Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s relationship with sports is complicated.
“I was an indoor kid growing up,” he recently told Queerty, just days after the opening of his return to Broadway in the critically acclaimed revival of Take Me Out. “I did not love sports. I hated gym class. My parents put me on a soccer team, and nobody explained the rules to me. For our first game, I tripped on a sprinkler and the team ran over me.”
After high school, Ferguson traded cleats for jazz shoes, heading to New York City to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his Broadway debut in the Public Theater’s revival of On the Town (opposite Lea DeLaria, also returning to Broadway this season in POTUS). Ferguson plays Mason Marzac, the business manager of a major league baseball player, whose coming disrupts the perception of America’s favorite pastime.
Known to television audiences for 11 seasons as the lovingly neurotic Mitchell Pritchett on the ABC comedy Modern Family, Ferguson said that the “theater has always been my first love” and was eager to return to Second Stage Theater for his third production. But stage and screen are different beasts to conquer.
“In television, you look at your lines in the morning before shooting the day’s work, and once you say them, the words are gone,” said Ferguson of the grueling schedule of a network sitcom. But stage work demands deeper exploration and keeping a performance fresh eight times per week.
“That’s the challenge,” said Ferguson. “It’s a new group of people every night; I just love having that dance with the audience. There’s something so wonderful about investigating and psychoanalyzing a character — I’m so much richer for it, and it informs the work I do in TV and film; it makes me a better actor. And I love working with theater actors. Their work ethic is unbelievable.”
And as for baseball? Ferguson may not be first in line for season tickets but said, “I find the pomp and circumstance alluring. Through Richard Greenberg’s dialogue, I’ve fallen in love with the game.”
Ferguson’s character has, perhaps, the most uplifting journey in Greenberg’s Tony Award-winning play, energized by his newfound love of the sport. With only five scenes but several monologues to hit out of the park, the actor has dug deep with the guidance of director Scott Ellis and longtime respect for the character’s original creator, actor Denis O’Hare.
“I saw the play three times when I was first in New York. I remember so much of Denis’s performance, specifically,” said Ferguson. “Audiences also have fond memories of the actor who played this part and won a Tony Award for it. It was my job to figure out a new version of this guy.”
Greenberg’s writing, comparing baseball to democracy, transcends the ballpark with familiar parallels that frighteningly reflect recent political events, even though the play was written more than 20 years ago:
“… baseball is better than Democracy — or at least than
Democracy as it’s practiced in this country — because unlike
Democracy, baseball acknowledges loss.” — Take Me Out
Ferguson said he’s underplaying a lot of the comedy from the first act to find a new way to string the character together. The mammoth Act I speech was the first piece of text that he learned.
“It’s such a hefty piece of writing, very pragmatic, like an aria,” Ferguson said. “I’ve gotten the privilege of doing lots of Shakespeare, and I’m using a lot of these same tools. The writing is a gift, and I’m just staying out of the way not to upstage Richard [Greenberg’s] work. I’m still learning.”
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Stepping to the Plate for LGBTQ Rights
Take Me Out’s relevancy can be seen across today’s headlines as anti-LGBTQ legislation continues to advance throughout the country. Ferguson, who started the nonprofit Tie The Knot with now-husband Justin Mikita in 2012 to promote marriage equality, recognizes the fragility of rights achieved and those at risk.
“It’s very disheartening,” said Ferguson. “I feel like we’ve taken such huge steps. There was such joy when we finally won federal marriage equality — there was such celebration behind it. Yet many people I respected and looked up to said, ‘That’s great, but we have to get back to work.’ I continue to look to and respect those who have held the door open for me.”
Ferguson and Mikita recently rebranded Tie The Knot as Pronoun to target current LGBTQ rights at risk.
“There’s a war on the trans community, people of color, a war on women, and a raging war against the entire LGBTQ community with the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. I blame so much of it on the four years we had with a certain president,” said Ferguson. “I’m grateful that I have a husband so passionate about activism. It’s positive and not heavy-handed and something I’m really proud of. But because it even has to exist is why we have so much work.”
Take Me Out runs through June 11 at the Hayes Theater, New York City.