Lead Actor Benjamin Papac Shares His Experiences behind the Scenes of the Stage Illusions and the Reality of Making the Magic Work in a Pandemic World  
Benjamin Papac (center) and the San Francisco cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child during The Wand Dance. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Since its release in 2016, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been a worldwide hit on the stage and has quickly become a beloved addition to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, which was brought to life by author J.K Rowling nearly 25 years ago with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The stage production takes place nineteen years after the events of the last Harry Potter adventure, bringing back many of the original characters of the books, who now as adults, deal with the trials of parenthood and legacy as their children take the center roles.

Now Albus Potter, the son of the most adored wizards of all, Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, is the focal point of the Cursed Child, embarking on his own journey of self-discovery beyond the shadow of the Potter last name and lore.

Filled with complex and visually perplexing illusions that take place on stage and within the customized theater itself, the show has just re-premiered in its newest format at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. Due to the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, the show went on hiatus until its gran re-opening in February of this year. In its newest format, the show has changed from a two-day show to a condensed and refined 3.5-hour, one sitting show.

We recently had the opportunity to speak to one of the show’s lead actors, Benjamin Papac, about his pivotal role as Albus Potter in the show. This is actually Papac’s theatrical debut, and he says that becoming part of the show felt like getting an accelerated master’s degree. Continue reading to find out how Papac feels he shares a connection to the character of Albus Potter, how he dealt with the stoppage of work in 2020, and what it means to be part of this production which attempts to bring audiences into a dazzling and spellbinding world with heart.

Hello Benjamin. Thanks for the time. I wanted to start off and basically ask what set you off on the path of acting and what initially interested you about that?

Great question. Let’s see, I first started acting when I was 13 years old, and it was really funny. I was doing home schooling at the time [and] I needed an elective course. So my mom just said, “Hey, you’re going to go do a local community theater show.” And I was really grumpy about it. I didn’t want to go in. I argued with her in the parking lot, and I finally went and did the audition. As I was watching kids perform, my imagination just lit up with possibilities and what the characters were going through, and what the story needed. And I had never had that experience with anything else in my life.

So I pretended to hate acting for about three months after that. And within a year, I was trying to get an agency. If I was going to give you a sound bite, like, “what is it about acting that lights my imagination that way? What is it about acting that I love so much?” The one-word answer is empathy. I am drawn to acting because it helps me better understand other people’s joys and sufferings, and it helps me feel better understood by the world.

I was wondering what your history was with the Harry Potter series before you were cast in this. Were you a fan of it? Had you read the books and watched the films prior?

Yeah, of course. My mother taught me to read using the Harry Potter books and there’s something really beautiful about how universal and personal that story is because there are countless other people out there who probably learned to read on Harry Potter, just like me. And there’s something so special about these stories and our relationship with them on both a cultural and personal level. So, yeah, I was a huge fan of the books from six years old on. I even went to one of the movie premiers in cosplay.

Another story, I don’t think I’ve ever told this one. When they first released the play, they also published a book version, and I was traveling at the time, and I saw the book in a bookstore, and it seemed like worlds away from the life that I was living. So it’s mind boggling to me that just a few short years after that, I got the opportunity to audition, and then I ended up doing the show. So it was always a big part of my creativity, and it’s one of the big reasons I’m a bookworm now, way before I ever got the opportunity to audition.

Could you talk a little bit about your character Albus Potter and how you prepared to play that role? And what did you bring to that character from your own life?

The thing about Albus that I identify with the most is his struggle to believe that he is worthy of love, that he’s worthy of being loved, that he’s worthy of giving love. And I think that is something that a lot of us struggle with in life. And the beautiful realization that Albus gets to learn as he goes through this amazing adventure is the worthiness of all people to love and be loved.

That is where I connect with all this the most, because my journey through my 20s has been remarkably parallel. I have learned so many lessons about that subject myself through friendships and my family, and I have so much empathy for Albus with that struggle. And so I get so much joy from helping him go through that journey every night.

What do you like best about your character’s arc in the story?

So in the story, Albus finds himself trying to come of age under the shadow of his dad’s celebrity. I mean, Harry Potter is this world-famous wizard at this point, 19 years after where the books left off, and Albus goes to Hogwarts with all these stories in his head of it being this wonderful, amazing place where he’s going to make so many friendships and have so many new experiences and really come into his own.

And what he finds instead is a really challenging environment where he’s struggling at school, he’s getting bullied all the time, and he’s constantly being told by the world around him that he doesn’t measure up to his dad.

So I think that ties in right there with this struggle like, “am I worthy?” I think Albus really feels this deep question inside of himself. “Am I even worthy of being part of this family, of being Harry Potter’s son?” So he decides that he’s going to go on an adventure to prove himself, to prove that he is worthy. He’s going to fight for what he believes in.

And that’s another thing I love about Albus. He’s stubborn to a fault, just like Harry, and sometimes that can cause problems as you’ll see if you come to see the show after reading this, but it also makes him remarkably tenacious when he’s standing up against something challenging. He will not give up and not in the way he expected. But Albus ends up going on a truly amazing adventure where he meets a lot of people that are beloved from the books.

I mean, everyone from Bane makes an appearance. You’re going to see Severus Snape in a creative way. Dolores Umbridge drops by. So you see all these amazing characters from new perspectives and through these moments, through these interactions with these amazing people, Albus has an adventure of the same caliber as the ones that Harry went through, just not in the way that Albus thought he would.

Now I was curious as to your opinion on the show transforming from a two-day event into a much leaner 3-hour show? As an actor what was the transformation like for you? How do you feel about the change?

The story is better. It has an amazing pace. It holds all of the heartwarming story that it had before. It has all of the magic that it had before. And now an added benefit is instead of buying two tickets, you buy one and you see the entire story in one sitting. And having done it several times now, we’re a couple of months into our performances, it’s a better show. We came back from the challenges of the pandemic, as you said, leaner, faster and more beautiful as a story and as a company. I’m really proud of what we’re putting in front of audiences.

How was the experience of closing during the pandemic? I mean, you just started off in your first really elaborate production like this, and then for the health reasons, everything is shut down. So how did you spend that time? Was there still activity, work wise with the cast of the crew?

Oh, yeah. I’m glad you asked that last piece. You know, the last two years were brutal for everybody. And it was otherworldly the day we closed. The way I spent the time myself, I traveled back to where I grew up. I went back to Georgia, and I put a lot of energy into my family and into my community in ways that I thought might be helpful during that time.

But you asked this great question about, like, “how did people from the show engage with one another?” And in the immediate aftermath, we all helped one another.

A lot of people, all of the actors moved to San Francisco for that job, and only I think fewer than five of us stayed for the entirety of the Pandemic. So a lot of people had to move. And so we were helping each other pack up our stuff, get out of our apartments, figure out where to put things. We were all there for one another. And then as the months went on and lockdowns continued and we were finding ways to stay connected, we started playing [the game] Quiplash together on Zoom. So everybody had those Zoom parties and everything.

Every few months we would see each other on this giant, like grid of faces and we’d be playing Quiplash together and making silly jokes. And that was kind of how we got our community through it. It’s how we got our family of a cast through it. We had a few days where we had to close last month because we had too many cases at the time, and during that short break, we actually did another Quiplash session. And it was in a weird way, nostalgic because we were all there for each other again as we were going through that short, jarring, three-day period.

But luckily now you can play Quiplash in person.

Yes, we can. It’s been amazing to be back. I mean, I know that’s a sound bite, but I actually said this during the short few days closure. I actually sent a message to the entire cast saying [something] like, “Everything that we have been through over the past few years for us to be back together again, I know that we’re just coworkers. But for me, this is a family with everything that entails. We’re just this big, lovely, messy family. We are always going to be there for one another. And there’s so much healing for the company now that we’re back, and now that we’re sharing this with people again.”

So why would you recommend the show?

If you’re just looking for a good time, there’s no better place to go. The magic that we do in the show is mind boggling. When you sit down and watch a movie, you see computer graphics and part of your brain is like, “Oh, yeah, that’s like, really good CGI.” But when you see theater illusions there are moments when the magic is so compelling you are sitting there asking yourself, “how did they do that? How did they just do that?” And it’s so fast, and then the moment is gone and you’re just sitting there in shock.

Then suddenly you realize you have to pay attention because the next scene has started. And if you’re looking for good acting, this is the place to be. This show has phenomenal scene work from the actors in this company. And that extends, by the way, through our covers and swings. Our entire company is absolutely fantastic. And it doesn’t matter what day of the week you come see the show, you’re going to see some of the best acting you’ve ever seen, some of the most heartfelt scenes.

You’re going to see illusions that blow your mind, and it’s going to be an invigorating evening.

Thank you, Ben. My last question is, after the last couple of years working on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, what have you taken away from this experience thus far?

Oh, man, I’m a better actor and I’m a better human. I mentioned that the rehearsals were like going to a postgraduate program in just a couple of months, I’m around some of the best actors I’ve ever gotten a chance to work with and I work with them every single night.

I have learned so much about empathy and kindness, not just from the story, but from what my coworkers have been through from the past couple of years, what we’ve all been through and from learning how to be there to support one another in the ways that different people need. And I’ve seen the lessons that I’ve learned from doing this job translate into the rest of my life with my friendships with other smaller creative projects that I do outside of this job with my family and how I relate to my family.

I mean, this story is about family and being there for one another as a father, as a son, as a mother, as a daughter, a sibling. And so you can’t do this job without those lessons affecting your own life.

Information and tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are available at harrypotterplaysf.com.

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