Acting Out

Professor Eric Zivot has experienced the highs and lows of acting—and draws on both for his current role as Willy Loman in the Mad Cow Theatre’s production of “Death of a Salesman.”

There are few characters in the pantheon of American theater quite as iconic as Willy Loman, the mentally disturbed protagonist of Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman. “You read Death of a Salesman in your dramatic literature class, and holy smokes, what kind of a performer do you need to be [to handle this role]?” says Eric Zivot, associate professor of theater. “The character is complex; the character has weathered the test of time. Any young actor would aim their career at getting a chance to play a role like this. It’s big. It’s hard. It’s complex. Emotionally challenging. Certainly psychologically challenging.”

This month, Zivot will take on the role of Loman in the Mad Cow Theatre’s production of Salesman, at the Harriett Theatre on West Church Street in downtown Orlando. The play in general and Zivot’s performance in particular are already drawing rave reviews.

Zivot talks deliberately, methodically, carefully spacing his words and sentences. As he’ll happily point out, Zivot is Canadian, born and raised in Winnipeg to proto-yuppies who insisted their kids be versed in the arts. (Had they known he’d take it seriously, they later joked, they might have reconsidered.) He took to theater. He was a shy kid, but not on stage.

“I wasn’t shy when I was someone else,” he says. “I could start a conversation when I was someone else.”

His path to Central Florida was circuitous—from Winnipeg to Dallas to New York to Toronto to Seattle to San Francisco to Toronto to Los Angeles to Winter Park—and it took him awhile to put down roots. He earned his bachelor of fine arts at Southern Methodist University (SMU), and then, as young and ambitious actors tend to do, he made a go of it in the Big Apple. It didn’t last long.

“I had exactly zero success,” he says. “I left with my tail between my legs to Toronto.”

But—and this is important, something he still stresses to his students—he didn’t give up. “The only way to get better at something is to practice it,” he says. “You do something often enough, you get better at it.”

Over the next few years, he amassed a considerable body of radio and commercial voiceover work—if you listen to him talk for five minutes, you’ll understand why—and started his first acting school. Then one day he got a call from his old mentor at SMU, then the head of the University of Washington’s master of fine arts program. The program had lost its voice and speech teacher. And so Zivot packed his things and moved west.

He left Washington after being recruited by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where he taught, performed, and studied, earning his Master of Fine Arts degree. But five seasons later, and after a few months visiting family in Toronto, “I realized that emotionally, spiritually, professionally, it was a better fit for me to move to LA.”

Los Angeles, after all, is where the action is. And he stayed there for a decade, opening another acting school, The Gymnasia Theatrica, and doing nearly every job in the business short of lugging around lighting equipment. He was an actor, script doctor, screenwriter, on-set coach, theater director, casting associate, talent manager. He appeared in TV shows such as JAG and Babylon 5, and movies such as The Alarmist and Mob Story. “It really was the broadest possible spectrum of experience,” he says.

But in 2004, he came to believe that he’d done all he was going to do in Los Angeles, and needed a break—at least for a year or so. “I knew where I fit in the pecking order in LA,” he says. “Either I was going to have to have a very lucky break—which happens, but I wouldn’t want to bet my retirement on it—or I was going to have to move on to the next chapter of my life.”

Rollins had an opening that looked interesting, and he liked what he saw when he visited. But he still only planned to teach here for a few years. Until…well, “Shortly after I arrived here I met the woman I would marry.”

He also found a local theater scene that punches above its weight, buoyed by the surfeit of talented actors working for decent pay out at the theme parks. And he got involved; he has worked with the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and Mad Cow in particular as both actor and director.

“He’s been just a phenomenal creative partner and a very great source of inspiration to us,” says David Mink, director of audience development at Mad Cow. Zivot’s was the first name the Mad Cow thought of for Loman. “He brings to it a rich sense of history, an ability to breathe life into a dying character.”

“When I was a kid the theater transformed me—allowing me to be other people, to experience the world differently,” Zivot says. “It’s that experience that keeps me involved in the theater. This is my community service.”