Seth Clayton graduated from Montgomery High School and New York University, where he studied acting and physics. He now lives in Manhattan where he acts, performs and composes music, and is a founding member of Pipeline Theatre Company. His local acting credits include the Sixth Street Playhouse and Hoochi-Doo Productions. He was one of six Montgomery alumni who performed in December fo a benefit for the high school’s drama department: “Vikings Raid Broadway!”
This article was first published Feb. 9, 2011
How did you get interested in acting? Why did you want to study it in college?
I really have my sister Rebecca to thank for that. She had an affinity for drama while I was still in diapers. She acted in a lot of children’s theater in Sonoma County. I tagged along on one or two plays with mild interest, but freshman year in high school, when I needed another elective in my schedule, I chose Drama mostly because of Rebecca’s influence.
I started out in smaller roles in plays like The Phantom Tollbooth, The Crucible, and Music Man. But the first time I really dove in, head-first and proud, was when I was cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the proudest actor who ever lived – Nick Bottom. Taking the stage for myself for the first time gave me this feeling of easy confidence, power and fun simultaneously. It was a combination of that and positive responses from friends and parents that made me want to study it in college.
Tell us a little about your life in New York City. What sort of work do you do besides acting? What things keep you busy?
My New York life seems to be in a state of constant transition – one thing is always ending and another beginning. I’m usually working 2-3 jobs at a time which range from childcare to working in the service industry to paid internships, but it’s all been pretty temporary. Right now I’m interviewing at the Apple store which ideally will be more long-term.
Something else I do is work for Pipeline Theatre Company, which very much resembles a job minus the whole getting-paid thing. I founded the company with my classmates right out of NYU and it’s since grown into something truly legit. We stage about 5 big plays per season, produce short films and sketches, throw parties and fund-raising events, and host evenings of one-acts and new theater. All this demands monthly meetings, weekly meetings, community outreach and a lot of emails.
Aside from that stuff, I make music whenever I can. After college, I refused to keep neglecting this other art form which I love so much and I started playing music with a lot of people. Right now I’m performing with my band The Shop and am putting together kids songs to perform at birthday parties and events. I also write music for plays and films.
What do you love so much about acting?
I love the act of sharing oneself and one’s life completely with other people. It strikes me as hugely adventurous because it’s so often forbidden in daily life. You know those moments when you’re really starting to get close to someone…a co-worker or almost-friend or someone you just met on the street…and things are getting personal or physical and new and exciting and suddenly you hit a wall? You think, “Woah, can’t go there!” and one of you says, “Yeah…crazy…but ANYWAY how bout this weather, right?”
Acting brings down the walls of human connection and one’s own boundaries with themselves. If it doesn’t, then some shortcut is being taken. The actor has to step into a story where people find themselves in dangerous, extreme, intimate, inappropriate circumstances. And the actor does this knowing that the whole thing will be made public. I think doing that requires a lot of gall and a willingness to share and receive on a deep level. Among many other things about acting, I love that.
Could you tell us about a personal highlight of your work as an actor?
In my sophomore year at acting school, our class performed an evening of one-act plays. My friend Caitlin and I were cast in “The Red Coat,” a one-act by John Patrick Shanley. In the play, 16-year-old John runs into Mary outside a party and confesses his love for her which, after much conversational carnage and avalanche of emotion, she accepts. The boy describes the moment he fell in love with her – she was running through the snow with her friends wearing a red coat. The girl is struck by this and tells him how much that coat means to her, how safe and free she always felt wearing it…
So throughout performances Caitlin, the director and I were really clicking and audiences really loved the play, but Caitlin had been struggling with her monologue about the ‘red coat’ and why Mary cared about it so much. I could tell on stage that she didn’t really believe what she was saying; she wasn’t behind it. Well, on the way to the final show, Caitlin told me her family would be there and she opened about a lot of problems and pain that has always existed between them. And that night, Caitlin’s monologue was brilliant. Mary’s story soared out of her with passion, urgency, confusion but also abandon and the words hit me as never before and I was right there with Caitlin and everything she was going through. I felt John’s love for Mary double.
When we got offstage, I grabbed Caitlin and said, “That was AMAZING!” and she said, “I KNOW!!” She knew exactly what it was: having her parents watching her from the audience made her discover the ‘red coat’ in her own life: acting. Amidst the hardships of her family life, acting had been her secret safety and freedom. And as she discovered this about herself, she discovered her character and the story. That whole experience was illuminating in so many ways and I’m so happy that it took place on stage.
What are your long-term aspirations?
What I’m aiming for in my career is a place and a platform from which I can reach a lot of people just by doing my thing. By “my thing,” I mean putting my energy right into the place where my abilities meet my obsessions, and for me that’s creative performance. I want to be involved in creative projects that people are dying to see, that are accessible, exciting, and meaningful; that they anticipate will shake them up and reconnect them to something in themselves and in the world. For me, such projects days tend to be in cinema these days, so I aspire to be there. My dream film would deal with heated topics in our world today and probably involve traveling. Right now, I’m excited to meet the people who are aiming for the same thing and who I’ll probably be seeing when I get there.
Part of your work is trying for parts and not getting them. What have you found that helps you deal with disappointment? What helps you persevere?
Funnily enough, the key to dealing with disappointment seems to be…dealing with it. Not pretending you don’t feel it, not saying “whatever, screw them” and not holding onto it either. I try to deal with it intimately and immediately as it comes up but let myself move on after a while. Things that help me move on: hanging out with people, scheduling things to do, going on a run or doing the dishes.
Also, auditioning is all about finding that weird balance of personal and impersonal. You have to be totally personally invested in the audition to have the motivation to prepare, you have to walk in there and present yourself in a very personal way, but also know, as soon as you walk out, it’s not personal in the least. If done professionally, the casting should have nothing to do with you personally but only how well you fit the role. If I keep that in mind during the audition process, it dulls the pain of the rejection two weeks later.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
Here are a few pearls I’ve found in my aquatic adventures in acting:
– Get the hell out of your comfort zone. The valuable experiences for an actor are uncomfortable ones.
– Always aim to be half-an-hour early to auditions.
– If you’re late, never talk about why you’re late – no one cares.
– In an audition, the people on the other side of the table actually want you to succeed and blow them away, so they’re on your side.
– When involved in any artistic project, don’t rely on some stock technique or process that you think is “sacred” or “the right one for me.” Be flexible, be open to change, and find the new process that’s required for that particular project.
– Just like in life, if you’re in a scene and thinking about how you look or sound, you’re probably on the wrong track.
– Each actor’s approach is as unique as the actor themselves.
– For a young actor, the tricks and techniques learned at expensive universities are far less important than keeping alive that natural magic you felt the first time you took the stage in high school.
– If you feel awkward about saying a certain line, say it louder.
But perhaps greater than any of these lessons, which tell me how I should act and what I should strive to be, is having realized again and again that theater is meant to remind us of who we are as individuals and as humans.