A Worthy Cause: Kevin Pollack on the New Works Virtual Festival (Oct. 18-24)

Throughout his career on the Windy City stage, actor Kevin Pollack has always had a penchant for bringing down the house. From his channeling of Joe Cocker and his crowd-pleasing Blooze Brothers act to his poignant portrayal of our site's founder, Roger Ebert, Pollack has demonstrated his versatile skill in inhabiting the skin of others, even those who are well-known. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping live theatre at a standstill for the foreseeable future, Pollack has assembled a spectacular array of well-known talents for his inaugural New Works Virtual Festival

From Sunday, October 18th, through Saturday, October 24th, twenty plays will be performed online featuring acclaimed actors and artists the likes of Oscar-winner Marlee MatlinGeorge Wendt, Richard Kind, Stephen Tobolowsky, Marsha Mason, Dan Lauria, Chris Sarandon, Richard Pryor Jr., Elaine Hendrix, Bruce Vilanch, Carmen Cusack and RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert among many, many others. All of the proceeds will go The Actors Fund, the 501 (c)(3) charitable organization supporting performers and behind-the-scenes workers in entertainment, helping over 17,000 people each year.

Over the weekend, Pollack took time to speak with RogerEbert.com about the exciting project, his "Zooming the Movies" script-reading series and his recent trio of music videos. 

What makes Chicago an ideal place for actors to stretch their creativity? Natalie West once told me how she enjoyed coming back to act here, because in LA, she kept getting typecast as her character from Roseanne.

First, there are a ton of fantastic non-Equity companies to cut your teeth on. I also feel like the Chicago theatre scene is a supportive place. It's competitive, but not as cutthroat as LA or New York. When you go into that audition room, you're not just a number.

What inspired you to channel John Belushi in your Blooze Brothers act, and what significance does that character hold for you?

It all started when I played Joe Cocker in Black Ensemble Theatre's Men of Soul. Many people afterwards said that I emulated him onstage and suggested I join a Blues Brothers tribute. When I eventually joined The Blooze Brothers, I wanted to bring the acting into the concert performance. John Belushi was a wild performer. It was exhausting just watching him. So, in every Blooze Brothers performance, I try to get into Belushi's headspace and how he would act onstage if he were still alive and performing today.

Rashada Dawan and Kevin Pollack as Chaz and Roger Ebert in "The BlackWhite Love Play."

It was a joy watching you portray Roger in "The BlackWhite Love Play" opposite Rashada Dawan. How did you go about preparing for the role?

A lot of research. I delved deep into his books, watched a lot of his interviews, and watched the documentary "Life Itself." I also had Chaz's help by getting to sit at his desk and try on his glasses. It helped me get more into the mind of Roger. I prayed before each show that I could bring his spirit into my body when I performed. It was a very surreal experience, and probably the most difficult acting challenge I've ever had.

Your singing has proven to be incredibly versatile onstage. What inspired your approach to "Man About Town"? It struck me as an affectionate love letter to the Windy City.

Thank you for the compliment! "Man About Town" started in my basement studio with just a keyboard. I wanted a song that would emulate that classic Motown sound, with a little Huey Lewis as well. I've been trying to establish a new sub-genre of music called NuTown, which means New Motown (that classic soul mixed with today's pop). The music video for the song isn't actually a love letter to the Windy City; it's about a guy who is trying to go on the best date ever, and takes his date out for a night on the town that she'll never forget. The music video has won a handful of film festival awards for Best Music Video and is part one in a sequence of videos that tells the story of a relationship. "Man About Town" is the dating phase. Part two is my song "Something Good (Is Comin' Down)," which is the wedding, Then, part 3, "Holiday" is the honeymoon. The music video for "Holiday" will premiere this month, actually!

How has the COVID-19 pandemic specifically impacted the acting community in Chicago ever since the lockdown began in March?

It's affected every facet of the theatre experience onstage, backstage, or in the audience. Digital performance has been the only way to go since the beginning of the pandemic. That's why I started "Zooming the Movies," so actors can come together each week and do cold-readings of movie scripts we all know and love. This also gives actors opportunities to live out dream roles. What started as a group of friends wanting to act out one of our favorite films turned into something bigger than we ever imagined. We started bringing Hollywood and Broadway actors into the mix, then professional actors from all over, and we are now at over 500 people in the "Zooming the Movies" Facebook group. It's still growing every day!

What led you to create the New Works Virtual Festival?

My co-producer and business-partner Jim Auld and I started it after developing "Zooming the Movies." As "Zooming the Movies" evolved, we began to welcome well-known Hollywood and Broadway actors to perform with us. They were more attracted to performing original works and developing new characters, rather than playing in roles that have been developed by others. As Jim and I talked about that, the idea for a new works festival came to be. We originally were going to do a local festival for new writers to have a voice, but what started as something local turned into something bigger...much bigger. We brought on co-producer Broadway star Bart Shatto and an incredible creative team to help make this an event to remember. We also decided to support The Actors Fund, a very important organization to support during these troubling times. 100% of the proceeds will go to The Actors Fund.

What sort of plays are you looking to include in the twenty selected to be performed over the seven days?

We created a mission statement to address choosing the works for this festival: "New Works Virtual Festival provides artists an opportunity to present original content (Full-length plays, One-Act plays, screenplays and teleplays) by writers who have non-published works. The festival will be comprised of 20 plays in 7 days. Plays will be read for the first time by top-tiered talent from Broadway and Hollywood. Our goal is to create a diverse team supporting diverse works from many perspectives, cultures, religions, and voices. We strive for inclusivity in all areas. We are committed to works that connect us as human beings and bring us closer to a better understanding of who we are."

The line-up of talent, as featured on the poster, is hugely impressive. What does their involvement mean to you? 

It's an honor that all these famous names are contributing their talents to this festival. The Actors Fund has done a lot for many actors in the community, and I'm so glad that some of the biggest names in TV, film and Broadway are giving up their time and talent to support not only a worthy cause, but new writers and new voices. I also think they enjoy creating new characters as well.

To what extent have virtual events kept the arts community connected and productive during this period?

It brings people together from all over the world, who normally wouldn't be together in person, even during the best of times. Even though actors would rather be performing on a stage with an audience, programs like Zoom have kept the arts going by giving actors a platform to read plays and such digitally. I know a lot of actors who have told me that things like "Zooming the Movies" have kept their momentum up for when theatre comes back.

What future projects are you planning to pursue and how have they shifted due to the pandemic?

As I mentioned, I will be premiering my new music video for my song "Holiday" in the coming weeks. I plan on writing and releasing more music, so look out for that! I'm also doing voice-over work, which is new to me. Thanks to its popularity, I plan on keeping "Zooming the Movies" alive, even after this pandemic is over. If the New Works Virtual Festival goes well in October, we plan on doing it again in some form next year.

For more information and updates regarding the New Works Virtual Festival, follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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