Staff Q&A / J. Michael DeAngelis

J. Michael DeAngelis, SAS Career Services and playwright  Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

By night, he is an accomplished playwright, actor and director.

He is the managing director of a theater group called The Porch Room, made up of him and a few acting buddies from Muhlenberg College. “If we’d all graduated from Penn, perhaps we would be called The Quad,” he says, “but The Porch Room was a fabled Muhlenberg location.”

DeAngelis says he has “just always known” that theater was his calling.
“I think I did my first play when I was in the first grade,” he says. “And even before that, I was a little kid singing and dancing and running around the house, putting on shows for anyone who would watch. I don’t think there’s ever been much doubt that this is what I wanted to do.”

“Drop,” a short play co-written by DeAngelis and Pete Barry, won the 2009 Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival, Manhattan’s oldest, continuous short play showcase.

DeAngelis and Barry’s latest play, “Signs From God,” was featured at the Philly Fringe Festival. It is The Porch Room’s first original, full-length, two-act production. DeAngelis directed the play and costarred in it with Phil Deerwester, a 2010 Penn grad.

The Current recently sat down with DeAngelis to discuss his day job and the weak economy, his passion for creating theater and who he’s going to call if there’s something strange in the neighborhood.

Q. Has the economic downturn changed the way you advise students?
I actually don’t think that it changes the way that we do our work, per se. At this point, we don’t have to remind people how difficult [the job market] is, they know going in, and that’s been the case for several years now. People are coming into college knowing we’re in a tough time. It actually just underscores the work that we’ve always done about exploring every possibility, making sure that you present your time at Penn in the best light possible and take advantage of all the different opportunities you have as a Penn student, whether that is working here on campus, getting experience in a lab or hospital, getting an internship. It’s just a matter of trying to help students not get overwhelmed and depressed, because it is hard, even for a Penn student.

Q. On the Career Services blog, you talk about following your dreams while still paying the bills. What advice do you give to students?
I talk about finding something where you can have a job that is not necessarily your dream job, but maybe a job where you can use the skills you have and still get a steady paycheck and health insurance and maybe have the flexibility to pursue your dream as well. I like to use myself as an example. I’m here every Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, but I also get to act, write and direct. I have a job that allows me that flexibility, but I also have a steady paycheck. I like to help people find what it is that they love, and see how they can bring that to the workplace. We call it a transferable skill. So if you’re an actor, you probably speak very well, you probably have a good memory, so a job where you’re in administration, where you’re dealing with people, customer service, things like that. That’s something important that I try and tell students who are looking to go into a difficult field.

Q. You studied theater and playwriting in college. Do you recommend that aspiring actors/playwrights major in theater?
I do. I think that a theater major is a fantastic major, especially at a place like Penn where you’re in a liberal arts program, because theater touches on so much. As a theater major I had to study theater history back to Aristotle and Plato. And then if you’re in a history class or philosophy class, you’re talking about that too. I think pursuing a theater degree gets you a superb, well-rounded education. And if you want to be in the theater, it’s absolutely a degree to have.

Q. Can you talk about your latest play, ‘Signs From God’?
We had this idea for a long time. It’s been sitting in a drawer and we decided to pursue it. It is about a man who is very frustrated in his job. He’s a satellite TV salesman, a very unsuccessful one who’s unable to make a connection with anybody in his life, including his wife and his family, until he meets this vagrant guy who is making street signs. But the street signs all have messages on them, and he believes the messages are from God. He thinks that it has become his mission to help connect people with these signs. And through that, he hopes to find some connection to the world. Whether or not he’s successful in that ... you’ll have to come see the play.

Q. Is it difficult to both act in and direct a play?
. Oh, it’s impossible. It just happened that I was an actor short after auditions and I decided it was a fun part, and a small part, and I could tackle it myself. I would not have wanted to take anything bigger because it’s very difficult to act and direct at the same time, to be on stage with the other actors and try and be in the moment. It’s a lot of fun but it’s very difficult.

Q. How was it working with a writing partner? How do you decide what goes and what stays?
. [Pete and I] have a really nice working relationship. It’s a little different with each piece, but the way it generally goes is somebody has an idea and if the other person gets excited by it, we work on it. So I had this idea and Pete really got excited by it. I give him the rough sketch of what I have written. Then he sends me something back. Maybe it has a new element in it or a different character, and we start back and forth until we have the shape. We literally tag-teamed on this one. We had a breakdown; we knew it was going to be five scenes. We just kind of alternated, put it all together, and then revised each other’s work ... We had a couple of vigorous debates on this one about edits and whoever made the best case, it went in. No hard feelings if your part got cut.

Q. Do you have a favorite movie or play?
My favorite play, which is really a musical, is ‘Follies’ by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman. It’s my favorite because it’s the first musical I ever read that challenged my idea of what a stage show could be. It had very serious themes, which you generally don’t think of in a musical. ... I probably have 20 favorite movies. I’ll say this: If you were to spend any amount of time with the guys from The Porch Room, we could absolutely recite, line for line, the entire movie of ‘Ghostbusters,’ and we have.

Originally published on September 16, 2010