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By Micaela Myers
The year 2020 didn’t turn out like any of us thought it would. But for UW alumnus Pete Simpson Jr., the year was a bucking bronc that launched him from the theater scene of New York City all the way to the family ranch outside Cody, Wyo.
“At the point of COVID theater closures in March 2020, I’d just entered my 25th year of Blue Man Group and had other gigs ready to go,” Simpson says.
Simpson is the grandson of former Wyoming Gov. Milward Simpson and a son of Peter and Lynne Simpson, who started their own theatrical company, Spontaneous Theatre Productions, in the early 1970s. Simpson describes himself as shy in childhood, and once at UW, he didn’t plan on majoring in theater. But after deciding to audition for a play he loved—West Side Story—his freshman year, he was hooked. Simpson earned bachelor’s degrees in English and theater in 1993, completed a Master of Fine Arts in acting from the Denver Center Theatre Company’s National Theatre Conservatory and went straight into his successful performance career in New York City.
In addition to Blue Man Group, Simpson excels in experimental theater, earning the Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Performance in 2017. As New York City shut down in spring 2020, Simpson, his wife, Naama, and their two children wondered what do to. They had joked in the past that a global disaster would send them escaping to Wyoming to live at the family ranch outside Cody, which had been in the family since 1933 but hadn’t been used year-round in 87 years. As the pandemic grew, they joked that it was the disaster they’d talked about and that it was time to escape. They soberly weighed their options and realized it was no joke at all, so they decided to make the jump and call the ranch home for the next 18 months.
Between Zoom acting gigs, Simpson found himself mowing, maintaining equipment, chopping wood, chain-sawing trees and chasing their neighbors’ stray horses back to their own property. He also taught his wife and kids to ski, and they enjoyed all other manner of outdoor recreation.
“The kids attended the 104-year-old Valley School,” Simpson says. “There were five total students—two of them were the teacher’s daughters. They loved the small size of the school. So much of the education was stepping outside. And they’d definitely never done bear and mountain lion drills at school before.”
Being closer to family was also great. “To finally be around extended family was really magic,” Simpson says. “We felt like the family was growing a new Wyoming root, and that’s still felt by us back in New York.”
Naama was born in Israel, and she also adapted to Wyoming, using her background in fashion to start a millinery—hat-making business—in a spare cabin.
As the months stretched on, Simpson wondered if and when theater would return and even contemplated taking a law school admission test and changing careers.
“Being around politics all my life, I knew acting and politics weren’t that far apart,” he jokes.
But slowly theater did come back. In July 2021, Simpson got the call that a previous experimental production he’d worked on—Is This A Room—was going on tour. Then, he received even more surprising news: It was going to Broadway!
“To get that call for any production is an amazing moment,” he says. “That changed everything.” While Broadway is dominated by musical theater, non-musicals tend to have big stars. Is This A Room was different. It’s not a play script but a verbatim enactment of an FBI transcript of the agency’s interrogation of a controversial government whistleblower named Reality Winner. The fact the play made it to Broadway was itself an achievement.
Simpson and family made the decision to move back to New York, but after the wide-open spaces of the ranch, they couldn’t stomach a shoebox apartment and instead rented
a house in Westchester surrounded by trees. Naama brought her hat-making business with her as well.
Simpson returned to work with a starring role in Is This A Room. The play started racking up critical acclaim and was listed as a top 10 performances and top 10 theater of 2021 by Time Magazine and the New York Times, respectively. Though it didn’t stay on Broadway long, it was later scheduled to go on tour to Berlin and Belgium.
“The Broadway run was a gift,” Simpson says. “It was a magical time.”
He wants UW students know that this type of success is possible. “Professional theater at its highest levels is often dominated by East Coast talent,” Simpson says. “It’s always made me proud to say to myself, ‘I’m walking with the best of you, and everything that’s gotten me here I got through a Rocky Mountain education.’”
His parents showed him how theater can bring communities together—across incomes, politics and sensibilities—like few community efforts can. Simpson also gives credit to UW’s “brilliant and supportive faculty.”
While the pandemic continues to keep things unpredictable, some of Simpson’s COVID-canceled projects have return dates on the horizon, and he also decided to re-enter the world of college teaching—he was an adjunct instructor at UW in 2010.
His time at the family ranch last year left him with a new appreciation for his career, Wyoming and his family. Simpson says, “I have felt like a calmer wiser man for the experience.”