Penn State alumni bring the laughs in national tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON
Penn State School of Theatre graduates Brinie Wallace and Patrick Graver share the stage in the national tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON. Wallace and Graver perform in the ensemble of the nine-time Tony Award-winning musical written by the creators of South Park.
Both alumni have already had impressive musical theatre experiences. Wallace, a 2016 graduate, premiered THE BOOK OF MORMON in Australia before landing her current role in the North American tour. Graver, a 2013 graduate, is no stranger to Broadway tours; he was previously on the road with Bullets Over Broadway and West Side Story.
THE BOOK OF MORMON takes the stage for a seven-performance run at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium from October 8–13. With shows at their alma mater right around the corner, Wallace and Graver discuss their career inspirations, Penn State’s impact, and the success of THE BOOK OF MORMON.
Question: What inspired you to pursue musical theatre?
Brinie Wallace: There are so many things that inspired me to pursue this amazing career choice I’ve decided to take, but one of the largest influences was the organization by the name of the National YoungArts Foundation. In 2012, my senior year at Charter Oak High School, my drama teacher, Roger Graziani, handed me a pamphlet and told me to take a look at this program to see if it was something I’d like to do. He said YoungArts sends a pamphlet to him every single year, and every single year none of his senior students ever take him up on it. He also told me that the deadline to sign up was in about two or three days. So, I took the booklet and on the front of it, in glossy, italicized letters it said, “YoungArts. It’ll change your life.” I distinctly remember rolling my eyes but stuffing it into my backpack because it looked like it might be cool to look through at least. Later that night, I leafed through it and upon seeing how many incredible alumni had gone through this program, I decided to sign up. Long story short, after submitting my application and video submission, I was one of the twenty students chosen out of the 5,000-plus applicants to get into this program!
In January of 2012, I was flown out to Miami for a week, where I worked amongst students and mentors who helped me realize my potential and, ultimately, my life’s calling. Three of my favorite mentors include Jen Waldman (who helped me realize I could get into college regardless of where I stood financially), Michael McElroy (who encouraged me to own the power I have as an artist), and Tarell Alvin McCraney (who helped me tap into the authenticity of myself to bring truth and life into any role I take on). I am so thankful that they poured life and time into me seven years ago, because it is through these incredible people that I was given the opportunity to audition for Penn State’s musical theatre program and get to where I am today.
Patrick Graver: I actually grew up wanting to study turtles, so I never would have guessed I’d pursue musical theatre. However, I had always been athletic and was a big fan of belting along with all the Disney classics (thanks Aladdin and Simba). What really changed things for me was my first musical in high school. I was immediately bitten by the theatre bug. I knew at that time that I didn’t want to do anything other than sing, act, and dance. I do, however, own sea turtle textbooks, and I study them as a hobby.
Q: How did your time at Penn State prepare you for your career? What was your biggest takeaway from your time studying at Penn State?
Wallace: One of the most crucial skills that Penn State reinforced in me is that this career is all about presence and persistence. Whether I am showing up to an audition room or, in my case, doing a role eight times a week, presence and persistence is embedded in the work ethic that keeps me ahead of the game. Now, what do I mean by presence and persistence? For me, it is showing up to work with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit to take on whatever challenges I come across that day. It is doing my best to leave the negative baggage out of the workspace so that the joy and community that the theatre effortlessly provides for me is not tainted by whatever I’m dealing with outside of my job as an actor. It is not easy. It is something that I intentionally and persistently have to work at each and every day. I actively choose to stay invested in the story I tell six days out of the week, and due to staying present on stage, I can confidently say that I have had fun in every single show I’ve done for the past two and half years with THE BOOK OF MORMON.
Graver: Penn State has changed my life. The musical theatre program was a perfect nurturing environment that enabled me to grow to the greatest of my potential in a safe, loving space that was also very intense and had extremely high expectations. I need to thank all of my professors and fellow classmates for pushing me to my limits while also giving me all the encouragement needed to be a confident, well-equipped musical theatre performer.
Q: How familiar were you with THE BOOK OF MORMON before landing your role?
Wallace: I first heard of THE BOOK OF MORMON from my high school drama teacher one day at lunch. He was playing parts of the soundtrack for some of the students, and I remember being so impressed with the arrangements of the music that the crude content didn’t faze me.
Fast-forward to my freshman year of college at Penn State: I was in New York City during spring break when I decided to see the show for the first time with Patrick Graver (who is now playing Elder Neeley on tour with me). After seeing it, I found that this show is more pro-faith than not and vowed that if the opportunity to do this show ever arose, I would jump at the chance.
Graver: I saw the show on Broadway when I was in college, and I immediately wanted to be a part of it. The past seven years, I’ve listened to the cast recording and dreamed of being in the show. After almost a year of being on this tour, I still can’t believe I get to tell this story every day. I’m truly grateful for this gift I’ve been given.
Q: For such a comedy-heavy production, how do you maintain the energy needed to deliver on the laughs night after night?
Wallace: Sleep. No, I’m kidding. It’s not just sleep that gives me the energy to keep telling this hilarious, touching story each night, but my dedication to the truth of the text. If the playwrights have done their job (which they have), we, the actors, have only to be honest in our portrayal and telling of the story, and the text should do the rest. The raucous comedy of this piece is inevitable when you approach it like this.
Graver: Before my first entrance every night I say to myself, “Everything is awesome. I’m gonna change the world.” In life, this is a wonderful mantra to live by. And as an actor, having the mentality of a naïve Mormon missionary is so refreshing, and playing that truth automatically gives me the positive energy I need every night.
Q: There are many different reviews touching on the show’s message, but THE BOOK OF MORMON continues to delight audiences around the world. To what do you attribute the show’s success?
Wallace: I think the show’s success is due to the shameless, controversial, transformative journey that we take our audience through each night. The show begins in Mormon Disneyworld, then drags you down to Hell on earth, to spit you right out into a world that’s been transformed by the renewing of one’s perspective. It is a story that makes you realize that whether you’re a Mormon, Christian, Muslim, or whatever, we humans have clutched and grasped at beautiful unifying concepts in order to make this world we live in a better place. And if you find something like that, never let go of it. It’ll be the only way to find, as we say in the show, your “Paradise Planet” right here on earth.
Graver: There’s a reason why this show won nine Tony Awards. The writing, music, choreography, and energy of this show are incredibly infectious. The show is all about finding faith and meaning in your life, which everyone can relate to. It simply makes you feel good and makes people laugh. And who doesn’t love to laugh?
Q: What advice do you have for this year’s graduating School of Theatre students?
Wallace: The advice I would give to the graduating class of this year would be this: “If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.” In my life, what I’ve seen that separates the working actors from the non-working actors is preparation. You’ve gotta work hard to play hard. Sure, some people can skirt by without working as hard as others, but that will only take them so far. They will plateau. I’ve seen it happen so many times. So rise above the mediocrity and play at the level that we Nittany Lions have trained for four years to be at. We Are!
Graver: My main advice for graduating School of Theatre students (and all School of Theatre students for that matter) would be to soak up every ounce of training that’s available to them at Penn State. Take full advantage of all the studio spaces and your teachers’ advice and realize how lucky you are to be a part of one of the best theatre programs in the country.
Question for Wallace
How was your experience premiering THE BOOK OF MORMON in Australia? Was the audience reception any different than what you’ve seen in the United States?
BW: It was the best experience a newly graduated musical theatre student could have asked for. It was my first time travelling overseas, being an original cast member of an international Broadway production, and getting to experience life as an honest-to-God professional actor. The audience’s response in Australia was great while I was there, but looking back, so incredibly different from that of our U.S. audiences. I like to say that Australian culture is British culture and secondhand American culture combined, so for the most part, the audiences were very polite and laughed and clapped when appropriate. But did they cheer and guffaw and squeal and cry like the first audience I had when I transferred to the North American tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON? No. When I got transferred to the Jumamosi Tour, the first city was my hometown of Los Angeles. And when I tell you that it was like a rock concert at the Pantages Theatre, June of 2017, I am not exaggerating. I was absolutely shocked at the reception that first night in downtown L.A. It seems as if Americans resonate with this show more because the jokes are closer to home. Especially when we go to Salt Lake City. I’ve had the pleasure of performing in that city twice and it is, by far, the best, and my favorite, place to do this musical. In that city, the audience rushes past the introductions of Mormonism and gets straight to the nuanced humor that this satirical comedy delivers each night.
Question for Graver
What has been unique about your time with THE BOOK OF MORMON compared to previous national tours?
Graver: I loved my two previous tours (West Side Story and Bullets Over Broadway), but this tour is particularly special for many reasons. Our schedule consists of being in a city for a least a week at a time, which enables us to really explore the cities, not to mention it allows us to get plenty of rest for a strenuous eight-show week. Another aspect that’s really different about this tour is that I have my fiancé traveling with me, so we get to see the country together while I perform in one of my favorite shows of all time. We truly have a fantastic life!
Jessica Sensenig, a recent Penn State graduate, is a feature writer for the Center for the Performing Arts.