Matt Doebler will Associate Conduct "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812"

Matt Doebler

 

Matt Doebler, a Penn State grad and former Musical Theatre faculty member, talks about working on Broadway-bound The Great Comet, and shares some words of wisdom on what has helped him create a lasting, meaningful presence in this industry.

What would constitute a perfect day for you?

I live for connecting with other people. If I have a day where I’m sharing my art and part of myself with somebody who then takes that and feeds off it, I mean, that’s basically why I’m in this business. It’s a simple thing—I want to make a difference in someone’s life and change their energy into something more positive. If I come home and I feel like I’ve inspired somebody, and there’s been some kind of ripple effect, that to me is a great day. There’s a reason why I rejected other careers that might have been a little more secure. J 

How did you end up at Penn State?

I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and all of my friends were going to Penn State. I knew it was a great school, and I came from a science-oriented family (my dad worked for PP&L as a nuclear engineer), so I actually started out as a Computer Engineering major!

Here’s a great story for you: I signed my housing form at University Park with a special request because all my nerd friends told me, “You have to be on the first floor of Beaver Hall.” Why? Because it was the first dorm floor that had Ethernet, which meant that we could have high-speed access to the PSUVM mainframe (that’s all there was in the pre-internet era). So while everyone else was dialing up with their modems, we were watching entire screens scroll by in a blink—and we felt so cool at the time!  J

How did you end up doing music?

One day my floor mates sat me down and said, “Look, we spend all of our free time doing computer coding, and you’re spending every minute of your free time doing music. Why don’t you change your major?” I realized they were right—music was my passion and I needed to follow it.

At the time I thought my only options were teaching music in public schools or having a solo piano career, neither of which felt like the right path for me. Once I realized that Penn State offered a B.A. that could be tailored to my interests, I made the switch. Then I started getting involved with the Musical Theatre program, as it was just in its formative stages, and that’s how it all began.  

When did you know you wanted to music direct?

I actually didn’t know that! I knew I liked playing the piano for everything. For example, while I did have acting roles in my high school musicals, during rehearsals I would jump down to the pit and play piano for the songs I wasn’t in. At Penn State, before I became involved with the Musical Theatre program, the Thespians did a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. They basically drafted me and told me I had to conduct. I said to them, “I’ve never done this before,” and they retorted, “Well, you’ll learn!” And I did. There I was, in the pit, conducting a 20-piece orchestra, and right then I caught the bug.

When did you make the move to NYC?

In the fall of 2004, I was turning 30, and all of my friends who had already graduated and moved to New York kept telling me, “You’d do really well in New York.” I had serious doubts about whether or not I would be able to compete, but I knew if I didn’t at least try to do it, I’d always wonder. I mean, I grew up in suburbia. If someone had told me I would one day live in NYC, I would have said they were crazy!

You’ve toured off and on with Wicked. What are your thoughts about touring?

Everyone should tour. You get to see the country and understand how diverse and different it is. It’s great to see the way everyone else lives. And you get a real appreciation for how beautiful this country is. It’s good to gain some perspective. In New York, when a show is over, you go home and that’s it. You don’t get quite the same opportunity to build relationships and overcome the challenges of those relationships.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to build a career and a life in this business?

For actors, my advice is to tailor your craft so that when the opportunity comes knocking, you have all of the pieces in place. I can’t even tell you the absurdity with which these casting decisions are made, and how little is in your control. It’s more about just being ready to go. If you walk in and embody what the creative team imagines that role to be—and you have the skillset—you have a really good chance of getting hired. There’s so much you can’t control. All you can do is be ready for the moment when it happens.

Things you’ve observed being on the other side of the table?

People don’t understand how important it is to simply BE versus acting AT us. They want to see YOU. You’re more likely to be hired if it seems that you are genuinely loving what you are doing. If you are radiating joy, that makes everyone fall in love with you. People who look like they are working too hard, nervous—it makes us feel the same way. If you’re NOT enjoying it, then what’s the point?

In an audition setting for a creative team that doesn’t know you, how do you make a good first impression?

It’s not about getting everyone to like you. Some people just won’t like you. You’ll remind them of someone they may or may not like. All you can do is just be you, find the people that you feel compatible with, hold on to those connections, and nurture them. You’ll find your coterie, the ones that share your sense of humor, etc. People are also more likely to hire you if you share a connection because it’s way less of a risk than hiring some random person they don’t know at all.

What has it been like to work on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812?

Working on the Great Comet has been very exciting and challenging, because I’ve had to go back and pull on all of my years of training, particularly the earlier ones—thank you, Penn State School of Music! This show makes me flex some different musical muscles than the other shows I’ve recently worked on, such as Wicked and The Book of Mormon. I’ve had to focus and work that much harder, but it’s fun at the same time.

This show is pretty brilliant. What do you think makes it so special?

When creating a piece of theatre, it all starts from the top. Rachel Chavkin, the director, is unbelievable, and she is a big part of why this show is so successful. She has been able to focus the show, yet she doesn’t ever get in the way of the brilliance of the writing. She also fosters a community that everyone adapts to—it’s a real ensemble atmosphere. I’ve never had such a pleasant backstage experience, because we are all just one gigantic family, and it’s fostered by Rachel. She doesn’t let the typical attitudes and pettiness get in the way, and she accomplishes this by setting one of the best examples I’ve ever seen. Even during challenging moments, she always gives us all a sense that everything will be okay. This show deserves all the praise it gets.

How do you find balance?

I believe the people who are happiest are the ones who have found a marriage between their natural abilities (what they’re good at) and their desire to do those very same things. When they match up, what a great life you can have! I feel very lucky that I listened to what my instincts were telling me (my affinity for music) and followed them. And while I love what I do, it’s easy to become a workaholic in this business. So these days, I’m committed to creating more of a balance, allowing myself some time for relaxation, and enjoying the company of friends and family.

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