Last week Justun Hart, 25, was in Albuquerque, N.M.
This week it’s Birmingham, Ala. Next week, Salt Lake City. Then Chicago, Spokane, Seattle, New York, Costa Mesa, Calif., and finally Denver in late December. Though the former Oshkosh resident is constantly packing and unpacking a suitcase, he’s loving every minute of his time on a national tour of the the musical “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Amid his daily weeknight performances, four on Saturdays, two on Sundays and traveling on Mondays, Hart found some time to talk with Oshkosh Northwestern Media about his success onstage, moving to the Big Apple and his roots in Oshkosh.
The son of Pam and Jim Hart, a drama teacher, Hart began performing at age four as an angel in a Christmas pageant.
“I went onstage, I got really, really freaked out and I came offstage crying,” he said, chuckling. “Dad turned me around and led me back out there.”
By 6 or 7 years old he was falling in love with performing, he said, sneaking into the car to go with his dad to the summer theater programs and classes he ran, and later balancing being on the basketball team at Valley Christian High School with performing community theater in town.
Hart graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2013 with degrees in musical theater and business. He said his time in the university’s musical theater program was humbling.
It only accepts about eight to 10 people a year, he said, and he didn’t get in right away. When he was finally accepted later in his freshman year he wasn’t cast in any productions.
“I didn’t get cast at all, which was really kind of a piece of humble pie,” he said. “The most helpful thing for me was the level my peers were at — that challenge of (you) have to work your butt off, have to earn your spot on that stage — which I think was ultimately what helped me grow there.”
Eventually he was cast in roles in a number of musicals: Floyd Collins in “Floyd Collins,” Trevor Graydon in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and Tom Collins in “Rent,” to name a few. By the end of his sophomore year, Hart had decided he wanted to pursue his dreams onstage as a career.
“I was very close to making a decision to not do it,” he said. “And if I was going to do it, I had to go full out.”
After graduation he was cast as Adam Pontipee in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at the Dutch Apple Dinner theater in Pennsylvania. He came back home for a couple of weeks that September, loaded up a U-Haul and moved to New York City.
The move was much more difficult than he expected.
“It was a lot of anxiety that was really unanticipated,” he said. “You kind of learn on paper how it’s (finding work as a performer) supposed to work, but then applying that is a whole different game.”
He said journaling, support from back home, Stevens Point alumni and his father’s former students who had also moved to New York kept him from giving up.
The goal was to book a national tour within a year, and live out his dream traveling the country performing. Forty auditions later, he was asked to join the cast of Grinch.
“I think it was that discipline and persistence,” he said, adding he’d run into the same casting directors at different auditions. “Just keep chipping away and chipping away, and I think that goes a long way.”
Now Hart is seeing new sights and cities while performing 10 shows a week on a national tour with Big League Productions in an ensemble role in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
On top of that, he’s understudying the Grinch and narrator roles, which means he has to step into those roles if they get sick or can’t perform. It’s a new experience to him, he said, and a valuable one.
“The guy who’s playing the Grinch has been doing it for seven or eight years,” he said, noting it’s played by Magnús Scheving, the co-creator and star of Nickelodeon’s Lazy Town. “He’s been in the business for a long time and it’s been an incredible experience to learn about the industry, the art, from somebody like that.”
He said it’s a blast to hear the bursts of laughter coming from children in the audience, many of whom are seeing a Broadway-style performance for the first time.
In January he’ll take on the familiar role of Adam Pontipee in Seven Brides and Seven Brothers for another national tour, and he’ll perform the same role at dinner theaters in Florida from April through May.
The experience is everything he thought it would be and more, and he loves the opportunity to have an effect on audiences, he said.
“They’re taking a two-hour break from their daily lives, either to be entertained or taught or affected … whatever the lesson of that show might be,” he said. “I love being a part of that.”
Hart is contemplating his next steps in the industry, and entertains thoughts about auditioning for roles in movies or on TV. He’ll set up meetings with agencies and “check out the scene” in Los Angeles when the tour heads to California, he said.
For the time being, he’s living the dream.
Noell Dickmann: (920) 426-6658 or ndickmann@ thenorthwestern.com. Twitter: @ONW_Noell
Keep up with Justun Hart by visiting his website or blog Letters from Whoville.