Interview by Michael Taylor
What do preachers and actors have in common? A lot, says actor Timothy D. Stickney, who has been performing the role of Banquo in the Old Globe’s production of “Macbeth” this month. For 13 years, Timothy played the role of R.J. on ABC’s One Life to Live. He has worked alongside actors Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, and has performed in over a dozen Shakespearean plays during his career. Timothy, who grew up as the son of a YMCA executive and preacher, shares his heartfelt experience being a black man on the classic theater stage.
MICHAEL: Where is home? Where did you grow up?
TIMOTHY: That’s tricky. Because I am a YMCA brat (my father was the Executive Director of the Y), we moved whenever he would get a new assignment. He was a fund-raiser and he would travel to different cities in order to get programs for kids sponsored. He taught neighborhoods and families how to invest in their children through the Y, and that’s what took us to Arkansas, and then Delaware where I largely grew up. For school I went to New York where my sister was already working in theater. Then all the kids landed in New York and New Jersey.
MICHAEL: When did the acting bug bite you?
TIMOTHY: It was a complex series of events. I was always a very shy kid and came from a pretty large family. I have four siblings, and because of my father’s work we were out in the public a lot, and that was difficult for me because I was shy. My father had enough of the shy kid, so in elementary school he put me in a program at the Y where we did poetry and performed for our parents. That felt ok because I was lost in the group, speaking to strangers, and there was comfort there that I preferred to other experiences with large groups. The next year they did a musical review and signed me up for it. And there I was with all the other children, and I had a great time and wasn’t as afraid.
MICHAEL: And acting on a formal basis?
TIMOTHY: I started replacing other hobbies with it. As I got into junior high and high school and sports got organized, I was in a musical that was the same time as football practice. So I had to choose between sports and the musical. My teacher put me in the barbershop quartet doing “Music Man.” So that put me right in it, and that was high school. I knew I loved doing it. When “Fame” came out, I was the same age as the freshman in that story, and that was the first time I saw professionals my age working in acting and that was their job! Before that, I had always seen older people. I realized I could do that. I had enough of days where the magic wasn’t happening. That’s why you go to school: you find ways to create.
How did I get my very serious family to sign on with this? Well, I’m the second son of five children, so I was supposed to be something serious, reliable, not pretending for a living.
MICHAEL: So somewhere around leaving high school, acting became more serious?
TIMOTHY: Yes. Well, I was always serious about it. I was always trying to find serious ways to carry it into adulthood. Like lawyers, they’re acting. They don’t have to believe what they’re working on. They have to convince 13 people that they do. So, I started to channel my gift there. I started with the Boy Scouts and had lawyers who were mentors, but I didn’t like any of them. So, I had to do the thing (acting) itself, because trying to dress it up into a serious career wasn’t working out.
MICHAEL: In terms of mentoring, did you have a support system?
TIMOTHY: I have a support system, but it’s really just my family. When I was attending AADA [The American Academy of Dramatic Arts], my family was passive-aggressive in displaying their disappointment. Mom wouldn’t get out of the car. My father sent word through my older brother that they really didn’t understand this choice. I had to tell them there had been a teasing offer for a musical scholarship, and I didn’t take a teaching position because I felt I would always be jealous if I were a teacher. I wanted to get there first. I had jealous teachers, just jealous of your age, and that was unpleasant.
MICHAEL: What has your experience been as a black man in the acting business?
TIMOTHY: Actors have to be, in some ways, like big league pitchers and NFL quarterbacks. You have to forget about the horrible thing that just happened and might be coming next. Yeah, how to dig into that?
MICHAEL: Especially since you’ve done Shakespeare.
TIMOTHY: That wasn’t a plan. When I was 20-something I had folks at ABC who lovingly said, “Of course you’ll play criminals.” (laughs). Okay, Christian Slater’s mom—it helps if your mom is in casting. So I said, “We’ll see.” I did a lot of bicycle messengers, gangbangers, and thugs in my early career, and she was right. She knew America. She did not lie.
It was interesting; I’ve never been externally what they want. If I’m going to be a man of color, I’m too dark. I’m dark from across the street dark. If they’re going to go there, it has to be an eight-pack Mandingo experience, and I’ve never been that. Then it was how to deal with intellect and my ability to speak the language well. I had to convince them, and sneak it by, and not do Shakespeare.
When I started doing Shakespeare, I didn’t have to explain, I’m a fairly large man with presence—you can’t hide me. I’m a child of the 60s, the way I deal with Europeans was kind of surprising to them. There was a lot I had to come to understand and work with. That was a challenge. It’s very different now. There were no black Romeos when I was under 40. This was just understood. But you could do a lot of other parts. I was a great villain (they had amazing speeches). I was Tybalt, Hortensio, Curtis, with lots of physical comedy and lots of behavior. It’s fun because it’s the human being becoming the language. And I got to do things they couldn’t imagine me doing. I felt strangely at home being out of time, either in the past, or in worlds that don’t exist. Before they had too much time to get wrapped up in all the things about me, they were in the stories. When my family came to see me they would hear, “There’s a black one. The black one’s the best one.” And they’d say, “that’s my brother,” and people would be waving at me.
MICHAEL: You found a comfort in the classics?
TIMOTHY: I got to dream about myself in a way that European brothers get to all the time. They are supported in imagining themselves in everything they see, as soon as they start to do it. We are often told, “Well with this exception,” and “Well, up to this point.”
We were the black family everywhere we lived. We lived in the city, but dad would work in the suburbs. Over the years he would tell us, “You wonder why you’re the only one in the class. Because I want you to go to school with the people you’re competing against.” Then I had to overcome apologizing for my difference, or overcome trying not to not have a difference. That’s just a drain on everything, let alone your creative spark. I started to recognize in my counterparts the importance of self-pride and ownership…how it feeds your work.
My father’s a minister. Hearing him speak is my earliest memories; I know where my instrument comes from. I remember thinking I wanted to do that. In a way, all the children are doing similar work. My brother is now a minister. But theater is often a calling, certainly if approached a certain way. If you want to become an artist, you’re making decisions about the work you do and how you do it. It’s an active process. You certainly have to think about it. Becoming an artist is what I was supposed to do.
MICHAEL: The ministry—there is a grand performance element in that. Do you think some of your theatre interest may have been influenced, to some degree, by your exposure to the performance elements in ministry?
TIMOTHY: Yes, theater is a part of religious festival. It’s the same thing; it comes through an empathetic process. There are moments when we all know, “That was something human…what do I do about that?”
MICHAEL: Is there something in performing Shakespeare that you enjoy the most?
TIMOTHY: It’s the English. August Wilson [playwright] reminds me very much of Shakespeare. They pack so much information into the text: what they say from one human being to another human being, what we are saying to each other as humans—you never find the bottom. There’s always something new to discover about yourself and where you are with those words, and that emotion, and what it tells you about that imagined person and their journey. They are amazing windows into the human experience and its potential highs and lows. You don’t get better stuff.
MICHAEL: In terms of enjoyment, I loved your performance here at the Old Globe. What did you enjoy most about your role as Banquo in “Macbeth?”
TIMOTHY: I love this play, I’ve come to discover. When you do this kind of work, some of the plays will follow you, and you’ll do them many, many times. This one keeps popping up in my life. I’ve done “Macbeth” twice, and this is my second Banquo. It’s an action play. It’s fast paced, fighting at the top, battle at the end, blood on stage. If you don’t slow, you’re not bored. It’s got some wonderful dialogue, text, soliloquy, and scenes. So it’s fun to do. Even with the bad luck challenges that can follow the show, its always good for me to do it.
I was a type of kid who, before finding my connection to theater, would take school trips to do homework away from home. So, I would do homework in the theater during a play. There I am doing my homework in the theater, and there’s this redhead woman with a white gown on, blood all over her, doing a speech. I watch, astounded. When they start a Q&A, I want to ask what happened to the lady who washed her hands. So from then on, I watched the plays, but this was before I was thinking about doing it myself. So, when I do a student matinee, I’m not upset. Because I know there might be a me out there. Back then, I had no interest, but still they kept performing and when I tuned in during the second act? There could be a me out there.
MICHAEL: There could have been a You out there. Does that include those who look like you out there in the audience?
TIMOTHY: Those are the best days. When you work in the arts or anywhere near a classical art, the reality is your audience is predominately white, and older. And so it’s difficult to connect with your audience. So when you see people of color, particularly children, audiences well mixed, those are the most exciting. Regardless of how they might respond to being in front of a live performance, I hope they can be as patient.
MICHAEL: So, the soap opera question, you know it was coming. What was that experience like?
TIMOTHY: It was a wonderful gig, a good stretch. I didn’t think it would go that long. I hoped it would go longer. That was the first time I had an acting job that had business hours, daytime, and weekends off. It was crazy. And it pays more. Any recorded media pays you more for your time.
MICHAEL: You have performed a lot of Shakespeare. Was there ever a point where it was difficult?
TIMOTHY: Oh, yeah. I had a wonderful teacher (whose birthday was a few days ago): Thelma Carter at the American Academy. What she taught was called Styles. What she really did was show you that the real work of the actor was to not hide behind the props and the costume or even the words, but to see how all of those things inform us about the human being using them. She would have us do a lot of Shakespeare, work on short speeches, and then put on costumes and do it for the class. Then she would send other students with instructions for things to do to you. She would try to find the thing that was your last security blanket, and she would have people mess with your vocal apparatus, so you were left with the emotion and desire to say the words, and the emotion to carry it. You would feel that it was coming from you and not the sword and not even the words. Because if you were hiding behind the poetry, she would stop you from being able to speak. It was often traumatic, because you would be fighting these other people, but hopefully you would feel the speech. But now I know it didn’t come from those things. That moment was human beings having an experience and that’s what theater is: an experience.
MICHAEL: Was performing Shakespeare in Canada in any way different from performing here in the US?
TIMOTHY: Yes, it was funded! (laughs). They still get most of their funding from the private sector, but the government nearly matches it. So they have something like 50 million dollars annual, but 28 percent of that comes from donations. Then, because they’re a 60 year old institution, they have lots of trusts generate income to fund certain things. They have a pool of money to invest in improvements, etc. So that allows you to do a play like a film.
MICHAEL: So, what is Timothy D. Stickney doing next?
TIMOTHY: Well, next-next is the Mobile Unit at The Public Theater in New York. It goes to hospitals and prisons. I’ll be Claudius and the Ghost, Hamlet’s dad, and his uncle, the Usurper.
MICHAEL: The Old Globe is doing something similar, through their Arts Engagement program. They’re going out into the community. Is this your first time performing arts in the community?
TIMOTHY: In a little while. I’ve done a few workshops over the years. We do a month in the theaters in The Public downtown, changing environments. They’ve been very successful. It’s a nice development program. “HAIR,” the revival, many of the actors started in the mobile unit. Hamilton came out of the mobile units.
MICHAEL: Is there something after that? Or do you plan things only so far out?
TIMOTHY: Fortunately, unfortunately, I’m an actor. In America they don’t hire you that early. Up north (Canada), they go into this job knowing when their next one is, or knowing when it’s not. Here you don’t know until two to three weeks before a gig starts. In television, it’s a bit shorter.
MICHAEL: So, how do fans stay in touch with you?
TIMOTHY: Twitter, which I’m astounded about, but that’s the truth. I’m @drkthespis. I don’t tweet all the time, but I do keep up. It’s choral work; Greek theater was originally choral. Thespis was blamed for making the actor an individual. That’s why we’re Thespians.