Cass native Nick Westrate stars in Tony-nominated play

Published 8:00 am Friday, May 16, 2014

Cassopolis-native Nick Westrate is among the starring cast of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s “Casa Valentina,” which has been nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Cassopolis-native Nick Westrate is among the starring cast of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s “Casa Valentina,” which has been nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Back when actor Nick Westrate was cutting his teeth at the Barn Swallow and Beckwith theatres, he always envisioned his future self standing on a Broadway stage, performing in front of hundreds of eager theatergoers.

However, he had no idea that he would one day be starring in a play nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play.

The Cassopolis-native is one of several renowned actors starring in “Casa Valentina,” which opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City in April. Based on actual events, the play tells the story of a group of men who travel to a special resort in the Catskill Mountains to get away from it all.

“It all” includes being men, as the group dresses and acts like women when they get together.

Westrate, who plays “Gloria” in the show, was elated when he heard that the play was named among the contenders for the top award at this year’s Tony’s.

“I was completely excited, and not surprised at all,” he said. “It’s the best play of the season and easily one of the best productions I’ve ever been a part of.”

Westrate’s career stretches back a long way, back to when he was only 4 years old, he said. He received his first acting gig then, while watching his 6-year-old older sister, Molly, rehearse for a production of the Velveteen Rabbit at the Barn Swallow.

“I knew everybody’s line and I would start prompting them from the audience,” Westrate recalled. “The director, Ada Barr, decided to write me a couple lines and gave me a part in the play.”

After that, Westrate was constantly acting in local plays at the Barn Swallow, Beckwith and Southwestern Michigan College. Barr became one of his first mentors, teaching him it’s not just innate talent that makes a stage performer, but blood, sweat and a lot of determination.

He attributes her guidance, along with those from the local Pugh and Frantz families, with setting up with the foundation that he would build upon in his climb to Broadway stardom.

“They just have a huge passion for the theater and taught me all about it, about all the hard work that goes into making a great show,” Westrate said.

In high school, Westrate attended the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and attended college at the Juilliard School in New York.

“Once I got to Juilliard, I convinced myself that I might be able to make a living out of this,” he said. “It was a risky career move, because you only learn how to act there; you don’t have a liberal arts degree to fall back on.”

“I’m only qualified to do funny voices on stage,” he joked.

However, Westrate quickly found success as a professional actor, his first role coming a production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the California Shakespeare Theater in Berkley, California. His first major role on Broadway came in 2007’s “Moon for the Misbegotten,” where he had a chance to work alongside Kevin Spacey.

“Casa Valentina” presented a unique challenge for Westrate, as the role called for him to jump into the shoes of a transvestite man from the 1960s. While he read books and performed other research for the role, he found that meeting with actual transvestite men helped him connect with his character on deeper level.

“These men were so authentically themselves,” he said. “They were the most honest, frank people you could possibly meet.”

While the story is set nearly 50 years in the past, the play’s themes about being true to one’s self and overcoming the fear of being different are even more relevant today, Westrate said.

“Every person on the planet is such a crazy freak on the inside, and if we could express that to each other the world could be a better place,” he said.

Despite the demands of his career, the actor still finds time to return to his home in Cassopolis every year, for the annual gathering of the Westrate clan, he said. However, even when he’s hundreds of miles away, the performer still carries a part of his old Barn Swallow career with him: a memento from his late mentor, who died in 2007.

“I have the last letter she ever sent me,” Westrate said. “I always have it with me, displayed in my dressing room.”

The Tony Awards ceremony takes place on June 8.