A Symphony For Portland: Matthew Joshua Cohen

Interview by Jen Bush

Remember his name!  You’ll understand why I said that as you read through the interview.  Matthew Joshua Cohen plays Jordan in an exciting new musical premiering in mid-August called A Symphony for Portland.  He was passionate about musical theatre from a young age.  What a joyful discovery when he found out he could sing.  Having a song in his heart opened some doors for him and has informed his successful journey in the arts.  “Being born and raised in Brooklyn, I have loved musical theatre for as long as I can remember.  When I was applying to middle schools, I discovered that I could sing (in order to go to the best schools in my district, one had to apply with a “talent”).  I was accepted to and attended one, where my “talent” was in vocal music.  I then continued my vocal music studies at LaGuardia Arts HS (the “Fame” school).  There, I engaged in numerous theatrical endeavors and discovered that I loved acting just as much as singing. After graduating from LaGuardia, I went to Brandeis University, where I double-majored in Theater Arts and Music.  Additionally, I participated in a great deal of extracurricular (primarily musical) theatre.  I knew that after graduating, I wanted to stay in NYC to pursue a professional acting career and obtain a master’s degree.  After returning home, I received an MA in Educational Theatre from NYU Steinhardt, and as a professional performer, I have performed in various plays, musicals, and operas in NY and regionally.”

Mr. Cohen approaches building his character from multiple directions during his creative process.  “My creative process involves a great deal of character work.  I don’t subscribe to one particular acting method, as I believe they all have their own merits.  In a nutshell, I investigate the text and (with significant contributions from the creative team and other cast members) ask myself a myriad of questions to discover WHY my character does what he does. I think that figuring out the “why” is the key to embodying a character in an engaging and organic manner.  In a musical, since there is the added layer of music/singing, using the music as a tool can also help reveal more layers to a character, with various clues such as underscoring to indicate subtext and rhythms to indicate the emphases of the lyrics.  The heightened emotions that are inherent to singing also help mold my performance.”

Wisely, Mr. Cohen doesn’t just jump into any project that comes along.  He does his due diligence before making a commitment.  “Before I submit for shows I am not already familiar with, I usually take several minutes to research the piece to see if it would be a good fit.  It took all of 15 seconds of listening to the music to make me immediately submit for A SYMPHONY FOR PORTLAND.  Composer/librettist Christina Hemphill has put together not only a gorgeous score, but a touching story that tackles difficult and timely themes.”

 A show with serious subject matter carries with it an added responsibility of executing the material in a cautious manner. Mr. Cohen takes this responsibility seriously.   “While I think that any work of theatre, regardless of subject matter and style, should be treated seriously and with the utmost integrity, the themes that A SYMPHONY FOR PORTLAND tackles elevate the urgency and sensitivity with which it must be performed. Especially in the world we’re living in now, the themes of acceptance, violence, and grief are more impactful than ever.”

 Though Covid is not over, Mr. Cohen feels positive and enthusiastic about getting back on stage.  “This is actually my first show since the pandemic- the timing feels right for me.  I am still vigilant and take every precaution I can, from consistently wearing an N95 mask in public to being vaccinated/boosted, but I feel safe enough to engage in live performance at this stage of the pandemic, especially given easy access to testing.  I am incredibly excited to get back into the swing of things, as March 2020 feels like a lifetime ago.”

A consensus among the cast is that post-Covid, theatre should be more inclusive and diverse.  “A positive outcome of Covid is that the break it caused has forced the theatre industry to take the time to take a look in the proverbial mirror and reflect on its inclusivity as well as its treatment of workers.  As an actor who does not come close to fitting into the box of the “leading man type”, I understand the importance of audience members seeing themselves represented on stage.  I think that now, theatre should look like the diverse array of people who love it.  More interest should be placed on the integrity and quality of the work, rather than how it may appeal to mass audiences.”

For his next performance, Mr. Cohen will be joining the union for theatrical professionals which is one of the wisest career moves that he can make.  “I have no planned upcoming gigs, but I do plan on moving my career forward by joining Actors Equity Association after this run is over.  I feel ready for the shift both for myself, and the changes within the theatre industry that have made this a more viable move.  I am also confident that A SYMPHONY FOR PORTLAND will have a life beyond this engagement, and am looking forward to seeing what the future holds.”  He’s gonna live forever.  Baby remember his name!

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