From the age of ten Chris Boneau wanted to be an actor. Then, while performing at Louisiana State University, he started working on press relations for its theatre productions. "And one day in graduate school a professor pulled me aside and said, 'You're a good actor, but you're a better press representative.'"
Boneau, 55, is celebrating his 25th anniversary on Broadway as one of New York's busiest and best theatrical press agents. He is co-founder of Boneau/Bryan-Brown, which since 1991 has worked on more than 200 plays and musicals, collecting 189 Tony Awards and seven Pulitzer Prizes.
The firm's Pulitzer winners include Angels in America, Doubt, Proof, Rabbit Hole, Topdog/Underdog, Wit and Ruined. Among its current roster of hits are The Book of Mormon, Matilda The Musical, Jersey Boys, Motown, Pippin and Once.
Boneau's career began in his hometown of Port Arthur, TX, when he was cast at age ten in a tiny role in a small theatre production of Three Men on a Horse. "On pure spunk I went in and auditioned. One night I was told by the director that the lead actor had gone up on his lines and was taking us from the first act to the third. She said I had to save the day. She pushed me onstage and I barked out the line that got him back to the first act. At the end of the play the cast was cheering for me. I was hooked."
In 1982, the L.S.U. professor who advised him suggested he visit Actors Theatre of Louisville, where Boneau accepted an internship in the public relations and marketing department. This led to a staff position, which kept Boneau at Actors Theatre of Louisville for the next few years, until New York beckoned. "I worked for a guy who ran a record company out of a lumberyard and a woman who was a professional singing birthday clown."
He was interviewed for a job at the Joshua Ellis Office, a Broadway publicity firm, which hired him. "That led to my first Broadway show, in 1988" – a comedy called Checkmates, with Denzel Washington and Ruby Dee. "We found out later it was co-produced by a man who was in jail," convicted of attempted murder and indicted as part of an international cocaine ring. "It was a wild experience."
While with Ellis, Boneau started a freelance business – "I wasn't making enough money as an assistant. Atlantic Theater Company was my first freelance client, and they're still a client." Ellis closed his office, and some of his press agents, including Adrian Bryan-Brown, moved into Boneau's freelance place. "Adrian and I found ourselves sharing space. And very organically we created a partnership. He had been my mentor in Josh's office."
In addition to his career as a press representative, Boneau also teaches in Columbia University School of the Arts's theatre management program. He tells his students, "I did something bold in my first or second day as an undergrad at L.S.U. You weren't allowed to enroll in an acting class until you'd been through at least the second year of prerequisites. I said, 'No, I want to be an actor. I'm going to take acting classes.' I went up to the second floor and signed up for an audition.
"Later, somebody said, 'You weren't supposed to do that.' I said, 'Yeah, I know. But I got in.' I call it my 'second-floor syndrome.' I still say, 'Find your second floor.' It's really okay to push the boundaries. I did, and I never looked back."
(This feature appears in the September 2013 issue of Playbill.)