How a Year of Unemployment Led to Michael Arden's Directing Career | Playbill

How Did I Get Here How a Year of Unemployment Led to Michael Arden's Directing Career

The actor and director recently picked up his third Tony nomination, for Best Direction of a Musical for the acclaimed revival of Parade.

Michael Arden Graphic by Vi Dang, Photo by Drew Elhamalawy

It's been a particularly rewarding season for actor and director Michael Arden, who helmed both the acclaimed solo version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, featuring Jefferson Mays, and the current Broadway revival of Parade, co-starring Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond. 

A Christmas Carol, which concluded its limited run at the Nederlander Theatre January 1, recently picked up three 2023 Tony nominations. The revival of Parade, which continues at the Jacobs Theatre, was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Direction for Arden.

The 40-year-old Arden is quickly becoming one of Broadway's most in-demand directors, with his work on the Broadway revivals of Once On This Island and Spring Awakening also being acclaimed. The busy artist said May 2, the morning the Tony nominations were announced, that directing "both Parade and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol this Broadway season has been the honor of my career thus far. I am indebted to all the artists who came together to make both these singular productions possible." 

Arden—who also founded his own theatre company, The Forest of Arden, during the pandemic—began his Broadway career as an actor. He played Tom Sawyer in Roundabout and Deaf West Theatre's 2003 production of Big River, and Coyote in the Twyla Tharp-directed The Times They Are A-Changin'More recently, he played Aide to Cornwall in the Glenda Jackson-led 2019 Broadway revival of Shakespeare's King Lear

In addition to directing theatre around the globe, he regularly directs ABC's The Connors and has appeared in Grey’s AnatomyBride Wars, Anger Management, Source Code, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

In the interview below for the new Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Arden charts his journey from actor to director, and shares how disappointment and even unemployment can lead to success.

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt in Parade Joan Marcus

Where did you train/study?
I attended the Interlochen Arts Camp and Academy and The Juilliard School of Drama.

How did you get your first job in the theatre?
I was incredibly active as a kid in my wonderful community theatre in Midland, Texas, growing up. But my first professional job came between my junior and senior year of high school when I got to play Tony in West Side Story at the Struthers Library Theatre in Pennsylvania. It was one of my first times away from home and on my own, and I loved every second of it.

Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
I spent over a year unemployed, auditioning and getting rejected over and over in Los Angeles. I finally got a job working at a small gift-shop in Los Feliz to pay my rent. It was behind this counter that I wrote the play that would be the first play I directed. So, I like to remember that hard time and am so grateful for it, as it showed me another door waiting to be opened.

What was the first professional production that you directed? How did that come about?
The first professional show I directed was Spring Awakening for Deaf West Theatre. It was in a tiny theatre in downtown Los Angeles. A year later, we opened on Broadway. I feel incredibly lucky for this meteoric trajectory, but it feels like my entire career up until that point had been preparing me to be a director.

Austin P. McKenzie and the company of Spring Awakening Joan Marcus

What do you consider your big break?
My big break was getting called in by Jim Carnahan for the Roundabout and Deaf West’s production of Big River in 2003. I was cast as Tom Sawyer by Jeff Calhoun, who I owe everything to. It was on this job that I started learning ASL and working with Deaf West, a company I’ve spent a lot of time with since.

Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
Just before I booked Big River, I was up for a role in the Bernadette Peters/Sam Mendes production of Gypsy. I had many callbacks and in the end, it didn’t go my way. I was devastated. I had fully imagined myself in that show. A couple months later, I got cast as Tom Sawyer, and was on Broadway, learning a skill that led directly to the career I have now. I am so grateful that things turned out the way they did. Something better is always around the corner.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Learn as much as you can about every aspect of theatre. Understanding disciplines other than the one you are directly involved in only makes you a more thoughtful and creative collaborator. Soak up everything, ask to assist, sit in, and watch. Making theatre takes a village, and all parts are vital and worth knowing as much as you can about.

John Douglas Thompson, Russell Harvard, and Michael Arden in King Lear

What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
I wish I had known how hard criticism and rejection can be on one’s soul. Not everyone is nice, and people enjoy tearing something apart often more than they do uplifting it. What helps is to look around at all the love you can share when making something together, and to really take in and listen when someone gives you praise. It can be hard to accept both the good and the bad, but most likely it’s forgotten pretty quickly. Keep moving on.

What is your proudest achievement as an actor/as a director?
I feel like every time I reach an opening night, it’s my proudest moment. However, I will say two things in particular: bringing Spring Awakening to Broadway and introducing the world to those incredible performers, and making theatre in the midst of the pandemic in Upstate New York while forming my company, The Forest of Arden.

Celebrate Tony Nominee Michael Arden With a Look Back at His Stage Career

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