In the world of theater, performers with the rare ability to sing, dance and act are called “triple threats.”
This begs the question of what to call Craig Wilson, who is a “triple threat” and then some.
Wilson can sing, dance and act as demonstrated on several different stages over the years including, most notably, a two-year stint as a lead singer for shows on the Holland America Line cruise ships. But there are other areas where Wilson’s star shines just as bright. After earning his law degree, Wilson took a deep dive into health care. His current occupation is director of health policy for the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. If that was not enough, Wilson hosts the podcast “Wonks at Work.”
“Craig is a unique individual,” says Dr. Joe Thompson, president and chief executive officer of Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and former surgeon general of Arkansas. “With his legal skills and creative approach to problems, he is an invaluable member of our team here. He has his fingerprints on every piece of major health legislation that has passed in the state in the last several years.”
“I was hired at a grant position and worked my way up,” says Wilson about his career at the Center for Health Improvement. “I got here, and I just loved the work. I threw myself into it.”
The level of detail that must be mastered to work in health policy doesn’t faze Wilson.
“We do research and analytics,” Wilson says. “Policy makers will call us with a question about something specific. For instance, ‘How many people are getting vaccinated at this particular location?”https://news.google.com/__i/rss/rd/articles/”Are there policies we can create to fix a certain situation?’ It is energizing work.”
It isn’t as if Wilson has abandoned the bright lights of the stage to crunch numbers in an office. Over the last several years, Wilson has taken on roles in shows at The Weekend Theater and Argenta Community Theater.
Recently, he played a leading role, Huey, in ACT’s production of “Memphis the Musical.” A reviewer for the Arkansas section of “Broadway World” raved about Wilson’s performance, saying his “commitment to the characterization” was “amazing.”
“As a shy kid, frankly, I never thought I would have the nerve to get up on stage and perform in front of people,” Wilson says. “The anxiousness in getting in front of people eased after the first time. I understood this [character I am playing] is not me, this is somebody else. That’s why I enjoy it so much.”
IN THE CHURCH CHOIR
Bearden, Harrison, London and Star City. Those Arkansas towns were homes to Wilson until he reached the age of 11. After that, Pine Bluff was where he lived until he graduated from high school.
“My first three years were in Bearden,” Wilson says. “Many of my family still live there. My grandfather and dad worked at a lumber mill there. It’s interesting today [that] for what I do I’m in frequent communication with the hospital where I was born.”
The frequent movement of Wilson and his younger sister came about because his father was an ordained Assembly of God minister.
“The parsonages and the churches were my playgrounds,” Wilson says. “We were outdoors all the time. This was particularly true in Star City because the woods were behind our church there. One time we were out playing with a machete — I don’t think my mother ever knew this — and cutting down cane poles behind the church. We used them as spears, throwing them at each other. I was running and I turned around and one of them hit me on the side of head. It gashed my head open and blood was running down my white shirt . I was balling my eyes out and ran to the church where my dad was conducting a funeral.”
Family was very important to Wilson as the constant in a time when he was in a new place every few years. His early life revolved around the church, which was like an extended family.
“Having a church family was very important to us,” Wilson says. “These were small churches. My parents didn’t have significant income. I can remember when times were tough. Being given a paper bag with vegetables from somebody’s garden was very important.”
Another main unifier for Wilson was music. An ability and affinity for music was something his family shared.
“I was always surrounded by music. My mom plays piano, and my dad plays guitar. We all sang. I tried my hand at the drums for a while.”
Even at an early age, Wilson would sing in church choirs, and he cut his musical teeth on gospel music.
“As I got older, I would slyly listen to rock ‘n’ roll. Of course a lot of rock is influenced by gospel,” Wilson says.
Conflict would arise when Wilson had to choose between choir and his other love at the time — baseball. Wilson played mostly second base and shortstop. He got a taste of fame on the baseball field in 1990 when his Junior Babe Ruth team went to the Little League World Series in Jamestown, NY
“We finished runner-up to Oakland, Calif.,” Wilson says. “That was a memorable experience. It was the first time I flew on a plane.”
As much as Wilson liked baseball, he “stopped playing at age 15.” The issue? Baseball practice was happening at the same time as choir practice. Wilson saw more value in his future in sticking with choir.
“I didn’t expect my parents would be able to pay for college,” Wilson says. “If [college] was going to happen, I had to make it happen. I had ten grades, and that helped some.”
A choir scholarship was the ticket, and Wilson received a few offers including one from the University of Central Arkansas. While in high school, Wilson had his first experience with musical theater — a roll in “Godspell” at Pine Bluff Arts & Science Center.
“The wife of a board member at Lyon College saw me on stage,” Wilson recalls.
A scholarship to Lyon followed, which Wilson happily accepted.
“[Lyon] ended up being the right choice for me. Lyon and Batesville had a small town feel. That is what I was used to. There were wonderful professors that not only taught you but got to know you as well.”
“I majored in English,” Wilson says. “I always liked to write. And read. Fiction or poetry. Writing was one of my first creative outlets before I got on stage. I never excelled in math or science.”
Fresh out of college, Wilson got a job reporting on crime and the courts for the Batesville Daily Guard. The paper went to press in the afternoon, which meant early morning office hours for the young reporter and later columnist. The salary for the rookie writer reflected his experience.
“Trying to figure out how to live on your own was quite difficult,” Wilson says.
Still in his 20s, Wilson wanted to change his fortunes and wanted to experience living out of Arkansas for a while. Enrolling in an out-of-state law school seemed to fit the bill.
“I did research, and going to school and living in Chicago was exorbitantly expensive,” Wilson says. “I did end up making Atlanta work. I got in to Georgia State law school, and I lived in the heart of downtown Atlanta.”
Wilson admits that he likes to burn the candle at both ends. He soaked up as much city life as he could — walking miles to see an Atlanta Braves baseball game, going to clubs in downtown Atlanta. All the extracurricular activities didn’t keep him from earning his law degree.
A BACKSTAGE BLOSSOM
It was probably inevitable for Wilson, who would keep performing even as he graduated from law school and returned to Arkansas to work at a Little Rock law firm, that a backstage romance would blossom and lead to marriage.
“In August 2006, Allison Stodola was living in New York,” Wilsons recalls. “She was scheduled to perform at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I had earlier that summer finished another show at The Weekend Theater [and] I saw her on stage at the [Arkansas Repertory Theatre] in ‘A Chorus Line.’ I was living here and just starting working in private practice. We were in rehearsal for the Gridiron show. Allison came to help during the week the show opened. I put her backstage at the scene shop at the Rep. She was slated to go back to New York. Then she decided not to go back.”
The pair hit it off.
“There was an instant connection,” Wilson says. Before the pair were even officially engaged, they had an adventure together that few couples could match. Together they went to an open-call audition in Oklahoma that turned out to be a tryout for shows on cruise ship lines.
“We are sitting in the lobby after our audition was over, and the casting director walks out and says, ‘We want you both on a ship.’ Two months later we flew out to [Los Angeles] to start rehearsing for the five shows we would perform on the ship.”
On ship, the shows were musical revues with themes such as Broadway or Twenties and Thirties Jazz. Wilson says the shows were fast-paced and featured numerous costume changes. Though shows were frequent, Wilson says he had lots of time to read while on the boat.
Wilson isn’t sure how many countries the ships stopped at during the two years — “probably 35,” he says. Wilson does know that he intended to ask Allison to marry him on multiple occasions but “it never failed, we couldn’t get off the ship. I finally asked her at a little restaurant in Belize.”
Former Pulaski County Judge Mary Spencer McGowan performed their wedding ceremony on Jan, 2, 2010.
“He’s a wonderful lawyer, but he also has a beautiful voice — just a fabulous voice that just oozes out his pores — and he has a stage presence always, and he is very bright. He is right on top of everything,” McGowan says.
Today, even as Wilson works full time and tackles the occasional musical, his down time finds him back at a familiar place.
“I am normally at a baseball field with my two boys. I am watching them learn the game. It’s been a joy.”
All in all, Wilson readily admits that he is in a good place. He is able to satisfy his craving for live performance while working to improve a system that touches the lives of all Arkansans.
“As an attorney, private practice is very transactional,” Wilson says. “I wanted to work in a position where I could have an impact. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Jonathan Craig Wilson
• Year and place of birth: 1977, Bearden
• I can’t go to sleep unless I have: Consistency and routine, but I have no hard and fast rules about sleep. You get it when you can.
• The best musical or play I have seen: I’ve seen several Broadway productions and many touring shows, but my favorite was a production of “Cabaret” at a small playhouse in Atlanta. Big stages are great, but there’s something powerful about seeing shows in more intimate settings.
• The key to relaxing while performing on stage: There are two critical components for me. First, I have the exact same warmup with stretches and breathing exercises set to a playlist that is the same each time. Second, being surrounded by actors and musicians who are reliable and consistently give you and the audience their all.
• Nobody tells you that performing on a cruise ship would be: A bit dangerous with rocky seas. Sometimes we would have to cancel or alter shows if the waters were rough. Just walking in a straight line could be tough, but the dancers would sometimes leap and not know where the floor was going to be when they landed.
• Advice I received early in live that has stayed with me to this day: I don’t remember where and from whom I first heard it, but it shapes my perspective: Privilege is the distance between disruption and devastation.
• My favorite restaurant: Allison and I are really homebodies, so our favorite is to stay home and cook, particularly in the fall when we always cook Cincinnati-style chili. When we do go out, it’s a rotation of Ristorante Capeo, Layla’s, and our boys’ favorite, Senor Tequila.
• The four guests at my fantasy dinner party: Dr. Atul Gawande, an author, surgeon, and public health leader; Billy Joel, for obvious reasons; Audra McDonald, to ask her about her portrayal of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”; and Christopher Guest, director of “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show.”
• One word that sums me up: Versatile.