Matt Koenig is a former FST Acting Apprentice who has “come home” to play Drew Norton in FST’s production of Straight White Men. We sat down with him to chat about his connections with the characters in Young Jean Lee’s latest play, how he defines success, and the different ways Straight White Men challenges audiences.
How would you describe your character Drew?
I find the character that I play, Drew Norton, is the most empathetic and open-minded of all the brothers. He is very aware of his surroundings and the shifting paradigm of the outside world. He’s aware how it’s going from this patriarchal society to an amalgam of something that will include more voices. I think he is more aware of this shift than his brothers are, or at least he perceives that he is.
How do you connect to your character? What do you have in common with him?
When playing a character, usually the easiest thing to do is just assume you are the same person as the character. Then from there, you add little elements of what is true about this character that is not true of yourself.
I have been to therapy before, but I’m not such a big proponent of therapy that I would go around and preach about it. Probably the biggest thing I’ve had to ask myself about Drew is, what else does this character, who is all about self-care and wellness, do? This is also an exploration that I have also been exploring in my life.
A theme in this play is the definition of success. As an actor you don’t fit in the box of society’s prescribed “cubicle, working 9-5” definition of success. Have you ever experienced some of the struggles your character, or any of the other characters, have faced?
I identify with Matt’s character quite a bit and his feeling of just being lost, since, as an actor, I don’t necessarily have a home base. I’ve decided to take the route of being a traveling actor, and sometimes it feels like I can’t find my footing, because it’s always changing. My routine changes every single day.
Plus when you’re an actor and you’re not on Broadway or television, people often think that you’re just playing around. My father asked me the other day—and I’ve been doing this consistently for a decade or so—“So, what are you doing? What’s the plan?” There’s no answer to it, other than I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing and be okay with that.
You’ve got to accept that, unless you fill in people’s preconceived notions of what success is, they’re never going to think of you as successful. So you can’t give others that power, you have to determine for yourself if you’re successful.
How does the show challenge our idea of success and get us to think about it a little more?
In the play, the middle brother Jake talks about how at his company, he only introduces white men to his clients because that’s what they expect. He is part of the game and he’s aware of the issues, but he continues to play the game. Straight White Men brings to light that there are straight white men in every situation—those who believe in self-care, those who are lost and not sure, those who are despairing and can’t find the path, and others that are completely aware of the situation and yet do nothing about it. The play brings to light that not all straight white men are stupid or oblivious to the problems that exist. In many cases they’re stuck and they are not sure how to fix it, or they’re not sure how to ameliorate the situation without shooting themselves in the foot.
Has working on this play and stepping into your character’s shoes affected the way you look at yourself and how you fit into society’s ideas of cultural norms?
I find that my own sense of sympathy and awareness for sympathy has increased exponentially. I find myself aware of what I’m saying more. I’m aware that when I approach a woman, my words and my state of presence mean something, that they can be threatening even if they don’t mean to be, even if they’re completely innocuous.
The biggest thing this play has made me aware of is developing an understanding for people who are on the “wrong” path. The mother (in Straight White Men) would’ve said to Matt, “Take a walk around the garden, don’t despair, and continue to find your way.” It’s actually brought me great comfort, that when I’m in a dark place, I can breathe and find my way without despairing.
Why do you think this story is important today? How do you think this play has the potential to impact the community and the world around us?
We had a patron who was in tears when she left the show, saying, “This was not about straight white men. This was about everyone. This is about any person in the world.” To me it was such a beautiful, poignant thing to say because it’s 100% true. The play is about me, it’s about you, it’s about our man – and womankind, humankind. I think that if you come in with an open heart, you will discover something about yourself, or your neighbor, or your siblings, or your parents, and you’ll understand where they’re coming from. There’s something for everyone in it, and there’s a piece of hope in there that you can mine and keep for yourself.