor going so the audience will happily stay with each changing topic.
WCT: The good thing is people can see it more than once.
Paul Oakley Stovall: Right, so they can pick out different things and track a different person. That's a good trick. I am going to try that in my next play.
WCT: It made me want to see it from a different angle.
Paul Oakley Stovall: Yes, even your position in the room. You saw it just now?
WCT: Fresh from seeing it. The actor that plays Roger, David Pasquesi, reminds me of Adrien Brody. We were on the same episode of Starz's Boss a few years ago and I thought it was Brody himself.
Paul Oakley Stovall: He's brilliant. He's a Second City guy. He absolutely sticks to the text and doesn't improv like that. There's a confidence of someone that knows funny. His timing is so good.
WCT: His little expressions are priceless.
Paul Oakley Stovall: He tries things onstage to try to make you laugh. When you try to do something to get him back, don't ever do that to someone that is a professional of Second City. Don't try to get them onstage. He's always ready with a crack under his breath!
WCT: Refresh our readers about your time on Shortbus.
Paul Oakley Stovall: I had a role called Magnus. What happened was I knew John Cameron Mitchell from just the downtown circle. I auditioned for Shortbus. He auditioned people in couples. I just didn't make the cut in the top couples. He still wanted me to read his drafts to tell him what I thought of the script because he liked my sense of humor. I went back to Chicago and he would come visit me to meet my friends. He wanted to meet people in gay communities all over the country. On his own dime he did research about communities. When it came down to the script, I wasn't in the main thing but he asked me what I wanted to play. He wrote the part for me.
WCT: You have had a sexual background of work.
Paul Oakley Stovall: [Sings] "I've only just begun."
WCT: You were on television's Chicago Fire?
Paul Oakley Stovall: I was on it for an episode last season. My character is still alive. I was just talking to a guy I did the scene with, and we were hoping my character would come back.
WCT: You were nominated for a GLAAD Media Award?
Paul Oakley Stovall: Yes; Immediate Family was also nominated for a Jeff Award and a Steinberg Award, also. It had Phylicia Rashad as a director at the Goodman Theatre and will be at About Face Theatre.
WCT: How do you do it all?
Paul Oakley Stovall: I haven't even told you about working with Mrs. Obama yet.
WCT: Tell me.
Paul Oakley Stovall: It is fantastic.
WCT: Did that relationship start here in Chicago?
Paul Oakley Stovall: No, it started in New York. I was working retail there and a friend came by, offered me to be a job and it blossomed into an actual position. Next thing you know I left New York. I even gave up acting for awhile for a paycheck. The whole world opened up to me. I watched the Obamas handle a level of superstardom and racism they face with such dignity.
WCT: Future projects?
Paul Oakley Stovall: I have an incredible musical I am working on called CLEAR. It is not a sexual musical but there is a very sexual element that I dove into. It is about race and identity within the gay community, dating within your own race with the gay community can be a racist environment. We don't pay attention to Uganda and Cameroon where you can be decapitated if you are thought to be gay, it doesn't even have to be proven.
Every white gay person in WeHo [West Hollywood, California] was pouring vodka in the gutters because of what happened in Russian but this stuff was going on for 20 years. We don't care because they are not blonde and blue-eyed so we ignore that 15-year-olds get hung in the public squares still in Iraq because they are not really pretty. So the show gets into that. We have been workshopping this thing for five years. It has gone all different directions. We are trying to tell the story of two best friends; we share this Batman and Robin story. In the end, it comes down to not forgetting your best friend as a possible love interest. I should leave it there.
WCT: How do people keep up with this project?
Paul Oakley Stovall: If they have money, they can email me! [Laughs] There is a Facebook page CLEAR: A New Musical Experience.
WCT: For Qualms, we have a run into August.
Paul Oakley Stovall: All summer to see me in my Speedo! It was a good motivation to get back into shape. Six months ago I could not have done it. How did I do?
Paul Oakley Stovall: Are you hitting on me? [Laughs]
Swing over to the Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St., before Aug. 31 to catch The Qualms. For tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.