Humor and Vulnerability: Tony Hale on Wakey, Wakey

By Simon Hodgson

“I hope that Bay Area audiences walk away from Wakey, Wakey feeling encouraged,” says two-time Emmy Award winner Tony Hale. Though Hale is best known for his television work in Veep and Arrested Development and recent big screen outing as the voice of Forky in Toy Story 4, his theater roots run deep.

You’ve been working for 20 years in film and television. How did you get started?
I was not a sports kid and my parents didn’t know what to do with me. My dad was in the army and he retired in Tallahassee, Florida, where I moved in the seventh grade. By the grace of God, there was this children’s theater nearby, Young Actors Theater, and my parents signed me up. It’s difficult to put into words how supportive and influential that theater was for me growing up. It was a space to be silly and stupid, to be free to discover, and to find what I love to do. I adore going back and talking with students and raising money for the theater.

Whether a kid goes into the arts or not, certain personalities need those environments to thrive. I was one of those kids. I needed that freedom, those personalities, and that outlet to discover who I was and find my happy place. My dad taught nuclear physics and he’s incredibly smart, but he’s also very artistic because my grandfather—his dad—was an opera singer and a nightclub singer. My dad has both left and right brain. He has a real appreciation for the arts. Both my dad and my mom were very supportive of my choices. 

Tony Hale in the A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Wakey, Wakey marks your return to the theater for the first time in a decade. What is it about this play and this playwright that attracts you?
Gosh! [Takes a deep breath] There are a lot of things. One is the way that Will both comedically and sincerely puts out incredible, deep thoughts—things that everybody is thinking about but we’re afraid to voice—mixed in with humor and vulnerability. And it’s done in a safe, funny, truthful way that I really appreciate.

What does the audience give you as a performer?
Oh, man. You can feel connected. There’s an energy that is immediate gratification. You can feel something’s working, especially with comedy. You feel like they’re getting it. There’s an intimacy with theater that you can’t get with TV and film. You’re in that space together for an hour. It’s very personal.

Is there a link with Wakey, Wakey in terms of building community among a theater audience?
Absolutely. Wakey, Wakey brings up a lot of existential questions: ideas about being present, about contentment, about life. This play lobs those thoughts and questions out to the audience, and in those silent periods when they’re just watching or experiencing, gives them a space to think. Whether that’s to meditate on things they’re thankful for, experience the silence, feel the freedom, think about their own journeys, whatever they need.

Theater naturally brings people together of all different beliefs and backgrounds. And for all those different people to experience the same feelings and moments in the same space is incredibly unique. To be in a large group for an hour and a half—it’s almost like a Quaker church—is a communal group experience, especially with the play Will has written.

This interview is excerpted from the Wakey, Wakey issue of Words on Plays. Want to read more? Order your copy here. Wakey, Wakey is onstage at the Geary starting January 23. Get tickets here!

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