Mixed martial artist hits Suzanne Roberts' stage


Paul Felder won his first two mixed martial arts fights, both of which took place in the past six months. However, starting May 30, he’ll be outside of the cage and on stage as Kent in the Philadelphia Theatre Co.’s production of “Reasons to be Pretty.”

“I don’t really remember what drew me to acting, but what keeps me doing it is that there are very few things as exciting to do than perform in front of a live audience,” Felder, of 11th Street and Snyder Avenue, said. “Anything can go wrong at any given time. You get to do things that others don’t get to; You get to play for a living.

“You live these other lives that you don’t necessarily know about and then you get to hang up your stuff and go and live your real life at the end of the day and walk out.”

“Reasons to be Pretty” is the third play in a trilogy by playwright Neil LaBute focusing on Americans’ superficiality. Felder happens to have performed already in “Fat Pig,” the second play behind “The Shape of Things.”

“LaBute is shockingly close to how we really interact as a culture today. It’s like listening to two people that don’t know you’re listening to them — that’s how it sounds,” Felder, who did “Fat Pig” with Norristown’s Theater Horizon, said. “There is overlap, people talk over each other and don’t wait for each other to finish. It’s real, authentic sounding conversation and circumstances.”

As far as the play’s content, Felder identifies with the contemporary nature of LaBute’s work, and thinks audiences will do the same.

“It’s all about image and beauty. … All of the plays are kind of sad. In the end, these guys can’t deal with it. Social restraints take over and they kind of fold,” the 28-year-old said. “Except this one: It’s not the happiest ending, but it’s different. You’ll have to come and see.”

With previews beginning May 25 and opening night occurring May 30 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Felder and the rest of the cast just moved from the rehearsal space to the theater earlier this week, and things are on track for opening night.

“I’m definitely excited. I think we’re right where we need to be,” he said. “I think it’s a great story that people will recognize and understand. The playwright writes in a way [audience members have] never experienced before. The play’s exciting and fresh. And it’s a great theater and great space, too. Philadelphia Theatre Co. is exciting theater and I don’t think this play is going to disappoint.”

A Grays Ferry native, Felder lived across from St. Gabriel School, 2917 Dickinson St., where he attended grade school, before moving on to St. John Neumann High School, formerly 2600 Moore St. At age 16, his family moved to Ridley Township.

“I started once I got [to Ridley] to try this stuff. I realized I kind of like this stuff and I started taking classes, doing plays,” Felder said. “But only when I was at Ridley. At Neumann, I played soccer.”

While in South Philly, Felder also began his lifelong involvement with martial arts, studying, at the time, at Gold Medal Karate, 928 Christian St., which has since moved to 530 Bainbridge St., and been renamed Zhang Sah.

“I just have always been into the competition. I did karate tournaments, even in classes as a kid, I loved doing stuff. When we’d do stuff, I’d go hard and wanted to fight,” he said. “And I grew up in a rough neighborhood. It’s not like I wasn’t in little streets fights with my friends.”

By the time he graduated high school, Felder was sold on acting. He attended a Delaware community college for a few years before transferring to the University of the Arts to study and pursue acting professionally.

“I originally wanted to graduate and would have loved to go to New York. But even before I graduated UArts, I was getting professional work as an actor,” Felder, who received a bachelor’s of arts in 2008, said. “Already the winter before graduating UArts, I was in my first professional show and I was the lead and I continued getting work. I was cast at The Walnut [Street Theatre] and regional theaters. The work was here.”

Eventually, Felder added Mixed Martial Arts training to his regimen, and competed in his first fight, which he won by knockout, in December. On the eve of his second fight, he found out he was cast in “Reasons to be Pretty.”

“If I’m in a show I just work out at the gym. I lift. I run. I don’t do anything sparring when I’m in a show,” he said. “When the show is over, I go right back into training. I squeeze in fights in between. I need eight weeks to train, so as long as I have eight weeks leading up to a fight to train, I’m ready.”

Felder intends to maintain a balance of both for as long as he can manage, but hopes acting will take over full time. Within the year, he would like to try his hand in the Big Apple, as well as possibly moving to Los Angeles. Though he has primarily worked in theater, Felder is looking to broaden his current repertoire to commercial work, television and film.

“The work is starting to slow a little bit because I am Equity now and there is less union work in Philly,” Felder said of his transition into the Actor’s Equity Association.

He is ready to take the next step with his career now, as well. If he has his way, his name will be on a marquee 80 miles north of here.

“I’d rather be in a straight show, not a musical, on Broadway, living in New York — that would be a dream come true,” Felder said. “I’d like to be taking the subway to a Broadway house while I’m living there and performing as a professional. That’s one of my next biggest goals.”

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.