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The Actorvist – Broadway’s Rory O’Malley on Blending Your Life’s Art and Activism

Originally from Cleveland, Rory O’Malley has been living and working in New York City since 2006. He received his BFA from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. Most notably he has performed on Broadway in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, he originated the role of Richie Cunningham in Garry Marshall’s Happy Days: The Musical!, and is featured in the motion picture Dreamgirls as Dave, the crooner who steals Cadillac Car from Eddie Murphy. In the fall of 2008, Rory joined his friends Jenny Kanelos and Gavin Creel and founded Broadway Impact to educate and inspire the theater community to stand up for marriage equality. His experience with Broadway Impact has given him the opportunity to consult for other equality organizations including the Human Rights Campaign.

Today I started rehearsals for a new acting gig. In my past experience the thrill of that first day is indescribable.  It’s almost like a runner’s high. As any actor knows, getting to that first rehearsal involves a lot more than a subway ride.  The years of blood sweat and tears that are represented by walking through that door can make it feel more like crossing the finish line of the marathon.

But today was different.  Today was August 4, 2010 and 3,000 miles away a federal judge in California overturned Proposition 8. This dwarfed my acting gig euphoria and sent my activist adrenaline on overdrive.  You see, exactly 21 months earlier proposition 8 passed and a couple of my friends and I started an organization called Broadway Impact.  It aims to educate and inspire the public about marriage equality using the power of theater.  The news that Prop 8 was dead was huge and quite frankly, totally distracting.  So while I should have been focused on meeting my new cast mates, I was desperately texting and emailing my Broadway Impact team for updates. During a multitasking moment of learning music and reading tweets from The Advocate, I asked myself, “How did this happen?  How did I become, what my boyfriend calls, an actorvist? When did my one-track actor mind make time for letter writing campaigns and rallies?”

In the summer of 2008 during a performance of Happy Days, the Musical!, I had a thought that would change my life. It was the middle of the wrestling scene when my character Richie Cunningham is put in a half Nelson lock by the evil Malachi Brothers until Fonzie, the epitome of cool, arrives to rescue him. It was at that moment with my face planted on the floor (a position I had grown accustomed to after working on the same show for four years) that I had this thought… “I wonder what I would be doing right now if I had gone to law school?” I guess the short answer is I would probably be wrestling for a client in a courtroom rather than with two 70′s sitcom characters.  Don’t get me wrong, working on Happy Days was one of the best jobs of my life and law school was never really an option- too many books and briefs. The thought was bigger than that. I had never allowed myself to ponder about anything but my performing career. Straying focus from my dream in any way had been sacrilegious, but here I was fantasizing about other paths. This was easy to do when I was unemployed, but while onstage? It was the moment I realized that I wanted to carve out a life as an actor that included more than just wrestling scenes, but more what? I had no idea.

When the show ended that July, I got a mass email from Barack Obama’s campaign offering training seminars on campaigning that would then set you up with an office in a part of the country that needed help. Obama Camp. As a political junkie it was something I was dying to do but my vow to be a faithful actor who is always on call for that life changing audition was nagging at me. I was afraid that expanding my horizons in this way would open the door to giving up on being an actor and giving up my passion was not a possibility. In the end the call of HOPE from Barack won out over the hope of a call from my agent.

I am so grateful for that moment of clarity. I spent the next three months in my hometown of Cleveland running phone banks and going door to door for Barack. It changed my life in all the ways I couldn’t even imagine while in that half Nelson. When I came back to NYC feeling like we had changed the world, I was devastated to hear the news that proposition 8 had passed in California. How could a country make such progress with the election of Obama and in the same breath take away civil rights from a minority? Had I gone to the wrong state? I had to do something. It was a perfect storm. I was angry but felt empowered by my experience in Ohio.

I went to NYC rallies in protest of prop 8, with my friends Jenny Kanelos and Gavin Creel. We saw the Broadway community coming out in droves. We began to approach LGBT organizations saying, “How can the Broadway community help? Where do we go?” the answers were usually just to write a letter or call your representatives. These were good answers but we were shocked that the fight for marriage equality didn’t have a way to harness the power of the theater community. After failing to find the organization that we thought had to exist, we decided to create it ourselves. That was the birth of Broadway Impact.

I think the only thing we had going for us was determination.  None of us had any experience in activism or in anything like this, so starting from scratch seemed totally overwhelming. We locked our selves in an apartment for a few days and brainstormed all the ways that the theater community could make a difference.  We took meetings with the head of Broadway Cares, gay rights leaders, heads of media companies- basically anyone who knew more than us and would let us buy them lunch.  You would be amazed how willing people were to help us get the ball rolling.  With in two months we had a logo, website, and mailing list.

That winter we started a letter writing campaign to the New York State Senate asking them to pass the Marriage Equality bill.  When we collected 3,000 letters from actors, stage managers, fans and more, it became clear that we had tapped into something huge.  By May our rally near Bryant Park drew thousands of people to see Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce, Audra McDonald and numerous Broadway Stars tell them to contact their state senators to pass the Marriage Equality Bill in New York State.  When we got the idea, we were hoping for some press and a few hundred people, but the day before we realized it had grown into something much bigger when we got calls from Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Patterson’s offices, letting us know that they would be joining.  It was like putting on a community theater show and getting a call that Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline would like to be the leads.  Unimaginable.  That rally turned into a month of phone banking for the bill that produced 16,000 calls.  That fall we participated in the national Equality March in DC.  We sent 1400 New Yorkers to Washington DC for free on 24 busses sponsored by various Broadway stars and other Broadway Impact supporters.  We were the largest group in the nation to attend the march.

Now six months earlier if you had told me this was all going to happen, I would have ran in the other direction. But little by little, I realized that being a good actor did not mean shutting out other passions in life. It meant embracing them. By the end of the year I had grown into a full-fledged actorvist.  That half nelson thought of a year before had opened a door of purpose that gives me joy on a daily basis. Adding another element to my dream has only enriched my acting life.  I look at my next acting gig as a happy surprise and not as a chance to breathe again after holding my breath in between jobs.  I would encourage any actor to seek other ways to expand his or her dream and not worry about losing focus from the bright lights.  Chances are, it will only make them brighter.

BROADWAY IMPACT
To get involved with Broadway’s fight for Marriage Equality, join us at www.BroadwayImpact.com where you can learn how to educate and inspire your community using the power of theater.



  1. Bobby on Tuesday 28, 2010

    He’s gorgeous! Inside obviously, but on the outside too. Woah

  2. [...] out this article to learn a little bit more about the mind behind the marriage equality organization. Join the [...]

  3. JR on Tuesday 28, 2010

    I had a teacher once tell me I didn’t have enough life experience (at 19 – of course I didn’t)

    Well, i think it’s so important to have explore any passion, be it acting, activism or both. Good for you.

    I will always be indebtted to Broadway Impact, it’s how I met my future hubby!