As a hulking piece of chocolate cake adorned with white-and-blue icing sits on the Florida Studio Theatre conference-room table in front of actor Jeffrey Plunkett, he recalls the emotional moment he just experienced.
Five minutes ago, all of the Florida Studio Theatre employees and actors surrounded a seated Plunkett and showered him with adoration and kind words. Today, Jan. 23, is the actor’s 47th birthday — and this is an FST birthday tradition.
“It’s one of the most difficult things to sit through because you feel embarrassed,” says Plunkett.
He has spent seven birthdays — or, as he says, almost one-seventh of all his birthdays — at this theater.
And, according to Plunkett, the tradition speaks volumes about the kind of theater the executive staff operates. It’s apparent by his smile and the glow in his bright-blue eyes that he’s smitten with the words shared among his theater family.
“I love them here,” he says and repeats often during the interview.
That sense of love and loyalty keeps him coming back to Sarasota.
This season, Plunkett is starring as Joseph Alsop in “The Columnist,” a play based on the true story of the prominent political journalist from the 1930s through the 1970s.
This is Plunkett’s eighth FST production. He was most recently in 2011’s “Race” and also performed in “The Gambol of Love,” “Permanent Collection,” “Pure Confidence,” “Opus” and “Sylvia.”
In the off-season and the years he doesn’t perform in Sarasota, Plunkett gives tours of New York City.
Plunkett came to Florida Studio Theatre in 1996, when late director Jamie Brown cast him in “God of Isaac.” It was the same year FST opened the Cabaret.
“There was, in a good way, a youthful, fly-by-night (feeling) and no one knew as much then,” he says of the past. “There was an excitement about this place, and you felt change in the air.”
Throughout the past 17 years, Plunkett watched FST become an important and prominent venue for theater in Sarasota — just as he believed it would.
“They just doubled the size of their physical plant, but the moment I walked in, that sense of intimacy and family was just as present,” he says.
The size of the administration has grown, too. The first years Plunkett was at FST, employees were housed in a rehearsal room; now they have their own office space.
The group of interns is now four times as large. Plunkett explains that many of the staff members start as interns and go on to hold prominent positions within the theater, an example being Casting and Hiring Coordinator James Ashford. Plunkett’s first year at the theater, interns were slightly younger than he was. He still stays in touch with some of them, such as: Christianne Greiert, Kayliane Burns and Travis Bell.
“They’re always the same age,” he says of the interns. “But (each time I come back) the rings on my tree are wider.”
One thing stays true for each group of interns: “Their passion is infectious,” he says. And their energy serves as a reminder of why he started acting.
Plunkett discovered his love of theater in second grade, when his teacher asked the class to read a script aloud. It fascinated him. As a teenager living on the Jersey Shore, he performed operatic roles for his voice teacher Era Tognoli’s opera company, The Metro Lyric Opera Company.
She encouraged him to get a degree outside of theater because the more he learned about life, the more versatile he could be as a performer. Plunkett heeded her advice and got a bachelor’s in psychology and biology from Bucknell University, a liberal-arts school in Pennsylvania.
He could have been a doctor, and he graduated pre-med. But the day after graduation he decided to pursue a different role — as an actor.
“If I didn’t give it a try, I would have had a regret somewhere down the line,” he says. “I don’t think the world lost a great doctor.”
Now, he plays a variety of professions on stage. His current role is as powerful and well-connected political writer, Alsop.
Plunkett read a handful of books to research the character. He learned Alsop was the cousin of Eleanor Roosevelt and hung out with ambassadors and celebrities. Plunkett also learned he was a political pundit captured during World War II and put in a concentration camp.
Plunkett speaks excitedly as he describes Alsop. He spouts off a string of adjectives describing Alsop’s multifaceted character: moody, bullying, witty, effervescent, bright, charming, well-read, well-known and most respected.
He prefers playing meaty and sometimes controversial roles. Along with fine art and music, politics light Plunkett’s fire.
“I have a lot of Sturm und Drang (German for storm and stress) inside my head, so I really like those roles where I get to take what’s in my head and put it out there a little bit,” he says.
Plunkett enjoys coming back to see his friends in Sarasota’s fine-arts community. He’s good friends with Sarasota Orchestra violinists Dan Jordan and Chung-Yon Hong and plans to attend one of their rehearsals when he can break away from his own — a difficult task.
Though it’s not required, he sits in on the ensemble rehearsal for “The Columnist,” because, as he says, it’s the greatest group of talented actors with whom he’s ever worked. He’s learning from them.
“I love them here,” he says again. “It’s like family.”
If you go
When: Runs through April 7
Where: Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave.
Cost: $19 to $36
Info: Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.
Five things you didn’t know:
1. Plunkett’s parents, John and Pat Plunkett, used to winter on Longboat Key and now spend the season in Port St. Lucie — they’ve only missed two of their son’s shows in his career.
2. Plunkett founded his New York City touring company, JTP Tours. “It’s a company of one, and I love my boss,” he jokes. He tells a favorite story about a little girl on one of his tours who, after exploring all of Ellis Island, said she didn’t see Elvis once.
3. If Plunkett could play any role, he’d want to take another crack at Hamlet. He played it once in college but thinks he only understood 2% of it back then.
4. Plunkett was a company member in Manhattan Theatre Source, and calls it his playground. The company recently lost its space in Greenwich Village.
5. Plunkett was sad to find out that Ruth S. Gluck died in April. She produced a lot of the edgy shows he has been in, and he adored her. “I keep expecting her to walk past,” he says. “She was just so lovely, elegant, warm, earthy and so supportive of this place — financially and intellectually.”
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