THE LEADING MEN: Jason Hite and Taylor Trensch, the Undercover Lovers of Off-Broadway's Bare
By Michael Gioia
December 15, 2012
Meet Jason Hite and Taylor Trensch, who play the roles of star-crossed lovers Jason and Peter, respectively, in the Off-Broadway revival of the coming-of-age rock musical Bare.
A ROLE OF A LIFETIME
When West Coast native Jason Hite made his way to the Big Apple, he immediately began to book work. Following his appearance in the winter 2012 Texas tryout of Michael John LaChiusa's Giant at Dallas Theater Center (before its recent transfer to The Public Theater in New York City), the actor was featured in the Barrington Stage Company's summer engagement of Joe Iconis' The Black Suits. Upon his arrival back to New York, Hite landed his first Off-Broadway credit — the revised revival of Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere's Bare, which features new material by music supervisor and arranger Lynne Shankel. Stafford Arima (Altar Boyz, Carrie) directs. Hite stars as the school's "golden boy," Jason McConnell, who appears to have everything "straight" on the outside, but is struggling with a sexual-identity crisis on the inside — and simultaneously falling in love with the quirky and odd (yet adorable) Peter.
You told me in an earlier conversation that you weren't initially familiar with Bare. How did you get involved with the production?
Jason Hite: …My agent [got me an audition] for Bare. They sent me the script… I was vaguely aware of the show. I had known [fellow Bare cast member] Gerard [Canonico] previously, through mutual friends, and I remember him saying that he'd been a part of a couple readings last year. It was kind of surprising, because I had done a show in Berkeley, CA, almost three years ago called Girlfriend. [And] the way that [Girlfriend] is constructed is very similar to the way this show is — the fact that it's about two boys, one of which is very closeted and tightly wound, and the other is a little bit more out, a little bit more comfortable with who he is. So I kind of knew the character vaguely before I went in for it.
It was a crazy process. I want to say it was about three or four auditions. I think by the third one, they had us in there from like 11 o'clock until 3 or 4 — bringing in new combinations of people to try and get the right vibe for the show. And, it just so happens that the people that you see right now [in the show] — I was able to be in the room with all of those people at different times. I remember actually texting Gerard after one of my final auditions — doing a scene with Elizabeth [Judd, who plays Ivy]. I was like, "Dude, I don't know what's going to happen with me and this show, but I know that if I get this, I have a feeling that Elizabeth will get it as well." I just felt that we read really well together, and I felt like she was a stunning actress. Once I got the call that I had booked [Bare], it has been kind of a crazy ride.
Taylor Trensch and Jason Hite in Bare.
photo by Chad Batka
Was the Girlfriend role similar to Jason?
JH: Yes, he is…but it's a very different world. In the world of Bare, you get to see [Jason] at school, in public and around people, and you get to see the different faces that he puts on. And, you get to see how different he is when it's him and Peter alone. With Girlfriend, it was just a two-person show, and the show was set in Omaha, NE, in 1993… That was its own character in the show — we were in a very conservative area. Our director — a brilliant man, Les Waters — stressed in the entire process, during rehearsals, about the Midwest. People aren't necessarily as expressive [there]. I think people are a little bit more soft-spoken and hold things a little bit more closely, so any form of emotion was almost painful and hard to grasp. With Bare, it's a little bit more of focusing this energy [so] that he's not just yelling, he's not just screaming… It's very pinpointed in the way that Stafford has directed it.
Hite in Joe Iconis' The Black Suits at Barrington Stage Company.
Photo by Kevin Sprague
How do you personally relate to the character of Jason?
JH: The big similarity is that I was, up until my sophomore year of high school, a complete jock. I played all different kinds of stuff — football, baseball… I played a little bit of basketball before I went to high school. So I knew how to conduct myself around very loud, obnoxious, masculine boys. At the same time, I always kind of felt — not necessarily like I didn't belong in that world, but… When theatre kind of unexpectedly fell into my lap right around sophomore year, it was such a drastic change, almost like everything up until that point of my life had been a little bit out of focus. It was like I had put glasses on, and everything seemed to be very clear. I knew exactly where I wanted my life to be, and I knew what I wanted my career to be. With that being said, I think that's probably one of the only similarities I have with him. Jason is very, especially in public, charming and [can] make anyone feel good. I was a little bit more subdued in high school — not to say that I was a wallflower, but I didn't necessarily think I had a lot to say. I didn't want to talk and have nonsense come out of my mouth. I didn't necessarily want to be judged because high school is a very judgmental place, so I kind of just wanted to get through under the radar.
Can you tell me about that moment when theatre "fell into your lap"?
JH: My sophomore year…I needed an elective to fill in my class schedule, and as a jock, especially the kid who didn't care too much for school, I wanted to take the easiest route and get into a class I wouldn't have to work too hard at and just fly by, so I chose drama. I couldn't have been more different than the kids in my class — I was a sports man. I wasn't necessarily artistic, but my teacher just saw something in me and said, "You have something" and encouraged me to keep going. By the time I was at the end of my sophomore year, I did my first show, which was Grease. It was a very pivotal moment. After that, I dropped everything. I dropped sports. I dropped the circle of friends I had at that time and kind of just continued on [with performing]. Right before we got to the summer, I went to my mother [because] I wanted to find a conservatory of sorts. We ended up finding this program called Young REP in Walnut Creek, CA — the educational program offered by the Center REPertory Company — and it changed my life. I ended up doing that for about four or five summers… That program made me who I am, not only as an artist, but as a person. I didn't go to college, so I equate that as my college education.
Hite in Bare.
photo by Chad Batka
Did your relationship with religion play a part in how you approached the work in Bare, which is set in a Catholic school?
JH: A little bit. I was raised Catholic. I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm a practicing Catholic right now. I have my own problems with organized religion, but — especially at the top of the show when Father Mike is delivering a homily to the kids — it definitely flashes me back. My dad was the choir director at the church that I went to, so I was around the church a lot, especially early on in my life. I definitely remember the kind of boundaries of Catholicism and the closed-mindedness of some people in that community. My grandmother is still a very devout Catholic, but, at the same time, she sees the problems with it, and she's a very open-minded person. When Prop 8 came and went in California, I had never really had that conversation with my grandmother about, "How do you feel about the issue of homosexuality?" We finally had it, and her response was, "How can anyone in this faith — or any faith — say that anyone is deemed less worthy than another? The thought of exclusion is not what we preach. Church is a place for people to come when they feel lost or feel like they need guidance or a path. To say that you're not allowed and that you don't belong here is a completely against everything that we've been taught." That's kind of, in a bit of a nutshell, my experience with the church [and] this show.
At the end of the first act, you have this passionate scene with Elizabeth Judd, who plays Ivy, and you "bare" yourself physically and emotionally. You're also very vulnerable in moments with Taylor Trensch, who plays Peter. Before you go on that ride every night, is there a bit of anxiety?
JH: To be honest, not really. I think any kind of anxiety I have, it's almost like I shake it off immediately, especially with the scene with Elizabeth and even more so with Taylor. I really don't have the time to think too closely about, "Am I okay with this? Am I okay with that?" With me and Elizabeth, it's all about choreography and making sure she feels safe and taken care of. And, the moments with Taylor… I actually love those moments where I'm not just laughing and singing a song with people. When I actually get to look into someone's eyes and deliver material — especially as beautifully as Jon has written it — the dialogue and words wash over you. There's really nothing better to do in the show, so, if anything, I prefer when it's like that rather than just "put me on stage." I kind of prefer darker material, and I don't necessarily know why, but it's just easier for me to go to a darker, more vulnerable place than to smile and laugh. Stafford talked [to me about] finding the kind of gentleness and lightness within Jason while still keeping the inner fire and passion still there, but not overflowing into every scene.
LOST IN THIS MOMENT
Taylor Trensch, who made his Broadway debut earlier this year in the hit musical Wicked, brings his peculiar and offbeat sensibilities to Peter Simonds, the outcast at St. Cecilia's Boarding School who unsuspectingly finds his way into the heart of the school's closeted jock, Jason. Trensch, who is no stranger to shows that deal with angst-ridden young adults — having starred in the national tour of Spring Awakening as Moritz and appeared in the ensemble of the recent Off-Broadway revival of Rent — was familiar with Bare since its early beginnings when he got a hold of the 2004 demo recording of the then-titled bare: a pop opera in high school. We caught up with the actor in has last week of rehearsal.
Your characterization of Peter is very different from earlier incarnations of the role seen Off-Broadway or regionally, as well as heard on the 2007 recording. He's a bit quirkier in this version. How did you approach the character?
Taylor Trensch: Well, I was sort of familiar with the [2004 Off-Broadway version] before stepping into this. Michael Arden's performance [of Peter] was so wonderful, and I knew that I would never be able to bring what he brought to it, so I had to kind of start from scratch and make it my own. I tried to work from this new book that [librettist] Jon Hartmere has written that has a lot of humor in it and bring my own weird sensibility and idiosyncratic stuff to this show. Another person, Matt Doyle, was so fantastic on that  recording. I never had the chance to see it on the stage, but I had been very familiar with the music.
Jason Hite and Taylor Trensch in Bare.
photo by Chad Batka
Do you closely identify with the role? Do you see a bit of yourself in Peter?
TT: Definitely, yeah. I think Peter feels very mediocre and average in this high school, especially next to Jason who is star-athlete, star-student — kind of the "golden child" of St. Cecilia's. I think Peter feels very plain, and I definitely felt that way in high school. I never really found my niche. I kind of found myself to be quite unremarkable, so I certainly relate to Peter in that way.
I really enjoyed the addition of that moment in the opening of the second act — the flashback to Jason and Peter's very first interaction. Was that in the initial script?
TT: In the first draft of the script that I received that moment was not there. Jon and [director] Stafford [Arima] told me that people who were reading the script were wondering, "How did this relationship really begin?," so they added this flashback scene into the top of Act Two before we even started rehearsals. I love that scene a whole lot because you see that first electric moment between the two of these boys that launches their relationship. I love getting to work on that, especially having gone through [the later] half of [Peter and Jason's] journey — and then [jumping] back to that moment and remind ourselves why we love each other so much. [The second act] feels a little more poignant, and I think a lot of those moments — the more tragic moments in Act Two — resonate even better than they would have if we didn't have this flashback scene. Unfortunately, in Act Two, a lot of what we see is Peter and Jason not in a good place, so it's kind of nice to have that reminder — for the audience as well — that it is a very strong love between these two characters.
Trensch in Wicked.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Does your own religion play a part in how you've approached the show? Are you a religious person?
TT: Currently, I am not very religious, but I was raised in a religious household. We went to Baptist church on Sundays and on Easter and Christmas, so I certainly called back to that time to remind myself what it's like to be hearing doctrine and these messages that we explore in our play. But, at the moment, I'm not very religious, so I think it was interesting to revisit being in a religious community.
[SPOILER!] After Peter and Jason's relationship is outed to the entire school, the next time we see Peter, he has a gash on his face. Was this something new to Bare because of the recent publicized outbreak in teen bullying?
TT: Yeah… I mean, it's almost been a decade since Bare was last in New York. With the rash of teen suicides that has happened since then, I think it was important for us to address that. It would be almost naïve to pretend that doesn't happen when we're dealing with the subject matter that we're dealing with…so, yeah, it was an addition to our production. I hope it's very affective. I thought [it was] when I read it. It's certainly something interesting that we've added to our production. This topic has become a hot-button issue.
Tell me about working with your co-star Jason Hite?
TT: Jason is a wonderful, wonderful scene partner, and I'm so very lucky to be working with him. We were in the callback process together, and we read many, many times for Stafford and the creative team. I sort of had my fingers crossed that we'd get to do this together, so I'm very excited to be sharing the stage with him. I think he's just magnificent in this role… It's been an amazing environment. Stafford is very nurturing and creates a space to explore and fail and get up and try again. The issue [Stafford, Jason and I] keep revisiting is how huge first love is — the gravity of the first time you ever told someone you loved them. Saying "I love you" when you're a teenager is very different than saying "I love you" when you're an adult and have been in many relationships. So we keep kind of going back to this — how important this relationship really is, especially for Jason who's kind of in this questioning place in his life, to be with a boy and for this to mean so much to him.
Jason Hite and Taylor Trensch at opening night of Bare.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Before Bare, you played Jack in a star-studded reading for the film adaptation of Into the Woods. Can you tell me what it was like in that room?
TT: Oh my gosh, yeah! [Laughs.] It was the craziest, coolest week of my life! Every minute of every day, I felt like I shouldn't be there and that I should be apologizing to the rest of the cast. [Laughs.] But it was an incredible experience — some of the best performances I've ever seen, and we only had like three or four days of rehearsal to put up complex [Stephen] Sondheim-[James] Lapine material. It was a really incredibly experience. [Director] Rob Marshall was just the most wonderful, and I've loved Nina Arianda for many years, so it was very exciting.
Had you ever played Jack before?
TT: I have. I played the role in high school, so that helped me a lot with "Your Fault," at least. I didn't mess up too poorly. [Laughs.] It hasn't been that many years since I was in high school, but it's such a change from 18 to 23, just having lived a little more life. It was definitely really exciting to revisit that material.
Have you heard any details about it moving forward?
TT: I have not. I hope that it does because the new screenplay is really wonderful, and a lot of the cast was just so superb. And, I can't imagine what can happen with this project with more than a week, so I certainly hope that audiences get to see this.
Were there any stark differences that were exciting to work on in the screenplay?
TT: The main thing that I didn't even think about was Into the Woods is so separated — Act One and Act Two are completely different entities — so it was exciting to see this transition from the end of Act One into Act Two with no intermission and how that action really launches. That was the most exciting thing to see — to see it become cinematic as opposed to theatrical, and I think it works very well.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)