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“Working With Your Ex, The Genius of Jason Robert Brown & On Dating Another Artist” In Conversation with Tess Benger & Daniel Greenberg on reconnecting for THE LAST FIVE YEARS

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Performers Tess Benger and Daniel Greenberg have quite the history.

The stars of the upcoming two-person musical, The Last Five Years at Wychwood Theatre, both studied musical theatre performance together at Sheridan College, and, perhaps more interestingly, also dated for almost five years. So, when it comes to performing this relatable love story about two passionate artists, Benger and Greenberg are in the unique position of drawing from their own relationship. After all, they know intimately what each other was like as a twenty-something-year old dealing with the ups and downs of first love.

Seeing this particular story performed by artists who share a romantic past is what Benger considers one of the biggest reasons to come out and see it.

“We’re putting this show up in ten days and four years!” she tells me during our interview.

This highly popular musical by lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown is loosely based off one of the writer’s romantic fallouts and is told following two timelines, switching between each character’s point of view. We meet the character Jamie at the beginning of the relationship, whereas we meet Cathy at the end. While his story moves forward, hers goes backward. Only briefly, in the middle of the show, do their stories intersect.

In this candid interview with Benger and Greenberg, we talked working with your ex, the genius of JRB’s work, and what they’ve discovered about themselves through their work on the show.


MR: Can we talk about how you approached working together? Did you talk about boundaries, or did you just dive in?

DG: Back in the kind of genesis of this whole thing, I was chatting one day with Stephanie Graham, our director, and she asked me if there were any girls who I had imagined doing the show opposite and I kind of looked through my Facebook friends. One of the names that stuck out for a multitude of reasons, most so the fact that we dated for four years so many years ago, was Tess! This is a show about a relationship, similar to the length of our own, about two 20-something-year-olds, which we were at the time we dated. So I said to Steph, “Tess could really do this,” and Steph said that she was on her list too, so I reached out the next day.

TB: My side of that was I was doing a show out in Edmonton and I got this Facebook message and to be honest, since breaking up, we tried to keep in touch but that’s complicated to do. I didn’t know what he was up to in his life. I wish I had video recorded some of my friends reactions to telling them about this because Daniel and I were in the same year at Sheridan so we have a tribe of friends that were a huge part of our relationship and know all about our history. So I was like, “Could I do this? Do I want to re-live this?” But luckily, Daniel’s in a really happy relationship. I’m in a really happy relationship. So there was never really a risk of this messing with our lives and I said yes right away. There was nothing else that was going to get in the way.

MR: Daniel, why is this a show that you’ve always wanted to do?

DG: I’ll be honest, at the beginning I just wanted to sing the crap out of the score. I’ve heard it sung numerous times by certain singers who I idolize and I just wanted to do it, I wanted to be able to say that I’ve done it.

MR: So it’s a bit of a dream role?

DG: Yes, it absolutely was.

MR: I find Cathy a perplexing character. She is an actor, she is struggling with her career, struggling to be happy for Jamie (her partner). Tess, as an actor yourself, what has it been like to portray the challenges of this character?

TB: There’s not one thing that happens in this show that I can’t understand. Where I’m at right now in my career, there’s not one moment in the show where I go, “How could that have happened?” And I might see another production and be like, “Jesus Christ Cathy, get your shit together!” or “Jamie stop being such an asshole!” but maybe it’s because it’s Daniel, and maybe because it’s me, I see how human it is. Because for so long there was so much love with Daniel and I. And as two people who were so good together but didn’t work out, because of little reasons… I just see the truth in it.

MR: Do you think it is hard for two artists to date?

TB: Yeah, I do. Actually my partner is an actor and he’s transitioning into a director. And it was only two nights ago that we had the “we thought this was going to be easier” conversation.

We met at the Shaw Festival as actors, and in our first season we fell in love and we thought “Oh my gosh, we’re going to work here forever.” And it’s just hard.

And there’s always going to be dark moments and we will push through it and there is a lot of hope and there’s a lot of positivity surrounding that fear, but the fear is real.

DG: I think there are wonderful benefits to both people in the relationship being artists. Our lifestyle is a really nomadic lifestyle and it takes you all over the place for a couple weeks at a time, or a couple months at a time, and everything is new to the individual so often that having an artist as a partner, they understand what that lifestyle is. You understand the kind of ebbs and flows that this lifestyle brings you as a person.

TB: Even this! Saying to your partner, “I’m going to do a show with my ex-girlfriend where we unpack all our baggage in ten days. We have to kiss and get married, okay? See you in ten days! And please buy a ticket cause I can’t get you a comp!”

DG: And artists have to be understanding because they have done that too. They know where you are coming from. But say someone who works in an office tower somewhere might not feel great about that.

MR: But even someone who understands it might still have their reservations about it, right?

TB: And even someone who works in an office tower might be very cool about it.

DG: Sure, of course.

MR: If you could give your characters any advice what advice would you give them?

DG: For Jamie I think he needs to ask for time and space from his partner and just trust that it’s going to be okay.

TB: This is a hard one. The thing that comes to mind is trust. Trust the universe, I guess? The thing is I think Cathy is talented, and I don’t know if being a broadway actor would be the result if she trusts, but I think happiness would be.

Cathy really thinks through all the thoughts in her songs so I understand her brain and I wish I knew what she needed because Jamie’s success shouldn’t ruin her. But I think it’s just trust and self-love.

MR: If you could rewrite the ending would you change the fate of their relationship?

DG: No. I don’t think I’d change it. Their story is so their own. It’s so perfect and tragic. It’s a very real story about two working artists, who just unfortunately go off in different directions.

MR: Have you guys discovered anything new about yourself through portraying these characters and this particular struggle of being a working artist trying to make love work?

DG: For me, keep communicating. Be honest with yourself. Be honest and forthright with your loved one. You’ve got to trust your love. You’ve got to trust that they will be okay.

TB: I think as a partner giving space. I think knowing who I am coming to a partnership as a complete version of myself. I think there are a lot of holes in Cathy that she keeps trying to get Jamie to fill. And the more time I take with myself doing what I need to do to feel really wonderful just makes me a better partner, so I think that’s a nice reminder.

The whole thing has also been a reminder of a really important time in my life; which was our relationship. I think to protect yourself in a breakup there comes a point where you kind of pretend it never happened and that’s been a really interesting thing… I wouldn’t say difficult… but I’ve learned that I did bury this. And how lucky am I as an artist to get to unpack it through some of the best music ever?

MR: What is a lyric that particularly speaks to you and why?

DG: There are a lot of lyrics…

TB: Oh, you know what I like? It’s at the wedding, in “The Next Ten Minutes”, when we sing “I’m gonna love you ‘till the world explodes”. I heard that for the first time today. I don’t know if you saw that, my reaction, I was like, “THAT’S GREAT!” It’s so good. It feels very good to say these words. I’ve never felt so human on stage.

DG: Also in “The Next Ten Minutes” for me, Jamie says, “There are so many lives I want to share with you.” And “There are so many dreams I need to share with you”. It’s so true. The person who is your person, the person who you love, you just want to do absolutely everything with.

MR: We’ve talked a lot about love, are there any other themes in this show that stick out to you, or that you’ve enjoyed exploring?

DG: It’s hard to talk about the show ignoring the relationship because the show is about the relationship. I think the show takes a look largely at the balance of work life and love life in both these characters. They find personal success in their industries very differently. He becomes very successful way faster than he thought he was ever going to. Whereas she tries and tries and tries and she’s super talented and she does get success but maybe not success that is as reassuring. But when one partner is super successful and the other partner isn’t, how to balance that?

TB: Time! I guess, because “The Schmule Song” wasn’t my song so I never listened to it and now that I’ve heard it a bunch in the runs and Daniel sings it to my face, I’ve recently really felt that time is something, especially I think as an artist… Give yourself time. Take time to pay attention.

MR: Can you each ask each other one question?

TB: What’s it like doing this show with me!?

DG: Honestly, I get flashes of our relationship ages ago. There are moments where I’m like, “She’s pretty cool. She’s pretty great. I got a lot of feelings for her.” But on the flip side, I’m like, “Oh my god, Tess, relax please.”

(Tess laughs)

DG: I think that probably goes both ways though, I think Tess probably thinks the same about me.

My question: Was your initial reaction to me asking you to do the show, and be honest, was it immediate or did you have to…

TB: …It was immediate! I checked with my boyfriend to make sure he was comfortable with it and then I said yes right away. That’s your question!?

(they laugh)

MR: Final question, how do you feel that each other has changed and grown since school, now that you’re working with each other as professionals?

TB: Daniel’s gotten more confident, more self-deprecating. His neck has gotten bigger, which I noticed in a scene. And his voice has grown a lot. As a performer he’s grown so much. You know there’s only so much people can do in school. You really learn by doing in this business.

DG: Tess has always been a fantastic actress, fantastic performer. One of the big things I’ve seen spending these last 9 days with her is she’s really become more comfortable, more confident with who she is and she’s able to bring that into her work and it’s a really lovely thing to see. She’s so open-hearted and talented and caring and ridiculous but all in the best ways. It’s.. it’s really been quite an experience to have her agree to do this with me. Just cause we both have grown so much in very different ways.

TB: Mostly his neck though…

DG: Apparently!

(they laugh)

The Last Five Years

Who:
Directed by Stephanie Graham
Music Direction by Chris Tsujiuchi
Starring: Tess Benger & Daniel Greenberg
Lighting Designer: Jareth Li
Stage Manager: Thalia Kane

What:
The Last Five Years is an emotionally powerful and intimate musical about two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show’s unconventional structure consists of Cathy Hiatt, the woman, telling her story backwards while Jamie Wellerstein, the man, tells his story chronologically.

Where:
Wychwood Theatre, Artscape Wychwood Barns
601 Christie Street, Studio 176
Toronto, Ontario
M6G 4C7

When:
Five performances only!
July 27th: 7:30pm
July 28th: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
July 29th: 1:00pm & 7:30pm

Tickets:
$30 – General Admission
$25 – Arts Worker
TheLastFiveYearsYRG.brownpapertickets.com

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Morro and Jasp on the Nature of Relationships

Article by: Morro and Jasp
Photos by: Jackson Klie
Styled by: Mahro Anfield
http://www.morroandjasp.com

On the interpretation of ‘feelings’ as they pertain to the understanding of being ‘involved’ in, as, or with a society upon which the dependence of ‘another’ is debated and discussed OR How many licks does it take to get to the centre of a Tootsie Pop?

Morro and Jasp sit, sisterly, pondering the nature of relationships – theatrical, theoretical and thematic.  They often sigh before speaking, and pause before pronouncing their opinions.  They are very much, as the French say, “a la carte”.
JASP: Morro, tell me the honest truth – how do you feel about me?
MORRO: Without you I am not a thing, I am no thing, I am a lone tree in the forest and therefore not really there. Je suis la tristess!!!! Je suis la pizza without la sauce.
JASP: Really?
MORRO: Or maybe I’d be really excited to finally not have to report to anyone but secretly I’m too chicken-shit to find out if that could be true- the risk is too great. Take cover troops. Stay protected!!!
JASP: I see.
MORRO: And what about you Jasp? What are your feelings on this subject?
JASP: I think feelings are one of, nay, the most important things we have. They’re the only thing we have really. Every morning I wake up and write a journal entry about how I feel; from the dreams I had the night before; how my day is going to go; how hungry I am (hunger is after all, a feeling), etc.
MORRO: (sarcastically) Fascinating.
JASP: (ignoring her) Sometimes I think my sister is the only one who really knows me, yet she doesn’t know me. We share the same blood but different souls. I yearn for the day I will find the one who shares a soul with mine and we can lick to the centre of the proverbial Tootsie Pop together (No offense, Morro).
MORRO: None taken.
JASP: What are your thoughts Morro?
MORRO: I was pondering the other fortnight and upon my musings I imagined a world in which there were no farms. How horrible an utterance was this that a tear I did shed from my left eye. My right eye does not release fluids so readily. Imagine a city without a farm. Don’t’ actually imagine it , that was a rhetorical question. But think of it, what would we eat? I once sat under a tree at Riverdale Farm with my tootsie pop and let two drops of said liquid fall from mine eye (still the left one). Without a farm never can one indulge in such a delight. What was the question again? Jasp, it’s your turn.
JASP: My feeling about the actual topic, not about farms, is that relationships are so impossible because people place the importance of logic over feelings and emotion. People think logic is important, but it’s an illusion. There is no logic, our feelings are really all that guide us. That’s the only reason I don’t have a boyfriend. Boys want to think they can be independent and resist my charms. But the reality is that I am so romantic that it’s hard for people to handle.
MORRO: Boys are not the topic either Jasp.
JASP: (with conviction) I believe in romance films and novels. They are my religion, if you will, and people are intimidated by the feelings I bring out in them so they run away. Their logic tells them it’s not “normal” or “practical” to feel such strong romance in this day and age. An age of course cyber-dating and cheap pornography. But old-timey romance is alive and it burns like a fire within me. (You can find my profile on Plentyoffish.com)
MORRO: Oh I get it, you’re like a chicken with it’s feet cut off.
JASP: No.
MORRO: Your life is like the sound of two hands clapping, loud but lonely, and without me you’d be —
JASP: No, you’re not listening.
MORRO: I see, I see. What you’re saying is you can’t judge a book by its colour, that life is like rolling moss, it gathers, and then gets stoned.
JASP: MORRO!
MORRO: I know Jasp, It’s always darkest after the dawn.
JASP: Whatever.
MORRO: (singing) Feeeeeelings!  Nothing more than feeeeelings!!!
Jasp gets up and leaves. Morro continues to sing until she notices Jasp has left, then is silent, with no one to hear her, she becomes still.

– fin

Getting to Know You with Gab and Chad – Episode 1: Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson is the Project Director of the soon to be announced Playwright’s Project. Check out what she has to say about life with actor parents, the Playwright’s Project and what she thinks about the Toronto theatre scene.

Leonard’s thoughts on Poetry. Our thoughts on Leonard.

By: Alex Johnson

When I first announced (rather anti-climactically) that I was going in to the arts, my dad printed off a copy of Leonard Cohen’s How to Speak Poetry, handed it to me, and said nothing. I read it. I had practically no idea what I was reading, but nevertheless understood it completely, thoroughly, profoundly.

Ever since then, I have tried to put this wonderful piece of writing into as may hands as would take it. I am forever curious as to how it moves others, and how it marries with artist’s approach (if at all).

I have invited three wonderful Toronto actors – from all stages of their careers – to offer me their thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s How to Speak Poetry (printed below). May I present…Katie Ribout, Ron Kennell, Maggie Blake, and Leonard Cohen.

LEONARD COHEN – HOW TO SPEAK POETRY

Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it without disgracing yourself or the material.

What is the expression which the age demands? The age demands no expression whatever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet.  Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise. And remember that people do not really want an acrobat in bed. What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman. Do not pretend that you are a beloved singer with a vast loyal audience which has followed the ups and downs of your life to this very moment. The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on.

This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them. Let the audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy. Be good whores. The poem is not a slogan. It cannot advertise you. It cannot promote your reputation for sensitivity. You are not a stud. You are not a killer lady. All this junk about the gangsters of love. You are students of discipline. Do not act out the words. The words die when you act them out, they wither, and we are left with nothing but your ambition.

Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don’t peep through them. Just wear them.

The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.

Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.

MAGGIE BLAKE 

These are the sentiments that stand out to me, which I believe, are a big part of his message. At first I thought it was going to be a long wanky rant, but turns out he’s against wankiness too! A man after my own heart! I really loved this, but I don’t think I could ever take it as an entire mantra to live by- either in life or in art. We can’t always forget that there’s a stage…in fact I think it’s important to remember that we need to put stories on for a reason….. and that indeed theatre is often a platform for us to observe ourselves- but to pretend that it is not a heightened reality? I think that does a disservice to the platform and the audience. We are not always nuanced. We cannot always not care about what we say.

Maggie Blake is an exciting young Canadian actress who got her start playing Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank at the Stratford Festival. Since then she has traveled the country and the world, training enthusiastically, obsessed with reading, and landing parts with many of Canada’s major theatre companies. If you ever hear Maggie’s name attached to anything…GO. She will charm the pants off you.

KATIE RIBOUT

What I feel he is saying is to Trust and K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Two things which I strive for but have the hardest time doing.

Katie is a recent graduate of the University of Windsor’s BFA Acting Programme. Her performances have brought me to tears and laughter many times. She is now living in Toronto auditioning for anything and everything. Keep a look out for this one, and wish her luck. 

RON KENNELL

“You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe.” is something I carry with me all the time. This poem and the song If It Be Your Will have become a huge part of my life. I am ever mindful that I am privileged to tell the stories of others, this sentiment makes me bold and keeps me humble.

Ron Kennell is a veteran of Canadian theatre who has played everywhere from Stratford to Buddies in Bad Times. Toronto audiences will recognize him from The Tempest with Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park, and his recent mind-blowing success, The Maids at Buddies. The first piece of advice I ever heard him give a young actor was: “Read. Everything. Out loud.”