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Senior Voice Major Takes on Controversial Role in Equus

Max Swarner talks about what it was like being Alan Strang in Uptown Players production

by Amanda Presmyk (B.F.A. Film and Media Arts and Journalism, '14)

Early in 2007, the young Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame made his stage debut in the West End production of Equus, a psychological drama about a boy and his horse written in the seventies.

At first, choosing to play the lead role in such a production seemed to be an odd fit – if not a completely incongruous one – with what the public assumed Radcliffe was striving for in his career.

No one understood it, yet no one really gave it a second thought, either.

That is, until they found out Radcliffe would be spending nearly 10 minutes onstage completely naked.

Cue media uproar, thousands of young girls rushing to see the show (if only for those ten glorious minutes) and Radcliffe’s resulting frustration with the complete lack of acknowledgment given to the real reasons he took on the lead role in Equus.

SMU voice student Max Swarner (B.A. 12) went through a process not entirely dissimilar to this when he signed on to play Equus’s Alan Strang with Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater last May.

Swarner grew up singing, but it wasn’t until he first saw Phantom of the Opera that his interest in the world of musical theater was piqued. The transition from singing to performing onstage was nearly seamless, and by age 11 Swarner was touring with the Dallas Summer Musicals production of Casper. He’s not taken a break since: recent roles include Pippin with Theatre Three, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with ICT Mainstage, and Altar Boyz, which was his first run with Uptown Players. 

Although Swarner divulges that stepping in to understudy two of the lead roles in Altar Boyz was “trial by fire,” he also talks of what an incredible growing experience it was. Uptown Players took “baby steps” with him, he said, and continued to do so when he auditioned for the immeasurably controversial role of Alan.

Religious and sacrificial pathology dominate the narrative of Equus, which tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young boy who has an obsession and sexual fixation with horses. 

So enshrouded in taboo is Equus that even the decision about whether or not to audition had Swarner’s stomach in knots for weeks. 

Growing up as he did in an extremely religious family, the racy themes were cause for apprehension. Swarner spent “nearly four months” talking the role over with his family and “playing out every possible scenario before committing and deciding” to go for it, he said. 

Despite knowing that certain friends and family might bristle at some of the play’s content, the decision was an important one for Swarner. Just as Radcliffe hoped to do by taking on the role, Swarner hoped to both push his limits and, in branching out beyond saccharine musicals, prove that he had matured as an artist. In the eyes of critics, he did just that. 

In his own eyes, the entire process was one of “faith and conflict and growth” that Swarner says stretched him in countless areas of his life.

As for the first time Swarner bared it all onstage, “it was actually pretty emotional. Of course it was scary at first.”

Already a seasoned vet in Dallas theater circles, Swarner said he would love to make a living in the “fantastic” performing arts scene here in Dallas after he graduates next spring. 

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