24 September 2013
This is the second year in a row that My Theatre’s Emerging Artist Award has gone to someone who serves as the face of their theatre company (this year’s Honorary Award did too). The reason for that is fairly simple- the regular My Theatre Awards have a ton of acting categories, one for playwrights and another couple for directors and designers, but Artistic Directors (or, in this case, Associate Artistic Directors/Directors of New Projects) are a little harder to nail down in terms of singular, awardable achievement. They’re often also actors, writers and directors, but it’s the intangibles of having a great ambassador that often sets a company apart. They plan seasons and recruit troops; they set the tone of the company and project the accompanying mission statement to the world; they lure critics and charm audiences and generally foster goodwill that will set the company up for success even when the work itself isn’t perfect.
For Single Thread Theatre in Toronto, that person is Alex Dault, our Emerging Artist for 2012.
Working closely with the historical venues and museums that the company uses for their site-specific pieces, Dault plays the dual role of administrator and creator- negotiating the logistics of using the space and mounting the play while (at least in the case of 2012’s Campbell House Story) working with museum staff to craft an original script of historical fiction around the location. Single Thread’s productions are often some of the largest and most complicated of any indie company in Toronto, their success a testament to the organization at the top of the company. An actor, director, and My Theatre Award-nominated playwright, Dault’s holistic contribution to Single Thread is impressive, but it’s the aforementioned ambassadorship that made him our Emerging Artist. As both the audience and critics’ first point of contact, Dault is like the host of each production (sometimes literally when conducting the company’s earnest post-show Q&As, complete with hilariously charming snacks for the guests). He’s smart and engaged- always ready to answer questions about the show or the space- and one of the friendliest people on the Toronto theatre scene.
The face of one of Toronto’s fastest rising theatre companies (they just completed a season as CanStage’s Resident Emerging Artist Company), Alex Dault is one of the city’s most promising all-round theatre artists in no small part because of how excellently he handles that role.
Read on for our exclusive interview.
Can you remember the production that started your interest in theatre?
Treasure Island at Stratford. I was… five?
How did you decide that theatre was what you wanted to do with your life?
I went to a French Catholic elementary school, and I think up until the fourth grade I wasn’t good at anything [Laughs]. And then this guy—I’ll never forget this—this guy with crazy hair, his name was Mac, came to our school, came into this classroom and he said, “I want to create a play, and you guys are going to create characters, you’re going to create the world, and then we’ll all turn it into a script and we’ll put it on.” And I think this was a project that lasted a couple months, but it was the first time I actually connected with the French language, it was the first time I sort of excelled at something. I remember after doing it for the first time, walking through the halls after school, and everyone smiling at me and saying, “Oh, I loved this, I loved this,” and from then on, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
Did you go to theatre school?
I did, yeah.
Where did you go?
What was that experience like?
It was amazing. George Brown crushed my ego [Laughs]. It was just kind of like I went in, they ripped me apart, and rebuilt me. They taught me how to work on my own. And how to focus on projects.
Do you consider yourself primarily a writer, director, actor?
I consider myself a theatre creator, because I do all those things, I feel, in equal amounts. I’m just all about ensuring work is created, work exists.
Tell me about the early days of Single Thread.
I was not a founding member of Single Thread. I remember I was a first year student at Queens University, and there was this show called Julius Caesar. It was Homecoming weekend, so I was supposed to go to this football game, but it was the only time I could get in to see Julius Caesar, so I went. It was in [Chernoff Hall]– glass, steel; it had just been built near the chemistry building. Everyone showed up and they gave us nametags that said you’re an Employee of Rome, the Corporation–and this woman was like, “Welcome to Rome, you’ll be working in this office section over here,” and then all of a sudden her headset went ding ding, and she said, “Oh, sorry, the CEO’s here, we have to go say ‘hi.’” So we went outside, a limo pulled up with two Sedans on either side, and bodyguards got out, and this huge guy gets out of the back, he’s wearing a nice black coat, and he starts walking up, and suddenly there’s all these senators, all these people in suits applauding him, and I was like, “what the hell’s going on?” and this hobo runs up with a sign [Laughs] that says, “Beware The Ides of March”. The whole show moved around the building; you could look over your shoulder during a scene and see other storylines unfolding. There was a guy heading into his office, and his secretary would follow, so there was a little romance thing going on between them. And I remember coming back from that to my residence and being like, “That was the best thing I’ve ever seen.” So from then on, I wanted to work with them. And I did everything I could to meet them, and spend time with them. I wasn’t around in time for the initial—there’s a whole story behind the founding of Single Thread– but I was there in the first year.
How did it move to Toronto?
I brought it to Toronto. It was in Kingston and I came to George Brown. The company was kind of on a hiatus for a couple of years. Then, when I was in my third year [of theatre school], I called Liam [Karry], who is the Artistic Director, and I said, I want to bring the company here. At that time, I had a job at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). They were doing an exhibition and they needed programming, so I’m like, “Let’s do something with the AGO.” And from that project we kind of had this street cred, that we could go to museums and say, “We can do something wonderful with your space.”
There are a few reasons. There are a few writers that I read in university that talked about a poor theatre, a theatre in the streets, a theatre of the people. In the 60’s, there were people talking about how theatres and opera houses were these gilded palaces of theatre, so when I was in University, I was like, “I want to do theatre in the streets.” That production of Julius Caesar had a huge impact on me, because it showed to me how dynamic staging can be when the audience is moving around—environmental staging. So that’s why I like site-specific: it frees me up, completely. I like site-specific because you constantly have to question all the precepts of creation. You’re always saying, “Okay, what’s the box office in this space? What is the relationship between audience and actor? What are the ratios—could we have actors up there, and us down here, and them speaking intimately and would that work?” It sort of forces you to always ask questions—to not be complacent about the work. I hate theatre that’s like a museum piece (ironic that I work with all these museums), things that just get done and done again for the sake of them being done. What’s the message? A show like A Chorus Line, that’s theatre about theatre, I don’t like that very much. I want something that’s relevant or important, that hasn’t been discussed yet, that hasn’t been talked about. With site-specific, I find that you can partner with other groups that have a message and you can be like, “Okay, we’ll bring that to people and use all our knowledge of storytelling to help you convey that.”
What comes first, the piece or the place?
I like to say, the space, these days. It used to be we came up with the piece. Now we really start with the space, and we do a whole bunch of research on the space and we find something that’s interesting about it.
How do you approach finding a venue if you don’t have a piece you want to stage there specifically?
We find venues that interest us. Did you see Much Ado About Nothing?
We loved that house (Spadina Museum). This is not a good example, because that was one where the piece precipitated the space, but we just adored that house. I still want to do a show that’s about that house—that’s about all the things, all the stories, that are inside that house.
So you knew you wanted to do Much Ado and then found Spadina?
We came up with Much Ado first, yeah.
And the idea of splitting the narratives—so half the audience sees the boys, half the audience sees the girls—
What’s so weird about that– I love that decision, but that decision was made out of necessity, because Spadina wanted a certain amount of money. Because it’s a City of Toronto site, they’re required to turn a profit on programming. I said, “Well, we can only have 25 people on a track,” and they were like, “Okay, is there some way you can fit more people in?” So Jon [Langley, the director] and I went away, and we were like, “Well, what if we just split the audience in two?” and made it this whole thing. And then we got excited about it, and realized the possibilities. But it was born of necessity.
Does the company mostly perform original work now?
Yeah, we’ve sort of moved into doing our own thing. And that came out of doing the site specific stuff and finding that it’s easier to be taken seriously by an organization if you go in and you say, “We want to work with you to tell your story,” as opposed to, “We want to come in and do Hamlet in the Bata Shoe Museum,” you know? They’re much more amenable if you come in and say, “We want to do a play about shoes, and about feet”. I know, that’s weird [Laughs]. But that excites them because you’re helping them, you’re serving them.
What’s the most interesting space you’ve used so far?
I have to say that I did like Spadina Historic House and Gardens. That’s like the crown jewel of spaces. It is so beautiful. I wasn’t even in the show, I was just House Manager for that, and I loved everyday being able to show up and go to that house. It was incredible.
Take me through the writing process of something like Campbell House Story where you’re writing with the museum in mind.
First, I showed up, I introduced myself to Liz Driver, the curator of Campbell House Museum. We had an initial conversation, and then she revealed to me that there are like twenty binders that local historians have been filling with little fragments and bits about the Campbell family for 50 years. So I just started going to the Campbell House every weekend and taking these binders and reading them and taking notes and letting my imagination roam free. I took the tour of the house a couple times with the guides, and I thought a lot about “why is this house here? What’s the purpose of this house? It intrigues me so much, because it’s this brick house surrounded by skyscrapers.” And then I got fired because I had two jobs that conflicted with one another. So I was unemployed, I had three weeks off, and I remember I sat down in my living room, on my couch– by this time, all that research kind of percolating– and I just started writing the play. And I didn’t leave the couch for four days– I slept on it; I wrote. It was written in a sort of fever pitch, and at the end of the five days, I called together a bunch of actor friends to hear it read.
Then I wrote a grant for it. Liz did not even know that I was going to do a show at Campbell House; I’d just told her I was writing something about Campbell House. Before I went to submit the grants, I stopped by her place, I dropped the grants in front of her, I dropped the script in front of her, I said, “I want to do this show here. Tell me what you think. Can you write me a reference letter?” [Laughs]. The same night she sent me an email. She said, “Can you come in tomorrow? We need to talk.” And I went in and she went upstairs, she seemed really serious, and I was like, “Oh my God, she hates the show, this is not going to happen.” And she had a whole bunch of questions about the play—particularly the ending, which she found historically inaccurate. And I think our meeting was two hours. I was relatively certain, when I walked in, that the show wasn’t going to happen—I was convinced that she was going to let me down gently. I convinced her that it would work. I had to promise a couple things. I promised her I would rewrite the play, so then that summer I ripped the thing apart, rewrote it to her satisfaction. I went through a huge internal struggle of, “Well, I’m an artist, do I really have some obligation to satisfy historical truth?” I mean, I’m also an historian. There is no such thing as historical truth. There’s just fragments, pieces—it’s all interpretation, right? Now, there are things that are certainly factually wrong that you have to keep in mind, but I had my playwright mentors telling me, “All you have to do is tell a great story. You don’t have to do anything else.” But I ultimately decided I had to be true to the space and true to Liz, because it’s for her–and I think that was ultimately the right choice because the project did end up being able to go ahead.
The director of that show, Lee Wilson, I remember the first thing he ever said was, “The first thing I think about when I’m in this space is, that anything that gets told to me in this house, I’m going to take as literal historical fact, so it has to be true, it has to be accurate.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s intense.” I don’t take it so seriously, but he did. He took it really, really seriously—and people did ask me, every time—a lot of people at Campbell House would ask me, “So, did that all happen? Was that all like a real thing?” and I’d be like, “No… some of it’s true, but most of it’s just fiction, fabrication.” So those were the kinds of questions I was preoccupied with, working on Campbell House Story. And the process of writing it was: research, write it once, tear it apart, second time, and then we went right into production, we went right into staging it.
Do you write a detailed outline, or do you start on page one and just go?
I think for me, I have to conceptualize the trajectory of the play in my mind, and maybe, yes, write out an outline. But when I do write it, I’ve learned that I need to write it in one sitting. It needs to all be worked out so that I can just drive right through it. It has to be caffeine-driven, written in one go, one pop, so that it has the clear line, and then I can go back through so I can move things, so I can fix things. But if I stop—dead in the water. I’ve realized that.
How did your second draft change when it was actually cast and staged?
I feel like I took the right approach, which was, on the first day of rehearsal I said to the actors, “You’re going to know this better than me. You’re going to have a better sense of how things sit, in the space,” and I looked at the director, at the stage managers, at the actors, and I said, “Change whatever the hell you need to change. Make it work for this space. You know this better than I do.” And man, did they ever change things. [Laughs] They fixed little tiny things. There’s this scene where Will and Mackenzie end up locked in this pantry, and people were coming in, and just the timing of that they helped me fix. And there was a troubling section in the final scene. The play is told as a flashback and there’s a point where the story narrative re-encounters the narrative that happened when the play started. I don’t know if you’ve ever written time-travel, but there was this really weird moment where it was like “the timelines are all messed up right now, and it’s all fucked up”. I remember there was this intense session where the actors just said, “You need to do this, and this and cut this part out,” and I wrote a thing that tried to fix it, but actually made it worse, and they ripped that up [Laughs]. There were fixes based on what we discovered inside the space.
You’ve work with some of the same collaborators in multiple productions. Do you write characters with them in mind?
That’s a good question. I don’t write with people in mind, initially. Leah Holder read Healy the first time we really did it, and I went back to the second draft with her in mind. I was writing it for Leah. I wrote Jarvis for another actor, not Carter [Hayden]—for this guy Adam but then he got like, a BBC job and had to drop out- so then [Carter] had to come in and play a part I’d written for this other actor. So yeah, I guess I do, at a certain stage, begin writing for actors. And it’s true I do like working with a certain group of people, because if someone is a good team member and they’re a known commodity, then I like to work with them again, because I don’t need to worry that that person’s going to flake out or be insane. Sanity is so important in theatre [Laughs].
What are some of the biggest challenges and rewards associated with Single Thread’s very specific modus operandi?
One of the challenges with Single Thread is we’re struggling to build a base because we’re always in a different place. People don’t associate any one space with us, they know that we’re always going to be some place different. And I know people see it as a risk to go to some place they’ve never heard of. I find whenever we do a run, no one shows up the first week. It gets more intense the second week, and then the third week it’s like we just get assaulted [Laughs]. The word gets out, but every time you start with a new space, it’s like you’re starting from scratch on the reputation of the company and the show. Marketing is a challenge for us.
The rewards are… I get incredible satisfaction out of bringing the medium of theatre to libraries, museums, parks. Because people [who work in the spaces], the delight it brings to them—that someone is interested in their subject matter, and that they care enough to share that with others. People will call me like, “What you did for us was the greatest thing ever. You are always welcome in our space. Anytime you want, we will help you out. We believe in you, we support you.” But it’s a long slog. It’s like winning one inch of ground at a time in a war. And it’s exhausting [Laughs].
The Loyalists was the most exhausting project I’ve ever been involved in. And I didn’t delegate it properly. I had a huge team—I had a team of 60 behind me and I still thought we were like 40 people short on it. There was just so much labor involved in assembling that town. All that wood, all that furniture—that furniture was mostly me driving around Little Italy in a pick-up truck. People leave furniture in front of their houses, and I was just like, “Well, that looks historical!” [Laughs], throwing things in the back of the truck. It was nuts. Jay Pooley [the show’s designer] would get called once every three days like, “The church is about to fall down, we’ve got to get you down here”. The City of Toronto hated that we were building a town on an old cemetery, and there’s also power lines running through the park. I got a call from our stage manager saying, “the City of Toronto is just pulling up—they’re uprooting all of your stakes in the ground. The buildings are falling over”. I had to enlist the assistance of Councillor Adam Vaughn to convince the Parks and Rec bureaucrats that this is part of the bicentennial, we’ve been permitted by Fort York to be here. That project was a fiasco. It was a great project, I love the show, but Fort York told us that they ran that park and that we’d only have to answer to them. That was not true. We dealt entirely with the City of Toronto, who don’t understand the needs of theatre. Admittedly, The Loyalists was an ambitious project that demanded a lot of the usual requirements and regulations—you know, this far from the curb, this deep in the ground—but I still felt like they just made our lives a living hell.
That sort of ties into my next question, which is: Beyond writing, directing, performing, what are your main functions as Associate Artistic Director?
I’m sort of the person people come to when they’re like, “I have an idea for a site-specific show,” because we’re in that stage now where I think people know this is our niche. And lots of people have spaces, or ideas for shows, and they come to us and they say, “I know nothing about creating site-specific, um, there’s this old house,”—it often starts with that– “there’s this old house…. da da dada dada.” Or, “there’s this old warehouse somewhere… dada dada de da,” and “I think we could do this show here,” or “we could tell the story of this bar, or this tavern, or this warehouse.” I’m the contact for that stuff, and then I might delegate it out to someone else in the executive staff. Then there’s all kinds of minor BS. Like, I handle the storage space– all our burlap [Laughs], all our lanterns; we’ve accrued quite an amount of stuff. Soup Can and us share a space, and so I manage that. Grant writing is a huge part of my job. I write like, ten grants a year. Pretty good at it now.
From all of those pitches that you get, how do you decide what you’re going to do and what you’re not?
We’re still developing that process, but we have a form that we use. The executive of Single Thread is myself, Lindsey Higgs, Jonathan Langley and Liam Karry, so one of those people will work with the proposer to create this one-pager. That one-pager will be presented to the executive, we review it—there’s a couple criteria we look at, and then we vote on whether or not it’s a viable project. My problem is I say, “yes” to everything [Laughs].
Everything I’ve seen from Single Thread has been a period piece. Is that a conscious choice or mostly a bi-product of honouring the venues that you’re in and the historical elements of those?
That’s actually a question that concerns me a lot about the company. I don’t want us to be known as some recreation society, or a group that only does historical period pieces. In fact, part of the criteria I’m using in choosing work for the years to come is stuff that’s not so 18th, 19th century; a chance to get away from being the Canadian History Club. I just don’t like that being our constant association. We did just do a project in Kingston called The Library Chronicles, and that was contemporary. Like everything in it was very 2012-set.
Tell me a bit about your work outside Single Thread.
I work at the AGO, I do tours and stuff of the exhibits there, and that’s great. I love fine arts, I find I absorb a lot of them, I get a lot of ideas from being around them—being around a beautiful painting or sculpture. Other theatre work outside of Single Thread– I work with Brandon Crone with Safeword. In that company I have the sort of alter ego of this totally irresponsible [person]. I kind of like taking off the responsibility of running Single Thread and just being like, [puts on what I’m calling a “dude voice”] “Whatever man, we’re doing some crazy–“. I’m committed to getting Brandon promoted as much as possible, he’s a fantastic playwright. On Turtleneck he was the playwright, director, producer, front of house manager, director of marketing, and the assistant stage manager. And I told him, “Don’t take on so many jobs,” but he won’t listen to me. But I was apprenticing him, doing the production stuff and he did quite well, I was quite proud of him. Previously, he was always putting himself in for the Fringe, or applying to SummerWorks and not getting in. And I’m like, “you know what, man? You have to take responsibility. You have to put yourself out there. It will make you feel so empowered” For me, that has been the key—taking responsibility for my career, and taking responsibility to create my own work. ‘Cause it freed me. I never needed to pander or beg, or impress anyone. I still need to do that, but it’s on my terms and I feel I can be myself, as opposed to who that person wants me to be. I feel like Brandon has come into that. So I’m committed to helping him.
What’s your favourite production you’ve ever worked on?
Single Thread did a show called Everyman that was one audience member. The audience member showed up, sat down in an old movie seat, and all that was in front of them was a door. And they sit in the chair, and then a soundscape plays, and then a spotlight hits the door. And nothing happens. And the audience member’s like, “Uh, okay. What’s going on?” They just sit there until finally they’re like, “Okay,” they get up and they open the door. Inside is another theatre with a puppet show, and there’s a dumb show of the medieval morality play, Everyman, and they’re watching this with these stupid puppets, and all of a sudden cold air floods into the room, and behind them is a man in a black tuxedo with pale white skin and black gloves, and he looks at the audience member and he says, [deathly serious] “Everyman, you are going to die. You need to prepare,” and the audience member’s just like, “what the fu–?!!!” [Laughs]. And then someone in the puppet show runs in and says, “Come with me, come with me,” and they lead them behind the puppet [Laughs] I’m sorry [for laughing]; It was a messed up show, but it was amazing… We built a labyrinth in the base of a massive church, and we built rooms out of, well, wood and paneling and that kind of thing, and at the end of the show, Everyman—the audience member—was laid in a coffin that we had on these wheels. And the coffin was rolled down a boardwalk that went into a dust cellar and, at this point, the only person who’s with them is Their Good Deeds, who’s wheeling the coffin that they’re inside—but like, “what the fuck?” And he’s like, “Everyman, now you’re dead, and all that’s with you is your Good Deeds. It’s all you have”– this is all in verse and everything [Laughs]– “And now, for the goodbye. Let’s go.” And then you’re just lying there in your coffin, and it smells like earth, for about a minute. This exposed bulb of light comes on, gives you your coat and all your stuff—because it was January—and opens a storm door, cause you were in the basement, and you go out and you’re in the cemetery of the church, outside, and the wind’s howling and the storm door closes. There was no bow. That was the show. We did 50 shows for 50 audience members and we had a night, sometime after this, where it’s like “Everyone who saw the show, come back. If you want, tell us about your experience”. All 50 audience members came back. And the actors didn’t say anything the whole night, we just sat there, and each person went around and they were like, “And then when this happened, and when this happened…” and people were crying—a couple people converted to Christianity, or something. That was not our intention, we were just doing theatre—but people were just like, “That show changed my life.” It was a really critical moment for me, because I realized I’m more interested in the individual relationships that occur within a theatrical experience than the sort of, “let’s throw a couple scattered cluster bombs and maybe it’ll take with a couple of people.” I want that really focused one-on-one thing to happen.
Do you have any dream projects?
Goethe’s Faust, part one… I like Faust as a character, Goethe imbues him with all of his incredible intelligence. He was a polymath, and I just love how Faust is—it’s sort of that old story of you know, the devil, immortality. But in Goethe’s Faust, Faust is completely aware of what’s going on the whole time. There’s this great scene where the devil’s like, “Okay, well you have to sign this contract,” and Faust is like, “why? I don’t have to sign a contract. My word is my bond. Don’t worry, if I have to go to hell of whatever, I will. I’m really just more interested in the crazy experiences you’re going to offer me.” There’s just something so wonderful and fantastic about that character that I love.