PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Noah Robbins
By Thomas Peter
August 21, 2010
Meet rising star Noah Robbins, the young actor of Broadway's brief 2009 run of Brighton Beach Memoirs. He's currently learning Secrets of the Trade opposite John Glover Off-Broadway.
In the past year, Noah Robbins has graduated from high school and played the young alter ego of a living playwright in two high-profile New York productions.
The first was the highly anticipated Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Neil Simon's fictionalized account of his Depression-era childhood. The staging only lasted a week after opening on the Great White Way, despite an appealing performance by Robbins in his Broadway debut, direction by David Cromer, a distinguished cast and warm reviews.
Now, the Washington, DC-area native is starring in the Primary Stages production of Jonathan Tolins' Secrets of the Trade at 59E59 Theaters. Robbins plays Andy Lipman, a star-struck kid who, in the early 1980s, is obsessed with the theatre and begins a correspondence with distinguished Broadway playwright-director Martin Kerner (played by Tony Award winner John Glover). Tolins has admitted in interviews that Andy is based on him, although he won't say who the model is for the charismatic but often frustratingly unavailable Kerner.
We caught up with 19-year-old Robbins the day after the play's Aug. 10 opening to talk about his crazy year, his formative years working with Debbie Allen on children's shows at the Kennedy Center — and what's next for him.
Congratulations on your opening last night! How'd it go?
Noah Robbins: It went really well. Opening night audiences are always great because they mainly consist of your friends and family, so they're already supportive. But yeah, I think it was a really great performance, and I loved meeting everyone afterwards. I like opening nights; they're a lot of fun.
Your character ages ten years over the course of the play, which you portray very believably, but you're kind of in the middle of that age range yourself. Is that something you consciously worked on?
NR: Oh, yeah, definitely. That was probably the main thing I worked on, the main challenge, just because I was a little intimidated. When I first auditioned, I didn't think I'd get it because I thought I was too short. I wanted to get it — I thought it was a great play and a great part — but I thought, "Well, you know, maybe I just don't look right for it." But when I got it, I was thrilled and I found the idea of playing older than I am a little daunting, and I think that over the rehearsals, that was basically the main and biggest challenge — to really chart that growth and that transformation over the course of [the play] and do it believably. That was the main thing, and with a lot of help from Matt Shakman, the director, and just a lot of practice and playing around, I think it finally clicked and I've been able to sort of get a grasp on that growth.
What's it been like working with John Glover and the rest of the cast?
NR: Unbelievable. [It's] such an unbelievably talented and relaxed atmosphere and cast. I had seen John Glover in Waiting for Godot maybe a year ago, so to be on stage with him now is a bit surreal. My parents would agree; my parents always tell me how much of a thrill it is to see me onstage with John Glover. But they're [all] so completely in it, and they definitely make me a whole lot better as a result.
Noah Robbins and John Glover in Secrets of the Trade
photo by James Leynse
Has Jonathan been around and worked with you much during rehearsals, since you are essentially playing his younger self?
NR: He's been here a whole lot. He was in Connecticut, but he would come in [and] take the train. A lot of times, he was there for the table work, and then he'd come see the run-throughs. He'd make changes to the script; some of them were unbelievably helpful. And yeah, he's been so, so encouraging and supportive to me. He's given me all sorts of positive reinforcement, which is always great for an actor, to have the playwright tell them, "Good job" and "We’re so happy that you're doing this." It definitely was thrilling to hear that.
Just to get a little bit of background: You grew up outside of DC?
NR: Yeah, I grew up in Potomac, MD, which is, like, 15 minutes outside of DC. I was born in DC but grew up in Maryland, and then I went to high school in DC. But I usually just tell people I'm from DC, because people have heard of that more than Potomac, MD.
And you worked with Debbie Allen in several shows at the Kennedy Center?
NR: Yeah, I did. From age 11 through 17, I would do shows with her. She would take fairy tales and [create] spin-offs for them. They'd feature kids and they'd be for kids, and they were just a lot of fun. And then in my junior year of high school, I went to L.A. to do a show that I had done in DC the year before, because she would always do a show at the Kennedy Center and then the next year she'd do that show in L.A. And so that year, I went with her to do it in L.A. She brought me out there, and that's where I got an agent. I just sort of got ridiculously lucky and seen by an agent. And then I started auditioning. I didn't audition that much because I was still in high school and I wanted to focus on that, but I auditioned for the big things that came my way, and one of those was Brighton Beach Memoirs my senior year, and after about six auditions for that, I got it. There was just a crazy roller coaster of an audition period, but it was a happy experience to say the least. [Laughs.] And then it all went from there. I guess my first audition was January of 2009. I didn't get a callback because it was sort of a sketchy audition. And then they couldn't find who they were looking for, so I got a second chance, and then four callbacks later and I got it.
I imagine the whole experience of doing that show was quite a way to make your Broadway debut, to put it mildly.
NR: Yeah, it was a whirlwind of an experience, but at the end of the day, it was a thrilling experience that I wouldn't trade for the world.
Robbins in Brighton Beach Memoirs
photo by Joan Marcus
What were rehearsals like?
NR: They were great. They were really fun and relaxed. I was lucky that I didn't feel — maybe it was because I was naïve or maybe it was because people were actively trying to make me feel this way — but I never felt a whole ton of pressure of having a big part in a Broadway show. I knew the gravity of what I was doing, but I never felt scared or shaking in my boots. And I think that that was probably because of everyone trying to make me feel calm and relaxed. So it was a very relaxed, fun rehearsal period, and I love David Cromer dearly. He's become a great friend of mine, and the cast I remain close to to this day. Even as short of an experience as it was, I think the relationships have stood the test of time and I think that they will continue to do so.
Was Neil Simon around for rehearsals, as well?
NR: Absolutely, he was. Yeah, he would come up and he would also make rewrites, which were amazing. [Laughs.] He never, I think, viewed the show — even though it was such a success — he never viewed it as a finished product. He would always be making changes and trying out new things, and that was awesome. And he would also be giving me positive reinforcement, which was equally thrilling. To hear it from Neil Simon himself is quite something, and when I look back on it, I think the fact that I worked with Neil Simon will be the thing that makes me realize just how unbelievable the experience was. Forget about being on Broadway or the reviews or whatever. Getting to be a part of his career is quite something.
You've worked with some very impressive theatre professionals in your young career. Would you say that you've had a mentor relationship with any of them that is any way similar to the one that Andy has with Martin in the play (hopefully without some of the more bittersweet aspects)?
NR: You know, I feel that way about Debbie Allen in a lot of ways, because I think I knew her better than any other person that I've worked with just because I'd worked with her over a span of six or so years. I think, actually, she did more helping me out than Kerner does for Andy. She was just so helpful, because she would just take me out to L.A. She brought me to L.A. twice, actually — once in sixth grade and once in 11th grade. And it was because of her that I got an agent, and it was because of being in her show that I was able to be seen. I definitely feel that I have a relationship with her that is close enough that it can be called a mentor-mentee relationship. She's kind of a mother figure to everyone in the cast, and I definitely felt that. She was sort of a guiding influence.
That's great that you had that so young.
NR: Yeah. When I was too young to really know what it was! [Laughs.]
You had graduated from high school by the time you got Brighton Beach, right?
NR: I was in the end of my senior year when I got the part, and then I graduated and then I did the show, so it was perfect timing.
Are you planning to stick around New York theatre and work and audition, or are you going to go to college?
NR: I'm gonna go to college, like, two days after this closes. I'm going to Columbia, so I'll still be in New York. But I think one of the things this year has taught me is that I want to be a college student [Laughs] for the next four years. This was a very important, formative year for me, I think, and I'm glad that I had it. Certainly a lot happened; it was very eventful. But now that I've sort of put my foot in the water, I think I want to just be a student for a while.
No summer theatre?
NR: You know, maybe. Who knows? I'll probably keep auditioning for things if there's something that comes up. [If it's] worth taking time off for, I would totally do it. But it would have to be something pretty amazing, because I want to go to college. [Laughs.]