The room is filled with paintings. Classics; works you would recognize but might not recall the name of on sight. Walking into the large open space where people are milling about and speaking in hushed tones, the paintings are what catch your attention first. But it’s not a gallery or museum. At least, not until the stage manager calls lights up.
North Hills native Billy Hepfinger is talking with his fellow actors before they start the day’s rehearsal. The wall that’s covered in paintings is a mere reference tool for the actors, but it’s an impressive one. A few short moments later, Hepfinger is stepping into the scene as a security guard of a museum, hence the reference photos. And while he’s not THE guard mentioned in the title of the City Theatre’s upcoming production of The Guard, his scenes are primarily with the main character providing the comic relief.
“He’s kind of a big-hearted doofus,” Hepfinger says of his character. Which is always a fun role to play, he points out. This production of Jessica Dickey’s play is only the second run of it anywhere, although it’s completely new to Pittsburgh. Asked whether it adds any pressure to bring life to a character so new, he claims the opposite. Unlike with a Shakespeare play or well-known musical where people expect each character to act a certain way, doing a new show allows you to invent the character yourself and put your own art into it. It must also help that Dickey is an actress herself, and because of her work in this year’s Humana Festival in Louisville she isn’t on set much to watch the actors bringing her script to life.
This is Hepfinger’s first time doing a full production at the City Theatre, although he’s done readings there before and is certainly no stranger to the Pittsburgh theater scene. In his six years in professional theater, most of that has been in Pittsburgh. While he lives in New York now, his roots in the craft are unquestionably here. His first professional gig was at the CLO’s Gallery of Heroes where he played George Washington in a traveling educational show for school students. As with many traveling troupes, Hepfinger helped the rest of the cast and crew to load and strike their small set twice a day as they traveled show to show. He also recalls seeing names mentioned in their show on Pittsburgh street signs, noting the wealth of history this town offers.
He has lately noticed a change in the Pittsburgh theater community compared to when he was getting started. “The Pittsburgh theater scene has expanded,” he explains. “More people from New York are coming here and settling down.” He notes that this is due to Pittsburgh now being a town where you can live and make a career in theater, and that wouldn’t be possible without the supportive theater-going crowd that we have here.
While Hepfinger is thrilled to do shows in Pittsburgh, he finds it very fulfilling to live in New York. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices to live there,” he notes. One of those being that he doesn’t get to see many of the shows that run near him on and off Broadway. “If I’m in New York, it means I’m not working,” he jokes. And despite putting in for the Hamilton ticket lottery every day for nearly a year, he’s had no luck so far.
Not to say that he doesn’t ever work in New York. The bulk of his work in theater has been in musicals, and New York is notorious for those. “If you can sing, you end up getting cast in musicals,” he says, and he’s done several shows off Broadway. Although he doesn’t seem to really have a preference between musicals and plays, he is aware that some thespians who work strictly on plays don’t understand the work that goes into a musical. “I will stand in their defense,” he says with a laugh. “Acting in musicals is very technical.”
Along with the world of theater, Hepfinger does voiceover work when he can. He joins the growing number of actors with sound equipment set up in his house, noting that it’s an easy aspect of the business to find yourself involved with. Being able to act remotely is handy, especially when he finds himself constantly traveling between New York and Pittsburgh. Similarly, it was through a skype audition that he got his part on the locally filmed television show Outsiders. And while skype is certainly useful in being able to audition for a Pittsburgh project from New York, it’s a bit odd to be acting to a computer. “It’s really difficult to convey emotion complexly across a screen,” he admits, “but at least the end result is going to be on a screen anyways.”
Outsiders is currently airing its second season, and Hepfinger has appeared in fifteen out of twenty episodes so far. He calls his character “recurring” rather than a main character, but he’s firmly a part of the project. It’s a different world acting for the camera, especially on a television project where you can get a rewrite or have a scene cut moments before shooting. He hasn’t felt thrown off by any of that so far, however, though he mentions that if his character was a bigger role it might be harder to make those adjustments. “The craft is the same no matter whether it’s on stage or in front of a camera,” he observes, maintaining that despite the great diversity that exists between the different versions of acting, it’s all the same in the end.
When questioned about which he prefers, theater or film acting, Hepfinger scrunches up his face a bit, indicating the toughness of this choice. With many artists, being asked to choose a preferred medium can be the equivalent of choosing a favorite child. “I’ve been doing more film lately, over the past couple of years, so it’s been really refreshing to come back and do theater. So right now I’m in a theater mindset,” he answers, noncommittally. “In a perfect world I’d put a balance between the two. This work is really fulfilling.”
It surely helps that when Hepfinger is in town working on a play, he gets to spend time with his family, who still live in Pittsburgh, and old friends he’s still in contact with from his early theater days. It’s easy to get attached to the cast and crew of a show; the time you spend with them is incredibly condensed and close. Theater friends from years ago will even be in his upcoming wedding, another happy reminder of his roots in Pittsburgh drama.
When speaking of the cast of The Guard, Hepfinger is enthusiastic and says they all get along very well. “Tracy is a wonderful director,” he adds, speaking of City Theatre’s long-time artistic director Tracy Brigden. She’s instrumental in inserting the humor into the show, which has a lot of serious moments. “It delves into some pretty heavy themes, but throughout there’s a lightness to it, and there’s a lot of humor. And I think by the end of the play you really grow to like all these people a lot.” He wishes he could get to watch the final product himself, inserting, “It’s gonna be fun to watch, and it’s very human. It has a lot of interesting things to say.”
No matter how many film projects or off-Broadway musicals Hepfinger ends up working with, he’ll always have his roots in the Pittsburgh drama scene. And he doesn’t hide his pride at all the work he’s done. As for The Guard, Hepfinger’s experience and enthusiasm can only be a boost to the small cast, but he remains humble. “All the performances are wonderful,” he confirms, smiling warmly. “I feel very lucky to be a part of it.”
See Billy and the rest of the cast in The Guard starting previews at City Theatre Saturday March 11, and officially opening Friday March 17. For tickets and more information, click here.
Production photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover