Christopher Joel Onken: Bringing It All Back Home
Christopher Joel Onken has been rambling the earth, sharing his talents from Colorado to Florida over the last few years. We are fortunate enough that he is making a stop back home to bring Spike to life for us. As we head into the final weekend of this run, we caught up with Chris to talk about how it feels to be back home in Greenville. Enjoy a few words from our hometown boy.
WHT: For a face that we got accustomed to seeing on our stage, you’ve been away for a few years now. What have you been up to?
Chris: The last few years since Romeo and Juliet, my last Warehouse show, it has been quite a whirlwind. I left Greenville for Playhouse on the Square, in Memphis, and was there for almost a year and a half. The day my contract ended there I drove down to start at Orlando Shakespeare Theater for a full season. And that dove tailed nicely into last summer through spring in Colorado at Thin Air Theatre, Lone Tree Arts Center, and Aurora Fox, all in and around the Colorado Springs and Denver area. Thrilled to get to come back for this show and to work with this wonderful posse.
WHT: What’s it like to be back home? And on your home stage to boot?
Chris: Mommy Onken certainly is glad to have her boy home. And Warehouse is a treasure to me. It is a wonderful playground, full of many dear friends and mentors.
WHT: Now that you have some distance from your academic days, what’s it like to be a working actor?
Chris: I think being home also reminds me of this, a looking back at your roots and your upbringing can give you a truer sense of time passed. Travelling around, doing what I feel wired to do, even when it’s hard…I wouldn’t have it any other way. I pack a mean suitcase these days.
WHT: Is there a person that greatly influenced you or your career along the way?
Chris: I think any good actor is an amalgamation of teachers and coworkers over the years, and I have been spoiled by quite a few keepers. Kerrie Seymour is a queen. She encapsulates so much of the way I think about theatre and propelled me in a loving and challenging way through college and out into the world. Wouldn’t be an actor without her.
WHT: It really gets no better than Seymour, yeah? What a gem. A gem with jamberries on. This is your first shot at Spike, right? What’s the journey been like in jumping into such an odd character?
Chris: When I first read the script, a couple years ago, I was really struck and intimidated by the freedom of such a part. You can kind of do anything. That can be very exciting and terrifying, “What if this isn’t funny? What if it doesn’t make sense?” Mark, and the rest of the cast, really created an environment where I could just run around in my underwear (literally) and throw stuff against the walls (metaphorically) and see what stuck.
WHT: What’s been your favorite part about the rehearsal process for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?
Chris: From day one this show has been fun. Yes, there was work to do, yes there was story to make sense of, but it was always through the avenue of fun. I also love the amount of heart to this piece. These characters care for each other. At the end of the day, this family does love each other. That’s wonderful to see play out, even in an absurd comedy.
WHT: You’ve got two weeks of the run under your belt now. Has the audience interaction or reaction changed anything for you or the cast?
Chris: There were many questions, going into performances, of what the audiences response would be. It is the big final player in a show and you don’t know until you are there. Being surprised by what an audience tonight might love more than any before it is part of the excitement. Who will they pull for? Whose humor is most like their own? Keeps you on your toes.
WHT: Mark Waldrop is making his second round with us at The Warehouse as a director, but this is your first time working with him. What was it like working on a comedy with Mark?
Chris: Mark was a dream to work with. As I said before, I personally felt both free to play but also graciously guided through this show. I am quite proud to have worked with such an attentive, invested, enjoyable man.
WHT: Often actors find that certain scenes in shows are just flat out fun to play every night. Is there a scene in this show that bubbles to the top for you? That you simply look forward to playing every single night?
Chris: I get to take off a lot of clothes in this show. That first time, always interesting to see how shocked an audience will be. It was definitely intimidating at first, but I have worked hard own my skin. Also, it’s pretty fun.
WHT: Sometimes in the more absurd comedies, themes can get lost in the midst of all the action. Are there certain themes in this comedy that truly struck a chord with you? Does that affect your work as an actor in any unique way?
Chris: Family vs. rivalry, mundane vs. exotic, nostalgia vs. progression, all share a common catalyst: interruption. For change to happen, stillness and ordinariness must be interrupted. It may not always be welcomed, but it is what you do with the interruption…how you handle the change in tides that molds you, grows you, no matter what age you are.
WHT: Most people don’t understand what working actors go through when it comes to travel. Can you share a bit of that experience, even traveling back here to do a show at home?
Chris: The nomad life can be quite addicting. I can fit everything I own in my car. I’ve had to, to up and move across country. It’s exhilarating at times. But you miss things like Christmas and weddings and normal life things with those you love. Thankfully I have great support from those closest to me. They rally behind me and that makes it easier.
WHT: As you look back on your career thus far, what’s one thing you would share with a young actor coming fresh out of academic theatre today?
Chris: Do you love all of it? Do you love the long hours, the stress, the inconsistency, the constant competition, the uphill rehearsals, the emotional barriers, the isolation? Because you have to love all of it. But if you do, just keep running at it. If it means that much, give it that much. Let it be a little magic in our muggle world.
WHT: Your next project is?
Chris: Next up is Spike again actually at Lean Ensemble Theater in Hilton Head, the beginning of May. And then Colorado Shakespeare Festival through mid-August. I will be playing Troilus in Troilus and Cressida and Luciano in Comedy of Errors as well as in Cymbeline and Henry VI Part 2. And then wherever the wind doth blow.
Get your tickets now and catch our hometown boy Christopher Joel Onken back on The Warehouse Theatre Main Stage in the hilarious Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike!