Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.
There aren’t many actors currently in the Toronto indie scene as dynamic as Viktor Lukawski. Trained in Paris to have superhuman physical abilities, he’s just daring enough to walk that line between inspired and crazy. This was never more clear than in Single Thread Productions’ site-specific Much Ado About Nothing at Spadina House. Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor My Theatre award for the performance, Viktor’s wackadoo Dogberry easily stole the excellent show before he morphed into an understated Friar Francis to preside over the climactic weddings with authority. His is one of the most entertaining interviews of our 50+ person series, so I won’t keep it from you any longer…
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Apparently, my first experience in theatre was in the first grade. There were many kids in my class who had middle names, and I didn’t want to stand out, so I made one up. But the real kicker is the middle name that I chose: “Skywalker.” I must have seen Star Wars the week before, and I successfully convinced my teacher that my full name was Viktor Skywalker Lukawski. My parents still have the paper to prove it!
Technically, it’s not “theatre experience” so much as it is being a complete liar, but the experience was crucial in the development of things to come. I realized that I had a knack for storytelling, and revelled in the attentiveness of an audience. As I grew older, my characters and stories became more epic, even if no one was watching or listening. Whenever I was called to dinner in the midst of an intimate performance in my bedroom, I would tell my imaginary audience: “to be continued.” I think that was a great lesson learned in showmanship at an early age: always leave the audience wanting more!
What actors and actresses have always inspired you? Are they the same today?
Actually, growing up, I was more inspired by cartoons and silent films than anything else, which I think is evident in my work. Golden Age cartoons and performers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy influenced my interest in the human body and its capabilities: acrobatics, slapstick, and the connection of movement and music (Chaplin’s barber scene in The Great Dictator, or any Looney Tunes cartoon). Although I mention film and television influences, this work stemmed directly from European theatre roots. I was infatuated with attempting the impossible with the human body, which led me to my explorations in mime. The mime work I do is outlandish and cartoonish but based in the finesse of the physical language. It’s a bastardization of the traditions, really, but it’s what I love to do.
In terms of modern theatre actors: Mark Rylance is definitely at the top of my list. He could recite Shakespeare while making an omelet and it would still be riveting. Even his Tony Awards acceptance speeches are phenomenal! Tom McCamus is always a pleasure to watch on stage. James Thiérrée, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, is another inspiration: an incredible actor, director, and acrobat, his performances simply ignite the imagination. Modern theatre actresses: Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Lilo Baur, but my absolute favourite is Kathryn Hunter.
If you could perform on any stage in the world, which would you choose?
To be honest, I’d be willing to perform in a closet, as long as I’d be working with talented and kind-hearted artists. Though, it would be amazing to perform at the Theatre of Dionysus, amongst the ruins. Or maybe even at the Moulin Rouge, as a can-can dancer. Just to say I did it.
Tell me about the famous Jaques Lecoq school. Did that experience really shape who you are as a performer?
The Lecoq school is located in Paris, France, and has been described as various things: a school of movement, mime, clown, masks, acrobatics, and so on. None of these descriptions truly convey it or give it justice. Simply put: it is a place that shifts your weight, unbalances you, and then asks you to find your balance again. You rediscover yourself from the ground up, reaffirming the roots. The school, its professors, and even the madness of the city itself, provide an environment of great provocation and rediscovery of the moving body. “Tout bouge,” was Jacques Lecoq’s motto: “Everything moves”.
Without the Lecoq school, I would be the equivalent of Rocky without Mickey Goldmill, his trainer. I’d throw a few good punches, but I’d exhaust myself, lose balance, and expose myself to the opponent. It is the training that provides you with the technique, the strategy, the awareness of the space around you, and how you can use it to your advantage. You can do without the training of course, but in theatre, that usually ends up with many actors becoming “talking heads” on stage. The body becomes limp, unsure of what to do with itself. Many actors speak of not knowing that to do with their hands on stage. I used to be plagued with that dilemma too. But, with the Lecoq school, you leave feeling like a theatre ninja, with an endless well of creativity that you can tap into, no matter the situation… Plus, being able to run up walls is pretty sweet!
Do you have any dream roles you think are perfectly suited to you or something completely against type you’d love to try as a big challenge one day?
Yes! I am always cast as tall characters because of my height. It’s incredibly upsetting!
Of course, I am kidding. Thankfully, as of right now, I don’t get the feeling that I have been typecast as an actor. However, I have been playing very absurd comedic characters recently, so maybe a tragic role, or a leading “everyman” would be an interesting change. But my dream role has always been Iago. He is incredibly complex, a self-absorbed psychotic with unclear motives: a juicy role!
Which directors and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?
In terms of directors, working with Jillian Keiley (Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland) was an absolute treat. She is a magician, plain and simple, and her positive energy is spellbinding. As I plan to direct as well, the lessons learned alongside of her were invaluable.
Although I have never worked with him, Andrew Shaver (SideMart Theatrical Grocery, Montréal) introduced me to the Jacques Lecoq school during my first year at Queen’s University. I saw a show he was performing in at the time, and the physicality, the use of space, and the creativity – it was exactly the kind of work I wanted to create! From that point on, I knew where I was headed, so that had a major influence on me.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played or production you’ve ever been in?
Actually, my favourite role has been in my most recent production with TheatreRUN at the Factory theatre. We performed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double, and I had a chance to create several distinct characters and slowly morph from one to the next. So, I guess, technically, I should say: “favourite roles”!
Describe the rehearsal process for Much Ado. Did you get to rehearse in Spadina House much before the actual run?
I actually came very late into the process of the rehearsals, as I was still closing up my life in Paris. The company had already rehearsed for two weeks, with someone standing in for me. They had no idea what I would be doing. Of course, I wanted my first day to be playful, to cut some tension, and to accelerate the camaraderie between myself and the other actors who were playing the characters of the Watch. In the first few minutes of rehearsals, I walked on stage as Dogberry, inspecting the Watch, and immediately placed my hand on Andrew Fleming’s (the actor playing Verges) groin like a doctor, asking him to cough. That definitely set the right tone for the relationship between the characters. We performed that scene exactly as we had improvised it that day during rehearsals.
We did not actually rehearse at the Spadina House until the tech week, a few days before opening. We had taken a tour around the space, but we had to work really fast in transposing what we had done in the rehearsal room into the actual space.
The show split the audience into 2 groups to stumble upon key scenes from the play. When I saw the show, in order for the timing to work out with the groups meeting up to see your scenes as Dogberry, you had about 15 minutes to fill with physical comedy and improv. Did you plan any of that with the other actors in the scene or just play it all by ear?
Before opening night, we actually had no idea there would be a timing issue between the two groups. We had a comedy routine set up for the start of the scene, but we had nothing planned for the 15-minute delay before the scene is meant to begin. I had such a great complicity with my fellow actors, I trusted them wholeheartedly, that when I turned to them and said, “We just have to go out there and improvise something,” everyone was game. We barely discussed any ideas, and we ran out there and played with the audience. As Dogberry, the leader of the Watch, I was able to control the scene, the timing, and that made it easier for all of us to play. We had a hierarchy, we had rules, and that’s the most important thing for a comedy troupe, for clowns, for anything!
What was the craziest bit you came up with during that scene? Were there any gags that went over particularly well or poorly when you tried them out?
The craziest bit would definitely have to be Dogberry turning into a Tyrannosaurus Rex and midwifing the birth of a demon baby from one of the members of the Watch. Even describing the scene now is baffling!
I was actually surprised by how well the audience reacted to Dogberry. I thought people would be shocked and appalled, but the further we played, the more people would laugh. We kept it very playful, despite the absurd humour, so audiences didn’t feel alienated. I don’t recall anyone reacting poorly, and we made sure that the audience felt like they were a part of the experience through our interaction with them.
However, there were lots of bits that ended up on the cutting room floor during rehearsals. I usually improvised something new each time we rehearsed a scene. It was up to Jonathan Langley, the director, to rein me in and cut back things that might be considered going too far. I trusted his judgment, and did what felt right. Of course, due to the already “envelope-pushing” nature of the gags that were in the show, you can imagine that whatever is on the cutting room floor is probably something that cannot be mentioned in public, for fear of blasphemy!
Was it tricky navigating the audience proximity and staying hidden with no real “backstage”? (or stage, for that matter).
We actually had hiding spots all over the place, or we just knew where to go to avoid the audience. For most of my scenes, I hid behind a shed with the rest of the Watch, and waited for a signal (a flashlight) to tell us when we could begin the scene. One entertaining moment was always after the first Watch scene: Andrew Fleming (Verges) and I would exit the scene by mime-driving an old automobile into the distance. We’d end up running into the bushes in front of the Spadina Museum, drenched in sweat and out of breath from all the physicality. We had to wait there for the audience to walk by and enter the house before we could start our next scene. The audience’s role during the performance was as “new staff in training,” and although they couldn’t see us, we’d still be performing in character, peering through the leaves, inspecting them and making comments. For us, this was highly amusing.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
My favourite moment in the production is definitely when I change into the role of Friar Francis halfway through the show, during the failed marriage attempt between Claudio and Hero. I had no time to put on any makeup or prosthetics to conceal my face. All I had was a cloak, a bible, and wire-rimmed glasses. The audience had just seen me as Dogberry, so when I would come out as the Priest, they usually burst out laughing. This moment was great to play with, as this wedding is supposed to be a joyous occasion. Of course, this scene ends up being pretty dark and tragic, so the juxtaposition of emotions was rich. I felt the audience was always kept on their toes – and not just physically (this was a walkabout experience, after all)!
What are you working on now and what’s up next?
Currently, I am working on developing my own international theatre company based in Toronto, and have very exciting new shows in the works. I’ll also be developing a project in England with a company called Wet Picnic for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer. I also plan on teaching a few workshops later this year for those interested in the Lecoq training.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
It’s a great honour to be nominated, so thank you!