08 March 2015
Kat Letwin was in the very first production we ever officially reviewed (Alumnae’s The Queens). We’ve been following her career ever since- a brilliant, unpredictable, chameleonic career- and we’ve loved almost every show we’ve seen her in (don’t worry, she argues with us in her interview about the only one we didn’t like!) She’s never been better than she was as Marlow in Dark Matter, Circlesnake’s challenging and moving retelling of Heart of Darkness.
Do you remember your first formative experience with theatre?
Absolutely. The first play I ever did was Beauty and the Beast for Theatre Brantford at The Sanderson Centre, a gorgeous proscenium that dates back to 1919. They ran a summer drama camp for kids ‘n’ teens. At nine years old, I was cast in the part of ‘Old Woman’, because I guess nine-year-olds capture that elderly essence in a way teens can’t. Learning lines, making character choices, hearing the audience react to those choices, the excitement, the costumes, the camaraderie, eating raw potatoes backstage with the teens…it was electric. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I didn’t know much at nine years old, but I knew I wanted that choice making, raw potato feeling for the rest of my life.
FUN FACT: Jamie O’Connor, who is a Toronto-based writer and stand-up comedian, was in Beauty and the Beast with me. We were best buds that summer. He wasn’t at the camp next summer, nor the summer after that, nor did he live in town; I didn’t see him again until over a decade later when I (re)met him through members of the sketch comedy troupe Jape. It took at least a half hour of conversation before we realized who we were. When we did, I wept openly on the inside of my heart.
Who are some of the artists who’ve always inspired you?
Artists I don’t know because they’re famous and/or dead: Alan Rickman, because he’s mesmerizing and unwavering in his commitment, but also very funny (sometimes unintentionally). David Bowie, whose genius has given us equal measures of the ridiculous and the sublime. Gilda Radner, whose brilliance shone through the old boys’ club and made it just a bit easier for little girls who watched SNL and thought, “I could do this.” Maria Bamford, who takes you on horrifying journeys that shouldn’t be so hilarious – I was hooked on her web series when it first premiered on the now-defunct site SuperDeluxe, and recently seeing her live at Comedy Bar was a very special thing. Jackie Chan, because come on, Jackie Chan. Bill Murray, for the same reasons as Jackie Chan. Martha Henry, for the same reasons as Bill Murray.
Artists I do know, or at least have said hi to, or just, you know, I’ve seen them around: Kayla Lorette and Becky Johnson of The Sufferettes. Not only have they performed some of the most beautiful improv and theatre I’ve ever seen, they’re also very kind and welcoming people. The wonderfully clever and macabre sketch troupe Tony Ho. Mark Little, for the same reasons as Martha Henry, but also because he’s one of the hardest working comedians I’ve ever met – that kind of drive is gorgeous. Johnnie Walker and Morgan Norwich of Nobody’s Business Theatre; I admired them when we went to university together, and getting to work with them on Scheherazade was like being invited by the cool kids to play Dream Phone after school. Sketch duo Peter N’ Chris, for their creative precision in both wit and physicality. Jeremy Woodcock, whose writing can bring out the best in literally anyone (literally). Nug Narghang, who is simply a joy to watch on stage. The entire Storefront Theatre crew; working with them feels like coming home after a long day.
You’re a sketch artist and comedian. Tell us what makes you laugh and how you go about making others laugh.
I love well-crafted absurdity. There’s something glorious in experiencing a world with a set of rules that make sense in how little sense they make. Much in the way good sci-fi is an extrapolation of the here and now, good comedy – good, strange comedy – always comes from a known and cherished place. It’s easy to yell “SQUIRREL!”, but harder to make people care about that squirrel. When you make me care, you have me. I try to make people care about the squirrel, whatsoever the squirrel is, in whatsoever I do.
My Theatre’s been following your career since 2010, seeing you in 6 shows in addition to Dark Matter. Of course I’m going to ask you about all of them. Please rhapsodize on the following:
The first play, and so far the only play, in which all my dialogue was sung in Latin. I still bust out songs from this in improv scenes that call for such things (hot tip: not many improv scenes call for such things). It was the first time I’d done a show where I didn’t personally know everyone involved; it was also the show that put me in contact with Jessica Moss, which was great. She is a gem.
The Witch of Edmonton
This show was interesting for me on several levels. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was nearing the end of my tenure with red light district – this was a theatre company I’d put many years of joy and sweat into. I’d specifically asked artistic director Ted Witzel to “give me a part I don’t normally get”, so I played Susan, the romantic lead. Despite asking for such a challenge, it was tough to shake my character actor habits off. I’m happy with the improv I did for this show, but not so much the character I created; something just didn’t quite pop. Nevertheless, I had fun with my first SummerWorks/outdoors-at-Trinity-Bellwoods show. Sure, we had to “rake our spaces” (which involved taking a rake to spots in which we’d die to clear them of dog shit and used needles), and sure, I learned the hard way after the first night that bug spray was a necessity, but there was something beautiful in that process. I got to watch my lovely friend Mina James absolutely kill it as The Witch; I put on white face in the same parking lot where Sarah Silverman was filming Take This Waltz (I never made eye contact with her); I ate prop chicken with my friends behind a public bathroom, and it was just like eating those Brantfordian teen potatoes. These are the moments I treasure.
I consider The Herald my breakout role. I was so close to cancelling my audition for Marat/Sade; like, twenty minutes before I was supposed to do my monologue and song, I was still waffling on whether or not I would show up. It was a rather dark time in my life, and it was easy to convince myself I wasn’t good enough for most things…but a particularly strong corner of my mind said, “Hey, Kat. You said you were gonna do this. Don’t be a piece of shit. Just fucking do this, you piece of shit.” So I did. I booked the part, and I ended up meeting people I respected, who in turn respected me, and I was afforded the space to be blissfully unhinged in an intelligent show. My inner life improved dramatically, and it set the stage (lololol) for later performances. I will always be thankful for this.
If someone had drawn a map replete with a “Here be dragons” section and pressed it to my face, I would name it Sockdolager. Not because it was a scary show – it wasn’t, it was accessible and awesome – but because I was scared of working with so many talented people. I’d known both Gwynne Phillips and Briana Templeton from my university days, but I didn’t know the rest of the cast (assembled entirely from comedians and actors who made me think, “Oh shit, I gotta step up. Possibly to the streets.”). We had a couple different directors involved giving conflicting notes, so I had no choice but to follow my instincts – which, to my surprise and delight, ended up paying off. I sang; I stripped down to 1920s underwear; I did a French-Canadian accent; these were mostly all my ideas, and it was all more than okay. We were doing two shows a day for nearly a month, and the pride I took in each and every show is incomparable. This play forced me to trust myself, and in that trusting, I discovered more than just a character: I discovered my own possibility. This show was a gift.
Okay Kelly, I know you didn’t like this play (which is totally cool because opinions), but I loved it. Every day, every hour, every minute that I was involved, I was in love with this production. Johnnie had originally sent me the script just to look at – not even ten pages in, I e-mailed him to say, “K yup for sure please have me in this :) :) :) :) :) :) :)”. This was the show that saw me throwing my proverbial noodles at the wall of “Will it blend?”, and I spent a good chunk of rehearsal and a better chunk of home life quietly terrified that I was destroying everything. It was like I’d balled every string of ramen from both theatre and sketch comedy into my fists, then flung them asunder – luckily, those noodles stuck. Not only were we selling out our run, I was highlighted in every review. I don’t say this to sound cocky; I say this to throw into sharp relief the absolute fear I had of mucking up this show. I don’t have enough hands to count on my fingers the number of times I came home from rehearsal second-guessing my work, and castigating myself for not doing better. How many hours I spent working text and thinking, “You’re stupid. You’re making this stupid. Because you’re stupid.” In the way Sockdolager convinced me I had possibility, Scheherazade convinced me I had probability – that, if I thought an idea was good, it probably was. Such thoughts were borne out in highly positive commentary on social media and reviews. For the first time in my life, I felt not only beautiful (I was in my underwear for most of the show and no one puked!), but powerful. I’ve never forgotten this.
Hoobeewhizzy, this was penultimate in terms of showmanship and process. From first draft to final product, we had two weeks to put this buddy up. Two weeks to get to know a cast I’d never performed with; two weeks to develop a character the playwright was unsure about; two weeks to go from zero to whatever number the show needed (35? 1567? 8? Two weeks!). That play shouldn’t have worked, but by gum – by gum – it did. I hadn’t the time to dwell on my own insecurities, so I just revisited my noodle pot and threw whatever I could at the walls present. I trusted my possibility and probability, and I was emboldened by the talent and work ethic of the whole team. Kat Sandler embodied the concept of grace under fire – girl has those leadership skills on lockdown – and the cast was present, ready, and willing to be vulnerable. The hours spent together never felt long; they felt good. They felt like a privilege. Truth be told, the run was harder than the rehearsal process, as I had blown my voice doing a comedy show (‘cause I’m duuuuumb), and my character didn’t feel solid until halfway through the second week. I’d chug a lot of honey backstage in an attempt to preserve my voice, and I’d think to myself, “I don’t want another Witch of Edmonton on my hands. What does this show need? How can I make this transcendent?” By the last week, I think I got it; though I was sad not to have captured that ‘it’ before reviewers showed up, I was glad to have captured it at all. It was bittersweet, though certainly more sweet than bitter (honey notwithstanding).
How did you get involved with Circlesnake?
A friend of ours told Alec Toller to go see me in Scheherazade. He saw me in my underwear and thought, “Now there’s a girl who knows all about space sadness.”
Dark Matter was ensemble-created. How did that work? Where did the idea come from and how did it develop?
Colin Munch and Alec Toller already had the idea, and it was pitched to me outside of Factory Theatre just after the final performance of Scheherazade. I recall saying “Yup”, followed by “YUP”, followed by a bunch of strangled, excited noises. From there, I had a writer’s meeting with Mikaela Dyke and Alec at a Starbucks, wherein we discussed what we wanted to see in this show (“Aliens? Not so much. The crushing loneliness that accompanies extreme isolation? Done. The devastating impact of colonialism? Oh fuck yeah, brother.”) The rest of the script was developed through improv in our apartments – after some fun warm ups, Alec or Colin would set the game of the scene, Mikaela, Joshua Browne and I would mitigate or shape it as necessary, and we’d act our way through the goals we wanted to achieve, which would then be edited and transcribed for later rehearsals. There’s nothing like crying about isolation while your friend’s cat is licking your face.
How familiar were you with Heart of Darkness before Dark Matter?
Heart of Darkness is one of my favourite books, and I’ve read it several times – twice alone in high school. I had an IEP (or Independent Education Plan), which meant I was supposed to be working from a separate curriculum, but it really meant I was in classes with all my friends and would randomly be given different assignments based on the whims of my teachers. I had an English teacher in Gr. 12 – Ms. Clarke – who was genuinely invested in my education. Seeing the interest I took in this novella, she leant me a book about King Leopold II (who oversaw much of the brutal colonization and exploitation that happened during Conrad’s time), and turned over an entire class to me. St. John’s College heard a lot about white, male, Euro-centric privilege that day, I tell you what. Suffice to say, Heart of Darkness has been very close to me for the better part of my life.
How did the sci-fi elements inform and fit into Conrad’s original story?
It was surprisingly easy to update, for though the tools used to explore and conquer change with time, human nature certainly doesn’t. The world we created was a matter of inference based on Conrad’s book, the direction in which technological development seems to be headed, and the broader history of colonialization.
As I see it, space exploration is the new ocean navigation. When kingdoms were sending ships across the sea, no one knew what was out there – the ocean, which is as hostile an environment to human survival as space, is a terrifyingly large thing to overcome. Early explorers were paying extremely high costs for potentially small returns (returns the explorers themselves would generally never profit from). Would there be delicious spices? Gold? People? Whole bunches of nothing? The only way to answer these questions was to physically get to wherever the ocean could take you. It must have been terrifying to watch the land disappear on the horizon, to look all around you and see nothing but non-potable water filled with animals that couldn’t wait to kill you with their many rows of teeth.
In Conrad’s story, even though they’re surrounded by land, it is not their land. In true colonial fashion, they are attempting to bend to their will an environment they can’t, and generally refuse, to understand. Consequentially, they are failing miserably. This failure is violently destructive to everything – and everyone – they encounter (including themselves). It’s frighteningly easy to imagine that happening on a galactic level.
On a micro level, and on a more show-specific point: adding Mikaela’s role of Cal, my A.I. companion, was a lovely touch. Mikaela did such a wonderful job of creating an empathetic character that, by her very design, had no real empathy of her own. This served to highlight just how very alone Marlow is, as there’s no possibility of real connection with a person who isn’t truly there. It felt very sci-fi-ey, not only because Cal was a hologram, but because in the future, we’ll fix loneliness and isolation by throwing a computer at it. We sort of do that already.
You played the famous male role of Marlow. How did your version differ from the original both because of and beyond the gender swap?
No matter what I did, I couldn’t get my face to look like Martin Sheen’s in Apocalypse Now, so I decided to go with what I had (a lady face, as it turns out).
Aside from the face, I wanted to capture Marlow’s essence as the ensconced observer. In both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, Marlow doesn’t drive the action – he simply has a terrible world happen to him, a world that fundamentally changes him. I’m a high-energy performer, and I find it very easy to fill the stage with physicality and LOUD NOISES, but that’s not Marlow. There’s an outward stillness that belies the raging clusterfuck of her soul, a stillness borne of necessity and experience. She’s barely holding on, but she is still holding on – finding those moments where the stillness cracks and the soul comes out was the challenge.
One of my favourite scenes to perform involved Marlow ineptly trying to flirt with a man in a bar on Nexus, a gateway to the outer colonies and a place for the workers of said colonies to rest, gamble, and forget that they’re all going to die pretty soon. It was a funny scene, played expertly by Josh Browne, but it was also an important moment of vulnerability for Marlow. Here’s a person who wants human connection, who is aching for it, but no longer knows how to achieve it; to me, that’s as scary as it is heartbreaking. I don’t think that was touched on so much in other iterations of Marlow, so it was a genuinely interesting thing to explore.
Speaking for myself, I don’t think the gender swap changed much of anything for the character – any real difference because of gender came from the audience’s perception. If they saw me and thought, “A-buh-whaaa, a woman captain?!”, or “Hey, that’s not Martin Sheen, that’s a woman in two sports bras!”…well, there’s not much I can do about that. I can’t control how my performance is refracted by the fact I have a uterus. I can only be a human being, and hope others see me as such.
Heart of Darkness is incredibly dark but Dark Matter was surprisingly funny. How did you strike that balance?
The show was created by a bunch of dingus goofballs, so there was no way we couldn’t be funny. Granted, we’re a bunch of dingus goofballs who happen to be invested in finding the truth of our material, and it was that search for honesty that kept us on point. We’d routinely crack each other up in rehearsal, especially during our improv sessions – a comedian sees a punch line much like a dog sees a baked ham – but we were all keenly aware of how rich this world was in compassion, humanity, and of course, horror. We wanted to reach those places, and take the audience with us. You can’t take an audience anywhere if you bog them down in sadness, nor can you keep them in a moment if you’re chucking yuks left, right, and centre. Everyone had a wonderful sense of balance, which made it easy to find the line upon which we needed to tread.
What would you say is the most important conversation you had with director Alec Toller throughout the rehearsal process?
You know, I wouldn’t say it was one conversation in particular, but a series of conversations that culminated in my trusting the work I was doing. Alec was very good about checking in with me as far as character development was concerned, or just making sure that I knew what I was doing was worthwhile.
One moment that stands out was when he asked me to have a scene I was writing to be finished and ready in a very short period of time. I was having a particularly rough day: a relationship I was in was crumbling, I was pulling double duty with my sketch troupe for the looming Toronto Sketchfest, I was working on no sleep, and up until Dark Matter, I’d had very little belief in my writing abilities. I felt overwhelmed and incapable, and frankly, quite scared that I was shooting my career in the foot by generating my own material. Alec treated me with no-nonsense empathy. “I understand. Life is hard, but you can do this. If you can’t – well, that’s not exactly an option. Because you can.” As it turns out, I can, and I did. And I’m so glad I did.
You’re nominated along with the rest of your cast for Best Ensemble. Tell us about working with the other actors.
I’m really restraining myself by not writing this entire section in all caps, so I’ll limit it to this sentence: IT WAS THE GODDAMN BEST. I was coming in hot on this one – emboldened not only by the success of Scheherazade, but also the idea for the show itself. Heart of Darkness! In space! With actor-comedians! This was already hitting all my hits, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’d worked with Mikaela Dyke years before when she was briefly in my sketch troupe Rulers of the Universe, and I’d seen her breathtaking work in Dying Hard at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 2012, so I was excited to dig into a show process with her. I didn’t personally know Colin Munch before we started, but I’d seen him on stage, and knew him to be a gifted improviser. Alec and Josh were the only two I didn’t know anything about – but once we started working together, it felt like we’d known each other for years.
Everyone was as smart as they were funny, as giving as they were inventive. Egotism wasn’t even a thing, mostly because we didn’t have time for it, but also because we knew we were trying to reach a goal far beyond ourselves. Working with such talented people who were as genuinely excited about the project as I was…it was a dream. Josh’s intensity and gravitas were easy to hook onto in rehearsal, and exploring that final scene between us was as gratifying as it was draining. Mikaela made us cool light-up jackets, then proceeded to kill all the scenes she wrote and performed in. Colin, who I was on stage with the most, thoroughly challenged me in our improv rehearsals, and our chemistry on stage felt incredible. After this process I really started to consider myself an improviser; in no small part, this was thanks to him. Alec kept it together, amidst all the chaos. We were originally supposed to play in what’s now the Coal Mine Theatre, but it flooded; we moved to The Storefront, which then also immediately flooded. Instead of letting this stop the production from happening, or assuming our group had awful flood powers and needed to be destroyed, he admirably pressed on.
I dunno if you can tell, but I just love these nerdlingers to pieces.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Cop-out: all of it.
Non-cop-out: I don’t want to spoil anything in case we remount the show, but the long moment between the final confrontation between Kurtz and Marlow, and the denouement debriefing scene. Everything Marlow had experienced, had endured, starts pouring out of her – in that moment she is truly alone, and keenly, horrifyingly aware of it. It felt so good to let that crack in her shell overwhelm her for those beats, and to then turn on a dime and seal it up for the final scene. That switch was as difficult as it was rewarding, and when I could feel I nailed the timing, it was incredible.
What have been some of your favourite roles you’ve ever played?
Noaman in A Funeral For Clowns, which won Patron’s Pick at the Toronto Fringe in 2012. It was my first clown show, and I was cast in the last role I expected. As I said, I’m very good at high-energy, ridiculous characters, so I assumed I would get the role of the Professional Mourner (a slick, business-savvy clown hired by the family to cry with them). Instead, I was cast as the narcoleptic younger brother of the deceased, who acted as the heart of the show. Under the direction of Teodoro Dragonieri, I found parts of myself I didn’t know I could access; I found a sad beauty in this character, and an innocence I’m not used to portraying. It was a sublime show, and with Teo’s help, I managed to reach the level of tenderness the piece required.
I also loved playing Janie Davies in Pandemic Theatre’s Guantanamo Hotels & Resorts. There’s something delightful about getting to play a war criminal with a heart of gold.
Other favesies include the ones covered by My Entertainment World, namely The Herald in Marat/Sade, Mrs. Griggs in Sockdolager, and Candace Matchwick in Retreat.
Do you have any dream parts?
…okay, I’m gonna put this out there: Evita. I’ve always wanted to play Evita. I know the score inside out, it’s in my vocal range, and it was my favourite movie when I was a kid. I would love the chance to play a character as intelligent, complicated, and strong as Eva Peron; she was a flawed, remarkable woman, and the possibilities inherent in the score to showcase those qualities are endless. I’m a bit of a history buff (ask me about WWI or the Northwest Passage sometime), so the political history of Argentina that allowed for Peron’s rise to power has always deeply fascinated me. Also, holy shit, the dresses I’d get to wear! So many dresses! At least three dresses, I bet.
I’d also love to play Hamlet, because I’m a typical actor.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
I’ll be back at Toronto Sketchfest this March with Rulers of the Universe, and I’ll also be writing and performing in the Sketchfest edition of Speculation, a new show hosted by Jocelyn Geddie (The Sketchersons) and Alice Moran (Sunnyside on CityTV). Speculation sees comedians writing fake spec scripts for whatever TV show tickles their fancy, who then act them out with help from members of Toronto’s theatre community. For reference: last time I did the show, I wrote a Quantum Leap script entitled “Einstein’s F.U.C.K. Machine”, so…yeah. Fair warning.
I just wrapped filming for a new sketch comedy TV show called Almost Genius, which currently doesn’t have an airdate, but will be premiering at some point on CMT Canada.
You can catch me the second Thursday of every month as host of SOLO COMBO at Comedy Bar, the first Monday of every month as host of Sing For Your Supper at The Storefront, and more often than not at Bad Dog Theatre.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
“Time is an illusion, lunch time doubly so.” –Douglas Adams