Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.
In my first season covering The Shaw Festival there was one actor who really stood out as the most eclectic and compelling performer. The chameleonic Steven Sutcliffe stole my attention with a show-saving performance in the detestable On the Rocks then created the most complex character of the season as the titular stoic hero in The Admirable Crichton, one of the season’s greatest productions. What’s more, the kind and self-effacing actor will be tickled to learn, I didn’t realize those performances were from the same man until I turned to the cast lists to write my reviews. As he settles back in Niagara-on-the-Lake to begin rehearsals on Shaw’s 2012 season, Steven gave one of the most enjoyable interviews of the 47-person series, despite his protestations that he’s “terrible at interviews”. Nonsense, Steven, sheer nonsense.
Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.
Thank you again for acknowledging our play, that was really nice. Thank you so much.
You were my favourite actor at The Shaw Festival last season. What brings you back year after year?
It’s a really nice place to work; it’s a really nice company. I had a tough choice a few years ago between Stratford and Shaw. I picked the Shaw Festival- I hadn’t been there for many years but I was there when I first started and I have a real connection to that place. It’s a lovely company to be a part of… as is Stratford, it’s just much bigger. It’s funny, you can work at Stratford and never cross paths with other actors in the company because you’re just on different tracks, in different theatres, you can actually go through a season and never lay eyes on another actor because it’s so big; that’s not the case at the Shaw. They’re both great places, I feel very grateful to have worked at both.
Did the sort of roles you were being offered make a difference in which one you chose?
Yeah, of course. It’s more the stories, sometimes. For me, that’s what it’s all about, just being a part of good storytelling. And you never know what you’re gonna get when you accept a job. Like in Sunday in the Park with George, it’s a blank page full of possibilities. You never know, sometimes you’ll take a job and be so excited about it and it’ll turn out to be disappointing, and other times…. especially in the repertory where you’re getting a couple of roles. Sometimes the secondary role or that second part, you’ll get and think “well, I’m not so happy about this” and then it’ll end up being the one you love doing the most. That’s the really great thing about the repertory system, the balance of that, being able to go back and forth between the roles. And I always like to do things that are different; that’s something I always hope for, that the roles won’t be very similar; I like having a range of parts.
Is there a specific production or role that stands out as particularly awesome experience?
The one I just did, actually. I just did a job in Chicago that was a fantastic experience. [Elizabeth Rex with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre]. It was wonderful to be a part of that. That’s on my mind because I just finished.
Do you have any parts that you desperately want to play someday?
No. I don’t, actually. I think when you’re a young actor everybody thinks that you’ll want to play Romeo, everybody thinks that Hamlet is the part that you should aspire to as an actor. But I’m ashamed to admit: Hamlet drives me bonkers *laughs*. I don’t know what it is about it, but it frustrates me so much; it’s that character, I guess, I don’t know.
Me too, he whines too much!
I don’t know what it is! But I’m like “oh, god, I hope I never have to see it again”.
But, no, I don’t have a role that I’m aching to play. Sometimes I think that when you have those kind of expectations it can lead to disappointment anyway. Sometimes you read plays that you didn’t even know about and find these extraordinary characters. At Shaw and Stratford a lot of people will read all the plays and go in with specific requests- “I want to do this, I want to do that”, I don’t even do that. I look at it and go from there, what my sort of instinct is on it, I guess. And sometimes you’re really wrong; sometimes you think there are parts that you’re really gonna connect with, and you don’t, and other ones where you think “Oh, I can’t do this” and for whatever reason it surprises you.
Was Crichton something that you knew you’d be able to do?
That was an interesting one, actually, because I read the play and loved the play. Then finding out Morris [Panych, the director] was doing it, you can’t go in there with any expectations of what you think it is, because he’s someone- both he and Ken [MacDonald, the designer] are such great men of the theatre who bring their own perspective on things. So it wasn’t anything like what I expected it to be when I first read it. It was very surprising, actually, what it ended up being- the direction that he went and the things that he added to the play were big surprises to me, so it was fun.
Can you give an example of something he added that surprised you?
Well, he chose to update it, for one thing. He’s been fascinated with the 20s music, so he wanted to add the music to [the play]; the whole notion of the animals and things like that were his invention. He said on the first day “I have this crazy idea, let’s go with it…” And, interestingly enough, I remember speaking with him early on and he was talking about reading the play and finding all the stuff that Barrie had written between scenes, and he was like “oy vey” with all that stuff, but it ended up being part of the production, actually, he used it as narration. So much of what Barrie writes in between the scenes, which ended up as narration, is so wonderful, so Morris included that, and used the animals to include that in the narration.
The Admirable Crichton almost feels like two different plays in one. There’s that centre section where Crichton is the leader (when the family is stranded on a deserted island) and that is bookended by the acts when you’re the servant. Was it difficult to integrate those 2 aspects into the same character?
Well, it’s the same character in completely different circumstances, as they all are. Even the aristocratic characters, they’re the same thing. They’re the leaders in the earlier scenes and they become, basically, the servants in the middle sections. But the essence of the character stays the same, it’s just that circumstance allows certain aspects of his character to come to the forefront. What remained for me was his sense of duty and honour. In the first part he is the perfect servant, an admirable servant and an admirable man, then in the second and third act, when they’re on the island, he makes an unselfish and honourable choice, an admirable choice, a choice that’s full of grace, I think, to set off the signal [that leads to the family’s rescue and Crichton’s return to servitude].
When they’re back in “civilized life” in act four, do you think it’s graceful of him or subservient of him to go back to his “role” and give up Mary, etc…?
I think, in his mind, when that choice comes, to fire the signal, he’s making the choice that he believes is the right choice. In the first act he says something along the lines of “you must do this because it is RIGHT”. So I don’t think it’s the choice his heart would want to make but I think in that moment he’s thinking of the love of his master, that it’s the best choice for him, and ultimately he feels that it’s the best choice, probably, for her, even though it’s not really. But it’s also the choice that Barrie makes; in the end, he wrote an earlier version of the play, or another version of the play, where Crichton and Mary- it’s a happy ending. But then Barrie’s line “but the stalls wouldn’t have it”, and at that time when he wrote it, they wouldn’t. So it was the ending that was expected.
When I went to see the show, the fire alarm went off in the middle of it.
Oh really?! That day? You were there that day?! That was crazy! It was really bizarre because we all had to leave the theatre in our costumes, and we were across the street-
– we could see you! It really broke the illusion.
*laughs*… I felt… *laughs*… it was so embarrassing! Because suddenly you feel like “I’m in a silly costume!” You feel like you’re naked or something. It was like one of those nightmare dreams, an actor’s nightmare. Suddenly you’re like “Oh my god, I’m in a play!” *laughs*. We were in our island wear too, it wasn’t our [proper suits and dresses]. We were all in our [rags and makeshift clothes], it was really bizarre. We ended up over at the hospital [across the street from the theatre] and all these people from buses who hadn’t been to the show were walking past us and looking at us as if we were… *laughs*. It was very funny. But, yeah, that was crazy. So you were there that day, wow.
Is there a bit of a separation there- that you’ll wear things and do things on stage that you might not be comfortable with as you in real life?
Oh god yeah! I remember laughing- I did The Rocky Horror Show in Neptune and, you know, you’re rehearsing it, and I remember the first dress rehearsal, coming out as Frankenfurter, and I take off my cloak and I’m like “oh my god! what have I got on?!” then you sort of get used to it, you’re not even thinking about it, you’re talking to your friend and she’s in a bra and panties, you’re doing pictures backstage. And in any other circumstance, if you were not in the theatre, we would both be covering ourselves up and… you know what I mean? There’s all these backstage photos that I have and I look at them now and think it’s just hysterical- men and women in hardly anything, and we’re just sort of casually sitting around, having a cup of tea or something, during the intermission. Absolutely, there are things that in your real life… and, of course, actions you would take, that you do on stage, that you would never do in real life. Aspects of yourself that you would never reveal or show- there’s all sorts of things that happen onstage that would never happen in real life.
Have you had any things majorly go wrong, apart from fire alarms?
Onstage? Oh god, yes! Yeah, tons of stuff. You ask me now and I’m drawing a blank, but ALWAYS- missed entrances,…
There was a really funny one in Stratford where this actress missed her entrance and the actor was saying her name again and again. And then he ended up going into a sort of circus theme, he just started going [sings] “da da dada, dadi da da dada” *laughs*. That was in Caesar and Cleopatra, so it was hardly appropriate, but he was just thinking “what do I do? what do I do?”, so he just started doing a circus theme then asked another character if he wanted to dance and then, eventually, she ended up coming on stage.
In Admirable Crichton, David Schurmann [who played Lord Loam], one day thought he was done, he started going to his dressing room, taking off his costume, and he forgot that he had an entrance. I was there going [in a British accent] “my lord!, my lord?, um, my looord?!” because we were missing a whole thing about going on the yacht trip [which is key information to the plot] and so Nicole Underhay [who played Lady Mary] did this amazing improv.
Things like that happen all the time, for sure. People will miss lines and pages; it’s Live! There are lots of little things that would happen, there always is. I think I’ve missed an entrance once; it was just to run on and off stage, but it mortified me that I’d miss an entrance.
One of the things at Shaw this year that I thought was really interesting was that you were very “admirable” as Crichton then the villain of sorts in On the Rocks. But I thought you played Dexter Rightside with a distinct reasonable quality.
Well, you know, he is reasonable, in his mind. He believes what he believes, so it is reasonable. He believes he’s right- Rightside, Dexter Rightside.
No, that was fun. It was fun to more of a character part. Like I said earlier, that’s one of the gifts of repertory is getting to do different kinds of characters. I also really love- people always laugh at me, but- I always kind of love getting to look different. Some people don’t want to do things like that, but I love putting stuff on. I sat beside, years ago, Robert Benson (who was a wonderful actor at The Shaw Festival), and I never really ever did anything with makeup or any of that kind of stuff, but sitting beside him and Billy Vickers (whose father was the great opera singer John Vickers- he used to go to the Met and watch his dad being put into all this opera makeup), they made me realize that you can really change the way you look. So I love all that kind of stuff. That’s one of the great fun things about working at Stratford and Shaw, all the great, different periods- certainly, at Stratford- all the periods and costumes, you get to look completely different. So I love that opportunity.
Do you find that helps you switch between your characters during rep?
No, that’s a really common question that people ask. But I always say that it’s like any job: if you’re a chef and you’re cooking two different things, they don’t get intertwined. Maybe if you were doing really similar plays, maybe in two Shaw plays, but I don’t know. They’re always such different worlds that that never occurs that you get mixed up. As I said, maybe if they were really similar characters, really well, well into the run, that can happen where your brain starts to… people start dropping lines suddenly, late into the run. But, no, that’s never been an issue.
At Shaw I find that almost all their productions have British accents.
Almost every single one in 2011! Do you ever find yourself carrying that with you when you leave.
Yeah. It is an interesting thing because a lot of those plays are so specific. Unlike Shakespeare, with a lot of Shaw’s plays it’s all about locale. And sometimes, in Shaw plays, the accent is written into the way Eliza speaks or whatever- he writes that. I was thinking the other day about these plays- I will be doing British accents, I’m assuming, in the plays that I’m doing this summer- but, working at Shaw and Stratford, how I longed to say “fuck” or something onstage.
You should’ve done Topdog/Underdog [from the 2011 Shaw season], they said “fuck” all the time!
*laughs* That’s right!
You’ve got to get in the Studio Theatre, that’s the trick.
Yeah! And I lied, because I did Serious Money. But I never.. or maybe I did, did I swear in that? We all swore at the end of act one. But I haven’t done a lot of modern stuff. Although at Shaw, and at Stratford, that’s changing a lot, actually.
Speaking of your upcoming season- you’re in Present Laughter and The Millionairess, right?
I’m playing Gary Essendine in Present Laughter and, um, some guy in The Millionairess, what’s his name? Adrian Benderbland, I think [Correct]. I don’t start that one for many months, so I haven’t actually looked at it yet, but I think it’s Adrian that I’m playing in that one.
When do you start rehearsals?
[I started] on March 22nd. The way my schedule works this year is that we do a pretty solid rehearsal on Present Laughter then maybe start previewing before I start The Millionairess. So that sort of allows you… it’s harder when you do them both at the same time, because then you would be looking at both plays at the same time. It’s kind of nice sometimes, though, if you’re rehearsing both at once, because your brain can shut off and maybe give you a little bit of perspective when you go back to it. Sometimes when you’re just on the same one, you can’t see the forest through the trees, but rehearsing at the same time can sometimes be great because you leave it and go work on something else, then when you go back to it you can see it a bit better.
Is it usually two productions a year per actor?
It used to be three. There are some people, I know some actors did three last year at Stratford. When I was there, I did three- that was 4 years ago or something, maybe 5 years ago- although it seems to be changing, these last few years, people seem to be only doing two at Stratford. And at Shaw it’s just two that you do.
Do you get a chance to see the other ones?
You do. Sometimes your schedule will be directly opposite another productions, so sometimes you don’t get an opportunity to see things. But, for the most part, you do. It’s sometimes the last place you want to be, in the theatre, when you’re doing 8 shows a week, but it’s always a pleasure to see stuff. Last year I loved When the Rain Stops Falling, that was my favourite I think.
That was one of my favourites too.
Yeah, that was really good. Really enjoyable. And a perfect example for me- what I love when I watch theatre is when it’s about the story and it’s not about somebody sticking out of the story- it was truly ensemble playing, and I loved that. I was really taken with it. It was beautiful done, beautifully directed; hypnotizing, I found. I really enjoyed it.
You’re one of the founding members of Theatre20, can you talk about that?
Yes, I’m really excited to have been a part of the forging of this company and hopefully it will provide all sorts of opportunities for writers, actors… Certainly, it’s not a company for the people that founded it, but the people who founded it are hoping to make a contribution to the Toronto theatre scene and hopefully create opportunities for a whole bunch of people, which I think is really exciting. So hopefully things will go well. People have been working really hard and it’s amazing that it’s… I can’t remember how many years ago we all met in this room and just started talking, and now it’s really coming to be, which is great. And, like I said, I really hope that it provides a lot of opportunities for people. Because there really isn’t a lot of that kind of stuff that happens in Toronto, and there is a need for it, so that’s how everybody sort of came together.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yes! What you’re doing, I think is fantastic. The more and more people who know about you, I think it’ll just grow and grow. For someone who is doing this for the love of what you’re doing, I really applaud you and thank you for supporting the theatre, particularly. I meant that about being acknowledged. You do plays and they’re sort of forgotten, but it was such a surprise, my agent told me [about the My Theatre Award nomination] and I sort of went “What?!” I really appreciate that, that you do what you do. That you see the shows and like them or not, but that you’re supporting us the way that you are with what you’re doing. I think it’s terrific and I hope you got SOMETHING out of my interview today!