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Theatre of the Absurd, Indeed – A Conversation with Bobby Del Rio on “The Trial of Ken Gass”

Interview by Bailey Green

I spoke with Bobby Del Rio about his new play The Trial of Ken Gass currently in the midst of its run at Sterling Studio Theatre. We talked capitalism, casting, Jess Salgueiro and of course, Ken Gass.

BG: Something so unique about this show is that there’s a different actor playing Ken Gass every night – how did you get all of these actors involved?

BDR: Well, I originally tried to get one Ken Gass. I offered it to several actors but I just couldn’t get them to commit to a full run. Peter Keleghan was my first choice, but he was doing a documentary for CBC so he didn’t have the time. Two weeks away from the show I still didn’t have someone so I called Jack Grinhouse cause I think I’m fucked. It was Jack who suggested that maybe I could get different people to do different shows, which wasn’t far from my first idea of having actors do two or three shows each. This idea of different people enabled flexibility. The flexibility to have people other than older white men come play Ken Gass. A lot of great actors like Diane Flacks, Dinesh Sachdev and Huse Madhavji from Saving Hope could get involved. It really opened up the play and the production.

So I asked Peter if he would play Ken Gass on opening night and he said absolutely. After I got Peter I was able to approach almost anyone: Tom McCamus, Rick Mercer, Daniel Brooks… They said they would love to do it but it was a lot of scheduling things that got in the way. But I got amazing people like Art Hindle and Diane Flacks. Once I got Peter, once you get the first domino, everything falls into place.

BG: Since you didn’t really have a rehearsal period, how did Jess Salgueiro (who plays Sarah Bright) cope with creating her character when she would be acting with a new Ken every night?

BDR: Another question not a lot of people have asked. It’s funny, Ken Gass in real life got the head line because he was the name for the news story when it all happened and then the production pretty much focuses on the casting of…Ken Gass. But Jess Salgueiro is the star of the show. We only had three rehearsals of about three hours each and a tech. She did so much work on her own. I played Ken Gass in rehearsal and I would purposely do it differently every time. I was helping her get off book and at the same time not just attacking or trying tactics differently but playing with weird blocking, like things no one would expect for you to do. I’m glad we did that because…well for example Diane Flacks did whatever she wanted to do, in an amazing way! I mean I love her; she is so free with her body. In her cold read she just owned it. So physically free and alive she would run around and dance. It was a turning point for the run too because after that Jess was so free.

Jess Salgueiro plays Sarah Bright in The Trial of Ken Gass

Jess Salgueiro plays Sarah Bright in The Trial of Ken Gass

[In rehearsal] we focused beyond her text and tactics. In order to establish consistency of performance we established what her character truly wants. Beats may change performance to performance but her super-objective didn’t change nor did the secret parts of her character Jess knew about. Secrets pockets of anger and rage that she can draw on. We knew exactly who this character was so this character could encounter any other character.

We did an improv where I went on several blind dates with her. And I was a different guy each time but she was still her character. I think it helped prepare her. Evidently, she didn’t need it. She’s fantastic. I’m the only person who has seen every show and she finds a way to hit the same beats and fight for the same objective with people throwing completely different tactics at her. She finds a way to get there. It’s quite amazing.

BG: Where or when did the inspiration for this play come from? Was it during all the chaos or afterward?

BDR: Before the Factory Theatre controversy I had this title in my head, “The Trial of Ken Gass.” I had a sort of long standing relationship with Factory; I had been developed numerous times at Factory over the year and had readings and units with them. I acted in a play called Tide Line in 2005. So I got to know Ken over the years. Ken is a brilliant artist and true visionary and because of this is a pretty controversial guy. I don’t mean that in a negative way, in Canada sometimes anyone who speaks the truth is called controversial. He’s an interesting dude, quirky, when he walks in the room you know he’s there. So I had wanted to write about Ken Gass for years because of this idea about gleaning his character.

I found out he was fired on Twitter. It was the first time I found out something major in my life on Twitter. I think it was Bridget MacIntosh who first tweeted it. All of a sudden everybody within the theatre community was posting on Facebook and tweeting at each other. Fun piece of trivia, I was the first person to post on Ken’s Facebook wall when he was fired. I don’t think it means anything but still it’s interesting. He’d gotten fired and his wall was completely blank. What do you say, right? At the time we didn’t know yet what had actually happened so I wrote something like “I’m not sure what’s happening but I wish you the best of luck”.

The theatre community did all this investigative reporting, extrapolation and innuendo. It became clearer what happened. Then (I always think I’m busy but maybe I’m not) I read three hundred pages of blogs, newspaper articles, the comments on the articles, Facebook pages, literally read every single thing, every name on the petition and what they wrote. It became very hostile. There were decisions made. Flame wars, series of mini dramas that exploded across Facebook. It got so crazy. No one would give me a straight answer.

BG: Is this what made you choose to write an absurdist play?

BDR: Theatre of the Absurd would be the perfect way to identify with the way it all happened – this amazing cesspool of drama. So when I found out I was a finalist in a playwriting competition at Sterling Studio Theatre I asked for Ken’s permission. I’ll never forget what he said, “Theatre of absurd, indeed.” I’d never written absurdism. I wrote a play that became a film called The Market (like Glengarry Glen Ross meets Reservoir Dogs which I had never written about before) about four bond traitors. So I used the content to mirror the form. Genre expressed the ideals of the story and the same thing happened with The Trial of Ken Gass. And the truth of it is there was no resolution. It was the ultimate anti climax. So why did we all experience this as a community if there was not going to be a resolution? Part of writing this play is the quest for that.

BG: You say The Trial of Ken Gass is the plight of every artist. How have you experienced this?

BDR: Partly the frustration in dealing with all levels of bureaucracy and institutions my entire life. Before Erindale I was an economics student. I noticed that I hadn’t attended calculus for months but I was ten minutes early for rehearsal.  I was a Sarah Bright, the institutionalized capitalist but then I became an artist. I realized all my friends, my whole world, was capitalism. All artists can relate to this, like having a conversation with a bank manager about how much money you make year to year. This play and Ken Gass channel the difficulty to persist and subsist in the capitalist hierarchy.

Every day as an artist is a challenge in this society that is so consumerist and fact-based.

You know, I went into this thinking that it could be the biggest failure of my career. I mean, it’s weird! A different Gass every night? I had people tip me off (in the theatre community) that there were people very angry with me for writing this play “so soon”. So I knew I may be offending some people by doing this but I’m going to do it anyway! And why not? I’ve met some great people.

So take risks.

The Trial of Ken Gass

Written & Directed by Bobby Del Rio

When: July 23rd, 2013 – Aug 3rd, 2013
Where: Sterling Studio Theatre, 163 Sterling Road
Tickets: $10 & PWYC Sundays
More information is available at www.sterlingstudiotheatre.com

Peter Keleghan (Made in Canada, The Newsroom, 18 to Life) played Ken Gass opening night.

Every night, a new actor plays Ken Gass including: Diane Flacks, Art Hindle, Pat Thornton, Julian DeZotti, Kyle McDonald, David Macniven, Dave Sparrow, Greg Dunham and DineshSachdev. Jess Salgueiro plays SARAH BRIGHT every night!

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