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Person to Watch: Griffin Back
A child actor grows into mature roles
By Cynthia Marone

There are only a couple things 19-year-old Griffin Back wishes he could tell his 13-year-old self: Who exactly Tony Kushner is, and what he should say when he meets him.

“Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori came to see ‘Caroline, or Change.’ At that time, I didn’t know ‘Angels in America,’ but they loved the show,” says Back, who played Noah in the Arden Theatre Company musical.

Six years and many roles later, Back still chastises himself when he thinks about the conversation-that-could-have-been with Kushner, the legendary playwright behind “Caroline” and the Pulitzer-winning “Angels,” and “Caroline” composer Tesori if only he knew then what he knows now about the theater world. To be fair, Back was new to professional acting at the time of that backstage visit and “Caroline” was his first lead role.

“I don’t consider myself to be a theater person,” says Back, who is now a Temple University theater major with a concentration in musical theater. “They say people have a crystal moment. For me, it seemed like I just jumped into acting at a young age. It feels like a long way home. It’s been a long process of discovery, but it’s what I love.”

griffin-1Back didn’t grow up collecting playbills or catching every matinee, but acting has become his passion and profession. Every role – from his school plays right through to his adult professional stage debut in a gay production of “Much Ado About Nothing” this past summer – has been another piece in a life puzzle that has shaped Back’s unwavering love of the craft. What’s odd about his burgeoning career is that it exists at all. Performing was never part of his life plan, but now he can’t imagine life without it.

Back started off as a kid who simply liked to sing, meet cool people and do something different. He combined all three in Henry C. Beck Middle School’s musical “Into the Woods Jr.” as Cinderella’s prince. He kept up his stage presence with roles in sixth- and seventh-grade productions. His parents decided he needed to keep the momentum going when school was not in session.

“My parents subscribed to the Walnut Street Theatre. They had a summer camp for children interested in theater. I didn’t do camp, and I drove my mom crazy. She signed me up,” says the Cherry Hill native.

He swears his audition – yes, he had to audition for summer camp – was the worst. The Camp Walnut counselors didn’t agree and promptly placed him in the Performance Division, which was reserved for advanced actors. It was a bold move that vaulted him over not one, but two, beginners’ levels.

“That camp opened my eyes. It was my first step toward professional theater,” says the college sophomore. “I remember something switched on. I realized it was more than a hobby or an after-school activity. I saw it more as an art form.”

Little did Back know he simultaneously was making a name for himself in the close-knit Philadelphia theater community. Peter Reynolds, head of Temple’s Musical Theater Department and co-founder/artistic director of the Mauckingbird Theatre Company, was looking for a young boy to play the narrator in “Ragtime.” He called the Walnut, who passed on Back’s name.

Back recalls the most relaxed of auditions in his living room, in his bare feet no less, while his voice filled the room as Reynolds listened. Back, whether he realized it or not, was poised to cross a critical bridge in his career via his role in Temple’s production.

“‘Ragtime’ was my first real show, not a junior show. These people were studying to be actors,” he says. “I was scared into professionalism. It serves me to this day. It was the show that really made me want to do this for the rest of my life.”

The theater world had piqued Back’s interest and the feeling was mutual. He was becoming the go-to child actor that could handle heavy material and demanding songs. His resume filled up, but left him little time in between. Back became a time-management mastermind. He deftly balanced six days a week of shows, five days a week of school, and homework at nights and on weekends, as well as the normal ups and downs of teenage life. Things didn’t slow down when he played John Darling in “Peter Pan” for two months at the Walnut while starting classes at Cherry Hill High School East.

sa_blue_preview_012“During intermission, I’d do my homework,” says Back. “What would happen was, I’d wake up, eat, go to school, get out of school at 2:30, eat dinner, drive to Philadelphia, do a show at night, go home and go to bed. I never for a single moment wished it any other way.”

As he got older, the parts he was playing didn’t seem to fit anymore. He was too tall and his singing voice had changed. He had been working steadily and professionally from seventh to tenth grade. He was ready to stop the juggling act and refocus his energies. During his time off, he graduated from high school, learned to play the ukulele and formed a band, Kneehigh Spunk, with three friends. The music group won first prize in the Cherry Hill Talent Show regional competition in 2010. The break also gave him a chance to decide how and where acting would fit in with the rest of his life.

“I worked at Temple in ‘Ragtime,’ so it felt natural to come here again,” he says. “At Temple, it’s made me feel so much more confident – light years ahead of where I was in ‘Caroline, or Change,’ ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Peter Pan.’ I feel in control of my abilities. Temple makes me feel like an actor.”

That strength moved him to return to the professional stage after being away for years. He took the role of the young, impulsive Claudio opposite love interest Cameron Scot Slusser’s Hero in “Much Ado.” In Mauckingbird’s version, the primary pairs have become same-sex couples. The characters’ names and the text, except for a few pronouns, remained the same. Though not gay, Back is supportive of gay rights and he approached the play and his role with his usual combination of fearlessness and common sense.

“There’s no difference from an actor’s point of view whether it’s a man or a woman, but this spoke to social issues as well. I had never been in a role where I’ve been romantically involved with someone. It got me out of my comfort zone,” he says.

He was thrilled with the positive feedback he got, especially from the LGTB community. Looking back, he realizes the hardest part wasn’t the gender-switched lovers nor was it stepping back in the spotlight after a long hiatus. Turns out, it was the people behind the curtain that caused him a bit of anxiety.

“What’s scary about Mauckingbird is there are people here who have been doing Shakespeare for decades – longer than I’ve been alive,” he says with a bit of awe in his voice. “It was very intimidating. I had no idea what it meant to be in a Shakespeare play, the complexity, the subtext.”

Since starting at Temple, Back has made his home near the campus. It’s a stone’s throw from Philadelphia’s theater scene, but he can’t say if he’ll grace those stages again anytime soon or even 10 years from now. He only knows he will be acting.

“I’m focusing on school, on the work. I want to hone the skills I have,” Back says. “Right now, day-to-day, I want to pace myself so I’m able to have a long career. It may be L.A. or New York. It may be films and TV. I like the idea of doing as much as I can, whatever seems like a challenge. I’m looking forward to being surprised at what the world throws at me.”

February 2013
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