Interview by Brittany Kay
I sat down with the incredibly talented Jakob Ehman who is making his Tarragon Theatre debut in The Circle. We discussed rebellion, his drive for the craft, and the need for established theatre companies to take risks on young artists.
Brittany Kay: What has been your journey to getting to where you are right now?
Jakob Ehman: I was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. I lived there for a short couple of years. I moved to Calgary, Alberta until I was 5 and then we drove across the country to Nova Scotia. I lived in a couple of different places in Nova Scotia: LaHave, which is in the country and very rural, I lived in Bedford, and I lived in Dartmouth where I spent the most amount of time. At the end of grade 8, I moved to Toronto and started high school here at the Danforth Collegiate Technical Institute.
BK: What made you go to theatre school?
JE: I don’t know… I can’t really remember what it was that got me into it, but I had to take some sort of arts class in high school. I was interested in drama, I guess, and I had a great teacher! Her name was Heli Kivilaht. I think I remember one of the first classes I played this character ‘Indiana Jake’ and everyone laughed. My childhood memories have a lot do with me entertaining the family. I started to like making people laugh a lot. The years went by and that drama teacher left, but while she was there, I was pretty heavily exposed to some wicked writers – David Mamet, Beckett, MacIvor. I was in grade 10 and 11 studying those writers and that was kind of crazy to me at that time. I was so fascinated by it because it reminded me of the type of films I was into when I was in high school – ones with dark writing. It seemed pretty cool just to be able to do that, to say those words. I felt like I had an affinity for it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to pursue acting or not. I was still pretty into the idea of some sort of work in policing, investigations or the military. I decided I would apply to George Brown, NTS and Ryerson.
BK: Why those three?
JE: They’re all that I really knew, I guess. I was more into the idea of doing some sort of conservatory. Figured that if I was going to go do this, I didn’t want to have to also take a bunch of other classes and be in a university setting. I kind of decided if I didn’t get in, that would be that. I would go to UofT and be a spy or something.
I got into George Brown and I loved the feeling I had when I went to that audition and the Young Centre was new, beautiful and seemed great. So I kind of left everything else behind… gave in and immersed myself into that program and into the life of what I thought it was to be an actor and eventually then a creator, which George Brown wasn’t very helpful in overall.
BK: To create your own work?
BK: Is that where HUMANZOO came from?
JE: Yeah. Sort of. George Brown had a couple of projects that were based in creation, but they had pretty specific ideas of what being a professional actor was and what they wanted us to be, at least that’s how I felt. It was actually helpful because it really gave me something to rebel against. That’s generally when I feel most at home.
BK: When you rebel?
JE: Yeah, I’m sort of an antagonistic kind of person, especially as an artist, though not necessarily in rehearsals. I don’t want to be like that. But you know, challenging everything.
BK: So how did HUMANZOO come to be? What happened after theatre school?
JE: HUMANZOO was an idea that was formed in theatre school. My great friend Edward Charette and I lived together. I talked a lot about ideas I had, just all the time…. just spouting off things. I think it annoyed him quite a bit. We had this idea about a human zoo, a zoo for humans. The actual company was all just ideas and a name that I liked, until I was contacted from the Hamilton Fringe. Somehow a spot had opened up there and they didn’t want to put it out to the public or have a whole bunch of people applying for this spot, so they asked me if I would be interested in doing something. At that time I had no clue what that would be. I decided to take the spot and figure it out after. I spent a week in the reference library reading every play that looked interesting. I looked for ones that had small casts since we were all going to be living at my parent’s house in Hamilton. Eventually I found this play called Normal by Anthony Neilson about this real life serial killer in Germany who killed a great many people. I thought the play was terrific and felt very inspired by it as soon as I read it. I kind of took the book… went downstairs and I ripped the sticker out of it.
BK: You stole it from the library?
JE: Yeah, I stole it from the Reference Library. The Reference Library, if you’re reading this… come get me, I guess. I’ve got it and I don’t intend to give it back.
So yeah, we did that and it was awesome. We won the Critic’s Choice Award. It was the first thing I directed.
BK: Do you have future plans with this company?
JE: I definitely want to do stuff in the future with the company. That sort of becomes about deciding how to manage your own time. I’ve been quite fortunate in the last couple of years where I haven’t necessarily had a lot of off time to plan a production or knowing when I’m going to have time next year. I haven’t committed to deciding that I won’t accept any acting work so that I can do that.
BK: You’re not just an actor, though. You’ve also sound designed, produced, directed, and written. How do you choose when you want to do what? Is it whatever is offered at the time or is it an active choice you make?
JE: Well, we went back to the Hamilton Fringe the next year. We really enjoyed our time there. I like the city of Hamilton. I knew I wanted to direct again but I also wanted to write and sound design once I started writing the play. I always want to be doing all of those things. I think that theatre is such a collaborative thing that if you want to, you can sort of have a part in all of those things, no matter what role you are in with the production. As an actor, you are still collaborating with a director. If you fight for your ideas of your character, you could feel like you have a say in some parts of the direction.
I guess it does come down to what is offered more. Acting happens more frequently for me. It takes a lot more of my own drive to make any of the other things happen. I’ve done a couple of sound designing jobs on the side but I’ve also been involved in the production as an actor so it’s never one thing at a time.
BK: What motivates you?
JE: I think just being really hungry. I’m obsessive – about the craft and about wanting to be…awesome. I want to be better every time. I want to inspire other people. I want to inspire people who I’m working with to work as hard as I want to work, so that what we give in the moment on stage is truthful and electric and vibrating with energy and life. I’m just sort of addicted to that feeling and to that kind of presence, but that type of presence takes a lot of preparation work and a lot of thought and time. It’s literally just thinking about the work, about the character’s stories and motivations like a detective.
BK: This is part of your rehearsal process, as well?
JE: Yeah. For sure.
How can I find other things to bring into this? How can I go deeper? And sometimes it can be really simple things you might not think of. Where does this person look when someone’s talking to them? Which eye? Do they look at both eyes? There’s an infinite level of details humans have. That makes me excited to investigate.
BK: We’re going to shift into talking about The Circle. What is it about?
JE: The Circle is about a group of young people from 15-18 years old. There’s this guy Ily, who I’m playing, and he’s living in his girlfriend’s mom’s garage. He’s dropped out of school and he sells weed and works at The Keg. During the day when his girlfriend is at school he gets this call from Tyler, an old friend of his that used to live at his place. It’s this guy who’s ended up living on the street and in various squats and in and out of homelessness. Tyler calls him wanting to hang out that night and Ily agrees but meanwhile his girlfriend has also invited her friend Will over that night with his new boyfriend Daniel. There’s this clash of groups that are going to come together and it really becomes a fucked up party.
BK: What draws you to this character?
JE: I think I’ve played a lot of emotionally unstable and intense kind of characters. When I read this one, I was excited because it felt more like a side of me. You know, a happier kind of guy. He’s just generally smiling and laughing. He’s the kind of guy who can hang out with any group. I dunno, it felt like I needed a change and play that part of myself and to not always be going down those dark paths.
I really think that within each of the characters there’s something every person in the audience, whether young or old, can relate to. The characters are so varied. The play is about them figuring out who they are and figuring out who they want to be. They are looking for a place of belonging with each other and in their own lives.
BK: This is a cast of all young people and a big first for Tarragon. It’s nearly everyone’s Tarragon debut. There’s been a bit of a trend with professional theatres not often hiring younger performers. How do you feel about Tarragon programming this kind of show filled with young actors?
JE: It’s a huge risk for them. This is Geoff’s debut play. It’s been produced before at ATP (Alberta Theatre Projects) but he’s still a very young writer. The cast needs to be playing 15-18 years old, so no matter what, you’re going to be taking a gamble on some very young actors that may or may not perform at the sort of level that an audience or critics are used to from an establishment like Tarragon. I think it’s going to pay off for them. The first step to making it pay off was hiring director Peter Pasyk, who took the time to find the right actors that were going to be able to make this thing live. Even then, it could still really have not worked out for them, but they have to do it. They have to do this play and plays like this, written by young people with young directors and young actors so that they can get younger audiences because their subscriber base is going to end and if they don’t have a new subscriber base and new people who are interested, they won’t survive. It’s a risky production but I think necessary for their survival.
BK: What is it like working with Peter?
JE: Peter is a funny guy.
BK: That’s it?
JE: He and I joked once when we were leaving the theatre about how he’d like to be described, and he said he’d like someone to say that he’s a funny guy. So yeah, I’ll leave it at that…
But he’s actually tremendous. He’s a tremendous director. A wonderful, lovely person to work with everyday. Really patient and demanding and never gives up on anybody or anything that he wants. I think he’s quite courageous and I had a great time working with him.
BK: Why is this story relevant today?
JE: I don’t think it’s specifically the story that makes it relevant. It’s quite simply about young people – that young people are portrayed fully, at all. They aren’t used as a device for some older character’s story. They’re not the singular teen in the play. It’s a play about them. That’s really different. That’s what’s relevant, I think.
Rapid Fire Question Round
Favourite Movie: That’s an impossible question.
Favourite Play: Nope.
Favourite Book: “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck.
Favourite Food: Sushi. Chino Loco’s burritos.
Last play you saw in Toronto that stayed with you: James Smith’s Lessons in Temperament.
What are you currently listening to: Solange, Bon Iver’s new album.
Advice for young emerging artists: Don’t settle for doing what a director asks you to do, always suggest something to do… make offers, continue every moment that you can. Try and give your own perspective, different intentions/objectives/movements. Never settle for just taking direction. Always take it, but give more than what you’re asked for.
A Tarragon Theatre Production
by Geoffrey Simon Brown
directed by Peter Pasyk
starring Nikki Duval, Jakob Ehman, Daniel Ellis, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Brian Solomon & Jake Vanderham
set designer Patrick Lavender
lighting designer Rebecca Picherack
sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne
costume designer Joanna Yu
fight director Steve Wilsher
stage manager Sandy Plunkett
apprentice stage manager Victoria Wang
Welcome to Ily’s high school garage party: there’s the genius, the drug dealer, the runaway, the kid with ADHD, and the son of a priest. Everyone’s a total mess, but it’s better than being alone on a Friday night in suburbia. This remarkable debut by 26-year-old playwright Geoffrey Simon Brown is an explosive SOS from an orphaned generation desperately looking for a place to belong.
Tarragon Theatre Extraspace
30 Bridgeman Ave.
Oct 18 – Nov 27, 2016