Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.
Michael-David Blostein is one of My Theatre’s favourite people. He stole one of the first shows we ever reviewed- SoupCan Theatre’s Love is a Poverty You Can Sell– and we’ve covered almost every show he’s done since, including The Red Light District’s Witch of Edmonton and …la ronde…, SoupCan’s Marat/Sade, The Threepenny Opera with The UC Follies and, most recently, Adam Brazier’s excellent Cabaret at Hart House. Before his career-best performance as Cabaret‘s Emcee, Michael-David scored a spot in the final year of our Best Student Actor category of the My Theatre Awards. Nominated for his performance as Mack the Knife in Threepenny Opera, Michael-David is the only person from last year’s Nominee Interview Series to make a reappearance this year. Luckily, sitting down to drinks at The Queen Mother Cafe, he had plenty to add to his last interview after a monumental 2011.
Were you familiar with the part of Mack the Knife before starting?
Yeah. Well my dad was, at one point, a Brechtian. You know Pia Kleber? She was the head of the UCDP [the University College Drama Program at U of T] for awhile- she was a Brechtian scholar- and he, more or less, supervised her PhD. So there was a lot of Brecht material lying around our house. And I knew that for a lot of my friends whose intelligence and taste I respected a lot, Threepenny Opera was a point of reference, but I actually didn’t see the full script until I signed on.
And there were a couple of the songs in Love is A Poverty You Can Sell
Yes, the ones I didn’t like *laughs*. Well, “Mack the Knife”, I realize it’s a standard, but I think it’s boring as hell.
It’s the one that doesn’t seem to fit in, the idea that a Brecht piece could be performed by Frank Sinatra…
Probably, yes it doesn’t fit entirely.
The music in Threepenny Opera is crazy amelodic. Was that difficult to learn?
No, actually it was really straight forward, I found. Because Kurt Weill, at least at that point in his life, he couldn’t help but kind of have at least a tinge of what was going on, probably, in things like the Second Viennese School. To somebody who likes a little more melodic, maybe Weill sounds like Anton Webern, but I think when you get into music that’s even slightly more angular it’s infinitely more interesting to learn. Cabaret, by comparison, I learned everything in an hour, then it came down to the mood and the setting of the song.
Was that the first time you’ve been required to really carry the show? Your first leading man?
No, the first time I did that- although I think it’s a little more even, this is just the way the character would have thought of himself- was John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, which was the year before [with The UC Follies].
But it was still difficult. Not having the acting training, I had a very difficult time because offstage I’m fairly gregarious, but once I have to be in a scene I start off timid as a mouse. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I start off so small because I still don’t know what actions I can do that can even be defined as acting. That was a really hard thing when I was doing …la ronde….; the first time we did a read through for the Count and the Actress scene, Ted [Witzel, the director], very carefully, was like “you know those pauses and little noises that you like to make… that’s not acting”, he said to me. And I was like “oh, problem solved!” *laughs*.
In Threepenny Opera, up until the opening week, I thought I was the reason the show was going to bomb. I often feel that way. I felt that way in Cabaret as well. It’s usually not until that last week when everything comes together that I can really piece together what my role is in a play, especially when it’s the main one, because I can get so caught up psychologically in what it means to be a main character, that still really freaks me out, I guess.
Did starting to play leads change your approach to acting?
Yeah, well, it prepared me a lot more for what I’ve done since. Before Threepenny Opera, my entire experience with acting was like an Uta Hagen book, pretty much. Which appealed to me when I was even a fraction younger because it was easier to just sort of delve into the inexhaustible well of my emotions and memories. But I find that, after a point, that is now so tiring. It’s what Courtney Lammana could do as Sally Bowles- walk on stage and actually show herself.
With Threepenny Opera, that was the first time a lot of physical exercises were introduced to me and finding out how to find a mid-ground between feeling like the character on stage and having that actually matter to an audience. Because, you know, it’s great “oh, I feel like Mack the Knife”, well, you’re standing like a freaking introverted banker, what are you giving the audience? So, definitely, because there was so much trial and error. I think I tried more things just out of necessity, in that play, than in any play I’ve ever done.
If you struggle with showing who you are and doing the vulnerability thing on stage, does that start to limit you to specifically characters like the Emcee (who’s more of a guide than a character)?
That’s a good description.
Not necessarily. I learned different ways to play different characters, through …la ronde..., especially, because that’s the first time I worked from the outside in. There was no “let’s talk about your character”. No, it was “I’m gonna tell you about your character”, that’s Ted and he’s incredibly smart so I was all for it. He had just come back from Berlin and had this acting director who told him that no one was allowed to say lines as they were moving, as they were walking. Hopefully no one would have noticed this if they weren’t told beforehand, but there wasn’t a single actor in …la ronde…. who was speaking while they were moving anywhere on stage. Because this director said “talking is text”, you have to treat your intention- moving forward, moving backward- isolate that as what the character is doing because otherwise it becomes messy.
I think that the Count, even though I didn’t connect completely with it, was probably the closest to me I’ve ever played as a character. Because that’s usually how I court people: I get really really nervous and just start talking their ear off and then I go home.
It was your first “nice guy”
Yeah! That’s what I really liked about him, he was so well meaning. Even though he was so used to being heard and he really, you know “I’m going to tell you something about being an actress!”. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel less limited now that I don’t have to only refer to myself. Because the danger, for me, with that kind of acting is that you’re only as good as your most painful memory or your ability to recall immediately. That’s the same issue I had at one point with being a visual artist is that you develop this parasitic nature with your actual life, where it just becomes the fodder for your work and there is no separation. So, finding stuff just through pacing and movement [is really great].
You seem to be often cast in the same type. You’re always given…
Charming Sociopaths? *laughs* No, it’s funny because from what I’ve noted about a lot of the actors I’ve been around in the last couple years- I still consider myself on my virgin voyage with acting, I’m still meeting people in the field and finding out what they’re like as opposed to what I’m used to- I walk in there and feel that maybe I’ve defined myself a bit more in terms of an aesthetic, where most actors would prefer to keep themselves a little bit more neutral, and thus malleable so someone might say “oh, you could do this, or this kind of role” and I think because I walk in with, you know, these freaking shoes on [gestures to his high-heeled black leather boots], and this coat [long and dramatic], these things…
The voice alone… [referring to the deep bass that carries over from his singing to his everyday speech]
Well, this is the thing about Cabaret. They were thinking of maybe doing a cross-gender casting; there was the possibility of there being a female Emcee and a male Sally Bowles (which I think would have been very interesting). And I think I have the least gender-neutral voice ever. So, I’m like “they’re not going to cast me”. But it’s because I could sing it down there that they wanted me; they cast me because I sang it wrong. [The Emcee is a tenor role, with music generally two vocal parts higher than Michael-David usually sings]. “I Don’t Care Much” [the lowest song] came up in the audition and I was like “okay, this is comfortable” and [The director, Adam Brazier] had a very specific image of the Emcee in front of a period microphone with a cigarette singing “I Don’t Care Much”. I think I walked in and, probably, physique [tall and thin] and voice [LOW, brilliant, but LOW] alone, he was like [points] “that guy”. I think he trusted me a bit more to come up with my own stuff, and because of that I didn’t really get as much time with him to talk about the character as, say, Courtney did with her character, or Renee [Stein] for Fraulein Schneider- which was difficult for her, because when you’ve done a production three times, it’s muscle memory at that point, then the director’s telling you “no, we’re doing [it differently]”.
The reason I’m so glad that I finally got the Emcee is that all of my characters seem to be very prosaically hetero, which I’m not particularly happy with. I find that really boring; I mean, I’ll do it, because I’m an actor, I’ll do the role if you give it to me. But what I liked about the Emcee was that his orientation seemed irrelevant. And it’s funny because he could have been far more gender-bending, but Adam said “we’re not making you Frankenfurter” [from The Rocky Horror Show]. So I did like that.
So you come into the audition room with a sense of “this is who I am as a person” and that informs how you get cast?
I hope not, because I like the idea of not just going on and playing augmentations of bits of my personality. I don’t like the idea of being like a Jack Nicholson kind of person who just gets cast for an attitude they have off, well, screen, in his case.
Were you proud of Cabaret?
I was. I think we put on an unorthodox but not irreverent version of Cabaret; it’s still respectful of the work. After all of the work we put into changing things around and making it into a kind of meta-narrative with Cliff and with the Emcee, once those lights went up and the music- ’cause Scott Christian is brilliant, as a musical director- once all those things came together, I realized we were putting on, I think, a very unique version of Cabaret. I was very very happy with it. And I have to be, because I realize that for me Cabaret is a real moment of full-circle. I did HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, but the nucleus for me, the real beginning of all the theatre I’ve done, is the UC Follies Cabaret that I did in 2008. I just played the ticket collector, at that point, but that was the first time I had ever really seen theatre done by people my age. And for me to have done all of this stuff in between and then come back and be the Emcee is really [amazing]. It was a very hard show to walk away from.
The reviews were generally all good, right?
I’ve been told that they’re glowing about me, but I’m trying to not [read them]. The scary thing, again, going back to the leading man thing, is keeping in mind that you are the leading character serving the freaking play. I made the mistake, after the first weekend, of reading the reviews people sent to me, and they were all positive, but then I had that in my head.
They tell you who you are.
Yes. Exactly. So the show was difficult because I was battling with certain little ego things, just in terms of I’ve never been given a bow like this and I’ve never heard such overwhelming praise about anything I’ve ever done. But I still have to think of it as a step and not a conclusion.
I also really liked working with Courtney. When she sang “Cabaret” the first time, it was just as we were going on Christmas holidays and it was a call-to-arms for me, because staring at me the whole time was I think something she just came up with there. And I wasn’t acting, I was just feeling accused by this petite little 20-year-old girl who looks 16. I think she’s well on her way to being a force of nature. So that was a great honour.
Hart House is connected to U of T but it’s an independent professional company. Does that make the Emcee your first big role outside of school?
Oh my god, I guess you’re right. Yeah, I guess, other than that, it would just have been …la ronde… I didn’t think of that. You’re right.
You’ve performed in that theatre with The UC Follies (a student company) and Hart House (the professional one). Were the experiences at all similar?
I didn’t work with anyone on Cabaret that I had met before, other than the music director. It was all Randolph people; all people willing to walk in and learn their job in the first hour, and from there it was tweaking. The process is different if only because we get the theatre from day one. You don’t get that with UC Follies- you’re practicing everywhere around the theatre until about 3 days before you go up. So that was different. We had a lot of the same trepidations with Cabaret as with Threepenny Opera because so many things felt very nebulous right up until the week of the show. But it worked out in the end.
You did a lot more dancing in Cabaret than you usually have to. Was that hard to learn?
I was scared shitless. But Amanda Nagy is a very interesting choreographer in that a lot of the moves, the first time I saw them, looked impossible. Then, as soon as I realized what was actually happening, it was just coming down to having the confidence to perform it. Because I feel like she is much more of an expressionist than a formalist in terms of her dancing. It helps, certainly, to have movement training, but you don’t need it to make it look good. And she was incredibly empathetic- she’d spend an hour alone with me doing that kick line stuff. And it’s funny because since we were all doing it in sync, it ended up making me look pretty good, as a dancer. She was wonderful.
Do you have to convince yourself to do the crazier things in on-stage physicality, or does it come naturally?
I have to convince myself.
So the Emcee is a pretty daring role, then.
It really really is. That kind of stuff does not come naturally on stage to me at all. I think, and this is just a personal note, growing up as a kid with diagnosed ADHD, I try to keep very conscious of how much I’m moving and when I’m moving. Because, you get in trouble enough as a kid and you know how you feel about being too over the top.
It was also difficult for me because the Emcee can be treated like a 2 hour long audition piece. You know, “look at me go; look at me steal the show”. And that really worried me, I didn’t want to do that at all. The physical vocabulary I built up was something, again, I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had not done …la ronde… because I didn’t know if that was acceptable to do. I didn’t know how to intelligently be loud. Were it not for people like Marcel, I would have no reference for a performance that is both unhinged but also fully controlled. And that helped so much because, until the last week, I was playing it like this dour old man being sent to the gallows, like [in a German accent] “life is disappointing” and Adam went “you’re putting me to sleep!”, which was fine; direction is better.
It’s another moment of working from the outside in; once the costume was on, it gave me the confidence, again. It’s really difficult for me to be comfortable in being loud because how do you get the timing down, as well? I was really happy with what you said about me in your review. Duh ’cause you said nice things. But in terms of not even being human, I think you really nailed what I was hoping to emulate. When I first got the role of the Emcee, I immediately thought of Robert Wilson’s production of The Threepenny Opera– they all have a very set physical vocabulary. Ted once dismissively referred to Wilson’s style as being “autistic”, which I think is both kind of a horrible thing to say and an accurate thing to say just in terms of not having connection; all the actions are so precise, but with no feeling. And I thought of the way, interestingly enough, Mack the Knife was played because everything was chosen so carefully and I love the idea of that. I also love Butoh, it’s a Japanese form of modern dance that is both the most beautiful and hideous thing I have ever seen. They’re all painted in white and are making these really slow, belaboured movements.
What’s the official top hat count? [Charming Sociopaths almost always wear top hats]
Okay, so now what’re we at…..?
Cabaret had a bowler hat…
A bowler as Bobby, yes! [as Bobby] “I was introduced to you…”, that’s just my best Bowie accent, is what that is.
You played actually about 8 different parts, right?
Yeah, which was fun. I think the taxi man being my favourite just because he was so creepy. *laughs*.
The Emcee was in pretty much every scene, even the private ones between Sally and Cliff, because he was telling the story.
We had a really interesting conversation that didn’t necessarily feed into the play as much, about how if this is a play being put on about the Third Reich after all this has happened, then we can safely assume the Nazis are in power. Okay, what do I know about the era of the Nazis? Well, there was the Degenerate Art Exhibition. They rounded up all the works of the modern artists- independently of style or context- and slapped them all together in a gallery and said “Have a laugh, look at what you’ve been throwing your tax dollars into, this zeitgeist garbage, performed by mad men. We will make an art that is eternal”. And that was the boring Third Reich stuff that no one remembers.
So, then I thought, this fed into the Emcee being the main person… do you know the composer Olivier Messiaen? He’s a contemporary of, like, Pierre Boulez, so he was the serialist, like mainstream a-tonal music from the 1930s, I believe was when he was working. He was interned at one of the concentration camps and “Quartet for the End of Time”, which is one of the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard- really haunting and dissonant- was performed for the first time in a concentration camp with people he found in the concentration camp who could find the instruments that were required. So he performed this classic piece of 20th Century composition in front of an audience of concentration camp inmates and soldiers- and he said it was the most attentive audience he’d ever had. So, for awhile, I worked with the idea of the Emcee being a figure like that. Being, perhaps, like I said in the talkbacks, somebody like a Tristan Tzara, who had made his bread and butter being an artist, who would have been deemed degenerate by the Nazis. So this means, in that case- and this is a through-line that I ended up throwing out- but what this means is that the Emcee is probably performing to an audience of Nazis. He’s putting on a play about the memory of Berlin with, one would assume, people he’s found from the concentration or death camp he’s in. Which makes it terrible for the girls, because the girls were probably from the joy division. Those were the stakes for me, for a long time. I’m thinking “so this is an artist’s last chance at being heard before being sent to the gas chambers”- very dramatic, obviously, but it didn’t end up working, in the end. That’s why the performance was so dour for so long, because there was that threat of death constantly there. But it was a really good way, for me, of connecting myself to the entire play. When you’re watching all the action and being like “this is something that I’ve written”, it’s really amazing.
Do you have any dream roles you’d love to take a stab at?
Well, there’s a quotation, “if the Gods want to punish you, they’ll answer your prayers” and I’ve found that, with certain plays that I’ve done, when you promise yourself something because you say “this is going to be good and I’m really going to love this”, for me that’s always when I do my worst work.
One of the most fun things about being new to theatre, for me- because I consider myself an arbiter of taste, when it comes to talking about modern art or music, it’s all a part of this whole thing [points to a pair of oversized headphones], this identity- I am illiterate when it comes to theatre. Which, I’m not like “great!”, but it means that I actually have to walk into situations and depend on the kindness of strangers, if I want to be DuBois-ish. So what’s still exciting for me is that every play I walk into, I never feel like I have a firm footing, so I promised myself I’d never make any promises about the roles I get and what I’d like to try.
Being still new to acting, do you have any door that you’re still scared to open? For example, Shakespeare…
I’d like another crack at, at least, something from that period of time, because I wasn’t ready for Witch of Edmonton. I loved being in it but I feel that …la ronde… was me redeeming myself, almost, for that, because I was ready to commit intellectually.
So to do something like that again I think would be really interesting for me. Because now I know how to walk into a rehearsal and leave my personal bullshit behind about what it means to be in costume and character and all that stuff. That was the first straight acting play I’d ever done in my life, Witch of Edmonton. And the language, I thought was amazing.
But, Shakespeare, yeah. After seeing David Tennant as Hamlet, I’m game. You know, that’s been the one celebrity comparison from my adult life? Every single person meets me and is like “you’re David Tennant”. But they just mean I’m lanky and enthused, right? That’s more or less the stereotype.
I don’t know, there’s a pale thing, something about the nose…
Yeah, the nose. But I have a jaw line, so screw that guy! *laughs* A little defensive, Michael-David, come on.
In terms of your approach to theatre, is there a commercial line you’re not willing to cross? To leave the indie scene? Because there aren’t a lot of directors like Ted…
Yeah, that’s something that I’ve actually found very difficult. It’s difficult for me to say what I prefer because my experience is still so limited- it’s not even in the double digits yet- in terms of shows that I’ve done. So I don’t know what I prefer because there hasn’t really been a situation that’s repeated itself yet. Sarah Thorpe [the director of Love is a Poverty You Can Sell and Marat/Sade] has a way of working where she sort of organizes a scene based on tableaux and, by the end of it, something really interesting can come up just by the talent she’s curated. Ted is much more forceful and very hands on with his direction. Adam’s very loose.
In terms of commercial stuff, after Marat/Sade I actually got spotted by an agent, so I’m with KG now, which is very strange for me because I’m getting calls for McDonalds commercials, and I’m just like “have you seen my haircut?!” [it’s a sort of asymmetrical, angular, floppy look] “yeah, I’m totally the face of Bell Canada” *laughs* And this is interesting because there are actors I respect who are really upset that they don’t have an agent. And I’m like “the reason you don’t have an agent is that you’re a good character actor”. You know what they said to me when I was walking out of there? I read some script from Supernatural, like a page and a half, and they said “we hope you’re on board because you’ve got a great look and you’re a [pause] good actor”.
For what? McDonalds?
Apparently. For commercials and stuff. That’s what having an agent is about, I guess. Which is kind of interesting. I know at some point I’m gonna have to do voice work and I can probably make some money from that, which I’m pretty lucky to have.
It’s a very difficult thing to come to terms with, I feel, because there is that inner 15-year-old telling me that you shouldn’t be caught dead doing that kind of work; your work should be something that won’t come back to haunt you. And that’s where the constructed identity comes out. Like Eve Wylden– one of the most AMAZING actors I have ever met- she’s got an agent and she’s doing commercial work and stuff. And I seriously feel like this angsty teen when I hear that and think “but you CAN’T, you’re so good!”. But, of course, if the [choice] is between having six thousand dollars and not, why would you not, as a young actor? Her, Marcel [Dragonieri] and Lauren [Gillis]- the standard I hold myself to is their standard, in terms of acting. They and Kat Letwin are among the only young actors I’ve ever seen that actually make me proud to be a part of this whole thing. I find it interesting as a personal process, to be an actor, but I don’t find a lot of acting interesting. But specifically Lauren, Kat, Mina, Marcel- what they do, I’ve never met anybody else who does specifically what they do. It’s not about being the best, it’s about being intuitive the way they are.