Mat Labotka’s first acting audition was a disaster. A 10-year-old at St. Mary Catholic School in Riverside, he was so nervous performing in front of his music teacher that he couldn’t get his voice to steady. Even just formulating words was a challenge.
“When I was done, she just looked at me and said, ‘Okay, well, you can check the cast list tomorrow,'” he said. “Which, of course, meant no.”
It was a memorable disappointment, but in the 15 years since then it would be safe to say that Labotka has bounced back. He is now starring in the world-premiere comedy “Imminent Dangers of Love and the Afterlife” at the Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., in Chicago through May 21.
In the play, Labotka, a former Riverside resident, plays Daniel, a man who accidentally kills himself while trying to get the attention of the woman he loves. He dies spiritually undecided, and, therefore, finds himself in a waiting room, where he must decide what his spiritual beliefs are before moving on.
While waiting, he meets a whole assortment of people with different religious beliefs, from Christian fundamentalists to reincarnationists to Wiccans, who are on their way to their own afterlives.
“The show gives a broad view of a bunch of different people and how they can coexist, how their beliefs don’t necessarily have to conflict,” Labotka said. “It shows that religions have a lot to give and take from each other. And yet, at the core, it’s just a simple romantic comedy.”
“Imminent Dangers,” produced by Smoke and Mirror Productions, will run until May 21, with productions every Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m. As his first professional production in Chicago, Labotka said the play has been an exciting and educational experience.
“The show was a great experience, especially being a new professional to the stage,” he said, “because everybody in the show was fantastically professional, and they all brought their own elements into the show. The entire cast is extraordinarily talented. It was not only a great pleasure, but a learning experience working with them.”
In getting to this point from his audition at St. Mary’s, Labotka said, his various acting experiences in his hometown played a major role. A year after not being cast at St. Mary’s, Labotka overcame his nervousness and landed the role of Dopey in an adaptation of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” produced by the Riverside Theater Guild. This led to five or six years of involvement in the guild’s annual productions, during which Labotka said his confidence on stage really started to develop.
“It felt like now I was doing actual legitimate theater with adults and was being welcomed by them on the stage. I was good enough to perform with adults,” he said. “I did that for several years, and as I was growing older, they would bring younger kids in, and all of a sudden I was the older person welcoming kids onto the stage. That really solidified my presence on the stage.”
It wasn’t until his junior year of high school, however, that Labotka finally overcame his final bit of nervousness”a slight fear of acting in front of his peers”and joined the drama club at Riverside-Brookfield High School. He was cast in three productions at RB, including the title role in the musical “The Wiz.”
The acceptance he found at both the Riverside Theater Guild and RB helped to push Labotka onto a career path that was very different from the one he had originally imagined for himself.
“For a while I wanted to be a doctor, because my father and his father and his brothers are doctors,” he said, “but then I realized I wanted to do something expressive, be artistic. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to entertain people, and performing had become so ingrained in me. I loved being on stage”I loved the spotlight, loved the laughter, the applause. I loved it all.”
Labotka went on to study performing arts at Marquette University, where he not only acted but also worked backstage, directed and even wrote a few short plays. Following graduation in 2003, he then decided to try his luck as an actor in Los Angeles.
After two years of doing some film and voice-over work and waiting a lot of tables, however, Labotka said he realized that he wanted to return to theater, which meant a move back to Chicago.
“In film work, there is no urgency, no applause, no laughter,” he said. “I knew I had to get back on the stage. And I was actually starting to miss the Chicago weather.”
As it turns out, Labotka chose the perfect time to return. Little more than a week after moving back this January, he was cast in “Imminent Dangers.” Such immediate good luck is far more than he was expecting, Labotka said.
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “As soon as I auditioned for the part, I knew I was ready to return to theater. And the character is perfect for me”he’s a little quirky, a little twitchy and nervous. There’s a lot of me in Daniel.”
Two weekends into the show’s run, Labotka said that so far the reception to the play has been good. The added energy of having a live audience responding to the performance, he said, is exactly what he had been looking for in his return home.
“I didn’t know the play was so funny,” he said. “In rehearsals, you tend to forget about it, because everyone’s heard the jokes before. But on opening night we filled the house, and the laughter just erupted. That’s what I’ve been missing, what I’ve been waiting for. The laughter and applause is like being rewarded for entertaining people, which is incredible.”