Bechir Sylvain is a Los Angeles-based actor who has come home to Miami this month for City Theatre’s Summer Shorts festival. The Haitian-American performer and director appears in four of the nine short plays, and he staged France-Luce Benson’s poignant Risen from the Dough, about a pair of Haitian sisters dealing with life and loss in Miami.
Sylvain is a rising talent in the world of film and television. He won ABC’s first Make Me a Star digital talent competition, selected from more than 1,400 entries. He made it to the Hollywood round on the second edition of American Idol, and he has now amassed nearly 30 movie and TV credits. He’s one of the founders of Miami’s Ground Up & Rising theater company, and his professional stage work includes roles in The Pillowman, King Hedley II, Topdog/Underdog and Six Degrees of Separation.
The thing is, as a kid, Sylvain had no notion whatsoever of becoming an actor. He wanted to be a lawyer, like his late father, Joseph. But an observant high school drama teacher changed the course of his life.
“We moved to Miami in 1994, when I was in sixth grade, and I didn’t know any English. After my sophomore year, I took an acting class to help with my stage presence in debate and mock trials. I had always loved Michael Jackson, so for a performance, I danced and lip-synched to an Usher song. The teacher was so impressed he pulled me aside and asked me to direct a version of Stomp. I didn’t know what theater was — I thought it was a bunch of people wearing black and being sad all the time,” Sylvain remembers.
“I went to Miami Killian Senior High, and Paul Avery was the drama teacher, the most awesome teacher. They were doing West Side Story, and I played Bernardo. There were a lot of girls in the cast, and I thought, ‘Theater ain’t that bad.’ In my senior year, Mr. Avery said, ‘Hey, man, you should take my class. You’ve really got something.’ He cast me as Danny Zuko in Grease — I think I was the first black Danny Zuko — and he became like a dad figure to me. What really got me into acting was the statewide competition where I did a scene from [August Wilson’s] Fences. I read it and went, ‘Wow. Wow. Wow.’ I did it in front of 2,500 people and won the critic’s choice award.
“In the last week before graduation, Mr. Avery talked about the future to all of us. He said, ‘If you can do anything else besides acting, go do that. But Bechir, you have to be an actor. You need to do that.’”