Where He Belongs

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Jordan Gelber spent most of his Stanford years acting as if he didn’t want to act: a theater veteran had warned him off the profession. But since then, the former communication major has appeared on-screen to take confession from Ben Affleck and spin plates in front of Drew Barrymore, starred in an HBO film, studied blood spatter on Law and Order: SVU, and sung “I’m not wearing underwear today” more than 100 times in the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q.

Gelber, ’97, says he finally relented to his calling while making an ass of himself—working on a monologue by Nick Bottom, who transforms into a donkey in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He had won a place at the Public Theater Shakespeare Lab in New York the summer after his junior year. In one workshop, actor Peter Frances James hounded Gelber. “He kept saying, ‘What was it like? What was it like when you had sex with Titania?’ And I suddenly allowed my own emotions to inhabit the circumstances. And the whole cast lost it. They were laughing so loud, because I was living this moment—I had been an ass, and I had had a tail.”

That boyish enthusiasm gives Gelber his appeal as Brian in Avenue Q, a comic musical about the denizens—human and puppet—of a New York neighborhood navigating relationships and careers and pondering the meaning of life. “Jordan has a real gusto and a real desire to please the audience, which I love in actors,” says Jeff Whitty, author of Avenue Q. He calls Gelber’s “childlike glee in being onstage” perfect for Brian, a wannabe comedian.

The easygoing actor—“Jordan Gelber is not an edgy man,” Gelber observes—grew up in Woodmere, N.Y., and took part in numerous school plays before apprenticing at the Berkshire Theater Festival. There, actor David Cryer’s advice—“If you love anything else, then do that”—convinced him to find another path at Stanford. “But I couldn’t get away from it. People were asking me to audition for stuff,” he says. He directed a Winter One-Act, wrote another, acted in the theater group Outside In and sang with the Mendicants. And after the Shakespeare Lab, “I was finally able to say I wanted to be an actor without worrying about what people thought.”

Gelber earned a master’s at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, learning to use “actor’s tools”—his emotions, instincts, body and life experience. “Actors spend their professional lives living through moments everyone else tries to avoid their whole lives,” he says.

At first, the real world was easy. He landed two parts even before he had an agent, in Camelot at the Berkshire Music Festival and in an independent film, Way Off Broadway. Then, he was cast in Riding in Cars With Boys with Drew Barrymore. Then came a six-month lull when he spent two days training as a waiter and the rest working as a temp. “I was still naïve,” he says. “I’d tell people, ‘I haven’t worked in a month,’ and they’d say, ‘What do you have to complain about? I haven’t worked in a year.’ ”

In 2002, Gelber joined an Avenue Q workshop and recognized the musical’s potential at once. “It’s rare to really laugh out loud at a read-through,” he says. His instinct proved right: the show went from Off-Off-Broadway to Broadway and won three Tony Awards: best book, best score, best musical. “I was on cloud nine the whole night. I didn’t go to sleep until 6 in the morning.”

Still, Gelber considers himself mainly a TV and film actor. In 2002, he got a recurring role as a police technician on Law and Order: SVU, a chance to “bag some vomit for analysis” and say, “I love my job.” He also starred in HBO’s Everyday People as Ira, the owner of a Brooklyn diner.

Gelber has no regrets about acting, though he admits, “You have to have confidence in yourself.” He plans to leave Avenue Q in January, and isn’t sure what’s next. “It’s always in the back of my mind that I will get another job, it’s just a matter of when. Success is persistence and opportunity.”

LAURA SHIN, ’97, is a writer in New York.

CORRECTION: Actor Jordan Gelber, ’97 performed in Camelot at the Berkshire Theater Festival, not the music festival, and Avenue Q first opened off-Broadway.