Interview

A Storyteller’s Journey, From a Homeless Shelter to Broadway

Chesney Snow, star of Broadway's a cappella musical 'In Transit,' on growing up homeless, discovering his passion for beatboxing, and falling in love with theater.

For Chesney Snow, storytelling has remained a focal point of his life since he was 9 years old. From creating his own short stories to unearthing a love of Shakespeare, Snow has found peace in the creative—even in the midst of chaos and the unknown.

“Theater provided that safety, escape, and confidence that I was good at something,” Snow recalls of the moments he first read Shakespeare’s As You Like It in English class. In fact, that Shakespeare lesson gave Snow an escape from the struggles of living as a homeless teenager with his family. He found, through the layers of iambic pentameter and the guidance of his after-school drama teacher, Mike Willis, how to channel his creativity into the conduit of storytelling. After attempting an acting career in Phoenix, however, Snow found himself back in a homeless shelter in his early 20s. Rather than remain in Arizona, Snow explains that he decided, “If I am going to be at the bottom, then I am going to be in New York. If I am going to be homeless, I would rather be homeless here and work my way up from here.”

Whether Snow’s talent manifests itself through stagecraft, poetry, or beatboxing, he has effectively perfected his own brand of crafting imaginary worlds for his audiences. Today, Snow can be seen mastering the art of sound in his Broadway debut in the a cappella musical In Transit, as the quick-witted and fast-paced beatboxer Boxman.

Chesney Snow
Photo by Joan Marcus

What Should We Do: When did you know you had a talent for beatboxing?
Chesney Snow: I realized that I was unique in beatboxing around the year 2003. I had always beatboxed. I think any young kid who was part of the hip-hop culture of the 1990s was familiar with beatboxing or beatboxed to a certain degree. But in 2003, the Internet was really developing communities with forums and chat rooms. People could exchange files relatively easily. When I was going around the poetry scene, I had developed poems where I would be beatboxing with the poetry, like a style of spoken word that I was doing at the time. And then I stumbled upon a website, beatboxing.com, and I started listening to all of the beatboxers out there and thought, Oh! I am pretty good at this, too! I started to meet other beatboxers around the city, and we would jam together. That’s really how I came up in the beatboxing world.

WSWD: How does poetry play a role in your career?
Snow: Actually, I started in theater, and theater is where I really felt I had this huge life transformation. My family had been homeless for about a year; [we stayed in] a shelter in Wisconsin. My first few weeks of school—I think it was in 10th grade—the English teacher brought this Shakespeare story into our class, and that was the beginning of my love affair with theater.

In terms of writing poetry, when I was a young kid, my sister and I were living with my grandmother. When we would visit my mom, I would write these short stories, because I would read these books, like the Hardy Boys, in school. I would be so fascinated, and everything was so vivid when I would read, that I could go into this dream world and see these stories coming to life. And so then, I got this passion for wanting to tell those stories; I was maybe 9 or 10. One day, my mom took these short stories to her job—she was a temp like Jane [from In Transit]. One of her colleagues happened to draw; he read one of my short stories, and he illustrated it. I remember she brought it home to me, and it was this mind-blowing moment as a child, because they were so amazing, these illustrations. I was reading my story and “watching” these illustrations. I think that’s when I discovered that I was a storyteller.

WSWD: Describe your decision to move from Arizona to New York.
Snow: I had never been to New York. That bus ride, going to a place I had never been before to live, it was very reflective—especially as I was traveling across the country in a Greyhound bus, looking out the window. I was able to reflect on my life and really envision what I wanted to do here. It literally was the city of dreams.

WSWD: Your life story eerily parallels with the story of In Transit. When you perform the show every night, do you feel like you are stepping back into that Greyhound bus from Arizona?
Snow: I would say that for me, In Transit sometimes becomes an almost out-of-body experience, because there is something spiritual to it. When I go out there [onstage], [I’m] stepping into this character so well because my life has always been in transit. I moved so many times. I started working in New York by performing on the streets. I can really resonate with the central message of it, because the central message is what brought me to New York—being in that homeless shelter in Arizona, thinking, I am in my early 20s in the courtyard of this homeless shelter, staring at birds. Now is the time. It doesn’t matter where I was, just where I am trying to go. What do I do right now? Right now, I can pick up my things and put one foot in front of the other.

I have been part of the development of In Transit and of [my] character. It’s been a wild ride. There’s this moment in the show where I kind of create this void and this heartbeat. The heartbeat is the first drum. It’s the first beat. And once you can tune into hearing that precious rhythm, that precious sound, it is the most profound and significant moment, because it is the right now. Sometimes, I feel that we get lost in trying to get somewhere.

Chesney Snow
Photo by Julia Zave

WSWD: Talk about your transition away from and back to theater.
Snow: I moved to New York to be an actor, but I found there were too many layers between me and the audience, as opposed to spoken word or beatboxing. When I stepped away from theater for a minute to follow beatboxing more, I went into this place where I wasn’t enjoying acting anymore. Acting had become something that was routine. The eureka moment for me was when I was auditioning for a cell phone commercial in Europe, and they were like, “We just need you to look in the camera and bark like a dog.” I was like, “I don’t think I want to bark like a dog.” I remember just looking at the casting director and saying, “I’m sorry. This just isn’t for me.” And I just walked out. I didn’t go to another audition for two years. It was a sad moment, because I loved it so much. But once I [stepped] away from it and [stopped] thinking about making a living as an actor, I was able to do readings of stories and plays that mattered to me, that I wanted to do instead of me just trying to get whatever I could. I was fortunate because I was a great beatboxer, so I was still making a living as an artist.

I found happiness again with the craft, but I wanted more. That was around the time—I would say shortly after is when theater came back into my life—In Transit was a part of that. Once I read the script for In Transit in 2010, when I auditioned for the off-Broadway version, I knew when reading the script that it was me. It was for me; it was like this spiritual connection. It felt like In Transit was alive and that the character of Boxman was not just something on paper, but it was a spirit that was actually alive.

WSWD: How did you prepare for the role?
Snow: I wanted to go and observe all of these street performers. I tried to look at their essence as to what made them so personable to people, so warm to people—like when you have a performer who goes up to someone on a train and wakes him up while he’s sleeping, and the person sleeping is not mad or upset. A person that warm. A person that giving. And just listening to the sounds of the city, I began to understand that there’s this history and this spirit to the art of beatbox itself and to the culture of hip hop. There’s this tangible ether to it. When I’m on that stage at night on Broadway at Circle in the Square, I try to observe and feel the history of that space. When I am in a scene with Jane—[played by] Margo [Seibert]—this may sound like crazy stuff to most people, but I feel like I am part of this tradition, not just what In Transit is about, but just that space. It’s so amazing to be a part of that.

WSWD: What is the main idea you hope audiences take home after viewing In Transit?
Snow: One of [comedian] George Carlin’s early pieces really sums up what people should take. He had this whole bit on time and essentially that there is no time. That time is just a construct that we’ve made. And he gets to this idea that right now is the most important thing. Right now. But [snaps] right now is gone. [Laughs] It’s this idea that no matter where you are going or where you end, the most powerful and the most important moment is what you are doing right now. I think the second part of the message I want people to take away is that, in that right now, how are you creating harmony with the people whom you don’t know? In the city that you live in? How are you working to create harmony?