Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Conversation with Bryan Hicks

Millions of Trans-Siberian Orchestra fans know Bryan Hicks from his many years as the Storyteller on their annual Winter tours. While he tours with the East Coast touring company in the winter, the rest of the world's TSO fans were introduced to him as he performed with their Beethoven's Last Night nation-wide and European tours in the last few years. I recently caught up with Bryan in Manhattan to discuss his acting and performing background, his contributions and thoughts about his role with TSO, and his work outside of the TSO universe.

Dan Roth:  I would like to kick this off by asking about your acting background and performance training.

Bryan Hicks:  Well, I started studying when I was 12 years old. I went to a new Junior High School for the Performing Arts and I met an acting teacher who knew about the High School for the Performing Arts. He coached me and two other actors to get in, and once I got in to PA, that's what changed my life. At first acting was just fun, but after a while I knew that this was something that I wanted to do. People seemed to enjoy whatever I was giving, so I was thinking "OK, maybe this is what I am meant to be doing".

I studied there; we had our days split with acting classes and academics. Because we were downtown on 46th Street (in New York City) at that time, I had access to all of the theaters and this wide assortment of people that I went to school with from all over the city. I started taking dance classes at Alvin Ailey [Dance Theater] and Phil Black [Dance Studio]. When I was 15, some of my upperclassmen asked me if I would be interested in doing a commercial. I had never worked professionally before, so after school we went around the corner to an office building, met with the producers and casting people and I booked my first commercial. So basically, my whole life has been like that; like dominoes falling.

DR:  One thing leading to another...

BH:  Yes. I grew up in Harlem and where I was, there were only a certain number of opportunities available to me. But I just happened to meet the right people who helped guide me to the right places.

I also started taking classes at the Manhattan School of Music; studying singing, sight-reading, and opera. I would do this after school. It was there that I met Walter J. Turnbull.

DR:  The creator of the Boys Choir of Harlem?

BH:  Yes. And he asked me if I was interested in being a member. I said "Sure, Why not?". He also became my singing teacher, and then I became a member of the Boys Choir of Harlem.

DR:  Nice! They were a well respected and world-renowned choir. Did you record or tour with them?

BH:  We toured. We went all over Europe, also Washington DC and a few other places. It was great - it was a lot of fun but disciplined; it sort of kept me off the streets. Between that and the High School of Performing Arts which was very disciplined, we were taught that going to acting school was like going into a church and demanded that kind of respect.

Then, I think it was my second or third year, Fame came along. Because I went to the High School we got to audition for the film. A lot of people in the film, both students and teachers, went there, and they figured it would be easier to hire us and then fill the rest in with more experienced actors.

DR:  This was the original 1980 motion picture Fame?

BH:  Yes. I auditioned for that twice and got a small part in that. I worked that whole summer and into the fall. They even gave us time off from school so we could continue to shoot.

Then things started getting a little crazy. After the film came out, people started calling the school asking for actors to audition for roles in films. So even before I got out, a lot of the people I knew were already working in the business. I continued to audition and to study - At first I wanted to be a triple-threat kind of actor, because the first things I was really exposed to were musicals and operas. But then I started reading Shakespeare and poetry and I had a teacher - his name was James Moody and he was in the first graduating class of Juilliard’s Drama Division - and I had never seen a man like this before.

DR:  How so?

BH:  Well, he was a black man, unbelievably articulate and when he walked in the room and started to talk about Othello and Quasimoto and the like, we were all just terribly fascinated. We were so engrossed in the stories he would tell and the way he carried himself - it's difficult to describe, I had never seen anyone like that before. It made me really curious about Julliard as well. I auditioned for a number of colleges in my junior year; I got into Julliard, Purchase and Marymount. Of course I accepted Julliard.

At that point I had both a manager and an agent that I was working with, but I was afraid that if I kept auditioning for things professionally, then I would never finish college. It was very important to my mother that I get to college and graduate. So, I went to Julliard and I was one of the youngest members of my company. I'm not sure how it is now, but back then most of the people that went to Julliard's acting program as a graduate school. I was 18 but most of the people in my company were in their early to mid-20's. It was a very mature environment and an unbelievably disciplined environment. We went to school from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. I rarely got home [laughs]. What was ironic was that they would tell you that it was important to have a life, but there was no time for a life! [laughs]

After two years there, I spoke different, I walked different, everything about me was totally different. As opposed to talking like this when you grow up in the hood [slips into a street style of talking], I was more like this - even more so. I found myself talking much more articulate, so I had become something else. As it turned out, back then, Julliard would accept more people than they actually needed. They would cut anywhere from 10 to 15 people in the company. I was fortunate to be in a great company with people like Thomas Gibson from Criminal Minds and Bradley Whitford. People like Kelly McGillis and Ving Rhames were also there when I was there.

The classes were mind blowing; we were learning so many different things and in the evenings we were performing - working on scenes or doing a full-length play. One of my teachers was Marian Seldes. We would also get free tickets to Broadway, so we were attending Broadway shows regularly.

Amy Hutchins and Bryan Hicks in Othello
American Players Theatre - Spring Green, WI
(Photo courtesy of Bryan Hicks)

DR:  You were really immersed in the acting culture 24 hours a day it seemed.

BH:  Oh yes. It was unbelievably overwhelming. But unfortunately, in my second year, my class was too big and they had to cut some people. I'm not sure why I ended up being one of them. But, I was and for a while I wasn't sure what I was going to do. After a few months I decided I still wanted to act, got myself an agent and ended up doing a production of Measure for Measure for no money and I was so happy to be acting again. I started auditioning a lot. Ving Rhames was a good friend of mine and he helped me out by letting me go in his place to some auditions.

I auditioned for about a year, booked a couple of commercials, and got a couple of bit parts in a film and a mini-series. I used to hang out with Ving a lot, and I remember saying to him that I felt incomplete. I didn't graduate college and Julliard left me in an awkward position where I didn't know who I was. Ving recommended Purchase [College]. He had been to both Julliard and Purchase. It was around that time that I met people like Edie Falco, Hal Hartley and folks like that.

Purchase was a totally different environment. I was away from home and it was more of a college environment so I got to have some fun. [laughs] It was a little more laid back. It went well, I graduated, and a year after I got out I got my first gig doing Shakespeare in the Park. I got an agent with the help of Joe Papp and Rosemarie Tichler who basically vouched for me as an actor. And then I started understudying and doing Off-Broadway plays and within a year I was on Broadway!

DR:  Again, the dominoes falling. Did you think you would get to Broadway so soon?

BH:  I really wasn't expecting that. I was still basically a kid - 25 or 26. The agency got me an audition for A Few Good Men and I got the part. I thought I was going to jump through the roof! I came in midway through, after it had been running for six months. The cast was changing over - Ron Perlman and Timothy Busfield were coming in - just a wonderful cast. I had a wonderful time and the great thing about that was that it sort of bumped me up a little bit.

I started auditioning for more leads and the next thing I did was Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at the Cleveland Playhouse, which was my first classical lead. After that I booked Six Degrees of Separation with Marlo Thomas and Veronica Hamel in Chicago, which was unbelievable because it had just left Broadway and I got to work with wonderful people for six months. Then I started working a lot doing regional theater all over the country. After three or four years I decided that I wanted to get started on film and television as well, which meant staying in town [New York City], which was scary because now I had to and get a survival gig! I was a lousy waiter [laughs], and then got a gig as a personal trainer, and then I got a gig as a doorman.

I started to go out on more auditions for TV and booked a six-month recurring role on All My Children.

DR:  You played Zeke, was it?

BH:  Yes - a drug dealer. It was really ironic, after all those years of studying the classics, my breakout role is as a drug dealer [laughs]. But, I was happy to do it. As a matter of fact, it was more challenging because I wasn't like that. It was originally supposed to be three days and it turned out to be six months. It might have gone longer, but the actor, Keith Hamilton Cobb, that was in my storyline - I was the guy that he beat up all the time - that was my job basically - to get beat up and kicked around [laughs] - when he didn't re-sign, they faded out the storyline. So I had to look for work again.

I've always been more comfortable on stage than in front of the camera. The great thing about working on All My Children was that it gave me time to learn what it's like to be in front of a camera. I eventually booked a film (Childhood's End), then came appearances on Law and Order and As the World Turns. I also got a voiceover agent and started going out for voiceovers and commercials.

Laiona Michelle and Bryan Hicks in Intimate Apparel
Theatreworks - Palo Alto, CA
(Photo Courtesy of Bryan Hicks)

I had a really nice survival gig but I really wanted to be an actor full time, so I started doing more theater again. I started leaving town a lot and this has gone on for years. I consider myself very blessed as I have gotten to work with some great people and play some great roles. It's sort of like a roller coaster ride; I look back and can't believe it's been 35 years.

So that's basically how my career started and got going. I've worked all over the country, done plays, musicals, commercials, voiceovers... Not as much film work as I would like, but I'm not dead yet [laughs].

DR:  As far as the commercials you have done, anything stand out that we might have heard and didn't realize it was you?

BH:  I don't know. Well, for one thing, I looked different back then - I had hair [laughs]. I did a voiceover for the Maryland lottery - that was animated and I was this really hip tuna with a deep voice [laughs]. I did spots for Black History, Cancer Society, Nynex, Sports Illustrated. I did one for Brooklyn Bubblegum, which nobody probably ever bought or ever heard of [laughs].

DR:  [laughs] I understand the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has had other performers that have been active with commercials and voiceover work: Michael Lanning, Joe Cerisano -

BH:  Oh yes - Joe Cerisano! He used to do a lot of jingles. Joe is a great guy - my first year with TSO I toured with him. And James Lewis and I have the same voiceover agent now.  I was with ICM (International Creative Management) for a while until they decided they wanted to let go actors who weren't celebrities. James invited his voiceover agent to see a TSO show. I met her after the show, and she has been my voiceover agent now for four years and I owe that introduction to James.

DR:  You mentioned opera training. Have you ever had the opportunity to perform in an opera?

BH:  Once. At the Manhattan School of Music we did an operatic production of Paul Bunyan.

I've auditioned for musicals, but the closest I ever came to doing one was when I did a wonderful production of Dream on Monkey Mountain, written by a poet and playwright named Derek Walcott, and it was directed by Bill T. Jones. Bill is a great choreographer and had a big hit on Broadway a couple years ago, FELA!, that won a few Tonys - he really is a genius. Anyway, Bill had his own dance company and they were incorporated into this production, which was like a mixture of King Lear and Jesus Christ Superstar. I had to sing, dance, act and do acrobatics - all of that for the first time, in one show. I had to admit to him, "Bill, I don't do all of that". I had taken classes for all of this, but I had never had to do all of this before - by then I was in my 30's.  He said "Well, you do it now" [laughs]. I played a character whose name meant "monkey", so I spent most of my time squatting, flipping, tumbling and singing. It was a huge production with a mountain rising out of the stage, one actor being dropped in on a bloody parachute -

DR:  Goodness, what a grand production!

BH:  It was unbelievable. I had never done anything like that in my entire life, but it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. That is probably The instance of where I got to do a little bit of everything.

DR:  I know you made a guest appearance on Season One of The Sopranos. That has become such an iconic show - did that stand out to you at the time, or was it just another gig?

Bryan Hicks (in orange) as "Orange J" - The Sopranos 1999

BH:  It was a great gig but nobody knew it was going to be so popular. What was great about it was they made me feel very comfortable - I had never done a TV role of that size before - I had five or six scenes. The cast was so down to earth - it is unfortunate that James Gandolfini is no longer with us - he was a brilliant actor and was very nice to me. I never got to see Edie [Falco] because we worked on different days but I knew Edie from when we were doing the rounds back in the old days.

It was the sort of thing that snowballed. It was a fun gig, but then I started getting recognized - everyone was saying "I saw you in this, I saw you in this". As a matter of fact, at the time I was still moonlighting as a concierge and Kathleen Turner lived in the building and she and her husband knew one of the writers, so they got a preview of the episode. So Kathleen and her husband come down one day and said "Bryan - we didn't know you were an actor!" because I didn't tell anybody there. So after that, I sort of became this celebrity concierge! [laughs].

DR:  [laughs] Over the years, through all of the various television and theater roles that you have been in, it seems you always come back to Shakespeare's works, performing in many of his plays over the years. What is about Shakespeare that keeps you wanting to perform his work?

BH:  The language. The language is so intelligent and so beautiful. I had a dream once - I wanted to be a great classical actor, and that's one of the reasons I focused on theater. In junior high school, I did a book report on Ira Aldridge; he was called the Black Tragedian in the 1800s. Because of what was happening in this country, he left to act in Europe and he ended up doing the classics for Kings and Queens all over the world. I was like "Wow! Who is this guy? Where did he come from?".

I felt inspired at the time by Sir Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud and I got fixated on the BBC productions and I really wanted to do that. Of course I found out later that it wasn't very practical [laughs]. Even great Shakespearean actors want to make a good living [laughs]. But, it's always stayed dear to my heart and there are still great roles that, God willing, I would love an opportunity to play.

DR:  I wanted to ask you about the tour that you did with vocalist Patti Austin. I understand it was a tribute to the music from the Bebop era and also celebrating the music of Ella Fitzgerald. Were you the narrator on that tour?

BH:  Yes. Taro Mayer, who helped with my induction into TSO had passed along my number to a friend of hers and they called to see if I was interested in taking over the narrator role, as Tim Cain had left that tour. I wasn't working at the time and it was an interesting script, so I said "Sure Why Not!". It was different from TSO in that I was more of a griot or a master of ceremonies that guided you through time and it talked about Patti's influences in different periods of her life. It was fun. They had a wonderful cast of young musicians and we did that for two or three months.

DR:  Were you already touring with TSO at this time?

BH:  I was already with TSO, but hadn't yet toured with them.

DR:  Ah, so you started with TSO as part of the backup band?

BH:  Yes, I started with them as an understudy in 2002. I worked with Taro and they gave me a video towards the end of the run, so I never even got to see them until the end of the run that year and were at the Beacon [Theater]. I was like "What is this?", because the place was packed - all of these people were piling in for the show and I never heard of this.

They told me that what they were looking to do was start a third touring company that would probably focus on the south. And then the following year, for whatever reason Tim Cain was no longer with them and they asked me if I would be interested in taking over the role of the narrator.
Bryan with TSO, 2005
(Photo courtesy of Brian Reichow)

DR:  I have heard how auditions work for musicians and vocalists. Did you approach this audition like other acting auditions?

BH:  You know, people have asked me "Do you narrate for a living?" [laughs] and I say "No, for me, the narrator is a character - it's a part, like a part in a play.". Depending on the piece that I am doing, the narrator is different, unless the director says "I want you to be like you were in the last show.". So I approached it like the same way I approached any audition.

They had a casting agent that they worked with at the time, and my agent saw the ad and knew I did voiceovers and sent me in.  As a matter of fact, when I first auditioned for TSO, I was not familiar with their show. When they said "narrator", I thought they meant a narrator for a voiceover.

I remember looking in the back of the room and there was this guy with long hair and sunglasses. He was very nice and he gave me a silver dollar when I was done. I went back to my agent and I said "You know, I think Howard Stern was there!" [laughs] Of course it was Paul O'Neill, who is a wonderful person and has been a great inspiration in my life. He is just an unbelievably generous and kind person and I am honored that he would trust me with his material.

DR:  Any idea why the "TSO South" touring company never materialized?

BH:  Well, it's always been evolving. Every year they are figuring out ways to make the tour better and to cover more ground in less time.

DR:  So you wound up taking over for Tim Cain on both the TSO and Patti Austin tours. Did you know Tim at all?

BH:  I didn't know him. I met him twice, once at a voiceover audition. Seemed like a nice guy.

DR:  Any trepidation following him? He had a much different style that you have, much quieter.

BH:  Right - he and Tony [Gaynor].

I was taught that when you understudy, you try and come as close to the actor playing the role as possible. So when I started understudying, I started to go in his direction. They said to me "No, don't do that." Originally I hadn't seen him, so I just did it my way. They kept on saying, "No, no - keep doing what you are doing, do it your way.". Once again, it started to evolve as I went along, and I kept sort of checking in, saying "Is this alright? Are you comfortable with what I'm doing? I'm a little risque here; I'm going to see how far I can take this." and they were like "Okay, keep going.".

So I never had the pressure of having to be like Tim or Tony. They gave me the freedom to try things. Over the years they have let me go a little further in spurts, and now they give me a lot of range. It's the trust that comes with time.

DR:  Were you the understudy for both Tim and Tony?

BH:  Yes, the deal was that if either of them went down, they would fly me out.

DR:  TSO Vocalist Michael Lanning had covered for Tony in one show when he had a death in his family, and I understand Taro worked with him as well.

BH:  Yes, she was connected to David Krebs. She was good for me, she was the one who vouched for me. When her stint was done, Paul basically stepped in and has been hands-on with me from there.

DR:  You mentioned that you were given some freedom to take the narration in your own style. Was that something they were actively looking to change?

BH:  I don't think they ever thought about it. Back then, it was like this is the person that did it and this is the way it's done. I just happened to come in and do something different and it got a different reaction from everybody.

I came from a different world and I had to make some adjustments because this is the rock world, where people rehearse at night as opposed to during the day. [laughs] It's very different, very loose. Over the years they understand more where I am coming from too because every artist has different needs. I had to explain to them "This is where I am now but I want to take this much further and for me to do that, I need you to help me so I can concentrate." It was an evolution - TSO is something so new still - they're feeling it out and learning as they go along.

DR:  It's such a hybrid of a rock concert and a musical theater production, they are sort of defining their own role.

BH:  Yeah! And all of a sudden we're doing "Rock Theater"! And then Beethoven's Last Night came along and I was tentative, Paul wanted me to do different voices. I was like, "Paul, are you sure?" and he said he wanted me to do the female voice and the other voices, so I went there.

The challenge with Christmas Eve and Other Stories was that I was doing it for so long, that I had to find a way to keep the audience interested and to keep myself interested. So I would try a different take on it every year. I didn't want the audience to get bored - they know the words, some of them better than I do! [laughs] There were some things that they were very adamant about that I keep, because everyone was used to certain passages delivered that way. Other things I would try differently and go back and ask how that worked and was told "Yeah, go more in that direction.". That's how what you refer to as "my style" came about. Basically when it all started I wasn't sure what I was doing. Especially with Christmas Eve and Other Stories, it's more fragmented - like a number of monologues as opposed to Beethoven which is more of a story they way it is edited.

Photo Courtesy of Stacey Porter
DR:  How do you and Paul work together?

BH:  Well, he is very hands-on. The creative genius is his. If there is something I want to try differently - for Beethoven we had numerous drafts; I was still getting drafts in reheatsals. That's why I had to look down a lot, because I was still getting new pages.

DR:  So that is the actual script in the book that you have on stage?

BH:  Well, yes. Once again, we started something that became traditional. It is the script, but the idea is that if you're an actor, you don't want to have to need the script. So that was really scary for me, because I never had to juggle that much in a short period of time.

DR:  Well you certainly captivated the audience with that show for sure. I can't say I recall seeing you look at the script a lot during the shows, so I thought perhaps the book was a well-placed prop.

BH:  What's happened now, even after I learned it - it worked - the idea with the book. They came to me and said "When you did this and you did that and the audience responded, so let's keep that.". And then Paul said "Why don't we call him the 'Storyteller' ". I like that because I am not what you would call your typical narrator. Most narrators don't get emotionally evolved in the piece. They tell the story and let the actors or singers on stage get involved with the piece. But since they seem to like the idea of me getting involved with doing the voices, the idea of a "Storyteller" is something new. And it gives me a broader range to work with. In Greek Tragedy, sometimes the Storyteller does became a character. 

So, once again, the book has become part of the evolution. When we started working on Lost Christmas Eve, I said "You know that book we used for Beethoven? Why don't we make that a thing?". Paul's idea is that I am this timeless character that travels through time  - I'm here now in the present and I have a new story for you. Like in that PBS series, Masterpiece Theater - where the guy would be sitting there and he would open a book. And that's where we are with it now. So yes, the story is in there, but the idea is that I don't need it. [laughs]

DR:  The narration for TSO is often read in rhyming couplets. Shakespeare employed certain rhyming patterns in his works. Does your background with studying and performing his work help you with delivering TSO's script?

BH:  Oh definitely. It gives me ideas because Shakespeare plays little games with words. When I find Paul doing little things that remind me of Shakespeare, I play with it. If Paul likes it, then we keep it.

DR:  How long does it take you to have a TSO script memorized?

BH:  [laughs] Well, that depends.

DR:  [laughs] If pages aren't added after you had it down, of course.

BH:  Right. It's a rare experience where you have the producer, writer and director with you most of the time. Where you can give him a call and say "Hey, what about this?" or he can call you - that's very rare. Paul gets ideas even after he has written the piece and sometimes he makes changes. So if we do it this year, I am sure he will come to me and discuss the script and possible changes, because he is trying to make it better too. Once we get an audience's reaction to a piece, then other ideas come into play of how they can make it better.

In that way, it feels like a collaboration. It's similar to an acting company where the director knows it's actors. So, he can write with you in mind - I think he writes with certain people in mind when he is creating his work. Hopefully I am one of them [laughs].

DR:  How far in advance do you start preparing for the yearly Fall/Winter tour? Or do you go into the Council Bluffs rehearsals cold?

BH:  Well, in answer to your other question, I'm used to two to three weeks to get something down. But, I try not to think about it in the down time. Unless something sparks an idea in my head, I try to make a mental note. Each year I try to take a fresh approach. There are numerous things that worked and I try to remember what some of them were, while at the same time I try to stay open and see what else I can discover with this. Assuming all goes well this year, I probably wouldn't start looking at it until a month before.

DR:  In terms of taking that fresh approach, I was wondering if you ever got bored or tired of the Christmas Eve and Other Stories script after performing it for so many years.

BH:  Yeah, but that's part of the challenge. With any long running show, the challenge is every night going out there and try to find a way to make it as if it's the first time.

DR:  Have you ever forgotten a line or a portion of the script?

BH:  Oh yes! [laughs] That's the challenge of live theater. When you are doing something live, all kinds of things are going to happen. With this show, this is huge. You're dealing with stuff going on with the lights, the sound, things happening on stage and everyone trying to keep cool about it - and they usually are. We have some of the most skilled and credible people in the rock world - but stuff happens. We just try to keep cool and keep going.

DR:  Anything you care to go on record with?

Photo Courtesy of Jasmin Stierli

BH:  [laughs] Well, towards the end of the Beethoven tours, we were doing three different versions of the show. We had an arena show, a casino show, and a short version of the arena show, so we had three different scripts. I remember one day we were at one of the casinos and I forgot which show we were doing! [laughs] There was a monologue that I said but I wasn't supposed to say it until later, but the singer came up anyway and did the number. Al [Pitrelli] was looking at me like "What do you want to do?" [laughs] I was like "I don't know!"[laughs] I had maybe two minutes while the singer finished her number - I think it was Chloe [Lowery]. I had to find a way to make this make sense - I had already said what I was supposed to say, but I had to say something different but similar. So I added two lines to connect that song to the next monologue and it went off fine.

DR:  I wanted to ask you about newspaper reviews of the shows. I find that quite often the reviewer that is sent seems to be expecting a straight rock concert and does not write too kindly about the narrator and/or the narration itself, while the fans seem to enjoy and really connect with this facet of the show. Do you pay attention to these reviews at all?

BH:  Sometimes I look at them when were done, and if it's constructive criticism I try to take it into account. If it's not, then I discard it. Based on the fan's reaction over the years, they have been more and more gracious all the time. People will write me - and all of us, really - and say the most wonderful things. The love that pours out is really wonderful. With that being there, it says that were doing something right.

My goal as an actor has always been to bring about some sort of change, hopefully positive change, to make people think. Sometimes people come to see a show and they don't want to think. They want to forget. If it's too heavy they don't want to deal with it and others feel that if it's too light it must not be intellectual enough. But it's all subjective and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Based on most of the fans, and even - I would say 50% of the reviews have been very kind and gracious, As long as somebody feels good about it then it's my pleasure to do it for them.

DR:  Well, speaking of things being "too heavy", the script for The Lost Christmas Eve certainly includes some heavy moments.

BH:  Oh Yeah.

DR:  In particular there is that one 2-3 minute section which really got heavy and serious. Was there some struggling with including that?

BH:  Oh Yeah! [laughs]  Oh Yeah. There are many voices and it went back and forth, and it may continue to go back and forth. Because this was a new piece, a lot of opinions were expressed. The powers that be don't want to put anything out there that would be offensive to others or sink the ship, as it were. The last few years with Beethoven and Lost Christmas, because we're so innovative,  everybody has been on pins and needles wondering "Will this work?". Paul has the final say, and as long I am given the freedom to commit - if you want me to do it, I'm going to go there. We can't go and pull back - we've got to go. So, that's what we did. Based on what they have said to me, they feel it went well, but it's still a work in progress.

DR:  Okay, understood. I know seeing the show last year and watching some of the reaction around me, that particular passage seemed to jolt some emotions in the crowd.

BH:  It's sort of like It's a Wonderful Life. Without that change, without that tragedy, it may be difficult for people to feel catharsis. The idea was for people to leave not feeling bad, but feeling good because everyone has their faults in life, and a strong underlying theme is forgiveness.

DR:  You have performed the narration now for three different Trans-Siberian Orchestra stories. Do you have a favorite?

BH:  At the moment I would have to say it's Beethoven's Last Night. Only because that's as close as we've come to doing something in it's entirety. For me, I love to be challenged and that was an unbelievable challenge. I hope everyone reads the full-length Lost Christmas Eve story. It is a beautiful story. Some of the poetry in it is just magnificent, but unfortunately because it's so long, we can't do a lot of that.

If I am doing a certain kind of piece and I connect to it - just like the audience has a catharsis, I have a catharsis. Something happens within my person - and it's one of the things that I love about acting is that it's a natural high that is difficult to describe. It basically has to do with an exchange of imagery that happens between the artist and the audience. When that happens, and the audience really seems to get it - even if they are angry, something happened. We all sat there and you left there feeling something, as opposed to feeling numb. So that works for me.

DR:  In terms of the Beethoven's Last Night narration, that script certainly had much longer spoken passages than had been used in prior TSO shows. Was part of the challenge holding the audience's attention?

BH:  That was a large part of the challenge. How can I do this in a way that keeps people interested? Maybe it's my imagination, but sometimes I can feel that connection with the audience. It's sort of like this journey that we all go on and my job is to keep you interested. There are places in that story where people may drift off and part of the challenge is pulling them back.

DR:  You mentioned earlier how Paul wanted you to give voice to the other characters in the Beethoven story. How did you go about preparing for that?

BH:  I worked with Paul, trying a number of different things in the studio. We played around with it - when there was something that he liked he would let me know. Even today if he wants me to do something, he will say "You know that voice that you did for such and such? That voice." So he remembers.

DR:  When not speaking to the audience, it looks like you are having a ball up there, playing your air guitar, which the audience seems to get a kick out of.  It's interesting how you, as the one telling the story, winds up interacting with the vocalists and musicians on stage. I recall Steve Broderick offering you his bottle during "Old City Bar" -

Steve Broderick and Bryan Hicks
Toledo, Ohio - November 8, 2009
(Photo Courtesy James Marvin Phelps)

Rob Evan and Bryan Hicks
(Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Corcino)

BH:  [laughs] It's wonderful - that's part of the evolution. Now that a lot of us have been working together so long, we play a lot. Performers will come over and do things and I'm open to whatever they want to do. In some cases, I never know what they are going to do. Like this last tour, Rob [Evan] came over to me and started doing his thing [laughs]. I was like "Oh, ok!" [laughs] And some nights, he might not do it. In that sense, it's looser than most theatrical productions, but it keeps you on your toes.
Bryan Hicks, Steve Broderick, and Alex Skolnick
"Old City Bar" 2008

DR:  Do you have any special routines before the show?

BH:  I have warm-up exercises that I do and speech exercises that I do, pretty much everyday before every show.

DR:  Do you have an understudy if you were unable to take the stage?

BH:  Last I heard we don't have one in the back-up band anymore. I'm not sure who that person would be. If it were one of the singers, it's probably Jay [Pierce] - Jay knows everybody's pieces, he's just like that. [laughs] We were doing a show some years ago with Peter Shaw - I think we were doing a show in his home town - and something happened and he wasn't able to make it to the stage, and Jay was right there. So if anybody knows my monologue, it's probably Jay.

DR:  Have you ever missed a show?

BH:  No, not so far [knocks on wood].

DR:  So after the first half of the show and the introductions, we don't see you again until the end of the second half of the concert. Inquiring minds want to know: What are you doing the second half of the show? [laughs]

BH:  [laughs] It depends. If I can go to the bus for a few minutes, I do. With Lost Christmas there's not much time, so to play it safe I usually stay in the dressing room. It goes so quickly now. By the time I get there and take my coat off for a bit and relax, before I know it I have to put it back on to take the bow. Occasionally I'll step out and take a look at the show and I'll think "Wow. I can't believe I was just up there.". [laughs]

DR:  What do you enjoy the most and the least about touring?

BH:  One of the things that I enjoy about it is one of the same things I dislike about it. In terms of the work, its more continuity. Especially if it's a new piece, it's always with me. Were always there, either doing the show, in rehearsal, on the bus, in the arena. With matinees, our days start at 12 in the afternoon. It really helps to soak myself into that.

At the same time, by the time we get to the middle or the end of the tour, it would feel nice to be able to go home and sleep in my bed. [laughs]  I often feel that if I could get away from my fellow cast members, it would be easier to come back and have fun with them - just to let the pressure go for a little bit. And then we have the fans, then meet and greets with people from the company and management - it's a lot of pressure as everybody is depending on everybody.

(L-R) Luci Butler, Bryan Hicks, Chris Caffery
Toledo, Ohio - November 8, 2009
(Photo Courtesy James Marvin Phelps)
DR:  Do you enjoy the meet and greets with the fans?

BH:  I do. Though sometimes it's hard. Like after a two-show day - especially with these last two pieces where I am more emotional - but I do. Like you spoke about the reviews earlier, we get hands-on perception from people right there. So we don't really have to look around and wonder what they thought. It's a wonderful thing.

DR:  We certainly know that you play a pretty mean air guitar on stage. Do you play any other instruments?

BH:  [laughs] I play other air instruments! I've done a little air drumming. [laughs] I learned how to play the recorder in elementary school, but I have long forgotten that.

DR:  In an interview I did with Chloe Lowery, she mentioned how some of Paul's lyrics really touched her. Are there any particular pieces of Paul's lyrics or poetry that really spoke to you or that you found particularly poignant?

BH:  Oh yes. I couldn't say off the top of my head, but there are a lot of piece and places where I have to make a decision if I am going to get emotionally involved or not because sometimes it doesn't serve the piece at that moment. A lot of it is beautiful and beautiful poetry touches me so. He says some heavy things.

DR:  Besides your live work with TSO, you recently recorded the studio narration for the recent re-issue of the Beethoven's Last Night. It's well known how meticulous Paul can be in the studio. Can you share any of that experience?

BH:  It took about six weeks to record, but not consecutively. It wasn't recorded all at once - it was divided up into segments because they have to edit and get an idea of what the whole thing sounds like. What I did like about the studio recording was that I got to do the whole piece. That's magnificent.

DR:  Has there been discussion at all to record any other past or future TSO albums with your narration?

BH:  Yes, we've talked about a few things.  That's all I can say. [laughs]

DR:  On the Night Castle album, you did the guide vocals for the carnival barker portion of "Epiphany", but in the end we hear Rob Evan's voice in that part. What happened to your recording?

BH:  Have you ever heard of the term "the cutting room floor"? [laughs]

DR:  [laughs] Of course. Enough said.

From your time with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, millions of fans know you, appreciate you, and are comfortable with you. To so many, it's like seeing an old friend on stage. Can you reflect a bit on what that means to you after all these years of performing for TSO's devoted fans?

BH:  It's wonderful. I never expected it go this far or to be this grand. The appreciation is wonderful. It says to me that I am here for a good reason. The idea is to bring about some sort of positive change in the world and as long as I can make someone feel good, I'm happy.

DR:  Can you speak on your future with TSO? Will fans be seeing you this fall?

BH:  It's a little early to say, I try not to be presumptuous because this is show business. [laughs] But I hope so.

Photo Courtesy of Jason McEachern
DR:  Can you tell me something that most people wouldn't know about you?

BH:  Well, originally I wanted to be a great painter. I used to draw alot for a number of years. When I went to that new junior high school, I wanted to be in the art class so that I could paint. But it was full! So I thought acting was fun and got into the acting class.

DR:  What sort of music do you listen to? Anything in particular on your iPod or CD player?

BH:  I am an R&B/Jazz kinda guy. When I work out I listen to pop and rap, something fast and heartfelt to get me going.

DR:  You have done such a wide range of work in your career - soap operas, theater work, Shakespeare rolls, narration and voiceover work. What would you like to do that you haven't done already?

BH:  More film! Maybe a TV series.

DR:  Is it difficult going for roles like that when you presumably have a three month period set aside each year? Are other roles hard to fit in?

BH:  These days it is, because of TSO's schedule. I give them priority. I suppose it's serendipity where people will call me and ask if I am interested in doing a project, and I will have to say "When is it?" [laughs] and it's usually during TSO season or it would run into November and I can't do it. I am still trying to figure out how to juggle this schedule with all of the other things. I am sure it will work itself out.

DR:  One last question...the narrator for the West coast touring company of TSO, Phillip Brandon, recently released his first single, a catchy, upbeat song called "You".  So when is the Bryan Hicks single coming? [laughs]

BH:  [laughs] I'm working on an acting project now that should be done by the end of the summer, though I can't say what it is. I'm also writing a screenplay, which is something I have wanted to do for a while.

DR:  Well, that's about all I have today. I know we covered a lot of ground. Is there anything you would like to add?

BH:  Well, this has been my pleasure. You know, for a kid that grew up in the 'hood of Harlem and could have gone in many different directions, some not so good, it's just been an unbelievable run.

Photo Courtesy of Jason McEachern

For more information:

Bryan Hicks:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra:
Boys Choir of Harlem: