Ray Fisher’s best friend bet him he’d get into acting school. The stakes? The loser would have to shave his head. Sure enough, Fisher’s head was bald shortly after receiving his acceptance letter to the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City.
Fisher, 24, recently completed acting the role of Tom Robinson in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird. I interviewed him for an article that will appear in Education Update, (www.educationupdate.com.)
He credits a high school English teacher for encouraging him to audition for the school musical his sophomore year. Reluctantly, Fisher tried out, saying how he envisioned himself as a “tough guy,” not a song and dance sort. To his surprise, he landed the narrator and Wolf roles in Into the Woods, launching his high school musical career and igniting a spark for theater. He received lead roles the next two years and also sang in the school’s choir, something he had formerly done only in church.
After graduating from his large, diverse high school in south New Jersey, Fisher said he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He knew he wasn’t ready for college and didn’t want to waste money or time pursuing something he wouldn’t appreciate.
He spent a year working all sorts of jobs: at the local movie theater’s box office, in a retail-clothing store, and in a fast-food restaurant. As he worked, he’d think about acting, recalling how much he enjoyed learning lines and being on stage with other actors.
The Academy, or AMDA, with campuses in New York City and Los Angeles, offering an 18-month conservatory program, seemed the best fit for him. Finding it harder to return to school than he anticipated, he acknowledges his teachers for helping him focus and succeed. When he completed the program, he joined the fate of many actors—looking for work wherever and whenever it appeared. In between auditioning and roles in small plays, he tended bars at Broadway theaters.
In 2008, Fisher landed roles in the STNJ’s “Shakespeare Live,” a program that brings professional theater performances to schools throughout the tri-state region. His contacts led him to the Tom Robinson role. He read TKAM in high school, saying he remembers it “just as a book on the reading list that he underappreciated.”
To play Tom Robinson, a poor black man accused of raping the young, lonely white Mayella Ewell in 1930’s Alabama, required Fisher to put himself in “that position of being less than.” Growing up in a racially diverse community, he’s never experienced the overt bigotry expressed in the story. Instead, Fisher focused on the frustration Robinson must feel as he continues to tell the truth, knowing he could never be acquitted in that time.
“I tried to show his compassion,” Fisher said. “Here’s a guy who’s been in jail for seven months for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s had everything taken away from him. He can’t feed his wife. He can’t feed his kids. Yet he doesn’t badmouth anyone for what’s happened to him. Partly it’s because he can’t. But I think that even when he’s alone, he doesn’t have bad thoughts about these people other than he’s sorry for them. That’s admirable. It’s a quality I wish I could say I had. I know if this happened today, I’d have a lot to say.”
Headed to Oregon soon to begin a contract with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Fisher once again invoked his high school teachers for exposing him to Shakespeare. “As a high school kid, I just wanted to get to lunch. But my teacher insisted we read the plays aloud. I loved it, even if I didn’t understand everything, I felt the power behind the words,” he said.
Fisher reads plays and is writing his own. His advice to young people: “don’t be what everyone else wants you to be.”