Artist Profile: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Paolo Santalucia – From Academy to Company in Soulpepper Theatre’s “Idiot’s Delight”
Interview by Hallie Seline
I sat down with Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia to discuss their journey from the Soulpepper Academy, to graduation, their ongoing involvement in the Soulpepper Company and their current show Idiot’s Delight on now at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
PS: My name is Paolo Santalucia and I’m a 2012 graduate of the Soulpepper Academy. Before that I trained at the University of Toronto Mississauga and Sheridan College’s joint Theatre and Drama Studies program and after training at the Academy for a year and a half, I started working with the Soulpepper company.
CCL: I’m Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster. I’m originally from Nova Scotia, did my undergraduate at UBC in Vancouver and after that I did the Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre program and then the Soulpepper Academy with Paolo. We are also both part of the founding members of The Howland Company.
HS: So tell me a bit about your experience in the Soulpepper Academy and your relationship with Soulpepper since graduating.
PS: Well, the Academy was amazing for so many reasons. I think, for me, in retrospect, what it promoted in me and what took me by surprise the most is the fact that at the end of the day what the Academy was doing was… of course it was focused on theatre and of course it was really rigorous, but at the end of the day it felt like what they wanted was to instil sort of a larger sense of what it meant to be an artist. It showed me the potential responsibility of artistry and the ways to contribute as an artist beyond my work on stage, that there is a bigger picture. This company was founded to contribute to the arts in Canada and at the end of the day it is something that I, as a Canadian Artist, can also continue to contribute to. They did things like take us to the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), the movies, seeing plays elsewhere as a group. They weren’t afraid to take us out of the Soulpepper context. What it did was allow me to realize the larger things at work and the amazing arts community there is in this city. In retrospect, for me, that was the most significant part of the training – learning about just how much goes into becoming a ‘good actor’ and how much being a good artist is about being someone who appreciates, understands and has love for so many different art forms even beyond the theatre in the city and Canada.
HS: So that was part of the Academy training? Taking you outside of Soulpepper to art galleries, films, different plays…
CCL: Yeah, to expose you to as many different artistic stimulants, including people too, bringing in fantastic Canadian artists to spend some time with us.
PS: I am so thankful for the encouragement that we got in the Academy to explore other aspects of our artistic selves. I’ve never been in a situation where that’s been as encouraged and not only encouraged but it’s been necessary. It’s what will make myself as an artist, and what will make our contribution that much more sustainable… if they come from a place of appreciation for the millions of aspects that go into the arts in this country.
CCL: Well from a practical point of view, there’s no place else in the country, I think I can say, where you would have the opportunity to be in rehearsal and practice the same way that dancers and musicians are in practice all of the time. I mean you don’t meet a professional pianist who doesn’t practice for hours a day to keep himself in shape. But when you’re an actor, you’ll have periods of time where you’ll be working on a contract, working on that one show, which is one kind of practice, one kind of rehearsal, but the rest of the time you’re very often stumbling to try to pay your rent and working your ‘joe’ job while still trying to read plays and stimulate yourself. While we were in the Academy, we had a living wage for the whole time we were here and we were told to focus on art and your craft and develop yourself. It’s a very rare thing, that kind of opportunity.
CCL: It’s great to be in the rehearsal hall with the current Academy actors because this is also being treated as a learning experience for them and they are also, brave souls that they are, they are also still taking Academy classes in the mornings, rehearsing the show in the afternoon… so they are resilient! But because it’s a learning experience for them, I find Albert [Schultz] who is directing, is taking his time with things. We have a slightly more extended rehearsal process so he can take his time and explain the mechanics as we go. Therefore with his decisions as a director, he’s taking the time to explain them, allowing everyone more of an opportunity to learn. So we get to take advantage of this learning opportunity just as much as the Academy does!
PS: It’s amazing to watch people in process. I love that. When the process is, as Courtney was saying, this exposed and part of the rehearsal is actually part of exposing that process as a learning exercise, everyone in the room benefits. I feel like that’s really exciting. There’s such a strong sense of company here. Albert said on the first day of rehearsal, “This marks the first show where the number of Academy involvement (post-graduate and current Academy members) actually outnumbers the other members of the company.”
CCL: Not just in the acting department but in the design, the assistant stage management etc.
PS: It’s the first time that that’s happened and I can only imagine what that means for him but for us what’s incredible is that it just sort of promotes that stronger sense of company. It makes you feel like you’re supported and a part of something that is just a little bit bigger than just the play. It’s really exciting because, again, it doesn’t really happen that much. To continue to support these kinds of programs and to continue to bring these generations of programs back in contact with one another, we’re very lucky here to get to be a part of, learn from and see that kind of evolution. It’s a really cool place to rehearse from.
HS: It seems like there is a lot of multi-generational collaboration and support within the company, the Academy grads and current Academy members.
CCL: And there’s a common working language that has been developed through the shared training. Part of the Academy is that you have founding members of the company coming in to teach you, so already they have a shared language, which they then impart on the students as well as the different artists who are coming in and out. When you get into the rehearsal hall, you already have a level of understanding and intimacy that usually takes weeks to develop when you’re starting a new project.
PS: That common language is actually a huge benefit. It’s amazing listening to when you see senior members of the company trying to piece through something, the specificity of how they work together, you can connect it to the broader common language that you’ve been taught in the academy and watch it work in such intricate, specific ways. You feel like you can engage with these actors who have so much more experience, which can seem sometimes quite intimidating I can imagine coming in fresh, not knowing them and not having worked with them before, but in this situation it’s really cool because you feel like you can go up to someone like Albert [Schultz] or Diego [Matamoros] and tell them about a part in the work you’re having an issue with and they can either teach you or speak to you through an established common language. That’s really exciting to have that multi-generational connection through your working relationship I think.
HS: What is the best advice you have ever gotten?
CCL: Albert will always say, “Listen” and he’ll say “Big thoughts. Bigger thoughts” and it’s almost too simplistic but that’s kind of what it boils down to. And “It’s not about you. It’s always about the other person”. And those are the kind of things that you always forget, the simplest things. It’s not about me, it’s about the other person…
PS: “Think on the line”…
CCL: Yes! Exactly. And then when you’re having a moment where you think “I’m terrible today” you stop and think, “Why am I terrible today? Oh it’s because I’m obsessed with myself today”. (laughs) It’s not about me. Instead I need to be listening to the other person because it’s about them.
PS: I think it was the first huge thing that I remember hearing in the Academy, in our first week, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. We were doing scene study and our teacher at the time said, “My favourite actors, and what I think are really good actors… a good actor never lies on stage.” And I don’t think that I had ever really heard that said in that way before. I had never heard of acting being spoken of with that much truth before. And the amount of work that goes into communicating that much truth. It really struck a chord with me at that moment in this place.
CCL: I think for a long time, when I first started, I had a perhaps romantic idea that being an artist and being an actor required a certain amount of constant self-flagellation and it took people, in the Academy, saying “You’re really hard on yourself. That’s not very useful,” to learn to let that go and just focus on the work and the other person and listen and keep going. I think as actors we think that there is very little in our control and sometimes that turns inward and we think “What am I doing wrong? I need to be better. I look silly when I stand like this. Etc” But all of that just gets in the way. That was a big lesson for me. Learning to let go of always trying to fix yourself and just focus on the work.
PS: Again, to add on to that, I learned to go through a checklist. When I’m stuck I’m either not having big thoughts, I’m either not thinking on my line, I’m either not listening or I’m not trying to affect my scene partner. I go through that checklist and usually I’ll find out where my problem is.
CCL: And it’s like a muscle, to build it you have to practice and that’s what the Academy offered to us. A place to practice and practice and practice.
HS: What’s your favourite place in Toronto?
PS: Just by Lakeshore, out past what’s called Mystic Point, there is a lighthouse. You can only get there by biking west of the Humber river. You bike over this path that curves around the island and right at the tip of the island is the lighthouse. I found it one day by accident when I was trying out a new bike path and it was stormy and the wind was blowing over lake Ontario. And it’s the only place that I’ve found where the lake looks as big as it is to me. It’s one of my favourite spots in Toronto.
CCL: When I moved here from Vancouver, I guess two and a half years ago now, gosh, I struggled with the lack of the obvious natural beauty in Toronto because Vancouver is like, ostentatiously beautiful in places, so it took me a little while to discover that Toronto has some really beautiful pockets and they are all the more charming for being a little harder to find. So there’s a new park I’m loathed to tell people about, but it will be overrun soon enough anyway, just by the DVP called Corktown Commons, which is just south of King by the DVP, south of Eastern I guess, and it’s a beautiful new little park. They’ve tried to include the indigenous plants and swamps, incorporate them into this beautiful park that also has paths, trails and playground equipment that I totally play on. So I’d say that place and the Riverdale Farm are my two current favourites. Beautiful, hidden spots.
HS: If you could entice someone to come see Idiot’s Delight in five to ten words, what would they be?
CCL: I’ll go first. Showgirls in sequins, singing, sexy-sex-sex, poignant, funny, sad and beautiful.
PS: It’s a sexy, beautiful, topical, war-play you’ve never heard of.
CCL: And it has a cast of twenty-four which you rarely see! We look forward to seeing you there.
By Robert E. Sherwood
Presented by Soulpepper Theatre
What: A cast of wonderfully eccentric and international guests – countesses, arms dealers, showgirls, revolutionaries, charlatans and lovers – spend a fateful weekend in a resort hotel in the Italian Alps. While songs are sung and dances danced and loves rekindled, the dark clouds of war come rolling in.
Sherwood’s mad-cap romance won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1936.
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
When: January 29th – March 1st
For more on the Soulpepper Academy, check out their website: http://www.soulpepper.ca/artist_training.aspx