Herman Gambhir is alone in a car driving the 22 hours it takes to get from Houston to Los Angeles. He’s barely slept, or eaten much, and the break he’s taking for our conversation is one of the only stops he plans on. He’s got an acting gig to get to, after all. A role in a millennium coming-of-age TV pilot, possibly a break-out career opportunity, and nothing is going to slow him down or get in the way of his dreams.
“The best advice I ever got was trust your gut,” says Gambhir. “Right now I’m trusting my gut. I’m driving across the whole country and I have all this stuff set up in Houston, but I’m like bam — I’m gonna go jump off a cliff right now and see what happens.”
For those of us who’ve been watching Gambhir on Houston stages for the past two years, we know that whether this show is his big break or not, it’s only a matter of time before his infectious brand of talent is recognized in wider and more prominent circles. We also know that, for now at least, we’re fortunate to be able to continue to watch Gambhir’s work when he comes back to Houston stages for the latter half of the 2017/18 theater season.
We first uttered the phrase “OMG, who is that incredible actor” when Gambhir returned to his native Houston in 2015 after living, studying and performing both improv and traditional acting abroad in places such as the UK and Amsterdam. It was for his Houston debut in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity as the character VP, a hysterically streetwise Indian, a ball of hip-hop energy living in Brooklyn. Director Josh Morrison said he knew within a couple of lines of Gambhir’s audition that he had found his guy. We knew it too, rewarding his effort with a 2016 Houston Theater Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Since then Gambhir has wowed us with fully committed, standout performances as everything from an Al Qaeda terrorist to a Dominican handyman to the villain Don John in Houston Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing. “My dad tells me, ‘You’re in one of the hardest professions known,’” says Gambhir. “He says me attacking this at 100 percent is not gonna be enough; I have to attack it 350 percent, I gotta fight, be a lion, be resilient. And it’s tough, it hasn’t been easy, but something inside pulls me.”
Take that mix of drive and actorly gift, and there’s no doubt Gambhir is a rising talent in this city. Lucky for us, he’s just one of many young theater performers who’ve caught our eye recently. Therefore, we at the Houston Press decided it was time to take a closer look at the up-and-coming talents making their way across the city’s stages. So here are some — certainly not all — of the most promising performers in Houston right now. Go to their shows, see what they can do and thank us one day when you get to say, “I saw them when…”
“Candice is one of my favorite actors to work with,” says Jason Nodler, artistic director of The Catastrophic Theatre. “She’s a deep thinker, a hard worker and a natural talent. I hope I’ll get to work with her for the rest of my career.”
It’s high praise for an artist who almost gave up the business of acting for good.
Performing had been part of Candice D’Meza’s life since she was young, so when it came time to go to college, she majored in theater at Cal State Long Beach. But a fear of not getting work and of being stuck in a dead-end waitress job in L.A. forced her to switch majors to the more sensible fields of black studies and public administration in her junior year.
Fast-forward to 2010 and D’Meza found herself living in Houston, a single divorced mother with another child on the way and not really knowing what the future held for her. It was an outing to see The Color Purple at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts that set her on the path she’s on today. “I got in the car after the show and I turned to my friend and said, ‘I know I gave up acting, but not anymore. I’m gonna do that. I just have to do that.’”
Almost immediately after D’Meza decided to get back on the stage, the stage welcomed her. She landed several small roles at none other than The Ensemble Theatre, the oldest and largest African-American theater company in the southwestern United States. “Then I kept seeing reviews of Catastrophic Theatre productions, and they were always these really weird shows,” says D’Meza. “The shows sounded like, what the hell do they do over there? I gotta find out!”
Find out she did. D’Meza is now considered one of the go-to performers in the Catastrophic’s stable of talent. But it wasn’t until the company’s production this season of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child that we got to see the full weight of her ability. Playing the outsider girlfriend, Shelly, D’Meza wowed us with a blisteringly controlled performance that quite nearly stole the show amidst all the chaos in the play. The show’s director, Jeff Miller, describes her performance style as “having an uncanny ability to remain very natural, grounded and truthful even in the most incredibly absurd and dynamic situations.”
That grounded talent will get a new workout this season when D’Meza has a part in Small Ball with Catastrophic Theatre as well as one in Panto Cinderella at Stages Repertory Theatre. She's in Sender about to begin at the Rec Room and she's signed on to Men in Boats at Main Street. And she’ll play Eartha Kitt in the one-woman show about the singer’s life at 14 Pews in June.
How’s this for acting-career happenstance — one day Blake Jackson’s girlfriend asked him if they could dress up as the cult musical characters Hedwig and Yitzhak for a friend’s costume party. She didn’t have to twist his arm; the role of Hedwig was something that Jackson had always wanted to play. So off the pair went to Goodwill, where they scavenged outfits and found suitable costumes, and they had a grand time at the party. The very next day, Jackson found out that Obsidian/SRO Productions had put out an audition call for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What are the chances, right?
“Well, I have to audition now,” Jackson thought. He did, and the rest is now written in theater award history. Not only did our review of Jackson’s performance as the washed-up transgender East German rock singer describe his astonishing acting as “honest and fearless” and his wailing rock voice as “loaded with dynamite,” but we loved what we saw so much that we awarded Jackson our 2017 Houston Theater Award for Best Breakthrough Role. A role that, by the way, was Jackson’s first professional role on a Houston stage.
Not that you haven’t seen him around before. While attending Sam Houston’s BFA program in musical theater (for a degree he’s still working toward), he was tapped to be a part of the internship program at Stages Repertory Theatre, where he appeared in both Big Fish and Who Am I This Time?
For a talent who can sing and act, Jackson says he loves both disciplines, and it seems both disciplines are loving him right back at the moment. In October he’ll press pause on his musical talent to play the brutally honest and often insulting Frank Gardner in George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Classical Theatre.
But no matter what role he’s playing, Jackson has something that most performers lack, according to Rachel Landon, managing director of Obsidian Theater. “There’s the old joke “How many actors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One hundred. One to change the lightbulb and the other 99 to say: ‘Eh. I could have done it better,’” says Landon. “Blake is the exception. He maintains a humility and a reverence to the text and the actors that have come before him in the role and a knowledge that no matter how good he is, he can always better himself as an artist.”
You certainly wouldn’t know it from Melissa Molano’s polished stage presence today, but our 2016 Houston Theater Award winner for Best Breakthrough Performance totally blew her first professional audition. While still in school at Sam Houston State, Molano tried out for a role in Stages’ production of Next to Normal. “I was so terrified and for some reason I started acting like a total dork,” says Molano. “It was so bad that my prof who was there turned to the director and said, ‘I’ve never seen her act like this; I think she’s just really nervous.’”
Thankfully, by the time Molano went in for her second audition for Stages in her senior year, she kept it together and landed her first professional role, in the company’s production of Dollhouse. Since then, Molano has hopped around, performing with several different companies, such as A.D. Players and Obsidian Theater, but Stages remains the theater with which she does the most work. And it was because of her work at Stages in 2016 that she blasted onto our radar with back-to-back, killer starring performances as a sarcastic, trailer-trash outcast railing against God in The Book of Maggie and as a feisty, terminally ill teenager in I and You.
We weren’t the only ones taken with Molano’s mature-beyond-her-years talent. Seth Gordon, the director of I and You, was so impressed with her that he clamored to work with her again. “Actors, as freelance artists, are really like someone who runs their own small business, that small business being themselves. Anyone running such a business will tell you that repeat customers are the highest indication of success,” says Gordon. “After I and You, I set out to work with Melissa again as soon as I could, and the chance came with the next production I directed at Stages, Luna Gale. This was a very different assignment for Melissa (who played a reserved character in a small supporting role), but I knew she had the skill set to provide whatever the play required, and I frankly felt lucky to have as strong and dedicated a theater artist as her in a role that size.”
In addition to her stellar talent as an actor, Molano has a musical theater degree under her belt that she’d love to explore on Houston stages at some point. But whether we see her singing or acting, we look forward to seeing Molano’s talent onstage this upcoming season.
Persuading your family that becoming an actor is a good idea isn’t always easy. Especially when most of your relatives are doctors, lawyers and engineers. “I had multiple conversations with uncles who were like, ‘You know you’re not gonna make any money,’” says Gabe Regojo. “They said, ‘Maybe you could be a doctor and do acting on the side,’ and I’m like, ‘Nah. I’m going for it.’”
It’s this same “go for it” attitude that landed Regojo his first professional role, as a zombie-movie-loving/sexual-abuse-survivor teenager in Catastrophic’s production of The Blackest Shore. It also landed Regojo our accolades for his ultra-naturalistic style and courageous vulnerability. It was a role, after all, for which he wasn’t even being considered.
“I wasn’t actually called for the audition, but a friend of mine was, so I asked him if I could tag along and read anyway. The next day I was asked in for a callback and they said, ‘Do you want it?’ And I’m like yes!” Director Jason Nodler is a little more specific about the experience. “From the moment we laid eyes on him, he was a revelation. In spite of his relative youth, Gabe is a wise and sensitive actor with a remarkably high emotional IQ and the courage to bring his personal history to bear in every role he plays.”
That lucky first break has continued to pay off for Regojo, who continues to land big and small roles all over Houston. This past season Regojo’s work as a lonely, dorm-dwelling university kid and an immigrant kitchen worker in Dry Land and My Mañana Comes, respectively, helped make these two of our favorite shows of the season.
“In college I didn’t get a lot of leads, mostly supporting roles,” says Regojo. “I was worried when I came out what would happen because my body type is not the typical actor type. At least not what I thought was typical, but Houston has been very cool in the way they take chances on people you don’t necessarily see in certain roles.”
And what about those uncles who questioned Regojo’s ability to make a go of it? “They’ve since become very supportive now that I’m booking stuff pretty regularly,” says Regojo. This season already their support is assured as his schedule is filling up quickly. You can catch him at the Rec Room in Ike Holter’s Sender, at Unity Theatre’s spring production of Becky’s New Car and in A Wrinkle in Time at A.D. Players.
Remember when the Alley Theatre was renovating its space and took over the Wortham Stage at the University of Houston, which meant that the kids attending the theater program didn’t have a place to perform? Not the best of times to be trying to get your theater degree, right? Actually, as it turns out, the loss of the university performance space meant the door opened to bigger stages for Skyler Sinclair, who was in her final year at the time.
To compensate for the takeover, the Alley arranged for other professional theaters in town to come in and audition students for small roles in their season’s productions. While not every student got a part, Sinclair lucked out and landed two roles, as a prostitute in Main Street Theater’s production of Peace In Our Time and as Hermia in 4th Wall Theatre’s (formerly Stark Naked) production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It was her role in Midsummer that caught the attention of director Julia Traber, who cast her as Amy, the manipulative but scared, tough teenage girl lead in Dry Land at Mildred’s Umbrella. “Skyler nailed the audition,” says Traber. “She understood how fragile Amy really is; she found the subtlety while also being able to scare the shit out of me when the character lashes out.”
It’s a supremely demanding role that required Sinclair not only to withstand numerous punches to the gut but to violently abort her pregnancy onstage night after night. “I got the audition notice and I read the script, and my initial reaction was, ‘Well, I just hope I don’t get Amy — I hope I don’t get the girl who has the abortion on the stage floor in the play,’” says Sinclair. “But by the end of the audition, I realized I was reading a lot of Amy, and then I got offered the role. And I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll give up the fear and I’ll tackle it.’”
Boy are we glad she did, since the result was one of the bravura performances of the year, at once brave, defiant and totally exposed, firmly putting Sinclair on our who-to-watch list and making us hungry for more. And more is what we’re getting this season. You’ll be able to catch Sinclair at Mainstreet Theater in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley this holiday season.
It’s fitting that we’ve saved Anthony August until the end since he came to our attention as a direct result of a series of lasts. August, who is working on his BA in theater at Texas Southern University (with one year left to go), heard about last year’s general auditions at The Landing Theatre Company at the last minute on the last day of auditions. But the lasts didn’t end there. In his backpack on the way to audition, he realized that he had with him the last of his headshots and the last copy of his résumé. No matter, he thought; let’s just do this.
From those ashes of lasts, August got booked for the company’s “The Redemption Series,” in which he played a number of roles in several of the short original plays performed. “Near the end of the run, I heard that they were going to produce the play This Is Modern Art,” says August. “So I went to talk to the director, who also worked with us on Redemption Series, and asked him if he was still looking for a lead actor for the show. He said, ‘Yes, do you know of anyone?’ and I said, ‘Yeah — me!’ And then, on the last day of Redemption, he stops me and says, ‘Thanks for the work in the show; have you had a chance to check your email yet?’” August got the part.
And our attention. He was a breath of fresh, energetic and soulful air as Seven, the leader of the Chicago graffiti bombing crew, giving the controversial play a centered heart. “As the fulcrum of the play, Anthony refused to settle or crumble at the daunting responsibility, and wouldn’t allow anyone else in the room to do so either,” says director Stephen Miranda. “He set a high standard for the cast and was constantly pushing to find the heart of the play, driven by his passion for the story and his opportunity to tell it.”
In spring 2018, August will appear in his third-ever professional production when he plays the stuttering nephew Sylvester in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The Ensemble Theatre. “It’s surreal,” says August. “I’ve been trying to get into Ensemble for the past five years. Auditioning over and over. And I’ve been trying to master patience around it. When I got the call that I’d actually be at the Ensemble, not just the role but the history of the theater, I’m just so elated to be there. At last.”