Many actors and performers know from childhood that they’re destined for a life onstage. For fourth-year Northeastern student Donovan Holt, it didn’t even take that long.

“My first exposure to music was before I was even born, because my mother was a choir director,” he says. “I fell in love with music through osmosis, and when I was in fifth grade, my music teacher gave me an operetta gig. When it came time for college, I was ready to commit and go with it.”

A young black man wearing a button-down shirt smile for the camera.

Donovan Holt (image courtesy of Donovan Holt)

By the time he came to Northeastern, Holt had already spent much of his life on stages, whether with church choirs, vocal groups or in theater productions. He was also part of the Illinois All State High School Theatre Festival, the state’s largest student theater event. But his studies here have added substantially to his skillset, and given him more options for a career path. He entered Northeastern as an experienced singer and actor, and was part of the student a cappella group the Downbeats (and still works with them as an advisor). But he’s since gravitated to working behind the scenes, and also begun studying the scientific aspects of movement, and how that affects athletes as well as theater performers. As a result, he now sees an increased number of possibilities for his work in the future.

“One of the most important things I learned is that there is no one right way,” he says. “I came here initially because I wanted to act. Then I discovered stage management and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to be a stage manager for the rest of my life.’ Then I realized I wanted to sing more, then I wanted to direct, then I wanted to produce. It’s just been a whirlwind of changes and new learning and possibilities.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Holt says he was lucky to find schoolteachers who recognized his talents. “I had an Italian teacher that also loved musicals, she kept pushing me to go for it. There was also a choir teacher who became my mentor and gave me a lot of foundational knowledge, along with my family.” In terms of more famous role models, he says that Broadway star James Monroe Iglehart, famed for playing the Genie in Aladdin and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, was an inspiration. “He was the first person I saw onstage that looked like me, being a big guy and being Black. And here he was tap dancing and doing Broadway, and I thought ‘I could really do this.’ Seeing him win the Tony really made me happy.”

While studying dance in high school he also took up wrestling, and he says the two aren’t as far apart as one might think. “[In each case] I learned that there are a lot of cool things you can do with your body in terms of how you lift, where you place your weight in order to achieve a certain outcome.” During high school he also maintained interest in math and science, plus baseball and other sports. “Here at Northeastern I’m seeing how all those other sports and extracurriculars come into play. I’m focusing on theater and human movement science and seeing how my knowledge as a wrestler—knowing my body and how I present and carry myself—how I can physically transport that onto the stage, and how can I help people use that knowledge in a safer, more body focused way.”

Holt initially came to Northeastern with a double major in theater and environmental science. But a pivotal experience in experiential learning with the Boston Ballet convinced him to change the scientific part of the equation, to a study of the relation of physical science and performance. “I was watching one of the student classes, just watching them go on pointe [a dance move performed on the tips of the toes]. They were learning to do it safely and in a sustainable way, so they wouldn’t be breaking their ankles or anything like that. And I was so impressed to see it, because at that age I would not have been able to do that. That was the moment that encouraged me to drop the environmental science and pursue movement science, to think more about what it means to be a performer.”

This journey has brought Holt to destinations that theater performers don’t often visit, like the cadaver lab that he attended as part of his movement studies. “That helped me learn about the different muscles and tissues and bones in the body, so I could be able to pinpoint them and understand the form and the function. So now I can say, ‘Ow, my gastrocnemius muscle [found in the back of the lower leg] is really tensing up right now’. I can use that knowledge about how someone could potentially strain, and how you could potentially help. That’s an interesting part of the journey that I’m just discovering.”

A young black man stands onstage and delivers a monologue.

Donovan Holt on stage (image courtesy of Donovan Holt)

Another eye-opener was a week last summer that he spent in London working with the innovative UK company known as Frantic Assembly. The recommendation came from Northeastern professor Jesse Hinson. “I never would have known about it if it weren’t for him, and along with my classes and my co-op, it really shaped the way I view theater. The Frantic method has a large focus on the body—how you move it, how you partner with other people, how you do lifts. How you can take a simple string of choreography and when you put that with music, or with silence, or with a different intention—how that can change the story, and say something without the necessity for words.”

The idea of making nonverbal statements proved especially resonant. “Working with Frantic I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ It allows me to take some of my wrestling knowledge and incorporate that into my directing pathway; to tell stories that need to be told. If I have a philosophy as an artist, it comes from Nina Simone’s quote: ‘An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.’ There are a lot of great shows and stories out there, but not all of them need to be told at this exact point in time. I want to tell stories that I think are relevant, and that I think need to be brought into the mainstream community. The [classic] musical theater thing is that you sing because something is boiling up inside of you and words aren’t enough; you have to sing it. I approach physical theater in the same way: I need to move because I can’t just say it anymore.”

One production that reflected the times was the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, which was produced by the Central Square Theater (in collaboration with Front Porch Arts Collective and the Greater Boston Stage Company) last May. Holt worked as assistant to director/choreographer Maurice Parent and appeared onstage as an understudy for performers who were out with COVID (Holt caught the virus himself and remembers scrambling to catch up after missing a number of rehearsals). Though Fats Waller died in 1943, he laid the foundations for modern jazz and his compositions included “Black and Blue,” one of the first popular songs to speak directly to African-American concerns. “That song is a perfect example of why his music is important to this day. If the color of your skin is Black, you don’t want to worry about police brutality and discrimination; you just want to be accepted in the world.”

A young Black actor stands on stage in a horned costume.

Donovan Holt as Orcus in “She Kills Monsters” (image courtesy of CAMD Department of Theatre)

Holt was recently cast in the Northeastern production of Polaroid Stories, directed by Greg Allen and opening October 13. Written by Naomi Izuka, it transforms Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the modern urban setting. He’ll also be directed in a staged reading of Exception to the Rule for the Front Porch Arts Collective, with whom he’s worked in the past through Northeastern. Here again he found the kind of social relevance he was after. “Front Porch is determined to bring stories of the African diaspora to Boston—not just the sad Black stories, the Color Purples and Raisins in the Suns. But the Black stories of finding love—What does that look like, and what do pain and anger look like. It’s about telling the stories we want to.”

He recently wrapped up another stint in experiential learning at the Huntington Theatre, which ranged from coaching actors to working tech, and working with the new artistic director to plan the upcoming season. “They really operated like a family, which was monumental for me. I came in with the mindset of ‘You’re an intern, better keep your mouth shut.’ But they made me feel like I was a professional and these were my colleagues. Sure, I’m young and I have the rest of my life to be doing this. But [at Huntington], that didn’t mean you don’t get opportunities. You make mistakes and aren’t expected to know everything.”

All these experiences helped him define what he wants to accomplish, both on a practical and a philosophical level. “I enjoy producing theater and casting, and I’m starting to gear up to be a director more than I anticipated. I will always enjoy acting as well, but there are other things like lighting design and costumes that I am still discovering. Northeastern has opened a lot of doors—and windows, and rooftops, and everything else. It gave me a strong introduction to a lot of the aspects of theater, and from there I got to explore a lot of different things I wanted to do, and how I could take advantage of my time here.”

Holt’s not writing off the possibility of getting to Broadway after graduation, or someday joining Iglehart in the Tony spotlight. But for now, he’d like to continue pursuing theater in Boston. “I love Broadway, but in Boston you have a very close-knit community: You can go to one show and see actors and directors hanging out; then you see them onstage and feel the love and support from the community. It’s a very vital scene right now, especially after the pandemic closures and everything opening up again. I’m excited to get out there and see what amazing new plays are going to be produced.”

For more on the CAMD Department of Theater, visit camd.northeastern.edu/theatre/ 

Written by Brett Milano on behalf of Northeastern University.

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