From the Water: vivid and powerful

I saw the opening night performance of Will King’s From the Water, presented by Seven Siblings Theatre at Tarragon’s Extraspace.

A rush of responses across several categories helps me to write. It’s wonderful to be moved, to be excited on several fronts.

From the Water is Will King’s first play, an impressive piece of work.  I am almost stunned, disbelieving, because this is a remarkable first play on several fronts.

For ninety minutes we’re swept into a world not quite like our own, science fiction that is speculation and conjecture rather than effects or monsters. Sure there are similarities to our own lives, in their pizza flavours or the DVDs they watch. But in a few crucial ways it’s a world that’s not like our own.

And what’s especially magical is the dramaturgy. They can’t make this world happen using CGI. It has to be story-telling and good acting, and we’re plunged into this world from the first line of the play.

There is one other thing that’s not mentioned anywhere in the program namely sound design (or music composition if you prefer): which I will ascribe to Will King, the playwright. Because he said in his recent interview that he creates music, I’ll consider him the likely creator until someone tells me differently.  The extra magic in the sound helped animate their stage.

Will is also one of the four actors (also Shawn Lall, Anna Silvija Broks, and Hilary Wirachowsky) bringing From the Water to life. As I prefer to go spoiler-free (no I won’t give it away) I can’t say too much. The Tarragon Extraspace is a tight little venue that leaves little room for error.  While the blood that I saw spilled from my front-row vantage point might have been fake, I was still jolted, still totally persuaded.

I’m reminded a bit of a great old sci-fi thriller from the 1960s, namely The Day of the Triffids, a film whose greatest power came in suspenseful dread of what might happen rather than in explicitly showing us what we feared. It’s actually better not to see too much. And that means, the commitment of the performers makes us care what happens to them. We care because they make us believe.

An added wrinkle in the text is something that Kafka likely would have admired, namely a kind of existential humour in the exposition of an absurd world. Working from first principles we are confronted with the simplest of predicaments, the breakdown of communication due to a complete lack of life experience.

If you’re a brand-new clone, what do you really know about anything? Its simplicity is wonderfully elegant, to be clueless because you’ve just come into the world.

will king photo

Seven Siblings Theatre Artistic Director Will King

The gormless innocence you see in this smiling picture of Will King is perfect for the role he’s written for himself, one he understands from the inside out.

It’s a superb performance.

All four of the actors make this alternative world live, under the guidance of director Erik Helle. While there are suggestions of a dystopia we could be in any local suburbia, one that is under attack from something that’s not fully explained.

In most science fiction doesn’t the jargon, the unrelenting complexity drive you nuts? To set it all up, for you to buy into that world, normally there’s way too much exposition, way too much of a premise, that requires the creation of a huge explanation before we can even start.  Oh but that’s not what we get here. The people in this world are simply inside this puzzle, and struggling to figure it out, and so of course they are not spouting big words and fancy language. Nope. They are properly overwhelmed and freaked out.

And that makes it much more believable than what one usually encounters, because it’s true from the inside out, viscerally authentic.

I’m still a bit shaken, as I write this a couple of hours later.

From the Water continues at Tarragon Extraspace until Dec 16th.


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Questions for Will King – Seven Siblings Theatre

Will King is a graduate from the BFA Acting program at the University of Windsor. With training that includes the Moscow Art Theatre School, & workshops at R.A.D.A. the Stratford Festival, and the S.I.T.I. Company from New York, he is also a certified teacher of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique (GLMCC).

will king photo

Seven Siblings Theatre Artistic Director Will King

One of the founding members of Seven Siblings Theatre, Will’s first play From the Water is set to open Dec 12th at Tarragon Extraspace. Busy though he’s been we managed some Q & A about himself, Seven Siblings and the new play.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

I’ll be careful here… My parents are both artists. So I guess I can blame some of my art addiction on them, although neither of them comes from the theatre world… so maybe that’s all on me. My mom is a piano and music theory teacher, and worked as a music and choir director for a long time. My Dad is an architect and bass player. Music was always a big part of my life growing up, and my family is a strong supporter of the arts. I still create music, and DJ sometimes, but I fell into theatre pretty quickly, and I’ve been obsessed with film since I could breathe. My parents are also both self-employed, so I think subconsciously I always thought it was possible to succeed in a field without a concrete career path.

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

I think that’s for others to decide!

I’m going to keep pursuing this type of storytelling until the day I die, so in my mind, I don’t think it matters what I’m best or worst at right now. I’ve got a high expectation for myself, and I always try to do my best work, so I’ll just stay focused on that. But I will say I have an impractical variety of interests, both professionally and personally. I’ve worn almost every hat in theatre (actor, director, producer, writer, acting coach, choreographer, stage manager, sound designer, photography, marketing, publicity, box office, projection design, etc. etc….). Acting is the priority right now. It’s what makes me happiest, and that’s the career path I’m working on.

Realistically, the worst thing I do is burn out. I frequently wish I had an extra day in the week. It’s the reality of juggling a lot at once, but one day, if I’m really lucky, I can spend all my time doing this stuff, and the day jobs can fade away.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I’m a sucker for Sci-fi, and I’ve really doubled down on that recently. I guess this play is really evidence of that! I’m a film nerd. I get excited about seeing films before the reviews come out and making my own opinions at film festivals. I love Guillermo Del Toro, Ridley Scott, Kubrick, Miyazaki, Barry Jenkins, the Coen Brothers… I thought Clair Denis’s new film High Life was the best thing I saw at TIFF this year. There’s some great stuff on TV too, I just don’t have enough time to watch it all. I made time for Westworld though!

I’m really into electronic music. Not exclusively, I think all genres of music have merit when executed properly, but I’m really drawn to electronica. I think it’s the music of our time. It allows for the most experimentation (besides maybe jazz), and provides the best opportunity for pure well-crafted composition. I think people have this idea that it’s rigid and repetitive, but I find the opposite to be true. You’re free to play in a full and specific range of frequency, rather than just 12 notes, and you can make an instrument out of anything. ANYTHING. Every year I see a new instrument that makes my jaw drop. Radiohead, Robotaki, Arcade Fire, Kaytranada, and The Gorillaz have gotten most of my ear space for the past month.

In terms of theatre, I want to see work that’s specific, passionate, transformative, engrossing, and grounded. Every story is worth telling if you do it in the right way for the right reasons!

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

Retention. I’m terrible at remembering facts and dates. Trivial pursuit is my nightmare. I always want to know more about the why than the when, and it just doesn’t stick.

The power of flight would be cool. I’m afraid of heights, but I probably wouldn’t be if I could fly.

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

I like staying in and watching a hockey game with my dog Banksy. I latched onto hockey as a healthy hobby when I was in theatre school. It’s something I admire and have zero actual stake in. I was raised a Leafs fan, and now I think it’s finally starting to pay off.

You’re a member of Seven Siblings Theatre (you can read their mission statement here). Please explain the origins & meaning of the company’s name.

It comes from the Michael Chekhov work. There’s an awareness of the Four Brothers (the actors’ feeling of ease, form, beauty, and the whole), and an exercise called the Three Sisters (where you discover inner rising, falling, and balancing). Together they form “Seven Siblings.” It’s like an abstract family picnic. It’s easy to remember, and I think the name has really helped ingrain our values into our identity.

Michael Chekhov boiled down a lot of ideology into clear, simple, psycho-physical exercises. He got the body and mind working together to make practical choices, and ultimately he created the most inclusive technique I’ve ever learned. It gives depth to my work, it challenges me to concentrate and actively engage my imagination in a practical way, and it’s FUN! It reminds me why I love acting.

I saw in a press release that you describe your work as “Fantastic Realism”. Please explain what that means.

Fantastic Realism can be supernatural, larger than life, existential, absurd, or explosive, but it must be grounded in the world we live in. It’s not strange for its own sake, it exists to reflect our realism back to us, in whatever style serves the piece or the artists that make it. These worlds allow ample imagination for both actors and audience members, and evokes imagery that surpasses everyday naturalism.

To quote Andrei Malaev-Babel in To the Actor, Michael Chekhov “always realistically justified his character, both emotionally and psychologically. His characters remained complex human beings, but perhaps the kind of human beings one mind see in a dream or imagine in their fantasies. That is why, in the eyes of the audience, these characters often manifested universal ideas, such as life and death, love and hate, beauty and ugliness.” By exploring with myth, nature, and fantasy the actor can engage in archetypal storytelling and elevate their work with fundamental clarity.

Please put From the Water into context for us, as a piece done by Seven Siblings Theatre.

The show both stylistically and thematically is a culmination of my interests. There’s a bunch of easter eggs for film nerds, and my pop culture references flow through more than I originally realized…

The play is a domestic drama in a supernatural crisis.  Downfalls (supernatural storms) are causing mass disappearances around the world, and it’s believed that hyper-evolved creatures are wiping out the human race during the blackouts. To combat this epidemic, humankind has started cloning capable people, and fighting back for dominance. That’s the world and the given circumstances. The play itself focuses on the lives of Alex (the mother), Peter (her son), Ava (the abandoned), and a few other characters… Alex wants to stay, Peter wants to fight, Ava wants closure, and the Numbers are preparing for extinction.

The piece is a textbook definition of Fantastic Realism (see above), and I think Madryn, Erik, and I are all deeply connected to the power Science Fiction can bring to theatre.

Seven Siblings has produced over a dozen shows within our mandate, but by building one from scratch I think we’ve really been able to capitalize on what make our medium valuable.


Seven Siblings Artistic Producer Madryn McCabe

Please elaborate on the team bringing From the Water to life.

Erik Helle – who I respect and trust more than most people in this world – is directing the show. He’s been involved since the staged reading of the play, and he has really helped me find simplicity and clarity in the storytelling. I’ve rewritten the ending of this piece several times, but it was only when he stepped on board to direct, that we found an ending that satisfied the characters I’d created.

Madryn McCabe, our unflinching producer (and co-owner of Seven Siblings), has made this possible, and having her support and confidence as I explore this uncharted territory as a playwright has been a great gift.


Will King (left) and Shawn Lall

Our actors (Anna Silvija Broks, Shawn Lall, and Hilary Wirachowsky) have been extremely helpful in defining the play. They’ve given open and informed feedback, while respecting the agency I have over the super objectives and story archs, and I have a tremendous level of gratitude for their contributions.


Stage Manager Giulia D’Amanzo with Director Erik Helle.

Our production team is also loaded with superstars. Our Stage Manager Giulia D’Amanzo has been an invaluable second pair of eyes and ears for the work, and Chin Palipane is making some sweet sweet theatre magic on the lights. My Dad (Stephen King) has helped us make an actors playground with our set, and Nate Bitton (my favourite Fight Director in the city) has put his work into the show as well.


Will King and Shawn Lall

I’ve never done this before. I’ve never written a play of this length, or performed in something that I wrote being directed by someone else. Having the level of support that I do from this team is insane to me. And I know this all sounds really melodramatic, but it’s true.

In the press release From the Water is described as a “grounded science fiction thriller”. Can you compare it to any other sci-fi we might recognize?

It’s more like Bladerunner or Black Mirror, less like Doctor Who or Flash Gordon… There’s dark comedy, but it’s not campy. The characters in this play are people that we could meet in real life. Regardless of the extreme circumstance of their being, I hope there’s a sincere vein of truth to them. They’re archetypal, and hopefully through framing that we see reflections of our self. Yes, there’s creatures and clones, but it’s a play about human beings, evolution, family, and the value we place on being “an individual.”

Please talk about the development of From the Water.

I started writing the play about two years ago. I was really attached to the idea of clones. It used to be a two-hander. More of a “war play.” The stories morphed and expanded since the first spark of an idea, but I think the inspiration is still in there.
We’ve done some exploration with Madryn and the Michael Chekhov work to discover character, and define the relationships within the space, but really it’s been a steady grind on clarity and text work. More than usual for us. I think we all want to be really specific. We’re deep in the trenches of the scenes, and we’re trying to give it everything we’ve got.

Do you have any influences / teachers you would want to mention?

lionel welsh

Lionel Walsh

I’d like to thank everyone that has taken the time to see us, and to bolster our company. Everyone who has contributed to my skillset as an actor, writer, and artist on the whole. And a BIG shout out to the Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium, and Lionel Walsh! Because without him, this company wouldn’t exist.


Will King’s new play From the Water opens at Tarragon Extraspace December 12th. For information & tickets click here.


Posted in Personal ruminations, Popular music & culture, Questions, Questions, Theatre & musicals | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

No Forbidden Questions as Aaron & Michael talk about Verbotenlieder

Aaron Durand + Michael Nyby = Tongue in Cheek Productions.

No that’s not a formula but come to think of it there is a curious creative chemistry, a tendency to energize. I find it exciting to talk to them, and frankly have been totally fascinated by their initial projects.


First came Winterreise, a song cycle they handed to 24 singers. My my but there was a lot of testosterone, to say nothing of the talent in Lula Lounge that night back in September.


The final ovation for Winterreise, when suddenly all those singers came out at the same time.

And now they’re handing the stage over to women for Verbotenlieder on December 19th. If you want to find out more about Michael Nyby or Aaron Durand, click the name to go to their respective pages.

But first? I need to ask them some questions.

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

AD: I think I’m a hearty blend of both, because Mom and Dad shared a lot of qualities. Both of them are the kind of people who “just get it done”. If work needs doing, do it now and don’t wait for perfect timing. This has tempered my tendency to be constantly living inside my head, and given me something to cultivate. Yay, adulting.

My dad has an innate sense of comedic timing, a love of zany things (we all watched Animaniacs together), and no sense of shame. Great things for a performer to grow up with! My mom always pushes us to work hard and aim high (arguably more important!). Most special to me is the idea of unconditionally supporting the people you love. I was–am–incredibly lucky to have a family that supports what I do without reservation or pause. They do so simply because that’s what you do. I try hardest of all to emulate that.

MN: I don’t think I’m more like either one of them. I suppose I try to emulate both of their best traits, with varying degrees of success. My path has been extremely different from either of theirs, but they have never questioned a single decision I have ever made in my adult life. But if pressed, I suppose I’d have to say my Dad. We share the same hairline and propensity to make silly faces at cameras.

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

AD: Best: the people in this industry are beautiful. Inside and out. They crack open their ribs daily in order to feed their own heart to this art, so they become these incredibly complex people with incredible stories and personalities.


MN: I completely agree with Aaron on this one. I’ve made a lot of good friends over the last decade or so as I’ve been working as a singer, and Tongue In Cheek Productions has given me the opportunity to interact with those friends in a new light. We’re quite early in our tenure, and aren’t really sure what Tongue In Cheek will eventually grow into, but so far we’ve made both our productions collaborative efforts between our performing artists the two of us wearing the production hats. We’ve incorporated the artistic input from a number of our artists, and I’d like to think that everyone involved in our productions can have some feeling of ownership in the company. That spirit of artistic community is definitely the best part for me.


Aaron Durand

AD: Worst: there’s, like, no money. All these amazing artists who could be doing all these amazing things and enriching the life of the whole country, and they’re having to work multiple jobs just for the chance of being considered for something. Ugh. I understand that times are tough everywhere, but if we as a culture don’t fund our artists effectively, it’s like removing herbs and spices from all your recipes. Imagine a world without rosemary, cayenne, or even salt. That’s a world without good art.


Michael Nyby

MN: There’s a lot of worst parts about being a singer, the psychological stress, the financial issues, the difficulty of maintaining a healthy family life. It’s hard to choose one. On the production end of things, I’m not sure I’m yet experienced enough to know what the worst part is. We’re both juggling a lot of balls at the moment, and I’m still at a point where everything is still fresh and interesting.

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

MN: Like most singers, I usually only listen to the music I am working on for my next performance. But when given a chance to indulge, I will generally opt for Bruce Springsteen.

AD: Oh oh another thing inherited from my Dad: eclecticism. Dad taught me to enjoy all sorts of music, and we grew up with everything from Steely Dan to Khachaturian. Currently, I’m really enjoying the Swedish folk rock band Garmarna as well as an incredible reimagining of Fauré songs by Olivier Mellano, Baum, and a plethora of lovely performers.

On the screen, I’m currently on my third rewatch of Bojack Horseman. For a show full of talking animals I’ve never seen something so accurately human. It serves as a perfect example to me of how an art form can push it’s own boundaries and become something so much more. It also reminds me that we need humour if we want any serious themes in our own artistic work to hit home.

MN: I am also a big fan of BoJack. I think anyone who works in an artistic field can relate to that show. It’s a bit of an oxymoron. It’s almost poetic in its absurdity yet feels more real than anything else being produced right now. Also, I can watch the original Star Wars trilogy on repeat for the rest of my life and probably never get bored of it.

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

AD: We talking realistic or superpower? I’ll answer both 🙂
Superpower: the power to write a perfect grant proposal every time. Or telekinesis.
Realistic: an intimate knowledge of woodworking, from carving to joinery. I got a set of carving knives for Christmas last year but haven’t found the time to really practice!

BB: Was it Isaac Asimov who said that for a primitive society technology is indistinguishable from magic. For me, looking at virtuosity or skills that I will never have? It could be magic. What Stewart Goodyear’s hands can do may as well be a superpower.

MN: I would cut off my left arm to be able to competently play the piano. Although that bargain would likely limit my prospects as a pianist.

BB: (shiver) So when you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

AD: If I were to pick just one, I deeply enjoy going out for ramen with a friend or two. Something about the warmth of the food and the buzz of the restaurant coupled with reconnecting with important people in your life. It’s just so…wholesome!

MN: I have a deep and abiding love for off-road cycling. Whether it’s downhill, cross-country, gravel, cyclocross, or bikepacking, as long as I have two wheels off-pavement I’m a happy man.


More questions for Aaron & Michael, the producers of Verbotenlieder, coming up at Lula Lounge December 19th.

BB: Verbotenlieder is the second production from Tongue in Cheek Productions. You began with your Winterreise, 24 songs sung by 24 baritones back on Sept 5th. What was your motivation on that occasion?

AD: Truth be told, our motivation was mostly focused around, “We have a lot of awesome friends and there’s not nearly enough performance opportunity for all of us” mixed in with, “This industry needs more crazy shit”. We were lamenting these issues over beers one night (at Betty’s I think), and then we asked ourselves, “why not”?

MN: In order to get our newly-founded company off the ground, we knew we had to debut with something that would raise some eyebrows and generate buzz about who we are and what we do. We wanted to involve as many performers as possible, and put on a show that would really get people talking.

Back in undergrad, I performed one third of Winterreise in a joint recital with two other baritones in my voice studio. So what if we got twenty-four baritones together for a Winterreise? How often do you ever get twenty-four low voices in the same room? Now that would be some crazy shit.

BB: So who and/or what is Tongue In Cheek Productions?

MN: We were out for a drink one night–I think Aaron is right, it was Betty’s– and we just started coming up with dumb ideas for themed concerts that we found funny in our inebriated state. I honestly don’t recall most of the ideas we came up with (we were drunk) but we had a few good laughs. Some time later after we had both sobered up I texted Aaron to say “Hey, how about we actually do some of those concerts?”

AD: We had the idea for Winterreise first, and decided that if it were successful, it’d be proof that Toronto needed more of that.

MN: Winterreise may have been the only idea we came up with on that fateful night of drinking that still sounded good the next day.

AD: Another thing important to us both is humour. As Twain said, it’s the test of a good religion whether or not you can joke about it. Since classical music is often portrayed (and presented) with religious levels of stodginess, we felt it right to poke a bit of fun. Because if you can’t sometimes have fun with what you’re doing, why are you doing it at all?

MN: Absolutely. That’s something that’s always bothered me about the classical music industry. None of us in the business take ourselves seriously. We sing for a living. It’s ridiculous. So why is it that the industry feels it must take itself so deadly serious? Where’s the fun in that?

As far as the company goes, Tongue In Cheek Productions has so far been a two-man operation, but we’ve relied on our artists to help a lot with publicity. The arrangement worked great with Winterreise, and the interest and engagement for Verbotenlieder has been even better. Our poster for this show was designed by Madison Angus, a fine singer who will be performing a new soprano version of “Hai già vinta la causa” for us on December 19.

BB: Verbotenlieder on Dec 19th is women singing things they usually are not supposed to sing. Is this a soprano’s idea for a follow-up to your Winterreise, or did one of you conceive of this?

AD: As I recall, the idea came from a desire to “swing the pendulum”. We did 24 men singing, and that was grand, but there are also many incredible female performers in our city! It made perfect, obvious sense to have an all-women show.

MN: We had to somehow recapture the magic that led to the formation of the company and Winterreise, so once again we sat down and assiduously downed a few beers. We came up with a lot of bad ideas until eventually my wife showed up, had a drink herself, and eloquently described an idea that would develop into Verbotenlieder.

BB: Please tell me what’s on the program.

AD: We’ve programmed around a main theme of songs women aren’t “supposed” to sing and songs that some of the artists have been literally told not to sing.

There’s quite a few pieces, and I don’t want to spill the entire bag of cats, but here’s a few tidbits!

Beste Kalender [mezzo soprano]

First up is the oh-so-classic Au fond du temple saint, performed by Jennifer Taverner and Beste Kalender.

What better way to open an all-women show than with one of the most bro duets of all time?

Soprano Allison Walmsley offered Strauss’ Als mir dein lied erklang, and we took her up on it because of the story behind it. There’s plenty of women who have performed this piece, but she was told in university not to sing it, because it “sounded better in a man’s voice”. Oy.

Mezzo Gena van Oosten will be performing Vaughan Williams’ Whither Must I Wander. Here we have someone taking a song about a lifestyle (the vagabond) quite traditionally male. This gives me a whole new perspective on the cycle itself, and is reminiscent (to me, at least) of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

NatalyaSoprano Natalya Gennadi’s performance of Kuda, kuda, is exciting to me because, in a sense, she now has the opportunity to showcase the skills that led her to coaching this aria as well as receive recognition for them in a different light, a different frame. I love that. To me, a woman singing a man’s aria is more than sideshow frolics, and even more than pop-culture feminism’s “anything you can do I can do better” message. I’d like our whole show to say, “We are here, and we are equal. We are as complex, as nuanced, as important, as compelling, and as skilled. We love this as much as you, we have seen and heard you. See and hear us. Come celebrate!”

Our finale is the Lehar’s Weibermarsch from The Merry Widow. It seemed…right…to take this septet, full of whinging about the mysteries and annoyances of women, and flip it upside down. I’ve rewritten the opening and the chorus, and we’ve asked the performers to write their own couplets expressing their own issues with this business. That’s TiC in a nutshell, a collaborative effort to change the game.

BB: Talk about the process for developing Verbotenlieder, and how you got to where you are now.

AD: Programming the rep for Verbotenlieder has been a fascinating journey. Rep choices have largely been offered by our artists, and this is exactly what we wanted. On the 19th and forever after, this is also their music.

MN: To be fair, there were a couple of chestnuts we had already decided to program, and we knew we needed to include a few ensembles in order to keep things interested. For instance, I really wanted the Pearl Fishers duet on the program, but I didn’t mention that to Jen Taverner when I asked her if she wanted to do a duet. Her response was “The Pearl Fishers duet is on my bucket list.” So that worked out fortuitously for us. For the most part though, we explained the concept to each of the singers and asked them for suggestions. We did encourage our singers to dig into the realms of art song and musical theatre, otherwise we’d be presenting a whole program of women singing Puccini tenor arias.

AD: As for getting a lineup of singers, the classical music industry in Canada is like one giant family, so there was little difficulty drawing upon our contact lists and messaging people whom we thought would be interested. We also had a number of artists contact us after Winterreise–some mere days after–expressing interest in future shows.

BB: Does Tongue in Cheek expect to be doing another program like this one?

MN: It’s hard to say. We are trying not to repeat ourselves, so each time we come up with an idea we have to think of it within the context of what we’ve already presented. We hope to involve a good number of singers in each concert, but thematically we are hoping to stay as varied as possible.

AD: There are a great many ideas in the pipeline, and some of them aren’t even shows! Some of them are absolutely ridiculous (e.g. a battle royale show where two or more pianists and two or more singers sing at once to create live, unscripted mashups). Mike and I have made a point to maintain a commitment to art song, so producing an entire opera is plausible but unlikely. Then again, if it fits our raison d’être, who knows? The world is our oyster, and TiC is the…shucker thingy.

Although…Confession: I’ve always wanted to produce Company by Sondheim, and perhaps rework/restage it to represent the Toronto arts scene. If anyone wants to fund that Kickstarter text me 😉

MN: Personally, I have no desire to produce full operas. There are plenty of independent opera companies bucking trends and presenting operas in innovative ways. I don’t think we’d be doing anyone any favours by crowding that field.

BB: Is opera dead or dying? Excuse me, I think that question is often subtext for anything new in this town, attempts to revive a corpse. (no you didn’t say that… I did)

But one of the subtexts that I can’t help noticing in both of your first two projects concerns the amount of work that’s available to singers, which is to say: not enough for all the talented voices & instrumentalists we’ve developed in this country. Forget my morbid preamble. Please talk about the talent that you’re drawing upon, and the work that’s available.

AD: I’m reminded of Will McAvoy’s speech at the beginning of Sorkin’s incredible show, The Newsroom.

Oh my. Opinions incoming. Let me say that everything following this sentence comes from a very deep love of opera.

Opera is not the greatest art form in the world, and whenever we place it on that pedestal we risk losing it. Whenever we treat it like a church or a museum, we rob it of power so that we can reanimate some bygone era. Whenever we run around proclaiming it to be something “above” musical theatre or pop music or Gilbert and Sullivan, we alienate people who might otherwise be really into what opera can say. Worst of all, when we can’t have fun with it, we lose morale and our original fascination with it, and that is reflected in performances that lack real passion.

I can’t pretend to know how to solve declining audiences, declining budgets, lack of available jobs for singers, and all the other concerns that I have about this industry. But I know it has to change, it can change, and I can change. If the ecosystem is evolving, so too must the organism, for there’s no tangible separation of the two.

Like, remember when you were a kid, and there was magic in the wisp of condensation in your breath during the winter? You were a dragon that rose with the first frost, and the way the vapour curled in the air was nothing short of miraculous. It is that simplicity of love, that direct pointing at the endlessly fun, joyful nature of existence that we must uncover and run with. It’s so incredibly hard to find in grand opera, underneath the endless layers of overpriced champagne, donor solicitations, ostentatious corporate sponsorship, and all the other shiny things we think are necessary. Yes, we will always have tuxedo fancy pants opera, and a lot of it will be absolutely delightful, and for contrast’s sake we’ll need it. But I think that, akin to finding God in a manger, we’ll find opera’s true salvation in bars, parks, and greasy-spoon diners.

MN: There sure is a lot of navel-gazing on that question in our business, and I don’t think I can really add anything to Aaron’s eloquent diatribe. I will say that I firmly believe opera is alive and well. It’s just evolving. Major houses with traditional venues are struggling, but dozens of new companies have sprung up all over the country and are doing very well, just on a smaller scale. Maybe today’s audiences don’t need the pomp and circumstance of opera on a grand scale. Maybe a low-budget Aida in the park is just the ticket. A few years ago, I saw Opera 5’s open-bar production of Die Fledermaus, sponsored by Steam Whistle. Personally I can’t stand Fledermaus but that show was a hit and I thought the production was brilliant. That’s the kind of ingenuity we have to strive for in tomorrow’s opera world. I hope Tongue In Cheek Productions can bring that joie-de-vivre to the concert stage.

BB: So what is your favourite opera?

AD: There’s a constant battle between the operas in my brain for title of favourite. The one that wins most often is Nozze. I feel in that music the very magic referenced in the last question. Pure humanity made music.

MN : Falstaff, of course. Need you ask?

BB: A pair of comedies! How refreshing (said the guy who loves Pelléas et Parsifal).
So, would there be a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?


Peter Barcza

AD: There have been so many over the years, and this might sound extra cheesy to you, but Peter Barcza’s influence echoes in my head again and again, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. Of all the things he taught me, the most helpful has been caution and wisdom in picking rep, and to not be ashamed of backing away from something if you know it to be unsafe vocally.

BB: Aw cheesy is good. Unless you’re vegan. But no wonder we seem to be on the same wavelength. He was certainly the best voice teacher I ever worked with, a curious mix of mentor & older brother.

AD: For general life stuff, I’ve been heavily influenced as of late by the work of Alan Watts. His book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, did more for my mental health in this business than any masterclass.

MN: I am also a product of Peter Barcza and he was an invaluable influence on me, as well. My stylistic values as a singer and aesthetic musical preferences are a direct result of his studio. He’s a great teacher and I do make an effort to get a lesson or two with him anytime I’m back in Vancouver. I also have to give a lot of credit to my teacher from Ithaca College, Randie Blooding. I could have never become a working artist if it weren’t for him, and I love him like family.

BB: Thank you!

And so Verbotenlieder happens December 19th, 8 pm at the Lula Lounge.  For tickets click here. Verbotenlieder

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Who do you love?

When the phrase popped into my head (spoken), I was thinking of Tchaikovsky. But immediately I heard Ronnie Hawkins’ song in my head.

When I heard this near the start of The Last Waltz, and come to think of it, closer to the beginning of my life, I didn’t properly respect Hawkins, nor did I understand his wisdom. For instance, the way he says “big time” at the beginning of the song? His eyes are open.

But I digress.

The phrase came up thinking of Tchaikovsky and Eugene Onegin.  The main character is hard to like. In the Byronic original by Pushkin, he’s warmer than what Tchaikovky gives us.

I was thinking: the composer wrote the opera but dislikes or even hates the hero. Maybe that’s simplistic thinking? but I wondered.

He writes amazing music for the two people left in his wake

  • Tatiana (although she does get the grim satisfaction of seeing him pursue her later.  She is enough of a mensch that while she’s still in love with Onegin, she’s devoted to her husband)
  • Lenski (the poet Onegin kills in the duel)

I can’t help seeing Lenski as a kind of stand-in for Tchaikovsky himself, considering the music he wrote for the poet’s last scene, reflecting on the meaning of life, and fully expecting to die in the duel.

I was thinking about it again because of an upcoming adventure from Tongue in Cheek Productions at the Lula Lounge, where they’re offering something called Verbotenlieder“.  

Forbidden songs?  I think it’s because we’ll hear women singing the music men usually sing.

One of them will be a woman singing Lenski’s sad meditation on life.


I saw this picture plus text on Facebook earlier today.

Meet the Women of Verbotenlieder:

“For years now I’ve been a coach
And helped the tenors shine. 
But there’s a piece that speaks my name,
I want it to be mine.
Onegin: I have done it all,
I’ve subbed for baritone;
I sang the mezzos’ parts so low,
It sounded like trombone.
But Lensky… seems not meant to be,
It just keeps falling through!
In Soviet Russia, as they say,
Tchaikovskiy will sing you.”

Catch Natalya perform “Kuda, kuda” from Eugene Onegin on Wednesday, Dec 19 at Lula Lounge!

Yes she is a coach: of Russian.  If I wanted to sing “Kuda kuda”, I’d have a much bigger problem with the text than the music, and wouldn’t know anyone better to approach for help than Natalya: whom you may recall from OksanaG Tapestry’s opera about human trafficking not so long ago, for which she was nominated for a Dora. 

I totally get that frustration, wishing I could sing something I’m not supposed to sing.

I’m going.


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Opera 5 –Open Chambers

Walter Pater famously said “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music”.  But did anyone bother to ask “what then does music aspire to”?  Does music seek to be something more, or should it perhaps be content to be itself, the sine qua non, the most ideal of the arts, at least according to Pater.

Such questions were rattling around in my empty skull as I watched and listened to Opera 5’s “Open Chambers: Hindemith & Shostakovich”. Tonight was the second of three presentations that are more than just concerts, as the music was given additional opportunities to signify with the creative use of the principals:

  • Vadim Serebryany—piano
  • Melissa Scott—oboe
  • Wolfram Koessel—cello
  • Yosuke Kawasaki – violin
  • Jacqueline Woodley – soprano 1
  • Rachel Krehm—soprano 2

Sometimes the musicians were resembling actors, taking positions, posing and moving about on an interesting looking stage.

From a musical standpoint the evening was overpowering, wonderfully successful, especially with those two big soprano voices that easily filled the space at Factory Theatre’s studio space. The Shostakovich Romances were especially effective, although I wonder if dramatizing added anything. The musicianship, the commitment, the passion in these songs was tremendous.

In the earlier Hindemith pieces, overflowing with wit & ironic gestures, the results were if anything, more ambiguous, more playful, raising more questions.


(Left to Right): Wolfram Koessel, Cello, Jacqueline Woodley, Soprano 1 (photo: Dahlia Katz)

What if the cellist brings his bow up to lovingly address a woman between his knees as though she were a cello? Or is the idea too fraught, sexist, problematic, and must be ended immediately?  Jacqueline Woodley pushed Wolfram Koessel aside after his momentary approach to her with his bow, intriguing as the moment was.

What if the suggestion of chase music in a duet between two instruments inspires the sopranos to begin chasing one another around the stage? For a good ten seconds they went with it: then stopped.  I wonder, couldn’t the idea have been sustained longer?

There were a few such moments, playing with the strict & polite conventions of the concert. Yet I wondered whether Stage Director & Designer Patrick Hansen at times was fighting against the conventions and habits of his musicians? or did he simply lose his nerve, afraid of upstaging the musicians. He gave his silent onstage personnel so many moments of stillness rather than action. While there were several moments when images were overlaid on the music, I don’t believe anything was gained by the exercise. The music was fabulous, wonderfully well played. The dramatic shenanigans were at times stealing focus without adding much of anything: sitting on the fence between respectful and deconstructive. I would have welcomed it if they had gone much further, and tried something genuinely subversive, as this barely scraped the surface.  Why do it at all if in the end, you’re just going to surrender to the polite rules of the concert, and have your onstage personnel sit there as though they were Toronto concert-goers?

And I repeat, the playing and singing were fabulous. Rachel Krehm’s voice does me in, it’s so beautiful especially when she’s singing in a tight space like this one. She was joined by Jacqueline Woodley, who was sometimes singing forte, sometimes much more softly, but we were immersed in wonderful musicianship.

But the stage action struck me as pretentious, weighing the music down with additional incomprehensible layers.

We’re told that this is the first of a series. I applaud the effort, always delighted with ambitious efforts. I look forward to what may come in future Open Chambers creations.

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No stranger

Two photographs by Bruce Zinger from the “Opera Atelier Takes Canada to the World” campaign show Artists of Atelier Ballet and OA dancer Tyler Gledhill as their “Canadian Icon in Red”.

Between the glimpses of Chicago or Versailles which is the more incongruous?

Opera Atelier Chicago Tour 2018 (Photo by Bruce Zinger)

Female Artists of Atelier Ballet and OA dancer Tyler Gledhill (photo: Bruce Zinger)

Exhibit A (above) is from Opera Atelier’s recent visit to Chicago.

Exhibit B (below) is from Opera Atelier’s current visit to Versailles, where they are about to open.

The Atelier Ballet seem quite at home in either setting. It’s more that fellow in red that I’m wondering about.

resized Versailles Tour 2018 (Photo by Bruce Zinger)

The female Artists of Atelier Ballet and OA dancer Tyler Gledhill in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles (photo: Bruce Zinger)

As you’re no doubt surmised, Tyler Gledhill doesn’t dance in this outfit when he’s onstage as part of an Opera Atelier production. More typically he looks like this (exhibit C below). Of course the Mountie outfit is meant as symbolism (proud Canadians etc), to which he is no stranger. Symbolism? look no further than exhibit C.


Tyler Gledhill (dancing) with Edwin Huizinga (violin) in Inception (photo: Bruce Zinger)

I can’t decide. Which is more incongruous: the Mountie in Chicago or Versailles?  I wonder too whether one can move easily in those boots.  I don’t picture Tyler dancing in that outfit: although never say never.

But by now seeing the winged figure onstage seems like the most perfectly natural thing in the world.

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Questions for Thomas Gough: Ebenezer Scrooge

If you go to the theatre in Toronto it’s quite possible you’ve seen Thomas Gough. He has an avuncular presence, perhaps a result of years as a teacher, and so he’s perfect for roles such as Brabantio in Othello or Montague or Polonius. The voice is confident, the diction crystal-clear, and so it’s no wonder he does voice-over work. While he doesn’t look young I can’t quite tell how old he really is, because there’s a strength to his body language. So Gough is especially well-suited to playing a plum role such as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Three Ships Collective’s (with the support of Soup Can Theatre) upcoming immersive presentation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at Campbell House.


Actor Thomas Gough

I had to ask him some questions.

1 – Are you more like your father or your mother?

That’s not easy to say. I definitely have my father’s sense of humour, but I have large parts of my mother’s too. I am physically like the men of my mother’s family, except that I had my father’s reddish hair and lost it early, as he did. I have my father’s tendency to avoid things I don’t want to do, and my mother’s tendency to insist on getting them right when I finally start. My obsession with the English Language comes from both sides. My father was an excellent public speaker, and my mother did not like to be the centre of attention, and those things influenced me; there’s nothing I like better than making a speech to an audience of strangers, but I hate being the centre of attention when I’m off stage. (This latter characteristic is one I share with a lot of performers, which may surprise people outside the field.)

My father’s only sibling was a teacher, and my mother’s family is full of teachers and professors. I was a teacher for twenty-two years, and I found working with teenagers incredibly rewarding; that’s at least partly because I grew up in a family with a genius for loving its young. I can be happy alone for long stretches; in fact solitude is necessary to me, and that comes from both sides. I have four siblings, and my parents made sure that we all learnt to be content spending time alone, and they very deliberately hooked us all on the printed word; they both read to us when we were tiny, and they taught us all to read long before we ever went near a school. My mother refused to have a television in her house until her youngest child was an addicted reader, and to this day none of us ever stops talking except to read. I couldn’t begin to explain how important that addiction to the printed word has been in my life, or how profoundly grateful I am for it.

2 – What is the best thing or worst thing about being an actor?

The best thing about being THIS actor is being in performance. Memorizing lines can be an awful task; and rehearsing, if you do it right, is bloody hard work; but being on stage in front of an audience is pure terrifying joy. I grumble and curse and make a fool of myself in rehearsal and go home hot with shame about how obtuse and un-coöperative I must seem to the people who are trying to help me and I wish I could have some nice cozy job like defusing un-exploded bombs (which is at least not likely to trouble you very long); but then the moment comes when I actually get to tell the story to a living audience and everything is worth while and I wouldn’t give back a split second of the frustration or the repetitive pub meals (Do you have any idea how many actors die of scurvy? It’s a scandal, or it ought to be.) or the endless wandering around in circles trying to figure out which end is up or the never getting home for dinner or the friends who stop talking to you because you always seem to be in another world – if those things are the price of that wonderful evening when I get to tell the story.

The worst thing about being THIS actor is those bloody god-damned warm-up games many directors insist on. I hate them with a white-hot screaming passion.

3 – Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I couldn’t live a happy day without music. There are certain things that never fail to move me: Horowitz playing Scarlatti, Rubinstein playing Chopin, Heifetz playing Bach, Dinu Lipatti’s breath-taking “Alborada Del Gracioso”, Benny Goodman’s solo on “One O’Clock Jump” at the famous Carnegie Hall concert.

One of the things I love most about the Arts And Letters Club, which I’ve belonged to for nearly twenty years, is the fabulous lunch-time music programme, which has exposed me to so much music I’d never otherwise have heard. The club’s been essential in the development of my love for vocal music (speaking of the costs of being an actor: a few days ago I discovered that my next-day performance was a matinée, and not the evening show I’d thought it was, which meant I had to miss a lunch-time recital I’d been looking forward to for months, by a newly-launched young tenor named Jacob Abrahamse – if you love classical singers watch for him) and some music I’d never have expected to like. I remember a fantastic young pianist named Annie Zhou (watch for her too) who came a couple of years ago when she was fifteen and performed a wickedly difficult piece of Scriabin, and I just sat there thinking “Never mind the finger-work, how does a fifteen-year-old have the emotional maturity to do that?”

(Quick Canadian Fact: according to fellow-member Iain Scott, who knows these things, Canada produces more top-class operatic tenors than any other country. Somehow this surprises me.)

Actors? Among the famous, I think my favourite at the moment is Dame Judi Dench; I saw Rupert Everett in his show about Oscar Wilde a couple of years ago and he was wonderful. And I find it heartening that in Daniel Radcliffe a child star has for once made the transition to an adult career and has real talent and doesn’t seem to have been emotionally destroyed in the process.

But never mind the famous: there’s huge talent in the independent theatre in Toronto right now. Toronto is one of the very great theatre towns in the world and, with the greatest respect to the well-known established companies, it’s not entirely because of them. There’s fantastic stuff happening in holes in walls all over Toronto, performed by indie companies no one’s ever heard of because they can’t afford to advertise. It’s nice to be part of a close-knit community, but I get a bit sad whenever I go to an indie production and most of the people in the audience are actors, because they’re the only ones who know what amazing stuff their colleagues are doing. I really wish more people, instead of spending $120.00 to see The Sound Of Music again, would use the money to see five or six indie shows and have their brains scrubbed.

Indie theatre is ridiculously cheap and there are gems all over the city. Go and see Soup Can shows, or Safeword, or Single Thread, or Thought For Food, or Storefront, or Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre – there are dozens I don’t even know; spend a few days seeing an indescribable variety of stories at the Toronto Fringe Festival every July. Of course you’ll see the occasional stinker, but you’ll do that in Shaftesbury Avenue or on Broadway, and for $10 or $12 per ticket what are you losing?

So, without wanting to be invidious, here are a few people I love to watch working, or to work with: Leah Holder, Kyle McDonald (worth it for that magnificent voice alone), Jakob Ehman (who’s going to Stratford next season), Kwaku Okyere, Conor Ling, Chloë Payne, the insanely talented Brandon Crone, Marie Gleason, Rob Candy, Jesse Nerenberg, Tyler Séguin, Helen Juvonen, Scott Garland, Alex Dault, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, John Fray, Kat Letwin, Benjamin Blais, Robert Notman, Tom Beattie, Joshua Browne – never mind, there are far too many and I could go on all night. If you’re seriously interested in Canadian theatre you need to know about these people and what they’re doing.

4 – What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I’m helplessly addicted to music, but I have absolutely no musical talent, which annoys me. I also think it would have been fun to be a top-class song-and-dance man. But I try not to worry too much about the talents I don’t have, because that’s a great way to started neglecting the talents you do have.

And on this question of talent, kids: it’s not immodest to admit that you have it. If you never get to the point of looking your own talent in the face and saying “Yes, that’s mine, and it’s worth working and suffering for”, then how do you make any conscious and deliberate attempt to nurture it? Yes, of course, some people perceive in themselves talent which they don’t actually have, but I think a far larger problem is the numbers of people who unconsciously cripple themselves because they think that “Actually I’m pretty good at this” is something they must never say even to themselves. One of the reasons John Fray (if he will forgive me for singling him out) is so bloody good on stage is that he knows perfectly well that he has a lot of talent.

But instead of going around saying to random strangers “I am a very good actor; you may kiss my ring”, he says to himself “All right then, if I work like hell, this talent will allow me to turn in a clean tight performance that will actually mean something to those who see it.” I’m pretty sure that’s what all the good ones do. I know dozens of good actors, and I don’t know any who seem to be stuck on themselves. Their ego power goes into their work.


A pensive Thomas Gough portrayal. Did he see a ghost?

5 – When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I’m often working on more than one show. As I write this, I have a show closing tomorrow evening and a rehearsal for a second one on Sunday morning. And I’ve been cast in another big scary project which will start work as soon as the producers have raised the money they need to do it right. And of course my ball-of-fire agent Michael Rubinstein and I are always looking for auditions.

When I close a show and haven’t another to work on, I get depressed for a couple of days because I’m never going to see all those wonderful people in the same room again, and then I think “Yay, I can spend entire days reading!” And after a few days I’m starting to get restless because I want to be back at work.

Otherwise I read whatever looks interesting: I read a lot of history and biography, a lot of classic novels – I love Dickens, Eliot, Austen, Orwell, Forster, and I’ve read a few Russian novels in the past few years. Tyrone Savage lent me The Master And Margarita when we were working on a Canopy Theatre show together, and I loved it.

And War And Peace is not nearly as daunting as you might expect. I’ve never read a better or funnier book than Tom Jones. I have little or no use for Puritanism, but The Pilgrim’s Progress is a magical book. I love Patrick O’Brian’s twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels. I love the great humourists, both English and American: P.G. Wodehouse, Noël Coward, Saki, S.J. Perelman, Mark Twain. I wish I could read the great Jewish humourists who wrote in Yiddish. The only serious American novelist I know at all well is Sinclair Lewis, who is of course a satirist above everything else. For some reason I rarely seem to read anything by anyone who’s still alive, except history. I’m very sad to know that there will be no more books from John Julius Norwich, who died a few months ago. It’s actually scary and depressing how much I haven’t read.

But I console myself with the reflection that, as with music, knowing you’ll never have time to learn it all is preferable to being afraid that you’ll run out.

I listen to a great deal of music, especially piano music. I was exposed to the classics early and my father introduced me to jazz when I was at a very absorbent age. For some reason I’ve never been able to develop the smallest interest in the popular music of my own or any subsequent generation, which has always been a bit of a social handicap. I suppose my synaptic pathways were all constructed before I heard any popular music or something (says the award-winning neuro-scientist; I actually have no clue why it should be so.)

I love to eat lunch or dinner for hours at a time with one or two friends, but I can’t handle big groups. I love good restaurants and I am very nice to servers, partly because I have some understanding of how very difficult it is to do their work well; I love watching people do pretty much anything well. I hate loud noises and I can no longer pick one voice out of a noisy background. I find crowds exhausting and frightening. I love being alone, especially in a room full of books or in deep woods where there’s no one else but white-tailed deer.

More Questions concerning preparation to be Scrooge in the upcoming The Three Ships Collective’s (with the support of Soup Can Theatre) production of A Christmas Carol.

1 – What was your first experience of A Christmas Carol and how did it make you feel?

I was well into adulthood before I read A Christmas Carol. I had already read much of the rest of Dickens, and I think my first reaction to A Christmas Carol was that it wasn’t a patch on any of the great novels; obviously it wasn’t intended to be, but my first reaction was disappointment. (In passing, if anyone tells you that Bleak House is a boring book, spit in his eye; it’s a wonderful book.)

2 – One can imagine Ebenezer Scrooge done in a very theatrical style, larger than life and artificial, or much more realistic, and even intimate in his sentiments. Do you have thoughts on how you want to approach him?

Sarah Thorpe, our director, and I were talking about this a few days ago. It’s easy to see Scrooge as a one-dimensional character who suddenly becomes a completely different one-dimensional character. But that’s melodrama.


Justin Haigh, writer and producer

In Justin Haigh’s script there are several opportunities to show that though humanity and compassion are dormant in Scrooge, they’ve never been absent altogether.

Scrooge doesn’t become a different person; he wakes, slowly and painfully, from a long hard sleep. The Ghosts don’t put a spell on Scrooge; they help him find his way out of a swamp of loneliness and defensive ill temper he’s been so mired in that he’s forgotten there’s any other place to live. I hope we’ll be able to make audiences see him that way.

3 – How might an immersive version of Dickens change your interpretation?

I’m not sure how much it changes interpretation, but it definitely changes presentation.

House with Snow Edited

Campbell House

I’ve worked in Campbell House before, and in Spadina House, and there’s an extraordinary feeling that one is hardly acting at all. It’s like being in your own house, talking at a normal volume, and there just happen to be a few guests there listening to the conversation. I find myself freed from any temptation to declaim, and I can achieve degrees of vocal subtlety that just aren’t possible when I have to project to the back of a 500-seat auditorium. In Campbell House the largest audience will be 28 people, and they’ll be close enough to touch the actors, though it’s generally appreciated if they don’t. I think that if we do it right, the illusion will seem less illusory than it would on a proscenium stage, which is, after all, a definitely artificial setting. In somebody’s drawing-room the audience is literally inside the fourth wall, hearing sounds and seeing gestures that seem to be presented exactly as they would in daily interaction with friends and colleagues.

I played Leonato in two productions of Much Ado About Nothing at Spadina House with Single Thread Theatre, and I remember going into the place for the first time and thinking “My God! What an ugly house!” mainly because it really is over-full of dreadful knick-knacks and much of the furniture was made in a period when everything was over-wrought. But by the time we got to performance I felt, every day as I entered the building, that I was coming home from the office and settling in for a cozy evening in my own house. I hope the audience felt the same way.

4 – In undertaking a part like Ebenezer Scrooge you’re stepping into a role like Hamlet or Romeo: where you and the audience will have seen many other versions. Do you have a favorite?


Director & Producer Sarah Thorpe

I’ve actually never seen any acted version of this story. I read the book about thirty years ago and I’ve heard people yack about it and I’ve seen the Scrooge character (and Tiny Tim, of course) exploited in advertising and so on. But really all I have to work with in this production is Justin Haigh’s script and Sarah Thorpe’s direction.

And that’s the way I like it. I did a production a few years ago with a director who was terrific in many ways, but he kept showing us clips of famous actors doing scenes from the play we were preparing. And I thought “Pops, you’ve never been an actor, have you? (He hadn’t.) You need to stop doing this. The LAST thing I want when I’m preparing a role is to have other actors’ interpretations getting in the way.” If I’m preparing Hamlet (unlikely at this point, and a role I have never had the smallest wish to play anyway), I don’t want to keep thinking about how Olivier did it, or that I’ll never match Gielgud’s performance, or wondering why some other actor made such a mess of some particular speech. And this is neither arrogance nor self-satisfaction.

Sorting out how to present a believable character on stage is quite complicated enough without have some unrealizable ideal (or some total hatchet-job, of course) haunting you the whole time.

That is the only thing that makes me glad to be so nearly illiterate. Of course I’ve seen, or read analyses of, a few famous performances (Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Olivier’s Richard III, Mary Pickford’s King Lear, and so on), but not many. And I do my best to keep them out of my mind when I’m working. I want every text to be Urtext. I don’t mind seeing other performers’ interpretations after I’ve done something, so I can spend a pleasant afternoon thinking to myself “Granddad, why did you even bother pretending to play Cleopatra after Charles Bronson’s epoch-making production?” and then spend the next few weeks with my head in a paper bag so people won’t throw things at me in the public by-ways. But that’s after, not before.

You ask whose Scrooge moved me. Maybe mine; I don’t know yet. You ask whose Scrooge is to be avoided. Maybe mine; I don’t know yet.

5 – How do you relate to the arc of Ebenezer’s story, especially having to travel this pathway night after night?

Playing the same story night after night isn’t a problem; actors expect to do that. And no two performances are really the same, because every audience is different, and has its own effect on what happens. I think a lot of people who go to the theatre are unaware that the audience is an essential part of the performance; you can rehearse a show until you can’t possibly get it any better, and then the first time you get in front of an audience, everything changes.

You ask if the character of Scrooge at the beginning is a stretch. It is to some extent; it doesn’t come naturally to me to be deliberately unpleasant to someone who has done me no injury. On the other hand, I tend to be somewhat terse with fools and interlopers, so all I need to do is behave as if Cratchit is a fool (which Scrooge vaguely supposes him to be), and the collectors for charity are unwarrantably invading Scrooge’s space and wasting his time.

And Scrooge at the end of the play? He’s obviously a much more attractive person, much more the person one would choose to be. What will make him real and playable for me is the affection he conceives for Tim. There’s nothing more heart-melting than an unselfconsciously charming child, and it won’t be difficult to make Scrooge surrender to Tim. That affection is a redemption in itself.


How do I prepare? I’m afraid my approach is very dull: I sit in the quietest place I can find and think about what I’m doing. Physical warm-ups are a distracting waste of time and energy, and I have what my friend Jeremy Hutton calls an iron voice: it never gets tired and I never have trouble with it, so vocal warm-ups are superfluous. (I used to get bronchitis from time to time, sometimes quite badly. Once I actually had laryngitis, and it had no effect at all on my voice; I understand that this is a bit unusual.)

6 – Have you ever played a part like this?

No, not really. I don’t think I’ve ever played any character who did such a complete about-face. I really do like to have a new challenge with each role, and I think making that complete reversal of character believable is going to be the challenge here. There are a few sharp contrasts when I consider the show I’m just closing. In The Story Of Ethel And Julius Rosenberg (Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre, Ari Weisberg) I played four characters, and because there was no time for elaborate costume-changes, I had to use four different voices (Neutral American or Middle Canadian newscaster, Louisiana, Manhattan, and vaguely German-Middle European) and variations of posture and movement to distinguish them. At one point I had to be three characters within about five minutes. In A Christmas Carol I’m one of few actors not playing more than one role, so all my changes of character must be internal, and I’m also going be muttering to myself “Ah, this is a scene with Mrs. Dilber…no, hang on, Alex is Mrs. Fezziwig this time. Damn, which scene is this anyway?” quite a lot until I’ve got much farther on with learning the text. And I have to learn the so-called “r.p.” accent, the standard more-or-less-upper-class English voice which for some reason, though my family background is about as fairly-well-educated- Anglo-Saxon as you can get, I have never been able to do properly.

So yes, there’s definitely some new stuff to do.

7 – What do you love about this story?

Well, call me simple-minded, but I love its happy ending. Scrooge is redeemed, Tim lives, and Bob Cratchit gets a huge promotion. I think we make a serious error in cramming the high-school curriculum with tragedy and despair. There are human stories – true stories – that end happily, and I think we ought to be teaching kids that they can have happy endings too. I think it was the grade ten English course we used to refer to as “the suicide course”; mercifully I never had to teach it. And while I flogged my older kids through King Lear and 1984 – books not only great and terrible but entirely human and believable – I also made them read Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, because not only is it a brilliantly constructed play, it’s a true story about a family that fights City Hall and wins. I don’t believe that terror and squalour and deceit and betrayal are all we have to look forward to, and I don’t think we should be teaching that they are.

I also love Dickens’s truculent liberalism. He draws the vulgarly opulent bank-towers looming over the streets teeming with half-starved labourers and crippled children, and he leaves no doubt at all about who he’s rooting for. He also shows us again and again something that remains shamefully true: that poor people are much more likely to be helped by poor people than by rich people. I’d like to think the occasional corporate bigwig who “can’t afford” to pay his employées a living wage might read this story – or much of the rest of Dickens – and be bloody well ashamed of himself.

And, as always, the extraordinary names, so utterly identifying characters in Dickens and nowhere else unless intended to evoke Dickens: Scrooge, Fezziwig, Crachit, Cheeryble, Pirrip, Twist, Rudge, Merdle, Gamp, Wittiterly, Squeers, Steerforth, Magwitch….

8 – Does the ubiquity of this story –constantly broadcast at Christmastime—make it harder or easier for you and the company?

I can’t speak reliably for the company. I don’t think it does either, though, for me. The people who come to see our show will presumably be those who are not sick of the story, to whom its familiarity is not a problem. By and large people come to see a play because they want to, and then of course we have them on our side before we start. And pretty much everyone wants to feel good about this story. They’ll want to enjoy what we’re doing and, on the assumption that we’re not simply atrocious, they’ll be happy to watch and listen.

And if we get a few people who are not sure they wouldn’t rather have stayed home to play cribbage, well, our job is to make them glad they came to see us instead. But that’s always our job. No matter how sure we are that the audience wants to be there, we still have to perform as if they needed to be persuaded. Half-hearted performance turns devotées into skeptics, and tells the skeptics that they were right all along. The other face of that is that we want them to like what we’re doing, so putting in our best work every time is very much in our own interest.

9 – Who other than Scrooge is your favourite character?

In this version of the story I can already tell I’m going to love Mrs. Dilber and the Ghost of Christmas Present, because the two actors (respectively Alex Dallas and Christopher Lucas) are already turning them into wonderful performance-pieces. And I suppose I love Tim, because I think Dickens, in the original, makes him a plucky kid we want to pull for but who is not repellently noble about his illness. Dickens’s sentimentality can be a bit trying, but I think he manages to avoid it with Tim, and we get a true picture of a kid playing a tough hand without moaning on about how unfair it all is. I suppose I find Tim’s sweetness convincing because in my mercifully limited experience of seriouslly ill children that’s how they really tend to be.

10 – If you could play any Dickens character, who would you want to portray?

That’s like asking “What’s you favourite book?”! How could you possibly choose? Dickens draws characters better than anyone, and every imaginable human being appears somewhere in Dickens. So I’d love to play Mr. Micawber, or Sairey Gamp, or Wackford Squeers, or the Cheeryble Brothers, or Fagin, or the deliciously appalling Harold Skimpole. There are dozens an actor could feast on.

11 – Is there a teacher, actor, director or an influence that you especially admire?

Dozens, but three to whom I am especially grateful, and without whom I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing:

a) My favourite Shakespeare director, Jeremy Hutton. It was through acting in several shows directed by Jeremy at the Hart House Theatre that I began to believe I might have talent, which I had never understood before,


Martin Hunter

b) My late friend Martin Hunter, who talked me into believing that I was good enough to be taken seriously as a professional, and

c) My very dear friend, the producer, director, and miraculous photographer John Gundy, who made me understand that since I had talent, I really needed to use it.

And, if you will allow me, I’m going to answer a question you haven’t asked:

12. Do you think people will really enjoy the Thomas Gough production of A Christmas Carol ?

No, because there is no such thing. This is a collaborative effort. Theatre is always a collaborative effort (not collective, which is quite different. Collectivity is possible, if you like that sort of thing, but collaboration is essential.) We have fifteen actors and a production team, so far, of seven. I’ve worked with some of them before and I know what spectacular talent we have on board; and I’m seeing more of it every day in cast-mates and crew members I’ve never worked with before but am very glad to be working with now. The smallest roles, the briefest scenes, are all going to be as important to the total impact as Scrooge.

And I strongly suspect that people outside the theatre tend not to be aware of how much support actors need to do what we do. You never see the designers when you go to a play, but you are inescapably affected by their work. Adapting another writer’s work and shifting it to a different medium; finding appropriate costumes, after you’ve done days or weeks of research so you know what to look for; listening to a library of music to choose exactly the right things, which you then have to transpose and arrange; teaching the cast to speak in an accent that is unnatural to them; imagining how you can achieve romantic or menacing lighting effects with very little flexibility in your equipment; thinking through every possible nuance of a complex story so you can direct a group of people who all learn in different ways, answering unexpected questions on the fly and conducting agonizingly detailed conversations about aspects of the play that some demented actor just started worrying about five minutes ago; welcoming all these strange people into your space, which is not usually used this way, and making accommodation for their endless special requirements: these things are all complex, difficult, and absolutely essential, and the people you see on stage didn’t do any of them. Is somebody going to be barefoot on stage? Then we need an absolutely reliable stage-hand to sweep the playing surface so actors don’t wind up with random bits of metal in their feet. Who’s going to do the actors’ laundry? We can’t let them take it home because they won’t all remember to bring it back. You need a thoroughly competent and conscientious producer to make sure all these things happen. And finally you need a stage manager, who must be a diplomat, a conciliator, a disciplinarian, an articulate communicator, an instantaneous problem-solver (I complained about being cold at rehearsal yesterday and bang! Kathleen Hemsworth draped a blanket over my shoulders; I have no idea where she got it – produced it from thin air for all I know), a den-mother, and a miraculously talented organizer.

Nothing good ever happens on stage without a good stage manager. Yes, all those people are working with the ultimate goal of getting actors in front of an audience looking and sounding as good as possible, but actors are the tip of the iceberg. Without all these others, actors would be absolutely helpless; there would be no theatre. So I hope the people who enjoy our production of A Christmas Carol will spare an appreciative thought or two for the technical wizards who have made it happen.


The Three Ships Collective’s (with the support of Soup Can Theatre) present their immersive production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at Campbell House Museum December 12-22. For further information see

Christmas Carol - Subway Poster - For Web

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