This week Playbill catches up with actor-musician Nick Cearley, who is currently playing Seymour in a production of Little Shop of Horrors at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts in Michigan through August 28.
Cearley was seen on Broadway in All Shook Up, while his Off-Broadway credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pageant, Sex Tips…, and Cupid & Psyche. Regionally, he has performed in three productions of Little Shop of Horrors, nine regional premieres of Buyer & Cellar, as well as An Act of God, Next to Normal, The Rocky Horror Show, and more. He also co-conceived and starred in the new actor-musician version of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
Cearley and Sweeney Todd's Lauren Molina also tour extensively as the underwear-clad musical duo The Skivvies, whose ever-changing lineup of special guests join them in stripping down onstage to perform mash-ups and unconventional covers of pop tunes, show tunes, and original material. The duo have a host of upcoming dates, including their monthly Joe's Pub residency September 12, which will feature guests Tovah Feldshuh, Morgan James, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Alysha Umphress , Tony Dalileo, Diane Phelan, Yael Reich, Chris Hlinka, and Emma Degerstedt.
What is your typical day like now?
I don’t have a typical day. I don’t think I have ever had one, and I thrive off of it. On this particular day, I have already balanced wearing many hats: arranging music for the next Skivvies tour by creating and writing charts for band and performers, producing those performances by casting/staffing those dates, making sure I have enough cold brew in my body to keep up with the speed everyone needs something, getting my workout in, warming up (also staying quiet throughout the day) for Little Shop of Horrors tonight, and going to the theatre around 7:15 PM to gear up for the performance at 8 PM. Afterwards, I will eat and go back to staying quiet for tomorrow’s marathon. I pace myself in moderation when I am actively performing so that I don’t lose my steam before doing the job I have to do. I compare it to running a long race. You can’t go hard at the top of it or you won’t have enough to make it to the finish line.
How did the idea for the Skivvies originally come about? Have you been surprised by its success over the years?
Lauren Molina and I met doing TheatreWorksUSA. We both got our Equity cards together from that process and became fast friends since the very first day of rehearsals, where we learned we both graduated our respective musical theatre schools: Boston Conservatory for me and University of Michigan for her. We also realized soon in our friendship that we both sang the same exact song for our college showcases the same exact year on the same exact stage. What are the chances? The song was “Popcorn” from Little By Little.
We began making music together as simply "Nick and Lauren" around 2005 at spaces around the city like The Duplex, The Laurie Beechman, Pianos, Joe’s Pub, etc. It wasn’t until 2012 when we got together to hang out and play with our instruments—a normal thing for us to do when we hang out—when we really liked an arrangement we made of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and wanted to put a cover of it on YouTube. That is what all the kids were doing back then. It was sort of a new platform still. We made the song, which is usually an overproduced dance hit with dubstep throughout, into a ballad waltz on guitar and ukulele. She was walking around her apartment deciding what to wear and just wearing her bra, and I said, “Why don’t you just wear that? We are stripping down the song.” And, she said, “Yeah, we could strip down physically as well and just never comment on it. Sort of like a costume…” And, at the moment her boyfriend Rob Morrison said, “You should call yourself The Skivvies.” And, we never looked back—[and now it's] ten years later.
Yes, I am surprised at the success of it and where it has taken us. And, I just remember when we recorded that first song and pushed publish on the YouTube page. I said, “If this is a horrible mistake, we can just delete it, and it never happened.” Haha. Luckily that wasn’t the case, and we were encouraged by Joe’s Pub to start playing live concerts six months later.
You're currently playing Seymour again in Little Shop at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. Are there any parts of the role or the musical that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past two years?
Yes, I am here now finishing out the run! This is my third time playing Seymour. The first time was an election year under Obama, and then a few months later the second time we had a new president, and the world was turned upside down. I noticed a huge shift in what the world had become in a short amount of time while still doing the same show. The metaphor of the greed of the plant not letting anything get in its way to lie, cheat, steal, and kill people became all-too relevant in the beginning of a world, where it truly felt like the end of days. Now, doing it a third time having endured a COVID world, the metaphor of the plant has shifted again to doing what we have to do to simply stay alive with the greed and corruption of what the GOP is trying to do to Americans and their rights.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I am so glad you asked this question. The first part is to have conversations and force people to think about how racism, misogyny, and white supremacy are part of every institutional structure, including the theatre. So asking this question is key. I would like to see Equity require anti-oppression training for theatre companies or, at least, anti-bias training. The Skivvies is a collaborative group where Lauren and I have an opportunity to work with people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities. We think critically about the voices we are featuring each time we do a show and always try put the individual artist's expression at the heart of a new piece. This isn’t a question about talent, it’s a question about access to existing power structures in this industry. Certainly everyone has to think about what they can do to push for racial and gender justice, but the heavier burden must be on casting directors, producers, non-profit boards, and others in positions of power. They need to have actionable steps to dismantle oppression or they need to retire.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
I haven't always embraced what makes me unique. I wish someone had told me that in college when I was trying to fit into a cookie-cutter mold. What I learned at a time when we were forced to lockdown and get creative with our solo time was that I need to lean into that even more and have the confidence to do things that could make me uncomfortable, like share things I create or think that could be unexpected. I also learned I am very good at jigsaw puzzles, binging TV shows, and I learned that I find great therapy in online shopping.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
The Skivvies are gearing up for another very busy end of 2022. We are touring extensively throughout the next three months starting next week to Massachusetts, Upstate New York, New York City, Pennsylvania, Mexico, Michigan, and then our annual California two-week winter tour. All those dates are found on our website. I am also making my directorial debut with The Addams Family at the Cape Cod Theatre Project in Harwich, Massachusetts.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
If we are specifically looking into the the world of diversity and inclusion, I would donate and support organizations like MUSE (Musicians United for Social Equity).