Conrad Ricamora (’12) was finishing his run as Bill Calhoun in the 2012 Clarence Brown Theatre production of Kiss Me, Kate when he got an e-mail from David Byrne, a former member of the band Talking Heads.
Byrne had passed along a demo of a song he wrote specifically for Ricamora’s character in an upcoming musical. “Here I am still in school, and David Byrne, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, is asking me for feedback,” says Ricamora.
It was just a few weeks earlier when Ricamora, a third-year MFA student in acting, had seen a notice in the New York Times about a show being staged at the Public Theatre in Greenwich Village. The show was a musical set in the Philippines, and they were searching for actors who looked Filipino and could sing rock ’n’ roll. With his natural rock voice and advantageous ancestry—his father was a Filipino, born in Manila—Ricamora thought his odds of landing a part were good.
“I flew up and went to an open call and waited in the line with two hundred people,” he says.
Byrne and his collaborator Fatboy Slim—best known for his music video “Weapon of Choice” featuring a dancing Christopher Walken—were creating a disco musical, about Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. Ricamora auditioned for Here Lies Love and was asked to come back the next day to meet Byrne and the director, Alex Timbers.
Ricamora was in class at UT when he got the call that he had landed the part of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, son of Corazon Aquino, who ascended to the presidency after she and her husband helped lead a rebel uprising against Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. Ironically, Ricamora later learned that his great uncle had been secretary of finance under Aquino.
Ricamora went straight from the Clarence Brown Theatre stage to rehearsals and a weeklong “workshopping” run at the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival. “There was no hierarchy involved,” says Ricamora. “We were all there to collaborate.”
Here Lies Love opened in New York in April 2013 for a critically acclaimed four-month run. Ricamora’s performance, which included four solos and songs with the ensemble, earned him a Theatre World Award as one of the New York newcomers of the year. He was in good company, too, with Tom Hanks also being recognized as a newcomer for his role in Lucky Guy. Ricamora also earned a nomination for a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Lead Actor in a Musical.
The original cast recording for Here Lies Love will be released at the end of April, and on May 1, the show reopens at the Public Theatre for an open-ended run. “We wanted to move to a larger venue,” says Ricamora. “But since the audience stands for the entire show, giving the feel of an ’80s disco, it was hard to find the right space, so we ended up back at the Public.”
During a hiatus from the show, Ricamora’s career got another boost when he was cast by producer/director Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) for the pilot of her new show, How to Get Away With Murder, in which Viola Davis plays a criminal defense professor who becomes entangled in a murder plot with her students.
Amid the whirlwind of auditions in California and New York and the relaunch of Here Lies Love, Ricamora took a few days in February to visit his friends at UT. “I was shot from this cannon,” he says, sipping a coffee in Hodges Library. “Nothing was familiar to me. I had this craving to come back, to recharge and hug the people I trained with.”
Ricamora, who studied psychology at Queens University in North Carolina, caught the acting bug when he took an acting class during his junior year. From there he went on to various acting jobs in Philadelphia, including a yearlong fellowship at the Walnut Street Theater.
“I realized I had never intentionally studied acting,” says Ricamora. “So I started applying to grad schools. I needed to go back and really understand what goes into the craft of acting.” He auditioned and got into MFA programs at Harvard, Brown, UC-Irvine, and UT.
He chose UT after visiting campus and seeing a production of Love’s Labor’s Lost. “It was better than what I’d seen at Harvard and UC-Irvine,” he says.
Ricamora then took an Alexander lesson with Jed Diamond, head of acting in UT’s Department of Theatre. “That clinched it for me,” Ricamora says. “The Alexander Technique [created by Australian Actor Frederick Matthias Alexander] is about opening yourself up and training the actor’s body to be able to be a blank canvas.
“Jed teaches actors to fill spaces, going through different parts of our bodies to see where we are holding different tensions that make us smaller,” says Ricamora. “It’s a way of letting go of ourselves. It enables you to inhabit a character in your flesh and bones, not just intellectually. It’s deep work that nobody else in the country is doing.”
“I grew so much here [at UT] through the training,” he says. “It’s like an artistic home to me. So much of my life has changed since then. On a daily basis, working in the studios creates the sense of family. Everyone here has seen me at my best and worst and everywhere in between.”