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Broadway on Salazar's bucket list

For stage actors, the pandemic has been pretty much a total shutdown, with no sporadic openings and closings that followed the COVID curve.

Former Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Christopher Salazar has used the time off to get outdoors more.

“I’ve been able to explore and enjoy the area around Ashland and the rest of southern Oregon,” he said. It became his new home three years ago when he joined OSF.

During the pandemic, he tried create a few new hobbies, renewed some old favorites, added a dozen new dishes to his cooking repertoire, and played a lot of Frisbee golf.

However, he also has been able to practice his craft.

“I’ve participated in many virtual play readings, a handful of fully realized virtual productions for theaters around the country, and some developmental workshops.”

Salazar performed a few days in “The Copper Children” in 2020, and then OSF shut down. Rehearsals hadn’t yet started for his other play, “Bernhardt/Hamlet.”

“There were several of us in the cast for those two shows,” he said. “‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ is an established script, so I had done a good amount of script work. I was nearly off-book and planning to utilize the two weeks before rehearsals started to finish my prep. It was certainly disappointing.”

Salazar grew up in Miami. His parents worked in the airline industry, and while they saw value in the arts, they never pushed him toward the theater.

“I think everyone remains surprised that this is the path I took,” he said.

“My grandfather was a bit of a renaissance man. He painted, baked, sewed, worked as an electrician, farmed, and was a volunteer firefighter. He might be the person in my family where I saw the passion for artistry.”

In his school years he was into sports, but had a handful of middle school friends who were in the magnet theater curriculum.

“I would go see the plays and it looked like fun, but I never thought about pursuing it.”

Fate intervened in hi sophomore year of high school when he needed to fulfill an elective requirement.

“Because my first, second, and third choices had all filled up, I was placed in a theater class, the only option that fit into my schedule,” he said. “All those old friends, who’d been performing for years, were there. So, it felt like a welcome place.”

A year later as a high school junior, he performed in his first play. It was a bittersweet experience.

“My father had been battling cancer for several months when I was cast in my first-ever play. It was a one-act play, something forgettable in the grand scheme of plays, save for the fact that it was an escape from my sadness at home.”

On opening night, his mother came to see the show, the only night one of them hadn’t been home with his dad since he was diagnosed.

“Five minutes before the curtain, my wonderful drama teacher came backstage and told me to go into the audience and tell my mom that we had to head home. The hospice care had called the school office with the news that my father had passed.

“Needless to say, my relationship with the stage has always been complicated, borne out of that first experience. It isn’t good or bad, it just is. And two nights later, the play went on.”

His father never saw him act. But Salazar feels now that in some way his father was the single greatest influence on his becoming an actor.

Throughout high school, theater slowly replaced the sports fields and courts as his home away from home. But he still didn’t think of it as a career opportunity.

“I looked for a college with a strong theater department, but only as an extracurricular activity,” he said.

He settled on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Maybe I was secretly hoping to be lured into a life of theater. Ultimately, it was the encouragement of a few professors that served as the push I needed.”

He started as a journalism major, then an English and communications double major. Then business. And finally, he landed on double majoring in advertising and dramatic arts, “which was the way a degree in theater was credited,” he said. He finished his MFA in 2013.

He broke into the business after a professor invited him along to an audition. Salazar was cast in a non-speaking role and understudied other parts. After working mostly in North Carolina and the southeast, he headed north to Philadelphia and New York.

“Over the first couple of years, I learned my craft from seasoned, brilliant actors.”

Salazar works in film and television as well as in live theater. He has worked on the stage at the Alley Theatre, the Old Globe, Portland Center Stage, the Barber Theater, the American Shakespeare Center, and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

After a couple of years in New York, he was invited to a general audition at OSF. He had heard of the festival and its commitment to developing new works and reimagining classic texts. “That was right up my alley,” he said.

He says it was the typical New York general audition — "Come in, perform two contrasting monologues, and hand over your picture and resume.”

To his surprise, he was asked to perform a third monologue, then a fourth. He wasn’t cast, but it was a chance for OSF to get to know him.

A few years later, in 2017, he was asked to audition for the role of James McDonald in “Off the Rails,” for which he was hired.

One of the most attractive things about working at OSF was its repertory model. He had done two-, three-, and four-show reps for short durations at other theaters, but never for the kind of long run that OSF offered.

“It is challenging, but from that comes the reward of really discovering a role and play,” he said. “And you get to work closely with your colleagues for months.”

He enjoys on-camera work, but says it doesn’t compare to the satisfaction of working onstage.

“The relationship with the other actors in a play’s ensemble, the camaraderie in rehearsals and backstage, and the shared experience with a live audience are unmatchable.”

He says his dream role is the title character in the Scottish play. “I’ve played it once and I can’t wait to play it again.”

But if there were no limits, a chance to play on The Great White Way is at the top of his bucket list.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say I hope one day to experience entering the stage door at a Broadway house,” he said. “But that aside, for me it has always been about a long career, filled with experiences and good friends, to play roles over the breadth of a lifespan.”

He is optimistic and hopeful about the future of theater.

“I believe in theater in general, in its necessity and its resiliency. I do wonder if it will look the same way it looked before the pandemic.”

He thinks the recovery may require significant government support for the arts and a recognition by political leaders of the need for live theater.

“In the interim, I am inspired by the creative ways in which our colleagues have found to present theater. I am inspired by how theater finds a way.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Christopher Salazar trods the boards at the Alley Theatre in Houston as Autolycus in "A Winter's Tale" in the fall of 2019. Courtesy photo.