Sean Watkins didn’t set out to be a professional stage actor, but with his boyish good looks, toothpaste commercial smile and trim, athletic build, the 28-year-old certainly looks the part.
The St. Albans native and professional actor, who is home this week to teach a theater workshop at the Alban Arts Center, said he never wanted to tread the boards. He wanted to break them — with his hands.
“I was kind of a scrawny, rambunctious kid,” Watkins said. “Another ADHD kid, right? But my mom didn’t see it that way. I was just a normal, hyper kid.”
So, at the age of 7, he started taking karate classes.
“They actually tried to get me into it when I was 4,” Watkins said. “It just didn’t click. I was too young. The discipline part of it just didn’t appeal to me — not until I was 7.”
At 7, he fell in love with the kicking, the punching and the fierce shouting at the top of his lungs.
Watkins said, “It was six days a week. I couldn’t get enough.”
Martial arts, he added, saved him. Embracing it gave him focus, purpose and confidence. He credited it for making him a better student.
Theater came later for him, when he was a senior at St. Albans high school.
“I did ‘Anything Goes’ with Charleston Light Opera Guild,” he said.
“The chair from the Marshall theater department happened to be at one of the performances. He spoke to me after, said I should really give them a look when I got to Marshall in the fall.”
Watkins sort of shrugged it off, but he liked doing theater. So, he declared a Spanish major but auditioned for a couple of shows and was cast in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Little Women."
The theater chair told him he really needed to consider theater.
Watkins remembers being told, “I think you’d work. I think you could make a living at this.”
He gave it a try, but he didn’t take it too seriously until after he went to the Southeastern Theater Conference.
“I remember Neil Patrick Harris was there that year,” he said. “But the whole experience really just opened my eyes about doing theater professionally.”
By the summer of his junior year, Watkins was doing summer stock and local shows when he could, but by his senior year at Marshall, he was also looking for work.
During the school year, he went to New York and auditioned for "Bruce Lee: Journey to the West."
“They wanted actors with martial arts experience," he said.
With his background, it sounded perfect. So, he went up for one of the open auditions, often referred to as “cattle calls,” in which hundreds of actors come out and stand outside in lines for hours, hoping to get work on a show.
Watkins said, “There were 500 of us, then 250 and then finally just 50.”
Casting wanted him to come back the next day for the final round, but Watkins was out of time. He had to get back to school. He was starring in Marshall's production of the musical “George M!”
Watkins said they told him he'd made a really good impression and wanted to keep him in mind.
“They called me opening night and offered me a job,” Watkins said.
He took it and after graduating with a double major (theater and Spanish), he moved to New York, which has been home base for the last four years.
Watkins has worked all over the country, been in productions of “The Producers,” “Les Miserables” and “Annie,” among others.
“I’ve been really lucky,” he said. “I’ve worked regionally and kept working almost non-stop.”
This past year, he took a role on the nationally touring production of the revival of “Anything Goes.”
“It was a great experience,” he said. “But it was long. I was out with the show for right at a year and we barely stopped the entire time.”
That wasn't terrible.
He loved doing the show and while he was on the road, he taught martial arts classes at cities throughout the country.
Watkins is a fourth-degree black belt and has belts in Tae Kwon Do, Akido and knows Japanese swordsmanship.
His friend, teacher and mentor Roger Jarrrett, helped him locate studios on his route he could contact.
“Roger is one of the most respected martial artists in the world,” Watkins said. “He's world-renowned and most people just have no idea.”
However, being on the road with the cast caused him to take stock of what he wanted out of life.
“The oldest actor on the tour was 75,” he said. “There were other men there who were in their 40s, 50s and 60s.”
The life of so many of these men seemed lonesome to Watkins.
“They had the shows. They could say, ‘I was in this, I was in that.’ But they didn't have much in the way of roots, didn't always have someone or some place to go home to.
“So, I'm working on my exit strategy,” he said.
To be sure, it's a gradual exit from the stage and may not be entirely complete.
“I'm looking to get a job on a cruise ship,” he said. “After that, I'd like to relocate to D.C. and open a Karate studio.”
He wouldn't necessarily quit theater, but he might transition to more of a consultant's role.
“I think I'd always do something,” he said.
Watkins would also like to do more theater workshops, like the one he's teaching this week at the Alban Theater, which is currently full.
“I've really just come back to give my knowledge,” he said. “Theater is evolving, changing. It's different now than it was just a few years ago.”
Some of what he has to share is stage craft, but he said he had a lot of good advice that no one really tells you when you're first starting out: For example, if it's a non-union audition and the sign says it starts at 10 a.m., you need to be at the door of the theater between 5 and 6 a.m. just to get in line.
“It's a lot easier when you have your union card,” he said.
With a union card, usually, you can show up at 9 a.m. and just put your name on the sign-up sheet.
Watkins added that having a pretty voice isn't enough.
“Everybody has a pretty voice,” he said. “You have to be able to sing and tell a story with your voice. It's not just enough to move, you have to know the motivation for why you're moving.”
Watkins said he's always hoped his theater work would intersect more with his martial arts or he might branch out into television or film.
“I'd love to do that,” he said. “It's just never worked out. My agent wanted me to get in some student films, to learn more about it and build up something to show people — but I'm always working.”
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.