My Theatre

10 April 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Will King

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Will King is the Artistic Director of Seven Siblings Theatre, a young collective dedicated to the practice of the Michael Chekhov technique and the principles of fantastic realism. In the company’s most enjoyable production yet- Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile– Will is nominated for his performance as a young Einstein hobnobbing with Picasso in Paris. He’s competing in the Outstanding Supporting Actor indie race against Jordin Hall who is nominated for his performance in Seven Siblings’ Titus Andronicus which was directed by Will.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yeah. I still work there, actually; I teach an acting class for teenagers in the East End at a place called Theatrics. I took that when I was 5, and I played Spiderman. It was a comedy about retired superheroes. The plays were always something they’d devise. And I can’t remember whether I was like an old version of Spiderman or young version of Spiderman. 

Did everybody at the school hate you because you got to play Spiderman and they didn’t?
No, I don’t think so. It’s a pretty open group. They usually devise all the plays based off the kids’ ideas, and then the characters are all determined off the kids. It’s very funny, actually. It’s usually a sketch comedy with kids.

Tell us about the evolution and mandate of Seven Siblings.
This is coming up to, I guess our third year. The reason the company was founded is that Erika Downie, Madryn McCabe, and myself are all certified teachers of the Michael Chekhov acting technique, which was a certificate program that we did in Kent State, Ohio. And we all happen to be Windsor grads, although we did not go at the same time. So, Erika has two degrees, one in BA honors drama and then she went to the UK for a year and came back and did the acting program, and that’s where I overlapped with her. And I did the acting program for four years, so she was in second year when I was in fourth year. And Madryn graduated before I did, so I never met her in school. I think there was one year of overlap with Erika. But anyway, we all had the same core training, and we all had the same kind of ideals of the way that we would like to work and rehearse and play, and it felt like a natural thing to do. Like, it’s really funny that I don’t think we at any point thought of whether it was strange or not to make a company. It was just kind of an organic thing that happened, because we were going back every year to train in the work, and we wanted to utilize the work in between, that we just started devising and training more heavily in it.

The mandate of our work is specifically to utilize the Michael Chekhov acting technique, which is a largely psychophysical process, and actually, I would say much more playful than it is heady. It’s psychophysical, so it’s using your body in a series of exercises to get somewhere rather than hitting your head against a wall trying to figure out how to make the most specific choice. And we also produce fantastic realism, specifically, for all our work. So it either has to have an element of absurdity or existentialism or supernatural. It’s essentially just a heightened form of realism, so we don’t necessarily do any form of naturalism. I was thinking about this the other day. I think film does such a good job of naturalism in today’s world, that maybe it’s something that we’re just gravitating to the opposite of, and seeing things within the symbols of other things, or just going to a place where suspension of disbelief is mandatory. Like, when you go to the theatre, you know that you’re going to be seeing something that’s not quite you eating a sandwich in your living room for fifteen minutes, and that’s what’s exciting about it, so I think it’s just a more stylized thing. And [Michael Chekhov and fantasic realism] work very well together, because we get to do a lot of work with characters and plays that is determined by the actor’s ability to play them. Like, there’s a million ways that you can play the characters in Rhinoceros. And as long as you know that you are playing it specifically, and it’s of interest, and the character work has been done, that’s the freedom of fantastic realism, is that as long as it sits truthfully and honestly in its own world, it doesn’t have to be the same way that my neighbour walks down the street. So it gives a bit more room, I think, for the actors to play.

For someone who’s never done Michael Chekhov before, how do you introduce them to it and what are some of the exercises you might use to help them get into a character using that technique?
So, there’s a few exercises that we use. One of the basic principles, which actually is the name of our company, is the Four Brothers, which is the feeling of ease, form, beauty, and the whole, and then the Three Sisters, which is rising, falling, and balancing, and then together you have Seven Siblings, so those are two separate exercises. There’s a lot of warm-ups and group ensemble things just to build an awareness of the Four Brothers. And then the Three Sisters is an exercise where you work through a monologue. First, you have people physically do it, where you teach them what rising is, and if you have a group, you physically lift them, or you teach yourself what really falling feels like. And you can work through a whole piece by going through the three different places and seeing where the natural kind of rollercoaster pieces are. And that’s usually to find out whether the character’s having a good time where they are, I guess, or what they’re experiencing. It’s more what’s happening to you.

We do an exercise called Character Body- I teach it two ways. One where you have someone else build the body for you, like a sculpture, and often we’ll do this with archetypes. We’ve got this deck of 60-70 archetype cards, and you say, “What does the shapeshifter look like to you?” And you have someone put yourself in the body of that thing, and then with breath and connection to your voice, you find yourself within that body and figure out how to move from there. And the other one is for people who have a more psychological imagination. Because a lot of people don’t actually visualize imagination; it’s like a feeling they follow. But for people who do visualize with imagination, there’s an exercise where essentially you place the character in a room outside of yourself. And you imagine each part of it, like the way that they would sit, or the shape of their knee, or their eyes or their nose, and then you ask it to do things. Like, “Please get up” or “go for a walk.” And you follow them around, and you ask them to do simple things or complicated things. And at a certain point, you follow their walk, and you step in and out of their body, based off what you’ve been imagining the thing to do. And that can be really useful for creating something that’s really transformational in a way that your body might not go on its own. I really like doing that. But it doesn’t work the same for everybody, depending on the way that their brain works. If we’re doing those exercises, we’ll talk about colours or atmospheres, like subjective character atmospheres, or rhythms, or stances, or postures, or details that grab somebody. And we try to use a variety of catch words that somebody can’t visualize. Or if they don’t know what the feeling is, or the smell, there’s always something to hold on to that will keep you playing and moving forward until you’ve found what that kind of motor is.

How did you guys decide on Picasso at the Lapin Agile?
It’s a play that we read and we just really enjoyed. I think it gave us the opportunity to play around in history, Steve Martin’s variety of history, which is kind of the fun of it, is seeing it through the lens of somebody in a contemporary world. We knew that we wanted to do a show in a bar. We like to produce new challenges or take on a new challenge for each performance we do. So that was kind of the public world that we wanted to set it in, and I think we found the right place for it. It was just really fun. We read it individually, then we read it out loud – it was just such an enjoyable piece for us that offered some really fascinating insight into the intersection between art and science, which I think is not necessarily talked about in a comedic way very often. You’ll see these great pieces like Infinity at the Tarragon, or there’s a bunch of British plays about atomic bombs and the consequences and the actual drama in a way that it affected their family, but there was something nice about the fact that it encapsulated the feeling and shared ideas of people who seemingly have nothing in common, and how similar they can be. And I just think that’s really fascinating, especially for an audience. Somebody could come to see that show and know nothing about theatre or know nothing about physics or know nothing about art or music, and they could share in perhaps what that common ground is.

What attracted you to the role of Einstein?
Pretty much all elements of it. I hadn’t done a historical character before, so that was one of the things that I thought was really exciting in preparation. I read a lot of his work- I read the Theory of Relativity, and I watched a bunch of documentaries about his life and just the way that he carried himself. I think there’s something interesting about working within the framework of an iconic individual and why people are drawn to him. But part of my prep too was understanding enough of the science so that I could feel like I could speak it with clarity without mumbling or feeling like an idiot. And the other half was finding all the quirky things. Like, he never wore socks, which I didn’t do for the show, but was interesting because it changes the stance of your body, your posture. Footwear is a weird actor thing that I actually think is really useful to know.

But there was a certain point, I think about a week or two in, where I had been playing and I realized, it’s not just Einstein, it really is Steve Martin’s Einstein. That was really freeing because I had done so much of that research, and I had tried to create in my world an authentic understanding of who that human being is. Because I kind of had apprehension that somebody was going to see me and go, “Well, that guy’s nothing like Einstein. Like, that guy doesn’t have any of the mannerisms or what it is.” I think I tried to stay true to what the spirit of him was- what he is in that moment of creation, or do as much research into his posture and his mannerisms that I can honour that, and have permission to create something new. That was kind of when I realized that it’s Steve Martin’s invention of what this character is. It doesn’t have to be the truthful, historical – sorry, I shouldn’t say truthful- it doesn’t have to be the historical Einstein. It has to be a truthful understanding of who that person was and how they behave, how they goof off, what they do when they’re bored, what they do when they’re excited. And so then I went and watched a whole bunch of Steve Martin’s movies and tried to pick up on the timing.

We just played for the whole six weeks. I’m pretty sure for the first two or three weeks – and Jocelyn [Levadoux] would agree, who’s the stage manager- I think I drove her crazy, because I would never do the blocking the same way until I kind of got to the end. I was like, “Okay, so this is probably the way he would go about doing it.” But I would just keep trying to kind of prod people, in a nice way, in an actorly challenge way. But the whole fun of him, too, is that throughout the play, no one knows who he is. He’s almost the underdog in a world where he’s on the verge of revolutionizing what modern science is. But he’s just some guy at a bar. I don’t think he is seen very often. And so being seen for the first time as to who that person is was really fun, because everyone would go from being like “Oh, who’s that weirdo in the corner?” And then when you said something with clarity and drive and momentum, everyone would go, “Who is this person? Like, how has this person been here the whole time? Where did you come from?”

There’s so many really fast trains of thought that were kind of a bit of a marathon. It was nice. And there was big chunks where I got to just, like, sit on stage and observe. That was one of my favourite things, a long chunk where Picasso’s on stage, and I’m just observing the way he interacts with women and just kind of deciding, like, “Do I agree? Do I not agree?” Or there’s big chunks where he’s thinking, and I tried to give myself a series of things to do. Like, I was playing with cards. Or there was a section where he was doing math in his head, and then pretending like he didn’t know what the answer was, and then revealing that he knew the answer the whole time. So I taught myself how to make a napkin swan. I did it in the first preview, and Erika’s like “You have to do it every time from now on until forever.” Because I just didn’t think that he’s someone who sits still very often. More than his body sitting still, I think he just flies at a really fast tempo internally, and when his body slows down, his brain does not. So what is he doing to preoccupy himself or settle his body so that he can move that quickly, accelerate through things?

You once told me that casting directors always cast you as young romantics, but your friends who know you know that you’re a mad scientist. Why is that?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think maybe it’s because I can be driven to play a lot more than maybe some lovers would be. I like to play transformative and challenging characters. I like to play something that’s outside of what people perceive me to be. Don’t get me wrong; I think there’s a wonderful, especially with some film actors, power to people who are charismatic and vulnerable and able to get work until the end of time, and that’s great. But the one major goal that I have for myself, and I hope to have til the end of my life, is to work on transformative characters, to work on something that’s outside of myself. And I think there’s something about the obsession of mad scientists that’s just fascinating. Because they’re so in love with what they’re doing, and they never let go of what that ideal is, that it can be blinding to maybe normal things. Like, I remember playing Victor Frankenstein with Echo Productions, and the first half of that show, I always felt like I was just barreling down on the obsession of trying to create life, to the point of when the monster gets loose, that’s the first and only time that he realizes that there might be a negative consequence to creating a new human being. It’s when he starts to kill pieces of his family. But up until that point, it’s the beauty and joy of creation. It’s seeing something new and getting attracted to – I don’t know. I think, yeah, fantasy, or whatever that world that they’ve created just inside their own mind. And I think maybe that’s the definition of what makes the mad scientist so interesting, is they see the world in a unique way. They see it completely; they see it from start to finish. And they might not always get to the end of what that is, but they know exactly what it is. And they might not always tell you, but there is a whole other world in their head that no one else can get at. And so it’s kind of unlocking that and showing people without rubbing their face in it.

How did you develop Einstein’s speaking voice and accent?
I got to work with Margaret Hild, who did dialect with us, and she was really lovely. I would listen to recordings that he had done. His voice is not necessarily what I would imagine the average German sounds like. He has a very almost high, nasal voice, if you ever listened to interviews. It’s strange. And so I would find quotes of his or read things back where I would just read within what I thought his voice was. And at a certain point, I kind of married that voice with the voice that I thought went with the way that I was portraying the character. I didn’t want to do exactly what I had heard in audio tapes. I think there was something too damaging to the way that I was creating, to try to be 100% exactly what it is, because otherwise I was thinking too much about it and not playing what I was doing. So I would, on my own time, sit and read through things and go over the long passages of text. Then, when it went into the rehearsal hall, I would try to just leave all of that outside. Then Margaret would come over and be like, “Do you know this one word sounds weird?” And I’d be like, “Okay, great, cool.” But that way I didn’t have to sit down every day and think about it. But it was really useful that there is some recordings and pieces of who he was. Not a lot of footage. Because sometimes I guess when you build historical characters, you can really see their posture. But he was kind of reclusive. I think the whole thing was just kind of this teeter-totter between honoring how much I was inspired by him as an individual and how much I didn’t want to waste how beautiful what he had done was, and then also feel like I had to claim it, to do it, and find out what my version of it was so that I wouldn’t be self-conscious about presenting it. And then eventually I think I got to a point where I just got to have fun. And that, I think, helped me actually be much more authentic to the way that he was. He’s all over the place. He would go and hide and be reclusive and come up with his ideas, but he was also, especially the way that it was written, he was a very sociable person. He’s willing to have a drink, he’s willing to go out, and apparently he laughed a lot. He was a very funny person, a charismatic person. But he would go back and forth from being so obsessed with his work to being so sociable, almost in the way that I guess some writers are as well.

Do you think the time in his life at which the play is set has an impact on that lightness? Because it comes early, before atom bomb, etc. 
Yeah. And that was the fun too, because it’s him at his spark of his greatest moment, and seeing him kind of find himself. He’s still young. I think it was really important that Picasso and Einstein met when they were young people, and that the ideas are not yet fully formed. Or that they are fully formed enough, but they’re not yet materialized. So, when they actually bounce ideas off each other, at least in our world, it helped them discover what they want to do.

The ensemble of people that we got to work with were very playful when it came to putting those thoughts in the air, which really helped drive up the momentum of what we were going to do. Like, there were so many spots where Dylan [Mawson, Picasso] and I would just be running around and like flying ideas at each other. I don’t think I would have been able to do any of that without having a room that was that open to play, which is kind of something that we established at the beginning.

Tell us about the actual physical space that you chose. How did you land on that particular site’s specific location? And how did the site specific-ness of the play influence the process and your experience of the production?
We were looking for a place that would carry the atmosphere of what that French Bohemian world would be. We had gone to a few different bars and the first time we walked into Round and saw all of the murals that are on the wall of these beautiful outdoor spaces that make you feel almost like you’re on a cobblestone road in Paris or something, but you’re also inside. I’d also known a lot of electronic musicians that had played there, so I knew it was a very open space. They do so many art classes and circus, it’s such a playful environment that it felt like a no-brainer. I went back many times to tell them what days we were going to go. The difference of working in a bar environment is that the process of renting the space is so different that I would go back, like, every couple of weeks, and be like, “Just so you remember, we’re going to come here, and please let us come here. This is going to be the time. We’re going to take some photos…” But, yeah, it was finding that inspiring Bohemia, that kind of artists’ safe space that seems so necessary. This environment that the play takes place is like Picasso’s go-to environment where he feels comfortable, where he can feel like he kind of runs the place; it had to be an environment where artists would feel comfortable. And that’s basically the closest thing that we could find in reality in the city, and it was nice. And it was good that the environment after the show suited the environment in the show. Because sometimes with shows in bars, I don’t think it needs to be in the bar. Like, it’s interesting that it’s there, but this one specifically felt like the atmosphere of the play, when it was over, didn’t need to dissipate into nothing. It could kind of ring out until 2 am, if people wanted to sit around.

What were you hoping the audience would take away from the show?
I think the joy of what that creation would be for them. Like, whatever their manifesto is, in their medium, finding what that is, and the joy of what it would be to share that with other people. Because that’s what’s so exciting about a lot of the pieces of text, is he would be talking about something- and specifically a lot of them were jokes, where he would just blurt out the answer to something when he shouldn’t, because he’s so excited about what’s racing in his brain that it has to flow out. I think there’s a lot of great films and theatre that does that, but I think the heart of what this is, is the intersection. No matter what your medium is, and sharing what your manifesto could be, whether it’s science or art or music or, you know, your taxes. I don’t think it has to be boiled into anything. It’s just about that spark of creation, that intersection when the three characters get to meet at the end and look at the stars and kind of share what that could be. I think it kind of feeds into a bit of their ego, like it’s definitely a subject that comes up in it as well. But in a pure way I would say it’s about the joy of creation.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I did like making the paper swan quite a bit. I liked racing around the room and showing people what relativity was with my body, because I physically was trying to explain it. It’s a very complex subject that’s written in extreme brevity, because Steve Martin clearly thought that it had to happen at some point, and he tried to write it in a way that would be amusing, and there’s many jokes that he makes around relativity. But there is one section where he kind of just races through and no one follows it. But my goal was ideally that even if the characters didn’t get it, that someone in the audience would understand. So I basically showed ripples in space-time by running around the room with a notebook in the wind like this [demonstrates]. I don’t know whether it worked, but it was my goal to try to make it as actually simple and clear as possible, and I didn’t feel self conscious about doing this big crazy thing because it actually felt more simple that way.

It’s such a high energy part with lots of physicality. Was it ever exhausting?
Yes and no. I didn’t find that I had to do any other kind of extra training to make myself strong enough. but I remember there was one rehearsal where we were all physically exhausted. We had to do this bit where we kind of run from chair to chair to chair then it would stop, and then run around again and stop, and try to see if we could keep up with the accelerations of the individuals in those moments, and how it would be to be racing and then plant yourself, and just float all of the ideas at once. But I feel like my body just kind of followed whatever the impulse was. And sometimes it was very tiring, but that’s the good tired. That’s the type of tired that you get to the end, and it can feel like a bit of a marathon, but you feel satisfied for having gone through what that process is. 

You’re nominated against Jordin Hall for a performance that you directed. What were some of the directorial decision that went into shaping that interpretation of Aaron?
We wanted to create a character, I think, that honors two things. One, which is that he’s actually a debatably much better parent than any of the other parents that you see in the play. Aaron loves his child in a way that seems polar to the rest of what his character is. It is pure love. He tries to protect the child. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I feel like he sees some of himself within that boy, and he wants a life for him that’s maybe better than the life that he had. And we wanted to create a character that could be empathized with. Because for him to have permission to play within kind of the comedy and presentational element of that character, we had to have people on his side in an early way. So it’s why we built the mechanisms of comedy in, which I think is fairly common. And then on the flip side, as much as we want to empathize with this character, he has also done the most detestable things of anyone in the play. And it depending on the way that it’s played by the actor, those detestable things can be something that’s a compulsion of them, that they could kind of have this inner-bound chaos where they lash out in violence. Certainly that character could be evening a bit of the status quo within a world that is and can be quite racist, evening that status quo by just killing everyone who doesn’t believe in that equality. Which, again, is kind of a thing to empathize with. But that was the teeter-totter, is that we wanted to make a character that we would empathize with and that we would feel for, and that’s something that we were both really driven to do. And then also, I would always try to feed him the fact that he has done really incredibly, almost beautifully damaging things. The way that he talks about violence, the number of people he’s killed and that he would so much rather kill more and more and more, I don’t think is a lie. I think that’s actually a very honest truth that’s being spouted out to people because he feels it to be true. It can be a tactic, as well. It doesn’t seem that he’s trying to rile up Lucius, but yeah. I thought he did a very good job navigating between the two.

You mentioned earlier that Seven Siblings works with fantastical realism. Your interpretation of Titus and the world you’ve set it in really brought it into that area. How did those big ideas come about, and how did they work with the original text?
I think the original text in and of itself is horror. It’s a tragedy, but it is also horror. It has plots that turn so quickly; it has characters that are fundamentally bound to the world that we create. So we wanted to define what subgenre of horror it would be, and then go full-tilt on what that would become. And then ultimately the thing that I was interested in doing was supernatural horror, which is eventually how many of the puppets manifested themselves into existence, and how we framed them specifically as well. The puppets are supposed to be people of the world. They represent something that keeps going further and further within kind of the underworld that we’ve created, this post-apocalyptic wartime. And I also think because there are things in the play that are inherently unlikable in a contemporary world, like the role of women and the way that racism is treated, it seems like a play that should not be forced into a contemporary world. Having characters sit in downtown Toronto and, like, decide that your protagonists are cool to do that just seemed off to me. So I wanted to put it in a world where that knowledge and that betterment of those morals have degraded away to the point where they started. So ideally, we see all of them as flawed individuals. I don’t think there’s any heroes in that world. I think there’s people who are doing the best within their circumstance, but they’re detestable all around. If anything, I feel for these puppets the most, because these people have invaded their world and kind of utilized them to fulfill a human war. 

What’s your next project?
Well, we just found out, an hour before we met, that I got the rights to put on shows that I really wanted to do next year. I am very excited. I think it’s a good step forward and I think something different than we’ve always done. Something we really strive for, is to create work that’s a new challenge every time, that represents a new world, or a new type of characters. I’m really pleased with the number of opportunities for a diverse world that we’re creating this year. There’s noticeably more female parts than there is male parts. I tried so hard. I always have. But, when we created the framework of this season, we wanted to have opportunities for everyone and to see what we can do to make that possible, so that’s something that’s really exciting. There’s a bit of apocalypse, and there’s a bit of science fiction, and there’s a bit of comedy, and there’s a bit of creation in a way that we haven’t played with before. And devising work in a way that I hope we can enable voices that are not our own. [Read more about the new Seven Siblings Season HERE]

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I really want to thank the ensemble that we had with the show, which I’m sure many people are doing. I just really think it’s important to do, because I think that process is what spurned us to make the work that we did, and I don’t think I would have played in that way unless I had people to bounce with. It was really great working with Erika and Madryn and especially thanking them, who worked so hard to put these shows together, and just our cast and team. They’re very deserving of the attention they receive. 

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