A Student of Everything
An Interview with Jonah Robinson by Trevor Hoffmann
Jonah Robinson is playing D’Artagnan, the lead character in Marin Shakespeare’s production of The Three Musketeers. He sat down with me to talk about where he comes from and where he’s going as a performer and as a person, and to tell us what it’s been like to star in this action-filled summer romp.
An easy question to start: Where do you hail from?
That’s a multi-part answer, actually. I come from L.A. My family lives in Sherman Oaks – but I’ve lived in Florida for the past three years while I’ve been at school a University of Miami. I have one more year there, and then, I think, New York is the next destination.
How did you get into acting?
Fairly recently. I was running cross-country and playing football as a sophomore in high school, and developed an overuse injury from all the impact on still-growing legs. So I was out of ski season and athletics in general for the next few months, and I decided to try out for the school play. I loved it, and the next year, I was in the musical, getting trained to dance, and delving deeper into acting with the next play after that. I also started taking up more instruments in band. By senior year I was asking, “What else can I do to get further into performing? Give me more things to learn in theatre!”
You’ve clearly brought some stage combat experience to your role as D’Artagnan. Where does that skill come from?
D’Artagnan says “I’ve been a swordsman since I was 6 years old”, and that’s kind of my story, too. When we’re kids, I mean, who doesn’t want to ‘jump in and save the day’? So I literally was swinging around pool noodles and sticks, and, as a kid playing with your friends, that’s real: you are either hitting your friends or getting hit. So I learned early how to defend with a sword. With all the sports I got to play, it helped me learn how to move more like a fighter, and certainly gave me that drive to push through sweat and real physical difficulty.
Then college said, “Hey, we’re actually going to give you a CLASS where you can learn how to swing a sword around all day, and do it in a real pretty, and safe, way!”
So, last year I spent 6 months in Rapier and Dagger combat training with Bruce Lecure, an incredible teacher back at University of Miami who taught me much more correct technique. Previous to that, I had been able to do some swordplay working with Chris Duvall, learning some stuff that went right into shows in some Gladiator fights at Utah Shakes. And I got to swing a sword around in their Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V, as well. At times, you can get the same amount of exposure from a show as from a semester at school, under the pressure of deadlines and an audience that’s going to see your work.
How about music? I know you play guitar and piano. At one point in The Three Musketeers you play – pardon me, is it an accordion?
It is an English Concertina – her name is Jackie.
Oh? So, is she your concertina?
Yes, she was given to me by a Music Director, Michael Gribbin, whom I worked with last year at Utah Shakes. I learned to play it last year to play Irish folk songs in some of the shows at Utah Shakespeare. The concertina is great because it’s such a versatile instrument, not only musically, but historically. I can use it in shows set in Shakespeare’s time, but it also would have been in use during the seventeenth Century when The Three Musketeers takes place.
What brought you to Marin Shakespeare for The Three Musketeers?
Well, Bob and Lesley brought me here. But leading up to that, I was looking up Shakespeare companies all around the country, and stumbled on Marin Shakespeare because they were doing this season of shows: Much Ado, Three Musketeers, and Love’s Labour’s Lost – three shows with great roles for young actors. So I sent in a video audition with some monologues, and they called me, we chatted for a bit, and they hired me to play D’Artagnan!
Have there been any challenges particular to this play or this role?
Well, the show is all fights – there are plenty of opportunities to act, but they come after I’ve been running around the stage, fencing. Having been an athlete certainly helps though, when I finish a five-minute-long fight and then suddenly having a two-person scene. I’m glad I was trained to shout across a soccer field while out of breath!
It’s also been fun that, with D’Artagnan, the sports background helped inform some of the acting of this part, which is a little more… “bro-ish” than a lot of my colleagues in theatre have grown up with.
What have been some highlights for you, in rehearsals or performances of The Three Musketeers?
I’d have to say the group of people I’m working with and the amount of trust and sense of community we’ve built. For all of us, a lot of work has gone into being safe and really well-rehearsed with the choreography. During some of the melees, you have to know what’s happening next to you, and behind you, and be aware that if even one thing goes wrong it can get very dangerous! So we all have bonded through having to cooperate under those conditions, with such high stakes.
What would be your advice to the kids – possibly future thespians – who are leaving inspired by your show, swinging imaginary swords and acting out their own adventures?
Well, first off, that reaction is the best thing in the world. There was a girl with her mother at one of our recent shows, waving from the front row. And the chance to wave to her from the stage at the end of the show and acknowledge how much her reaction meant as part of the show, was incredible.
So, to a six-year old, I guess… well, to a twenty-year-old I’d say , “If you want to do something, do it! There’s no stopping you. The most inspiring thing to yourself and others is passion, and that passion will take you where you want to go.” Now, to a six-year old, I don’t know if I could say that, exactly…
Well, what might you say to the parents of that inspired kid?
I’d have to admit that no one knows what that kid might decide she is passionate about, and hopefully be able to pursue. I suppose having as many options and as much exposure to different things as possible from a young age is the best advantage for creating that passion, and allowing that child to choose. I hope to be a parent one day, and I have NO idea what I’ll do. But I remember that my parents made it possible for me to be exposed to all these things when I was a kid: I don’t remember feeling any pressure, but I remember that one day I was in soccer, then one day I was in the play, and one day I was in guitar lessons. And over time I could choose among those skills and things that I felt most passionate about, rather than feeling pressured to stay with the first one or two things I liked or seemed good at. Now, I’ve been fortunate to have the luxury of all those options, and not everyone has that. But I guess I’d say, it’s more important to show a kid options they can choose to be passionate about, rather than make them stick with one thing they are good at, but that they might not be able to continue loving.
Would you say that variety of exposure has helped you be successful so far in your theatre career?
I mean, success can be measured in a lot of different ways – not always financially. I’m always working to hone many skills, because as actors, we each aren’t just one thing. We draw on all the skills you’ve ever learned in music and sports and school and try to contribute them to the value of our performances. So, back to advice to that six-year-old, I’d say that finding the things you love doing, and figuring out how they fit together, will prove the worth of what you’re doing – even show your parents the value of what you’re choosing to work hard at. After all, there are a million survival jobs you do as well, as an actor. I tell my parents “I can also be that financial advisor to myself, in order to balance the time and budget of a working actor; or I can be that lawyer, as I am most days on stage; or a little bit of that doctor, when I’m self-treating those minor injuries that come from performing.”
Is there anything in particular you’d like to share – since you’ve got the pulpit to do it at the moment?
I want to mention that I love being here because of the sense of community and the family and the sense of loyalty that everyone has to what we are all doing, and to each other. That means a lot to me.
I’d love to give a shout-out to teachers – all teachers. I would consider myself a life-learner not just because I’ve been learning all my life, but because so many things you can learn inform other parts of your life in surprising ways. So many people have taught and continue to teach me. Whether it was English teachers literally teaching me how to read and speak, or my coaches on the soccer field making sure I had the lungs to project with — whether they are teaching music, acting, elementary school, college – teachers are incredible people and I certainly owe a lot to mine!
You can see Jonah Robinson on stage as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers through August 27, 2017 at Marin Shakespeare Company.