Metro Weekly

Character Study: Tom Story

For the one-man show Fully Committed, Tom Story takes on over 30 characters. Few actors are better suited to the task.

Tom Story, Photos: Todd Franson

Tom Story, Photos: Todd Franson

Tom Story almost became a doctor. Luckily for the D.C. theatre scene, he changed his mind.

It was the 1980s and Story had been studying medicine at Duke University. “I went to my advisor and said, ‘I’m gonna go to Juilliard,'” Story recalls. “They were like, ‘Okay.’ And then I auditioned and got in, even though I had no idea what I was doing.”

Michael Kahn, artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company and former head of the drama department at Juilliard, watched Story’s initial audition for the prestigious New York drama school. Kahn’s advice to the young man? “If you get a callback, you should do it just like that.”

In the two decades since graduating, Story has become one of D.C. theater’s mainstays, and has never met a professional challenge he wouldn’t undertake. Any other actor might have opted for some much-needed time off after months of exhausting work portraying the gut-wrenching role of Prior Walter in Angels in America, but a month after Round House and Olney Theatre’s productions of Tony Kushner’s two-part AIDS epic closed, Story is back in the spotlight, this time in a one-man show he calls “the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted.”

The comedy, Fully Committed, is a departure for the Alexandria-based MetroStage, which for years has presented A Broadway Christmas Carol, a popular Dickens-themed musical parody, over the holidays. But the theater’s artistic director, Carolyn Griffin, was eager to try something new. And she wanted Tom.

“Carolyn came up with this idea,” Story says. “It was really hard for both of our schedules, but she said, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes. I want us to do this.'” Alan Paul, one of Story’s best friends, and the associate artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre, agreed to direct.

Fully Committed is not full out holiday fare,” admits Griffin. “But there is a slight holiday theme along with a heart and soul and great entertainment as we watch Tom play impossibly demanding characters.”

Story gamely went along with photographer Todd Franson’s suggestion to photograph the actor in multiple configurations, a nod to the 32 characters he portrays in Fully Committed. Each portrait tells its own story, and each is its own gem. As for Tom’s story — one that reaches back to a Southern Baptist upbringing in Arkansas and leads to a thriving, virtually non-stop career on D.C. stages — who better to tell it than than the man himself?

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METRO WEEKLY: How many characters are you playing in Fully Committed?

TOM STORY: Well, actor Mark Setlock and playwright Becky Mode devised the show together more than 15 years ago, but when Jesse Tyler Ferguson did it on Broadway earlier this year, they rewrote it. Some of the characters from the original production have been cut or updated, so I don’t actually know the full count of characters in the current script, but it’s around 40.

I’ve been acting for at least 25 years, including high school. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted to learn in a long career including big Shakespeare roles, Angels in America Part One and Two. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever learned, by miles actually.

MW: Is this the first one-man show you’ve done?

STORY: It is. There’s something about talking to yourself — you don’t get anything from the other person because the other person is you. It’s a lot harder. Dawn Ursula, my friend who was in Angels, last year did a one-person show at Theater J, Queens Girl in The World, which was really extraordinary. She told me, “It’s very hard. You have no one to save you. It’s just you making it all.” And that’s why I wanted to do it, because I’m always looking for different kinds of challenges, and I’ve done a lot of different kinds of things. And I get bored easily, so this was on my list to do. I’ve never been on stage by myself.

MW: What is the setting of the play?

STORY: It takes place in the bowels of a restaurant, in the reservations office in a restaurant in Manhattan. The restaurant is described as molecular gastronomy — it’s scientific, super-fancy, super-trendy, very expensive, an A-list kind of place to go where all of these celebrities and power people are trying to get reservations. And there’s this guy, Sam, just this normal guy, who is struggling as an actor, and his boyfriend just broke up with him — he’s a little down and out. He shows up and no one else is there so he has to manage the phones, right before Christmas. And so you meet all of the elites and wannabes and celebrities and all of the people who are trying to get reservations. There’s a character named Bryce, who works for Gwyneth Paltrow, and he keeps calling. And there are warring socialites from New York City. And then just random people who call in to try to get a spot at this very, very trendy place.

And then it’s all of the personalities who make the restaurant work. There’s a French maitre d’, there’s a sweet, frazzled hostess, there’s the business manager, then there’s the actual reservations manager who hasn’t shown up that whole day, which is why Sam is in trouble. And the chef is a little bit of an overgrown frat boy — a celebrity TV personality with all of the ego and the fragility.

MW: Do you go to trendy restaurants? Are you connected to that world?

STORY: You know what, I feel lucky because I make my living as an artist in an expensive city, which is not an easy thing to do. But I have a lot of friends and family members who have treated me to some pretty great meals at some of the finer restaurants here. I really do love restaurant culture and good food. Rose’s Luxury was a wonderful experience — and ridiculous in a fun way, the wait and all. I love Rasika, love Blue Duck Tavern, still love i Ricchi. The best meal I’ve ever had was in the kitchen at Tosca for Michael Kahn’s birthday. Truly extraordinary.

I started working in D.C. in 2000, but I was hired out of New York to come down to do shows. In New York I lived with a woman who worked in PR for food people. And we went to all these places — when one of Mario Batali’s restaurants opened, I sat next to Harrison Ford and ate a weird beef rib for free.

MW: There must be some shared personality traits between restaurant types and actors.

STORY: Definitely. I remember meeting some people in the restaurant world and thinking, “They’re kind of like actors.” Like all creative people, we have our flairs and our craziness and our oddities and our insecurities and all of that. Particularly the chef in Fully Committed — I feel like I know who he is in terms of his insecurity and his ego and his temper. He could be Jamie Oliver meets Mario Batali meets Bobby Flay, just this sort of bro-y food dude. He’s like a frat boy who figured out how to cook.

MW: As much of a mental and physical challenge as it is, this show must be quite different to the emotional and psychological intensity of Angels.

STORY: It’s more physical, yeah. I mean, there is a story there and there’s depth to the play. I don’t want to diminish it, because I think that they are different forms of acting and expression. It’s exhausting and exhilarating in different ways than Angels in America, and just as hard.

To do Angels in America and this back-to-back is pretty fascinating, actually. Because Angels in America was almost debilitating for me. I loved it so much, but to go through it every night…. Sometimes I roll my eyes when actors get actor-y — “I took my role home” or “I killed my wife because of the part I was playing” or whatever. But Angels in America I had trouble letting go. I loved it, and I felt as connected to it as I’ve ever been connected to anything I’ve ever done. And also, on the eve of the election, I thought, “It’s important to be saying these words.”

I was so connected to it, and that character in particular goes through so much, that I was destroyed by the end of it. I couldn’t sleep. I felt a responsibility to that play. And it had been with me for so long. I wanted it to mean something, and I was scared that the world was gonna change. And then it did. I’ve not quite recovered from that. So there was Angels in America, I moved the day after it closed, Trump got elected, and then I directed a play, and now I’m doing this one-person show. It’s been a really strange time. And I’ve been grateful in a lot of ways to have so much work. I have so much to focus on.

MW: I imagine those days when you performed both plays in repertory could be particularly trying.

STORY: Particularly by the end of Part II: Perestroika, I did feel kind of exhausted — at the end of the run, yes, but even on a nightly basis. It’s seven hours long, and you know, we did both parts. And Prior is sick from the second scene until the end. So while it was going on, all of us in the show talked about how tired we were, all the time. I think the eight of us, we just felt a responsibility. And when you work on that material, you think, “Well there’s not a lot of things like this. And there’s not a lot of opportunities to get to do things like this.” And also, it has not been that long since AIDS happened. And so it is at once like a memorial to that time — and I’m too young to have really been in it, but I am old enough to have lived in a world where, I never was an adult without HIV [consciousness]. I came of age where that was what was happening. So I do think that it exhausted everyone. This is a great work of art. And we want to do it justice. And we also want to remind people of what that time was. And we also want to say, “This is prophetic: Whatever this was could happen again in a different form. You could be abandoned by your government, and you could be ostracized by your family.” And the politics of that play — initially I was worried it was going to feel dated, and it felt incredibly modern and incredibly important. And then it closed, and then Donald Trump was elected president, so you know.

It was important, and I would not trade it for anything ever. I mean, it was one of the great experiences in my life.

MW: In Perestroika, you exposed yourself in more ways than one, as you stripped naked at one point.

STORY: I’ve worked my whole life and never done that before. In some ways, it was the least part of it. It was almost like, “Okay, here it is.”

MW: You’ve never gotten naked on stage before?

STORY: I don’t think I’ve ever worn shorts on stage, to tell you the truth. And I was kinda worried about it, but then it was pretty liberating, too. Now I might go to a nude beach, finally. I come from a really free family — they were always naked and I was always wrapped up in a sheet and basically a burka. I never took my shirt off at the beach, you know what I mean? Just like a little freak.

MW: Tell me more about your family. Are you from here?

STORY: No, my family is from Arkansas originally. My family is super-Southern. My dad was a helicopter pilot in the Army, so when I was a kid, we moved to Panama. I was in Panama for all of elementary school. And then we moved to D.C. when I was in 7th grade and my dad went to the Pentagon. So I grew up here. And I had this amazing drama teacher in high school. And she was on to it — “You know we can get tickets for $10. Let’s go see plays!” So all through high school I saw everything at Arena, I saw everything at Shakespeare, I saw everything at Studio, and some things at Woolly. I usually saw one or two things a weekend. So when I was growing up I was like, “Oh, D.C. is an incredible theater town.” And it was less than it is now — much less. It was the beginning of all this.

MW: Why didn’t you initially study theater in college?

STORY: I was pre-med at first. I went to Duke, and I was gonna be a doctor. If you grew up in the South, Duke is, it’s Harvard, you know? So I was always told that that’s where I should go. And I got in, it was a beautiful place. I remember taking organic chemistry, went to the class for a week, and I was like, “I don’t actually know that this is me. I think this is hard in a way that’s exciting, but I don’t think it’s where I should be putting my life and my energy. I think I want to be an actor and I need actor training.” So I kind of figured it out that first semester in college, and that was kind of the end.

MW: I’m curious whether there might have been a particular play you saw that contributed to that decision?

STORY: I do remember there was a kind of turning point. I remember when I was 17 years old, after I had gotten accepted to Duke, I saw two plays at Arena Stage. I saw The Seagull, and I’d never seen Chekhov, and I saw Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim. Those two plays started to make me realize that I had to somehow be a part of that — live theater, dramatic literature, maybe performance, maybe not, I didn’t quite know. But that was where I turned.

MW: Speaking of D.C. theater, you met your boyfriend, Chris Dinolfo, when you were based in New York, but on assignment at Studio Theatre.

STORY: I met Chris while doing The Pillowman at Studio. He had just graduated from college and was randomly working there. At first, we were just dating and I was bouncing around the country doing theater, like I’d been doing for the past 10 years, until I thought, “You know, I love D.C. And I work here and I feel valued here and I feel like I can contribute. And it’s much easier than living in New York. And I actually think this is where I should be.”

MW: How long have you been together now?

STORY: Nine years. Long time. We just had to move from Kalorama because our apartment building was sold. So we live in Adams Morgan now and are adjusting to our new place. But everything is good. He’s 11 years younger than me, so we’re at different kind of places. He works multiple jobs, but yes, he has also been working consistently as an actor. He’s done Veep, and he’s done some commercials and some theater. I just directed him in a play — The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at Adventure Theatre.

MW: Have you ever directed a show for children before?

STORY: Never. A lot of my friends have directed shows at Adventure, and lots of my friends have been in them, so I’ve seen lots of theater for young audience shows, but I’ve never done one and I’ve never worked on one. I really loved it. I think it really makes you get to the core of things, because there are many different ages seeing the show, so you want to make sure the story is super-clear. What is the most direct way to tell the story?

MW: How did you come to direct the show?

STORY: Chris had already been cast and the director dropped out about six months ago, so I knew they needed a director and I had my friends in the theater call Michael Bobbitt and say, “Tom should really direct this play.” Michael Kahn, who runs the Shakespeare Theatre, and Joy Zinoman, who was the artistic director of Studio, both of them, whom I’ve worked with tons as an actor, have really tried to support and encourage me and push me to direct more shows. So they both told Michael that I should do something there, so he took a chance on me, because he’s never seen any of my work.

MW: Who else is in the cast besides Chris?

STORY: Audrey Bertaux, who is kind of new in town. I saw her in Hay Fever at Olney with Chris, they played brother and sister. And now they’re playing all the roles. It’s under an hour and really athletic — vocally domanding and physically demanding. It’s also very beautiful. They’re both doing great. I’m very proud of it and excited for people to see it.

MW: You mentioned that Chris has done some work in TV. Have you enjoyed much success in that field?

STORY: Early on I did, in New York, but not since I’ve lived in D.C. Mostly when anyone ever calls me for stuff, I can’t go because I’ve pretty much been in a play for 10 years. I say that to people and they’re like, “Wait, what? Were you in Les Miz?” No, but for the past 10 years I have basically had no time off. I haven’t had much downtime for 10 years. I’ve done a lot of shows.

MW: Have you traveled much or taken days off?

STORY: A few. A lot of times, Chris travels without me. We both love Provincetown, and early on in our relationship we went there twice, but since I’ve not been able to go. I tell him, “Go without me.” He’s got a group of friends who all went to Catholic with him, and are in entertainment jobs in New York City, and they go to P-Town together. We went to Fire Island two years ago. I’d never been, but I could only go for two days. Because I’m always in a play.

MW: It’s the tradeoff of being in demand, I guess.

STORY: And that’s the thing. I’m doing this because I love it. If there was another thing that I could do, that would make me happy, I would have done it a long time ago, because this is not an easy life. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to do all the stuff that people have let me do. And I also know that it could all be taken away in a second.

MW: Is there a play or a role that you really loved or that is particularly special to you?

STORY: Well the very first thing I did in D.C., and the reason I kind of have a career here, was this Tom Stoppard play called The Invention Of Love at Studio Theatre. I played a young A.E. Housman, the poet. And that play kind of changed my life because it was a big role in the town I grew up in. And people saw it, and I got other jobs because of it. So that kind of started it all. A lot of the stuff I’ve done at Studio, actually, has kind of been markers of my life.

MW: Does your family still live in the area?

STORY: All of them are still here. My parents live in Lake Ridge/Occoquan/Woodbridge in Virginia. My sister, who married a guy I went to college with, and kids live in Arlington. Everyone’s really close.

MW: Do you celebrate Christmas with them?

STORY: Yeah. My family loves Christmas. I have three nephews and a niece who I adore. Not a huge family, but I have my parents and my sister and her husband and her kids. And so I celebrate with them on Christmas Eve, and then we have a brunch with them on Christmas Day, and then I go to Chris’ family’s house for Christmas Day dinner. And then on New Year’s Day, there’s a guy who lives in Alexandria, who’s a huge supporter of the theater, and he has a lobster party. And this little group of men and women, like his little family, comes together for New Year’s Day and we celebrate that with him. So I have lots of little families. I’m very close to my own family, and Chris’s family, but I also have a little D.C. family too that I really love.

MW: Did you grow up Southern Baptist?

STORY: Yeah, but we never really went. I kind of was suspicious of it early on.

MW: Do you discuss politics with your family?

STORY: Even though I’m from a super-Southern family, I was never bombarded with religion or fundamentalist politics. My family is incredibly reasonable. I don’t think anyone voted for Trump in my immediate family. Certainly my sister and her husband didn’t, and my mother is repulsed by him. But they’re in Northern Virginia, which did not vote for Trump.

MW: Although Virginia threatened to go red on election night.

STORY: Oh my god, I was terrified! I just had a bad feeling.

MW: When did you develop the bad feeling?

STORY: I had it early. After talking to a friend in politics in New York City, I started getting scared. I actually had to lie down. I was like Blanche DuBois at one point. Chris said, “I have to get out of the apartment.” He went to L’Enfant Cafe, about two blocks from our new apartment, and I met him there. And then when Virginia was so close, I thought, something is wrong. Something’s wrong. It was a nightmare. That night was a nightmare. I didn’t sleep. I kept waking up thinking it was not real.

MW: Have you ever thought about politics or running for office yourself?

STORY: I’ve done too many filthy things in my life to ever run for anything. I’m not electable.
MW: Many people said the same about Trump.

STORY: No, I mean, I love politics. I love living in a place where politics is the main industry — and not being part of that. I love being an artist in this city. I love it. It can be hard sometimes, you kind of feel like a freak. I’ve found a little circle of friends who are not lawyers or lobbyists or working for Obama or whatever — although I have friends in all those places too. But it is different than New York City. Sometimes there are weird things like that, living here. Where you’re like, “Oh, I’m not like the other people who make their living here.” But I like that.

Another thing about D.C. that is amazing is that there is so much appreciation of the arts. There’s so many smart people — so many. So many people who have the money to spend on theater. So, you know, all of that I’m very grateful for.
MW: And you remain fully committed to it?

STORY: Yes, and committed to doing it here. When I was coming up, there were more rep companies in America, and I thought, “Oh! That’s what I want to do. I want to be in a company where I can play a small role, and then a huge role, and then maybe direct a play, and blah blah blah.” And those companies have kind of dissolved, but I feel like this city as a whole is almost the closest approximation to that that I could find. I’m very committed to local artists — all local artists, but particularly local playwrights and directors and designers and actors. There’s an incredible amount of talent here, and I feel lucky and proud to be a part of it. And I also feel, in some ways, it was my destiny. It was the thing that I loved as a kid, when we moved here and I saw all this great theater. I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to contribute.

Fully Committed, now in previews, opens Sunday, Dec. 11, and runs to Jan. 8, at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St. in Alexandria. Tickets are $55 to $60. Call 800-494-8497 or visit metrostage.org.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe runs to Dec. 31 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd. in Glen Echo. Tickets are $19.50. Call 301-634-2270 or visit adventuretheatre-mtc.org.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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