Before we announce the winners of the 2010 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.
Keir Cutler is a fixture on the Canadian Fringe Festival circuit. His one man show Teaching Shakespeare was a highlight of the summer theatre season and earned him a My Theatre Award nominated for Best Actor in the Local/Independent Division
Read on for our full interview with Keir
How did you first get started doing your one-man shows?

I was doing my graduate studies in Detroit and my mother called to tell me that there was now a circuit of Fringe Festivals across Canada where you could travel right across the country every summer performing. From city to city. It sounded exciting. And I realized the only way to do that would be a one man show because it would be too expensive to do a play. And ticket prices don’t change whether its one person or 10 people. So I had the idea to do a one man show. I’d already started to parody my professors- whenever they said something silly I would make fun of them. So I had the idea to put together a Shakespeare professor who never covers what he’s supposed to talk about and goes off on tangents. I just took all the bad things my professors did and rolled them all into a character and created the play Teaching Shakespeare

Describe the process of developing and rehearsing one of your productions?

I like to do a lot of research- go into the library and take down a pile of books. So with the Shakespeare I just went and looked for absurd comments. People who try to analyze Shakespeare often say things that just are contradictory or ridiculous. I found lines like “Shakespeare teaches us the meaning of meaning”. Now some great scholar wrote that thinking he was so brilliant but it’s just a ridiculous, absurd phrase. I started copying them down and all of those ended up in the play. So the play is based on reality. Many of the funniest lines are lines I actually heard professors say in class. You take them out of context and put them in a play, you realize how ridiculous they are. So the process is really looking for the absurdity, particularly in intellectuals who think they’re smarter than everyone else and end up saying ridiculous things. That’s what I always try to do in my plays- all the different plays are based on authority figures that don’t make sense.

Do you usually take your newest show or reprise popular ones?

I like to mix it up. Last year I had a new show which I did in Montreal, Winnipeg and Victoria. Then in other cities I did Teaching Shakespeare, which is my original, my first show. I like to do more than one different show because it can get a little tiring to do the same show 50, 60 times over one summer. And my old shows, because I’ve done them so often, I can bring them back quite quickly because I’ve learned them so well that it just takes a week or so to rehearse it and it comes back completely. 

How do you pick the topics for your shows?
Just interest. I did one on witchcraft. Just things that interest me that I want to do research on. My mother said “why don’t you do a play on Beethoven” so I said “okay, I’ll do a play on Beethoven”. It’s subjects that I know a lot has been written on. I did a play on how Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, which is a subject I’m interested in, there are thousands of books analyzing whether Shakespeare could have written the plays or not. So it’s basically things that interest me. 

What about Shakespeare is so intriguing?

The works are considered the best things ever written, probably, in any language. So it’s built up into a religion. Shakespeare’s really a religion now. And the professors who teach it are like priests, worshiping this great writer. That’s what becomes intriguing about it. It’s not just how great the writing is but how extreme the passion- I’ve had Shakespeare professors who know every scene in every play and they can just talk endlessly about every character, they’re very much like somebody that’s a religious fanatic but in this case it’s for Shakespeare. So there’s a certain irony of turning Shakespeare into God and building him up to answer all questions at all time. 

Where are some of your favourite places to perform? Do you stick specifically to the Fringe circuit?

No. I look for other opportunities. But I love the Fringe in that I get to travel right across the country. I know people in all the major cities now. And it’s nice, the Fringe gets bigger and bigger every year and more and more popular, it’s nice to watch it grow. And each city is much more popular than when I started. Particularly in Toronto, when I started, people used to laugh at the Fringe and write about how horrible the plays were. Now the Fringe is very respected in Toronto, so it’s nice to see how things evolve. I enjoy all of the different festivals. Some are bigger than others. Ottawa and Saskatoon are much smaller but they’re all a lot of fun. It’s a great thing because it’s so supportive. Fringe Festivals, the idea is to support good work, there’s very little competition. It’s an extremely positive atmosphere to develop work and consequently there’s been a lot of great work that’s gone on beyond the Fringe that’s come out of the festival. And almost every actor performs in the Fringe at one point or another, so it’s a remarkable thing. Canadians don’t really understand how fantastic it is. There’s no other country in the world that has a Fringe Festival circuit- it’s basically like 3 months, straight across the country, going into 8 different major cities- no other country has anything like this. That’s why people come from England every year, from the United States every year, from Australia every year, to perform on it, because there’s nowhere else to do it. 

How long have you been doing it?

My first Fringe was in 1999 and every year since I’ve done 1 or 2, the most I ever did was 8. I think I did 6 last summer. 

Do you exclusively write and perform your own work?

So far yes. All the shows I’ve done I’ve written myself. I’ve done 8 different monologues and they’re all self-written… I haven’t had anybody perform it. They’ve performed it for monologues, I’ve had people ask me “can I do a piece of it for an audition”, I let them do it. But so far no one’s performed any of my shows other than me. It’s not something I’m really seeking because you don’t really want your work done badly by someone else. But if the right situation came along and it was somebody I really respected and thought would do a great job- but most of the time when people ask me I just say no because I don’t know what they’re gonna do with it. I work really hard on these plays and I prefer to have my stamp on it than have somebody else doing it. But that could change, just up to now no one’s done my work but me. 

What are some of the challenges specific to a one-man show?

The first step is the hardest step- realizing you’re going to be in front of an audience for maybe an hour or more, all by yourself. There’s nobody else except you, if you forget the lines then nobody’s gonna help you out. You’re all by yourself. So it’s sort of the ultimate fear of public speaking, you don’t have any backup, there’s no one else on stage with you, there’s nobody who’s going to feed you the line. So the initial fear of it is enormous. But that’s also one of the positives because I think people really appreciate the fact that you have the guts to stand up in front of a group and talk to them. Because everybody fears public speaking on some level. Especially on that level because if you fail doing a one man show you have no one to blame but yourself. It’s very hard to point fingers. If you’re in a play you can say “well, that guy was no good, she was no good”, you can’t do that with a one man show, so it’s taking everything, all the responsibility, all the pressure on your shoulders and saying “okay, I can do this thing”. And that’s also the fun of it. When it goes well it’s an amazing feeling to know that you’ve entertained a group of people with nothing but your voice and your movements, it’s quite an exciting thing. And you’ve created a whole environment in the theatre with nothing but you. It’s not like a play with 10-15 people and all kinds of costumes and sets and lights and everything else. It’s basically just you talking to an audience. And that’s exciting, there’s a lot of reward in that. 

Is it literally just you or do you have a producer or stage manager working backstage?

The last few plays, TJ Dawe’s been my director. So that’s helpful, but he’s not there at the performances, he helps direct the play before it’s put on, which is very helpful. And he helps me with the script but when you’re on stage, that’s it. I don’t have a stage manager. The beauty of The Fringe is they supply the technician as long as your show is simple and I keep my shows very very simple- usually lights up, lights down and very little set or anything. If you’re going to travel across the country you don’t want to be carrying a set and lots of costumes, and stage managers. If you can, it’s not the easiest thing to do, but if you can you want to have as little as possible with you so that you can travel easily and it’s not going to be very difficult to get your set. Some people end up with these giant sets and they’ve got to rent trucks and carry them from city to city, they turn their lives into a nightmare trying to do this. Touring a show is much much easier if you keep it as simple as possible. 

So for Teaching Shakespeare, for example, do you really just travel with a couple papers and a book or two?

Yeah that’s what I do. I come in with a briefcase, a text of Shakespeare and some notes and some papers. But I do want the theatre to look like a classroom so I do need a table and chair. But I always try to find the table and chair in the city that I’m in. Last year I asked the woman I was staying with “do you have a table?” and she said “my friend next door has a table” so they lent me the table. So for the two weeks of the show I borrowed a table and brought it to the theatre and set it up and then brought it back after. And usually I can find a chair in the theatre. So I don’t have to travel with a table and chair. But a table and chair is a fairly easy thing to find and if I have to I’ll buy it in the Salvation Army, but usually I can borrow those things. 

Do you have a dream project you’ve always wanted to work on?

I’m thinking of doing a play this coming summer with another actor. I’ve been doing monologues for more than 10 years and I haven’t done a play with another actor because you’re doubling your costs and cutting your profits in half but I think it’s time to try that. So next summer I’m going to be doing a play with another actor. The play’s almost written now. I haven’t even found the actor yet but that’s going to be a shift for me, to write something with another actor and perform it.

Can you tell me what it’s about?

It’s about Hamlet, it’s called Teaching Hamlet, and it’s about the difference between someone performing Hamlet and someone studying Hamlet and the arguments between them. The people that study Shakespeare think they understand Shakespeare better than the people who perform it. I’ve always found that interesting, that dynamic that Shakespeare exists to some people only on the page. That once it’s performed it’s adulterated, it’s not really Shakespeare, it’s some actor. Which is kind of comic considering the plays were written to be performed but now they’re studied on a level where they no longer have any connection to the fact that they’re put on stage. 

So you would play the academic and hire an actor to play the actor?

Yeah I’d play the academic and hire the actor and it’s a debate between the two. And also the academic forcing the actor to realize how little the actor really understands even though he’s the one performing it. 

If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?

The beauty of Fringe festivals is that they give you 7 or 8 performances at every festival and I find at every festival there’s one show of the 7 or 8 that is just a dream show- that you have the perfect audience and the show just goes great. Honestly that’s the beauty of it, I have these tremendous highs every time I go to a festival. I know there’ll be at least one, sometimes there’s more, but you know that if you’re doing 7 shows, 1 of those shows you’re just going to be walking on air and the audience is going to be loving every second of it. I have so many highs doing this, it’s really fantastic. It’s not like “oh, there was this one show…”. Last year in Toronto I had several because I just had tremendous support and I had the perfect theatre for my show. The extra space at Tarragon is absolutely perfect for Teaching Shakespeare because it’s so much like an amphitheatre classroom in a college, it’s almost identical to so many college rooms, it’s just the right environment. I had seen that theatre many times over the years and always wanted to perform in it. And you of course can ask for what you want. You don’t necessarily get it, but last year I asked “could I get the extra space to do Teaching Shakespeare?” and last year they gave it to me. And it turns out to be just the most perfect place to do the show. 

Do you ever actually perform at colleges so you can do it in a lecture hall?

Yeah, I’ve done that. Sometimes I get hired to perform at colleges. I’ve performed at a few of them. I haven’t been pursuing it that strongly, because you need to contact them and set it up and so forth. So I haven’t pursued it as much so basically they contact me and I go and do it if somebody sees it. I’ve performed at Concordia and high schools and things, when they see my shows and call me to perform. But I haven’t pursued it at all.