Company Profiles: Ben Cunis
This is the eighth in a series of posts profiling our company members — get to know the Synetic family of actors. I sent a few questions out to some company members, and their responses, as well as some info on the actor, can be found in this series. Enjoy!
Ben Cunis has been an actor with Synetic since the Fall of 2006, when he joined the ensemble of Macbeth in the role of Macduff. Since then, he has appeared in…a lot of shows. He played the horse Boxer in Animal Farm, Laertes in the 2007 remount of Hamlet, was a member of the House in the Fall of the House of Usher, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Don Jose in Carmen, Zviadauri in the 2008 remount of Host and Guest, Dante in the play of the same title, and is currently playing Antony in Synetic’s production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. He was also the fight choreographer for all of these shows, as well as for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which he also adapted. He is the co-creator of the upcoming web series “Hamilton Carver: Zombie, PI” with his production company, Granite Kiss Productions.
1. Where are you from? What is your training?
I grew up in Campton, New Hampshire, on the side of a little mountain, in the middle of the woods. If it sounds like an idyllic childhood, it was, and I always find myself amazed when I am back there at how beautiful the place is, and how peaceful. I was involved in theater starting around…12 I think? I got my finger stuck in a xylophone in a production of Trumpet of the Swan. I performed all through high school, even fancying myself a musical performer for a time. I haven’t sang onstage in years, but even as recently as college I was constantly singing — I came to DC in 2002 to major in Drama at the Catholic University of America, and I’ve stuck around ever since.
The very best thing about my education at CUA was the opportunities to perform I was afforded. I went from playing El Gallo in The Fantasticks as a freshman to Trigorin in The Seagull as a senior. I got to perform improv, acapella, fence, even hip hop (though my skills were utterly rudimentary…). I got to play a crazy commedia del’arte clown in a production that went to perform at the Dubrovnik International Theater Festival in Croatia, a production that first exposed me to stylized movement in the theater. I made wonderful friends, some of whom I still have the pleasure of working with.
Prior to Synetic, however, I had no formal dance training, just moves picked up here and there in shows, and some tricks from hip hop and breakdance taught to me by friends. I was able to train in stage combat under Robb Hunter at CUA, and fence in a small fencing class.
Since coming to Synetic I’ve spent a lot of time training outside the company as well as within it – I train off and on in hip hop, martial arts, parkour (a movement discipline involving efficiently traversing obstacles from one point to another, take a look at http://www.americanparkour.com), and gymnastics throughout the year, depending on the demands of rehearsals.
2. What was it like to start working with Synetic? How was it different from your other experiences?
I remember finding my way into my first Synetic training session via my friend Katie Long’s invitation – we’d just finished up a run of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and she insisted I join a training session. It was a wild time and I just remember being overwhelmed by how beautifully everyone moved (and looked), as well as just how hard everyone PUSHED themselves in that training room. I remember stumbling over the simplest heel-to-toe movement while watching Irina and Paata seemingly float on air and thinking to myself “I’m going to GET this, I’m going to learn to DO that.”
It was like nothing I’d ever done before, and I loved it. It challenged my musical ability to have to match movement to music, it challenged my acting to have to bring characters and emotion to the movement, and it challenged my conditioning to be able to keep up with movements utterly foreign to my muscles.
As I worked more with the company I started dissecting the things I loved about the storytelling, as well. The telling of stories through action is the most basic skill of the theater, but also easily forgotten when overwhelmed by orchestras, linguistic technique, technical tricks, and overwrought acting processes. Despite all the technique of movement, Paata and Irina constantly impressed me with their willingness to cut material that didn’t tell the story. Technique trumps naturalism, story trumps technique, and above even that rises the flow of human emotion.
3. Do you have a favorite Synetic role?
Each role brings with it new lessons, and each connects to some real part of me in different ways. I can’t say that there’s a favorite at this point. Though Animal Farm was a little under the radar, Boxer was kind, brave, dumb horse, and he taught me a lot, actually, about how to play a Synetic role, how to work with the ensemble, and how to fall off a tower in slow motion. Laertes taught me how to lock eyes with the Georgian veterans (a face off with Paata onstage is quite the experience). Romeo and Don Jose were lessons in losing control onstage (in the best way) and Zviadauri was a lesson in keeping control, in maturity, and in being a man. Antony has been a great adventure. I’m grateful for all of them.
4. Favorite show?
You’ll have to forgive my sentimentality, but the two big romances – Antony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet have both been wonderful — though I have to say that watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a delight every single time.
5. Any crazy stories from rehearsals, performance, etc.?
In my first show, Macbeth, I choreographed a fight along with Irakli Kavsadze that we did every night. One night he punched me directly in the face when we messed up a move. We didn’t mess it up again.
A number of fans I’ve spoken to seem to have this impression that Philip Fletcher is an utterly intimidating human being without remorse. Obviously they haven’t met him – he is one of the kindest, most honest and warm-hearted human beings I’ve ever known.
Though it looks great, body paint is not fun, and gets everywhere. I am not jealous of Alex. I still have white spots in my car from Usher.
In Dante we wanted to do (and did) this lift where Vato Tsikurishvili tosses Ryan Sellers over his head with one arm. While I was figuring out the mechanics of it, I managed to perform the lift with Ryan, and proceeded to toss him up and over through the air, where he landed squarely on his back. He was uninjured. I still felt bad.
Here’s why Synetic is an ensemble company – it’s a little known fact that in Romeo and Juliet I had TWO roles. One was Romeo, the other was as the bottom half of a table in a Capulet’s house scene. The other half was Marissa Molnar, the Nurse. We had fun.