A Tony Award nominee in 2011 for his Broadway musical debut as Mr. Tambo in “The Scottsboro Boys,” Forrest McClendon spends his time as an educator at the Esther Boyer College of Music & Dance at Temple and the Ira Brind School of Theater at the University of the Arts.
With a bachelor’s degree in music and vocal performance from the University of Connecticut, McClendon made his way to Philadelphia to pursue his dream of acting.
Along with his Tony nomination for playing Mr. Tambo, McClendon also received the 2012 Barrymore Award and in 2009 was awarded with a Barrymore for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a musical portraying Roscoe in the empowering a cappella, “Avenue X.”
The Temple News had the opportunity to discuss with McClendon what made him return to Temple and continue teaching voice lessons, as well as what he has planned for his future.
The Temple News: What made you want to pursue professional theater?
Forrest McClendon: I was actually an engineering major at first before I became a voice major at the University of Connecticut and, in a nutshell, I had done the plays and musicals in high school, but I wanted to have a stable and lucrative career. I was going to major in engineering, but after my second year it was probably a really bad idea for me to do that because I wasn’t that good at math. So, after my second year, before they could kick me out, the school of fine arts threw me a lifeline and I basically changed my major from computer science and electrical engineering to vocal performance.
I had always studied singing even when I first got to college, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to make a living and a career out of it, but after two years I decided to give it a go.
TTN: Who are your role models?
FM: Right now, I would say that my mother is. I know it sounds cliché, but she’s really one of my biggest role models just because she’s the greatest lifetime learner that I know. She just keeps growing and growing and learning and learning no matter how old she gets. I like to imagine that I model myself [after her]. But my good friend Colman Domingo, who I was just working with on Broadway, is probably one of the other people that inspires me a great deal. He was also a Temple graduate.
TTN: As a voice teacher, what is your day-to-day routine with your students?
FM: In a nutshell, we do two things: technique for building and maintaining the voice and coaching songs as scenes.
TTN: How do you juggle being an educator at two universities and still finding the time to pursue your theater career?
FM: Actually, it doesn’t really feel like juggling them. For me, it feels more like balancing them and they’re my two great loves so what I have actually is a career, an extraordinary career that literally allows me to do both of these things at the same time. With “Othello,” it is a collaboration between the Shakespeare Theater, the Young Playwright’s Festival and the University of the Arts so that not only do I go teach at UArts as part of a course called Shakespeare in the Schools, which is young people that might want to be teaching arts, but then there are teaching artists from Young Playwrights and Philly Shakes that are going to the schools doing residencies on “Othello.” So, I go into high schools as well and do workshops.
“Othello” and all of my work gives me the opportunity to literally do both of those things, and Temple has always encouraged that. When I get a job, the only thing that I’ve ever heard from my superiors is, “We encourage you to work and we think that’s very important.”
TTN: What made you want to come to Philadelphia to pursue your acting career?
FM: I actually got my job at the University of the Arts through “Backstage”, which is the performing arts weekly. I was living in New York at the time, and so I would commute to Philly once a week on Wednesdays and teach a full day so I could make enough money to support my life as an actor back in New York. Being here for that year made me fall in love with the city, and the following year I was looking for a place to live and was inspired to look here and it was probably the smartest thing I ever did.
TTN: What type of theater art do you enjoy doing?
FM: I’m really versatile: I like plays, musicals, classical and contemporary. For me, it’s really about the story. I have a strong interest in stories about race, class, gender and spirituality.
TTN: Out of all the characters you’ve played from different historical time periods, which one do you find the most compelling?
FM: Right now, Othello, just because I’m all up in the middle of it. But I feel like all of them have been that incredible in the moment. Right now, it’s absolutely Othello. To be playing this person of color who is trying desperately to fit into this majority society is something I really relate to.
TTN: Are there any characters that you’re just dying to perform, but haven’t done so yet?
FM: Yeah, this one that [I did last Friday], “The Dangerous House of Pretty M’Bane.” His name is Marcel and I’m really looking forward to playing him.
TTN: What was your initial reaction when you heard that you were nominated for a Tony Award?
FM: I was driving down the highway. It was 8 o’clock in the morning and I was on my way to a technical rehearsal in New Jersey and my phone started ringing. I had forgotten that they were even announcing nominations that day and I certainly wasn’t thinking, “Oh, what about me?” My phone started ringing and I literally thought something was wrong because it was people who don’t ordinarily call me, especially at 8 o’clock in the morning. Colman Domingo and I were both nominated in the same category for “The Scottsboro Boys.” He rang me, and he never ever calls at 8 o’clock in the morning, so I knew it had to be something. I picked up his call, and he told me the news.
I said, “You can’t…you really cannot do this to me right now because I’m on the highway.” He said, “Forrest, I need you to get off at the next exit. Pull your ass over and call me back. We need to talk about this.”
I was just completely awestruck. Just undone. Overwhelmed. Thrilled.
TTN: What future performances can we look forward to seeing you in?
FM: Like I said, I have “Othello” through May 18, then I’m actually going to be doing something that I can’t really say. There’s a confidentiality agreement clause in my contract, but after “Othello” you won’t be able to see me in the U.S. for a while. I think it’s all right to say that. After “Othello,” I’m looking forward to traveling.
Diana David can be reached at email@example.com.