Questions for Mladen Obradovic: The Woods are Dark and Deep

A few years ago I saw a Feydeau farce starring Mladen Obradovic. He was a startlingly good actor, playing two distinctly different roles, a bit of a tour de force really, and totally unforgettable.

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Mladen Obradović as Poche in “A Flea in Her Ear” (photo: Derrick Chow)

So this week I see that he’s written a very serious play about a serious topic.

Did you know that…

 “…during World War I, immigrants who were living in Canada, but who came from countries that Canada was at war with, ended up interned. This included Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Croats, Serbs, Austrians, Hungarians, Turks…. More than 8500 people were kept in 24 internment camps and receiving stations.”

Did you know this? This is the first I heard of it.

Mladen’s play is called The Woods are Dark and Deep concerning immigrants who were locked up. The historical angle grabbed my attention. Did you see Hungarians were on that list?  I think of myself as a Hungarian-Canadian (my family only came to Canada in the 1950s.).  And I am very curious about the play.

So of course I had to ask Mladen some questions.

BB: Are you more like your father or your mother?

I love this question, because I didn’t have an answer ready right away. It made me think. I guess I have some sides to me that make me more like my mother and some that are totally like my father. I think my mother influenced me more- supported my individuality, my artistic side, my empathy. I don’t know what kind of a person I would be if it wasn’t for her influence, but I do know that she made me want to be a better one. And I picked up my father’s OCD, his ambition and straightforwardness. I am also a lot like my maternal grandmother. I picked up my diligence and practicality from her.

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Mladen Obradovic

BB: What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

Acting is truly a very cruel profession- very few people get to have a career, even rarer is for them to have it on their own terms, without making horrible sacrifices in their private life. The most obvious example is the fact that many actors can’t sustain a long-term relationship, or chose not to have children, mostly because of the uncertainty of our job. That constant state of alert, looming above, has to be one of the worst things about this profession. There are absolutely no guarantees. One can star in a theatre show or a film, get an award for it and then not getting any work for the next two years. I saw so many phenomenal actors quit this job and go into a totally different line of work because they needed some certainty in their lives. That brutal selection is always heartbreaking to watch.

On the other hand, one of the best things about this job is constant movement, meeting different people all the time, working on different projects all the time. This job can never be boring. Cruel yes, but boring no. One of the best days of my career happened in Belgrade when I performed a children’s fairytale show in the morning, then went to a rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Macbeth that we worked on, then shot an episode of a TV show for which I portrayed a poet and recited his love poems, and then did a late evening recording of a radio show where I played in some very raunchy scenes. It was amazing. I did four totally different things in one day, and they were all rewarding in their own way. That is what I always strived towards- new experiences, fresh challenges.

So far- I was lucky enough to get it.

BB: Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I watch a lot of movies and TV shows. I do like all genres, so some of my favorite movies include very different ones: The Matrix, L.A. Confidential, Cabaret, The Color Purple, Dogville… Some of my favorite TV shows include: Sense8, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, Shameless, Dexter, The Wire… and comedies: Alo, Alo; Only Fools and Horses, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Friends.

I mostly listen to older rock and pop music, some of my favorites are The Cranberries, David Bowie, George Michael, Sting, Annie Lennox, Queen. I watch tennis, I despise reality TV, although I do love dancing shows- So You Think You Can Dance and World of Dance.

BB: What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I was a bit taller. I am only 5’ 7”, and it is so hard to be an average height actor in a world where size does matter.

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Mladen Obradovic

BB: When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

I watch a lot of films, do a lot of gardening, take my kids to a pool or a playground, going out- anywhere really- either for walks in nature, or clubbing, dancing, watching shows. I don’t rest a lot.

BB: Did you experience a shock of recognition discovering the history of internments during the First World War?

Yes. Once I started my exploration of the topic, it made some sense, but my first reaction was of utter shock and disgust. The truth is that there were about 8500 people in those camps. So many different nationalities too- anyone who came from countries that were in war with Canada.

However, the problem was that half of those people were running away from those same countries. Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, occupied Ukraine, Croatia, and so many other countries and territories. Serbia and my home country of Montenegro were under Turkish occupation. Immigrants from those countries came to Canada to escape the oppression, but were labeled as possible traitors and put away. There were so many reasons why this happened. Some of these people were not safe because their neighbours actually thought that they were dangerous. It was the biggest war ever by then, so everyone was very concerned and some of them responded from their fear. In order to prevent conflicts, the government pulled some of those immigrants into camps. Some were being framed by their coworkers or neighbours, some were just too poor and happy to go to a camp because it provided them with shelter and food, and they were paid too- as much as Canadian soldiers were. There were all sorts of stories, but the important part was that it was involuntary imprisonment of immigrants. I am an immigrant, it resonated very deeply.

Could it happen today? What needs to happen for someone to tell me that I don’t have the same rights and freedoms as people who were actually born in Canada? The history of the human race is the history of oppression. Coming from a war-torn country I am very sensitive about these issues. But I did mention that after I started my exploration, things started to sound much more logical. I do envision someone whose child was fighting somewhere in Europe, and I do understand how it must have been really difficult for them to have a German family, for example, living next door to them. Let’s not forget that this was an era where all the news came from newspapers, or similar paper based propaganda. People were less educated, more scared, and, I presume- easier to rally. I can see how it escalated to innocent people being imprisoned for years. The important part is not to forget those lessons from our history and work on never repeating them. Can we see the parallel between illegal immigrants being imprisoned by the thousands in USA at this point? Children dying in their custody? Our story happened a hundred years ago but it is easy to assume that nothing changed.

BB: I understand that the “Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund” approached you to do this work. The announcement says they “commissioned and produced this show.” That sounds like an adventure. Please tell that meta-story, of how you were approached and persuaded to do this play.

It was first mentioned by a friend of mine who worked for Toronto Public Library, where she heard about WWI Internment Recognition Fund and their work. Their mission is to support art projects that will help keep the memory of these events alive. She dug a little deeper and when she found out that there were Serbians there, she suggested we do something to honor their memory.

I was intrigued by the topic right away and I knew that I wanted to write a play about it. The only problem was that I never finished a full-length play for grown ups before. I wrote a few children’s plays, but nothing like this. So I approached the organization, asked them if they would be interested to help me with the project, and they offered all the resources they had. They only requested for the play to be historically correct. After I did my research and wrote the first draft, their entire board of directors went through it and sent me their notes- the objections about the truthfulness of places, dates, timelines… I was, obviously, thankful for this. Although I wrote a story with fictional characters, the frame of the story is absolutely authentic.

BB: Who do you imagine is the audience for your play?

It is a coincidence that the main characters of this play are Serbians and Ukrainians. I just knew more about them so I chose them as my leads. But there were so many nationalities interned in those camps. Any immigrant can recognize themselves in the destiny of these people. And any Canadian should see this play- we should all be reminded about how easy it is to hurt someone who had a less fortunate start to their life in Canada.

BB: Does The Woods are Dark and Deep correspond to any conventional genre of theatre?

“The Woods…” is a drama. It has its own romantic subplot, it has a lot of traditional singing in it, but it’s not a romantic drama, it’s not a musical, it’s a drama. I am not sure it follows any templates. It is based in realism, it has its heroes and villains, but I don’t think it resembles any well-known story. There is something very familiar, but also something quite individual about this script.

BB: How difficult was it for you to write The Woods are Dark and Deep?

This is definitely the biggest play I ever wrote, and the process was quite difficult. The research and the writing of the first draft took a year to finish. I did give that first draft to several of my close friends to see it and give me some notes, and we also changed some of the things during rehearsals, the director of the play, Sandra Cardinal, helped me a lot with those edits.

BB: Talk about the team working with you on The Woods are Dark and Deep

The Director of the play is Sandra Cardinal. I first worked with her last summer on a little Fringe show called Kitchen Sink Drama. That is where I saw how detailed she is as a director, how keen on bringing the emotions of the scene out, and I was excited to work with her again.

Sophie_McIntosh_as_Claire in The Woods are Dark and Deep

Sophie McIntosh is Claire in The Woods are Dark and Deep

My partner in producing is Ivana Obradovic, and this is the third show we’re doing together. Amanda Caliolo is my Stage Manager and this is the third show I am working on with her. Third show with Meredith Wolting- our Set and Costume Designer, second one with Alexandra Caprara, our Lighting Designer, and with most of the actors I worked with before- third collaboration with Francesco de Francesco and Biljana Karadzic, second one with Ratko Todorovic and Jake Zabusky, and the children in the play- Mila Jokic and Simeon Kljakic have been recruited from Pulse Theatre’s Drama Studio.

Jake Zabuskyas Dragutin in The Woods are Dark and Deep

Jake Zabusky is Dragutin in The Woods are Dark and Deep

I am a very loyal friend and a very loyal collaborator. When I find people I am comfortable working with, I tend to stick with them every chance I get.

Biljana Karadžić as Anya in The Woods are Dark and Deep

Biljana Karadžić is Anya in The Woods are Dark and Deep

BB: This is not like A Flea in Her Ear. If we imagine a continuum between The Woods are Dark and Deep and the Feydeau farce, where is Mladen on that scale?

I am so happy you still remember “A Flea in Her Ear”, our delightful Fringe show from two years ago.

“The Woods…” is very different though. “A Flea” was an outburst of energy, celebration of love and life. “The Woods…” is like an open wound, tender and sensitive, dark and deep. Maybe because it stems from real life events, maybe it was me changing, or just totally committing to a very different experience, but these two shows couldn’t be any more different.

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Rehearsal: Ratko Todorovic, Mladen Obradovic, Dewey Stewart, Jake Zabusky

And I love them both, because they challenged me in very different ways. I am very impulsive. I tend to make my mind up about things instantly, I like change, I love challenges. So I don’t know what the future brings, but it might be something completely different. Or maybe I finally make up my mind and stick with one genre? That would also be a change! I just know that I do hope to survive in this industry. Being an immigrant actor, an audible minority in this city is not exactly a guarantee for success.

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Rehearsal: Jake Zabusky, Mladen Obradovic, Dewey Stewart, Francesco de Francesco

So far I was lucky enough to find enough engagements, and I hope it doesn’t stop here.

BB: are there any teachers and/or influences you would care to mention?

I am what I am because so many generous and knowledgeable people stopped and shared their trade with me. My professors from Serbia: Ciga Jerinic, Boris Pingovic, Zoja Begolli, Marina Markovic, Dragana and Tomo Brkovic and the late, great Kaca Brkovic… my professors from York: David Smukler, Eric Armstrong, Michael Greyeyes… Jadranka Mamic, Zaklina Ostir and Aleksandra Bosnic from Montenegro, Julie and Craig Hartley from Centauri Summer Arts Camp, Christina Akrong and Alex Breede from TheatrePeace Inc, Barbara Rosenberg and Janice Gruchy from PACE Academy… Just some of the people who changed my life forever.

But most of all my family, especially my children. They changed my life and keep on changing it by changing me, every day.

*******

Mladen Obradovic’s new play The Woods are Dark and Deep premieres on March 21 at the Factory Theatre. For tickets click here.

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