Some days we’re faced with a hundred questions. With rare exception, most of them aren’t that interesting. But one of those exceptions came in mid-November for Akiva Fox, most recently the Literary Manager at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Given a short series of random questions, Fox landed $100,000 on the ABC game show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.
The win may have been sudden, but it wasn’t easy. Swept up in the speed and excitement of the event, Fox now remembers only a little of what actually happened. “I was surprised how blank my mind went when the first question came up,” he said in an interview recently. “But after that, I felt much more secure. The best advice I received was to breathe, and read the question again.”
Fox’s success on the show earns him a personal story he won’t soon forget, but it also provides a springboard for a major new project: the creation of his own theatre company. Tentatively called Haymaker, the new company will take devised work as the heart of its mission. At times this may mean creating world-premiere scripts, and at other times the company may put existing scripts through a process of extensive re-imagining and adaptation.
“It’s a chance for me to get my hands dirty. Working on this material every day with artists I trust is very appealing,” Fox said, referring to collaborating with his friends and fellow DC artists Dan VanHoozer and Emily Hill. His plans for the immediate future are particularly poignant for coming at the end of his time in DC. Together with VanHoozer and Hill, Fox recently moved to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle in North Carolina.
“We all decided together that it was time to go somewhere where we could focus on working together,” he said. “And Durham was our choice.”
The path Fox has been following for the past few months is far from a well-worn one. But, at a certain point, it made sense to play to his strengths. “I don’t think that a knowledge of what song Mariah Carey sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral qualifies anyone as a genius,” he said. “But I’ve always had a brain that retained bits of useless information.” Although one could try and argue the value of such a skill, Fox has found it helpful for years in his position at The Shakespeare Theatre, where his rigorous theatrical and literary research always rested on uniting his memory for tiny details with an understanding of greater historical and cultural trends.
“I think that all of us who work in theater can understand the appeal of supplemental income,” he joked during our talk. “I’m just pleased to have found the world’s only lucrative application of dramaturgy.”
Competing for a chance to win on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is not only possible, it’s fairly straightforward. Fox’s first move was to visit the ABC studios in New York City, where he passed a multiple-choice test of 30 questions. A short interview followed, to judge his capacity for conversation and public speaking. All went well, so the studio taped Fox in a short interview with a producer. Several weeks later, he received a card in the mail announcing that he’d been selected as one of this season’s 300 contestants.
Since all 300 in the pool receive a minimum of $1,000 and — of course — a maximum prize of $1,000,000 — the next step was obvious. “It seemed a shame not to try,” said Fox. “I’d strongly encourage anyone who’s going to New York City to visit the program’s website for information on auditioning.” Fox added that this was his third attempt to appear on the show. “It might take some perseverance.”
The third time was the charm: Fox sat in the hot seat in this season’s November 5th episode and in a carry-over appearance on the November 8th episode as well.
“Luck is as important as anything,” he admitted. “I have no doubt that if I’d had different questions, I could have left with either $1,000 or $1,000,000. Strategy is certainly a part of it too, especially knowing when to take a risk.” His $100,000 question, it turned out, was just such a risk:
In 2010, the British government released a 1952 memo in which Winston Churchill requested a report on what unusual topic?
- The Loch Ness Monster
- The Lost City of Atlantis
- The Bermuda Triangle
- Flying saucers
Fox asked the audience, and the poll results didn’t return a definitive answer. He went with the strongest response — Flying saucers — and passed. Given a look at the following question — Which of these US states has a state flag that was designed by a thirteen-year-old boy? — Fox decided to exit with his current winnings. (Trivia junkies take note: the correct answer is Alaska).
So, when does a winner see their money? Pretty quickly, it turns out. “The second you walk off stage, they write in the prize amount on the tax form, and you sign it,” Fox explained. “And then they promptly dump you out on the street in Manhattan. About a month after it airs, you get a check in the mail. Regular old business envelope, with a stamp and everything. It’s a check for the full amount, so you’re responsible for all the taxes. So, in the past few months, I have both received and written the largest checks of my life.”
Fox spent much of the past few years on small DC projects with friends, especially with VanHoozer and Hill. The three of them met at The Shakespeare Theatre in 2005 — where they were often the only employees in the office at 8AM. “I’ll be eternally grateful to Michael Kahn for taking me on as an exceedingly wet-behind-the-ears kid right out of grad school,” Fox said. “Most of what I know about theater, I learned on the job from the artists and administrators at STC.”
In the evenings, the trio made shows of their own, including The Pabst and Popcorn Hour Faustus, The Tree Project, and A Wake. Now, in Durham, Fox is looking to spend as much time as possible on playmaking.
“I’m moving because I like the speed of the place, and because I trust my collaborators,” he said. “I don’t expect paradise, but I do hope that the place will help me to become a better person and artist.”
Discussing his plans also led to a conversation about income and lifestyle among arts professionals in the District. Fox expressed some frustration with what he sees as conservative artistic instincts in the area.
“DC is both a tempting and very challenging place to work as an artist. It is resolutely an institutional town,” he said. “It is obsessed with who loses and who wins; who’s in and who’s out. This is a place that seems to preach that bigger is better, that physical growth is synonymous with artistic growth. The area has wonderful large regional theaters, but I would have liked to see more small theaters that didn’t want to become large regional theaters when they grew up.”
Expensive living costs can make the professional lives of theatre artists difficult. Fox is thinking specifically of DC’s actors, who often need to keep multiple jobs in addition to their acting.
“Because of the go-go-go DC ethic, you also have actors jumping from show to show constantly, acting in five or six or seven productions a year,” he recalled. “I’ve had actors fall asleep in rehearsals, after coming from a day job and rehearsing for a reading as they’re rehearsing a show I’m directing. This can’t be good for the work, or for the soul.”
A new life and a new theatre company in Durham will foster compelling projects, but the transition is bittersweet. “I will always be grateful to DC, and I will visit my friends here often,” he said. “I’ve had the chance to work with some extraordinary people, and the lessons they taught me about leadership and artistry will come with me on this new venture. I’ve also found some wonderful friends and artistic collaborators in the local non-Equity community, in particular the teams with whom I made Twelfth Night, The Christmas Show, and The Miser.”
“I’d be even more remiss to leave out the passionate DC audience,” he added, “whose boundless enthusiasm for dramatic literature has been a constant and rewarding presence in my life.”
Writing the next chapter will take hard work on all levels– conceptual, physical, financial, and social. Ultimately, though, visions of Haymaker’s artistic possibilities keep Fox going. “How can we take someone who doesn’t think about art on a daily basis and use it to give them a new perspective on life?” he asked. “The hard work comes in devising ways to pull this off. Wish us luck.”