Billy-Christopher Maupin hopes to change lives one play at a time
Billy Christopher Maupin sits across from me at the Scott’s Addition Lamplighter coffee house. We’re sipping espressos and talking about how a boy from the geographic center of Kentucky ended up starting his own theatre company here in Richmond.
But lets start in Kentucky - Campbellsville, KY, to be exact. Exactly in the center of KY.
“If you’ve got nothing to compare it to, it is what it is,” said Maupin as he explained his early years in Campbellsville. With a population of less than 10K, it was the kind of town where you could walk from the Hardee’s on one side of town to the Walmart on the other in about 30 mins.
Maupin’s high school photo from friend Faith L. Doerr (via Facebook)
Maupin stayed in Campbellsville with his family all the way through the first few years of college when enrolled at Campbellsville University, a small baptist college in town.
He came out as gay after a few months into his second year in the program, but considering the school’s faith-based roots, everything went really well.
Maupin said he was in his ‘Religion in Life’ class and they were assigned to tell a life story in front of the class along side a recording of a song.
“What did I know, being from Kentucky,” he joked before admitting he came out to his class with “I’ll Cover You” from the musical Rent playing in the background.
His teacher (who was also the golf instructor – again, a very small school) gave him a hug afterword. If that wasn’t sweet enough, a classmate passed him a note when he sat down.
He expected the worst.
“Some football player is telling me he’s gonna kick my ass after class,” Maupin thought as he opened the tiny-folded piece of paper; but it turns out the note read “Jesus still loves you.”
His mom was not surprised when she told her the news. “Was I not supposed to already know?” she told him. His dad was less comfortable with the situation.
“I’ve never experienced more silence in a room,” he said about what unfolded after he came out to his father, describing the situation as “the most awkward silence.”
But later his mom told him his father felt bad for not handling the situation better. Maupin said he understood how a farmer from Kentucky might have been at a loss for words over his gay son.
“If I had been him, I couldn’t imagine, growing up on a farm and knowing nothing about any of this, and totally still loving me anyway,” said Maupin. “It’s amazing, even if he’s not super communicative, he’s the most amazing man I’ve ever known.”
“It was kind of a beautiful experience – very loving and embracing,” Maupin said, thinking back fondly on his small-town coming out story. But it wasn’t long before he was ready to break out of Campbellsville and head someplace a bit more fast based – Bowling Green, KY and Western Kentucky University.
Maupin circa 1999 – via Facebook Stefan Gearhart
He enrolled in the theatre program and was shocked by the shift in attitudes.
“My professor made a crack about women and Christians on the first day of class and my mind was blown,” Maupin said of his first days of class at the new college. “Who does this?! There are people who think like this and are successful and do things?!”
Sadly, his scholastic success at the smaller school did not transfer to the larger college, but his small-town ways hung around for a while – he’d often be the only sober person at theatre parties, but he still found ways to goof off.
Spending all night sitting on a hill with his friends frequently took precedent to going to class.
“It came time for midterms and I realized I didn’t know any of [the material] cause I hadn’t been to class in weeks,” he said, before clarifying he always went to his theatre classes. “Scholastically, it was ridiculous, but artistically, it was amazing.”
Campbellsville had maybe one show a year in their tiny theatre department, but at Western, there were tons of stage opportunities – opera, student produced shows, etc – and Maupin jumped at every opportunity he had.
“The professors were incredible, and I learned how green I really was,” he said.
He recalled a time playing the villain in Esther’s Story for a children’s theatre production. He was getting tons of laughs, and he decided to play off of it – but it turns out, after the production, his director told him “if you don’t stop mugging, I’ll kick you out of the show.”
He didn’t know what ‘mugging’ was (neither did I when he first used the term – it’s making eye contact or breaking character in the production, winking at the crowd after jokes, etc.) – He had been winking at the kids and the director was none to pleased.
“I didn’t know how green I was!” he joked.
But Western and the area around it provided tons of other chances for theatre-minded folks.
“It was amazing to be around such talented and skilled people who were passionate and into what they were doing.”
At that point, school wasn’t Maupin’s strong suit, so he when heard about a gig inWytheville, Virginia, playing Anne Frank’s boyfriend in the Diary of Anne Frank, he hopped on a bus. With nothing confirmed, he said to himself “I’ll go and if I get this job, I’ll be an actor and if I don’t… well…”
Maupin admitted he had the option to go back for school or return home, but it was still a pretty dramatic move.
Thankfully, he landed the boyfriend-gig and spent the season working his first real paid theater job.
He stuck around Wytheville and joined a local theatre class so he could get free trips to NYC. The class competed in forensics competitions, similar to competitive public speaking with dramatic interpretation.
It was pretty low key experience, with only one show a year, but it was worth it for the trips to the big city.
He stayed in Wytheville for a bit, but before long he found work with a touring company; He traveled the eastern half of the US with the Cincinnati branch of the Richmond-based Theatre IV program.
After his time in Cincinnati, he returned to Wytheville to try and start his own company, but things didn’t pan out. He ended up sending an audition video to Richmond Shakespeare and he was offered a gig.
Maupin (center) and Joe Carlson in Anthony and Cleopatra for Richmond Shakespeare – 11/14
Sadly, he had about three days to get ready for it.
“It went amazingly well,” he joked, calling his rushed-RVA Shakespeare premiere one of his favorite theatre experiences. He had two days to learn the lines, but luckily he stayed with the show’s artistic director, Grant Mudge, and the two spent all day going over lines (and having a beer or two).
Maupin remembered the five-person production involved a number of costume changes, and at one point he found himself in the wrong costume.
“I turned around, took off Claudio, put on Borachio, and I look at (Cynde Liffick) and I’m blank,” he said remembering one particularly intense moment on stage.
He knew he had a nice long speech, but the words escaped him entirely. Liffick, the company’s cofounder, saw him floundering on stage and said “Where hast though been, villain?” And the lines came flooding back.
“[Cynde] was an amazing scene partner,” he said. “In the moment, she knew what I needed.”
This stint in Richmond didn’t last long – by Winter 2004 he decide it was time to make the trek to NYC. He moved to Queens where he was the only non-asian or latino person on the block. “It was a very quiet, family oriented neighborhood, I loved it.”
Contrary to the usual “actor goes to NYC and crawls back a month later” narrative, Maupin got a job with Theatreworks USA playing Huck Finn in the Adventures of HuckleberryFinn about 3 weeks after moving to town.
“It was ridiculous, everyone else had theatre degrees and had majored in musical theater, and had been busting their asses, and here this kid from Virginia comes in and gets a job in three weeks,” he joked.
To his credit, he had actually spoken to Theatreworks in years past, so when he reached out when he arrived in NYC, they were familiar with him.
“Persistence was the key to any success I’ve had in my career,” said Maupin. “I don’t let go, I just keep saying ‘I need to do this, I need to do this.”
Unfortunately, on his first day at his new job, he was an hour late after getting lost on the subway.
“It was not a great way to start. Everybody hated me that day,” he joked.
The Huck Finn gig ended and he had a few other jobs in the mean time. But before long, Theatre IV reached out again. He got offered a gig with their ‘Hugs and Kisses’ program which dealt with child sexual abuse.
His stint was only supposed to last a few months, but four months turned into six, then eight, and before long he was a full Richmond resident.
“It was kind of an unexpected place to be, Richmond, and I wasn’t thrilled by the city when I first moved here because I lived in Bon Air without a car,” he said of his return to RVA, a move he came to love.
“In NYC, I could work and I could maybe piece together a living there, work on cool projects, but who’s ever gonna care? There’s two hundred of me who are probably better trained and looking than I am. But in Richmond, I can make a difference.”
This theme of being able to make impacts here in RVA is what kept Maupin in town.
“People care. And thankfully there’s a handful of people who see my name on a project and want to go see it,” he said. “That would have never happened for me in New York, it was not the lifestyle I wanted.”
He worked his way up through the marketing department at Theatre IV. He stayed with the company, even as it changed names and ownership, through Fall 2012. In 2013 he partnered with Carol Piersol, Founding Artistic Director of the Firehouse Theatre Project, to create their own theatre company - 5th Wall Theatre.
Maupin at a 5th Wall Theatre preview event in 2014 via Facebook - Eric D Dobbs
Maupin said his goal in life was to either settle down with a family and teach theatre in school, or have his own theatre company – the later worked out and he’s pretty happy with things so far.
“It was a creative home for me… and [Piersol] provided me more opportunities than I could ever dream of,” he said.
As Maupin and I wrapped up our conversation and shared a smoke in the still-chilly March air, he thought about why he fell in love with theatre in the first place.
He spoke about the idea of leaving the world a better place than how you found it, something he admits is cheesy, but it’s how he makes decisions in his life now.
“Not every play is set out to change lives, but it kind of is in a way,” he said. “To hopefully have the audience leave the theatre and look at things a little differently. And nothing makes me happier.”
He laughs that incredibly distinct laugh.
He said 5h Wall has been a great chance for him to do what he wants to do artistically.
5th Wall has The Human Terrain opening later this week, March 19th. But Maupin is also working with K Dance for a theater/dance performance, among other projects he has in the works.
“Some say I still have my irons in too many fires… but they’re all so different,” he says. “These are what feed me… those are things I’ve got going on… for now.”
It more largely illuminates how hard it can be to forge both a satisfying career and a fulfilling personal life in an era that seems to demand superhuman achievement from everyone.September 19, 2016
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