Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Interview with Zal Owen

When I found out that Fiddler on the Roof would be playing at the National Theatre in April and May, I made a special request of the show's publicist: Could I interview the actor who plays Motel Kamzoil? My reason was that, just about 30 years ago, I played that role in a community theatre production of Fiddler and, as a result, I have a particular affection for it.

In a happy coincidence, a new actor has just joined the cast, taking over the role of Motel from Erik Liberman, who would be known to Washington-area audiences for playing Charley Kringas in Signature Theatre's production of Merrily We Roll Along a couple of seasons ago.

I interviewed Zal Owen just a few days after he joined the national touring company of Fiddler on the Roof, which stars Harvey Fierstein as Tevye.

Interview with Zal Owen
Young Actor Plays ‘Motel’ in Fiddler on the Roof
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Actor Zal Owen is caught up in a welcome whirlwind. More than a year after auditioning for the role of the tailor, Motel Kamzoil, in the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, the show’s casting director called Owen, saying they had to replace the actor playing the part and that Owen was among the people chosen to fill the role.

Speaking to The Metro Herald from Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning after his third performance as Motel, one could tell, even over the telephone, that Owen was beaming with delight at his good fortune.

As Owen tells the story, “I first auditioned for the show a year and a half ago. There were over 2,500 actors who auditioned for this production. I had several callbacks and was in the final four but didn’t get the part at that time. About three weeks ago, I got a call from the casting director who said there was a need for an immediate replacement. I had several callbacks and it paid off in the end.”

With little more than a week between his first rehearsal and his first performance, Owen had to dive into the development of his character (Motel) within the context of a production that was already ongoing. Luckily for him, he said, “When I first joined the company, they let me know that I didn’t have to work with what the previous actor had done, and that I could develop the character for myself even in the week and a half” that he had available for rehearsals.

“Even now in performances,” Owen continued, “I am playing more and rehearsing more, I am getting that lovely opportunity to rehearse and perform at the same time. This is a new opportunity for me, because I’ve never joined a show in the middle of the run.”

As one might expect under these circumstance, Owen explained that “it’s challenging in having to believe in yourself and your ability. At the same time, it’s fun because you can relax on stage saying to yourself, ‘I know what I need to do but let me try some new things.’ At some point, however, “you are able to say, ‘This is the performance I like and maybe this is what I’ll stick to on the rest of the run.’”

The role of Motel, he says, offers him the chance to play “the lovable underdog that everyone can relate to. It’s such a pleasure to find that for myself and bring it to the audience. Through [the song] ‘Miracle of Miracles’ he finds his courage and is able to stand up to Tevye.”

This national tour of Fiddler on the Roof is not Owen’s first brush with Motel Kamzoil. He understudied the role and played Mendel, the rabbi’s son, in a 2008 production starring Sally Struthers and Eddie Mekka at the Ogunquit Playhouse (“America’s Foremost Summer Theatre”) in Maine.

Owen began his professional acting career as a child. He saw his first Broadway show, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, at the age of five. He knew right away that performing was what he wanted to do, and he persuaded his parents to let him take acting classes.

It was while studying at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey – not far from his home town of Westfield – that 10-year-old Zal was cast as “Young Hindley” in a 1999 world-premiere adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, directed by Robert Johanson. That was followed by community theatre and middle- and high-school productions before Owen matriculated in the musical theatre program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (or CCM).

After college, Owen continued his acting studies through two branches of the Stanislavski Method family: with William Esper, who follows Sanford Meisner, and at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Asked how the two methods differ in their approach, Owen says that “basically, both Stella Adler and Meisner agreed with the concept of using your imagination in terms of acting. Adler looks at context of the play. Meisner looks at living moment to moment with the other actors.” Both approaches, he says, “helped me be grounded with my partner in the scene, or the other actors if it’s an ensemble piece.” He appreciates both approaches, as well as scene study classes, where “I don’t have to worry about getting it right away but just be comfortable with the character.”

To put a better lens on Owen’s training, in a recent interview with The Big Think, acting teacher James Lipton (best known as host of the long-running TV series, Inside the Actors Studio) explained:

Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, these were the great exponents of the later work of Stanislavski’s life. The action, the objective, the super-objective, which is that overall action that takes you through the play, and the devotion to given circumstances. Both sides emphasize concentration. You have to concentrate in a way that normal people don’t…. I would add to that the fact that all of these great teachers, Strasberg, Stella, Meisner, Lewis, Clurman, all of them, they emphasize listening.

“…When you speak to me, I am listening to you. In life we listen to other people. Listen with varying degrees of concentration and attention, right? Actors must learn to listen in a different way. Alan Alda, who really understands these things very well, I think, on our stage ‘Inside the Actors Studio,’ said, ‘The way to understand listening, the act and art of listening is the following: if what you hear changes you in any way, you’ve heard it, you listened….’”

When asked how he adjusted to traveling on the road with Fiddler on the Roof, Owen admitted that he hadn’t found his own routine yet. “There are other actors on the tour who do have a routine worked out. Being on tour, many actors find they can maintain their lifestyle,” with regard to diet (he mentioned “vegans”) and exercise (he noted some go to the gym each day).

Owen pointed out that a touring company is “really a family you end up being with for the time of the tour, not just co-workers.” So far, however, since he’s so new to the production, his routine – such as it is – has been hard work: “Last week I had rehearsals during the day and at night I went to see the show. I was memorizing lines, rehearsing, memorizing lines. Tonight will be my fourth show,” he said.

When Fiddler on the Roof arrives in Washington on April 13, it will not be Owen’s first visit to the Nation’s Capital.

“I visited Washington last year,” he said. “My best friend was in The Civil War at Ford’s Theatre. So I went to see him and stay with him for a few days.” That visit just whetted his appetite, however, because, he says, he looks forward “to really doing some sightseeing. I have not been to the White House, and I want to visit the Holocaust Museum. We’ll be at the National Theatre for a month and I look forward to seeing the Capitol.”

What’s more, he added, “in D.C. there are so many theatres. I want to see Sweeney Todd at Signature,” which has a one-week overlap of the end of its run with the beginning of Fiddler’s engagement at the National. “I would love to see some of the theatre that D.C. has to offer, as well as some movies. There is so much live theatre. Part of being in this art is observing other performances as well as doing my own.”

On his famous co-star, Harvey Fierstein, who plays Tevye, Owen said, “His dressing room has an open-door policy. Whether he’s in there or not, you’re allowed to go in there and relax. He’s such a loving soul, and he was so welcoming when I came into the production, and finding new things from his performance. He’s an incredible talent and person as well.”

From Fort Worth, the national tour continues to Atlanta to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, where it opens March 16. Owen said that this is “a new theater that’s only a year old,” so his cast mates have not yet performed there and it will be a new experience for all of them. Then, he said, “we have a three-week layover for Passover,” because the tour takes a brief hiatus during the Jewish holidays, and “then we’re in D.C.”

After that, “it’s Appleton, Wisconsin; Denver, Colorado; Seattle; Cleveland, and a stop in Toronto was just added. We’re booked up through the end of June.” Some of these engagements are just a week long; others, like the one in Washington, last for as long as a month.

Owen said that “it’s really exciting to get to see the country as well as to perform in such a timeless musical. It’s a real blessing to explore the country and bring the show to different audiences.”

He added: “Fiddler is such an enduring, timeless, ageless musical that spans so many cultures. The songs in the show – everyone knows these songs. It’s one of the best American musicals. Everyone who comes to see it loves it. It’s an incredible piece of theatre.”

Fiddler on the Roof with Harvey Fierstein and Zal Owen plays at the National Theatre in Washington from April 13 through May 9, 2010.Tickets, starting at $51.50, are on sale now at the National Theatre Box Office and through Telecharge at or by calling (800) 447-7400. For groups of 15 or more, call (866) 276-2947. For more information, call (202) 628-6161 or visit

Photo credit: Harvey Fierstein as Tevye; photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of National Theatre.

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