Profiles

OHIO’s new head of Musical Theater excels in the classroom and on stage

Steven Strafford is difficult to pin down, in the literal sense. To run through his recent professional history is to find yourself jumping back and forth between what sounds like the work of an entire company but is, somehow, mostly just himself. 

One thing is certain, however, OHIO’s new head of Musical Theater brings a lot to the table. 

Strafford grew up in New Jersey by way of Brooklyn with a family history in vaudeville and the Irish nightclubs of New York City, but he recalls much of his love of theater growing from watching musicals at home with his mom followed by an intense desire to study them as a child. 

He remembers visiting the library to borrow Broadway cast recordings and librettos, spending an hour a day working on building up his singing chops. His first role in a school play was when he truly caught the bug, reflecting that theater “provided a place where the feelings were as big as I felt them.” 

This eventually led to a BA in theater from Drew University and a career in professional acting that began in New York and eventually brought Strafford to Chicago, where the stresses of a young working artist also drew him into the pitfalls of addiction.

Three years later, Strafford emerged from this dark time healthier and determined to get back on track. He landed his first significant role as Prince Herbert in the Mike Nichols’ directed "Spamalot" and began dissecting his thoughts on life and love after addiction, writing them down to organize his feelings. These musings matured over time into what would become Strafford’s first award-winning play, the one-man autobiographical show "Methtacular," which first premiered at Cincinnati Fringe Fest in 2012 and went on to gain accolades from critics in New York and Chicago. 

What initially may have been a practice in self-reflection had become a new creative outlet for Strafford, and a desire to further explore writing led him to pursue playwriting at OHIO, graduating in 2023 with his MFA. Since then, his work has hit an enviable stride with multiple new world premieres and award-winning plays being produced simultaneously. 

In the past year alone, Strafford’s MFA thesis play "Squeakers" was produced at OHIO, the award-winning "Small Jokes About Monsters" has had recent runs in Indiana and Minnesota, "Greater Illinois" had its world premiere at Theaterworks in the Square at Memphis in January, "The Match Game" will mark yet another world premiere this April in at Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati, and Strafford will revisit "Methtacular" at Cincinnati Fringe again this summer. 

Whenever discussing his plays and the characters that inhabit them, Strafford’s infectious comedic bent is hard to deny even in passing conversation. This desire to find the humor in everything extends into themes that often deal with heavy subject matter but are handled with a deft touch so that the audience is never taken out of the story. 

“I like to create comedic moments in incredibly dark surroundings…you can’t check out if everyone is laughing," he said. 

Not to be satisfied with just a successful career as a playwright, Strafford has not allowed his acting skills to get dusty, either. 

“You have to push,” Strafford says, and push he does. 

Recent acting gigs have included TV appearances on NBC’s "Chicago Fire" and HBO’s "Somebody Somewhere," a role in an upcoming independent movie "Just Breathe" (in which Strafford also performed all his own stunts), workshopping a new musical in Chicago, and portraying Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Tantrum Theater’s recent production of "Twelfth Night." 

Steven Strafford

In addition to regular auditions for upcoming acting roles and continuous writing plans, Strafford also joined the faculty of OHIO’s School of Theater as head of Musical Theater this fall. How does he do it? 

According to Strafford, you have to learn where to place your relentlessness. I am now relentless in supporting my students." As much as his other professional accomplishments impress, it's when Strafford speaks about teaching his students that love for his newest role shines through. 

Abby Golden (BFA ’24) confirms that Strafford brings all this and more into the classroom. 

We are incredibly fortunate to have Steven…His passion, dedication, and ability to foster growth in our students is paving new paths and igniting a sense of drive and confidence in each individual...ensuring that every student feels valued and supported," Golden said.

He explains his teaching style relies on a tripod of “joy, clear eyed business sense, and intellectual curiosity.” Students in his program spend a semester breaking down musical scripts from all eras of the songbook to understand their place and meaning in time and their relevance today. 

Strafford says his goal is to “prepare students to understand the assignment of the job… have confidence in their ability to receive, understand, and implement acting notes with personal agency… and to use their natural impulses to support the choices in a musical.” 

Musical Theater alum Lauren Janoshka (BFA ’23, MA’ 24) reflects on her time working closely with Strafford on a one woman show. 

“He really works to build spaces that aren't merely safe, but safe to take risks. He told me to pick whatever I wanted to produce…and to let him know how to best support my vision and we would go from there. What I appreciated most and what I believe is reflective of his vision for the program is his desire to help students actualize the depth they already contain. I felt like a more whole person after working with him…I"m not sure I've had someone believe in me that much ever,” Janoshka explained.

Strafford’s recalls his mother once lamented on his choice of career, she had hoped that he'd one day be a college professor…a fact his mom was quick to correct when reached out to for comment. Employing a familiar comedic wit she clarifies, “It was my cousin Dorothy that said stop making your mother worry and become a teacher already!”

The fact that Strafford has managed to become a successful actor, writer, and professor feels like a similar comedic turn he'd have written himself, as a plot device solely for the enjoyment and appreciation of his mother’s support and guidance, and with his students being the lucky recipients of the gag. 

Steven Strafford lives in Athens with his husband Wade (MFA ’24) and their toddler Seely. 

You can learn more about Steven’s work by staying in touch with School of Theater social media, reading one of his plays ("Small Jokes About Monsters" is available through Dramatists Play Service), and on his website at stevenstrafford.com.

Published
March 29, 2024
Author
Staff reports