Alpena native returns to his roots

Alpena native Matt Southwell knows a thing or two about the rat race of trying to make it in L.A. He spent 16 years there, and while some film work, television shows and commercials came his way, it was his punk rock band, Bang Sugar Bang, that consumed most of his energy.

“We threw away everything for the band,” Southwell said. “It became a 24/7 job.”

Southwell and his bandmates toured around and played what he calls the outrageously expensive L.A. club scene before he and his now ex-wife decided to open their own club. Bent on affordability, the place gave other up and coming bands a chance for exposure while also providing patrons with unheard of in Hollywood free parking, a low $2 cover charge and $2 drinks.

“It became a legitimate scene and a lot of bands got record deals there,” he said, adding that the L.A. Times praised the club as “one of the 10 best things to happen in L.A.” in 2005.

Ultimately, Southwell wearied of the lifestyle there and felt the tug to come home.

“I’d just been really far away from my family for so long. I almost missed my grandfather’s funeral,” he said. “It was the rat race and the traffic and the expense. The massive expense. It’s so expensive to live out there. I needed to come home. I don’t know if I plan to stay forever, but I like Alpena. I was born here.”

Since finding his way back, Southwell has re-discovered his old passion for the stage. Pat Jacques, his former teacher and acting mentor at Alpena High School, recently cast him in a lead role in Alpena Civic Theatre’s upcoming comedy, “Firebugs.”

“The whole music thing sidetracked my acting. This is my first stage play in 16 years or maybe even longer,” said Southwell, who holds a BFA in theatre from Western Michigan University and an MFA degree from California State University.

The ACT role of Schmitz is something he can sink his teeth into.

“He’s an arsonist. He could be construed as the bad guy though he’s more the comic relief,” Southwell said. “It’s some of the most difficult material I’ve seen since graduate school. This isn’t just your standard door slam comedy. It’s extremely intelligent and has a message.”

The material has required him to do considerable script analysis.

“I haven’t done this much script analysis since I was in school,” he said. “I’m used to learning my lines and seeing characters easy. There’s a real profound message in this play how people will turn a blind eye just for their own comfort to something as blatant as ‘we’ll burn your house down.’ You really have to understand what they are saying to make it play. It’s an absurdist comedy. It’s not just a question of timing the jokes. It’s also understanding what you’re saying leading up to the jokes.”

Southwell last appeared on the ACT stage in the 1993 comedy, “Run For Your Wife.” Other ACT shows he took on while simultaneously studying at Alpena Community College were “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hello Dolly” and “A Shayna Maidel.”

Long before he ever decided to pursue a theatre education and ultimately end up in Hollywood, Southwell was bitten by the theatre bug.

“My stage career began in second grade when I chose to perform with the Young Americans while at Bingham School,” he said. “I took drama classes at Thunder Bay Theatre, where I mostly did bad Steve Martin impersonations.”

While in high school, he was an active member of the AHS Masquers Club, appearing in multiple shows and serving as club president. Then in 1993, a theatre scholarship took him to WMU where he continued to grow and learn on stage. After earning his BFA degree, he was accepted into multiple graduate theatre programs, but chose Cal State because he was ready for a warmer climate and the chance to study under Charles Marowitz, co-founder of London’s famous Circle on the Square Theatre.

The most notable among his television credits is “Roswell,” a series directed by Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek fame. He also performed in the film, “Sleep Easy Hutch Rhimes” with Stephen Webber from the television series, “Wings” and the film, “Hamburger Hill.”

But music called Southwell away in 2001 where he gave it his all until his band’s final tour that has since affectionately become known as the “DisasTour.”

“If you could think of anything that could go wrong, it went wrong,” he said of those last days together. Among the band-related disasters were getting caught in a riot and being gassed in L.A., seeing the tires on the band’s transport van slashed, getting equipment stolen, experiencing a hotel fire and having the band’s drummer quit mid-tour in Vancouver, British Columbus.

What really did it for Southwell though, were two freak accidents that injured both of his hands, never a good thing for a lead guitarist. One involved going to sleep with a wrist band on at night only to discover in the morning the band had worked its way up his arm and cut off his circulation. To this day, sensation in that hand still has not fully recovered. The other injury occurred when running in haste, he fell down a set of stairs and took the full brunt of the fall on his other hand.

For the most part, Southwell has put his playing days behind him because picking up the guitar now creates more personal pain than pleasure for him. Being back in Alpena and away from the craziness in L.A. has given him a chance to reflect and re-evaluate, he said.

“So much of my life was geared to performing. I don’t enjoy music any more. The return to acting has been amazing. I had forgotten how much fun it is. I’d been wanting to do it for a long time.”

He still doesn’t know for sure what direction he will ultimately head careerwise, but for now he’s relishing the opportunity to perform at ACT and is impressed with the entire cast assembled for the show.