He clocks in at around five-foot-seven. It’s not quite tall but he’s got dark and handsome down to a T. His penciled jawline could cut glass. His hair is quaffed somewhere between a 1990’s Jeff Goldblum & late-50’s Elvis Presley rockabilly style. He wears his clothes, drinks his coffee, walks, talks and shakes hands with an air of casual elegance. In person Johnny Segalla embodies a man who you might call timeless: he refuses wristwatches and he studies zen Buddhism and Shamanism. He reads Alan Watts, listens to Tony Bennett, and quotes William Shakespeare. His favorite drink is probably a chocolate malted milkshake.
First glance at his entertainment résumé will reveal an undoubtedly unique skill set: he has worked as a professional theater & indie film actor, cabaret-crooner, puppet maker, FM radio personality, teaching artist and 1-on-1 creative care mentor for individuals with Autism. He has serendaded with jazz bands and romped as a Coyote in Native American folk legends. He has toured America as a famous children’s book character. He assisted in the creation of an anti-bullying production (with puppets!) If there is a niche for creative entertainers, Segalla has found it.
Born John F. Segalla III, his forever nickname “Johnny” adds an old-timey hollywood feel to his stage personality: Johnny Segalla. If it were spelled ‘Gianni’ you might confuse him for a 1920’s black and white film actor with ties to the old country (Segalla’s family lineage is indeed Italian and Sicilian). A native of Berkshire County Massachusetts, Segalla spent much of his early acting career studying with some of the best known regional companies and masters of summer stock: Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theatre Group (formerly known as BTF), Shakespeare & Co., Sharon TriArts Playhouse, & Berkshire Playwright’s Lab. From a young age he viewed every role as an opportunity to learn. Summers in the Berkshires are positively ripe with creative folk, live music and world class theater. As a teen when Johnny was not acting in a show he would attend as many local productions as possible. A typical theater season in the bustling Berkshires can host dozens of shows stretching from southern Berkshire county to the Williamstown Theater Festival. Johnny spent nearly all of his time in the theater.
Whether acting in a play or musical, crooning at the Gateways Inn Piano Lounge, offering voice talents to a radio ad., hustling on an indie film set, or touring with national children’s theater productions, Johnny views each experience as equally important and unique to the entertainment field and his role in it:
“Every great actor will tell you about his ‘toolbox.’ Inside there you have all of your training: vocal technique, movement, method. It’s all in there. And in theory, when you go to work you always carry your toolbox with you. But eventually, after lots of training it gets filled up. Sometimes it gets filled up really fast. So, occasionally you’ve got to get inside and organize things a bit. Ask yourself: ‘do I still use this tool for that? What if I tossed out this old thing and started over? Maybe I could use this one skill differently…’ And so it goes, on and on. But the most important thing to remember is this: I’m the one holding the toolbox. If something needs to be fixed or built, I’m going to do in my own unique way if I can. That’s why I view every entertainment opportunity equally. I don’t discriminate ‘good entertainment’ from ‘bad entertainment’ before I’ve even had a chance to start working on a project. I figure, who knows…maybe I could fix it up a little? Entertainment is all about the individual touch within large-scale collaboration. “
While Segalla considers himself as a “jack of all trades” entertainer, he admits that feeling lost in the shuffle is a risk that runs high in the industry. With so many wonderful actors, singers, dancers, and quadruple-threats out there he believes that having a great career is no longer a question of mere talent:
“Today everybody’s got talent. America’s got talent! Our world is full of beautifully talented and creative people. What worries me is that too many folks are trying to make a career of it for the wrong reasons: i.e., they just want to get famous.” Segalla believes that this pursuit for fame has become a major problem in the entertainment industry. “It’s become so over-saturated. Everybody’s out there looking for work and they know they want to work, but they don’t really know WHY. ‘Wanting to be famous’ does not count! That’s like wanting to win the lottery or strike big at a casino. It’s a fantasy with near-impossible odds. And if everyone is playing the game and buying in for the same reason then that leaves very little room for people who pursue their craft to make sizable difference in the world and bring some joy into it. Isn’t that what entertainment is all about?” At the end of the day Segalla believes in creating a high quality of excellence in whatever he does. He approaches entertainment as an artist with zero agenda for fame and notoriety.
Anyone who watches Johnny Segalla’s “Golden Standards: Music of the Great American Songbook” cabaret act might notice an old fashioned sensibility under the skin of this 27-year-old millennial. He touts a repertoire of over 100 standards from the 20th century. Often accompanied by the endless improvisational talents of his friend & musical mentor Mike Schiffer (http://www.mikeschiffer.com), Johnny sings the songs elegantly and without presumption. His in-between patter is a mix of obscure song facts, stories about the big hollywood stars, and some personal tales and humorous impressions thrown into the mix.
What does he think about contemporary music?
“I really don’t mind it. Music is music, you know? If it speaks to my heart, I’ll listen; if it’s repetitive and commercial, I won’t. I am hoping that musicals and contemporary pop will go back to the way it used to be. We need to infuse music with sophisticated lyrics once more. For instance, a lot of old songs used to have verses; these were the fabulous (sung) intros that went along with the songs. A lot of terrific verses have been forgotten, but as a singer of the Great American Songbook I usually try to include the verse…if it’s worth singing! Of course, sometimes verses were left out because they were lousy. But usually they were terrific.”
Five years after completing his BA in Theater at Russell Sage College, Johnny has actively cultivated his entertainment connections and remained a self-represented (aka: freelance) entertainer.
Would he consider working with an agent or manager?
“Absolutely. I am always looking to collaborate with the right people. Loyalty is what really counts. Yet, I approach this question in a cosmic way. I often ask myself: ‘is this gig/show/connection going to feel right at this moment in my life or will it simply make me some extra money?’ There are millions of ways to make more money. But making people feel good (through acting & entertaining) is a little more subtle. It takes heart and dedication. I am always wary of people and opportunities that could become creative energy vampires…they float around out there preying on those who want to be famous. I’ve learned the hard way about these types. Thank God for that.”
In his private moments Segalla spends time cooking, writing, doodling puppet designs on legal pads or taking quiet refuge in nature. He plays native american flute and practices shamanic healing and drum journeying. Exploring ancient cultures and wisdom is what feeds his creative soul:
“Spirituality becomes one with the entertainer: he can shape-shift into whatever he needs to be. It’s magic. But for now, the role which I play today may be different than tomorrow. That is part of my life meditation. I’m working with the talents that I have and I am slowly putting it all together in a meaningful way.”
Segalla believes that he will ultimately create his dream role; much like a Fred Rogers or Jim Henson, Johnny Segalla believes that his path in the entertainment world will be to create a beloved character based on his many unique qualities. He does not consider himself to be a wandering minstrel, but rather, he is a man on a mission. His mission is to create an entertainment personae uniquely from himself. I believe that one day he will do it. I hope it’s very soon.
Check out http://www.gatewaysinn.com for Johnny Segalla’s “Golden Standards: Music of the Great American Songbook” performance schedule.
Interviewed by: Jen Parker
Photography: Enrico Spada