Jordan Palmer hasn’t even graduated from high school yet and he’s already a paid actor who will be on the Portland stage soon in a children’s theater production.
Oh, and The Dalles High School senior is also weighing generous scholarship offers to several prestigious theater programs, including the renowned Boston Conservatory (BoCo for those in the know.)
Palmer, 17, has already been in more plays than he can remember. As he got older, he came to the conclusion that he wanted to do musical theater for a living.
“There was a time when I decided that theater is the thing that makes me happiest,” he says. “And it’s one of the only things I can see myself doing for the rest of my life and remaining sane.”
Palmer plays George in the Oregon Children’s Theatre production of “Schoolhouse Rock: Live!” which runs March 28 to April 26 at the Winningstad Theatre. Students from his alma mater, St. Mary’s Academy, will have the unique experience of seeing a former classmate on stage when they see the play in April.
“I’m getting paid,” Palmer said, still amazed at his professional status. “I would do this show for a Hershey’s kiss. [dramatic pause] I can’t eat chocolate. It gives me migraines.”
He adds, “I’m getting paid and it’s a dream. It’s what I never thought I would be doing as a senior. It’s what I only dreamed I’d be doing as an adult. So yeah, it’s good.”
One person not surprised by his success is his high school drama teacher, Lowry Browning. She first worked with him when he was just a fifth grader, and quickly saw his potential even then.
“I knew then that I had a special talent” in Palmer, she said. “That was eight years ago and he has been in every musical that I have directed at the high school. Jordan is highly intelligent and extraordinarily talented. He has developed into a true professional and fine actor.”
Palmer has grown up hearing such high praise for his work. Though there was that one time “I belched once onstage. That was a bad thing. No one remembers it but I remember it very clearly.”
He was playing an animal at the time.
Asked just what’s so intriguing about theater, Palmer says, “It’s perfect.” But when he can’t seem to find the words to continue, he just riffs on that, saying, “Why can’t I regurgitate my college essays? They were so deep!” Then he nimbly concludes, “It’s because theater leaves me speechless.”
Palmer is a sharp cookie who was valedictorian at St. Mary’s and remains a top student in his class.
His understandably quirky theater bio lists one of his accomplishments as cruciverbalism. “That would be crossword making,” Palmer says. “It’s a great word and it’s a great time.”
Not only is he an AP Scholar with Honor and a member of National Honor Society, but he’s an accomplished musician who can play complex piano pieces by ear. As a kid, his piano teacher told him to quit staring at the audience at recitals and at least act like he was looking at the notes.
He’s also a dancer, singer and actor, and he’ll be doing all three in Schoolhouse Rock, based on the classic Saturday morning educational cartoon from the ‘70s. Palmer has a well-remembered number, “I’m just a Bill,” about the legislative process.
He finds this play a bit challenging because “I’m asked to be myself on stage and I’m not used to that. It’s more vulnerable for me. Usually as an actor you’re standing on stage and you’re playing a character and you have that mask.”
In one scene, the actors wear sunglasses. The director said it made them “shine more and I have a feeling it was because we had another layer to protect us psychologically from the audience.”
He’s already been put on notice that friends plan to be front and center, literally, at the cozy theater for his Portland show.
“I never want to know when people are going to the show. There’s so much more pressure on you,” he said.
A wee bit of pressure for Palmer was back in February, when his parents, Bob and Wendy Palmer, took him to Chicago for a weeklong college audition process called the Chicago Unifieds.
There – having just more or less recovered from laryngitis -- Palmer auditioned for 10 theater programs across the country. He also did dancing auditions for half of them, and some were just like in the movies, where students are given rapid-fire instruction in complex dance moves and expected to quickly learn them. “It was crazy,” he says.
The auditions are for highly selective programs, where maybe 1,000 students audition and about 25 or fewer are accepted.
Despite those long odds, Palmer already had two colleges accept him and offer scholarships when he got the nod from his dream school, the Boston Conservatory.
While his main love is musical theater, he also loves contemporary theater, and he auditioned for the Boston Conservatory’s contemporary theater program.
While some, including some extended family members, aren’t excited about his major, Palmer says, “majoring in theater in college does not spell disaster. It doesn’t.”
“Some people think if you want to be an actor you’re going to be a success or a failure and there’s only two ways about it. And that’s not the case.
“So I’m going into my theatrical education knowing I can most likely be a success, even if theater doesn’t work out like I planned,” he said.
But, having said that, he doesn’t have specific plans -- by design. “I’m not a planner, I feel like when you plan things you end up disappointing yourself sometimes.”
“I want college to inform the plans I make as well.”
Hard and fast plans can also close doors. He likened it to Captain Ahab searching exclusively for Moby Dick. “You find a whale bigger than Moby Dick, but you’re holding out for Moby Dick, and you never find Moby Dick. And then you die.”
He does have a broad definition of what he wants to do for a living, though. “I want to be a theater artist.” Asked to describe what that means, he says, “It’s someone who makes theater happen.”
Asked what makes a good actor, he says, “I don’t know. I think it’s a mixture of watching and listening. Being perceptive and being exploratory, that’s the most important thing.
“In the end, you have to be willing to put yourself out there and play with things.”
And, one bit of wisdom he heard at Chicago Unifieds was, “You have to have a certain spark naturally. There has to be something. That’s what makes you a good actor too.”
The ultimate key to acting, he said, is “making rehearsed things look or seem spontaneous, and if you can make the things actually spontaneous, then that’s even better.”
And for him, that’s why he feels that “you can’t beat live entertainment. There’s no contest.”