Theater dynamo Kory LaQuess Pullam could claim the tagline for an old U.S. Army ad: He does more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.
After a morning regimen of pushups and situps — 50 each — the early riser rushed through a to-do list on a recent Monday. There was administrative work for the two troupes he’s founded, Underdog Theatre and Blackout Improv; a magazine interview and photo shoot; prep work for a show he’ll direct next spring at SteppingStone Theatre; rewrites for his new play, “Rock Bottom.”
Not to mention practicing lines for the title role in “Hamlet,” which opens Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. Whew.
“What’s that cliché — grab the bull by the horns?” he said. “I’m in a position to serve the arts world and the larger community in positive ways. I’m trying to do the best I can now to be a liaison between people and their best selves.”
Since moving to the Twin Cities four years ago to be an apprentice at Children’s Theatre, Pullam, 28, has flooded the zone with his work and activism, quickly gaining respect, a voice and a following. He’s also become something of a moral compass, speaking out on issues of race and representation.
“He’s making major waves in the theater scene,” said Michelle Hensley, the visionary founder of Ten Thousand Things Theater, who directed Pullam in “Fiddler on the Roof” last winter. “Kory’s very passionate, very committed and supersmart. And he’s outspoken in ways that get people to hear what he says, partly because he’s not coming from a place where he shows anger or frustration.”
In addition to writing his own fiery plays — “Odd Man Out” drew strong notices at the Minnesota Fringe Festival this summer and “Baltimore Is Burning” packed them in for Underdog last year — Pullam also has won fans by his acting.
At the Guthrie, he portrayed a bully’s sidekick who is unsure if he wants to align himself with right or might in “Choir Boy,” and inhabited black radical Stokely Carmichael in “The Parchman Hour.” He’s played a tempting old flame in the world premiere musical “Girl Shakes Loose” at Penumbra, a fiery student radical in “Fiddler” and an anti-fascist activist in “Idiot’s Delight” at Park Square, where “Hamlet” opens this weekend.
“Hamlet can be pretty chilly, isolated and heavy because he’s a character who’s focused on his revenge mission,” said director Joel Sass, who also adapted Shakespeare’s tragedy. “But Kory is able to find that alchemy between his character and the audience where people have a warm investment in him. You can’t direct or teach that.”
While Pullam has gained positive notices, it was some offstage work this past spring that supercharged his profile. He wrote a critical commentary that crystallized concerns about “Refugia,” a refugee-themed play developed at the Guthrie. He was invited to join a public panel discussion about the play with Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj.
“He has no fear and doesn’t wait for permission to be who is or do what he needs to do,” said veteran actor and singer Regina Marie Williams.
Playing to win
Pullam hoped to make his mark in the world in a different arena. He grew up playing sports in Corpus Christi, Texas, where his father was a preacher and his mother an insurance claims agent.
A sprinter, he clocked good times in high school at 100, 200 and 400 meters (“I’m not that fast anymore,” he lamented). He also played basketball, which was quickly ruled out as a career option by his 5-foot-6 stature, and was a running and defensive back in football.
“This is Texas — as soon as the kid can walk, they put a football in his hand,” he laughed.
Being in the theater was as remote from his childhood mind as being reincarnated as a cactus. “I’m an athlete, right? You’re not supposed to be sensitive,” he said.
His interest was sparked in ninth grade when a football practice was rained out. Pullam and other teammates were roaming the halls when a friend who was stage-managing a show asked him to try out.
“I said, ‘No. I play sports,’ ” he recalled. “But she insisted and I agreed. A cute girl can have that effect on you.”
He didn’t get the part. But a couple of weeks later, the senior playing the role had to drop out. The stage manager called in Pullam for the show — “The Boys Next Door,” about disabled men in a group home.
“I related to it because I’m close to my aunt who’s mentally disabled,” he said. “From there, I realized that this thing is something that could give me a voice, a way to connect with people and messages. It’s way bigger than myself.”
Finding an opening
Pullam may not play football anymore, but the lessons he learned on the field — keep pounding until you find an opening — still serve him well.
To earn his degree from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, Pullam had to spend a year at a professional theater. He chose Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago, a city where he acted in “A Soldier’s Play” and “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
He saw a posting at DePaul University for an apprenticeship at Children’s Theatre, and crashed the audition. Pullam impressed CTC artistic director Peter Brosius by showing “this fire, this energy to try anything,” Brosius once said. “You couple that with this incredible honesty, and you’ve got a lot to work with.”
Pullam joined CTC in 2013 for a year of nonstop work — the kind of pace he loves. “It was like a graduate education — you’re onstage, you’re understudying and you’re getting ready for another show,” he said. “I loved it there.”
When the apprenticeship ended, he had to figure out his next move. Should he stay in the Twin Cities or move to Chicago or New York?
“In theater, you always have doubts, you always wonder if you’re good enough or if you can make it,” he said. “I decided to give it a go here and went after everything.”
Did he ever. Over the next couple of years, he was cast by companies of all kinds, from the tiny Walking Shadow and Theatre Pro Rata to the more venerable Pillsbury House and History Theatre.
“He has this great power which comes through in his strong interpretative voice onstage,” said director Peter Rothstein, who cast Pullam in “Shrek” at Children’s Theatre and “Choir Boy” at the Guthrie. “He’s open, honest, sensitive and also very funny.”
Offstage, Rothstein also sees Pullam’s desire to do good in the world. “His talent is twinned to humility, which makes him really effective,” Rothstein said.
“He’s one of the people saying there’s great material out there but if the plays don’t exist, he’s going to write them to speak to this historical moment.”
Pullam’s biggest impact may be in the two theater companies he’s founded.
Generations ago, leaders such as Hensley and Lou Bellamy had things to say and nowhere to say them, so they created their own troupes. Pullam is part of a new wave of theater-makers in that mold.
Underdog Theatre “is what it sounds like,” he says. “Stories about unlikely people persevering against incredible odds.” In March, the company will produce “Luna Gale,” a play by Rebecca Gilman about a drug-addicted teenage couple fighting their demons and to keep their baby from child protective services.
Blackout Improv, one of the nation’s few all-black improv comedy troupes, uses wit to deftly address some of the nation’s most vexing issues.
“The thing about Kory’s passion is that it’s not just about the art, it’s about community and making us better,” said Blackout co-founder Joy Dolo. “It’s about making a space in the culture for all of us to be our complete selves.”
Dolo pointed to the tensions around the 2016 killing of Philando Castile by a policeman. Blackout had a show just hours after prosecutors announced they would not pursue charges against the officer.
“We got to the theater an hour early,” Dolo said. “The rest of us kept it together, and told jokes during the show, even though we were heavy. Kory wasn’t able to do that. He broke down in tears, and the audience was just crying with us. It was beautiful and cathartic and authentic.”
Pullam takes the kudos in stride. He’s a preacher’s son, after all, and he knows the rhythms of a finicky profession.
“You know, I’m just really thankful that I’ve been able to flourish as a young person without sacrificing my morality or myself. I hold myself to a high standard, artistically, morally and socially. The question I ask myself is: How do I keep this positive momentum without messing things up? How do I honor all of the great stuff that came before me?”