Dreams of New York… Tupelo native savors first year as struggling artist in Big Apple

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

It takes a certain kind of person to live from one job to another, stringing together as many as he can in a year.
That’s the life Tupelo native Jamey Grisham, 27, chose many years ago. Since he was a kid, he has dreamed of being a professional performer. Now, it’s a reality that requires as much drive as talent.
“The past year I have done at least 20 different projects,” he said, then paused to count them on his fingers. “Between 15 and 20.”
Grisham might have developed his taste for the stage at his grandmother’s house, where he and his sister performed roles from Disney classics.
“He’d be dressed up as the Prince, and his sister would play Snow White,” his dad, Jimmy Grisham, said.
Over the years, he’s appeared in Pied Piper Playhouse and Tupelo Community Theatre productions, and he was a constant cast member in Tupelo High School plays and musicals until his 2003 graduation.
“He has the work ethic and the desire, that passion to be a performer,” said Debby Gibbs, Grisham’s high school drama teacher. “So many people might want to do it, but sometimes they lack the desire and passion to be successful.”
At 16, he realized something was missing from his skill set. He researched performing arts schools and couldn’t help wondering what could set him apart from other applicants. That’s how he found himself as the only boy in the Tupelo Ballet company.
“You train five days a week, then rehearsals for ‘The Nutcracker’ are on the weekend,” he said. “It was a huge commitment, but how else could I better myself?”
He earned a spot at The Theatre Conservatory at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, where he got a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater. He then expanded his acting talent during graduate school at Brown University.
For the past year, he’s been putting his training to good use in New York, where he’s happy to work as an actor, a musical director, a choreographer, a singer, a dancer or whatever the next job requires.
“He’s living the dream he wanted,” Gibbs said. “That doesn’t mean he has to have the lead in a Broadway pl.ay. He’s a working actor. When his agent signed him, one of things she said is it’s great to do choreography and musical direction, as well as acting in plays and musicals. She can send him out for lots of different jobs.”
Nos and yeses
Grisham has a secret weapon that’s proven extremely helpful during his time in New York: Auditions.
“I love the casting process. I love auditioning,” he said. “I love being able to show what I can do.”
His dad said Grisham has had that type of approach for years. There was a time when young Grisham came home from school with a box of candy bars to sell in the neighborhood. He left the house full of enthusiasm, and his dad didn’t expect it to last for long.
“He came back and had a big smile on his face,” Jimmy Grisham recalled. “He said, ‘I sold one.’ He probably got 20 nos but he got one yes, and that’s what mattered to him.”
He’s spent five summers at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich. This past season, he played Warner in “Legally Blonde” and a Boy George impersonator in “The Wedding Singer.” He also served as choreographer for “Pal Joey,” which starred Kim Zimmer, an Emmy-winning actress from “Guiding Light” and “One Life to Live.”
But this year his time in Michigan kept him away from New York, where several opportunities had to be missed, including a call back from “The Book of Mormon,” a Tony Award-winning musical on Broadway.
His current paying gig brought him home to Tupelo, where he’s directing Pied Piper Playhouse’s production of “Captain Louie.” His agent wanted to send him out for a couple of roles in New York during rehearsals in Tupelo, but he had to pass.
“When I have a dry spell, it’s hard to get work,” he said. “When I’m working, I feel like I have a million offers.”
Getting back
“Captain Louie,” a comedy about Halloween, will be staged Oct. 26-28 at Milam Auditorium, then Grisham will catch a plane back to New York on the following Monday.
“Now that I’ve been in the South, my accent comes back a little more every day,” he said. “I’ll have to be careful when I get back.”
That accent has led to several roles in Tennessee Williams’ plays. He also pulled off a Scottish accent, which he calls the hardest, for the role of Mordred in “Camelot.”
He’s been a servant and an on-stage musical director in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and a clown that had his body melded to a trash can in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.” He also got to play an outsized version of himself in an original production, “Raunch and Roll,” that debuted at The Barn Theatre over the summer.
“It was almost like this clown element of yourself,” Grisham said. “All of the cast played exaggerated versions of ourselves. It basically felt like being a clown without a clown nose.”
When he’s not working on a production he often watches them. A friend nominates plays and musicals for Tony Award consideration and gets free tickets. Grisham’s happy to tag along or buy tickets for other shows he wants to see. During one four-day break from work he caught seven shows.
“I can’t sit at home watching TV now that I live in New York,” he said.
Watching shows is part fun and part work, and it all serves the passion and drive that keep him going. He said there’s no better class than sitting close to the stage when Helen Mirren or Ian McKellen bring characters to life.
Grisham’s had a good year out of graduate school. He’s worked enough jobs to get health insurance through the union, and he has every reason to believe more opportunities await him, even if the nos outweigh the yeses.
“You take it one job at a time, one project at a time. A lot of people would be scared of the unknown, but I really love it,” he said. “I like the idea of infinite possibilities. I’m not really afraid of that. It’s what makes me excited.”
scott.morris@journalinc.com