By Elizabeth Jackson
My first introduction to Joel Meyers, CC ’21, involved watching from the mezzanine as he alternately bounded and skulked around the Milbank stage, playing the troll king in Peer Gynt. His delivery of the lines, whether an oddly giddy threat or philosophy disguised as nonsense, was electric.
I searched for his name in my program during intermission. “This guy is amazing,” I said, pointing him out to my friend in the adjacent seat. “I’m scared every time he comes on stage.”
Since then, I’ve seen him play a dignified Lord Capulet (Romeo and Juliet), a rambunctious Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), an exhausted cruise ship guest (Bard Overboard), and a thoughtful, tortured Conrad (Stupid Fucking Bird). Meyers has also performed in The Varsity Show, Xmas, and CMTS’s Godspell during his time here. His face is likely familiar to anyone acquainted with the world of Columbia theatre.
Speaking to me from his childhood home in Seattle, Meyers recalled his initial resistance to formal acting, around age ten. But he’d ended up striking a deal with his mother that if both he and his cousin were cast in a local Christmas play, they would participate. Meyers was confident that his cousin would not be cast; his confidence turned out to be misplaced. In the end, his mom got her “four hours on a Saturday morning to go running with her sister” during their rehearsals, and Meyers gained an indelible taste for the stage. In addition to theatre, Meyers was athletic growing up; he switched to soccer after swearing off baseball, after he was hit by a pitch twice in the same fifth-grade game. Now, he proudly calls indoor soccer the “best game in the world.”
Unsurprisingly, Meyers majored in Drama and Theatre Arts, but he also majored in Astrophysics—an unexpected combination, on the surface. “In practice,” he admitted, “there isn’t much overlap unless you’re, I guess, writing a play about physicists.” But Meyers insisted that it is “a bit of a fallacy that the arts and the sciences are not connected,” and cited performance and art theorists who employ scientific concepts (sometimes inexactly) to convey their ideas. Indeed, his own thesis was a testament to the possibility of interconnection between the stage and the laboratory: As his subject, he took on Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird (a modern retelling of Chekov’s The Seagull) and 20th-century developments in physics. In the project, he compared Posner’s departure from conventional artistic theories to Einstein’s departure from established concepts of physical reference frames in his theory of special relativity.
More broadly, Meyers relates physical reference frames to the strategies that actors use to distinguish the perspective of their character from those of the playwright and audience. He said this acting concept is “never really talked about in conjunction with basically the same idea in physics.” Meyers discussed perspective in scientific terms: “You can describe any event from n number of reference frames. There are some reference frames that are better than others.” Though “those two vocabularies are so different,” he said, “they really are talking about the same thing in two very different ways.”
For Meyers, whose favorite genre is, fittingly, science fiction, science helps us understand “how the world works,” while art addresses what to make of that understanding and why that understanding matters in our day-to-day lives. Metaphysical musings like, “Are we brains in a vat?” (as Meyers asked me in a string of questions I was woefully unprepared, as his interviewer, to answer) are questions the “crossover” between art and science “can not necessarily answer, but help.”
To date, Meyers has most publicly engaged simultaneously with science and the arts through his calculation-based advertisements for the shows in which he performs. In furiously detailed Facebook posts, Meyers has investigated burning questions, like what it would take for us to actually fly, unaided by artificial structures; how hot (temperature-wise) Juliet must be to “teach the torches to burn bright;” and how Jesus could have actually walked on water (absent divine intervention, because “that’s no fun”).
He explained that these calculations began as an “act of defiance” against customary calls to promote shows on social media, a forum about which he (like many of us) is generally ambivalent. He also doesn’t like to ask people to attend his performances, even face-to-face: “If they want to come see it, great. But I don’t want to subject other people to anything I do.” He first posted a set of calculations to advertise Xmas because his close friend, the director, felt strongly that he should post something. “You want me to advertise your show, fine,” he remembered thinking, sarcastically. “I’m going to make sure no one reads this.” But the idiosyncratic advertisements have become a regular component of his theatrical routine. Today, he writes each post “for those two or three people who will sit down, read it, and be excited about it.”
As we discussed the diversity of roles that Meyers has played over the last four years, I got the sense that he enjoys working on these shows more for the collaborative experience and enthusiasm of the cast than the particular type of role he lands—an impression he confirmed. But as he reflected on his time on the stage, he said, “It’s funny to me. I—when I think of myself, I try to think of myself as a serious actor” (here he pitched his voice lower, assuming a brief but campy thespian expression), “which I’m not at all. But that’s what I want to be when I—when I grow up.” Due to the nature of the shows on offer at college, he explained, most of his roles have skewed more comedic; hence his friends’ surprise at his haunting, tragic thesis performance in Stupid Fucking Bird in Fall 2020. Meyers, on the other hand, admits, “I don’t really think of myself as a comedian,” though he certainly earns his share of laughs when his character calls for it. In fact, he conspicuously avoided improv and Latenite groups: “I don’t know how they do it,” he marveled. He called their members “brilliant.”
Meyers seems like someone who would overthink his performances, as someone unapologetically fascinated by spreadsheets. But though the temptation is there, Meyers said, matter-of-factly, “You’ve just gotta be there. You’ve got to say the words. Hopefully something happens.”
I later asked Meyers, after he’d offered more guidance on balancing meticulous technique with instinct, what the best advice he’s ever received has been. He recalled his high school Physics teacher, who once told him, when confronted with several opportunities, to “sometimes just pick the hardest thing and just do that.” Even if the challenge proves too much, others will still be interested in and impressed by the attempt. “I think that was very much my justification for Astrophysics,” Meyers reflected. On one audition, he recounted, “They were all really into the Astrophysics. I hardly even read the scene.” He added, half-jokingly, “You can fake the competence,” but “what people really care about is just, is this going to be an interesting person to spend my life around?”
Since graduating this April, Meyers’s future plans have been somewhat in flux. He’s started a tutoring partnership with one of his friends and has set himself the goal of reading the Bible next year, confessing himself to be a “failed Catholic.” He also hopes to perform in fellow student Harris Solomon’s play, Bard Overboard, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. The cast was meant to perform last year, but the festival was canceled, and they are still waiting to hear whether international performers will be hosted this summer. Meyers will be returning to New York in June and staying for at least a year to pursue theatre and film, though he acknowledges that he “would like to end up back in the Pacific Northwest one day, but who knows where the wind will blow.” He also leaves open the possibility of spending more time in England, which he visited several years ago, adding offhandedly, “mostly, I just like their train system.”