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A Delicate Balance

Conductor and actor Damon Gupton thrives on a unique dual career.

In the pantheon of performing artist hyphenates, “actor-conductor” is undoubtedly a club with few members. But that hasn’t stopped Damon Gupton from making it work.

Gupton (BM ’94, trombone and music education) has been a guest conductor with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the National, Baltimore, and Detroit symphony orchestras, among many others. He was assistant conductor of the Kansas City Symphony from 2006-2008.

He is also the star of a much-heralded television drama, The Divide, the first dramatic series on the WeTV network, which debuted last summer. The leading role of a conflicted and ambitious district attorney is well earned, following years of stellar supporting and guest roles. It came on the heels of his Broadway debut in Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, winner of the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Gupton is the first to admit that his career path has been a bit out of the ordinary. “It’s been strange,” he said. “But I’m very humbled by the journey. It’s extraordinary, and sometimes daunting, because you don’t always know how to focus. You just maximize the opportunities to get better.”

He is also grateful for the education and mentoring he received at Michigan: “I feel like I’m standing on a lot of shoulders, and a lot of them are in Ann Arbor. A big part of my heart is there, no doubt about it.”

This fall, Gupton returned to campus to talk to students about the challenges and rewards of a career in the arts, and to offer career development advice. A former scholarship studetn, he also presented the keynote speech at the Scholarship Showcase dinner for donors and their scholarship recipients. The inspiration flowed in both directions.

“I will never forget the way the students of the University of Michigan School of  Music, Theatre & Dance made room for me to open my heart so I could try to touch theirs, only to have mine touched ten thousandfold in return,” he wrote on Facebook at the conclusion of his three-day residency.

 

The Road Less Traveled

Pursuing a dual career was never the plan; Gupton came to U-M with only music on his mind. Born and raised in Detroit, he discovered orchestral music when, at age six, his mother gave him John Williams’s soundtrack to the first Superman film. ” I wore that album out,” he said. “For years, it was all I listened to.”

Eventually he collected the rest of Williams’s soundtracks, began studying trombone in middle school, and discovered the full spectrum of classical music in high school. By the time he began attending the renowned Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, his passion for orchestral music was secured. His goal, when he got to SMTD, was to eventually teach high school orchestra.

Gupton did not formally study theatre at U-M, but he conducted student-run MUSKET musicals and acted in African American productions directed by SMTD theatre professor OyamO and Residential College drama professor Kate Mendeloff. He also appeared in an August Wilson play at the Ann Arbor Community Theatre. But he felt disconnected from the theatre department.

“Here I was, this music guy, trying to fit in, and I didn’t know anything about Arthur Miller, or Ibsen, or Chekhov; it was intimidating,” he said. “The theatre professors at the time were trying to nurture something they saw in me, which was really wonderful of them, but my focus was music,” he said.

And conducting was his passion. Professor Elizabeth Green gave him private lessons in her home, where she also fed him chicken dinners (“among the most precious moments of my life,” Gupton said) and he studied with H. Robert Reynolds and Gustav Meier.

It wasn’t until after he graduated-and was not accepted into the graduate conducting program at Michigan, his one and only choice-that Gupton began to work more studiously on developing his acting skills. Not getting into Michigan was the first big rejection of his life and may have been a blessing in disguise. Over the next year, as he tried to “collect himself,” he took some acting courses with Mendeloff and theatre professor Betty Jean Jones, who encouraged him to apply to the best theatre programs on the east coast. He was soon moving to New York to study acting at Juilliard, and music was put on the back burner.

After graduating, the thing Gupton most wanted to do was play an assistant district attorney on Law and Order. He got close: The first TV role he landed was on that show. Soon after, L&O creator Dick Wolf launched a new series titled Deadline and cast Gupton. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is heaven, here I am working for the Law & Order man.’ And they canceled us.”

He continued acting after that, but his career trajectory changed again when Gupton accompanied a girlfriend to the Aspen Music Festival. At that point he’d been away from music for nine years, but Aspen captivated him. He decided to apply, and was accepted for the following summer’s program.

“God bless [former AMF music director] David Zinman, who gave me opportunity after opportunity. All of a sudden I was back in music and acting went kind of bye-bye for a while,” he said. Following studies with Zinman and Murry Sidlin, Gupton went on to win the Aspen Conducting Prize. He also studied with Leonard Slatkin at the National Conducting Institute in Washington, D.C. and served as an American Conducting Fellow with the Houston Symphony.

Gupton has since managed to successfully juggle his two careers, with one taking precedence over the other in waves. His music career has included an association with the Sphinx Organization, conducting their finals competition as well as two tours and a recording with the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra. And his acting career led to roles in a number of acclaimed films including Unfaithful and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and as a series regular on shows such as the American version of Prime Suspect. But it was a guest appearance on HBO’s Newsroom that may have been the most pivotal of his career.

Aaron Sorkin cast Gupton as a Rick Santorum campaign advisor who is pro-life, conservative, and also openly gay. It was a seven-minute scene in which his character is interviewed by TV news host Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels). Attempting to reveal the hypocrisy of the Gupton character’s commitment to Santorum, McAvoy infuriates him and then becomes the victim of an incinerating slap-down, delivered by Gupton in a scene-stealing, bravura performance.

Tony Goldwyn, the executive producer of The Divide, took note. He had already seen Gupton in the Los Angeles production of Clybourne Park, but the Newsroom scene convinced him that he had found his lead actor. When he saw the script, Gupton knew he was being offered something special.

“As an African American male, seeing a character of this depth was an extraordinary opportunity for me,” said Gupton. “I knew it was an incredible role, that this man was dynamic and layered and complicated. As an actor, you’re drawn to those things, especially in the medium of television.”

The show pits Gupton’s ambitious and passionate DA Adam Page against an equally impassioned case worker for “The Innocence Initiative” (played by Marin Ireland) as she tries to free a death row inmate sent to prison by Page. The show was hailed by critics, but at press time, a second season had not been announced.

 

Weighing the Differences

With his success in two different creative worlds, Gupton is not looking to make a choice. But he appreciates the opportunity to compare the two creative processes. “The very direct and analytical nature of being a conductor requires a different skill (from acting)” he said. “There’s a certain amount of group psychology that goes with that. There’s a different level of preparation when you’re focusing on music, which I feel is a very internal energy. You don’t always depend on your stand partner. In acting, you’re absolutely dependent on other people.

“They both have their particular challenges,” he added, “but musicians can always detach from their instruments, they can always step back. Actors: We are our instruments. In terms of communication, I always felt that music is the more powerful because it’s wordless sometimes, and maybe, because it’s the oldest of the arts, it’s dearer to me in a way. Whenever you play Barber’s Adagio for Strings you’re going to communicate worlds and worlds and worlds of emotion.”

For others with multiple talents, Gupton advises developing them to their fullest. “If you’re multitalented as an artist and you don’t exercise all those talents, that’s a wasted opportunity,” he said. “And watching the industry try to shuffle how to present art in this changing society-I say diversify your portfolio. We all need to become hyphenates. Actor-musician, musician-novelist. Do it until it can’t be done, and if it can’t be done, then fine. But don’t let anybody tell you ‘no, you can’t do that.’ It’s your life, it’s your gift. I say go for it.”

 

By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.