Baseball and music were James Bohanek’s loves when he was growing up in Staten Island, New York. He was a fixture on the baseball diamond from Little League to midway through high school. He played the piano from age 7, and his schoolmates knew him as a musician. But all of that changed when he discovered theater.
A decision to audition for Stuyvesant High School’s production of West Side Story changed the course of Bohanek’s life. Playing Arab, a member of the Jets gang in West Side Story, led to a career as a professional actor, including a stint on Broadway, and brought Bohanek to Durham Academy Upper School, where he has taught acting and directed the theater program since 2006.
“I had never been on stage before that, had never auditioned for a show.” He had sung a bit in elementary school, had taught songs and been musical director at theater camps on Staten Island and had played flute in Stuyvesant’s band and orchestra. But West Side Story was one of his favorite shows and “I thought I could do it. … I auditioned for the show, I got into the cast and it changed my life.”
There was another change in Bohanek’s life as he headed into his junior year of high school. “My parents had just decided to get divorced right before that year, so it was a tumultuous time. They had been on and off separated for a while, but that was a difficult time for me personally.”
Bohanek was part of a group of Staten Island friends who decided to apply to Stuyvesant, a New York City public high school that specialized in math and science and required applicants to score well on an admissions test similar to the SAT. The school was located just above Manhattan’s East Village. For Bohanek that meant an hour-and-40-minute commute via train, the Staten Island Ferry and two subways. It was a big school, with 750 students in Bohanek’s 1987 graduating class.
“Going to Stuyvesant was probably the most important decision of my life because it opened me up — it changed me in so many different ways. I got to have friends from Brooklyn and from Manhattan and from Queens and would travel all over the place. That was what led me to Yale and led me eventually to discover performing and lots of different things. That was a huge, huge decision.”
Bohanek had two “careers” at Stuyvesant. There was the baseball player who hung out with his Staten Island crowd (“We called ourselves The Boat People because we took the ferry.”) and there was the theater kid with new friends who lived throughout New York City.
“I played baseball my sophomore year and part of junior year but there was a conflict with theater and I couldn’t do both. I had to make a choice, and I made the right choice. Even though I love baseball, I was never going to be a professional baseball player, not that I knew I was going to be a professional actor at the time.”
Bohanek fell in love with theater and did four shows, all of them musicals, during his last two years at Stuyvesant. When it was time for college, he chose Yale and was admitted early decision. “I remember visiting Yale and Yale just felt right to me at the time. It felt like it was filled with people who were artistic and a little unusual. … Yale was an amazing experience for me. I sang and performed a lot. I loved my academics.
“I did a lot of a cappella singing. I was in a group called the Yale Alley Cats, an all-male singing group, for the first three years and in the Whiffenpoofs, an all-senior group, as a senior.” The renowned Whiffenpoofs are the nation’s oldest collegiate a cappella group, a 14-member group founded in 1909, and Bohanek did more than just sing with the group.
“Of top of this artistic side, I am also really organized. I could have easily gone into business. I was the business manager of my singing group, and I was the business manager of the Whiffenpoofs, which was like a small business. I ended up taking a semester off my senior year to book all these gigs, deal with all the finances. We traveled all over the world. You’re running a business. Every year we [The Whiffenpoofs] would go on a world tour — Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India. I was in charge of all the money and all the bookings throughout the year.”
As a history major, Bohanek knew he would be writing a senior thesis and he didn’t think his business manager role with the Whiffenpoofs would allow sufficient time for all the thesis research work.
“Coming back for my senior year, I wrote my thesis, took some great classes and I got to play the emcee in Cabaret. It was my favorite role that I played in college and I think it was instrumental in my decision to think I had what it took to be a professional actor. It was a great decision for me to take that time off. From an academic standpoint, I was happy with my research, and from an artistic standpoint, I was able to do this other thing. When I was business manager and in the Whiffenpoofs, I couldn’t do any theater. I was business manager of the Alley Cats my sophomore year, so I did theater my freshman year, my junior year and my extra semester. I got to do some great shows, did mostly musicals, because I was still scared to be in non-musical plays. I did a few but I wasn’t confident as an actor yet.”
Bohanek graduated from Yale not knowing if he wanted to act, produce, write, direct or go into the business world. But he knew he wanted to live in New York City, so he got an apartment with two friends and took a job in advertising to pay the rent. “I’m a good problem-solver, I’m analytical, but I still had these unresolved dreams and thoughts about being a professional actor or director or whatever, I didn’t know.”
A friend was involved with a summer stock company on Cape Cod, a company that would be doing nine musicals in 10 weeks. “Included in the season were the Bernstein canon West Side Story, On the Town and Candide. I thought, I have to do that! My [advertising] job was a fine job, but it wasn’t me. … I auditioned for the summer stock company and I got in. It was a professional company, I got room and board but I didn’t get paid. I did that for the summer and I loved it. I came back to New York and said I’m going to do this. I’m going to start auditioning.”
He landed a job with a children’s company, Theatreworks USA, and played Hansel in the national tour of Hansel and Gretel.
“It was a hard job. There were five actors and a stage manager in a van driving around the South. That’s how I was introduced to Krispy Kreme. I remember learning to look for the ‘Hot Doughnuts Now’ sign. Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia — you’re in a hotel, wake up in the morning, drive to the event center, unload the set, put the set together, get into costume, do a couple of shows, strike it down, go to lunch and drive to the next location. It’s not glamourous. I got paid $287 a week plus per diem in 1992. It’s not a lot of money but it was a lot of experience.” And he earned his Actor’s Equity card, the union membership that’s required for professional acting jobs.
Bohanek’s first year as an actor was all children’s theater, including a stint with Lincoln Center Institute, a company that performed in a black box theater at Lincoln Center and at schools in the New York-New Jersey area.
“That was local travel, it was a much better job and I got to live at home. We did Winnie The Pooh — I played Pooh. My favorite question the kids would ask me was ‘Are you that fat?’ because I had a fat suit on. It was good for me to play Pooh. I wish I were more like Pooh and just let things be. I remember at the time reading The Tao of Pooh. It was a terrific read and it was very helpful for me, both at that time in my life and as an actor.”
Summer stock came next and then Bohanek landed his first big job: the national tour of Camelot starring Robert Goulet.
“That was a job I auditioned for several times. I didn’t get it the first two times. I always played characters much younger than myself. I ended up playing a character named Tom of Warwick, a boy. He comes in at the end of the show. It gives an excuse for Arthur to tell his story … It’s Tom who then writes the Tales of King Arthur and the Round Table, he goes and tells the story of what happened. I come in the last seven minutes of the show. I’m in my dressing room before that, it’s a crazy gig. He’s a 14-year-old boy. I’m small and I look young, but I was 23.”
Work slowed a bit, so Bohanek did workshops. He was involved in the early parts of several shows, including Rent, that were working their way toward Broadway. And he realized he needed to get more training, get back into acting classes. He thought about pursuing a graduate degree in acting, which would mean three years of intense training.
“I decided not to do that. I couldn’t have afforded it, and the asset I had from a cast-ability standpoint was I looked young. I could play these juvenile characters. I always played the boy on the verge of manhood. That was my shtick, usually with a comic edge, that striving, and I still have that kind of youthful energy. To take myself out of casting for three years in a period where it was pretty fertile for me to get roles, that was a tough decision for me to do. I was also probably scared to audition for drama school. I decided to just work. Then I had periods when I didn’t work. Lots of people wait tables, I worked temp jobs in offices. I’d take short-term jobs.”
Bohanek had taken acting classes in college and took acting classes in his summers, but he had mostly learned acting by being in shows. That changed when he began taking acting classes at Michael Howard Studio in Manhattan.
“The best teacher I had was a wonderful man named Peter Thompson. … He’s the one who really, I finally got it.”
He landed a leading role in Floyd Collins, which won an Obie Award for Best Music (the Off-Broadway equivalent of the Tony Award), and then spent almost a year on Broadway in a principal role in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
“I first auditioned in August 1992, and for a little over seven years I was a professional actor. The last four-plus years I worked only as an actor. That was the best part of my career. From ’95 to ’99, pretty much, I worked exclusively as an actor. That was my sense of success, that I supported myself as an actor doing on-stage, a couple of cartoon voice-overs, I did a little bit on camera and I was able to support myself.”
But as Bohanek got closer to age 30, he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue acting. “The thing for me always is I love acting, but I had this whole other side of me, the part that was a really good student, the part of me that’s really organized.”
He moved to Los Angeles for six months, explored Hollywood and the business side of entertainment, and discovered that was not for him. So it was back to New York and a year in an office job while he figured out what was next. Regretting his decision to leave acting, Bohanek was about to resume acting when 9/11 happened and shook up everything in New York. He was auditioning and tending bar and wasn’t sure where he was headed.
That was when he met Christina, who would become his wife. She had just begun teaching with the New York City Teaching Fellows program.
“I had never thought about teaching before. It was like when I auditioned for West Side Story when I was a junior and I had never been on stage. I saw her program and thought, teaching, I always loved school, maybe that’s what I should do. …"
“I ended up applying for the program. New York City Teaching Fellows pays for graduate school, puts you in hard-to-staff schools and you have to work in the New York public schools for several years. I was placed in a school that was not that way and I think my theatrical background ended up playing a role. I wasn’t sure I wanted it, wasn’t sure I’d be good at it, I didn’t know. You do an intensive summer in graduate school and then you’re going to graduate school at night while you’re teaching. I was placed at a great school, Edward R. Murrow High School, with 4,000 students in Brooklyn. It had a magnet arts program.”
Bohanek was hooked. He taught four history classes and one acting class, was going to graduate school and got involved in the school’s extracurricular theater productions. That morphed to splitting his teaching between history and acting classes and directing shows.
“I got to direct some great productions there and I loved it. It was really challenging. There was one year I was teaching two sections of Advanced Placement U.S. History with 33 kids in each section, two other U.S. history classes that were for kids who struggled in history, and directing. I remember having so much grading and I was directing shows. Thank goodness, we didn’t have kids yet or I could never have done it. My first show I directed there was Sweeney Todd. I picked the hardest show ever. It was crazy, but I love that play.
“My wife and I were both teaching and we were getting frustrated by some of the things about living in New York. We’re both from New York, we love New York, but co-op life, the guy upstairs whose band rehearses at night. … What if we move outside of N.Y.C., which was a heretical thought for me, to be honest.”
They had a friend who lived in Durham, had heard good things about the area and spent two, separate weeks here before deciding to move south and look for jobs. Durham Academy had an opening for an interim Upper School theater teacher, and it proved a perfect fit. The teacher who had taken a year’s leave decided not return, opening the spot for Bohanek who, 11 years later, is teaching acting, directing DA’s theater program and chairing the fine arts department. A fall play and winter musical are on the bill each year.
“The first musical we did was Little Shop of Horrors. I chose it because it’s a small show, and I wasn’t sure how many people were going to audition. I think we had 19 people audition and I cast all 19. That is more than you really should have in the show, but I created an ensemble where there normally isn’t one.
“In the last five or six years we generally have 60 to 80 people audition. We’ve had shows of 30, 40, 50 people and maintain really, really good quality. We have kids who are athletes and are doing the show. We have a lot more boys who audition. I wanted a kinder, gentler, more accepting, embracing program, and I think we do that. It’s rigorous — kids work hard — but it’s a place where kids can actualize themselves and be appreciated and treated with respect and not about drama. There’s no drama with me. That was really important to me, to have a really welcoming environment, so I think we have been successful in that way.
“I work with great people. This is a great place to work. It’s so supportive. I’ve had nothing but support the entire 11 years I’ve been here. It’s been fantastic. I work very closely with Mike Meyer [music teacher] and Laci McDonald [dance teacher] and now Jake Kavanagh [technical director]. We do really good work, and the kids respond. It really satisfying to watch these kids grow and challenge themselves, and they are super receptive.
“In some ways, I feel like I run a theater company. I get to be the artistic director of a theater company, only I don’t have to worry about a lot of things directors of theater companies worry about because we have a budget. I don’t have to worry how many tickets are we going to sell, and I get to pick interesting shows for kids who strive to be really strong. … I just happen to do theater with high school students as opposed to college students or professional actors.”
Bohanek doesn’t perform as an actor anymore, but he gets to act when he models it for his students.
“I love acting, I love teaching it to them. I think kids should take acting because it helps them in life. They get to know themselves and get to reveal who they are and be comfortable expressing themselves."
“One of the things I believe about actors is you can’t become somebody else. What you can do is plumb parts of yourself that you don’t show a lot of people or, for our students, that they don’t even know are there. The best thing about my job — and I have lots of good things about my job — is I love being able to see in kids things that they can’t yet see for themselves about themselves. You watch them make these self-discoveries.”
He doesn’t perform as a singer anymore either, but he models singing for students and sings to daughters Caroline, 8, and Lucy, 5. “I love being a dad. We have a wonderful life.”
Bohanek had an amazing first chapter professionally as an actor and an amazing second chapter as a teacher. “Whether there’s a different third chapter, I don’t know. I have no interest in blowing up the paradigm. I like my life, I like my job. … I hope this is a place that I can still feel creative a long time from now.”
Offices didn’t fit him, but Bohanek feels fully himself in theaters and teaching.
“What I thought I was going to love was the search for ideas and helping students become better writers, better thinkers, all those things. What has surprised me, what I have loved right from the beginning, is working with this particular age group, high school students, because it’s a time when they are discovering who they are. I think one of my strengths is casting. I can put people in the right places and it’s because I can see things about people that they don’t necessarily see yet.
“To watch a student discover his or her voice, and I mean that literally and figuratively, is an amazing treat. I hope that I help them, but they mean so much to me because I get to see them not just become more confident, sure it’s about confidence — but to discover skills they didn’t know they had, to discover a voice they didn’t know. People do things on that stage they didn’t know they could do, even confident people. …
“That’s my favorite thing about teaching, that kind of mentoring, to be able to open them up so they see for themselves what they are capable of doing.”
To read more about Bohanek’s philosophy on teaching theater at DA, check out his piece in the Summer 2011 issue of Durham Academy Magazine.