There are all but zero people in Durango I love more than Ben Mattson. I met Ben a couple years back while writing a story for The Durango Herald about the musical “Rent” he was performing in at the Durango Arts Center. I interviewed him again not long after when he was hired as the theater teacher at Durango High School. Since then, through mutual friends, Ben and I have become wonderful friends, he being one of the kindest, most thoughtful, intelligent, and funniest people I know. With Ben being such a dynamic person and performer in town (and quite experienced, appearing in around 50 shows since he started performing in sixth grade), I find that whenever we hang out, I ask him a ton about “actoring,” those questions about performing, acting, and theater.
I’ve often wanted to showcase Ben somehow in DGO, but what he’s usually up to has to do with the high school, which, in case you haven’t noticed, we stay away from around here because of content that may or may not be suitable for young’ns (despite every single young’n having much racier content on their phones exactly right now). But with the opening of “Rock of Ages,” at the DAC, in which Ben plays the show’s narrator, Lonny Barnett, I thought this would be the perfect time.
We chatted way too long for this space (because Steamworks), so I present Part I this week. Join us next week for Part II:
Do you still get nervous before shows?Yes. Absolutely. However, my relationship with being nervous has changed dramatically. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I either read or heard someone say that nervousness and excitement are the exact same feeling, just with a different expectations. So, when you’re nervous, you’re worried about something failing; when you’re excited, you’re excited about something going well. So changing that expectation to a positive thing helps me feel more excited than nervous. It’s a mind game. You have to focus on the positive.
Another thing I learned at some point is that the nerves that you get before a performance, it feels like something that’s in your way, but it’s actually something that’s priming you to be really dynamic. Because your body is getting flooded with stress hormones and blood is pumping to your muscles and all those things are there to make you more alive and dynamic. It’s that flight or fight response that’s filling your body, so that heightened energy that you need on stage, you’re actually getting from that nervousness. It’s your friend. It helps you perform.
What’s your biggest fear when you go on stage?There’s been a couple instances, where, for whatever reason – it goes above and beyond just forgetting a line or you’re forgetting the next moment of what’s coming up – where it feels like everything goes away and it’s in this state of absolute unknown. And that’s really horrifying because that can be a hard thing to get back from. I specifically remember once in “They’re Playing Our Song” there were a couple times I had to play the piano and for whatever reason in this one moment – I’ve been playing piano for a long time so it makes sense to me; it’s organized in my mind – and for whatever reason I looked down and it was a weird collection of black and white keys that made no sense to me. And I don’t know where that knowledge bank went away to for a second. But I had to start playing [laughs]. It always comes back, but in that split second, it’s really terrifying.
How are you most like an actor in real life?On stage, my energy affects my performance and it affects the experience of the audience and I feel the same way teaching. I feel like I set the energetic tone and I create the experience for them. I don’t think of teaching as a performance, but I do feel like the relationship between me as a teacher and them as students is similar to me as a performer and the audience.
I think sometimes it’s easy to blame the students and say, they don’t have attention spans, or they’re goofing off or blah blah blah. But when I can bring it around to something I have control over, I’ll use that to change the energy in the room.
Do you do the same thing when you’re acting if the crowd’s energy is not there?Yeah, it’s really easy to blame a bad crowd. But again, when you can turn it around to something you have control over, you do have the ability to change the energy. A crowd that’s buying in to a performance, it’s really easy to perform for them. Sometimes, crowds just don’t buy in, collectively, as easily. And that can cause actors to put up a wall, too, and that’s the exact opposite of what needs to happen. It’s the performer’s job to break through that wall, change the energy of the space and engage the audience and what’s going on. Same thing with the classroom, to an extent.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from being a part of theater?It’s such a fundamental (part of) who I am. It’s something that I’ve continually focused on so much of my life that I feel like most of what has made me who I am today has been some sort of byproduct of studying theater.
The cornerstone qualities of a good scene partner I feel are the same that you should have for all people, especially the people close to you. Like integrity for who you are, and the work you bring, or what you bring to the relationship. Trust has been huge ... the importance of focus and dedication, the importance of reliability. All of those things that you exercise in studying and performing correlate to skills in life.
You really have to trust (scene partners) enough to be open and vulnerable. I’ve never really thought about it before, but I feel like that’s how I also connect with people in real life, I find that trust with them. And to get them to trust you is to put trust into them and then they’ll trust you back. I do that all the time with scene partners. I make sure I really connect with them when I look at them. When I’m talking to them, I’m really talking to them. There’s no wall or curtain between us. That creates the most dynamic scene work. I think it also creates true relationships in real life as well.