Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Rob Zaleski Takes on "Injuries" at the Station Theatre

Earlier this week, I shared some interesting commentary from director Mathew Green about "Gruesome Playground Injuries," which opens this week at Urbana's Station Theatre, which is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary season.

I also posed some questions to Green's two cast members, to find out a little more about them and their efforts with the Celebration Company at the Station, as well as about what makes this show stand out.

Today, we're hearing from the very interesting Rob Zaleski (shown above, in a photo from Douglas Carter Beane's "The Little Dog Laughed," also directed by Mathew Green for the Station Theatre).

Rob plays Doug, the half of "Gruesome Playground Injuries" who keeps showing up with, well, gruesome injuries. I think you'll enjoy what he has to say about how he got his start and what he thinks of "Gruesome Playground Injuries."

Thanks for talking with me, Rob! Tell me a little about yourself.

I first started with The Celebration Company at The Station Theatre in 2010 in Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," directed by Eric Burton. I also have done many shows at Parkland College Theater, most recently "Dead Man's Cell Phone," directed by Thom Schnarre, in which I played a terribly awkward brother of the dead man in the title. I've been acting in the theatre since 2006, when I was cast as an ensemble role in "Angels in America, Part One" at Parkland.

My first actual "lead" role was in "The 39 Steps" last summer. Before then, I have been in many ensemble casts. "Gruesome Playground Injuries" is the first show I've done with just one other actor, so I'm really excited to tackle that challenge. This will actually be my third show with Katie Baldwin. We have come to trust each other pretty well on the stage. This is also my third time being directed by Mathew Green. I would love an opportunity to be on stage with Mathew too, but we'll see if that is ever in the cards. I am very excited about "Gruesome Playground Injuries", and I hope that people experience a full range of emotions from this very intense and heartbreaking story.

Rob Zaleski (far right) in "The 39 Steps," with (from left)
Mike Prosise, Katie Baldwin and Mikel L. Matthews, Jr.
Photo credit: Jesse Folks

So you came to the Station Theatre by way of Parkland College? Were you taking classes at Parkland?

I originally started school in Illinois as a theatre student, having moved here from Ohio where I was a theatre student at Kent State University. I decided that I didn’t want to be a poor, starving artist though, and changed my major when I transferred to U of I into the Media Studies program. I still took quite a few theatre courses between Kent and Parkland and learned a great deal at both.

You say you began acting in 2006, in “Angels in America” at Parkland, which is a fabulous script to jump into acting with. What did you take away from that experience?

It was a great first experience. One of the things that Thom Schnarre does very well is use ensemble characters to really enhance the story and further his artistic vision. It also gives more students an opportunity to be in productions. The subject matter of the show is pretty intense, and the cast was phenomenal to work with.

So no acting before Parkland?

Before moving to Illinois, I had done a couple student films and a public reading of a friend’s debut play. I had always wanted to be involved with the theatre but life kept getting in the way. After moving to Illinois, I just decided to go for it, and I love it!

What do you do when you’re not at the theater?

I work for a marketing company handling client accounts. I also am on the Publicity Committee for The Station Theatre, focusing on the social media and online efforts for publicizing The Station Theatre’s shows.

Let’s talk a little about the roles you’ve played with the Celebration Company. Considering you only started there in 2010, you’ve already created quite the acting resume! Do you prefer the absurdist tone of “Rhinoceros,” the kind of madcap comedy of “The 39 Steps,” edgier comedy like "The Little Dog Laughed,” or darker, more dramatic work like “Gruesome Playground Injuries”?

I count myself fortunate to have been able to be part of such a wide range of shows. I feel most comfortable in shows that touch on both comedy and drama. “Gruesome Playground Injuries” has been an experience that has taken me deeper into a character than I’ve ever gone, and accessing emotional complexities that are more than I’m used to. It has been an exceptional challenge but also feels like I’m getting the most out of it.

Is there a role or particular script out there you’d love to do in the future?

I really, really, REALLY want to perform Aaron Sorkin’s "Hidden In This Picture." I absolutely love that one act, and I would love to play the lead character, Robert. The writing it so quick-witted and full of biting sarcasm. One day... One day.

What do you find most enjoyable about working at the Station Theatre?

I really enjoy film as well as stage acting, so doing a show in such an intimate setting as the Station Theatre offers the ability to meet those two in the middle. You can be more subtle and still get your message across to the audience.

What is the biggest challenge?

The challenge is space, especially with any ensemble casts. Those dressing rooms can be awfully up close and personal at times. :)

Doug in “Gruesome Playground Injuries” seems on paper to be a tricky role, both because of his emotional damage as well as all the makeup and prop issues involved in playing someone who goes through so much from scene to scene. Plus, of course, with only two characters, you have the burden of carrying half the script. Are any of those issues a problem for you? What do you think is the key to playing this role?

For me, I have a tendency to be kind of animated and expressive. Playing this role has required me to really pull back. I don’t want this character to come off as a caricature. I want him to seem like someone you know. Someone you’ve met. I want him to feel real. I think that is really the only way that this character can be believable and the only way the audience will truly connect with the range of emotions that this play will take them on.

You’ve worked with both Mathew Green and Katie Baldwin before. How is that reflected in your work on “Gruesome Playground Injuries”?

We’ve built up a pretty solid trust between the three of us. That trust is allowing us to really dive into this show and open up emotionally to each other, which will hopefully translate on stage in the characters.

What do you think the playwright, Rajiv Joseph, is trying to say with this work?

From the perspective of Doug, I think Rajiv is showing that emotional damage can actually be more painful than physical damage. It shows how badly we can hurt one another without lifting a finger.

How is this show different from your previous shows at the Station?

I would say that this is the most intense show I’ve ever done.

What should audiences know about “Gruesome Playground Injuries”?

Don’t let yourself get turned away by the title. The visible injuries become secondary to the internal damage of these characters. It is a very honest show. You may laugh, you may cry. It is an amazingly written show and I hope to do it full justice.

And, finally, what comes next for you?

I am probably going to take a small break after this and try to focus on the promotional side of what I do for the Station. I’m hoping to educate myself a bit more and maybe find some time to relax, although that is unlikely.

Thanks, Rob! I hope you get that break and some time to relax after the intense "Injuries."

"Gruesome Playground Injuries" opens tomorrow, January 5, at the Station Theatre in Urbana. Performances continue through January 21. For more information or to make reservations, click on "Gruesome Playground Injuries."

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