By Ken Trainor
Until seventh grade, it was all about sports for John Clay III. Basketball, to be precise (he's 6-3).
"We only lost one game throughout my middle school years," he recalls.
Maybe because of the demands of sports, he was looking for an easy course to fill out his schedule, so he took choir. A few of the girls told him he had a nice voice. OK. And his best friend, Da'Boris Bradley was "a theater geek." Being a seventh-grader, of course, Clay teased him about it.
"You think this is easy," Bradley told him, "but it's actually really difficult."
"It doesn't look that hard to me," Clay replied. "You just sing and dance and twirl around. It can't be that difficult."
Bradley dared him — bribed him actually — to try out for the next BRAVO production at Brooks. That may be the best $20 Bradley ever spent because, as a result, John Clay found his future.
The OPRF senior will be traveling to New York City in late June/early July for the National High School Musical Theater Awards competition. Clay was recently named best male performer in Illinois.
Then it's on to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, rated the number one program in the country for musical theater.
But first things first. First he had to try out for that BRAVO production of Korczak's Children.
"I ended up getting a relatively decent part," Clay recalls. "Then the director of BRAVO, Tina Reynolds, asked me if I wanted to try out for Grease." He landed the role of Danny Zuko, the male lead.
"From that point on," he says, "I just took off. She got me started."
In his first year at OPRF, however, reality set in.
"It was a humbling experience," he recalls. "I was used to getting a huge part every time, and here I was in the ensemble [of Fame]. It helped me see that every part is important, no matter how small it is, because you can't have a great show without a strong supporting cast behind you."
But it still took some getting used to.
"That first semester was a huge knock to my confidence," he says. "I'm not going to lie. It made me very doubtful. They said I wasn't mature enough. Nice voice, but I was really new to it. I had a lot of learning to do. I said, 'OK, what do I need to improve on? What can I do to make other people see that I really want to do this?'"
He landed the role of Jem in the Studio 200 production of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie, and discovered that he liked dramatic roles just as much as musicals.
"I had to really dissect the character and put my whole self into it, which I wasn't used to at that point," he observes. "It was just singing and dancing, and the music I was singing didn't have any real depth to it."
Michelle Bayer, who chairs the Performing Arts Department at OPRF, said the turning point came in junior year when Clay turned in "a phenomenal performance" in the lead role of Larry Shue's non-musical play, The Nerd.
"Once John realized he was also an actor, I think everything started to come together for him," Bayer says.
It really came together this winter when OPRF put on the musical Les Miserables, in spite of the naysayers who said it couldn't be done at the high school level — starting with John Clay III.
"He was the first one who told me we couldn't do it," Bayer recalls. "He said, 'No high school can do Les Miz well.'" After the last show, when Clay presented Bayer with a gift on behalf of the cast, he admitted he was wrong.
"He still doesn't have a full awareness of just how special he is," Bayer says. "That's his humility. He's one of the only high school kids I could imagine doing that role. It's such a deep show. It's one of the hardest shows — that and maybe Sweeney Todd.
"And it's a tough character," she adds. "He's an 18-year-old young man, and when he sings, 'Bring Him Home,' his character is in his mid- to late-50s, with a completely different background and life experiences to bring to that song. To have an audience emote from an 18-year-old's performance is pretty unusual."
"It was a very difficult show, Clay agrees, "but it was totally worth it. I learned a lot about myself in this show. I'm starting to see theater as a way to learn about who you are as a person because you can't play [someone else] unless you know your strengths and weaknesses as a human being."
As for playing an older character, he says, "There are things Valjean and I have in common. It wasn't that hard to pull those things out of me. It's magnifying them and making it a bigger deal. That's the hard part because in an auditorium, that person way back there has to be able to tell what you're thinking and why you're thinking it."
Clay enjoyed doing other musicals. Tick, Tick, Boom and Annie were great fun, he says, but Les Miz is his favorite because of "the depth of the characters. It has a purpose and it has a story that needs to be told. It says that someone who has fallen to such a low level can bounce back and become wholly righteous, a good man. It shows that, as long as you have someone in your corner, you can do anything, and a little faith can take you anywhere."
And John Clay has plenty of people in his corner.
"He has a great family," says Bayer. "His mom is very solid and very clear that you're John. You're not just John Clay III. You still have to be part of the family."
John Clay II, meanwhile, performs with a community theater on the South Side of Chicago, but his acting career didn't start until after his son's theater involvement began.
"I pretty much inspired him," says John III, "which is really weird."
One of his two older sisters (he also has a younger sister) is the lead vocalist of a band called Gentlemen of Leisure. She's so good, in fact, that Clay avoided singing because he didn't want to be "stuck in her shadow." He doesn't feel like he's in her shadow now.
"There are more dimensions to musical theater," he observes.
Like stage presence.
"Some people find it scary," Clay says, "but I think being onstage is very comforting. It's one of the only places where I feel like I belong. I can totally relax and do what I need to do up there. It's a weird feeling but I love it."
"He's one in a thousand," says Bayer, "pretty amazing potential. He's very good to work with, humble and giving."
"I really don't think I'm an amazing performer," Clay says. "There's always someone better than you out there. I do think that no one has the drive that I have, but there's a multitude of people who have my talent. And I know that nothing is set in stone, so that forces me to work even harder because this is a risky business, you know? There's no guarantee you're going to get anything. You put yourself out there and, hopefully, you get back what you deserve. You get out of it what you put into it. That's pretty much the whole thing."
"He's a well-grounded kid," Bayer says. "We talk about that all the time. I told him as long as you keep your head together, you'll be fine. Everyone will hype you up because you're talented. You need to realize your talent and never diminish it, but just keep yourself solid. Be a solid person."
Last summer, thanks to the efforts of Pat Cheney, who heads the speech team at OPRF, Clay attended a special summer program for performers at Carnegie Mellon, which helped him decide his college plans. At the Illinois Theater Association's Theater Fest in Champaign this year, he played the role of Delray in Memphis and got to work with the actor who originated the role on Broadway. Then he was chosen by judges from Broadway in Chicago to represent the state at the National High School Musical Theater competition (known as the Jimmy Awards), July 1 and 2, where he'll find out how he measures up against the best high school performers in the country.
It's been a good year for John Clay III. And there is promise of more to come.
"People questioned why I quit basketball," he says, "but then they'd see a play and say, 'OK, I understand.' It wasn't a hard transition. People were very supportive.
"Pretty much this entire community has been behind me from day one."