Derek Boyes is famous for being one of the nicest people in all of Canadian theatre. Seriously, at Soulpepper (where he’s been a Resident Artist for many years) there’s a bench emblazoned with the words “we call this bench Derek Boyes because it supports us and makes us feel at home”. Isn’t that about the sweetest thing you ever heard? In a wonderful bit of luck, it turns out that one of the nicest people in Canadian Theatre is also a pretty darn great performer. Derek’s charm and impeccable comic timing made his portrayal of Reg in the three-play Norman Conquests cycle one of the standout supporting performances of the year.
We got to talk to the Best Supporting Actor nominee about his long career with Soulpepper, his greatest working relationships, and the huge part he’s played in the mentorship of Toronto’s up and coming artists.
Can you remember your first experience with theater?
Well, I think the one that really sunk in and hooked in was high school. I remember being in You Can’t Take it With You in high school, coming up in a bald wig playing Mr. De Pinna and opening the door and walking on stage and hearing people laugh. I remember thinking that was the most amazing feeling to wander into a room full of people who would react to a story, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
You got to revisit that show last year, right?
I got to do the show last year, I know! [Laughs] Played another part, but it still all rushed back. It was lovely though, full circle experience.
Is that when you knew when you wanted to be an actor?
I think so. I mean, I was quite athletic as a kid and, in early in high school, I started to pull my hamstring and I had no idea why. Doctors in those days didn’t know anything about stretching, so my doctor would say, “Just rest! Just rest,” and I could never get my legs back to where I could play enough sports. So I started to get hooked on the drama department and then the school plays kind of turned into what felt like the same kind of thrill I was getting from playing sports. Which is still what I feel to this day, that theatre is a real team sport. That’s something that I was able to feel the same kind of excitement and kick and thrill from. And when I got to theater school, I learned how to stretch and I could play sports again, which was fantastic. But it was too late. I was hooked onto something else. And I think that’s been my big draw to it all through these years. It’s an adventure and it challenges all parts of my body including my mind and my imagination and I’ve been hooked ever since.
How did you get involved with Soulpepper?
I’d known a lot of the founding members for many, many years back to the Stratford days when I was acting on the main stage, they were the talks of the town with the young company. I was jealous of what they were able to be working with and doing and so I met a lot of them then and then finally when they formed the company, before they formed the company in fact, I worked with Albert [Schultz] and with the others in Edmonton doing a version of The Crucible, which we’re doing again now. And then I had my acting experience with them. And then, when they formed the company, it took me a few years to finally get an audition to get into the company in 2004 and I’ve been with them ever since.
What was the first production you did with them?
Nathan Wise which was 2004. It was just such a perfect example of what I’ve always adored about Soulpepper which is doing these really interesting plays that no one know about. It’s a hugely popular German play that we didn’t know anything about and just being knocked out by the message of that play and to get to play a part in it was just fantastic. I got hooked by the company and what they’ve allowed me to do not only acting-wise but in terms of doing the things that I’ve always enjoyed doing as an actor which is connecting with audiences and doing outreach with youth and just having a huge opportunity to do so much of that with them. It’s just kept growing and growing and I’ve now been a resident for about six years and it’s just been amazing.
Tell us about the youth outreach program.
Sure. It keeps growing and changing because it’s now more than city youth. The youth outreach, what I love about when I started working with it was trying to find a way to engage the youth of Toronto to not just theatre, but to the arts. To find that there may be a port in the storm for some of them who were having trouble thinking what their lives were going to be. The wonderful thing about the arts, to me, is that it’s such an inclusive blanket of possibility that they have, not just theatrically but dancers and designers and photographers and choreographers and seeing them have their minds opened up to what the arts can bring- confidence about how to communicate and how to listen, that they can take into any part of their lives. I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to mentor at least one youth every year, sometimes two or three. I get to mentor a member of the Academy every year as well now too. And that turned into some really fantastic relationships with some young people who are now kind of turning into the next wave of arts movers and shakers in this city.
Who have been some of your mentees from the academy?
Ray Jacildo is someone who’s starting to act now in shows and he’s done very well. Academy-wise I’ve had just as many thinkers and Raquel Duffy and Peter Fernandes, those are such fantastic relationships. Raquel is now leading the company and doing some wonderful acting things, and the others are finding their way into the main stage life of what it’s like to be a Soulpepper actor. I’ve been trying to help them through that transitional process.
What’s the trick?
The trick is trusting the company. Trusting the ensemble and finding your fit in it and finding yourself in it and not trying to be anything other than you who are and trust that and believe that’s why they’re there and not try to do too much.
What’s your favorite role you’ve gotten to play?
Oh, I had so many great things to do there. I’ve been doing these Norman Conquests. Reg is such a hoot to play and I’ve gotten such great reactions. To have a chance to do Mick the Bartender in Time of Your Life was pretty amazing. It’s one of those plays I don’t think people will get a chance to see or be in very often because of how many characters are in it. And my character got to sort of host them all coming on and off the stage. I just adored that show. It was really, really fun to do because it was just so exciting. And also the Crucible was another one I loved having a second go at. I played the same character twenty three years ago in Edmonton. Robin Phillips directed and I had another go at it all those years later, it was fabulous.
In The Norman Conquests you worked with a team (as you often do in Soulpepper), of long-time collaborators from the director to almost the entire cast. How does that experience differ from rehearsing in a more conventional environment?
What’s great about Norman Conquests was Laura Condlln was new to us this year, as was Sarah Mennell, so we had a mix of people who’d been there for a while and new blood. I think that’s kind of the perfect thing to have because, people having worked together- and luckily a lot of us have- it was a short end of trust. Because we only really had six weeks to put three full length shows on. When we first did it, it was a huge challenge time-wise. And so, because we all trusted and looked out for each other, we knew it was possible, we knew there wasn’t going to be anyone dropping the ball. But then with new people into that, they brought a new kind of work ethic and it really kept us on our toes as well. I think it was a perfect mix of old – old, that’s a terrible word [Laughs]– kind of Soulpepper experience and fresh blood.
How do you prepare for three plays at once?
Oh, it was scary. And what I thought was going to be the scariest, wasn’t. I think the big thing is I wanted to make sure, because rehearsal time wasn’t going to be huge, that the lines were out of the way. I thought there would be confusion about what show we were in and which scene we were going to be in, and that never happened. I also thought that the terror of doing all three shows in one day would be a nightmare and that turned out to be really fun. I think the big thing was making sure that I was prepared before jumping in, that I’d learned as much of the dialogue as possible and was ready to just play and figure out who these people were.
Would you divide the scenes by location in rehearsal?
What Ted [Dykstra, the director] did- that I thought was pretty daring of him; anybody else I’d talked to that had been in these shows had never done this- was to do it chronologically. The very first scene, which is the first scene in the garden, we started there and then the second scene took place in “Living Together” and then the third took place in “Table Manners”. We just chronologically went through what took place on that weekend. And so it was all sort of jump from the next to play to the next play to the next play to the next play and that was fantastic for getting a bearing for on happened during the weekend. But the challenge was each play is kind of separate in feel so we only had three weeks to get back to the plays. I think it was a fantastic, worthy experiment that I think paid off in that we were very clear about what was happening to us in a kind of linear sense of what was happening in the story. So when we went back to the separate plays, we knew what was fuelling each entrance and exit.
Reg is a fairly understated and contented guy. What’s going on in his head that he’s not saying?
Oh yeah, Reg. God bless Reg. He’s somehow been able to hang on to some sense of… let me put it this way: I think what we learned was that the family’s house that we’re visiting- or one living at, two others visiting- had a huge effect on who we are as people and I think Reg at one point as well. I think he was totally affected by his upbringing: by his father who seemed to be wanting to shut himself away and stay away from the really strong women around him in his life. And I think he picked a woman that he felt comfortable with who was very much like his mother, who would have bossed him around. So he’ following a pattern and found a way to amuse himself by making little games. He just found a way to be content on his own. And I think he does that with his wife too; he finds a way to shut her off and leave the people in his life so he can have his solitude, and that’s what he lives for, happily.
Do you think his board game is likely any good?
[Laughs] I think it’s way too complicated. It made me laugh because Ted tasked me earlier on to create it, to actually make it, and I failed art class in grade one, so I’m terrified of doing anything artistically that way. But I came up with this really scrawled out board and rules and I think I called it “Cops and Robbers”- which was really fun, because the designer could take that and turn it into something that people really could actually look at. But I worked on it. I thought, sure, I’ll just knock it off in a night- I was at it for weeks! There were little turns and corners that could happen. I think it would be a dreadful game to play.
To honour your years with the company, the bench outside the Young Centre is named after you.
People think I’m dead.
Do they really?
Sometimes. My son plays hockey and one of the hockey moms said ‘Oh, I heard you’re retired. Someone said they saw a bench!”.
They named it for you partly for your dedication to the company as an artist, but mostly for your dedication to the company as a kind and supportive person. How special is it for you to walk past that bench every day and know that’s what that symbolizes?
It’s really special. It’s every touching. It happened on opening night of The Crucible last year. I was totally taken by surprise by it. But it allows me to feel that’s what I’ve been trying to do my entire career, which is to know that it’s a very difficult career to survive and every experience I have- particularly in the theatre- is about people bonding together in a kind of adventure of trying to, it’s going to sound military, but to win the day, to achieve a huge scary objective and go through some really scary things together. And it can only happen with support. I’ve watched people as they age out of this business and when they have to get out because they can’t financially keep going, or they can’t emotionally keep going and how difficult it is to stay focused and on board in this business. We need support systems and to be rewarded for feeding that and for trying to enact that, it was an amazing treat for me.
What were some of your favourite shows from Soulpepper’s 2013 season?
The first thing that jumps to my mind is Angels of America. I was just floored by that, for a number of reasons. One, getting to share a dressing room with Albert, I got to talk with him a little bit more than I usually do because he’s usually so busy, but I was hearing, leading up to that, about how scary- you know, it’s not often someone with the talent of Albert says, ‘boy, this one I’ve got to get right’. He felt so strongly about the importance of that play and what it means to people that we all knew and loved and lost in the AIDS crisis and how seriously he took that. We always take our work seriously but to see how beautifully it came off, it really touched me, and I was so proud of everyone involved in that, about how effective that message was and still continues to be. So that was a big one that jumped out to me, because of what a huge, huge task it was to give it the life that they gave it.
What are you working on right now?
[I’m working at] Tarragon in Aaron Shield’s new play called Soliciting Temptation that we did a of workshop last year. It’s a really exciting, dark topical play about the sex trade, and it’s going to be wild. A two-hander [Opening April 9th].
Do you do much work outside of Soulpepper?
I haven’t as much in the last few years, for a couple of reasons. One is that as a resident artist I’m able to create work around the edges for Soulpepper, but I also work with Toronto Mask Theater, which is the other theater I’m an associate artist with and that’s been getting me great opportunities to direct for them. I’ve directed probably ten or twelve shows now over the last ten years and that’s been a wonderful connection for me. Larry Beckwith is the artistic director and the musician, Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière is our dance connection and the three of us sort of plot and put on really cool collections of evenings of work that connects somehow to the old masques of olden days. We do modern versions and some from the day as well.
What’s your favourite production you’ve done with them?
I had a couple of really cool goes from an acting point of view. I loved doing The Fairy Queen, which is Henry Purcell’s big semi-opera that originally had a sort of rewriting of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I plunked back in the real Shakespeare dialogue. We’ve done it three or four times in different incarnations and that I got to direct that and act in it too, and that was fabulous. As a director, I loved the results from another semi-opera called King Arthur which is an odd version of the King Arthur legend with a blind princess, Princess Evelyn, in love with King Arthur, and bad guys and good guys and lots of amazing music. It’s a huge challenge of ten opera singers and dancers and actors and it’s been wonderful.
Do you have any dream productions you’re still hoping to work on?
I’ve always loved Shakespeare and it’s tricky because it’s hard to get right. But I’ve been blessed that I’ve been in lots and lots of Shakespeare. I sort of go through phases where I do lots of it for a while and then I don’t do it for a while. I feel like I haven’t done it for a while and I would love to get back to the challenge of that. I still believe in the credo that Shakespeare is much more fun to act than it is to watch most of the time. I understand that when people go, ‘oh, I have trouble going to Shakespeare because I don’t get it’; I think it has to be done so well to really resonate fully. But, boy, it’s like going back to a boot camp for an actor, to be stretched in every sense of emotionally, physically, whatever you want, he’ll challenge you to keep going deeper and deeper because I don’t think anybody else understood the human spirit better or more deeply than he did and so it challenges an actor to really find it.
Why do you think Soulpepper’s gotten away from Shakespeare in the last couple of years?
That’s a good question. I think audiences have kind of told us that, in that they haven’t been our greatest sellers over the years. We have to be sure that we’re not making choices just from the heart, they have to make sense financially too, and I think that’s been a bit of a challenge. But we talk about it a lot. We talk about what we could do, how that could work, but I think the audiences have spoken a bit towards that.
The great thing about Albert is he never stops dreaming. And in some of these dream sessions there are new theatres and new spaces, so who knows. I think Shakespeare will definitely get more opportunities, but it’s when and where and how I’m not sure. But anything’s possible, and he’s still in charge of dreaming down there.