Macbeth is very near and dear to my heart. I’ve seen tons of productions with settings ranging from Scotland to Africa, The White House, and a heroin-chic urban tribe, and I’ve seen plenty of actors attempt the troubling title role. But Eli Ham is my favourite so far, leading the capable Humber River Shakespeare Company in their first foray into tragedy as a morally complex and endlessly dynamic Scottish King.
The performance earned him a Best Actor in a Regional Production nomination in the 2012 My Theatre Awards. The ever-amiable and refreshingly candid Eli met me in a west end coffee shop for some serious Shakespeare delving and the low-down on the tour that brought him and the rest of the Humber River company to Casa Loma last summer.
Can you remember your first theatre production you ever saw?
First one I ever saw? No. I don’t know if I could. I could remember a couple early ones— I remember the one that I saw that I went, “Oh for sure I want to do that.”
Which one was that?
I started doing theatre when I was seven or eight. Me and a couple of friends wrote our own five minute version of Robin Hood, and took his dad’s guitar case down to the Stratford Festival, and just sat outside and performed this five minute version of Robin Hood—basically, theatre busked [Laughs]. And people thought it was really cute. But when I was 12 or 13, Stephen Ouimette was playing Richard III in Richard III [at the Stratford Festival]. I met Stephen, and to this day I don’t even know if he’ll remember this, but I saw that show, like, four times. Anyway, the second act starts, and it starts off with one of Richard’s monologues, and I was sitting in the way back—it was in the Tom Patterson, so there’s not really a bad seat in that house—and there were these two women in the front row who—it seemed like they waited for the lights to go down, and then they waited for them to come back up, and then went riffling through their purses and whispering to each other. It starts with Stephen coming out and doing one of Richard’s monologues, and he starts doing the monologue, and he hears them, and he looks over and stops for a second. Just stops speaking. And they continue to have a conversation “Well I don’t think—Shhh! People can hear you!” And there’s silence, so everyone can hear them, because it’s the Tom Patterson. And so [Stephen] saunters over, and to my knowledge—to my 13-year-old Shakespeare nerd knowledge—he didn’t change a word of text. But he just leaned over top of these women as they finished unwrapping their candies, and one woman burst into tears and ran out of the auditorium when she realized everybody was staring at her, and he was standing right beside her, and I remember just going like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.” I mean, “cool” is not the right word. That’s powerful, that is something. What an amazing thing to see somebody just commit to an imagined circumstance from 400 years ago, out of context, and it still makes someone cry.
So you saw a lot of Stratford productions, obviously, growing up in Stratford?
I was very fortunate for that, yeah. Or, around Stratford. I mean, my mom’s a hippie and my dad’s an organic farmer, so I grew up sort of around Stratford.
What was it like, then, to join the company and go to the Birmingham Conservatory?
The Birmingham Conservatory is really interesting. It’s a great program. My experience of it was that the first 10 weeks were fantastic. The first ten weeks were 12 artists being messy, making mistakes, learning from each other. It was obviously a dream of mine, since I was a kid, to get to work on those stages. I think what I found out was that it’s just another theatre. It’s big, and lots of great people work there, but it’s just another theatre that’s trying to tell stories, and it has its own problems, and its own internal politics.
You’re surrounded by so many other artists—not even including other actors— when you take into consideration all the designers you get to interact with and all the scenic painters you get to interact with, and there’s so many different artistic energies to sort of ebb and flow, and get you through places—if you’re not getting along with a group of actors, you can literally just go and hang out with the hairdressers, you can go and hang out with the makeup artists, and they have just as much of a say or as much of a part in producing what that million dollar machine does, right? And that’s what it is, in a way. I don’t mean to shortchange it—because it does have soul. That place does have soul—I believe that. There are actors there who have beautiful, beautiful souls and do beautiful, beautiful work, um, but that place—because of how big it’s become—is a bit of a machine. And sometimes that can get away from you, in terms of being an artist. In my experience, anyway.
Do you feel that growing up where you did and having a formative experience with Richard III—is that what keeps bringing you back to Shakespeare over and over again, or is there something else that draws you in?
Probably. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it that way, but probably. It’s certainly taught me the value of it. And certainly I had parents who were very supportive of arts as part of education, and of Shakespeare as another tool, or as a great example of what good theatre is, and what good drama is, and good storytelling. I grew up really loving language. My mom was a really big hippie, like an I-went-to-Woodstock hippie [Laughs] and so she didn’t believe in babysitters. So I used to have ‘advisors’ when I was a kid.
What’s an advisor?
Well, you’re not a baby, nor do you need to be sat upon, and so rather than a teenaged kid coming over to look after me for the evening, my mom would make sure one of her friends was around, and they would come over and they have their areas of expertise, so I had somebody who was a literature advisor, somebody who was a philosophy advisor, an ethics advisor, a politics advisor—this sort of thing. Which sounds cool, but turns you into a really weird kid.
I just love language and the way that Shakespeare plays with language is just like nobody else. I mean, he made a lot of it up. A lot of these wonderful words that we use today—most of the compound words that are used in the English language today—were made up by him, so I think it’s more of a language thing for me.
Is that something you emphasize when you’re doing a part? A lot of people go straight for character stuff—do you actually emphasize the language?
Oh yeah, for sure. Especially with Mackers, that was the first thing that I did. I went to the text because Shakespeare is really specific with that stuff, right? Back in the day, when Shakespeare was first starting out, there was no such thing as a director. You as an actor just got your lines and your cue lines. You didn’t have a full script. There was no way for you to look at the arc of the story—all you had was what you said. Then there’s those old theatre school things where you talk about “well, what do people say about you?, what do you say about yourself?, what do you say about other people?”. I find, within Shakespeare, because he is so specific in his words and he’s so specific with his punctuation, that that is a place to go: “Well, what is said about him?”. That’s how Mackers came out for me, because you read those first couple scenes and you go, “Oh, this guy’s a hero!” Like, he’s a National Hero. He is arguably, at the time, the greatest general that Scotland’s ever seen. He’s called honest, he’s called upright, he’s called a good husband— people say all these good things about him, so why would I approach him as a villain? Why would I come at him as a villain? Why would I try to go “Oh, well I know he kills people in the end, so…”? He’s just a regular guy who loves his wife who just… gets lost. And so, for me, I do approach text that way. Sometimes you have to look at physical character traits too, [but] it’s really important- certainly with Shakespeare- to make sure you know what you say about yourself, and what others say about you first.
Do you approach Shakespeare particularly differently than you approach, say a contemporary text?
Yeah, I would say that that’s a fair assessment. I do do that with most texts, though. If I’ve been offered a part, or I’m looking at a part, or somebody’s looking at me for a part, I will go through and look at what does everyone say about him or… or her (because I have done that once or twice). What do they say about this particular character? And then from there on you can sort of guess at what character traits they might have. But I don’t like to do too much of that work before I get into the room and before I know what my dynamic with the director and the other actors is going to be. I mean, I did all that work in terms of what other people say about me, what I say about myself, all that- I can do all that and those are all factual things, things that are in the text, that are supported and I’m not colouring them. They’re just there. So then, when I get into the room, I have all this knowledge, but I haven’t necessarily already decided how I’m going to do it because I didn’t know how Shannon [Currie, Lady Macbeth] was going to be when I walked into the room, I didn’t know how Kevin [Hammond, the director] was going to be with me when I walked into the room. I know Kevin and I know Shannon, but I didn’t know what she was going to bring to Lady M. I didn’t know Kevin’s vision of the play—I mean, we talked about his vision of the play. We had several meetings, but until you know what the dynamic in the room is, I think it’s hard to do too much work by yourself.
How’d you first get involved with Humber River?
I’ve auditioned for them for years. I know Kevin socially, and I’ve met Sara [Moyle, Artistic Producer] socially, and it’s sort of been one of those “it’s never worked out” types of relationships, theatrically. There just hasn’t been, as Kevin puts it, the right part for me, and there’s been a couple times when I think that maybe they had wanted to use me, that I was unavailable. So I think it was more the right time—right part, right time, right sort of moment to do it. I have a great deal of respect for them as a company, having done what they did, to re-start another Shakespeare troupe in the city, when they did it, under the political climate that they did it, and the economic climate that they did it—I really appreciate that and respect that.
You touched on this a little bit, but you’re handed a mammoth role, like Macbeth: where do you start?
I go to the text first. I mean, first I freak out—I did freak out a little bit, because it’s the first time I’ve been trusted with a Shakespeare lead of that size or magnitude; I’ve been a character actor for most of my early career. But, I started with the text. I read the play, and then I read it again, and then I read it again. And then I read just my lines, and then I read everyone else’s but my lines, and then I read the play again. And you make notes and you make notes and you make notes, and then what I did was I just had a series of questions on day one with Kevin. I just had a series of questions like “these are things that I found out about the play or that I think are in the text, do you either support, refute, deny, accept? What’s your idea?” And then, it wasn’t until, probably, week 2 for me that I even thought about his physicality. That came more out of my relationship with the other actors than anything else. Especially once you show up and see who’s cast around you and the fact that, you know, the woman playing my wife I could have spun like a basketball because she was so little [Laughs]. All due respect to Shannon, she’s wonderful—she was a wonderful company member, a wonderful, wonderful person to do that with. I felt very fortunate.
What was it like working with Kevin? Were his ideas of the role similar to yours?
Yeah. I think because we had talked about it, they were. He knew where I was coming from, and I knew where he was coming from. I mean, you’re bound to have disagreements, and we did, but I think Kevin’s enough of a pro and he’s been around long enough, and I would like to believe that I’m, you know, gracious enough that it never turned personal. It didn’t become, “well that’s a stupid idea” it was just “well, I disagree with that. Can we try this?” And Kevin was really, really open that way; he’d let me try whatever I wanted to try, even when I could tell that he thought it was stupid [Laughs]. And I appreciate that. But yeah, we disagreed on a couple things. There were a couple things we disagreed on that we had to agree to disagree on. And some went my way and some went his way, and I think that’s the way it goes on those sort of things, I hope. I wasn’t meaning to be a diva, but it was just one of those moments when you’re like, “well, I can’t actually—what you’re asking me to do in this moment, I can’t do without this”.
Can you give me an example?
Well, we repeated the banquet scene.
I was going to ask about that. Did you disagree with that choice?
Well, for me, that is the climax of the play. Well, that’s where he decides that he has no other choice, right? At the end of that scene he says, “It will have blood,” they say, “blood will have blood,” he says the whole speech about “I am in blood stepped so far that should I wade no more,” and so that’s when he actually makes that decision to go, “Oh, shit. I have to kill all of them.” Because I don’t think he wants to do that, but he realizes “I can’t—now that everyone’s seen me go nuts, and now that—I don’t have a choice. I have to commit to this.” And so, there’s a little bit of me that felt cut off at the knees, not having the full run into that moment. And I was also just a little bit nervous, to be honest, from a completely technical standpoint, of repeating the scene, because we repeated it in a different edit. So, from a purely technical standpoint, part of me said, “well, if I was an audience member I’d be sitting there going like, ‘oh, I saw—why? Oh, these are different. Oh, they forgot their lines. They’re just repeating things so they can get back on track’.” You know what I mean? I had some reservations about it that way. And then, you know, the idea did change and morph, like, it became something more interesting as a concept. The first time we did it, David [Sklar] was there [as the ghost of Banquo]. And the second time we did it, David was not there. So we had Mac’s perspective and we had the guests’ perspective, which I think is interesting. I still, from a purely selfish standpoint, found it difficult to navigate, but people liked it and, you know, it is Kevin’s show. He’s the director, he’s the boss, it’s his world, so you have to find a way to negotiate within his world, and, I mean, if that’s the only thing that we fully have a knock-down, drag-out argument about, that’s not bad, I don’t think. [Laughs]. Kevin and I are still friends.
Was one of those ways easier? Did it make more sense to you as an actor to have Banquo there or not there?
See, it depends on your budget, right? [Laughs]. If the blood and guts looks ridiculous, then don’t have him there. But if it’s real and he looks scary and he looks like a ghost, then I think you should have him there. I think so, I think it’s helpful. Or you do the scene, you have him disappear halfway through it, and half of the scene he’s gone. Because I think you can do both. I think it is possible to do both. And I think they both offer different challenges to you as an actor. The upside to not having him there is that, depending on what kind of actor you are—like I have always had a ridiculously over-active imagination, which is why, to this day, I won’t watch Lord of The Rings. Because I loved those books as a kid and I tried—my little brother tried to get me in—and I walked into the room and went, “That’s not what Ents look like. Sorry, I can’t watch it.” Like, in my head—I’m in no way suggesting that I have a better imagination than Peter Jackson—but I have a nostalgia, I have something sentimentally attached to what an Ent looks like, and what Gollum looks like to me. And so, I was able to, in those moments, without David, I was able to scare myself way more than when David was there, because what I was imagining I was looking at was way creepier.
How did you approach building the power dynamic between you and your Lady M? You had a really physical relationship, both sexually and violently.
I think that’s something that I suppose is slightly inferred by Shannon and I, but we talked about it—her and Kevin and I—basically, day two or three of rehearsal, we talked about that. And Shannon and I both agreed that one of his main traits that you look at in the play is his physical prowess. He’s one of the greatest generals- not only generals, but warriors- when people talk about him in battle, they talk about him being quite the physical person. So I think that that, coupled with the fact that he likely hasn’t seen his wife in months, is what led up to the way that that first scene goes. And I think that is a bit of their relationship. She’s such a dominating force, emotionally, so I think that he—I just think that he really, really loves his wife. Because when you look at it- I find it in the text, anyway—he really doesn’t do anything that isn’t for her, right? Even going off to battle. Yeah, he does it for his country, he has that sense of honor, but a lot of it is in order to build something for his wife. In order to build a family, and I think that that’s important. In terms of the violence of the sexual relationship, I think that just came out of not seeing each other. Also, I could do worse; Shannon’s a relatively good-looking woman [Laughs] so, um, I didn’t have a problem with that.
With the perspective that he does everything for his wife, when you get to the end, and you find out she’s dead, and the response is, “she should have died hereafter, there would have been time for such a word”, what is going through your head at that moment? Is it that you really wish you had time to mourn, or is it, that’s over with, it doesn’t matter, you’ve moved on fast?
For me, that whole speech is for her. That whole thing about “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” isn’t about him and the dreariness of life, necessarily. It’s a bit of an homage to his wife: “all this, and now I’m going to have to get up day after day after day and you’re not going to be there”. So it’s more about how meaningless his life has become sans her, right? Because I think that—I grew up speaking French, and the French term for missing someone, “tu me manques”, literally translated, it’s not “I miss you”, it’s “you are missing from me.” And I think that that’s what it is for him and his wife. It’s not that he’s looking out after his wife has died and he’s saying, “I miss you.” It’s like, “you are now missing from me, there is no reason for me to do any of this”. And then he has that moment where he’s like, “fuck it.” Pardon the language [Laughs].
Your Macbeth had a stronger moral compass than most iterations—ultimately, what do you think it is that drives him to kill Duncan? What’s the convincer?
That’s a tough question. I do think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I think it’s a culmination of the fact that this is something his wife really thinks is a good idea. She really believes in the fact that this is going to happen. And he’s already had this suggestion put in the back of his brain. People make more or less of that witch stuff in different productions—I liked the fact that ours weren’t overly magical, that it was more [that they] literally just poisoned his mind, and he went nuts. We do this to ourselves, right? We have presupposed ideas of how things should work out, especially once you hear something. So I think that partly it’s his wife, partly it’s that—and he talks about this a little bit—it’s that Duncan isn’t a good wartime king. He’s not. He’s weak. He talks about that: “born a Scot so meek”. So I think he convinces himself for a load of reasons, [but] it isn’t basically until his wife questions his manhood that he says, “are you saying that if I don’t do this, I’m that?”. Part of his killing of Duncan is really rash; it’s that he listens to his wife the moment that he shouldn’t. Because Mac sees the war. She sees the battle. She’s never been to war, so she doesn’t know that you don’t just kill one person and it’s over. That’s not how it works. And Mac sees that, and I think that’s his reticence, and that’s their fighting point, when she says, “well, why did you even talk about it? Why did you even tell me about it if you didn’t want to do it?”. [He’s thinking] “Whoa, whoa, that’s what you do, you consider things and make plans”, but he’s so hooked into her—he’s so hooked into her energy, and he wants her to be happy, and also thinks that she deserves it. I think he thinks that she deserves to be queen more than he deserves to be king, in a way.
So then what drives him after she falls off the map in Act III?
Oh, I think he’s crazy by then. I think he’s actually started to lose his mind.
To me- as somebody who suffers with insomnia- I think that he is six or seven or eight days into a bout of insomnia, and he’s gone back to see the witches, and they’ve poured more venom into his ear, and I think he just becomes consumed by this idea. For me, he’s a bit unrecognizable at that point. Those moments of—you used the term “moral compass”— those moments where he lets his moral compass back in become fewer and further between. For me, the second toughest moment—after the death of the wife—was when he orders the death of Macduff’s family, after he’s met with the witches. I think he really wanted to have kids, so I think the idea of sending someone to do that really bothers him, but he knows it has to be done. He has convinced himself—he has become convinced—that his only way out of being evil is to be more evil.
Why them, though? That’s different than killing Macduff himself, going after his family—why was that necessary?
Teach him a lesson. Cause I couldn’t get to him. I didn’t know where he was—I mean, he was in England, but I can’t send people to England. I couldn’t get to him.
You were the only person who didn’t play at least two roles. How did that factor into the process? Especially things like, your Lady M dies and then comes back and you kill her again, yourself, when she is Young Siward?
That was one of the disagreements that Kevin and I had. I just flat out told him, sorry, that’s going to be built into the show now, when Young Siward walks onstage, I have to have a moment where I [react]. And that got built into the play. She comes running onstage and I’m like, “Don’t. I’m not fighting you. You don’t want to do this”. So, that particular one was interesting because it fed a little bit into that mania that he becomes wrapped in— not sleeping, and the paranoia.
Your soliloquies were superb. Was there one that was more challenging, or that forced you to delve the deepest?
Well, thank you; that’s very nice of you to say.
There were two. One being the “tomorrow” speech—and I know that that’s cliché to say, but it’s just hard. That’s a hard one because when you lose your, basically, raison d’être, how do you motivate the rest of that? How do you make that speech not just “Oh, poor me, I’m dying, leave me to rot” and make it active and reaching out towards your wife’s spirit? That was the difficult part for me.
The other one was the scene—“show, show, show, his eyes”. Usually that’s a dumb show, right? In every other production I’ve ever seen there’s puppets or whatever [for the apparitions]; I’ve seen one where they did it on a screen; I saw one in Chicago where it was a hologram because they had lots of money, obviously. And very early on Kevin was like, “look, we don’t have the money to make that look good, and I’m not going to do it with stupid-looking puppets”, so his term was “you are the special effects in this scene. Unfortunately, you have to make the audience see those”. So that was challenging, trying to find specific images for each one of those people, and for each one of those new things as they continue to appear. Because it’s one thing to have one image of a corpse—of David Sklar, of Banquo [in the banquet scene]—but it’s quite another to imagine 12 or 13 different things.
The character’s been called everything from a tyrant, to a coward, to a tragic hero to a psychopath—what do you think were some of the defining traits of your Macbeth?
Well, I hope that he was human. I don’t know… defining traits… you’re asking good questions. Can I steal one from your article?
[Laughs] Go ahead.
I liked that. I liked that because I think that plays into what you asked me earlier in terms of “well, why does he do it?” and I think there is a certain part of him that thinks that Duncan is a bad wartime king, and he would be better, or that anyone would be better, in a certain way. Principled.
Compassionate. I honestly believe that about him, and I know that sounds crazy, but certainly, early on, he is. He’s certainly manic, he certainly has a bit of, you know, yin and yang all at once.
I just really hope that people believe that he was a human being, because I’m sick and tired of having too many of these “Oh, he’s a tyrant. He’s a this, he’s a that”. I hope that he came across, in the moments that he needed to, as strong—because the temptation is to make him conniving and plotting rather than just a strong person who makes decisions and sticks with them, and then completely changes direction in a moment. I think that’s what makes him interesting, that he can leave a scene, completely convinced of something, come back and in ten lines of a monologue, go “Oh I have completely changed my mind,” and then his wife comes in and within three lines, he’s changed his mind again. That’s the other thing that’s interesting about Mackers that we haven’t talked about, that the only time he doesn’t speak, the only scenes that he doesn’t have monologues in are with his wife. In the first scene with his wife he has 12 words.
He has 12 words. She talks the whole time. Because he… listens to her, or is mesmerized by her beauty, or—make whatever choice you want, but textually—when you look at it from a text standpoint, that’s a really big clue as to the fact that he’s super tied in to what his wife does. He doesn’t talk when she’s onstage, or when it’s just the two of them.
Did you find that the different tour locations had much of an effect on your performance from show to show?
Absolutely, yeah. I mean, some places you just had to be loud. You saw a pretty unique one [at Casa Loma], that was certainly the most unique show we had, in terms of venue, because you could talk [whispering] like this, and people heard you. We didn’t even realize that until halfway through the first act, like “I don’t have to push at all. I can really just…” [exhales deeply].
Some venues are just loud—from a pure technical standpoint—and some venues are big beautiful open skies that you’re looking into, and so when you have that moment of “come, thick night” and the sun is going down behind you, that’s a really interesting thing to be able to use actual, real elements. To be able to lean down and touch the earth and say, “thou sure and firm-set earth” and not to be tapping the wood of a theatre. There’s something a bit magical to that, for me. Maybe I’m just a hippie.
Macbeth is one of the most famous roles in English-speaking history, do you have a favorite portrayal that you looked to, at all?
I read an article with John Gielgud: “you played all of the major ones, what’s the hardest one in the canon?” and he said, without missing a beat, “Oh, Macbeth.” He said, “No question. Because in order to play him right…”—I mean, he’s John Gielgud [puts on a stiff British accent]- “In order to play him correctly, you must be able to play Hamlet, you must be able to play Coriolanus…” He lists like, four or five other Shakespeare leads. And I shouldn’t have read that before I went in to rehearsal, because I was terrified. I was like, “I’ve never played any of those”, that’s terrifying. But having it under your belt, you’re like, “Ah, well, maybe I could play all four of those guys”. I never saw John Gielgud play Mackers, obviously, but I wish I had.
Going off of that a little bit, do you have any dream roles?
Oh, yeah. For sure. In the canon, I’m just about too old to do this but my ‘Hamlet’ would be Hal in Henry IV part II. I think that he’s a wildly over-looked character. Both of those plays are great. I mean, I love Part I, too, but Part II! That scene, that last scene where he thinks his dad is dead, and he takes the crown, and he’s parading the crown and his dad comes in and freaks out because he thinks that he’s coveting the crown. That’s a monologue that I have done for a long time—that speech where he just says, “Oh my God, I’m so—you don’t understand—I’m so glad that you’re still alive.” I just think that he’s a really interesting character. I would love to play Hal.
I would love, one day, to have a kick at Val in Orpheus Descending, the Tennessee Williams’s play. In terms of Canadian drama, I would love, love, love at some point to do Possible Worlds, the John Mighton play. Not only is John Mighton a genius, both theatrically and mathematically—he literally is a math genius; he did all of the mathematics for Good Will Hunting; he runs a program called Jump Math, which is a tutoring program for kids. So he’s a genius— but Possible Worlds! It’s one of those plays I read—I guess because I was in theatre school when I read it—I really think very highly of that. So, those would be three in terms of an American classic, a Shakespeare, and a Canadian contemporary that I would love a shot at.
On the flip-side of that, do you have a favourite role that you have played?
Oh gosh. Other than Mackers and Daniel [in The Hours that Remain]? I got pretty fortunate this year, in terms of those two parts. I really do have to say probably those two.
Do you have a favourite moment in your production of Macbeth?
I liked so many. I thought Siobhan [Richardson, fight director] did such a great job with that final fight, and Neil [Silcox, Macduff] was so on every night— I always looked forward to that. I was always so exhausted by that point, but I knew that Neil would be there, and I knew that he would be consistent, and I knew that he would be on target, and he would give me the energy that I needed.
And, not seeing my wife for the first time, but seeing my wife see me for the first time. The look on Shannon’s face when she finally sees me coming down the vom, tearing my army gear off, was always a really nice moment for me.
You just finished a run of King Lear, playing Cornwall in Saskatchewan. How was that experience?
[Laughs]. You know, another feel-good character.
Yeah, he’s pretty brutal.
Pretty brutal. But it was good. There were thirteen of us in the cast and all twelve of the other actors knew each other and I didn’t know anyone other than the director [Philip Adams]. I mean, I knew Skye [Brandon, Edgar] but I didn’t know him well, and I’d met Jenna-Lee [Hyde, Regan] very very briefly. So it was good. Kent [Allen, Lear] was excellent, so I got to learn a lot from him that way. Because I think that’s something that—if I can stick it out in this business—that’s a role I believe I could play into my 60’s. I think I’d love a shot at that when I get older. So I learned a lot that way. I also fight-directed Lear, which is not something that I do. I think it was more out of necessity than anything, but it was fun and I learned a lot, and I was able to call on a lot because I have done a lot of fight choreography in my life, and I was a competitive fencer in high school. So I was happy to do that. But I met lots of great people and there is something that I learned out there that I wish I had learned before I played Mac.
I guess it’s more of a saying. One of my wise, now probably, friends-to-death told me that sometimes we have to look at not what compels us to do something, but why we can’t stop to doing. It’s not actually the compulsion to continue—not the compulsion to just do it once, but why we can’t stop. What are the things that don’t stop you? And I think that would have been an interesting dynamic to add to looking at Mac: “What is it in each moment that compels him to?” versus, “What is it that doesn’t stop him from?”
Do you have ideas of what those would have been?
I try not to think about it because then I’ll feel bad and I’ll wish that I got another kick at it. Which may never happen, it may happen again—you never know.
Tell me about The Hours That Remain. How’d you get involved with that production?
I was very fortunate that my friend hooked me up with Native Earth a few years ago, and they run a thing every year, a festival of new plays and dances and stories and feasting and all sorts of other beautiful celebrations of storytelling and art. And I got hooked up with that play, and Keith [Barker, the playwright], through that. Maybe three or four years ago, and after the first time I read it I just said, “Keith, you have to let me play this guy. I know who this is”. I, from the very beginning, was emotionally connected to that. So I’ve been with that play for almost four years—maybe closer to three. We’ve done lots of different workshops and then Donna-Michelle [St. Bernard], who’s the producer at New Harlem [Productions], who’s just an absolute champion of new Canadian work, just… really made it happen. She applied for the grants, she got us a producing partner out in Saskatoon, which is, you know, the issue is so much more prevalent out there, and so much more pressing because Saskatchewan has the highest rate of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in the country. And so for us to get a chance to premiere it out there, and hear people’s stories and talk about it there was a big deal.
Daniel’s sort of the grounding force of that play, but also, in a weird way, the comic relief. How did you approach finding that balance?
I just said what Keith wrote down. I take no credit for that. I just tried to make him a real human being and I think the thing about Daniel in the context of that play is that he’s the one who’s left a bit unfulfilled, right? Because the whole play the audience thinks that he’s one thing and you realize at the end that he’s the crazy one. That he’s the one that either dreamed all this into being, or whatever you think. I don’t think the play imposes upon you that ghosts are real—they could be figments of his imagination, I think that’s up to you. I personally believe that they are real, but I don’t think that’s said in the play, I don’t think that it needs to be.
In terms of him being the comedic relief, I think the parts that become comedic are the parts when he’s trying to make it normal. Like, when he’s trying to—“It’s fine. You’re here, let’s have a fight about scones”- it’s just him trying to normalize everything because he knows in the back of his head that if he lets his guard down, maybe she’ll go upstairs and she’ll never come back down.
What’s the response been like to that play? Do you feel like it’s reached its goals in terms of social and political awareness?
No. Unfortunately, I don’t. I think maybe in Saskatoon it did a better job of that because the issue is more present there. I think that for those people who saw it, I would say there would be an 80-85% success rate. For those who saw it. That being said, not a lot of people came in Toronto. We didn’t have really great houses. It’s not one of those plays where you go, “Oh, yeah! A play about murdered and missing Aboriginals! Gotta see that!” It’s not one of those plays that you get jacked up to see like that. So I think that the play itself is effective, and I think that for those who see it, it does do that. It doesn’t answer any questions, but I think that the hope for Keith—I don’t want to speak for him—but I’m pretty sure that the hope for him was just to start a dialogue. Was to say, “Well, we’re not talking about it. And we should at least be talking about it.” So I think that it achieved that, to a certain degree. And I hope that it gets another go around. Somewhere. With someone. Because I think that that’s a story that needs to continue to be told, and we need to continue to hear about that stuff. Because it’s still happening. And it’s not just Aboriginal women. The Highway of Tears was not just Aboriginal women, it wasn’t just prostitutes. It was lawyers, it was social workers, white people, Hispanic people—so many people missing on that highway—yes, 80% of them were Aboriginal, because that’s who lives in that area, but… I’ll leave it at that, because I’ll get really tangential about that show. That show means a lot to me and I hope that it does eventually start a nation-wide dialogue about this, and about how we can address it.