Southern California native Daniel J. Self returns to the Southland for a week of performances at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts in the National Tour of Catch Me If You can.  A proud graduate of the Pacific Conservatory Of The Performing Arts, Daniel has appeared in eight PCPA productions, seven of which have been reviewed on this website.  Daniel found time out of his busy performance schedule to sit down and answer our questions about growing up in the theater, his work with PCPA, an exciting upcoming gig, life in The Big Apple, and of course, Catch Me If You Can,

Hi Daniel! I love doing these interviews with touring performers, and try to make a point of interviewing triple-threats with Southern California ties, especially those I might have seen perform locally. In your case, not only are you a SoCal native, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing a grand total of seven Daniel J. Self musicals—Les Misérables, The Music Man, Curtains, West Side Story, Hairspray, My Fairytale, and Legally Blonde, all of them at picturesque Solvang’s PCPA Theaterfest. And now I’ll be seeing show number eight, the national tour of Catch Me If You Can. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to Opening Night!

Wow, that’s incredible! Seven shows.! Those were some of my first and most formative productions. So glad you’ll be able to “catch” this one as well… pun intended.

What part of Southern California did you call home as a child?

I grew up in the Antelope Valley, just northeast of Los Angeles.

Both of your parents are high school theater teachers, so I imagine you started performing at a young age.

My parents are, indeed, both theater teachers and my first theatrical memory is stepping into the bright lights of their blackbox theater as a Blind Boy in The Miracle Worker. I remember I couldn’t keep from smiling even though I was supposed to be sad that Annie Sullivan was leaving.

When did you start your musical theater training?

I started dancing when I was ten and trained at various studios throughout the Antelope Valley, as well as studying at programs such as the Rock School of the Philadelphia Ballet where I was honored to receive a full scholarship to their Summer Intensive Program.

Wow! That’s quite an achievement. I imagine that you continued performing throughout your teens, right?

When I was sixteen, I was asked to step in to a community theater production of Hair in the role of Claude. That role and that show and that group of people were what sealed my fate. Being able to unite with a group of like-minded people and to use every part of me—my body, my voice, my heart and soul—to tell a powerful story and to move people… That’s what I decided to devote my life to, and that was a big moment in that process of discovery.

Daniel in Catch Me If You Can

And now, here you are some years later, touring the country with Catch Me If You Can, the second time in a row you’ve toured for Troika Entertainment, right after the National Tour of Cats, in which you played Munkustrap. What about touring made you decide to re-up—this time as a human character?

There’s nothing quite like seeing how prolific theater still is in this country. Many people—myself, previously included—seem to think its presence is waning or that it’s confined to the main hubs: Chicago, New York, L.A., etc. … but when you have the privilege of doing a National Tour, you see so many places with so many beautiful historic theaters and so many passionate people maintaining them. It’s an incredibly humbling experience, being a part of keeping theater alive and vibrant throughout every little town and big city you can find!

Daniel in Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can has quite a pedigree—a hit Steven Spielberg movie as its source, a book by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally, and songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who won the Tony for Hairspray (and most recently penned all the great Bombshell songs on TV’s Smash). What is it about Best Musical Tony nominee Catch Me If You Can The Musical that makes it a crowd-pleaser?

Catch Me If You Can truly is a show for everyone. It has incredible flashy dance numbers, beautiful soulful ballads, excitement, comedy … and at its heart, a beautiful and touching story about a lost boy and his father. The relationship between Frank Jr, and Frank Sr., and the relationship between Frank Jr. and Detective Hanratty teach us such heartrending lessons about responsibility and what it truly means to be a father.

Can you elaborate?

As the show goes on, you begin to see a stark contrast between the flashy world of sexy women and excitement that Frank Jr. runs away to, and the smoky, jazzy world of failed dreams and nostalgia that he leaves behind him. Watching him struggle to reconcile the two is what makes this a story a meaningful one.

How close does the musical’s book stick to the movie screenplay?

There’s certainly a lot you’ll recognize. In large part, it’s pretty faithful. The main conventional difference is that we are telling Frank’s story through the guise of a 1960’s TV show, such as Hullaballoo. In this way, Frank is the host of his own story as we move from one exciting moment of his stranger-than-fiction life to another, with plenty of big bold dance numbers and sexy women in between!

You’ve spent quite a bit of the past year or two touring. Which cities or theaters stand out most in your memory, and what made them special?

It’s been such a blur with so many great discoveries along the way. San Antonio, Texas is a city I had the great pleasure of visiting both with Cats and with Catch Me. It’s a beautiful city with a gorgeous theater and a wonderfully receptive audience. Being my first experience of Texas, it definitely left me reexamining my ideas of a tumbleweed-filled cowboy land. It’s a town of vibrant culture and beautiful streets with a picturesque River Walk right through the center.

Any other cities?

This year was the first time I’d paid a visit to Denver. What a wonderful city! It’s as though someone took the Northwest and transplanted a piece of it right in the middle of the country. The people were so warm and intelligent and the food there was simply inspired! Speaking of which, one of the biggest surprises, being from California, was discovering some of the best sushi I’ve ever eaten in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you’re ever there… check out Nama Sushi Bar. You won’t regret it!

Let’s get back to your background and training as a musical theater performer. Most of your credits have been in Santa Maria and Solvang with PCPA Theaterfest, and in fact you’re a graduate of the Pacific Conservatory Of The Performing Arts. Can you talk a bit about PCPA?

I’m going to try and keep this succinct, as I could go on for volumes about PCPA. It is, quite simply and without exaggeration, the reason I’m here. Their commitment to truthful storytelling and high-level professional career-building training changed my life.

How did you come to study at PCPA?

I had heard of the program through many different sources and after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the university training I was receiving, I took the big step of dropping out and joining the conservatory. It was the single most life-changing choice I’ve yet made.

How, specifically, did PCPA change your life?

When you commit yourself to their two-year acting training program, you’re committing yourself to an intense, immersive, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. experience. Their curriculum is structured to provide the most comprehensive and well-rounded training possible and each one of their incredible Resident Artists combines some of the most passionate artistry around with a ferocious passion for education.

What did PCPA teach you?

I walked out of those doors after two years with a high level of professional etiquette, technical mastery, and the knowledge and connections necessary to immediately begin a full time career as an actor.

Daniel and Kevin Cahoon in My Fairytale

I imagine that you must have loved performing in PCPA productions like the ones I saw you in.

PCPA Theaterfest still remains one of my favorite resident theaters to return to. It’s my artistic home, and they will always be like family to me.

Can you talk a bit about your mentors at PCPA?

It’s hard to single out particular Resident Artists from the simply exemplary group, all of whom taught me something invaluable during my time there. I call Roger Delaurier my theatrical guru. His words stick like mantras in my head as I move from show to show, helping to guide how I conduct my professional affairs. Memories of Andy Philpot are what I think back to when trying to decide how to be the best person I can be in the midst of this tumultuous and challenging life. And Michael Jenkinson has shown me again and again that musical theatre can have the ability to transform people in such powerful ways. I discovered through Michael my joy and passion for choreography and crafting a story from the outside and it is because of him that I plan on directing and choreographing as well as performing.

Daniel in Legally Blonde

Michael is one of the finest directors and choreographers I’ve had the pleasure of discovering as a theater reviewer, so it’s great to hear how highly esteemed he is by his students and fellow performers. Speaking of which, one aspect of the PCPA program that I find unique is that it allows its students to spend entire summers performing in professionally staged musicals alongside Equity performers. What did you get out of appearing in the shows I’ve seen you in (and others as well) that you might not have gotten in a more traditional college or university program?

The Resident Artists have a huge responsibility. They have to practice what they preach or the students will see it. We have the unique opportunity to hear the words during the day, and then see those words put into action at night. It’s extremely inspiring and exhilarating … as well as a bit intimidating at first! You learn to step up your game. You’re on the stage with the very mentors who are teaching you how best to be on the stage. Then you come back the next day and apply what you learned and learn more that you can then apply that night. Resident Artists are continually enhancing and deepening their curriculum because they’re continually enhancing and deepening their own process. It’s a beautiful and unique cycle for both student and mentor.

You had some great featured roles up at PCPA, among them Fender in Hairspray, Baby John in West Side Story, and Tommy Djilas in The Music Man, about which I wrote, “Cute Daniel J. Self and the enchanting Kaitlyn Casanova (as town ruffian Tommy Djilas and mayor’s daughter Zaneeta Shinn) shine as the show’s best dancers.”) Which PCPA roles or productions stand out most vividly when you recall your summers there?

Daniel as Tommy in The Music Man

So many powerful and unique memories … but I would have to say that Tommy Djilas and Baby John would have to top the list. Tommy in Music Man was my first featured role at PCPA and the opportunity to go head to head with the comedic master Brad Carroll as Mayor Shin is a joyful and challenging memory that I will always be grateful for. And then, of course, the opportunity to work on one of the greatest pieces of musical theater ever written—West Side Story—under Michael Jenkinson’s brilliant direction… I still chat with castmates today who reminisce with me about wishing we just had a few more performances!

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Daniel as Baby John in West Side Story

I see that you’ve got an exciting role lined up following Catch Me If You Can, that of Gabe in the Tony-winning Next To Normal at Charlottesville, Virginia’s Heritage Theater Festival! How did this fortuitous bit of casting come about?

Well as with most other incredible opportunities in my career, it started with PCPA. Former PCPA Company Manager Amy Barrick has since left to go back to school at the University of Virginia, which has close ties with The Heritage Theater Festival. When she found out they were looking for a Gabe and couldn’t find anyone they liked well enough for the job, she was kind enough to recommend me. Since I was on the road, I filmed a video of the audition material and sent it to them and they made me the offer soon after.

What are you most excited about in getting to be part of this extraordinary musical?

This show… It’s simply a brilliant and inspired piece of contemporary musical theater. The story is moving and powerful and at times disturbing while never giving in to the myriad conventions of the over-medication stories that have come before it. It’s an honest look at a problem with no clear solution. And then there’s the role… Gabe, the son. A role where I’ll be putting my dance shoes on the shelf for a bit and singing some of the most exciting pop rock music written for the modern stage. An opportunity to sing like I’ve never sung before and in service to a story I believe so strongly in… I can’t tell you how overwhelmed and excited I am to tackle such an incredible project. If you find yourself in Charlottesville the last week of July, don’t miss it!

I see you’re now New York-based. What’s it like being part of all that New York City excitement?

I was never one to hold up New York as the be-all and end-all of the American actor’s experience … until I moved there. It’s certainly not for everyone and there are so many incredible cities in which to plant yourself as an actor in this country, but New York truly is the hub.

What is it that makes New York so special for you?

It’s a place of such vibrancy and community where you never feel alone amidst the hustle of the subway and the bustle of the crowded streets. Jimmy in Thoroughly Modern Millie says it best: “Thousands of people way down below, wandering to and fro. Tireless people no time to lose, crowding the avenues and parks, on their marks, racing fast, quite a cast!” There’s just something unique and exhilarating about the energy of New York that simply isn’t like anywhere else I’ve ever been.

So what prompted the move back east?

I decided to make the big move after another of my PCPA mentors, Erik Stein, said this to me: “Daniel, you don’t have to like New York and you don’t have to live in New York … but you have to try New York. You have to know what’s like.” So I took a deep breath and took the plunge I’ve been grateful to him for the advice—and so much more—ever since.

One last question, and one I often ask. How would you like to see your career develop in the next five years? What are your hopes and dreams?

I’m happy to go wherever the best stories are being told with the best people to tell them. I plan to continue honing my skill sets and deepening my understanding of the human condition so that I can be ready to be a part of the best stories told by the best people. And eventually I’ll start to orchestrate them myself: directing more, choreographing more. As of now, however, I’m definitely planning on spending some solid time in New York to get back in class and to audition for the best projects I can find out there. I’m approaching a point in my career where I’ll be having to make some hard decisions about the jobs I take if I hope to be ready and waiting when the life changing work shows up. So in five years, maybe I’ll be working on Broadway or maybe I’ll be working in a tiny blackbox theater in a town I haven’t even heard of yet… But either way there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll be telling incredible stories with incredible people to anyone and everyone willing to listen.

Thanks so much Daniel! I’ll be waiting at the stage door on Opening Night to say “Hi” after the show!

Thanks Steven! I’ll look forward to saying hi! All the best.

Click here for tickets to Catch Me If You Can, playing June 25-30 at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Photos: Christopher Briscoe, Luis Escobar, Carol Rosegg

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