Neal’s first experiences with acting and performance began in his sophomore year of high school in Brazil, Ind. He said that his speech teacher also taught drama classes and encouraged him to explore acting and performance.
“She was a huge influence on my life because I took this speech class and—I was a shy kid—she saw potential in me and I don’t know why,” Neal said. “She would always say ‘Come and take this class,’ or ‘We’re going to do this thing called oral interpretation of literature. Come and do that.’ She would drag me in there kind of against my will half the time.”
Neal said that because he played football and basketball and ran track, that he never participated in the school’s plays. He attended college at Indiana University and changed his major three times before settling on English.
According to Neal, he first realized he had an interest in performing on stage when he came home one summer, and his former teacher convinced him to participate in a community theater performance.
“She was involved in a community theater performance of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and she goes, ‘We need men. Come on, you’re going to be in this,’” Neal said. “I’m like, ‘No. I’m not doing that,’ and she forced me into it. I just started to realize that this is something that I think is really cool.”
After graduating from IU, Neal taught high school English for three years. During that time, he also participated in productions at night. According to Neal, that was when he realized that theater was what he wanted to do. He got into the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University, and after graduating, started traveling and performing. He said that his interest in the arts and the connection he was able to draw between performing and athletics was another factor that drew him to theater.
“When I started doing theater, I guess the way I’d describe it is it kind of felt like me. I felt at home. I felt like this is my tribe, these people,” Neal said. “I’d been a jock in high school . . . I loved playing sports, and when I started doing theater, it just felt similar. It’s physical. The mental preparation is also the same. I always tell my students, ‘You are athletes of the theater,’ because that’s what it’s like. You’ve got to use your bodies. I think it just felt comfortable and like home.”
Prior to coming to UIndy, Neal was adjunct faculty at DePauw University from the mid 1990s until about 2000, he said. He left to focus more on performance, which is when he began working at the IRT. Former Chair of the Department of theater Jim Ream got Neal’s contact information and asked him to teach a class at UIndy shortly after, according to Neal. He has stayed at UIndy because he enjoys teaching and they are willing to work with his schedule at the IRT, which consists of day and weekend performances and, at times, six to eight hours of rehearsals daily, Neal said.
In the almost 16 years he has been at UIndy, Neal has taught acting, an introductory theater course for non-majors and movements courses. He currently teaches a voice and diction for the stage course. Junior theatre education major Bailey Williams took the class with Neal last academic year and said she found it helpful. Williams said that one of the standout moments came during finals week, when Neal took the class out to Smith Mall and had them perform their Shakespeare monologues. The class sat in the concrete seating near Schwitzer Student Center while the performer stood near the canal, according to Williams.
“We had to stand in the middle of that big field and say our Shakespeare monologue for everyone to hear,” Williams said. “We were closer to the canal than the actual class, so that was really cool. There were people walking around and people stopping and looking at us, but we were just doing our monologues and yelling in the big field. It was fun.”
Williams said that Neal’s professional, real-world experience provided a different perspective for the students in his classes. She said that he was not only able to advise them on performance and acting, but also how to put together a resume and audition for a theater. He also was able to help the students see the importance of being able to perform without a microphone.
“The cool thing about the IRT is they don’t use microphones,” Williams said. “That was his biggest thing . . . since he had that experience, he was able to say, ‘Well, even on stage at the IRT, you have to project because we don’t have microphones,’ and ‘Here are the healthy ways to do it. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.’…He was able to show us how it is at different theaters, not just here when we perform on the big stage.”
Neal said that because he acts at the IRT and other theaters, he is working on the same techniques his students are and that it helps him to better teach them. He said that he enjoys his students, helping them work on developing their craft and that teaching helps him get better, as well.
In addition to performing at the IRT and teaching at UIndy, Neal also performs with the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company. This year, Neal is directing “Coriolanus” for the company. He said that the collaborative piece of directing and the ability to take a play that he loves and bring it to life are his favorite parts of the directing process. Neal said that he enjoys having opportunities to both act and direct.
“It [directing] is a different muscle in a way,” Neal said. “When you’re an actor, you’re in the middle of it. You can’t see the forest for the trees because you’re focusing on this one thing—it’s not your job to do that, either. But as the director, what’s great is you invite all those people into the room and you share your germ of an idea of how this show is going to go. And then it mushrooms because it’s so collaborative and they [actors, designers] bring so much to it. And you see this thing grow that was only a tiny thing to begin with.”
According to Neal, he has been in over 100 plays in the 30 years of his career. Some of his favorite roles include James Beard in the one-man-show “I Love to Eat,” which was written with him in mind by the IRT’s playwright James Still, Helen Keller’s father in “The Miracle Worker,” performed at the IRT, Ed’s father in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,’ which he performed at the IRT and in New York and Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men,’ performed with the Cardinal Stage Company in Bloomington, Ind.
Currently, Neal said he is focused on his role as Lord Capulet. He played Friar Laurence in a previous production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the IRT. According to Neal, he has liked coming back to the script and playing another character. Neal said that being a dad has helped him relate to Lord Capulet, but that Lord Capulet is not the same kind of father Neal is, which has been both difficult and rewarding.
“He’s [Lord Capulet is] trying to do what’s right, but he can be authoritative and authoritarian and a bit of a dictator. In some ways, I try to relish that part of it,” Neal said. “But it’s ultimately the idea of losing a child to suicide as they do at the end. It’s horrific. So to journey into that world has been life expanding in a way. Difficult, but also rewarding in its way.”
The IRT’s 90-minute production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ will have public shows that run until March 3.