Let’s Root for Leigh Wakeford
We all hope to win the lottery -- even if we never buy tickets. But very few of us need to win a lottery as much as Leigh Wakeford.
In his case, the victory won’t come from Powerball, MegaMillions or any of the other games that bleed us dry week after week. The lottery that the Capetown, South Africa native needs to win is the one that will get him a Green Card.
Unlike us, who get many chances each week that could change our lives from Poor Little Annes in Tenderloin to all the Rothschilds rolled into one, the Green Card Lottery for South Africans takes place only once a year.
If Leigh Wakeford doesn’t win this May, he’ll have to leave the country by September. So while all his friends and relatives have been wishing him a happy new year, he has no idea where he’ll be for the last quarter of it.
Granted, Wakeford’s odds are better than ours when we buy our tickets. He estimates that he has a 2% chance of being drawn as a Green Card Lottery winner. “They pick a few,” he admits, “but I’m up against about 1,000 other South Africans.” Nothing in his voice indicates that he feels he’s being treated unfairly. He knows the rules, and he’ll abide by them. Wakeford just wouldn’t mind having a little of Sky Masterson’s luck, that’s all. Then he will not only be able to stay in the United States, but will also be eligible to join Actors Equity.
“You can’t be a member unless you have that Green Card,” he says.
Wakeford has been a constant performer since the age of six, when he played Noddy, a British cartoon character, in a Capetown school. Soon he was taking lessons on piano and sax – “and joined every choir I could.”
That brought him into contact with music from theater. “But in South Africa,” he says, “we have a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but very few American musicals. Maybe The Sound of Music every other year. But Sondheim? Forget it.”
The emphasis on British poperas was particularly problematic for Wakeford, who was natively a dancer – for there’s precious little choreography in those musicals. At least television, via MTV and various awards shows, showed him what dancing on stage could be. So by 13, he was choreographing school shows – “which means,” he says, “that I was replicating what I had taped from television.”
Where else could he learn? “In Afrikaan and Boer neighborhoods,” he says, “everything is just rugby and barbecues.”
On Monday, Feb. 10, 2002, the day he turned 18, Wakeford was busy planning for that Friday, when he would lead his high school’s Spirit Day, a day-long rally that he’d choreographed.
But on Tuesday, he learned that his father had committed suicide that morning.
“He had been depressed,” Wakeford admits. “He was an alcoholic who was facing bankruptcy. Now that I think of it, I hadn’t seen him all day on my birthday. But he did leave me a note that said, ‘May your talents enrich you for the rest of your life.’”
The show must go on, and Wakeford went on with it that Friday.
Later that year, he played Ren in Footloose. People approached him afterward to congratulate him – and to say that he should study musical theater in school. His eyes widen when he recalls, “I didn’t even know you could do such a thing.”
One could, albeit only in one school in South Africa: Pretoria Technikon. And while Wakeford’s mother was facing economic difficulties, she didn’t stand in his way. He enrolled and was cast in the ensemble of The Boy Friend. “Freshman girls weren’t allowed to audition, but freshman boys were – because they were very much needed,” he says drolly.
By sophomore year, Wakeford was Lewis in Pippin. But what he found equally valuable was a certain class -- “a three-hour one where we watched movie musicals,” he says. “I loved The Band Wagon, Singin’ in the Rain and anything with Cyd Charisse. And I was much more impressed with the choreography in these movies than with anything I’d seen on MTV. Those American musicals also made me feel that I had to be in America.”
It wasn’t just that. Each day, while the school offered four hours of dance training, it only devoted 90 minutes to acting and singing. “By junior year,” Wakeford says, “I could dance, but I knew I needed more in acting and singing training. That meant America. Everyone was telling me that in South Africa, the only way anyone could make a living in the entertainment industry would be in soap operas.”
Despite that, Wakeford was cast as Alonzo and Bustopher in a South African production of Cats. (That he says, “I’m still surprised that the second act starts with two ballads” says something for his musical theater acumen.) But still, the goal was school in America -- Anywhere, America.
“I didn’t know where to go, and no one was able to tell me,” he says. The Internet eventually got him to the University of Duluth. “I didn’t know any better, but,” he says with a decisive finger point, “it turned out to be a really great school.”
It certainly gave him the chance to perform. He did five shows in one year, from starring as Bobby in Crazy for You (“because I could tap”) to taking a smaller role in A Flea in Her Ear – not to mention directing and choreographing Charlie Brown. It helped prepare Wakeford for the professional world -- at least the non-Equity one.
Since he was graduated, Wakeford has done non-Equity national tours (Robert Martin in The Drowsy Chaperone) and has played small venues (The Glove Theatre in Gloversville. New York) as well as prestigious ones (Stages St. Louis). It’s a rare Stages employee who’s so valued that he’s cast in all four shows in a season, but Wakeford did just that in 2011: Toddy’s beau in Victor/Victoria, ensemble in The Secret Garden, Bobby in A Chorus Line and, in the kids’ show 101 Dalmatians, no less than Cruella de Vil.
Says Jack Lane, executive producer of Stages St. Louis, “What makes Leigh so special is not just the fact that he is a true triple threat in the classic sense, but the fact that he is a true gentleman of the theater. I thought that kind of performer was long gone. He not only gives immaculate performances, but he also leads a company in tone, positive spirit and overall class and style. In addition, Leigh is supremely sensitive to patrons, staff, donors and trustees and what goes into making everyone feel valued. Leigh is truly a gift to any production, any theater company and any individual that would have the enormous good fortune to work with him.”
So his father’s wish – “May your talents enrich you for the rest of your life” – seems to be coming true. But will it last past September?
“Unlike in other professions,” Wakeford says, “an artistic director can’t say ‘He’s indispensable to us’ -- because no one can say for sure that he’s going to be able to cast you in each and every one his shows.”
Thus far, Wakeford has relied on a student visa, a work permit and even what’s known as an “01 visa” -- “given to ‘aliens with extraordinary abilities,’” he adds with a grin that shows he knows those four words would be a good name for a campy sci-fi movie. “I had to show them 15 letters of recommendation and pay $7,000 in legal fees to get that 01 visa, but I got it,” he says with pride. His attitude shows that he believes that it was money well-spent.
If, as expected, Wakeford doesn’t win the Green Card Lottery, he still hopes he can influence the powers-that-be with a petition. “I’ve been accumulating all the programs and everything else that has my name on it,” he says. “I want to show people that I’ve been steadily working and have been using the education that I got in this country.”
The Screen Actors Guild, however, doesn’t make those demands. So earlier this month, Wakeford reluctantly made the move from New York to Los Angeles to get as much good paying work as he can – for as long as he can.
“Living in New York so near but so far from Broadway -- and knowing I’m not allowed to work there -- hasn’t been easy,” he says. And, as he knows, the days grow short as you reach September. Here’s hoping that Lady Luck smiles on him, and we see him next season in a great big Broadway show.
— Peter Filichia