“If I were a good friend,” says Frank X, chuckling, “I would have told him never to give me that part. And…you know, I suppose I wasn’t a very good friend.”
Frank X, 60, is widely regarded as one of the best actors in Philadelphia. Fluid in both classical and contemporary work? Check. Trained as a dancer, with a dancer’s ease onstage? Check. Meticulous and detailed in the rehearsal room, making dynamic choices to bring his characters to life? Check, check, and check.
When you ask most actors about their life in the theatre, they might talk of the characters they’ve played, the places they’ve traveled, the dream roles they still aspire to tackle. For Frank X, it’s about the people he’s worked with and the relationships he’s built.
He doesn’t downplay his decades of hard work, or his frustration during lean years, in the period before Philadelphia’s resident theatre scene started to emerge in the late 1990s. He’s blunt about the struggles he faced as an actor of color, particularly in earlier years, acknowledging the times he nearly quit after stretches of typecasting.
And yes, he chalks up some of his success to his own determination, his own internal desire to “walk toward the work that scares him.” But, seemingly without realizing it, at every opportunity to speak about his body of acclaimed work, Frank X takes the opportunity instead to praise those who have helped him along the way.
“Charles McMahon of Lantern Theater called me up somewhere around 2001,” Frank X explains, “and asked if I might be interested in King Lear. And I say yes immediately, and we’re talking, and at some point it dawns on me that he doesn’t mean Oswald, he doesn’t mean the Fool…he’s talking about the title role. I’ve never been in a professional Shakespeare production in my life. I don’t say a word, which is how I wind up playing Lear. And that production changed my career.”
It’s like this with Frank X. Mention a production—say, his Barrymore Award-nominated performance as Estragon in Waiting for Godot at Quintessence Theatre Group—and he first praises the company’s artistic director, Alexander Burns. “I have no idea why he thought of me for the role, but I’m so glad he did!” Next, his costar Johnnie Hobbes Jr.: “I learned so much just watching him work,” and finally, the production as a whole. “What a gift!”
Mention his work out of town, at places like Theatre J and Folger Theatre in D.C., or Seattle Rep, and he beams. “I love going places where no one knows me. I love new audiences, I love not knowing what to expect.” Mention his decades-long career in Philly theatre, and he somehow beams even brighter. “I love Philadelphia audiences. They are so supportive.”
Mention his training as a playwright, his work on new plays, and his longstanding relationship with Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company, and Frank X manages not only to articulate why he likes working on new plays, but also the relationships he’s built with playwrights over the years. “Wait, I have to tell you this story!” he exclaims, detailing a remarkable decade-spanning tale that led to his longtime collaboration and friendship with playwright Thomas Gibbons.
Watch Frank X onstage and you will witness an expert actor create a character of striking depth and complexity (next up: Marley in A Christmas Carol at McCarter Theatre Center, Dec. 4-29). Meet Frank X offstage and you’ll see so much more: a human being who measures his work and worth in gratitude, in appreciation, in love. Is it any wonder he’s so good at his job?
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