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 director Ted Witzel‘s boundary-pushing Red Light District, the Ui company brought to life a thought-provoking and entertaining Brechtian allegory.
Most of the performers in the gender-bending, assumption-challenging production played one character, maybe two. Best Supporting Actress nominee Sheri Godda played seven, each one more distinct, nuanced, and memorable than the last. The effervescent actress joins the Nominee Interview Series to tell us how she pulled that off.
Do you remember your first formative experience with theater?
Yes. Absolutely. I guess it all started when I got to play Pumbaa in my pre-school production of The Lion King. That was a huge part for me because the teacher before I went on stage said to all of us, “You can’t make any mistakes”. And I went out on stage thinking, no mistakes, you can’t make any mistakes, so of course I flub a line and make a mistake. But everyone laughed because I corrected myself, so I came back off stage and the teacher said “Well, Sheri made a funny mistake, so that was okay, that was acceptable.” So I guess since then I wanted to make funny mistakes onstage. That’s kind of [laughs] where I am now, I guess. So yeah, I got to go to a lot of stuff, arts productions with my mom, and she was a part of the school board, so I got to see a lot of my teachers perform at a really young age, musical theater mostly.
Who are some of the artists who’ve always inspired you?
Well funny enough, my first heartthrobs were Chrisopher Walken, who is an amazing stage actor, and William Petersen from CSI. I don’t know if you watch the show, but heartthrob; I followed him around the States to watch him on stage. So he was a huge influence for me. I know, I’m so weird. But I definitely 100% admired them and their passion for theater because that’s where my passion was as well, even though I saw them on screen doing weird things.
How did you choose York?
Well, I looked around and I went to the orientation at York and we got to do some classes there and it kind of showed us what a classroom setting of [for example] an acting workshop would be like. And I knew I had to be there. I went to the auditions and it was like a family that I needed to join. I didn’t apply anywhere else. I just knew that I really wanted to go to York. And so I did. Luckily enough they accepted me.
Did the program live up to your expectations?
It did. The faculty were absolutely amazing. They become mentors and friends. What they gave me were the tools to understand what I need to do to continue to hone my craft and my skill in the area. It’s always about honing your craft and what are your tools as an actor to do that. So that was fantastic. And the network of people that are now family not just in the acting program but in production, playwriting, devised theater. These are all friends and family; York people stick together.
What would you say is the most important thing you learned there?
Wow. That it’s [about] finding yourself in your work and finding what drives you. I know I’m playing all these characters but it’s finding yourself in each one that’s finding the truth. Bring truth to the role, that’s one of the most important things
Were you familiar with the text of Ui or any of Brecht’s work before you started?
We studied Caucasian Chalk Circle and I knew Mother Courage but as soon as we got into the room to do it with Ted [Witzel, the director of Ui], he plunked down a bunch of articles about Brecht, about Epic Theater, about everything. We were extremely well versed after the first day, Ted made sure of it because he’s so well versed himself and has such an experience with it. When we got into the script of Ui, it just looked like a beast of play to do. And it was, but thanks to Ted I am extremely well versed.
Tell us about the rehearsal process for you.
We first began at York. We started off with a lot of working through the text and what was going to work, what wasn’t going to work with what we were trying to say. I think the first discussion we had as a group with Ted was what this was about, why were we doing this, and one of the most important things he said to us was we’re going on stage and remembering the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the Holocaust, because that’s what it’s about. But then it’s also what’s relevant in our culture, in Canadian culture, which is our Aboriginal women and what’s happening with Stephen Harper and all that. So those are all things that we needed to find the core of- why we were telling the story and what we were going to do to the audience. But the collaborative process of working with my family, the people that I got to be in classroom with for four years was amazing. I love working with people, so doing it as an ensemble was the best experience.
Ted’s a really collaborative director. How did that affect your experience working on the play?
I call Ted an actor’s director, because he goes ‘show me an offer and I’ll let you know’. And I think that is what every actor wants in a director, someone who goes, ‘oh, ok, that’s your view? Show it to me.’ And I get to show it to him. That’s the best feeling, that’s why I absolutely adore and respect him. He has this language, he’d say “verblöden”. Verblöden means too over the top, too much. That’s all you have to say- verblöden. I got a lot of those; I’m not going to lie.
Most people played one or two characters but you played… was it eight?
It was seven. The maid was also a hooker. [Laughs].
How did you go about differentiating all those characters so well?
First was one mannerism that really stuck out. Then came the character body, which had to help differentiate, that’s basically whatever aura I felt each had. And then there were the accents.
Did you have a favorite character to play?
Definitely, the actor Mahoney. Because he’s a lot of me as well. All of them are and I think that’s another thing to add- all of them are kind of comedic and tragic sides of me, and finding that in them [was the key].
The night that I was there, your pants started falling down.
[Laughs] Oh no.
Something like that happens on stage. What do you do?
Oh, you just go with it and that’s the fun of it. I love when that stuff happens because every night of the week it was different. Every single night was completely different. It was like almost a different show each time. Our group, we always wanted to keep each other on our toes. Daniela [Pagliarello, who played Ui], the closing night she pulled something on me. I would pull something on her every night, then she really pulled something on me, just ad-libbed right off the script.
What’d she say?
Well, it was our final show and we had to do one of the parts where I’m teaching her to speak up like “aaa”. I said ‘very good’ and she turned the gun on me and started ad libbing other things like, ‘that’s not what I said’. That’s the best, because you have to roll with it and I deserved it because I probably did so many different things to her every night. That’s why working with these characters was amazing, because we learned to improv with them beforehand. Learning to do that kept it fresh, kept it exciting.
The production had an ever-changing ending, a note at intermission saying “the length of act 2 depends on you”. What were some of the craziest things that happened when the audience wouldn’t vote to submit to Ui’s will?
Every night was quite interesting. We’d have people who were not going to raise their hands. I think the longest we waited was almost ten minutes. What we had to end up doing was escort them into the closet behind the stage. If they weren’t going to raise their hands, we were going to take them out so we could end the play. I think Josh [Johnston, who played Giri] at one point gave a man a lap dance and kissed him on the lips. But he still didn’t raise his hand, so I guess he enjoyed it. [Laughs].
Do you have a favorite moment in the production?
I can’t say I have a favorite moment because they were all so different and there were so many different things that happened each night, but it’s probably right before intermission where we walk off stage singing that hymn. I think it’s the transition of comedic to eerie and dark and what’s going to happen in the second half. It sets up the second half which is completely different from the first. That’s probably my favorite moment in the play.
What would you say is the most important conversation you had with Ted about any of your characters?
Definitely the most important thing was that it’s not about the character, in this play. That can be kind of weird for the actor to hear, because of course it’s about the character; we’re playing a character. It’s about moving the audience, or having a moment of catharsis ourselves. But for this play and with Brecht’s works it’s not about that at all. It’s about being truthful in these caricatures that I was playing, but also it’s about the drive of this monster of a play; pushing the play forward as opposed to sitting in moments that shouldn’t be sat in. We want to kind of just slap the audience with a bunch of different things at once.
You mentioned musical theatre earlier. Do you sing?
I was in vocal at my arts high school. I was doing productions like Crazy for You and Seussical and all that stuff. I actually I stopped doing musical theater but I’d love to continue. I try to keep my singing up as much as I can. I have a jazz band- on and off, we kind of do our thing.
What are they called?
We were called Happy Hour. When we’re together, we’re Happy Hour. I work with a pianist- him and I are kind of the core of the group.
What are some of your favorite roles you’ve ever played?
Well, Pumbaa, as I mentioned; number one, for sure. From this play, certainly, Mahoney and all the characters I was given the opportunity to play. But what else? We did Wounds to the Face at York, by Howard Barker. I got to play the mother in that. It reminds me of Mother Courage, that role, and it was an extremely complicated, in-depth, emotionally draining role to play. Also I got to play Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at York which was really exciting. And Pandarus from Troilus and Cressida, because that was actually a male role that Ted had tailored for me to play as a female, so that was so interesting, and so amazing.
Do you have any dream parts?
Oh yeah. Well, certainly Lady Macbeth. Of course I gotta say Lady Macbeth. Any other dream roles? Anything that Ted wants to put me in, I’ll do. I’ll do anything he wants.
Careful with that.
Oh, I know.
That could be anything.
That’s the thing, I know. But because there’s so much trust, I trust anything he wants me to do is for a purpose, because he’s so smart. If it’s on stage, it’s there for a purpose. If I wanted to bring a prop on like a muffin, it had to have three purposes. Something had to happen with the muffin three times, so we picked the muffin up, the muffin went into the audience, I was trying to eat the muffin when I came in.
How did the production change when you remounted it with the Red Light District?
Well, our main focus was not to try to recreate, and that was Ted’s focus as well. We weren’t trying to recreate what we did at York, but find new things. I think we were so lucky to be able to explore in that space that we got with even more than we found in the play [the first time]. We definitely found so much more. I found so much more with my characters because we didn’t have a lot of time to do it at York. We didn’t have a lot of time here but we’d already been with the script. A lot of things were fine-tuned and new things were brought in for sure. Like pants falling down, that wasn’t supposed to happen for sure.
Had you seen any of the Red Light District shows or Ted’s work before?
No, I hadn’t. I met Ted for the first time at York. I heard about him- people had been talking about him, that he was amazing- but I hadn’t seen any of his work before then. I had only heard about it. So it was amazing to start going to see his work. I’d only been in his work, and then I got to see it from afar which was fascinating because it’s like, you understand where [they’re coming from], and you want to ask the other actors who got to be in that process with him, “Well how did you get there?”.
What are you doing now, what’s your next project?
My next project is Frankenstein. I’m doing a production, Echo Productions is doing the show Frankenstein and I’m playing Igor [Laughs] I’m pretty pleased. I’m super excited about that. That goes up in April. And then I’m also doing a little short film called Cake which should be cute and really fun.
I am also writing a play with my mother. It is a story of a mother and daughter who together decide to become private investigators. My mother has just completed her private investigation training in order to give authenticity to the piece.
And do you have anything you’d like to add?
Well, thank you, number one for this nomination. It’s lovely and honoring to have your work be recognized even just in a nomination.