TEXARKANIAN APRIL MATTHIS WINS AN OBIE, OFF-BROADWAY’S HIGHEST HONOR
Actress April Matthis wins Off-Broadway’s highest honor
When Texarkana native April Matthis was a kid, she enjoyed serious Barbie sessions with friends and play-acting with her sister.
In this way, Matthis was like many other girls growing up. But such was the start of greatness to come, the seed that grew into something wonderful on a stage.
Flash forward a couple decades and that innocent, fun experience as a youngster transformed into something different: A career choice. While finishing her degree in Austin, Texas, Matthis caught the acting impulse, which eventually took her to New York City, the place where theater dreams come to life.
And now, as an actress armed with about 14 years of experience in New York City’s theater community, critical acclaim and honors have arrived for Matthis in the form of an Obie Award.
Given recently by the Village Voice and American Theatre Wing to top Off-Broadway talent, the annual award recognized Matthis’ achievements in “sustained excellence of performance.”
“They call it Off-Broadway’s highest honor,” said the actress, who, when she thinks about this award, stops to consider the great thespians who’ve won Obies over the years.
After all, multiple Obie winners include actresses like Swoosie Kurtz, Viola Davis, Dianne Wiest and MaryLouise Parker—some of the very best in the business.
“For me personally, it’s a really great career recognition marker because I’ve been working in theater in New York since 2001,” Matthis said. She’s pleased to simply be recognized as someone who’s shown commitment to doing good work in the theater.
And being able to even do that work is an endeavor she appreciates.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to stay a working actor, particularly in the downtown theater community or Off-Broadway theater community,” Matthis said.
The kudos recognize a talent she’s flashed since childhood, which only later blossomed professionally.
“I kind of had inclinations toward performance in my personal life, but nobody ever said, ‘You should take acting classes,’” Matthis recalled.
She was in high school band, though, and as a kid she’d tape “shows” that she hosted, often starring her younger sister Brittny. She remembers Christmas and Easter pageants at church. And at home, she said, “what we did was just be silly.” That ability to perform ran in the family.
“I like to say that I grew up with a family of actors who just didn’t take acting seriously as a career choice,” Matthis says.
But she also says that if you knew her from her school days and just found out she’s a professional actress now, you might be surprised.
Matthis recalls that when she went to the University of Texas at Austin, she was determined to lose her Texarkana accent. She remembers seeing Texas High School broadcast journalism students on Tiger Vision and thinking how they talked so properly. “I didn’t realize how strong our accent was,” she recalled.
How did April’s talent get nurtured into something more enduring and professional? For that, thank college and the Austin theater scene.
During her last year of college as an English major she took an elective class called Actual Lives that was taught by a deaf, gay performance artist. The class explored issues like gender, disability and performance. It inspired her.
“We had to come up with our own projects,” she said. Matthis was hooked, and the experience was the first time she realized this type of performance ability was really there for her, that she could take this somewhere.
Austin has a big theater community, and someone recommended she make up a resume and audition for a play. She went for it.
Matthis landed a role, winning the small part of Bloodthirsty Man in a stage version of “A Tale of Two Cities.” This role with The Vortex in Austin was her big break. “That was my very first gig, and from that I got cast as the lead in another play right after that,” she said.
Her first leading role arrived in the play “Venus,” written by SuzanLori Parks. She played the Hottentot Venus, a historical figure who was cajoled into becoming a circus act because of her unusual body shape. The play examined issues of exploitation, and how Venus was taken advantage of and also took advantage of this situation, the actress said.
“I had to wear a fake butt and it was under a circus tent,” Matthis recalled.
That role with the Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin gave her a first leading performance, as well as an introduction to more experimental play writing and, ultimately, a connection to New York City, a legendary place in her mind.
“I’d always dreamed about living in New York, even before being an actress,” Matthis said. After working in Austin, she was ready to expand those proverbial horizons and got a chance to sublet in NYC. She went for it again, and now New York City is her home.
Looking back on her career so far, she naturally tends to primarily think of the shows, as opposed to specific roles. The work she does is largely ensemble. She remembers the first role, though, where she got her Actor’s Equity card, a role she didn’t think she’d be up to doing at first.
“I just didn’t know if I could fill it because it was so demanding,” Matthis said. But it was a role that challenged and, therefore, helped define and shape her as an actress. She rose to the occasion, learning how to carry a show.
“I played this illiterate nanny for this well-to-do African-American family that’s kind of imploding for a lot of different reasons,” she said.
The play, “Sans-culottes in the Promised Land” by playwright Kirsten Greenidge, explores identity issues. The wealthy family lives in a predominantly white neighborhood and strives to give a young daughter every advantage. For them, having a nanny is a status symbol. The play employs a bit of magical realism.
For Matthis, the performance at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., was rewarding. Here was a play that dealt with race and class in a complex
way. It was both funny and intellectual, the actress said.
“It was also the first time performing in front of an audience of 400,” she said of her first professional, you’re-in-the-union gig.
A recent role, her favorite to date, saw Matthis perform as both Harriet Tubman and a coach in Lucy Thurber’s play “The Insurgents” at Labyrinth Theater, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theater company (he was a board member). The New York Times even snapped her photo for this one.
On the one hand, Matthis played an American hero who helped lead people to freedom, while on the other she was a soccer coach who was sort of corny and straightforward. She played the roles back-to-back on stage.
“We would just transform right in front of you,” Matthis said about two roles in one play, going from scene to scene, memory to memory.
That ability to transform is what she loves about acting. She can do period pieces. She can do accents. She’s played mythical creatures. The work she tends to do is pretty intellectual, too, so that’s satisfying.
Working with mostly living playwrights, she deals with issues that confront us now in her work, including politically aware theater. What’s exciting to her is the ability to discuss contemporary issues, such as what’s happened in Baltimore and Ferguson, the life outside our doors.
“The permission to behave, to misbehave, really that’s what it is,” is what Matthis most loves about her work. “I get to do things in roles that I never get to do in life. I get to access rage in a way that is not necessarily appropriate in life. I get to be seen in a way I’m not normally seen.”
What would she like to have come her way from this Obie? She just wants to keep working. She wants to be in a rehearsal room or in front of a camera, said Matthis, calling the award validation for her.
“It’s nice to have your name attached to that. Now my bio can include Obie winner … if that communicates to somebody that I’m good and you want to work with me, then that’s what it’s good for,” Matthis said.
(On the Net: aprilmatthis.com.)