Jakob Ehman was last year’s winner for Outstanding Supporting Actor (for Theatre Brouhaha’s Cockfight). He wore a rope belt to the ceremony (it was the talk of twitter) and we grilled him about the new play he was working on, Brandon Crone‘s BDSM-laced lost boy tale Nature of the Beast. One year later, that play has brought him back to the Nominee Interview Series, nominated in the category where he is the current reigning champion.
Catch us up on what you’ve been doing since we last spoke to you for the 2014 Nominee Interview Series.
It feels like an eternity ago that we did this last interview series. I’ve had the great fortune to have been pretty busy over the past year. I’ve worked with many great artists, made new friends, moved to a new home, became an uncle, traveled abroad to sleep in a tent in Iceland and much more. Hopefully this year will bring more great experiences we can chat about in the future!
You’ve been in almost every play by Brandon Crone that’s been produced. At what point did you come on board for Nature of the Beast?
Brandon and I met through a reading of Nature of the Beast some two or three years before it got produced. Soon after we met that day, an actor dropped out of his upcoming production of turtleneck and he asked me to be in it. We did Donors after that and when Nature came around again, I auditioned for Mike since Brandon wasn’t casting it himself. The role was a great fit for me though I think and Luke [Brown, the director] and I got on well together. We also talked about me doing the sound design in the audition regardless of me playing Mike.
What is it about Brandon’s work that really connects with you as a performer?
Brandon. His plays to me are the secrets you don’t share with your closest and most forgiving confidantes. The unhappy ideas you take to your grave. Whatever makes you feel like you’d be judged for, he puts those ideas into people on stage and teases them out raw. I think it’s a gift to let audiences live vicariously through these fantasies and know that there are other people who have thoughts like this. I’m not sure I can think of a character he’s written that isn’t walking around without their Achilles heel in a spotlight. The characters don’t have access to the safeword his company derives its name from, they need to know what’s below the safety net and they’re all tragically beautiful. He’s also so young in his writing career so he’s still experimenting so much with style and finding new methods and voices within his writing, I have loved getting to ride along with him on that path.
Tell us about the character of Mike and the journey you went through with him throughout the rehearsal and performance process.
Mike changed a lot in the rewriting portion of our rehearsals. I don’t remember a lot about what Mike was like but I remember in performance it was very clear Mike was the way in for the audience. It was such a strange and unknown kink world for the majority of audience members and even more so for Mike. His sexuality was completely unknown to himself and then he was suddenly dropped into a deep end of sexual possibilities. It was really hard for me to reconcile how he could go from not being sure if he was even gay, to attempting to force his uncle into an incestual relationship with him. We tried a lot of different ways to justify this and I think it drove all of us a little bit crazy. Sometimes human motivations aren’t justified by reason though, and it is extremely rare to come across a character like that in theatre, it’s sort of the golden rule of story telling and acting…”why do I do this?” Brandon will break these rules to try and expose truth, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, eventually though you give in and trust him and his writing, he is in search of something different. When you have no idea what you want or who you are but you’re desperate to be loved, you will take any form of affection you can, especially when you can’t comprehend the consequences. That was Mike’s journey
Mike was quite a bit younger than you. What were some of the performance elements you added to define him as still very much a teenager?
Playing younger has been my wheelhouse since I graduated theatre school; it’s what gave me my start. It’s that thing of knowing you’re “hit” and getting everything you can out of it even if you don’t like what that hit is. I don’t remember specifics for what we did with him performance-wise to define him as a teenager beyond shaving my face, the rest for me was the same as any character I’m trying to find my way into, young or old. Though I do now remember feeling different in my eyes, it was a mixture of naïve wonder and puppy sadness. I can feel it now thinking about.
Nicholas Rice is also nominated for a MyTheatre Award this year for playing your uncle. Tell us about working with him and developing that relationship on stage.
Nick was fascinating to me. He is so lovely. He is about as far from his character as I can imagine someone being. We talked a lot over beer and coffee outside of rehearsal when we weren’t going through lines together. I loved learning about his life and watching his process. One of the delights of the performances was his warm up before the show started. It always included him on stage talking to the empty chairs and telling these stories about his life or his day that would then transition into the stories he would tell in the play. He was obsessed with the colloquialisms in the writing; he wanted every one of the lines to be exact. That was very different to my relationship with Brandon’s writing, which always involved improv.
In his interview, Nick mentioned that improvisation played an important role in the production. What were some of the most interesting moments you discovered spontaneously in performance?
There weren’t really specifics and there never really is for me. It’s always for that moment and following impulses, the important role is that it could happen at any moment. It’s not any end result you’re getting to with the improv, some sort of wonderful line that changes everything, but simply the means of it always being a possibility. A great line coming from spontaneity and then being added to the script makes the next show even less spontaneous to me. It’s thrill-seeking acting for me. It can be very selfish too if you’re not careful.
We’re just going to throw a big *Spoiler Alert* down so we can talk about that ending. It’s left pretty ambiguous but what do you think happens between Mike and Francis in that final scene?
I think Mike was full of pain and had no way of coping with that. I think he thought BDSM might help him, he heard what sounded like extreme pain, someone being tortured or murdered in the basement and then met the victim of that, who it turns out actually enjoyed it. Got pleasure from it. Mike came in also questioning his sexuality… Well, David was enjoying pain sexually… seems like a reasonable fix for both of his major conflicts he’s going through. He takes a stand and makes a choice to force his uncle to share his private escape with him. He protests until his uncle gives in and shows Mike he had no idea what was asking for.
A lot of the ambiguity in the ending lies in where Mike’s head is at and to what degree (if any) what happens in the basement is consensual. Did you have answers to those questions in your head even if you didn’t necessarily play them on the surface? Did the answers change at all?
I think my head was as ambiguous as my surface. All I felt I could really play was the physical and mental effect that being in the basement had on Mike. He was traumatized and in a state of shock, his emotional reaction would have come much later and you might need another whole play to try and play that reaction to being down there. Find out what he did with that money, see who picked him up outside where he passed out on the side of the highway, or if he took a bus somewhere, we know he didn’t have his phone on him so maybe he went back for that… I should talk to Brandon about a sequel.
I think if I had any answers and tried not to play those thoughts, they still would have come across. There is magical shared brain between actors and audiences during a performance. It would have killed our ambiguity
This was the first play by Brandon Crone that he didn’t direct himself. How involved was he throughout the rehearsal process? Did you ever turn to him for guidance about the character and his true intentions?
He was very involved. He would come in every other rehearsal or so with rewrites that I think we all thought would make things easier to comprehend but would of course just complicate things in a new way. It was great. It was also gruelling, especially for Brandon. We made it really tough for him and asked questions that he didn’t feel like had any relevance to what he wanted to say. It’s tough to have those questions asked of you and not be the director I think. Luke was great though and really focused Brandon on what Brandon wanted to say with the piece. In the end I think Brandon was very happy with what he wrote. He and I certainly turned to each other for guidance, though. It wasn’t really like what you would imagine though with an actor going to the writer to get underlying intentions for the character. I just always asked him questions about the whole. He gave me more than enough in the writing for my character. That just comes back to trust.
What would you say is the most important conversation you had with director Luke Brown in developing your interpretation of the character?
Luke and I got to have a really cool relationship on this show partially because I was the sound designer as well so I was looking at the play from a different perspective than just my character. That led us to doing a lot of our work separate from rehearsal, eating wings and drinking beer. We would cover a lot of things in those meetings and that made our work in rehearsal more focused get to a short hand communiqué. He had great insight with every question I asked but we would also revel in our lack of knowledge together. Luke, Nick and I were three straight men trying to figure out the nature of the beast… we would all feel out of our element together. The most important conversations he would have with me I think were always guides bringing me back to the heart of our story and helping me be the way in for the audience. I have a tendency to make up absurd back stories that in the moment I think might be strokes of genius… Luke would let me try these out but had a great way of not making me feel stupid for suggesting them as possibilities. I remember I thought maybe Mike was actually a prostitute! and Francis had this whole role-playing incest fetish he wanted to do and when I arrived at the door, I caught on and played along… It was very clearly not what Brandon intended. Brandon would probably laugh and grin and say “Maybe!”.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
The moments before the intermission where Mike pretends to go to sleep and Francis goes downstairs. Mike and Francis are finally open about who they are to themselves and get to share that with each other. It’s a beautiful moment that you know will be flipped on its head because it’s the moment before an intermission in a Brandon Crone play. I was also super proud of the sound for that moment, it was this really filtered muffled sound of music, sex and violence to represent what was going on downstairs and when I put my ear to the door, the filter was instantly removed and gave way to this really full and warm major chord that was held until the blackout. I loved it.
What are you working on now or next?
I’ve got my hands in a lot of cookie jars right now but next thing I’m doing is Caught by Jordi Mand at Theatre Passe Muraille, opens April 5th. It’s a fantastic group of people working on it and the script is delicious.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just another shout out for the director of this production, he deserves a lot of the recognition for this show getting the nominations it did. Also thank you for the thoughtful review you gave us. Looking forward to seeing all the talent at the ceremony!