Hey, Jude

The talented Mr. Hickey deftly clambers up that old ladder (ladder, ladder, ladder) of success

Hey, Jude
Photo by Sandy Carson

The 36-year-old actor from Nebraska didn't choose to look like some younger, more handsome brother of Raul Julia – that just happened. DNA and so on, the crapshoot of genetic heritage. And maybe a talent for theatre – for acting, especially – is also something that a person's either blessed with or not, yes? But it's definitely always a choice to work on that foundation, to hone that talent, to put in the years of time and effort of practice necessary to achieve the high level of craft that Jude Hickey has achieved.

And Hickey's definitely achieved it. Because I'm sitting across from him at the Bouldin Creek Cafe – not too far from where he lives with his husband and their two Chihuahuas – and I'm talking to him at length for the first time. This is after having spent about a decade exchanging little more than greetings or topical witticisms with him, in passing, at fundraisers or theatre-community parties. And now I'm sitting there, sipping coffee, and I'm experiencing at least mild cognitive dissonance.

Because – I have to keep reminding myself – this is Jude Hickey, the actor. This isn't Katurian Katurian, the intense horror writer and possible serial killer from Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman at Hyde Park Theatre. This isn't Lorenzo, the vaguely European therapist from Sarah Ruhl's Melancholy Play as produced by Palindrome Theatre. This isn't KJ, the angel-headed, dreamy-eyed (as long as he's properly medicated) slacker from the Hyde Park Theatre staging of Annie Baker's The Aliens. And this certainly isn't – oh, fuck no – the mutated Big Hog from Jason Grote's Civilization (All You Can Eat) at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

Those were just roles, I remind myself as Hickey grins his enviably white yet distinctly disordered arrangement of teeth into visibility across the table, as he speaks of the directors he's worked with, the sweet day job he's had for so many years, the ways in which he succeeds and struggles onstage. Yes, this is just a charming, laid-back fellow Austinite with a lot of talent and drive, not a giant porcine mutant who's intent on laying human civilization to waste.

Pecos and Butter, I remind myself: The names of his Chihuahuas.

<i>Civilization (All You Can Eat)</i>, Salvage Vanguard, 2012
Civilization (All You Can Eat), Salvage Vanguard, 2012

Cognitive dissonance: If it's a crime, there are witnesses who will alibi me. "Jude Hickey is phenomenal," wrote Hannah Kenah in her Austin Chronicle assessment of the actor in The Pillowman. Dan Solomon, writing about Melancholy Play for the Austinist, said, "It'd be hard to top Jude Hickey, who's scene-stealingly funny." And "Jude Hickey once again proves he can play anyone, or anything," said Ryan E. Johnson on the Austin Theater Examiner. Last year, the Austin Critics Table gave him one of its highest honors – the John Bustin Award for Conspicuous Versatility – for his body of work. And this year, that same Table honored his portrayal of KJ in The Aliens with a Best Acting in a Leading Role award. I've seen Hickey in those roles and more, and have witnessed him embody characters so immersively that he doesn't appear to be acting at all. He moves across a stage like palest amber in human form, internally shape-shifted to some personality other than his own. And those performances ... stick with a viewer.

So, see? It's no wonder, as I watch the affable, habitual cyclist (who's such a regular customer at Bouldin Creek Cafe that he knows at least half the waitstaff by name), no wonder I have to disregard the vivid image of Alexander-the-porn-star, from Alice Tuan's Ajax (por nobody), that he brought to skeevy, cringe-inducing life back in 2004.

The Chihuahuas, I've heard, have matching sweaters.

Let that fact be reality's anchor.

But – where did this ship come in?

"I moved here to be with my husband, who was going to graduate school at UT," says Hickey. "And Texas was the last place I wanted to be. I was in North Carolina at the time, performing with a theatre there, and I read an article one day that talked about Austin and the theatre scene here, and I thought, 'OK, that's intriguing.' And there was this really awesome picture of Lee Eddy. And I thought, 'Austin looks like a cool place to go,' so I promised Scott I'd give it a try. So I visited, and I loved the city, because we both love the outdoors, and we said, okay, we'll do it until his program is over, and then we'll go someplace else – like Chicago. But then we stayed. And this is where we got married – we had the ceremony here in 2005."

<i>The Method Gun</i>, Rude Mechs, 2009
The Method Gun, Rude Mechs, 2009

He came here planning to move on, but he's still here. Even though things were initially, ah, less than optimal.

"I had a job at a really horrible restaurant that I disliked very much," says Hickey. "And my first theatre experience in Austin was really awful. And we were going through one of the droughts, so the city was very brown and crunchy, and I thought, 'This is horrible.' So I was like, 'OK, Scott, this is what Austin's about – let's get out of here.'"

But he didn't leave.

"Well, because then I met Ken Webster," he says, "and that kind of lifted me up from the hell that I was in. The first show I did of his was one that he wrote, The Bateman Trilogy, and I played him, of all things. And that was really nerve-wracking and interesting. And from then on, stuff started to happen for me, and I met the community. Fast-forward: I became the director of the YMCA – to this day, I'm still the membership director. And last year they let me leave for five weeks to go to Scotland, to the [Edinburgh] Festival. So they're really nice to me, so I stay and keep doing all the theatre that I do."

Theatre and dance, these days. The man dances – a lot. He's dancing in DA! Theatre Collective's DayBoyNightGirl this very week, then in a show with Ready|Set|Go!, then with Spank Dance Company at the Big Range Austin Dance Festival near the end of June. Used to be, though, that Hickey didn't dance at all. And even when his friend Cyndi Williams recommended him as an eleventh-hour replacement in Andrea Ariel's Gyre in 2009, he wasn't going to be dancing in that show.

"But, as Andrea works," he says, "I became a mover in the piece as well. And she did a lot of release work with us, and I think release applies not only to the body but to the emotional and spiritual self as well. Just letting thing go, instead of using such a prescribed style of acting. And I started to realize that I was a much more expressive actor, due to the movement, the dance. I was carrying it over into straight plays."

<i>Hamilton Township</i>, Salvage Vanguard, 2008
Hamilton Township, Salvage Vanguard, 2008

But it wasn't just movement training, was it, that led Hickey to his best work onstage?

"I think when that started to happen," he says, "what it was, it was ... getting older. I stopped worrying so much about what other people thought, about trying to impress people in the audience. I stopped being afraid of making choices that didn't fit or work. I mean, I used to be so scared of everything, of what people thought, of making mistakes or failing miserably. And about a year ago was when it really set in. I was like, 'You can't fail, because there's no such thing as failure. Or, if there is such a thing as failure, it's only making you better at being able to convey something to somebody.' There was also this pivotal moment of doing the Rude Mechs' The Method Gun. Because I'd held them on this huge pedestal – like 'They are the gods.' But, being part of the show, I told myself, 'OK, you're either going to have to let go of some shit here or just step up and pretend you're doing it right, whatever it is.' But the pivotal moment was when the lights drop from the ceiling in that show – and having to continue and be aware that the lights are flying at you. Even though they didn't hurt that badly if you got hit – they weren't that heavy. But just knowing how awkward it would look, well ... that was a big moment of conquering that fear."

Austin Chronicle: Let's get specific about Ken Webster directing your most recent performance, as KJ in The Aliens. I asked him about that scene where you keep saying "ladder" over and over, because I was wondering what sort of instructions Annie Baker wrote for that. And Webster said, "She said nothing. There were no stage directions for that, she just wrote 'ladder' 130 times." How did you figure out how that scene went?

Jude Hickey: Actually, in rehearsal, we kept skipping that monologue for a long time. And, to be honest, I'm not the kind of performer who wants to go there every single rehearsal, you know? So the first time I tried it, I did it like a lunatic. It was all over the place, and super-fast-paced, just up and down, up and down. I even physically rocked. And Ken was like, "OK, next time I want you to separate each 'ladder.' Let each 'ladder' finish, then move on to the next 'ladder,' and whatever happens in there is fine." So I did it again, and he was like, "Alright, this time, complete stillness. Do the ladders the same way, but, physically, complete and utter stillness." So I did it that way, and it was just mind-blowing what happened. It was like a giant crack inside that opened up and all those ladders came out.

AC: How did you get into character for the role?

JH: Well, there was a guy at the YMCA who doesn't live here anymore and he was very much like KJ. He was so quiet around everybody else, but he'd talk to me a lot, and I thought his story was sad and compelling and really funny. And one day he told me about how he'd discovered this dinosaur fossil that was gonna make him millions, and he was gonna get out of the place he was in and all that stuff. And it was so important for me to tell KJ's story, because that's not just KJ's story – that's a lot of people in the world who are falling through the cracks because of our health care system or misdiagnosis or whatever else it is. And if you were walking down the street and you saw somebody like KJ, you'd be like, "Aww, what a loser, that guy's nobody" or "That guy's trouble" or whatever judgment you'd make. But then put that person in a context where he's comfortable, where he knows that he's home, to watch him laugh and love and have things that are important to him ... and then, what happens to that person when he loses that? It's really important, what happens. So it wasn't hard for me to be in a place, to access KJ or find KJ. He was just there.

DayBoyNightGirl runs June 6-10, Wed­nes­day-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3 & 8pm; and Sun­day, 3pm, in the Rollins Studio Theatre of the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.datheatrecollective.org.

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Jude Hickey, Hyde Park Theatre, Ken Webster, Andrea Ariel, Cyndi Williams, Rude Mechanicals, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Palindrome Theatre, DA! Theatre Collective, Ready, Set, Go!, Spank Dance Company, Big Range Austin Dance Festival

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