Sept. 08--It's always been said there are no small parts, just small actors.
And Nat Zegree would agree.
The 20-year-old Indiana University student has had his share of big roles over the past year. In December, he was the Scarecrow in Cardinal Stage's production of "The Wizard of Oz." He went directly from that to perform as Truman in the Bloomington Playwright's production of "The Truman Show" before heading back to Cardinal to perform as Henry in "Next to Normal."
All were big roles. All were tackled with the same energy.
But Zegree remembers his first acting job as a child performing in a production of "Babe." In "Babe," the then-fourth grader was Puppy #5.
Puppy 1 and 2 had pretty sizable roles with lines. And Puppy 3 and 4 were a little less prominent.
"And I said three words in the entire show," Zegree said.
"What is it?" Zegree asks as he repeats the only line he had in the play.
He was happy to do the part and loved being a member of the cast, but Zegree knew even then he wanted to act and to recite more than just three words.
"I was pretty young in the cast, but I took it as a challenge to never be a puppy #5," he said.
It wasn't long before Zegree tackled a much bigger role as Winthrop in "The Music Man." It was the first time he realized the audience's applause was for him. He admits it wasn't a standing ovation but a polite acknowledgement of his singing of "Gary, Indiana."
"But it was for me," Zegree said.
A natural fit
It was probably destiny that brought Zegree to the entertainment world.
Both his parents are music educators with his father, Steve, a professor of music at IU who was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Education Hall of Fame.
"From a very early age, I was exposed to music and that is what started that fire for me," he said.
Zegree started playing piano at age 3, but he attempted to sing even earlier. When he was about a year old, his father found him grunting the theme to "Barney" as Zegree wasn't even talking at that point.
"I have really been surrounded by the arts since I was born," he said.
As he grew older, he would play and sing and naturally began acting as a way to charm others.
"I was always a very energetic and theatrical boy," he said.
He continued to perform from his start as Puppy #5 to high school theater productions back in Michigan where he grew up. He performed in his high school's production of "White Christmas" and remembers talking to his friend's father about theater. In the conversation, he casually brought up the production without revealing he was a cast member. The man's response: Well, he'd heard the show was terrible.
"You can't let that affect you," Zegree said.
Zegree takes a healthy approach to performing, admitting he's his own worst critic. He understands that not everyone in the audience will like his performance. He focuses on doing his best and hopes the audience can at least appreciate the effort. If someone doesn't care for Zegree's performance, he's OK with that.
"In the end, it doesn't matter," he said.
One person who won't offer a critique unless asked is Steve Zegree, Nat's father. Steve is a renowned vocal jazz conductor and director of IU's Singing Hoosiers. But he admits to only offering thoughts or advice when Nat was growing up at the piano or when asked.
"But I think Nat knows that I am tremendously supportive and a big fan of his performances," Steve said.
Steve said that growing up around the arts means Nat has an idea of how hard life can be when you choose that career path. But Nat's talent was obvious.
"He has always had a wonderful and natural stage presence, combined with pretty impressive musical talent ever since childhood," Steve Zegree said.
Never wanting to be perceived as a "stage dad," the elder Zegree said he tended to not bring attention to Nat or his talent.
"It is much more fun when other people discover his abilities on their own rather than my mentioning anything. In spite of any personal accomplishments that I may have achieved in my professional life, my greatest moments of pride are when I can play the role of 'Nat's dad,'" he said.
Taking on the classics
Zegree is currently preparing for his role as Ralph in "The Lord of the Flies."
As the lead, Zegree said, it has been hard to put his role as Ralph, a young teen, into perspective.
"It's very difficult for me as a 20-year-old to know how a 14- or 15-year-old boy would react," he said.
Zegree said he's worked hard to embody that mind-set in order to give a realistic performance of how a group of boys would truly react if stranded on a desert island.
But the daunting task has been made easier by the rest of the cast, he said. Although Zegree is one of the older cast members, he's learning a lot from everyone during rehearsals.
"Something happens every night at rehearsals that causes me to walk away with a story or something that excites me even more. It keeps you driven," he said.
Zegree said he's learning a lot from Nathan Robbins, a junior from IU who is portraying Jack in "Lord of the Flies." But he's also learning a lot from the high schoolers who are also in the production.
"I firmly believe you can learn from anyone if you look for it," he said.
Cardinal artistic director Randy White said the rehearsal room for the play, which is not air conditioned, has bonded the group "on the island of heat." And just like in the book, the younger actors are looking to Zegree and the older actors for leadership and guidance. The challenge has been bringing the novel to life.
"I think part of what's been tricky is the book has a lot of narrative," White said.
So the actors have had to work harder to bring out the narrative in their performances.
But White said Zegree has a "natural charm" that gives him an air of leadership.
"It's been a remarkably good group," he said.
Zegree has been pleased with the roles he's taken on over the past year. His performance as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz" was well-received, and Zegree understood that his performance would be a sort of tribute to Ray Bolger, the actor who originated the role on the classic movie starring Judy Garland.
"I actually really enjoy those roles because you get to take your own spin on it," Zegree said.
He embodied Bolger's performance while adding his own spin -- a task Zegree found challenging.
And it was a tough role in another way. Falling down repeatedly as the loose-limbed Scarecrow left Zegree battered and bruised.
A busy life
As an IU student, life can be hectic for Zegree. After a full day of classes, he barely has time to grab a quick bite before heading to rehearsals, which last four hours or more.
As Zegree was finishing his role as the Scarecrow, rehearsals started for BPP's "The Truman Show." And as Truman came to an end, he started rehearsing for "Next to Normal." He also kept busy over the summer with productions at the Indiana Festival Theatre at IU. As the last show, "Island Song," was wrapping up, Zegree once again began doubling up his schedule as rehearsals began for "Lord of the Flies."
"I've got to get a lot of sleep. That's very important," Zegree said of his life's frenetic pace.
As Zegree prepares to take on Ralph in "Lord of the Flies," at least one fan will be awed by what the 20-year-old actor can do.
"His talents and abilities never cease to amaze me. He has already had some amazing performance opportunities since childhood. I've really enjoyed seeing Nat perform in and around Bloomington in the past couple of years," said Nat's dad, Steve.
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