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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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Artist Profile: Ellen Denny, Actor in LIFE AFTER

Interview by Hallie Seline

It is a pleasure to feature actor Ellen Denny who is currently starring in Britta Johnson’s new musical Life After. We spoke with her to find out a bit more about her as an artist, about her experience working on Life After, the emotional power in musicals, and a new play of her own about her great-great-aunt Harriet Brooks, one of Canada’s first female physicists. Be sure to catch Ellen on stage now in Life After at Canadian Stage until October 22nd. She’s incredible!

HS: Hi Ellen! Let’s start with getting to know you a bit more as an artist. Tell me about yourself. 

ED: Hello! I grew up in London, Ontario, trained in Halifax at Dalhousie University (BA Music & Theatre), then did some more acting training through the Citadel/Banff Program. I have been based in Toronto for about five years now, but much of that time I have spent away on contracts. I’ve started collecting provinces – this November I’m headed to Quebec, which will be my seventh! As much as the nomadic lifestyle can be tricky, I do enjoy getting to know different communities across this vast land. I perform in both musicals and plays, and have recently started writing, myself. My first full-length play is about the gender barriers faced by my great-great-aunt Harriet Brooks, one of Canada’s first female physicists.

Dan Chameroy & Ellen Denny. Photo by Michael Cooper.

HS: Amazing! Can’t wait to hear more about that in the future. What has it been like working on Life After?

ED: It is such a unique experience to work on a show that is in development, because everyday changes are being made, and the writer is right there in the room with you, and everyone is working as a team to make sure the story is being told in the clearest and strongest way possible. We had the luxury of four weeks in the rehearsal room with this piece – which runs 75 minutes – so there was opportunity to really delve in to each moment. Even though I am so excited to share Life After with an audience, I am in some ways grieving the end of rehearsals, because in this case the process was truly fulfilling.

HS: What has been the most rewarding aspect of working on Life After?

ED: Hands down, the most rewarding aspect is doing a piece by a young female writer. In this case, the incomparable Britta Johnson. A lot of the time I am telling stories written by dead white men, and so it means the world to me to interpret the work of a woman my age. There is a palpable difference in the way the character of Alice is written, because Britta understands what it is to be a young woman, and to be dealing with enormous loss in the midst of the messiness of growing up.

HS: What is your favourite aspect or moment in the show?

ED: Oof – that’s insanely hard! But one aspect of the show that I adore is our ensemble of three women (affectionately dubbed ‘The Furies’), which is a new addition since the Fringe production. Their function throughout the story is very creative and provides me with some much-needed giggles along the way.

HS: What draws you to Musical Theatre?

ED: There’s something inescapable about the emotional power of music. Something that our writer Britta Johnson harnesses expertly. It’s not just about the sung melodies, but also the instruments of the orchestration (shout out to our awesome orchestrator Lynne Shankel) that bring so many colours and feelings, things that cannot be expressed with words. For me, there’s also a sense of nostalgia in many musicals that I grew up listening to – Anne of Green Gables, Gilbert & Sullivan, all of Rodgers & Hammerstein – they bring me back to my childhood. What’s exciting about contemporary musical theatre is it’s really pushing the boundaries of the form, and I’m intrigued to see how the genre will continue to develop.

(from L to R) Ellen Denny, Trish Lindström, Tracy Michailidis, Rielle Braid, Kelsey Verzotti, Barbara Fulton, Neema Bickersteth, Anika Johnson, Dan Chameroy. Photo by Michael Cooper.

HS: Where do you look for inspiration?

ED: I try to see as much theatre as I can, but also other art forms: dance, opera, music, visual art. I find the work of other artists incredibly inspiring. But inspiration is everywhere. I look around the subway car and am fascinated by all the characters and stories around me.

HS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

ED: “It’s only a play.” Extremely helpful when the going gets tough! Along with that, the importance of having a life. This industry is so consuming that it can be hard to take time off to recharge or travel, but if an artist never goes out and experiences life, how can they interpret it onstage?

Ellen Denny & Tracy Michailidis. Photo by Michael Cooper.

HS: Where is your favourite place in Toronto and why?

ED: I love Cabbagetown… I’m a sucker for those heritage homes.

HS: What are you listening to/reading/watching these days?

ED: Recently binged the first season of Riverdale – a great reprieve to the intensity of rehearsals. And I’m reading Barbara Cook’s memoir. She just passed away and is forever one of my soprano inspirations.

HS: If you could take anyone out for a drink (alive or dead) who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

ED: It would be my great-great-aunt Harriet! She died in the 1930s. She didn’t leave behind a diary or anything, so sometimes in trying to write about her life I am left with BIG questions. It would be my dream to talk with her about why she made the decisions she did. And what it was really like to be a woman in science a hundred years ago. And to thank her for being a badass trail blazer.

Photo of Ellen Denny by Michael Cooper

HS: What other theatre show(s) are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

ED: I have yet to see Come From Away, so I’m excited to see it return with an all-Canadian cast. Also my friend Audrey Dwyer has her play Calpurnia at Nightwood Theatre this season. And I’d love to check out The Humans at Canadian Stage.

HS: Describe Life After in 5-10 words.

ED: The messiness of grief and the beauty of music intersect.

Life After

Who:
BOOK + MUSIC + LYRICS BY Britta Johnson
A CANADIAN STAGE, THE MUSICAL STAGE COMPANY & YONGE STREET THEATRICALS PRODUCTION
DIRECTED BY Robert McQueen
MUSIC DIRECTION BY Reza Jacobs
CHOREOGRAPHY Linda Garneau
ORCHESTRATIONS, ARRANGEMENTS & MUSIC SUPERVISION Lynne Shankel
DRAMATURG Anika Johnson
SET DESIGN Brandon Kleiman
LIGHTING DESIGN Kimberly Purtell
COSTUME DESIGN Ming Wong
SOUND DESIGN Peter McBoyle

CAST Neema Bickersteth, Rielle Braid, Dan Chameroy, Ellen Denny, Barbara Fulton, Anika Johnson, Trish Lindström, Tracy Michailidis, Kelsey Verzotti

What:
Sixteen-year old Alice is left to navigate life after her father, a superstar self-help guru, dies in a car accident. We plunge into Alice’s overactive inner world as she tries to decipher the events that led to that fateful day. An expanded and reworked production of the hit 2016 Toronto Fringe musical, Life After is a funny and frank story of love, loss and vivid imagination from one of the most exciting new voices in Canadian musical theatre.

Where:
Canadian Stage
Berkeley Street Theatre
25 Berkeley Street
Toronto

When:
On stage until October 22nd

Tickets:
canadianstage.com

Connect: 
t – @ellen_denny

Fringe Preview: People Suck – An Irreverent Exploration of Human Suckiness – Presented by Nutmeg Creations at the 2015 Toronto Fringe

by Bailey Green

Megan Phillips had an epiphany. She was being a complete jerk to the people she loved — she had no idea why. She sat in a hipster coffee shop in Toronto during the 2014 Fringe when it hit her. After “journaling-out” some ideas, she got in contact with Peter Cavell. Megan calls Pete, “a brilliant composer” and knew he was the right person to bring this idea to life. When Megan told Pete the title, it sealed the deal — People Suck, an irreverent exploration of human suckiness.

They were intrigued by the concept of creating a song cycle based around a theme, as opposed to a musical with a linear arc or central character. People Suck plays with musical genres and unique characters, injected with a healthy dose of comedy. “Pete and I had very similar ideas of comedy,” says Megan, “but we also knew that in order to give that comedy depth, we had to explore the emotional layers behind the songs.”

Pete and Megan have known each other for almost 15 years, they attended Western together, and also come from similar backgrounds of working with Second City and sketch/improv work. Pete, writer and co-music director, is a current musical director at Second City. Megan, writer and cast member, heads an all-girl sketch comedy troupe called STRAPLESS COMEDY (who you may have seen at Fringe last year!).

They wrote People Suck on and off into the winter of 2014, while Megan lived in Vancouver and Pete lived in Toronto. But when they were pulled for the Fringe, they began writing multiple times a week over the phone. “Skype is not our friend,” they say. They kept track of lyrics in Google docs to coordinate progress, but couldn’t resist chasing each other’s cursors around the screen. “Our biggest challenge was time and distance,” Megan remembers. With the time difference, there was a narrow window where they could work. “I would get home after work, put my son to bed, and have only a few hours to write with Megan,” Pete says. In May, Megan moved to Toronto and the pair began to work on production. “Pete’s like a ‘real’ person… I mean he has a job and family and 2 year old, and Adriana [Pete’s wife] has been so amazing and supportive of Pete and this project,” Megan says. “She’s the best!” Pete agrees.

After both knowing him for years, their director Kerry Griffin (current director of Second City mainstage) was the first person they thought of to bring on to the project. As for cast, they needed to find actors with a comedic background who also had strong vocal chops. They chose: Ashley Comeau (Second City mainstage) and Connor Thompson (Second City) who are “a real life couple” adds Megan; Allison Price (Second City) who “coincidentally, we grew up as kids together,” says Pete, “and went to the same piano teacher”; as well as Arthur Wright, who went to university at the same time as Pete and Megan, who they also herald is a “phenomenal singer and actor.” Pete and Megan have been deeply appreciative of the hive-mind-like comedic writer atmosphere that has brought their piece to a new level.

They also credit their producer Victoria Laberge for her excellent work. Laberge, a native Montrealler very involved with theatre and FRINGE Montreal, has allowed Pete and Megan to focus on the creativity while Vic handles deadlines, press releases and “so many emails,” Megan says.

Their co-music director Jordan Armstrong, also a music director at Second City, brings a level of fresh musical improvisation and a bevy of skill with instruments to the table. Jordan plays clarinet, flute saxophone, percussion and piano (to name a few.) “So maybe she’ll grab her sax and I’ll grab my guitar, to we’ll fill out the musical texture a little more,” Pete says.

As for what they’re most excited for with the Fringe:

Megan: “Just doing the show for an audience! This show is so special and I feel so lucky to have had Pete as a partner and then the cast and everyone else who’s been involved. It’s our gorgeous little baby and now we’re get to show the baby to the world.”

Pete: “Getting this out there. We’ve been living with it for so long. Watching it now, the actors are all doing their thing and it’s made us step back and realize – wow, that was ours and now it’s this massive thing that can actually stand on it’s own.”

As for a teaser or preview? Megan graciously sings me a preview of their opener, in a Tim Hortons. The featured character is Miss Talbot, a teacher, who tells her class to settle down for the day’s lesson — that everyone has a special talent they bring (“In the potluck of life we can’t all bring the casserole,” Megan sings) but there’s always someone who plays a specific role.

“Suppose you lend your favourite dolly to Delilah,

Cause you were taught it’s nice and kind and good to share,

But then she keeps it for five years, and when it you get it back,

It smells like pee and it’s missing all it’s hair,

Then Delilah is an asshole.”

 

People Suck

Presented by Nutmeg Creations as part of the 2015 Toronto Fringe Festivalunnamed

By: Megan Phillips and Peter Cavell

Company: Nutmeg Creations

Company origin: Vancouver, British Columbia

Director: Kerry Griffin

Cast: Ashley Comeau, Megan Phillips, Allie Price, Connor Thompson, Arthur Wright

Creative team: Musical Direction by Jordan Armstrong and Peter Cavell. Produced by Victoria Laberge.

Warnings: Sexual Content, Mature Language

Where: Randolph Theatre

When:

July 01 at 08:15 PM
July 04 at 10:30 PM
July 06 at 12:45 PM
July 07 at 06:45 PM
July 08 at 10:30 PM
July 09 at 05:15 PM
July 11 at 11:00 PM

Connect with them: @PplSuckMusical

Connect with us: @intheGreenRoom_ & @_BaileyGreen

Tickets:

http://fringetoronto.com/fringe-festival/shows/people-suck/

2014 SummerWorks Preview – And Now The End

Interview by Brittany Kay

What started out as a classroom project became something “much bigger than anyone could have ever conceived.” A team of five artists spent more than a year creating a dramatic musical that is sure to be a must-see at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival. I sat down with creators, Victoria Houser, Emily Nixon, Drew O’Hara, Zach Parkhurst, and Jake Vanderham to discuss their upcoming show, And Now the End

Brittany: Talk to me about the show? What are some of the major themes or messages that come out of the story?

Drew: The show asks the question, “What would you do with the time you had left, if you knew how much it was?” A definite major theme, which we didn’t intend on having, was love. There’s also hope and survival, as you see these characters under this magnifying glass that is the end of the world and you just watch how they deal with it.

Emily: You never see the outside world. You only see the characters indoors referring to how the world is disintegrating, outside, how it’s completely falling apart. What you are actually seeing on stage, is the relationships between the characters contained away from that. You see how the world disintegrating has affected them and their relationships.

Drew: One of the primary questions that the play asks is “What is it that keeps us going? Why do we keep going?” One of the major answers that we found is each other. That’s why relationships and love became such a big part of the show.

Victoria: Another important question that it asks is, “What would we become at the end of the world? What would humanity become and also what is revealed about the people you thought you knew?”

Brittany: What was the spark that ignited the inspiration for the story?

Victoria: It started as a class project at Ryerson Theatre School. As a class we came to a consensus that we were going to go away and write something about the end of the world. We left with our separate ideas and came back to present. At the end of it all, there were five of us left and it just so happened that the five of us were all working on two characters each, aside from Drew and Zach who wrote their characters together.

Drew: It was also partly because of our creative performance teacher, Sheldon Rosen, who noticed that there was an unusually high amount of musical people in our class – not musical theatre people – but people who have an aptitude for music. He proposed the idea of trying to write a musical, which is not typically done at Ryerson. We’re an acting school. It’s not our main focus.

Zach: It certainly became that way!

Drew: You start with a book of course, and then the music… Yeah… It’s a musical!

Victoria: Is it? Did you know that yet? Do you need to write that down?

(Chuckles table round)

Photo Credit: David Leyes

Photo Credit: David Leyes. Featured here: Amir Haidar

Brittany: I mean having a strong foundation of a dramatic story with real characters underlining the music is such a positive feature and is sometimes missing in musical theatre.

Zach: Exactly. The fact that we’re all actors is something that’s really benefitted us in that way. We’ve been able to write for actors. Especially having great casts in the room and in every step of the process has been helpful because we can go away and think about what works and what doesn’t. Having been on stage, we know what’s helpful to them and hopefully we can write better scenes because of it.

Emily: When we were inviting people onto the project, they were presented with the book and the first decision, on whether they wanted to be part of it or not, was off of whether they connected to the book or not and then they heard the music and went “Oh My God, this is amazing!” As writers, it’s nice to know that the book is strong in its own right and is what in fact opened the doors for us.

Drew: Let me also toot Jake’s horn for a minute because we are blessed to have him with us. He is not only an incredible dramatic writer but also an incredible composer. Something really special about how the show was created was Jake’s involvement in the writing of the book and then shifting into the composing. All of the music comes directly from the page and directly from the characters that he knows so well.

Brittany: So much of this show is the music. Jake, as composer and lyricist, talk to me about the development of the music.

Jake: In order for the music to be effective, it has to come directly from the book, from the story and from the character’s dialogue. A lot of the lyrics are word for word some of the text that the characters say. What’s amazing, is how much of our speech and conversation is musical in its essence – it has music to it. When you can find those moments in the script and then fill it with more music, it makes it so affective. The music heightens the moment. It elevates the mood. It’s essentially a fast track to the heart.

Drew: What a quote.

Jake: Sometimes you don’t need words. Sometimes I can see the musical underscore hit the actor and open them up completely.

Brittany: So there has been a lot of development of this show. I just want to talk about the process that has gone into it.

Jake: So it started with a book. Once we knew we wanted to make it a musical (which was a choice that we knew all along) as the composer, I waited as long as I could for the book to come together. We knew we really wanted the book as a strong foundation. I took it and identified what places could be better expressed or heightened through music. Songs replaced text. There’s a lot of back and forth between that. Then we put it into other peoples’ hands and voices and it’s been very valuable having the actors that we’ve had in this process. With two different casts, we’ve been able to have a lot of voices and a lot of opinions and feedback…and so it’s been very…what’s the word…

Zach: Interesting?

(Table round laughter)

Jake: It’s been involved.

Victoria: There also came a point where we couldn’t finish it until we had bodies and actors to play these roles.

Drew: Not that it’s finished…

Victoria: No, it’s not finished by any means. We couldn’t really go any further until we had people there because… I don’t know… after working on a project for so long you get trapped in this voice that you’ve created in your head of these people, and it was so helpful to have other people come in and give a completely different take on what you’ve put on the page.

Jake: We brought on our director, Esther Jun during the workshop process that was the Ryerson New Voices Festival. And as dramaturge as well.

Zach: Esther has been instrumental. Before, when we were writing this, the five of us would just dramaturge each other, but that would take five hours. Having one person who became super familiar with the script and music was really beneficial. She was really a key player in the development of our show to where it is now.

Drew: Absolutely

Emily: Absolutely.

Victoria: She still is. We’re still doing rewrites as they come.

Jake: The average musical takes ten years of workshops and productions and the only way it gets better, is by doing it. We’ve been very fortunate in the stretch of six months to have had the opportunity to do the show twice.

Drew: What’s really special is that it came from the collective brain of five people and that has been really amazing to be part of, because it’s much bigger than any one of us could have conceived. I think that development goes back years and years because we all came from a really strong bond of friendship and years of knowing each other… bizarrely intimately.

Emily: Theatre school.

Drew: (Shrugs shoulders) Theatre School. Having all of that behind us, made it easier and in some ways harder for us to discover a collective vision.

Victoria: Having a diverse group of people working together has made for such unique voices because, naturally, we’re all five different people and there’s no way we could sound the same on paper.

Emily: Something that has been really special for me about this process, is that we’re in this absolutely wonderful position where we’re working with people like Tamara Bernier Evans and Troy Adams and Esther Jun. I just remember so much of this process was us between classes, sitting in the hallway, trading and editing scripts and sharing things whenever we could.

Photo Credit: David Leyes

Photo Credit: David Leyes. Featured here: Ruth Goodwin

Brittany: To state the obvious, there are five of you. What were some of the challenges of working and creating with such a large group?

Drew: I don’t talk to Victoria anymore.

Drew: We all fight all the time.

Emily: It’s true!

Victoria: We’re all friends and we’re all friends still. We all know each other so well that when we get into an argument, we know it’s going to be okay.

Drew: It’s almost like family getting together at Christmas and your uncle is being an asshole and you all fight and say terrible things to each other.

Zach: And you’re sister’s drunk.

Drew: And someone needs to put her to bed. You’re at each other’s throats, but it’s all rooted in love. We fight all the time, but it’s always been in the interest of the project.

Zach: In the words of Drew, everyone’s been on Team Good Show.

Emily: We all love the project so much. We’re tied together by it.

Victoria: It’s what’s expected when you work with five people, but the project wouldn’t be what it is without them.

Brittany: What’s the future for And Now the End? Any further development?

Jake: Having a chance to workshop it without the pressure of a final product – without as much of a high stake deadline. It would be really lovely just to have another fantastic group of people getting together to hammer out the mechanics and see what’s not working. It is more complicated because it’s a musical – you’re telling the story in more than one way. We’ve been workshopping it and also mounting a show at the same time.

Brittany: How has it been being a part of SummerWorks?

Drew: It’s been a very fast maturation for us, from being in theatre school to entering the professional world. SummerWorks has been the craziest part of that because all of a sudden we’ve had this show we’ve been writing for two years, and we get into this festival, and realize that it’s too big for us right now and we need help. We’ve been fortunate to have our dream team of professional artists that we’ve looked up to for years jump aboard. What’s amazing about SummerWorks, is that the Toronto theatre community loves this festival and people of the highest caliber in Canadian theatre want to do shows in it.

Zach: It’s also been a wonderful learning experience for all of us getting into the producing side of things. A lot of this is still very new to us. Being able to work so closely with the creative team in a way that’s not acting, has been an incredible learning experience I would say for everyone. It’s helped us establish ourselves as emerging artists and what creating art, as artists, becomes.

Jake: It really is the Toronto theatre community that brought this to life. We all have poured our hearts and souls into it and countless hours. We’ve all made our sacrifices to go the extra mile for the show. That’s the wonderful thing about our theatre community, people are willing to make those sacrifices for theatre’s sake. No SummerWorks show has a Mirvish budget…it’s a lot of people making a lot of sacrifices and working extremely hard just to support it.

Emily: The professionals in the community have truly embraced and welcomed us. Everyone is just so eager and willing to help us with this project. It’s incredibly inspiring.

Brittany: What do you want audiences to walk away with after seeing this show?

Zach: Tears. Tears everywhere.

Emily: I want people to feel like they need to live more fully. I want them to feel the pressure of time in some way and through that, kind of wake up and stop fucking around… if that’s what they’re doing… and really just try and be more present.

Victoria: I hope they leave asking the questions we have asked.

Drew: I hope they go home and hug somebody they love.

Zack: I just want them to cry a lot…and then want to see it six more times during the run (laughs). In all honesty good theatre makes me think. I would want someone to go away really examining and thinking, “what would I truly do?” A really incredible line that Jake wrote is, “What will our legacy be?” I want people to think “all the living that I’ve done, what does it amount to it and how can I know that I’ve made it worth while for myself and die knowingly.” It’s a huge question for someone to ask.

Emily: And who do you live for?

Jake: And now…the end.

And Now The End

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Photo Credit: David Leyes. Featured here: Ruth Goodwin

A NEW MUSICAL by Victoria Houser, Emily Nixon, Drew O’Hara, Zach Parkhurst and Jake Vanderham presented as part of the 2014 SummerWorks Festival

Directed by: Esther Jun

Cast: Troy Adams, Tamara Bernier Evans, Ruth Goodwin, Kaleigh Gorka, Amir Haidar, Zach Parkhurst, Hugh Ritchie, Paolo Santalucia, Jeff Yung

Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace

When: Thursday, August 7, 9:30 PM

Saturday, August 9, 5:00 PM

Monday, August 11, 4:30 PM

Wednesday, August 13, 9:30 PM

Friday, August 15, 7:00 PM

Saturday, August 16. 10:00 PM

Sunday, August 17, 5:00 PM

Website: andnowtheend.com

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

A Chat with Heather Braaten – Director of Next to Normal at the LOT in Support of CAMH

Interview by Ryan Quinn

RQ: So, I’m here with Heather Braaten, who is directing Next To Normal, running from Thursday August 29th to Sunday September 29th at The Lower Ossington Theatre. Would you like to tell me a bit about the show?

HB: Sure, it’s a completely sung-through rock musical that addresses mental health issues and the families struggling with them. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning piece. It’s not your typical musical at all. Small cast, very intimate. This is my first time working with the Lower Ossington Theatre, and it’s really interesting, what they’re doing. We’ve got a team of super-talented, professional, upcoming artists that are so fantastic and so ready to explode onto the scene. For me, as a director, I get to see all the amazing work that’s happening in this space at the LOT, and it’s an incredible opportunity for everyone involved. I mean, these huge shows, only a select few will get to do them on a Broadway scale, you don’t often see them happening on an independent level.

RQ: I mean, the logistics of putting up a show like this must be intense.

HB: Exactly! I mean, the rights for the show alone are expensive. I’ve been directing independent theatre for ten to fifteen years now, and I don’t normally get to tackle material like this.

RQ: You mentioned earlier how this was a Pulitzer Prize-winning show that’s won Tony Awards as well. What do you think makes it such a remarkable show?

HB: Well, I think that musicals just don’t approach material like this. Generally, a topic like mental illness isn’t addressed on such a massive scale. I mean, we see films, television shows, and of course books about mental illness, but theatre has a different way of reaching people. The live experience is so different than any other artistic medium. I think one of the reasons this show is so successful is that people are blown away by the honesty of it. This is family life. This is real. I think that’s the main thing about it. It’s very honest and very poignant. It really doesn’t let you off the hook, in terms of material. It doesn’t have a classic Broadway happy ending. It doesn’t resolve everything for everyone. I feel like people took notice because it’s not afraid to tackle this issue, which everyone in some way has been touched by. Before directing this piece, I had never seen it as a production, I had read it and heard it, but I had never seen it in performance. That’s why it’s been amazing to work on, because as it comes together, I start to get hit harder and harder with what it’s trying to do and how honestly it’s doing it. And we’re not going to cut it, we’re going to put the whole thing onstage for a large audience to see and have an experience together. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at, when people go to see a show, they have a collective experience, and with this piece, that means having a massive dialogue about mental illness all at once.

RQ: So, this show requires a lot of vulnerability. It’s an emotionally, physically, and mentally violent show. How do you approach something like that as a director?

HB: I have done material like this before, but not that often. I relate it to another piece I did about the Dionne quintuplets and their struggle. It’s all about struggle, and understanding the specifics of it. In both cases, of having your family rocked by a bipolar, delusional mother who is trying to live in a separate world. So it’s interesting to approach it for a second time. I think the most important thing is creating a safe place for the actors to work in, and to indulge and experiment with where that lives in their own minds and bodies. They need to be able to experience it, then work back from there. We can’t literally have people breaking down onstage, it has to be a controlled scenario. But it has been really interesting to see these actors experience extreme emotion for what it really is, then pull it back from there to tell the story. I mean, they have a huge vocal task in this piece. You can’t perform this piece without having full control over your instrument, but at the same time, it has to be fully emotionally connected to the material. As a director, how do you make that happen? I’ve learned that early in the process, you allow it to happen in a way where it’s just let go, then you bring it back to the storytelling and the technique. This cast has been amazing to see connect to the material and to each other. It’s one of those pieces that gets more meaningful every time you see or listen to it, and I think that’s why it’s kind of developed a following. Every time you listen to it, it hits you somewhere deeper. There are a lot of layers to it.

RQ: And the LOT is working with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Heath on this piece, correct?

HB: Yes, part of the proceeds are going to CAMH, and they’re helping us get the word out that we’re doing the piece.

RQ: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, and break a leg on your run!

HB: Thanks!

Next to Normal

At the LOT in support of CAMH

Pulitzer-Prize winning rock musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, explores how one suburban household copes with crisis and mental illness.

Where: Lower Ossington Theatre, 100A Ossington Avenue

When: August 29th – September 29th, 2013

Ticketshttp://tickets.ticketwise.ca/event/3772016

For more information, check out the Lower Ossington Website: http://lowerossingtontheatre.com/

Read out more about the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) on their website: http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/Pages/home.aspx

Cast of Angelwalk’s Ordinary Days chat about Deconstructing Extraordinary Musicals

By: Ryan Quinn

Last week, I spoke with the cast of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, which just finished its run in Winnipeg, and is playing for a limited engagement until December 9th at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Directed by Kayla Gordon and produced by Angelwalk Theatre, Ordinary Days follows four New Yorkers throughout a day as they face their own demons and those of the big city.

This show was originally produced at Roundabout Theatre in New York, but this production features new orchestrations by Joseph Aragon (who also composed Theatre20’s Bloodless) and those orchestrations will become a standard option for all productions of the show in the future.

The show stars Justin Bott as Warren, a frustrated artist who finds a notebook belonging to Deb (Connie Manfredi), a grad student working on her thesis on Virginia Wolfe. The show also stars Jay Davis and Clara Scott as Jason and Claire, a couple on the brink of moving in together, who are experiencing a relationship crisis.

When I spoke to the cast, they had just moved into the Studio Theatre space at the TCA, and remarked that it immediately felt like a perfect place to mount the production. I asked if the show demands a small, conversational space, and Justin Bott replied that when they were performing in Winnipeg, they had to create the illusion of that intimate space in a larger area, but that this space immediately creates that atmosphere.

We also spoke about how approaching a sung-through musical is different than approaching one with more text, and the cast agreed that the approach is nearly the same. Bott remarked on how the challenge is to not have a sung-through show be very “musical-y”, saying: “A lot of these new musicals that are being written are not so much like the old musicals where it’s a dramatic scene launching into an even more dramatic song, everything is on a level of conversational”. He went on to explain that the music is telling the actor some information, and the lyrics are telling the actor some information as well, and that can make the exploration a little easier.

Connie Manfredi noted that in musicals with more dialogue, the challenge is that the spoken text has to lead you to a place where singing is the only option because the character can’t bring themselves to speak anymore, but in a musical like this, it’s heightened to that level from the beginning of the scene, and indeed throughout the play, so that can be difficult. Jay Davis mentioned that when he performed in last year’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, the process was to learn each song note for note, then make it his own emotionally without disrupting or modifying the composition of the songs. In that sense, it’s a two-step process, but the result is a fully realized character that lives within the confines of the musical’s orchestrations, and, in some ways, is freed by them.

You can catch Ordinary Days at the studio theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until December 9th, call (416) 250-3708 or visit http://www.tocentre.com.