Yasen Peyankov says neon lights ARE bright on Broadway

Yasen Peyankov in the Broadway production of "Superior Donuts"

Yasen Peyankov, left, and Michael McKean, right, in the Broadway production of “Superior Donuts.” Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

Yasen Peyankov is still on a high from his first steps on a Broadway stage.

“For an actor, it’s like a mountain climber on Mount Everest,” said Peyankov, who heads UIC’s drama program. “That’s the top.”

He appeared in the Tracy Letts play “Superior Donuts” through early 2010, a Steppenwolf production that ran for four months in New York.

“It’s the atmosphere of one big festival,” Peyankov said. “Plays are going on around you and audiences are very enthusiastic. You’re there with the big guns.”

Across the street from the Music Box Theatre where Peyankov was performing, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman — “James Bond and Wolverine on one stage,” observed Peyankov — were starring in Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain,” another play set in Chicago.

Peyankov’s latest acting gig, “if you can call it acting,” is in “Transformers 3,” which recently wrapped up filming in Chicago. He appears in additional scenes in Detroit.

Asked what role he plays, Peyankov quipped, “I can tell you but I’d have to kill you,” noting that the actors were admonished not to divulge the plot.

For the “Transformers” work he returned early from Bulgaria, where he was born, and where he was preparing to direct another Letts play, “August: Osage County.”

It will be presented over winter break at the National Theatre in Sofia, built in 1904 — one of the oldest theaters in eastern Europe.

Before heading overseas, Peyankov will direct “Romeo and Juliet,” the second of UIC Theatre’s four-play season.

This fall he’s teaching a class on the works of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov.

Peyankov joined Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1997. He became a member of its 43-person ensemble in 2002 and has appeared in 19 productions.

In 1999, he won a Joseph Jefferson Award for his role in “Morning Star.”

Peyankov’s last Steppenwolf role was in “The Tempest” in 2009. In February he’ll start rehearsals for “Hot l Baltimore.”

His movies include Robert Altman’s “The Company” and he has appeared in nine television series, including “The Practice” and “Early Edition.”

Peyankov, who joined UIC in 2007, is trying to bring Steppenwolf’s professionalism to UIC’s productions, and to his classes.

“Students learn the craft and how the business works,” he said. “They learn about professional ethics and learn professional habits.

“That’s why I bring professional actors and directors into class, to create these habits in students from the get-go. I am in the business of training employable actors.”

UIC has an audition policy for its acting program, with Peyankov choosing the students.

“Audition” is also the name of their final class, where students work with Erica Daniels, casting director of Steppenwolf.

Peyankov also brings in casting directors from the Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare theater companies, along with agents and casting directors from film and television.

“Our students get to meet the people who make it happen,” he said.

The popularity of the acting program is up sharply, with enrollment exceeding its target by more than 30 percent this year.

Teaching makes him a better director and actor, Peyankov believes.

“It keeps me in the now,” he said. “It’s a two-way venue.

“I have a lot of experience and expertise, and I also take back from them — a new energy, a new way of thinking. It energizes me.”

Conversely, directing makes him a better actor, he said.

Yasen Peyankov in the Broadway production of "Superior Donuts"

Yasen Peyankov, right, and Kate Buddeke in the Broadway production of “Superior Donuts.” Photo: Robert Robert J. Saferstein

Comparing teaching to directing, Peyankov said, “You’re in charge — actually, you’re more like a coach. You shape it and get inspired by it.”

Peyankov says he became interested in acting when he was only 3 or 4.

“I think I saw my first play when I was 6 or 7, but I’d been watching movies on TV,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to do this.”

He got his first — small — part in a local regional theater at age 16, then attended drama school at the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia.

He came to this country in 1990 to escape political turmoil in Bulgaria.

He took a number of “survival jobs” — dishwashing, car washing, selling furniture — before appearing in his first show in 1991 at the now-defunct Urbus Orbis Café on North Avenue near Damen and Milwaukee.

“Bucktown was a hotbed for artists — cheap to live and a lot of community theater,” he said.

He and his wife, Bisa, live in Humboldt Park. They have two daughters: Ivayla, who just started college, and 2-year-old Anya.

Peyankov goes to plays produced by companies large and small, taking in a show every week if he can.

He is also crazy about soccer; he watched nearly every match of the World Cup.

“I play it, I watch it, I’m addicted to it,” he said.

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