On NBC’s Rise (premiering March 13), actor Joe Tippett’s playbook is filled with more passing blocks and handoffs than blocking and choreography.
Based on the book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by Michael Sokolove, Rise follows the shakeup of a Pennsylvania public high school’s theatre program. When theatre novice Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Josh Radnor) takes over as head of the department and chooses the controversial Spring Awakening for his maiden musical, the show sparks a challenging—and painful—path to self-discovery in it students, teachers, and small industrial town.
As part of the family drama from Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), Tippett plays Coach Strickland, father to Gwen, the high school leading lady suddenly demoted to a supporting role, and tough love–doling coach to his football team, which includes one player straddling the line between jock and leading man.
But before he joined the cast of the series from Katims and executive producer Jeffrey Seller (Hamilton), Tippett had a career onstage. He made his Broadway debut alongside Julie White in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Airline Highway in 2015, appeared as part of the original Broadway cast of Waitress, co-starred opposite Abigail Breslin in All the Fine Boys at The New Group, and worked with Danai Gurira on the world premiere of her play Familiar.
Here, the actor talks about the theatre experiences and partners that led to his gentle performance on Rise:
What was your first professional job?
Joe Tippett: My first professional jobs were probably at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but my first Equity gig where I was paid was doing Picnic at a great little theatre in Greensboro North Carolina called Triad Stage.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
This is like the “what’s your favorite album?” question and I never really know how to answer it because it can shift. Most recently I saw People, Places & Things at St. Ann’s [Warehouse] and it just floored me. The production was incredible and Denise Gough was singular. As someone who struggles with addiction personally, I just saw so much of myself in that play as an addict and an artist and isn’t that the beautiful thing about art? When you see a bit of yourself and can say, “Yes. That... It’s not just me... I’m not alone...”
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
I remember asking Michael Cristofer in a rehearsal for The Three Sisters at the WTF what the “secret” was to it all— what was the trick? And he looked at me and paused and said, “Joe, I have no f*cking idea. We’re all just trying to figure it out.” That was doubly a relief to hear and disconcerting that a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and an actor with plenty of years under his belt was still working on. It taught me that there’s no rush and there’s no finish line so just show up and do the work.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
The most rewarding experience onstage for me is tough. Making a Broadway debut in Airline Highway, this really amazing Lisa D’Amour play with a Steppenwolf cast and [Joe] Mantello directing, was pretty special. I still have this voicemail from Dave Capp congratulating me on being cast and doing the work and getting the job “the old-fashioned way.” That’s pretty hard to top, but the most rewarding I think was doing a play at Chautauqua called The May Queen by Molly Smith Metzler. It is a profoundly beautiful play and I can’t for the life of me figure out why it never got done in the city, but Vivienne Benesch directed it wonderfully, and the cast was amazing, and rehearsal was drama-free, and the play just sort of landed at the right time in my life as I was getting sober and it all just kind of made so much sense. I am deeply in love with that play and am just such a huge fan of Molly’s. It was such a privilege to speak her words every night and, as she would always say, it was kismet how it all came together.
Who is a collaborator from theatre who has made you better?
Without sounding too cliche, I think everyone I’ve ever worked with makes me better in some form or another. Every performance— just like a sport—is a rep or an opportunity to get a little “better,” though I think better is sort of the wrong way to think about it. I think it’s about openness. You are looking for as much truth as possible in a totally contrived and artificial context. Everyone you work with gives you an opportunity to find some honesty while lots of people are looking at you.
You’ve worked on some incredible original material from top creators like Jason Katims, Sara Bareilles, Danai Gurira. What is a lesson you’ve learned from each of them—either from working with them or working on their material—that you’ve taken forward with you?
Well, they are all storytellers. That’s where I think I’ve gained the most value—in learning how to tell stories from each one. I think a less than perfect Wizard of Oz analogy for this question would be from Danai brains, from Katims heart, and from Bareilles courage. Danai is one of the most articulate and brilliant people I’ve ever met, and her ability to cram so much intelligence and big picture into these small and human family stories is unparalleled to me. Jason Katims’ mantra is that all his characters are flawed, but they are all trying to put their best foot forward and that always resonates with me because sometimes the characters are doing seemingly shitty things. To find a place of compassion for why they are doing these things gives them more dimension and makes them more real and more human. Sara is one of those “if it scares me I should do it” types of people, and I find that incredibly compelling and inspired. Her push into the raw places in search of truth and honesty has taught me a great deal.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
As Coach Strickland on Rise, your character stands for the teamwork and work ethic built in sports. Yet, as a theatre guy, you know the unparalleled value of arts education and the community and discipline cultivated there. What makes the lessons learned in theatre different from that of sports? How can we better emphasize the combined value rather than one or the other?
I’m actually not all that sure that the lessons are very different. I think, ostensibly, the arts challenge us emotionally and, obviously from the outside, the challenge of sport is physical, but there is plenty of overlap. Bob Costas has made a career out of highlighting the drama and emotion of sport. How often do we see clips showing us the road a particular player took getting to game day and how much the win would mean to him and by proxy us? It’s all storytelling. I know even the most conditioned and best athletes would be used up at the end of an eight-show week were they to step in and do an ensemble Broadway track, who are some of the hardest working folks you’ll ever meet. To enjoy both [sports and arts] is to make one a more well-rounded person. Connecting to both art and sport and recognizing their value to society connects more of us as people together. We run aground when the love for either becomes fanatical.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.