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In Conversation with Kira Guloien from the Stratford Festival’s “Tommy”

Interview by Shaina Silver-Baird

At a coffee shop just off the main square in downtown Stratford, around the corner from the Avon theatre where she was prepping to star as Mrs. Walker in a matinee performance of Tommy, I sat down with Kira to discuss fear, trust, inspiration and her first season at Stratford.

Shaina Silver-Baird: What have been some of the challenges in coming to Stratford for the first time. I know you’ve worked with other theatre companies and came out of Ryerson Theatre School, so you’re no stranger to intense experiences. But how is Stratford different or similar to those experiences?

Kira Guloien: It was totally terrifying coming here. When I booked the show I thought it was a joke, or a mistake. So coming here and prepping for the first days of rehearsal, I didn’t really know what to do, what to expect or what to prepare. Firstly, I was ready to go through the same kind of stress and anxiety that I went through in theatre school – I had chronic headache problems and was always on edge. And then, I got to rehearsal and everybody was so welcoming and warm and supportive and positive! Secondly, I didn’t know what it was going to be like to work with Des [McAnuff]. I thought he’d be really scary, demanding and strict. But he was the most relaxed director in the world. He would tell you himself he’s not always that way. But, every minute of this process, he was really calm, cool and collected. And he never, ever made me feel like I had to impress him or do something brilliant on the spot. He had so much trust in the process and in the people he chose. When Des makes a decision about somebody or something, that’s it, his mind is set. So he never gave me the impression he thought he might have chosen the wrong girl. I, on the other hand, was having those thoughts all the time! He would constantly reassure me that I’m here for a reason and that it would all come into place.

Surprisingly the rehearsal process itself, was not a stressful one. Once we got into previews I started having fears and self-doubts. But the support around me all the time – whether it was from fellow actors or coaches – really allowed me to just come to work and do my job and forget all the fear.

SSB: That sounds like an amazing team.

KG: Yup. Just amazing!

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Photo courtesy of the Stratford Festival – Tommy

SSB: That’s one thing that has always struck me about Stratford, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like all these amazingly talented, professional people, coming together and all supporting each other. It’s nice to know that’s actually the case and not just my impression from the outside.

KG: It really is the case. The coaches are where the real support lies. I’ll go to a voice tutorial and expect to just do some breathing. But the coach will check in and say “how are you handling this?” They have been here for so long that they understand the different patterns throughout the season. For example, previews are a stressful time. And now that we’re in mid-season, this is the time when everyone always gets sick. They know these patterns like the back of their hand, so they’re on it.

SSB: So, they know what the ebs and flows are. What have those ebs and flows been for you? What were some of the highs and some of the lows?

KG: My first preview was awful. We had to stop during the run. We had never actually gone through the entire show without some kind of technical mishap. I was completely unable to manage my nerves. And it’s a learning curve, I mean I haven’t really done a lot of musicals, so I’m not used to the vocal maintenance. For example, that day I was dealing with some kind of allergy, so I took an anti-histamine. Then I took an Advil because I had a headache. So the meds made me totally dried out, and then the nerves dried me out even more. And I didn’t really have the tools prepared backstage, like … kleenex cause my nose is running, or a bottle of water. You kind of have to experience those things to realise what you need as an artist. I didn’t have something as simple as a little glycerin lozenge if my mouth was literally dry!

So I got onstage for this preview and I’m thinking: “Holy moly, I can’t breathe, my mouth is dry.” Of course it wasn’t as bad as I say it was but… I was devastated afterward. I thought: I’m not going to be able to do opening night. I knew I could do the show: I’d done it so many times in rehearsals. But all of a sudden with the added pressure, I failed to do what I had hoped to do. Second preview I felt like I got back on track. But I still had this feeling that opening was going to be a whole different thing. It’s the most stressful night of your season. And I was sort of mentally preparing myself for the possibility that I could completely flop, which is terrifying. All that being said, I felt like I did gain the tools to overcome the stress and the fear, and I feel like I even had a really successful opening night. For me, as an actor, I feel like I’ve made a huge step since then. As young actors, we simply haven’t had time to just be on stage to this extent.

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Kira Guloien plays Mrs. Walker in Tommy

SSB: It’s interesting to me to hear you talk about the stress, because one of the things I loved about you onstage yesterday is you had such a sense of ease. You seemed so comfortable. As young actors we haven’t done a run of a show for this length of time. That’s a whole different kind of stamina.

KG: Totally. People say to me: “you must be so bored.” Absolutely not! I still get nervous every show. I still have challenges in the show every day – especially in this type of show, because there are so many things that can go wrong. And they do go wrong.

About a month ago, something was going on with my health, I thought I had allergies but didn’t know. My stage manager asked if I was going to see a doctor, and I decided I was fine. I went out, did half the show and my voice completely cracked out. I had no breath, no support for anything. My voice was cracking, I was in pain. By the end of the first act I knew I couldn’t go back out there.  First of all, there are paying audience members having a terrible experience. Second, I’m going to do damage.

The amazing thing about this place is that there was never any pressure on me to go back out and finish the show. My understudy is amazing! She was ready to go with 10 minutes notice. Immediately they were driving me to the doctor, driving me to the specialist, making sure everything was ok. And then saying: “Take the time you need. You need to run a long distance race here. You can’t just force yourself to do the next week of shows, make yourself worse and then be out for the next month or two months.” So that was amazing. But of course it was so devastating for me. And beyond that, you’re missing out on the best part of your day!

So I missed 3.5 shows. Then Paul Nolan got sick and missed about a week, and Jeremy Kushnier got sick and Jewelle [Blackman] missed a show. So that was a week when the whole company was dropping like flies.

I’m in a very different situation from most of the company by being in only one show. I go to work, have this crazy adrenaline rush, and then I have two days off. There’s no consistency. I kept thinking: “Why am I sick again?!” But it makes sense. You know when you finish a run of a show and you get sick right away? Your body knows those routines. My body doesn’t know what’s happening with all these ups and downs. And of course there’s this self guilt of only being in one show, feeling like I should be healthy, so that doesn’t help.

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SSB: So I know that the show I saw was Stephen Patterson’s first show as Captain Walker, and he was amazing. I could not tell that it was his first show at all. You two were great together. How is it playing opposite someone new mid-run?

KG: It’s a treat to be honest, because it is a long run and things do get stale. Yesterday was really unique because Stephen has only had a week of rehearsal, so it felt like anything could happen. As an actor, for me, it was such a lesson in listening and just being there with him. And it was a really cool experience, to have to trust that everything will be ok.

I’ve now had three husbands in the show. And there’s pros and cons to that, but I think that it has been a gift. You learn a lot about yourself and your patterns through that experience. For example, I always looked at Jeremy at a specific moment. And then there’s suddenly someone new there and I didn’t feel like looking at him in that moment. You take those things for granted, especially in a musical like this that is so set in movement. “On the third count of the fifth eight you’re going to walk onstage and then you’re going to…” that’s how this was choreographed. It’s so specific. It’s not a dance, it’s a show. But even as actors we are choreographed so specifically. It’s tough sometimes to find an ability to play in that. So you do get into patterns very easily.

SSB: What was the difference in working on a rock opera versus a ‘straight play’ or even a musical? Was it challenging to juggle all those elements: the entire show being scored; the choreography; the production being so huge that it was basically a character in itself?

KG: For a long time I felt like I was going to get lost in the show. There’s a frickin’ massive television screen behind me! Who’s going to look at me?! I just had to trust that Des knows what he’s doing. And Jeremy Kushnier, who has worked with Des a lot, he said: “If Des knows one thing, he knows about focus and how to make people look at the right place on the stage. Just trust that.”

You definitely have to step up. You need to meet all of these elements around you. It’s not a competition, you’re not trying to steal attention. This is the way Des put it: “You need to allow those elements to lift you.” We need to use that music or the screen behind us or the people around us, to elevate the piece to the realm of a rock opera. You go to a classic opera and it is over the top. It’s heightened. That’s definitely what this show is. And it’s a difficult balance, because my character is still a very pedestrian person. I’m just playing cards and folding laundry.

SSB: It sounds like it takes a certain amount of trust that what you’re doing is enough. That you can have the huge orchestra and three-story projections and just be folding laundry and still be interesting.

KG: Des, our director, and Wayne [Cilento], our choreographer, each had assistants, Tracy [Langran Corea] and Lisa [Portes], who both worked on the original production twenty years ago. They did all of the put-ins, so if the show was on tour and they had to incorporate a new cast member, they’d come in and teach them their track. Des and Wayne are these guys in their 60s and they don’t remember anything from the original. I mean, they remember the entirety of the show, they created it, they get it. But Des doesn’t know that ensemble member number three walks downstage on the fifth count of whichever bar of music. And these women show up with their little notebooks and are immediately like: “Ok, who’s number four? So, you, on this count, you do this.” That is how specifically we learned it. A) We’re not making any decisions ourselves, which in some ways leaves you feeling like: What? These choices don’t come from me?! On a personal level I was like: great! Tell me what to do! I don’t want to have to come up with these decisions right now. There were a few weeks of counting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6” … to just get the blocking. Eventually you stop counting and you know it. And then all of a sudden you make it your own.

Lisa came back to help put Stephen into Captain Walker’s role the other day. And a couple times I had to say, “No it’s kind of morphed into something else now, we’ve made it our own.” Which Des encouraged. It was always up for our interpretation. But it was a very bizarre way to learn a show. And necessary. Everybody’s track is so specific. Blocking was a nightmare, it took so long: doors shutting at the same time, people freezing at the same time – so specific.

And that’s partly why Des was so relaxed during the process. Not that he wasn’t doing lots of work – he was there everyday offering us his opinion – but it is a remount. It’s a remount that’s been modernized and has this entirely new technical element put on top of it. But he knew what it was. He knew that it worked. If you know something works don’t change it. He was able to just sit back and trust. And he had such a good time, you could just tell he did.

SSB: If there was one person at the festival you haven’t had the chance to work with but would like to, who would that be and why?

KG: There’s so many people like that. I feel like because of the role that I’m playing in this show, there’s no real leading lady that I can look up to. As far as a strong, female role in the show, I guess I’m playing that part. In my show, I definitely look up to Steve Ross, Paul Nolan, Jeremy Kushnier and Jewelle Blackman as far as mentors. But to work in a show with Seana McKenna, Lucy Peacock or Kate Hennig, who are all incredible for their own reasons, would be amazing. I see around them around, but to work with them, observe them… These women that have so much talent and experience.

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SSB: You have to move to Stratford, to work at Stratford. So what has that been like? What’s your favourite part of living here and your least favourite part about it.

KG: It’s definitely an adjustment. It’s my first time living by myself which is awesome, and I really put some time and some money into making my apartment comfortable. It’s something nice to go home to at the end of the day. It’s so easy when you’re doing these sorts of contracts to move in to a dumpy apartment and just live with it for eight months. But it’s a long enough time that you want it to be comfortable, and that for me has made a big difference. As far as small town life, I’ve actually adapted pretty nicely to it. I’m reading more than I have in years and I’m spending more time going for walks. I spend a lot of time on this very patio, reading and drinking coffee. More time just appreciating life’s little pleasures.

SSB: Which is so important, especially coming out of theatre school where you had zero time to do that.

KG: I didn’t have time to do anything for myself! I feel like the luckiest person in the whole world, to have a paycheque doing what I love, and also have time in the day to get up in the morning, come have a coffee and read a book. That’s pretty rare. And it’s easy to take that for granted. It’s a good lesson for when, inevitably, I will be unemployed again, because it happens to the best of us. And, yeah, we need to pay our bills, but even if I’m working at a restaurant, I can still make that time for myself. That’s just an important lesson to learn.

We can be so masochistic. “Oh whoa is me, I don’t have a job, and I have to do this and that…I’m going to force myself to suffer everyday.”

SSB: I don’t think that makes a better actor.

KG: It doesn’t. It was always a balance in theatre school. I would debate: Is it better to have life experience – go out and make friends, and go to the bar and do fun things – is that gonna make me a better actor? Or is it better to go home and read… Shakespeare all night? I honestly would go back and forth between those. You’re always trying to justify what you’re doing, make yourself feel better about your choices. But ultimately life is about balance. It’s definitely a life long journey to find that.

SSB: Mrs. Walker is dealing with a pretty immense challenge. She’s a young woman who has to deal with a son who’s deaf, blind and dumb. What kind of prep did you do in order to get behind that?

KG: I read Pete Townshend’s autobiography. And we had a dramaturge come in and talk to us about the time the play is set in – what was going on when this rock opera album was being written and first performed etc.

And I hesitate to say it because I know very little about autism, but Tommy definitely has a similar experience to someone with autism. However, this is not a play about autism, in any way, shape or form.

I also read a book called “The Boy in The Moon,” written by a man named Ian Brown who is a journalist for the Globe and Mail. His son Walker (funnily enough) has a rare genetic mutation called CFC (cardiofaciocutaneous).

He can’t communicate, he can’t speak. He’s partially deaf, partially blind, all his internal organs are failing, he has skin diseases, doesn’t grow hair – it’s one of the rarest syndromes in the world. Everything is going wrong with this child. He beats himself over the head and they don’t know why because he can’t speak or communicate. This man wrote this book about his experience raising this child. The number of times I would read something and feel like: “Oh, ok. I get it.” There were so many parallels with moments in the play. For example, during the song “I Believe My Own Eyes,” when we’re basically coming to the conclusion that we should institutionalize Tommy and put ourselves first again – they talk about that in the book all the time. The first time that decision ever came up Ian said: “I think we should put Walker in a home.” And his wife says: “I can’t talk about that yet.” We have that moment on stage. Mr. Walker says: “He needs attention and care we can’t provide.” And I pull my hand away. Ian Brown wrote about that. And for me, reading a first hand experience moved me so much.

Especially reading about the guilt his wife felt, as a mother bringing this child into the world. And in the day and age of Tommy, the woman would be totally blamed. There was no research at the time. Realistically a child like that would be institutionalized immediately. So the fact that the Walkers keep their child, that’s practically unheard of. And it was the mother’s job to take care of the kids, that’s why women didn’t work. So if a child had any kind of problem, it was always the mother’s fault. For a mother there’s a huge amount of guilt and confusion.

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Photo courtesy of the Stratford Festival – Tommy

In Tommy there are these trite lines like “What’s going on in his head?” But they’re really quite heavy when you think about them. What is he thinking? Why is he hitting himself in the head? Is he in pain? Having a real person ask these questions, was really helpful for me to understand the depth of it. It can become very surfacey in this show, (I mean he plays pinball all the time) and I never wanted it to be that.

For me, when people ask ‘What’s the play about?’ it’s about family and love – very simple themes. All this woman wants at the end of the day, is for her son to look her in the eye and see her.

SSB: That was one of the most beautiful moments: when you smash the mirror and he looks at you and you see him seeing you. 

KG: For Mr. and Mrs. Walker it’s very heavy. They’re weird roles to play because the story is not about us, the story is about Tommy. We’re facilitators in a sense for his journey. We don’t even have first names. I feel like I’m an idea of a person so much of the time. So it was up to us to make those people rounded characters and fill those snap shot moments with something full. There is a lot of ambiguity about Mr. and Mrs. Walker.

SSB: Right, because it’s not Mrs. Walker’s story, it’s Mrs. Walker in Tommy’s story. 

KG: The way Pete created it, all these people and things are in Tommy’s mind, interacting with him along his journey. To be honest it’s still very mysterious to me, the whole thing. What Pete was going for when he was writing the album was very out-there, hippy-dippy. It’s not a realistic play.

Which is fed by the fact that he starts to interact with the world through the vibrations of sound. The pinball machine is essentially a guitar – there’s a parallel between the two – Tommy playing pinball and Pete playing the guitar. It’s very symbolic.

But for me, as Mrs. Walker, it’s not about vibrations and pinball at all. For her, when her son gets carried off by these leather louts and plays pinball, it’s a mystery.

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Photo courtesy of the Stratford Festival – Tommy

SSB: At In the Greenroom we’re really interested by what inspires different artists. As an artist, not necessarily for this show, what inspires you? 

KG: The first thing that pops into my head is: music. Period. I know, ‘who doesn’t like music?!’ But out of all of the art forms in the world, that’s what makes me happiest.

This is cheesy, but I’m inspired by nature. I’ve discovered this in the past five years – that I just think life is beautiful. I can look at something, like these flowers beside us, and think: “Where did that come from?! Holy fuck, look how beautiful that is and it came out of the ground. Crazy!” I can just stare at things like that for hours. I mean I can look at a piece of fruit and think: “How is that so beautiful?!” I’m such a nerd.

I just did this workshop with Thomas Morgan Jones on Suzuki and Viewpoints (he’s done a lot of work with Anne Bogart and the City Company). He would have us go up one at a time to a piece of music and have us come up with a gesture. He’d say: “I just want you to measure.” So I’m watching a person standing there doing this motion, swishing his arms back and forth. He’s alone, in this beautiful room… and I was sitting there just crying. For some reason, that moment… Why does that make me feel that way?! Sometimes the simplest things open you up.

Yesterday he told us: “Ok, two people go up. You don’t have to do anything, you say any piece of text you want, you don’t have to talk, just two people go up. Don’t try to be interesting, don’t try to make a story.”

Two people go up and one guy sat down and the other was hunched over a table. And Thomas was like: “We could just look at this for an hour and examine these two people sitting there.” We get so much story from nothing. It’s incredible to realise the simplicity of life. Sometimes you doubt yourself as a person or as an artist. You think “I’m not interesting enough. I’m not doing enough. I’m not putting enough into this show or this project.” It’s amazing to me to just sit back and realise that a person is so interesting in the first place. And then a person leaning over a table is “Whoa!” So much more interesting.

SSB: That’s a huge challenge, especially for young actors. I know for me, believing I’m just interesting as myself, without anything else, is hard.

KG: In our business there’s so much fucking fear and so much self-doubt all the time. Here I am, I’m living my dream right now, and still every day I think: “What am I going to do after this?! I’m never going to work again.” I know everybody feels that. And you think: “I finally made it to Stratford, yay!” No. It’s not the ultimate thing. That’s not really what it’s about. And sometimes you think that IS what it’s about. But I just go to work and put on a play for two hours. It’s the same as putting on a play in your backyard.

SSB: Being an artist, this is getting really philosophical, is like constantly searching for something and people misconstrue it as searching for the next contract…

KG: …Or the pursuit of happiness. We think: “Once I work there, I will be happy – I’ll have met my needs as an actor.”

So, to answer your question, ultimately what inspires me, is simplicity and beauty. Period. The rest is just institutions. When you get to the root of something it’s just really special.

The Stratford Festival presents Tommy

Directed by: Des McAnuff

About the Musical:
Deprived of sight, hearing and speech by the shock of what he has witnessed as a child, young Tommy Walker seems lost to life – until he reveals an uncanny talent for the game of pinball. When his faculties are suddenly restored, Tommy is hailed as a living miracle – but will the fans who turn to him for enlightenment want to hear what he has to say?

Where: Avon Theatre
When: Now until October 19th – Only four more days!
Tickets: http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/OnStage/productions.aspx?id=20233&prodid=47004

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