1-Interview Series 20151Before we announce the winners of the 2014 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Ben Blais has stepped up in the past few years as a major force in the indie theatre community. He’s the Founder and Artistic Director of The Storefront Theatre, which has quickly become a hub for some of the best shows in the city (three of our Best Production nominees played there), and his on-stage performances are among the most memorable we’ve seen.

First among them was his dynamic turn as the eldest Chiavetti brother in Kat Sandler’s Cockfight (our most-nominated production of the year), which earned him his Best Actor nod.

BenCan you remember your first experience with theatre?
As an young child growing up in Guelph, Ontario I would find myself ultimately entertained by the power of my imagination. Creating a variety of worlds and characters, I would bring my machinations into the front yard and regale the neighbors. My mother tells me that she would always let me explore and play in this fashion and would only rush out of the house then “draw the curtain” when I began to cast off the clothes by which I would often feel so encumbered. Everyone’s a critic I suppose ;)

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I always knew that I wanted to work with people but in what capacity I had yet to recognize. I remember when I was 12 years old my school got the rights to their first play. It was a Grease-esque musical entitled: “How to be a Teenage Werewolf”. I was cast as the Igor character and comic relief. It was an eye opening experience and I felt for the first time how through the power of theater one can garner respect and community. I got bit by the bug and have never looked back.

What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
That is a tough question. I have performed in over fifty productions to date and every role has its unique quality. As an actor it is incredibly fulfilling to explore the natures that are most distant from your own, forcing you to confront notions and ideals that may be entirely alien to you. I have had a lot of fun playing villains but also found great cathartic release in portraying softer and more withdrawn characters. I’m not sure I would be able to pick a favorite as I have fallen for every character I have had the fortune to stomp the boards with.

Do you have a dream role you’d still like to play one day?
There are so many rich and vivid stories I’m not sure I could narrow it down to just one. I have been lucky enough to begin checking off hits on my list such as Hamlet, Pertuchio, Mercutio, Edmund, Potts from Butterworth’s Mojo, Eddie Shepard’s Fool 4 Love, Garcin from Sartre’s No Exit and many more. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for me and my career. I most recently read a play by Jez Butterworth called Jeruselem and would love to one day act the role of Jonny ‘Rooster’ Byron but I think I need a few more years under my belt. All in all I really want to be in a movie where I get to ride a horse and carry a gun. ;)

Outside the Storefront
Outside the Storefront

Tell us about the beginnings of the Storefront Theatre and Red One.
Both the Storefront Theatre (SFT) and the Red One Theatre Collective (ROTC) were born out of necessity, passion and drive. Myself and my compatriots found ourselves in a place where we all wanted to work and had so much passion to do so but no one would hire us. After being constantly overlooked by the established theatre companies and festivals we started to find ourselves incredibly frustrated. Instead of becoming despondent or embittered we decided to launch into action and take our careers into our own hands. It began back in 2006 when Joe Dincol and I mounted our first production which was the Dumbwaiter by Harold Pinter. We then began operating in a unique way, again out of necessity. Our fledgling company could not afford the rental prices of the established theatres and so we began mounting our shows around the city in what I like to call derelict spaces. Abandoned storefronts, alleyway garages and so on and so forth. Retrofiring these forgotten corners, running our shows and leaving the spaces cleaner than when we found them, we began to ingratiate ourselves to property owners. This allowed us to refine our methods and produce many shows without always having to worry about major financing and the headaches of grant writing.

The Storefront Theatre began in much the same way. In the winter of 2012 I wanted to direct a production of Wait until Dark by Fredrick Knott and found the old abandoned pharmacy located at Delware and Bloor. After the success of this production we began to experience overwhelmingly positive feedback and interest in the space. It was apparent that the indie community was in dire need of an affordable and accessible place to showcase the wealth of talent and creativity that is percolating in this town. The administration and myself then decided it was time to readdress our business model and use the SFT to establish a headquarters for out company and all the other indie companies on the rise in Toronto. We are now entering our second year and are overjoyed to see the bountiful acclaim and attention it is bringing to the entire community. We only hope that this exciting trend will continue its pattern of growth.

The Flooded Storefront
The Flood

Early last year a flood damaged the space and halted the production that was running at the time. Tell us about that experience and how the Storefront has recovered.
Last year’s flood was a blessing in disguise. Though at the time it seemed like a catastrophe and put our production of SHREW on hold for a week,what it really did was galvanize our company, the players and the entire indie scene. Through a fund raising campaign to save the theatre we managed to raise more money than what we used to start the place with. As well, we were able to take this opportunity to upgrade our facilities and infrastructure resulting in a sharper, more effective tool for us all. It also really helped put us on the map for the media.

There is a tribute on the wall of an encased muddy hand print with the caption: “Come Hell or High Water. 2014”. This monument stands as a constant reminder that with vision, passion and community much can be achieved despite any adversity. A mantra I think is important for anyone in show business to remind themselves of.

I have a saying that I quote to the group whenever things begin to get squirrelly: “Nothing makes good theatre like a little bit of drama.”

What would you say is your proudest achievement with the Storefront?
I think it’s simple enough to say that seeing all the great work performed at the theatre is a constant reminder of all our ever-reaching achievements. It make me so happy for both emerging and established artists to have an opportunity to turn their dreams and ideas into viable showcases. I feel so proud every time a show sells a ticket or when a cast takes a bow to uproarious applause.

How did you get involved with Theatre Brouhaha?
I met Kat Sandler many years ago at a fundraiser for Driftwood Theatre called Trafalger 24. We were partnered together and she directed me in a short play that we only had 6hrs to prepare. It was great fun and we have been friends, collaborators and revolutionaries ever since. Also through the power of the SFT we were able to encourage and foster the 4 productions they did in 2014 putting them on the map as one of Toronto’s most prolific and critically acclaimed indie production companies. I can’t wait to see what is in store for them this year.

What’s Kat Sandler like as a director? How does working directly with the playwright affect the rehearsal process?
Kat Sandler is a powerhouse. Brimming with vision and enthusiasm she is an absolute force. I very much enjoy working with her and watching her take one of her ideas from the note pad on her iPhone, to the page, to the stage. It is a collaborative and fantastic environment every step of the way. It is also incredibly beneficial working with a director who is the writer. Kat is not precious with her scripts and is always looking for the best way to make her stories sing. Without ego or attitude she encourages her performers to bring their unique life to their respective roles and is more than willing make adjustments and edits right up until the curtain and sometimes even after…just make sure you catch her after she’s had her first cup of coffee and never after her last glass of wine. ;)

I have done two shows now for Brouhaha and love working with Sandler. I hope that we can continue growing and collaborating together until we are old and gray. I’m still trying to get her to act in a show with me but that particular feat may take a little more convincing. :)

What would you say is the most important conversation you had with Kat in developing your interpretation of the character?
We had a great many conversations about this production as she crafted the characters around Brenhan Mc Kibben and I’s real life personalities. We approached her with the request to write us a show and she began to explore some of our more radical traits, building the show you saw. Its hard to narrow that one down to a single conversation as her and I have been bouncing ideas off of each other for years. I trust that woman’s talents implicitly and am always excited to see what she comes up with.

with Jakob Ehman & Brenhan Mc Kibben in Cockfight
with Jakob Ehman & Brenhan Mc Kibben in Cockfight

Tell us about working with the actors who played your brothers (both also My Theatre Award nominees this year).
Brenhan and I have been working together building this company for many years. It is an absolute treat to share the stage with an artist you both trust and admire. I feel so fortunate to have such talented people in my life. I met Jakob Ehman for the first time on this production and am honored to call yet another illuminated individual my friend. Jakob is wild and intense. He kept us on our toes and set the bar for us all to strive for. Cockfight was probably one of the best and fruitful adventures I have had in a long time.

Cockfight was one of the most physical shows of the year. Tell us about working with fight director Jeff Hanson. Did anything ever go awry during that epic brawl?
This production was Jeff Hanson’s first foray in the world of fight choreography and I couldn’t be prouder of what he achieved. I played opposite Jeff as an actor in a production of Macbeth where he played MacDuff and it was one of the first times I’ve gotten a slow clap standing ovation from the audience after the epic finale. From that moment on I knew that this man had a knack for the kind of visceral expression that good fight choreography entails. I told Kat that I wanted us to hire this newcomer and that what he would design for us would be brutal and unique. I was not wrong. He gave great thought to the entire scene and was incredibly aware of all safety concerns without dumbing down the intensity of what we needed for the production. I think it is a testament to his skill that despite the length and brutality of that fight not one thing went awry.

Observe the Cornrows

On the topic of cornrows. Go-
They hurt to have “installed” but turn heads at every corner. I love some good hair acting. I find it does half the work.

Angela McQueen, our resident Hair & Makeup designer, is one of the most talented women in Toronto and the only person I let cut my hair. She was so excited at the prospect of doing this and practicing her style. It was totally gangster to sit on the stoop of the theatre watching the neighborhood go by getting cornrowed by a gorgeous woman. Got to love show biz. :)

Did you have a favourite moment in Cockfight?
I really enjoyed the moments when the three boys were on stage together flying at lightning speed and cooking the sand into cool glass. It’s so fantastic to be taken for a ride and find yourself lost in the reality that you and your fellow actors create. When that play sung the laughs would soar beyond the rafters. It’s like playing really good music and hitting all the notes.

This fall you played both Hamlet and Macbeth for the Classical Theatre Project. How daunting was the task of two of the world’s most famous roles simultaneously? What did you bring to those roles to make them your own?
It was an absolute dream come true for me to portray those two roles on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. Steeped in history, I relished every minute and found nothing daunting about it. Acting is one of my favorite things to do and I have always wanted to speak those speeches. Each role does pose its unique challenge and though they are very different characters they do have certain aspects that they share in common. Both men are bound by unfortunate and devastating circumstances. Both men’s lives are profoundly changed by murder and betrayal. One is the perpetrator and the other an unwilling participant but both are trapped as witnesses to their own actions. As we performed these shows for young audiences I wanted to approach Hamlet with a little more vigor than I have seen in the past. I had him active and searching for answers rather that morose and despondent. With Macbeth I tried to maintain his humanity, choosing specific moments to be overwhelmed by the evil that he was poisoned with. A drowning man who is “stepped in blood so far, that returning, were as tedious as go ‘ore”

What are you working on now or next?
Right now I am starring in a mini-series shooting in Havana, Cuba about the revolution and the July 26th movement lead by Fidel Castro. I play a lovable rouge named Gustavo Fernandez, who through his influence as an affluent lawyer is able to smuggle guns to the ill equipped rebel forces, giving them the leverage they needed to topple Batista’s corrupt government.

We currently have two productions in the works at the SFT/ROTC laboratories. Dangerous Liaisons (directed by Jakob Ehman and starring Brenhan McKibben, amongst others) which opened on FEB 11th at The Storefront Theatre and the world premiere of John Patrick Shandly’s newest play A Woman is a Secret which will open at The Theatre Center on March 21st. This will be an huge boon to the indie theatre scene and a great opportunity for us to meet Mr. Shandly himself as he is coming to Toronto for the opening weekend and it’s up to us to show him around.

In addition to these exciting productions, we’re currently in the process of curating our fall/winter season at the SFT where we intend to present 4-5 shows from Sept-Dec consisting primarily of new works. We’re in the midst of a major fund raising campaign as we would like to be able to engage all the creative teams with equitable wages for their hard work, establishing a viable job market for the many talented artists in Toronto.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
All I would like to add is that I am so thankful and honored by all the nominations garnered for this production. The entire cast & crew worked very hard on this project and it is so great to see that people appreciated it. I hope that the quality of the work we produce continues to improve and that we’re able to present you hours of entertainment for years to come. Thanks Kelly. ;)