Clarence Gilyard Jr. — From TV Actor to Theater Professor
Clarence Gilyard Jr. – From TV Actor To Theater Professor
Parent, religious leader, professor, activist, producer, lover of all things theater; these are just a few of the many roles Neil Simon Festival actor Clarence Gilyard Jr. plays in real life. Well known from the television personalities he portrayed on both Matlock and Walker Texas Ranger, Clarence says that he had tried his hand at both college (where he “played a little football”), and the Air Force, before realizing that the only thing he was cut out to do was act. “I became an actor by default – I couldn’t do anything else,” he said jokingly while keeping a close eye on his two young sons who were playing close by. Bringing them along in the summer while he performs (and produces) theater is just one of the many joys that Clarence says he appreciates at this juncture in his life. He said the slow pace of Cedar City is a wonderful thing to be able to share with them, and a relief from the hot weather in Las Vegas where he now resides.
After 14 consecutive years on network television, Clarence said it was time to slow things down a bit, so he decided to teach instead. He said that teaching theater at UNLV was a fantastically rewarding alternative to being on TV. The best part, he said, is having the opportunity to teach aspiring actors, and even those who are not aspiring to a career in the craft, how to draw parallels between themselves and the world around them through impersonation. “In theater you are looking at people depicted,” Clarence said. “You are a voyeur who is peeking in on that artistic action – the action of (the actor) getting what they want.”
The honors course that Clarence teaches is mostly filled with students who are working to further develop their persona for interactions in the professional world, rather than to develop a career in acting, he said. “They’re doctors and lawyers, politicians and statesmen, students who want to figure out how they fit in to the community,” he said explaining how the course is designed to help students understand how to build connections to what they can contribute to the community by connecting the dots between how their characters function and how they can use their talents in the community. Clarence described it as a way of not only polishing the social mask we develop, but as a way of feeding the soul through theater.
Matters of the soul have always been important to Gilyard. As a Catholic, he said he used to work for the Bishops Conference out of Washington D.C. doing a variety of things within his religious community. Today Clarence says he resides on a board of directors with a Catholic organization that works in 17 countries around the world to help families in need by giving them training in family dynamics, counseling, helping the disabled, offering catechism school to teach others about the Catholic faith. Clarence’s strong conviction in his faith is what he believes helps to keep families together. “The man who started family theater, his name is father Patrick Peyton, and his credo is ‘The family that prays together stays together,’ and there is truth to that,” Clarence said. Another aspect of the work that he does with the church involves teaching people how to go about using media and especially social media effectively and most importantly he said – healthily. “There is a lot of garbage out there,” he said.
Clarence says that in his mind theater is a form of activism that elevates the mind and raises societal awareness about subjects that may be controversial or taboo. “Most theater is political,” he said. “That’s what one of my professors drilled into me, ‘It ain’t really theater if it ain’t political.’” Clarence’s passion lately has been found in the work he has been doing in Albania as part of an international protest theater company. He said that Protest Theater is a form of theater that engages the issues of communities where marginalized people are not being heard, “For example, two years ago I directed the National Theater of Albania in an American piece, and I am working on another piece there now.” Clarence said that he is actually directing two pieces in Albania right now, and a piece in South Africa at The Market Theater. He also has a production company that he runs with his brother called Gilyard Productions out of Los Angeles. He said they had recently produced a South African play in Chicago called “My Children! My Africa!” by Athol Fugard, a playwright who had a very strong protest voice in South Africa against the institutionalized segregation that was taking place in communities during apartheid.
Because of protest, Clarence says there are many things that happen in the United States that simply couldn’t happen any place else in the world. When considering the American melting pot Clarence said the current play he is acting in for NSF, “Driving Miss Daisy,” is a perfect example of social commentary through theater. “These people come from completely different fabrics,” he said “For an illiterate black man who never went to school, to be the best friend of this English teacher, well it’s highly unlikely.” There is so much more wrapped into the messages in this play Clarence says; the concept of aging and having to accept the limitations of that, the idea that people from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds could become such good friends, the education gap, and the racial tension in the deep south in 1948 (the time when the story takes place) are all incredibly difficult subjects that are approached with poise and dignity in this story line. He said that may have something to do with why this story is still so popular, “The things that happen in everyday life, occur in this play.” Clarence said he sees Hoke’s character as just a regular guy, the kind of guy people interact with every day, and that is part of what makes this such a fun part to play. “It is just a beautiful funny play about them over 25 years; how she comes to realize she really needs him, and he comes to realize how he needs her,” he said.
NSF founder Richard Bugg said he has known Clarence since they acted together on Walker Texas Ranger many years ago, and he has been waiting for just the right role to invite him to perform in Cedar City. “He is a consummate professional and I think people will see his brilliant acting and confirm to them that we are doing serious theater here.” Richard said that when “Driving Miss Daisy” came along, he knew he had found the part he has been looking for. Clarence, who was raised a country boy (his family is from New Orleans) said he loves to spend time in Cedar City, and often comes to visit with his family. He said they enjoy the Utah Shakespeare Festival, as well as NSF, and make the most of their time while they are here. “We are the happiest people in town right now,” he said. Richard said that Clarence is a genuinely caring individual and a fantastic actor who he is grateful to have performing with the NSF theater company this season.
More information about Driving Miss Daisy and other Neil Simon Festival Productions can be found at simonfest.org.