In the RESISTIBLE rise of arturo UI, a Best Ensemble-nominated group of recent theatre school grads came together to bring a piece of their York University education to the Toronto independent theatre scene. Pairing up with Ted Witzel‘s boundary-pushing Red Light District, the Ui company brought to life a thought-provoking and entertaining Brechtian allegory.
The tiny and terrifying titular gangster was played by the charismatic Daniela Pagliarello, earning the dancer-turned-actress her first My Theatre Award nomination for Best Actress in a Regional Production. Daniela sat down with us to talk about finding the fun in playing a dictator, the pleasures of a collaborative rehearsal room, and at what point tap shoes became essential to Arturo Ui’s wardrobe.
Do you remember your first formative experience with theater?
In terms of performing, I’ve been a dancer since I was four years old, so I think that’s where I got my most intensive experiences early on in life. Because I was a competitive dancer I think just the rush of being on stage as a soloist is what pushed me. But I didn’t have a voice as a dancer, so I realized that I wanted to act. And I actually didn’t delve into theater until my audition for York University. I auditioned for York and then I got in and then my first theater class ever was the first day of university. So I was 18 and I think the reason that I picked it up I guess was just because of my dance background.
Acting is a lot different than dancing because as a dancer it was very uniform. It’s all about technique and not really about feeling. So I think my first formative experience of theater was probably the first class I ever had at York University. Standing in a room with a bunch of people who wanted the exact same thing. I never felt an energy like that and it was intoxicating and attractive and exciting.
Why’d you pick York?
I auditioned for a few other schools in Toronto and York is the one that picked me back. They took a chance on me knowing that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and I’m so happy I went there because of the people I met.
What was the most important thing you learned?
It’s almost not even about the most important thing I learned, it’s honestly about the relationships I made, and embracing those relationships. Learning to embrace was probably the most important thing I learned. To have an open heart.
And who are some of the artists who have always inspired you?
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. To me, she was incredible. She worked with a mental illness and made art from it. I never considered myself an artist; I still struggle with it because I feel like it’s a very important title to give yourself and it carries a lot of responsibility. So seeing someone like her and the things that she was able to produce and really go for it, not letting any boundaries stop her, she’s inspiring to me.
What were some of the parts you got to play at university that stood out?
I played a prisoner in Wounds to the Face by Howard Barker and it was the first time I got to delve into someone who was mentally unstable. That was very fun to play with. And it seems to have stuck. I tend to play kind of psychotic people now. When I got cast as Ui in university, I was shocked that it was me.
What do you think it was about you that made Ted [Witzel, the director] think you’d make a good dictator?
He said that I had a Charlie Chaplin-esque thing about me. In the movie The Dictator, he was a dictator… I don’t know. I think Ted had a vision for Ui not to become Hitler necessarily by the end like a lot of other productions of the RESISTIBLE rise of Arturo Ui. He wanted it to be really Brechtian, white-face. We kind of molded the character so that it was sort of a mix. I got a lot of inspiration from Charlie Chaplin and his movements, because they’re really crisp and impeccable. [Ted] didn’t know I could tap dance or anything. That was a later discovery during the process. Maybe it was something meaty that he thought I could take on, and I think he really likes to push the boundaries as a theater maker, so casting a woman as Ui as well would be a really interesting and different production.
Your character is a sort of pseudo-Hitler as you said, how much did you have him and the larger ramifications of playing that part in your head when you were doing it?
Creating the character? Not too much. I didn’t feel like I was Hitler. But we all got to a place as an ensemble where we were too comfortable with the text and we kind of did like a whole revamp of the seriousness of what the piece is really about and the seriousness of it. And then we were like oh, this is what we’re really doing through a mask of 30’s gangsters. So it became more important and relevant to take him into consideration. But I still felt like a total separate being from Hitler and I never really became Hitler. I studied a lot of his speeches and his gestures but I just felt like a small man in the 30’s who was a crazy gangster.
Ted’s a really collaborative director. How did you find that type of rehearsal process?
It’s such a pleasure working with a director who allows you to explore and doesn’t stop you. Who says ‘give me an offer, prove it to me’. And then you prove it, or not and most of the time, if you work hard enough, you can get your bit into the show if it’s relevant. And that’s really refreshing. I personally see myself directing in the future and it’s the only way I want to work.
What were some things you tried that got thrown out?
We began the show originally in rehearsals with a bunch of homeless people on stage asking for money instead of the trust members asking the audience for money; that got thrown away. We also had a cat named Adolf, but Ted threw that idea out of the window. We had a lot of ideas that were in for weeks at a time and then Ted would be like ‘That’s cut’ and then we’d be like ‘Wait, what do we do now with our hands?’ And he’d be like ‘Figure it out.’ and then it would just be over.
Were you familiar with the text or with Brecht’s work at all when you started?
I was familiar with Brecht’s work because I studied him in theater study classes at university. I had never done any of his scenes in class. I basically learned Brechtian theater from the process of Ui. And I really learned it from one of the best people I could learn it from because Ted went right to the source. He worked with Brecht’s granddaughter in Germany and he’s German himself and knows a lot about Brecht and we read a bunch of articles, and we slowly as an ensemble learned what Brechtian theater really was.
What was the biggest challenge for you playing such a dark character?
He was fun to play but he was still like Hitler- a very twisted and emotionless being.
The biggest challenge for me honestly was the voice work. I had to do a lot of going back to basics with my voice work. It wasn’t so much developing the character or learning the tap dancing, because I already had all that stuff under my belt. It was the upkeep of myself as an actor during the production especially during our three week run and three weeks of rehearsal because I scream so much and talk so much during the show. I think I had about five eighths of the show were my lines. I had so many lines. I don’t have a problem with memorization but it was my throat, keeping the upkeep of that. I drank so much honey I never want to eat honey again.
Did you find yourself being super nice backstage and in rehearsals to make up for torturing your cast mates on stage?
No, I torture them all the time. We just torture each other. We’re like brothers and sisters.
How did you go about finding that balance between the funny, lisping tap dancing side of Ui and the darker side?
I don’t think I ever found a balance. It depended on who I was with and what scene. I was never worried that the audience wouldn’t see too much of one side or the other because Ted had my back and I knew that he would let me know if something was out of balance.
Was the tap dancing an idea Ted brought to the table early on or was that something he discovered about you and then added later?
We were rehearsing and we were on a break and he just walks by me and says, “I hear you can tap dance” and I was like, yeah, I’ve tap danced since I was four years old. And he said, “Alright, you’re doing it in the show”. And I said “Okay” and then we found a way to put it in. At first I was only supposed to tap dance in one scene and then the rest of the time I’d be wearing regular shoes and then he was just like, “You know what? I think you should wear those shoes all the time. Because then we can hear Ui coming. We know when you’re around, and that’s really scary and daunting.” And I was like, cool.
You’re one of the smallest cast members. Did you ever find it hard to trying to command the stage and enforce your presence on the others?
I never felt that because of my height. Playing a powerful character, it wasn’t just my job to be menacing. It was my cast’s job to be afraid. We did have a few moments when Ted would be like you guys have to be more afraid of her. You guys have to be more scared. Dani’s trying to be really menacing right now and you’re not acting scared enough. So yeah, it was a group thing. They helped me out and I did what I could.
What would you say was the most important conversation you had with Ted in developing the character?
In a whole year of this ongoing process? Oh, God. I’d love to remember any conversation. I wish I could remember because he gives bits of gold every time he pulls you over and whispers in your ear to do it a different way. I think the most important thing he told me was to have fun.
Luxuriate in the villainy a little bit?
How did the play or your performance change when you mounted it with the Red Light District?
At York it was in the middle of school, I was completing my degree and we only did four performances. We’d all felt very rushed but it was all so delicious that we knew we had to do it again. And I think this time I got to play the character and really specify certain things. I really got to accentuate and dig in to some places that I didn’t discover while at York. I think that was just because of the ten month gap. I lived my own life a little bit. And then I got to go back to a character who I knew I wasn’t done with. That was amazing.
Do you have a favorite moment in the production?
My favorite moment is when Roma [played by Rodrigo Trigueros] puts the gun on me. And I go “Oh! So now you’re gonna put a gun on me?” That’s my favorite scene because he’s finally gotten what he wants and now there’s corruption from inside of his pack. And he just takes over. His gangsters start acting kind of sketchy and he goes, no, no, I’m the boss. I’m the boss and don’t you forget it. And he takes the power back. I think I just always relished that scene because it was so powerful and it was a good way to open the second half. Also the tap dancing was so fun to do. Always fun. Always a pleasure.
The ending was open so that you could improvise around what the audience did in terms of them voting for you or not voting for you. What was the craziest outcome you had to deal with?
We had one person yell that “you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and I’m not going to vote for you because you people are…”, they called us sick or something. They thought we were sick. Because they were really sensitive to the fact that it was an analogy for Hitler and the Second World War. And they did not want to vote. And we totally respected that. But we did tell them to get out. It was enjoyable when people stood up for themselves and for their rights, because that’s the point of our whole play. And it’s funny, sometimes an entire audience would surrender right away. And we’d be like, “you didn’t learn a thing”. [Laughs]
What would you say the percentage was of the audience that said no versus the audiences that agreed right away?
Most of the audience members who said no were people in the theater industry, because they knew they could fool around with us a little bit. Or people that we knew personally, because they kind of knew what was coming up so they wanted to screw around with us. I would say that 10% would say no. And then we would pick them up and throw them in the closet or just tell them to leave. And then they would be so angry.
Oh, some people were just livid that they didn’t actually get to see the ending ending. But you didn’t vote. You didn’t put your hands up for Ui, so that’s what happens.
Do you have any dream parts?
Yes. I would love to play Joan of Arc in Shaw’s Saint Joan. Some of my favorite actresses have played the part, like Judi Dench, she’s amazing, and I have a book of all the past actresses who’ve played the role and I look at it all the time. I always think, ugh, what I wouldn’t do to play Joan, because I think she’s an amazing character to play. A force. Like Ui but a female and good.
What are you doing now? What’s your next project?
I’m actually producing myself. So I’m doing my own work. I learned how to take on independent theater from doing Ui. I kind of stood back and watched what Ted was doing and took note and I was like, “alright, this is what I want to do too”. So I’m going to start making my own work as well.
Do you still dance? Is the physical component an important part of your work as a theater artist?
It’s important to me to include a ballet bar warmup when I do my acting warm up, actually. I just find it to be a good practice for me for breathing and for centering myself. And it sort of reminds me of the Suzuki training that I’ve also done. Because it’s really about focus. And I like getting focused before I do a scene. Some people like to go wild and crazy and I get centered. So yeah, and I dance at home, I have a ballet bar in my apartment. I have a piece of plywood that I tap dance on that’s under my bed. I enjoy dancing and I’m not doing classes or anything but I do it on my own leisure.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I just want to add that it was such a pleasure getting to work with the people that I trained with. Because when you do an independent show, you don’t have a lot of time, you’ve got no money. So working with people, we’re all familiar with one another’s work, that’s why the process was so quick and we really got down to it and did exactly what we needed to do and had so much fun. I know I just got out of theater school, but I don’t think I’m ever gonna have an experience that’s that connected for awhile. Just because I know everyone so well. We’re honestly like brother and sister.
Thank you everyone who saw the show. We had fun and I’m glad that Toronto enjoyed it.