Playing the role of Ichabod Crane in the award-winning Equity professional East Lynne Theater Company’s production of the world premiere of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” is Matt Baxter Luceno. His first appearance with ELTC was playing Rodney Martin in the comedy “It Pays to Advertise” last fall, and now he’s back as the music and school teacher from Connecticut who lands a job in superstitious Tarrytown, New York.
Matt, like Ichabod, moved from one part of the country to another, but his move was from the Rocky Mountains to the Hudson River. For him, moving from Montana to New York was what he needed to do to pursue theater as a profession. His love for the stage began in his hometown of Missoula, Montana, where he saw his father perform in “Annie,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Damn Yankees,” “Wait Until Dark,” “Don’t Drink the Water,” “The 1940’s Radio Hour” and other shows with the Missoula Community Theater.
Matt explained, “I spent a lot of time backstage with the actors and directors, and saw how productions came together. They were a good group of friends and I liked the shared sense of community.”
He also saw shows produced by Montana Rep, an Actors’ Equity Association theater associated with the University of Montana. Since his parents were originally from the Westchester area of New York, not far from Manhattan, he was taken to shows in the city while visiting relatives during the summers.
“I wasn’t heavily into theater until I was a sophomore in high school,” continued Matt, “and then it took over my life. The drama teacher, the late Bolton Rothwell, was a huge influence, who offered great opportunities to do a variety of theater styles. We even wrote our own shows and did public improv performances.”
“But there were two things that I’d done earlier that always stuck with me. When I was in third grade, my friend and I lip synced to the Millie Vanilli song “Baby, I Got Your Number” for a talent show at school. My dad helped choreograph the dance, and we had the costumes and the dreads. It went over very well. How funny when it came out that Millie Vanilli actually lip synced, themselves, on their albums and in concert.”
“Then, in fifth grade, during mock elections that were held at the private, rather conservative school I was attending at the time, I gave a rousing speech as Bill Clinton, and won in a landslide.”
During his senior year of high school, Matt auditioned for the Acting Conservatory program at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Purchase. It was the only place he wanted to attend, and didn’t apply to any other such theater programs, even though he knew the application rate is high (usually around 1,000) and the acceptance rate is low.
“I’d read all about the training program, but never seen the campus,” said Matt. “Initially, I planned to audition in Seattle, but actually ended up flying out to New York to audition at Purchase. It was a nice way for me to see the campus.”
Matt was accepted – one of only 23 – which made him “ecstatic.” During the first two years of this intense theater program, students are cut, which really prepares one for how difficult this profession can be. Matt was kept for the full four years, and received the President’s Award in Acting.
“I was able to work with a number of people – incredible teachers from different backgrounds, as well as the incredibly talented students,” explained Matt. “I learned different styles and techniques, and took from this, what works best for me. The late Joan Potter was a staple of the acting program, and I was fortunate to be able to learn from her. She was a mentor for me while I was at Purchase.”
Of all the outside shows that came to Purchase, the one Matt remembers being the most ingenious was “Tartuffe” produced by Theatre de la Jeune Lune; a company that won a Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2005. Although based in Minneapolis, two of the founders, Dominique Serrand and Vincent Gracieux are French. Due to a large debt, the company has since closed.
After graduating from SUNY Purchase, Matt furthered his education with an acting fellowship at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. , the recipient of the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award. One of the highlights for Matt was playing seven different ensemble roles under the direction of Robert Falls in “King Lear” starring Stacy Keach.
“On top of that, it was thrilling to play the King of France opposite Keach in this beautiful 775-seat house that was sold out every night,” added Matt.
Back in New York, productions Matt has been in include the world premiere of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” directed by John McEneny for Piper Theatre, “The Merry Wives of Windsor Terrace” with Brave New World Rep, “Scapin” directed by Shawn Rozsa, and most recently the world premiere of “Chemistry of Love” directed by George Ferencz at La Mama E.T.C. Regional work includes “Julius Caesar” at Shakespeare on the Sound (CT), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Allentown Shakespeare (PA), “Ion” at Shakespeare Theatre Company, and “It Pays to Advertise” last season with ELTC.
His commercial work includes “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel and television includes an episode of “The Guiding Light.” Matt has extensive voice-over and industrial credits as well.
“To help subsidize my theater habit, I’ve performed in several industrials, including five weeks playing the lead for an “English as a Second Language” DVD classroom series for Cambridge University Press. Another time, I was in a sexual harassment training video for the U.S. Army. I had to pass up a really fun production of David Ives’ short plays which were being produced in Manhattan, to do the Cambridge University Press job,” explained Matt.
He’s also been in several short indie films shot on the East Coast, and a feature length in Ridgefield, CT, “Asabiyyah: A New Social Cohesion” in which he played the lead. It’s currently being submitted to various film festivals.
Other members of Matt’s family have been part of the entertainment industry. Matt’s uncle, Jack Luceno, is a professional actor in New York, doing primarily voice-over work at the moment. He’s also written a play that has had staged readings at The Players Club and the Producers Club. Matt was in the cast.
“Both of my grandparents on my mom’s side were actors, and my grandfather Clement was also a director and a producer,” said Matt. “As an actor, he worked mostly regionally, and primarily in Indiana, where he received his MFA at Indiana University, and later taught speech there. My grandmother, Patricia, attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the same class with Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, and Helen Hayes’s daughter. She actually ended up living with Helen Hayes in her Manhattan apartment for awhile.”
“My great-grandparents, also on my mom’s side, lived in Rye, NY in the oldest house in Westchester County. Marion Baxter Taylor wrote short stories and poems that were published in magazines. Matt Taylor also had his stories published in magazines, but mostly, he was a Hollywood screenwriter. His brother, Sam, directed films in the early 1920’s – 1930’s, including “Coquette” starring Mary Pickford, in which she received the second Oscar ever given for Best Actress. In 1938, a play written by both Matt and Sam, called “Stop-Over” made it to Broadway.”
Having worked last season with ELTC in Cape May, Matt was happy to return to be in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Since Ichabod is a music teacher in the original Washington Irving story, he’s a music teacher in James Rana’s adaptation, too, complete with a small guitar.
“It’s fun working with this cast and the director, Gayle Stahlhuth,” said Matt. “I feel we’ve found a lot of comedy in it, and it’s still spooky – still tells the story. James Rana’s adaptation keeps the story moving and makes it unique. It’s nice to get to play guitar in a show, and explore my musical side. I don’t always get to do that. I’ve always worked on plays – not musicals – but would like to work more in plays that do involve music. Perhaps get involved with newer, grittier musicals.”
And how about just being in Cape May itself?
Matt continued, “It’s been fun playing at the different open mic nights in town, and getting know talented musicians in the area.”
Matt Baxter Luceno, along with Justin Bennett, Suzanne Dawson, Elisa Pupko, Thomas Raniszewski, and John Cameron Weber, can be seen every Wednesday through Saturday evening at 8:30 p.m. in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” through August 31, at The First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes Street, Cape May, where ELTC is in residence. Tickets are $30 for general admission; $25 for seniors; and $15 for full-time students. To encourage whole families to attend, anyone age 12 and under is free. To make a reservation, call ELTC at 609-884-5898, or go online to www.eastlynnetheater.org.