Adrian Aguilar | Performer of the week

Adrian Aguilar in tick...tick...BOOM! at Porchlight Music Theatre

Adrian Aguilar in tick...tick...BOOM! at Porchlight Music Theatre Photograph: Jeremy Rill

Playing Jon, the central character in Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical tick, tick…BOOM!, Adrian Aguilar gives an exhilarating performance as a composer struggling with his art, relationships, and mortality. Raised in the southwest suburb of Oswego, Adrian and his brother Alexander were put in children’s theater camp to pass the days during the summer. They both continued acting (Alexander is currently on tour with Memphis after appearing on Broadway in this past winter’s Lysistrata Jones), and Adrian studied musical theater at Drake and Western Michigan Universities before establishing himself as one of the young stars of the Chicago musical theater scene. Adrian talks to us about his first reactions to Jonathan Larson’s work, how he feels about people saying he’s Broadway bound, and why he doesn’t care what you think about his Facebook status.

What was your reaction to Jonathan Larson’s work when you first heard it?

I think the first time I heard Jonathan Larson’s stuff was when I was in junior high or high school, and it was Rent. I remember hating it at first, because I wasn’t really a theater kid. The theater people were a little much for me, a little out there. Energetic, and just loud. And I remember being on a bus somewhere, I think we might’ve been going to see something at Drury Lane, and everyone together singing “La Vie Boheme” so loudly, and knowing every word. And I was like, “I don’t know what this is. I hate it. I want it to go away.” But I was dating a girl who really liked Rent, and she was like, “You should give it a chance. You should check it out because of the whole rock sound, and the character of Roger, I think that’s a great role for you later on.” And I was just a kid, but she had it right. And then I remember listening to all of Roger’s stuff and just saying, “Whoa. What is this awesomeness?” That was probably my first “this music is amazing” moment.

How much research did you do into Jonathan Larson’s life while preparing?

Almost none at all. The dramaturg [Kelli Marino] gave us all kinds of information, I didn’t really have to go digging around for anything. There wasn’t a whole lot of research to be done that applies to this show. Everything you need to know about Larson and what his message was is in the script. So there wasn’t a whole lot of Marlon Brando digging really deep into who he was. That’s the thing about Jonathan Larson. Anyone that’s ever listened to Rent or tick, tick…BOOM! knows exactly who he was. That’s the beautiful and unique thing about him as a character. Anyone who’s come to tick, tick…BOOM! at Porchlight, I think they probably feel like they know Jonathan Larson.

Have you had any similar personal crises while trying to establish yourself as an actor?

Dude, I always do! I’m having it right this minute. Anyone who knows me knows I’m in a love/hate relationship with theater. The performing, I love it more than I could ever love anything. But I hate it. I hate it! It’s a rough life and it’s a rough time. I desperately want to have a “regular” life with my wife, and we have a dog, and we’re going to start a family soon, and a house with a yard, all that kind of stuff. And it’s really difficult to accomplish that if this is what you’re going to do for a living. And I’m sure there are couples out there, but the only couples I know that have managed that sort of life, one or the other is not performing. Or they both have some kind of major job that anchors them.

I think you know my wife, Brianna Borger [currently appearing in A Little Night Music at Writers' Theatre]? If I’m going to keep performing and that means she has to stop performing? That’s not cool with me. If you know her, you know how incredible she is. The reason we fell in love in the first place is I saw her perform and I was like, “Who is this woman? I’m her number one fan. I have to be near her now.” I’m her biggest fan, I don’t want her to have to stop. And I guess I don’t want me to have to stop, but that’s the whole thing. That’s what tick, tick…BOOM! is about: Do I stop doing this, or do I go for it and keep sacrificing other parts of my life?

What is your reaction then to comments that you’re Broadway bound or that you’re getting too big for Chicago?

You know what, I’ve got a bone to pick with those comments! I’ve read a few things, and I’m not trying to personally attack anyone, but this is something I’m really tired of seeing and hearing. It seems that there’s this trend, that every time there’s an amazing show, or a person—the Mueller girls or something like them—every time there’s someone that’s standing out and really shining, the theater community in Chicago, the critics and reviewers, their general statement is “this thing is so good, it should not be here.” And I hate that! We’re not supposed to be perpetuating this stereotype that New York is better than Chicago. Is New York bigger than Chicago? Absolutely. Is there a lot more money there than in Chicago? Absolutely. But there are great shows there, there are great shows here. And there are horrible shows there, and horrible shows here.

Anytime there’s something big in Chicago and there are Chicago people involved and it’s a good Chicago piece of art, people automatically jump and say, “This should go to New York. This is so good, it belongs in New York.” Like that comment that said this might be the last time you see me in Chicago. Why? First of all, I’m not that good. Second of all, because someone’s good they need to leave? There’s nothing better in New York than there is here. Between tick, tick…BOOM! and Hair and Follies? Give me a break! Why do I need to go to New York? There is amazing theater being done in Chicago. I just wish people would embrace it more instead of keeping up with this idea that Chicago is a stepping stone to New York. It isn’t. It doesn’t need to be. It will be if we keep saying that, if we keep booting out everybody who’s any good.

One of the best compliments I ever got was when I flew out for an immediate replacement call for Anything Goes or something. And when I was out there, I was hanging out with all the New York guys, because it’s just like Chicago there. In Chicago, if you go to an audition, if you’ve been here for a couple years you know everyone you’re going to see at that audition. It’s a small community, everybody knows each other. So I’m getting eyeballed, like, “Who’s this guy? I don’t know who this guy is.” And I started talking with somebody and they were like, “Where are you from?” and I said, “I’m from Chicago.” And they said, “Are you from there or do you do theater there?” And I said, “I do theater there. Professionally, I do musical theater there particularly.” And their immediate reaction, one guy said it and everyone else agreed: “Oh, Chicago. Man, that’s where the legit work is going on.”

You’ve been very open about your feelings when there are problems with a show’s process; do you ever fear that something you write on Facebook could negatively impact your career? Or do you think an actor should be able to honestly say what they want, especially now that the Internet can bring that message to a lot of people?

Here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to do with being an actor in particular, but I believe, and my brother’s the same way, we just grew up with this crazy idea that everyone should be honest all the time.  It’s a wild theory, but no one wants to play that game. For example, when all that stuff happened with [The Original] Grease, when things are going badly, it’s okay to say they’re going badly. In fact, you should. Whenever things are down and I mention that they are, I get people saying things like, “Be careful what you say on the internet.” And that just makes me want to pull my hair out. Because that’s what it’s for, that’s what Facebook is for. When you go on Facebook, it says, “What’s on your mind?” It doesn’t say, “What do you want people to think is on your mind?” Knock it off! Everyone just be real and we’ll all be fine.

Usually people go, “Okay, if that’s how if you want to live, go ahead and see how far you get.” That’s usually the reaction. People say, “If you’re not going to play political games, you’re not going to succeed.” And I’m not saying that’s not true. What I’m saying is I would rather say the truth and get someone pissed off at me. If you are going to look at something I say on the Internet, or even something I say in person, and that’s going to make you go, “You know, I don’t want to work with him,” then I don’t want to work with you either! If you’re that petty, then I don’t work with you. So it all works out in the end.

I don’t know, I guess it’s like a death sentence for most of these actors. People go, “I can’t make this person mad, I can’t make this theater mad.” Why not? There are a lot of people that are running theaters and running artistic endeavors that are not good people. And they’re getting away with being not good people because performers are so desperate to work for them that they’ll pretend that they’re good people. I think the Internet is exactly for that, for speaking your mind, for speaking the truth.

What kind of advice would you give to young artists, the young Jonathan Larsons of the world?

It’s interesting you ask me that. On Sunday, we had a talkback, and as I was leaving the talkback one of the girls that was in the audience came up to me and [co-star] Jenny Guse, and she said, “Hey, I’m new in Chicago. I’m wondering if there’s anything you can tell me.” And the first thing that came to my mind was, “It’s a cross between persistence and exposure.” But the thing about Chicago is, it’s so small that it takes a long time to break in. And you’ve just got to get seen. You’ve got to get seen over and over again. That is the key to success in Chicago. My advice is exposure, but what it comes down to is persistence as a quality.

I went to a lot of auditions around Chicago and had great auditions. I would go to a dance call, and I felt like I danced better than the guy next to me, but he would get it. And I knew that they noticed, but they weren’t ready to make the leap yet from the person they already know, to the person they don’t know yet. Exposure, exposure, exposure. Get seen everywhere, for everything. Get your face out there, and just be yourself. Be real. Don’t put the stupid smile on because you think that’s what they want to see. Be you, and you’ll get noticed.

Porchlight Music Theatre’s tick, tick…BOOM! runs through June 10 at Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont, 773-327-5252). Read our review of tick, tick…BOOM!

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)