The MVP of The Shaw Festival’s 2012 season, Ben Sanders’ performance as the enigmatic Alan in French Without Tears remains one of the most memorable I’ve ever seen at the festival.
The articulate and self-effacing Best Actor in a Play nominee answered our questions from Niagara-on-the-Lake where the 2013 Shaw Festival is already underway.
Do you remember the first play you ever saw?
I’m not sure I do, but I remember when I was very young, my older brother went to a summer theatre camp and at the end he performed a little play that ended with a curtain call to the Jackson 5’s version of “Rockin’ Robin”. It looked pretty cool, and I wanted to try it too. Aside from discovering my vocation, I also gleaned from that experience: a) the timeless glory of the Jackson 5, and b) the importance of a killer curtain call song.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played or production you’ve ever been in?
I’m afraid I don’t have one. My brain usually spends the entire run of any given show picking apart all the problems with my performance, and nothing really comes out of that unscathed; I’d change something about each and every one. Maybe as I get older the warm glow of nostalgia will settle on something or other and I’ll be satisfied with it. But not yet!
Is there a specific part you haven’t tackled yet that you want to try your hand at?
I try not to think in terms of dream roles or specific goals. Part of being an actor without becoming a crazy person is accepting yourself as you are, rather than trying to mold yourself into any particular archetype (Romeo or Elizabeth Bennett or what have you). That being said, there are certain roles you can’t help but relate to: I’ve always adored the role of Cusins in Major Barbara. At the moment, as luck would have it, I’m understudying one of my favourite actors, Graeme Somerville, in that very role. Last night we had a practice run with no audience in which I got to try playing the part. It was a thrill, but I’ve got a long, long way and many years to go before I’d be able to play it as well as Graeme does.
How did you get your foot in the door at the Shaw festival?
I’d had an obsession with Shaw for quite a while, and the year I graduated from theatre school, I was unemployed, and spent a lot of time sitting in the dark reading as many of his plays and prefaces as I could. So when the auditions for the festival came around, I was ready to go, and had a pretty good head start on the language and the style. That being said, they didn’t take me the first year I auditioned, and when they did hire me on as an apprentice in 2010, I was something of a last-minute replacement – just barely snuck in!
Who are some of your favourite people to work with in and outside of the festival?
One of the absolute best things about working at the Shaw is the abundance of mentor figures. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Antony Bekenn quite a bit – he’s always very very funny because he’s always very honest. Ben Campbell is a generous spirit on- and offstage, and is always willing to talk shop, even with the youngest or least experienced actor in the company. He seems to have the ability to make everyone else onstage with him a better actor by the focus and force of his own performances. Right now Laurie Paton is giving me a comedic masterclass in the opening scene of Major Barbara, which is a treat.
Your My Theatre nomination this year is for French Without Tears. Was there a key moment in that production that you really latched on to for your character?
I spent a long time researching and preparing for the role. Terence Rattigan wrote the play when he was quite young (about my age, in fact) and he based the character largely on himself, so I read a couple of biographies of him and familiarized myself with most of his key works; I even went to England and visited a few relevant locations. But at a certain point, all of that information can become a burden. I would say a key moment in developing that role was learning to let all of that go, stop thinking, and just enjoy myself in the moment.
What would you say are some of the defining characteristics of Alan?
Alan is very concerned with projecting an air of confidence and superiority, and, like most young men who do that, he’s absolutely terrified that he may be inadequate – intellectually, sexually, socially, etc. He tries to remain impervious to women because he doesn’t trust his sexuality. He tries to remain aloof in his work because he doesn’t trust his ability. And he’s afraid of expressing himself because he doesn’t believe in his own voice. I think his insouciance is a pose, but, like many people who try to remained detached, he has a sharp sense of humour.
How did you make the part your own?
I didn’t set out to put any kind of spin on the role; many of the plays from that era are so well constructed that if you try and lay anything of your own on top of it, you diffuse the comedy or the drama. But nonetheless, your own traits creep in: I think my Alan may have been little more angsty than usual, a little more uncomfortable, and, for better or worse, less comedic. I’m aware that I have a certain physical awkwardness and mental neurosis, but I try to embrace it and use it to my advantage.
Your English accent is impeccable. How did you master it?
Thank you! Hours and hours and hours and hours of listening to, and imitating out loud, dialect samples, along with carefully chosen film and television. For French Without Tears, I started with a sample recording Rattigan himself, then found the film version of Blithe Spirit, which featured the same two leading actors as the original production of French Without Tears in 1936, playing similar kinds of roles. When I can, I listen for a few minutes before every performance. Finally, and outside ear is essential – you can never really hear yourself, just as you can never really smell yourself. We have really excellent voice and dialect coaches at the Shaw who help us refine our sound.
What was the most difficult aspect of playing a character who a) is insanely smart and b) fights so hard to conceal his emotions?
As for the intelligence, Rattigan took care of that for me, but you hit the nail on the head with respect to the difficulty of playing someone who masks their emotions. I hard a terrible time gauging whether I was successfully conveying his feelings and intentions, without being heavy-handed about it. Luckily, we had director Kate Lynch at the helm, and she was a superb outside eye, not to mention unflaggingly patient with me. We were in constant communication about what was working and what wasn’t, right up until the opening.
You’re also nominated as part of the Ensemble for French Without Tears. Tell us about working with that group of actors (including fellow nominee Wade Bogert-O’Brien).
As a company, you develop a kind of shorthand for working with each other; you know how to push each other’s buttons and make each other laugh and piss each other off, all of which can be very useful in rehearsal. With Wade, it’s two-fold: we’re also roommates during the season, and we’ve now done 4 shows together in the Royal George Theatre; we’ve also understudied each other. Luckily, he’s one of the young actors I respect the most, anywhere; and if we do ever get testy with each other, we can just add a little extra snap to our dialogue onstage.
You also had a small but memorable role in Misalliance. Tell us about developing the role of Bentley.
Bentley was a role I’d had my eye on for a years. He’s an annoying little shit, which is tremendous fun to play. I wanted to accentuate his eccentricities; I didn’t want him to be a boring caricature, but I think I ran the risk of becoming too much of an oddball to be relatable. That was a challenge.
Misalliance director Eda Holmes is nominated for a Best Director My Theatre Award this year. What was it like working with her?
Eda’s easily one of my favourite people to work with. She’s genuinely creative – not just interpretive – but she also understands how actors work, and listens to what we need. Most of all, she’s curious, which may sound commonplace, but it’s really not. It’s invaluable in the rehearsal hall.
Do you have a favourite moment from that production?
Tara Rosling carrying you off in her arms is every young man’s dream. I’m afraid nothing could compete with that.
How do you think GB Shaw remains relevant today? Do you think his work should be kept in period or re-contextualized for modern audiences?
Where many earlier playwrights endeavoured to show the full range of the human experience, especially the extremes (think Shakespeare), Shaw was more ambitious: he attempts not only to show life onstage, but to make sense of it. He doesn’t just present contradictions, he attempts to solve them. He uses dialogue and argument to lay bare our pervasive flaws and our hypocrisies, and point the way towards a better society, a more whole personhood, a truer (if less romantic) love.
He began writing at a time of tremendous optimism and ambition, when new ideas thrived, and were buoyed by accelerating advances in technology, communication, and industry. A better world seemed just around the corner. Now, in light of the events of the twentieth century, we’ve become much more cynical – about ourselves, about each other, and about society. Aside from his sense of humour and his theatrical genius, Shaw offers a modern audience an opportunity to think critically, imaginatively, and hopefully about our values and our behaviour. His ruthless attacks on what he saw to be false in the world around him were called cynical at the time, but in fact, they always had an undercurrent of optimism. Susan Ferley, who is Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre, taught me, as an actor, to welcome criticism: every note from the director is a vote of confidence that you can do it better. It’s the same with Shaw: every critique he made is a vote of confidence that the world can be better. That will always be relevant, and is particularly necessary now.
As for re-contextualizing the plays, I don’t think it’s particularly necessary – it’s not usually too difficult to connect the dots between Shaw’s time and the present – but if it helps to make the plays more stylish, or more stimulating – if it expands the palette we can paint with – then I think it’s worthwhile.
Do you get a chance to see the other plays in the season? Do you have any favourites from 2012?
I understudied several parts in Come Back Little Sheba, so I saw it many times and got to be in it a few times in small roles. There was an excitement in the air at that show; you had the sense that the performers, particularly Ric Reid and Corrine Koslo, were at the very top of their game. I also thought Hedda Gabler was a thrill.
You’re back at the Shaw again this season. Tell us about your upcoming roles.
I’m currently playing Stephen Undershaft in Major Barbara and Lord Bleane in Our Betters.
How are the shows going so far?
I’m having a ball. I’m very proud of both productions, from top to bottom: the direction, the casts, the scripts themselves – Major Barbara has always been my favourite Shaw play. Both of my characters happen to be 20-something aristocratic heirs with moustaches and confidence problems (it seems I have a type), but I think at heart they’re drastically different, so drawing a contrast between the two has been fun.
What did you do during the off season?
Actually, after a few years at the festival, I decided to take some time off acting, grow a beard, and try to meet a nice girl. Both worked out quite well, although my once-mighty beard is currently reduced to the aforementioned period-appropriate moustache.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Not at all. Thank you for including me! Your support means a lot.