21 March 2015
A key member of ace improvisers Bad Dog Theatre Company (our reigning Honorary Award Winners), it was actually Colin Munch’s scripted performances that first caught our attention. We saw him in two non-improv shows in 2014 and we doubt it’s a coincidence that they were two of our favourite shows of 2014. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (though he was really more of a co-lead) as an angry stand-up in Kat Sandler’s Fringe hit Punch Up and for Best Ensemble in Circlesnake’s ensemble-created space odyssey Dark Matter (also nominated for Best Production), Colin gave one of the most open and honest interviews of the year (there’s something about improv artists and candor; it’s a promising pattern. See also: Kat Letwin).
Do you remember your first formative experience with theatre?
Oh yeah. My grandmother had season tickets to the NAC when I was growing up in Ottawa. So I went to see Phantom of the Opera. I was like 6. And I had listened to the soundtrack like nonstop before I went. So I knew all the songs, I had my favorite parts. I didn’t really understand that it was a story because the soundtrack was just the songs with talking, the whole act on a single track, so when I actually saw this thing, I was pretty blown away, and I knew that the chandelier was going to fall, but not exactly when or where, and we were sitting right under it. So when it actually happened, that was a big eye-opener. And then, I think the next year, or maybe two years later, we saw Les Mis and the gunfire on stage was a shock. That was a big wakeup moment for me of what this thing was.
Who are some of the artists that have always inspired you?
I grew up on Bill Watterson and Gary Larson, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. That was my dad’s sense of humor- that kind of absurd irreverence. But the thing about Calvin and Hobbes that I always liked was the heart and the truth to it. That indignant warmth, I think, is still what really speaks to me.
I was really into sci-fi when I was a kid, so James Cameron movies- the original Terminator, Aliens, Star Trek and Star Wars were really big when I was growing up. Even Jurassic Park was a really big thing. Jurassic Park came out when I was maybe eight years old, which is pretty prime dinosaur time in a kid’s life. So yeah, when I was younger, those were the big influences.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more into sequential storytelling, like Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cook as comic-book artists. And in terms of novelists, I read a ton of Vonnegut. My favourite book is probably To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that about every year.
How’d you get into comedy?
I don’t know. I guess I’ve always been kind of funny, just in a way that kids are funny to their parents, you know? I had a lot of encouragement in that way. I got into theatre kind of therapeutically. My parents split up when I was six, and it was sort of on the recommendation of my therapist that I [go to] drama camp at 7. And I was always more interested in what I could do rather than what the script told me to do. Like, I would take the script as kind of a guideline and do whatever I wanted. And I was praised for that instead of being scolded for it, so that started an interest in improv before even I really knew what it was.
Where did you develop your skills?
I went to a summer camp called Salamander which is like a young people’s theater in Ottawa. And that was kind of the first place I was told I was good at what I was doing. I took classes at the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama. And then got into the drama program at Canterbury High School which is an arts school that has audition programs- music, and voice and dance and literary and drama. So I did a lot of traditional theatre there, but I was more focused on improv- I was on the improv team there and I did a lot of tech there as well. I was really interested in behind-the-scenes work. Then I did a couple of Fringes. I did some really big Fringe tours and I did George Brown here, which was awful.
Really negative experience for me. I had no business being there. I was too young. I didn’t want to go to Stratford. They were, at the time, really in the business of telling you who you were. And when you’re 20 years old, you listen and accept what people tell you about yourself. So they made me a really good actor, but they made me kind of a broken human being for a couple years. It took a little while to get out of that. And improv got me out of it.
How’d you get involved with Bad Dog?
When they had their space on the Danforth, Sex T-Rex would do shows there. Then they got a new artistic director, Julie Dumais, who is now Julie Osborne, and she put out this call for shows. She said, pitch me anything, and if I like it, we can talk about it and produce it, which is still the attitude she has now. So I pitched her this crazy idea to do an improvised action movie. Sex T- Rex was made up of all George Brown drop outs and one graduate, and a friend of mine that I did improv with in high school. So we had stage combat training, and we had a lot of acting training and we also loved doing improv. And I was playing a video game called Uncharted which was like an Indiana Jones kind of game. And I recognized the tropes and the beats of the story so well that I was anticipating the story as it was happening. So I was playing this game being like, ‘we could probably improvise this. We could probably make this up’. So we built an improv show around those tropes and a nugget of every one of those improvised Callaghans was a fight scene. A choreographed fight scene that we’d kind of stumble our way into, execute, and then figure out the rest of the story afterwards. So we did that for Julie. We did two episodes for the new Bad Dog and Julie and that started off a friendly and professional relationship between the two of us that lead to me… I was operating as artistic associate before I knew what that was. Julie and I would have lunch and kick ideas around and talk about the future of the company. Really, back then, the company was her and I, and then more people started to come in, and it was her full time job but it could never have been mine. Then more people came in and I was given more of an advisor dimension. And then one day we just gave me a title, and it’s the title I have now. I’m just sort of a catch all consultant and producer there, as well as being a member of the repertory.
How did Sex T-Rex come together?
Julian Frid, he was in with the Impatient Theater Company, which is now a departed improv company in the city. And they did a tournament called “Cage Match”. It was like a five dollar buy-in with a thousand dollar pay up if you won the tournament. So we just jumped into this thing. We were nobodies. Nobody knew who we were. And we just blew everybody away. Nobody was doing the kind of stuff we were doing- film focused, really big characters, high, high energy. A lot of teams in Cage Match were coming through the ITC training program, so they had a very specific way of doing things. And we were so disorganized that I think we really charmed a lot of people that way. So we ended up winning that first tournament. We blew all that thousand bucks that night. We basically invited the whole competition across the street and we just had a huge party. It was all gone by the end of the night. And that was the start of it. Matt Folliott, who was on a team called The Jeremy Birrell Show- they were like our main competition throughout that whole tournament- he pulled me aside one day and was like, ‘you guys have something, you should keep this going’. So he gave us our first regular show, on a show called the Short Notice Show that he ran with Kayla Lorette and Alana Johnson. And then we were just kind of off to the races. We kept getting offers to do shows, and that’s how the improv community works. Somebody sees you, and they’re like, ‘hey come do 10 minutes at my show’. It just sort of snowballed. Then I wanted to get back into doing Fringe. So we started doing more scripted work, and that’s how we did the first Callaghan!, and that became Leviathan, and then Wildkat!, which they just did. I’m not involved with them anymore, but they’re still very much on the trajectory we all set up together back then.
What’s something that always makes you laugh?
That’s a hard question. My favourite moment in the Simpsons is in the Monorail episode, when Marge goes to another town to find this Monorail scientist. And when she finds him, he has this crazy mad-scientist hair. And then it cuts away from them for a while, and they get into Springfield just as the Monorail is pulling away from the station park. Marge gets out of the car and she says, ‘oh no, we’re too late’. And the scientist gets out of the car, and his hair is shorter, and he says, ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have stopped for that haircut’. And that’s like my favourite joke. Ever. From anything, ever. I love when audiences are rewarded for being observant. Because he gets out of the car, and you notice something is different, and they immediately tell you that something is different. I love that kind of joke, I really like the detail in them.
How did you get involved with Uncalled For?
I’m not an original member of Uncalled For. I don’t recall exactly who the original members were but they met in CEGEP, which is like Quebec’s university prep. So they all met there and they were originally an improv team. They had some terrible name when they started, like “5 Guys Improv” or something like that, and then they met what would become the core group in CEGEP. The main guys- Dan [Jeannotte], Anders [Yates], Matt [Goldberg], and Cait[lin Howden] had been performing together in one form or another for almost 15 years. They’ve been around for a really, really long time. The Anglo theater community is very small and the Anglo comedy community in Montreal is smaller still. So they made a big splash because they’re really smart, really observant, and they’re just like cool guys.
I met them on the Fringe circuit when I was 19. I didn’t think improv was something you could do as a grown-up, and then I met these, like, six rad dudes, living on a school bus with their logo inked on the hood doing improv at an event like Fringe and I was so jealous of them. And then we became really, really good friends. And at the end of every Fringe, for their last show of every Fringe, they would do an invitational, where they would invite some of the cool people they had met that week who had improv experience, or otherwise, to do a jam with them. So I was doing that jam at the end of every city that we were on tour together. And then it became like, ‘when you’re in Montreal, let’s hang out, and if we have a show, maybe you can jump in and do the show’, and then that became, ‘when you’re in Montreal, do a show’, and then it was like, ‘come to Montreal to do this show with us’. And then Sex T-Rex started doing more stuff, so we would open for them in Montreal, or they would help us promote. They are big stars there.
Then they needed an extra guy for one of their sketch shows Hypnogogic Logic, which they were doing at the Fringe. Mike had gotten a contract with Cirque du Soleil so he couldn’t do it. It was like they were asking me out. Dan called me up- we’d been friends for years [but] he was really awkward and he was really nervous. I knew he was going to ask me, so I was nervous too because I didn’t want to be like, ‘what is this about?’.
That started a sketch relationship that lasted a few years. And then I started writing for them two years ago, and that lead to Playday Mayday which was our first full length sketch show in two and a half years. We just officially premiered at Montreal’s Wildside Festival, and it was the highest grossing show in Wildside’s history. Which is really cool. It’s nuts to me that a comedy company can exist for 15 years and still get that kind of pull.
We’re working on stuff right now; I was in rehearsal with Dan and Anders yesterday, but we’re all scattered- 3 of us are here, and 3 of us are in Montreal; Mike, Matt and Jackie [Lalonde] are in Montreal. So we’re just trying to negotiate how we’re going to do this in our 30s, but they’re just the best. I love those guys so much. They work so hard. They’re the hardest working sketch troupe in the country, maybe on the planet. They have a real theatrical approach to the work- full 8 hour rehearsal days, 5 days a week, in the rehearsal space. The work ethic that that company has is incredibly inspiring.
So you’ve got Bad Dog. You’ve got Uncalled For. What else are you working with?
I just finished the first drafts of my first TV show. I wrote 3 episodes of this new TV show called the Village Green, so that’s really exciting. And I do improv here and there with smaller groups, but Bad Dog is really my primary focus.
Do you remember the funniest scene you’ve ever been a part of with them?
That’s a difficult question [laughs]. During the Fringe last year, I was doing Punch Up and Toronto, I Love You at the same time, which was, at the same time, the coolest thing I’ve ever done and the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. Toronto, I Love You opened on Friday night, and I had had a second show of Punch Up immediately beforehand. So I basically spent an hour doing this super high energy manic ultra-connected comedy and then I went in and did an improv show right after. So it was the best possible warm up I could ever have asked for. And Punch Up was a success, so I got an incredible amount of feedback and joy from that. And then I went and I did this show, and what’s great about Toronto, I Love You is it’s very silly and very absurd and very funny, but it’s also very heartwarming and really grounded and really affecting. So I played two wildly different characters. I played a normal everyman who fell in love, and I also played an insane Swedish man who slept face down on a one-inch thick bamboo mat, and it was nuts. It was one of those things where you get to a place in improv where you go into the zone and you don’t even realize what you’re saying. I only remember that set because of what people told me about it. I have no actual memories of doing any of this stuff except for maybe lying face down on the stage, because I wasn’t doing anything else, I was just lying there and hearing all of the laughter and the energy wash over me and feeling Kyle [Dooley], Craig [Anderson], and Jess [Bryson] on stage with me, staring at me, not being able to continue, corpsing and just being like ‘how long is he going to stay down there, and what are we going to do?’ I had a few people after that show tell me that I was on fire. And that’s a really nice thing to hear from your peers. People you work with all the time.
But, honestly, in terms of those moments, this is going to sound really arrogant, but the Bad Dog Repertory Players have those moments all the time. We’re a really amazing group of people who work really hard and love each other and are really clued in, and I’ve never, ever worked with such a disparate group of people from so many different walks of life. Like Sex T-Rex and Uncalled For, we’re all peas in a pod. We all come from similar backgrounds. But the Repertory Players come from all over the country. We all have different focuses. Some of us are actors and some of us are writers and some of us are comedians. We all just get it in the same way. We all really genuinely care about each other. It’s a testament to Julie Osborne, she was able to put all these people together, identify that, and put us all in a place and nurture that attitude to the point that we’re able to produce this great work so consistently. I’m so happy I get to be a part of that. I’m so humbled to be a part of that.
You do some shows like Toronto, I Love You, which is fairly open, it’s really audience suggested. And then you have something really specific like Final Frontier. Do you like to have genre or story parameters or total freedom?
It really depends. I directed a show called Throne of Games- based on Game of Thrones- a couple of years ago where we would take an episode or a story line, even just like a slice of time in the series and beat out specific [stories]. So everybody had a specific character that they played based on a character from the series, and I would give them like ‘okay, in this scene, you guys have to get here. How you get there is up to you, but this is your objective so you have to get there’. And that is a certain challenge and has certain freedoms to it. It’s very fun for an audience because it’s the most direct parody.
Something like Final Frontier is a little looser; then we’re living in a world not specifically in a story. Something like Faking Bad- our Breaking Bad parody, which I wasn’t a part of but I watched, and thinking back, was directed by Eton [Muskat] who also ran Final Frontier- Faking Bad had an even looser thing because Breaking Bad isn’t a genre, really, it’s its own thing. They didn’t follow the storyline of it but they still followed the characters. They just blew the characters up to more absurd versions.
It’s all just different. Some people find structure really helpful, some people find it really limiting and really scary. And I appreciate both. Really, all I’m looking for is the freedom to be comfortable in a scene. I don’t want to have to worry about anything once I get out on stage. Because once you get in your head, you’re fucked.
This is a question that I’m sure you get all the time, and likely laugh at, but, seriously, what if you just can’t come up with anything?
Breathe. Just breathe. Something I tell my students all the time- this is my trick and I’m probably losing a lot of future teaching income by revealing this- if you’re on stage and someone drops a huge bomb on you and you don’t know how to respond to it, just take your moment out. A lot of people will clam up, like you’ll see them physically clam up, and be like ‘oh my god, what do I do, I’m so screwed, I have to think of something right away. There’s people looking at me and I’m fucked’. I just open up and take a moment out and breathe and think about it. And it comes. When you’re really connected and when you’re really listening on stage, you don’t have to invent anything. The history is all there. It’s like, this is a really arrogant thing to say, but it’s like, you know, the sculpture is in the marble [laughs]. You just have to chip away the excess. That’s true. It’s all there. And you find it in your partner’s eyes. If he or she if as open as you are, you’ll find it. I tell people when I teach improv that I don’t teach people how to be funny. People are already funny. People are already storytellers. We think we’re not, but we totally are. Human beings have been telling stories for as long as we’ve been around. It’s natural. The idea that you have to tell jokes to be funny is a massive fallacy. It’s just not true. People are funny. The world is funny because it’s sad and hard, right? And that’s where comedy comes from. Comedy is tragedy plus time. It’s the truest sentence I can come up with.
Do you have any go-to characters or things that you fall back on?
For sure. Having said all that, of course I have parachutes that I can pull. I love playing cops. I looove playing cops. Very recently, I’ve become very good at playing cheerful idiots. Like big, wide-eyed, happy-to-be-here morons. I just shot something with Morro & Jasp where I just played that character like a hundred miles an hour, and it’s a very fun character to play. It’s good for improv too, because people like laughing at me, you know? I have big eyes and a big smile, so people like making fun of that. Having said that, I like playing really fast-talking smart guys, guys who think they’re smarter than they really are. Like Burke in Dark Matter. You know? Like this slick, charming, really superficial guy. And most improvisers will tell you this: I play a lot of jerks. Improvisers play a lot of jerks. One thing I like about Toronto, I Love You is that it lets you play real human beings and that’s a real luxury of the show that Julie’s all about. That’s a big coalescing of Julie and my philosophies- normal human beings in normal situations. Just life situations. And the potential for comedy as drama or vice versa in improv is so huge because the stakes are so much higher for the audience. An audience could go see a drama and not be engaged in it. They could see a drama and it’s improvised with similar circumstances, but the stakes are so much higher, because we really don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if these two people are going to fall in love or have a divorce or whatever. So the ability to just play a normal human being is, ironically, an incredible luxury for an actor or for an improviser .
What’s the biggest disaster that has ever befallen an improv scene you were in?
I almost passed out on stage [recently].
I was really sick. I had taken a bunch of cold medication, and I played a character who escaped to the Toronto Island, and had this like Bohemian awakening, so I went right downstage and I made a phone call, I left a voice mail telling my wife that I wasn’t coming back. And then I threw my phone in the lake, screamed at the top of my lungs, and then started to black out. My character was really high, so I just like laid down on the stage, and got it together. But I could’ve face planted on stage.
Did your other improvisers figure out what was happening?
They thought you were just in the scene?
Yeah, ‘he’s fine’. They were dancing and whatever. And I told them after, like as soon as we got off stage, I was like, ‘yeah so I almost… like, that was legit’-
‘I almost died, thanks for your help’.
[laughs] that could have been pretty bad.
For me, I see more of the occasional potential disaster. We had a sword fight in Throne of Games that I was really nervous about.
But it was choreographed, right?
Yes, it was. If the Factory Theatre Board of Directors is listening, Absolutely, it was choreographed. [Laughs]. No, it was choreographed but we didn’t put as much time into it as we probably should have.
But I’ve never had something go completely wrong. Somebody asked me the other day about hecklers in improv but that’s not really a problem in improv. People are too scared. People go to stand up shows- there’s a certain type of scumbag that goes to a stand up show and is like, ‘oh, this is my right; part of the show is heckling’. That culture doesn’t really exist in improv and I’m pretty grateful for that.
Do you ever get stuck with an audience suggestion that’s just a dud?
What do you do to rescue it?
I just mine it. For a lot of improvisers, there’s like a black list of suggestions you get all the time. I’m sure you can guess what they are: dildo, vibrator, gynaecologist, proctologist, vagina, like, you know, dirty words, right? I love taking those. I will happily do a scene about a gynaecologist and what his life is like at home with his wife and never mention the fact that he’s a gynaecologist. He’s a doctor. And he’s a smart guy. Maybe the fact that he’s a gynaecologist informs my character, but I’m not going to set a scene in the gynaecological office. I’ll take dildos as a suggestion, and then I’ll think, ‘well, how else is that going to inform [my character]? What else can I pull out of this?’. Maybe I’ll do a scene about a guy who’s very forward thinking sexually and just has a dildo sitting on his night stand. And that’s the only mention we have to make of it. The audience knows it’s there. They can make their own dirty jokes about it. And then I can do a scene, like a relationship based scene about the person I’m talking to. The worst kind of suggestions you get are when someone starts to tell a story that they think is really funny, but really isn’t. Or they start to tell a story and then regret the story they’re telling really quickly. So then you just kind of have to massage that a little bit. One of the big parts of being a good improviser is being a good host. And that’s something that I try to teach because I think a lot of people ignore that. Being able to come out on stage, totally cold, convince the audience that everything’s under control and then to be able to pull something really useful out of them in the first five minutes of a comedy show is really, really hard and a lot of people take that for granted.
Okay, we’re moving off improv. Do you have anything you want to add?
That it’s the best. And if you’ve never seen it, you should see improv. The Bad Dog Theatre has shows all the time.
How did you get involved with Circlesnake?
Alec [Toller] and I are high school buddies. Alec’s older brother Robin was my best friend in high school. He was the first guy we added [to Sex T-Rex], the first non-founding member. So we’ve been improvising together for years. And Alec and I have been friends for a long, long time. I think the first thing that Alec and I did together was Play, the Film. We brought him in to be an outside eye on Callaghan! and Sex T-Rex still uses him. I don’t know if he’s officially their director but they use him as an outside eye. He was great.
We worked on a couple of student films he was working on while he was at York. Then we did Play together. And we were kicking ideas around. I wanted to do a Sex T-Rex style show with a different group of people. I wanted to apply what we had learned to a more theatrical cast, and to do it at a real- we did it at the StoreFront- more a “real” theatre than a comedy theatre. I wanted to do something about heists. Basically, I wanted to do a parody of Heat. So that’s how Special Constables came about.
Then Alec and I had always wanted to do something a little more serious. I wanted to apply the no set, no props, use the audience’s imagination to your advantage, trust your audience approach, which is massive in improv. A big, big part of my improv philosophy and, obviously, Sex T-Rex’s as well, but even less props and puppetry than we use in Callaghan!. So, Dark Matter started actually as a show I wrote for Sex T-Rex called Leviathan that I had to drop out of. They took the idea and ran with it, it became something else, but I always wanted to do something that was more serious than it was funny. And then Alec and I, I think we took the train up to Ottawa one day and were just kicking ideas around. I don’t know who first came up with the idea of Heart of Darkness in space, but once we got on that, we just couldn’t let go of it.
The script itself was ensemble created, how does something like that happen?
We built it the same way we built Throne of Games and Callaghan!. We created a story structure. It was helpful having Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, because we could just kind of piggyback off of their story structure. They have very clear beats. We found all of the beats we wanted to hit, we added some beats I wanted to explore, like the derelict ship. I wanted to do a scene on a derelict space craft- some kind of haunted, like an Alien or a Dead Space kind of feel- I wanted to do something like that. And I wanted to experiment with light control, with practical lighting. So we laid out those beats and then we did a lot of character building stuff, so I ran a lot of improv exercises in building character. Alec had us do some journal writing in character. We built these characters up individually, and then did them as a group and then we just started improvising scenes. And I would sort of direct them internally and Alec would direct them externally. Burke became much more of a character through that process. Originally he wasn’t going to be in it as much. And then one of us would go home and write it, based on the notes. Alec would take notes, we would all take notes, and then someone would actually write all that.
So there was a specific script, ultimately.
There was a script. Yeah. There wasn’t any improv in the performance. We are all comedians, except for Josh, but Josh was really interested in experimenting on derived show creation. And was obviously amazing. He’s incredible, and produced some really nice writing too. He had no writing background, compared to Kat [Letwin], Mikaela [Dyke], Alec and me. And he wrote some really cool stuff. All of Kurtz’s monologues started from Josh and worked.
I’m really interested to do that show again. We’ve got some stuff in the works to do a remount.
I can’t say.
I can’t say yet. You’ll be the first to know. I’d be really interested in coming back to it. I just watched the tape again yesterday, and it’s cool to see what works, and it’s even more interesting to see what really doesn’t.
What do you think doesn’t work? Gun shot sound effect, man. It’s gotta go.
I was against that, day 1. Always. Gun shot sound effect- real bad. I don’t think the canyon scene achieves what we wanted it to. I could be wrong, this is just my opinion.
I just think some of it really works and I think some of it’s really cool so I’d be very interested in trying again.
How’d you find your cast?
I’ve known Mikaela for years. We met on the Fringe; she’s a very accomplished solo performer. I’d known Mikaela for a while and we were just kind of hanging out in town, and I think she was taking classes at Bad Dog at that point; she certainly is now. I knew Kat Letwin through Gwynne [Phillips] and Briana [Templeton] and Jess Beaulieu, and Marcel Dragonieri; I know that crew really well. So I met Kat through them and was just a big fan of her work, and just her as a human being- Kat Letwin rocks; she’s so cool. I must have met Josh through the indie theatre scene. I think Josh was Alec’s call to bring him on board. But he’s terrific; he’s so great.
Once you landed on Heart of Darkness in Space, how did the sci-fi element inform Conrad’s original story?
Space is scary. Space freaks me out. The void is quite frightening. For all of the optimism inherent in the possibility of space, the reality of space is an exceptionally hostile environment. [That’s] something that we sort of ignore a lot when we talk about space travel. We really gloss over how impossible it is for humans to live in space. And people do horrible things to each other when they’re allowed to. Horrible, awful things, for many, many reasons. I didn’t want to write something that I didn’t understand. I really can’t stand plays about modern atrocities, because I don’t feel like they’re written from a place of authenticity. So a lot of what I wanted to capture in Burke, Marlow, Kurtz, and even Cal’s journey was the relatable stuff, this feeling of isolation and helplessness, and loneliness and irrelevance that can really easily affect you, even when you’re sitting in your little apartment, surrounded by people who care about you on Earth, let alone when you’re in a space ship in the middle of nowhere. That’s more interesting to me; that’s why Alien is a more interesting film to me than Aliens. Aliens is great, it’s really fun to watch, but Alien is the better movie. The original is better.
In Dark Matter, and also sort of in Sucker the year before, you played very by-the-book characters whom it could have been easy not to like. How d0 you make sure the humanity comes through in something like that?
They’re people. They’re human beings, you know? Carter in Sucker was in hell. He’s just an idiot. He’s not a bad guy, he just has a shitty job. He’s too dumb to realize that he’s sent out there to die. Like, his benefactor is not thinking of him as a human being. And what I really like about Carter is he could have just mailed all of those checks [to the victims of a deadly accident his employer caused], but he doesn’t. He feels it’s his responsibility to personally apologize. We calculated how many people lived in that town. We only see him going to four or five houses in the play but, by the end of the play, he’s been doing it for three and a half months. We figured that if he did that eight hours a day, every day, seven days a week, he’d be there for three and a half months. So that’s a real nice dude doing that. He’s a moron, but he’s putting a lot of stress on himself that is not necessary. And that was really easy for me to identify with.
I think that we take on burdens that we feel we deserve. But I think there’s me being an actor, being an artist; being someone whose job it is to reflect the world back on itself using [yourself] as a vessel is Sisyphean in a lot of ways.
I thought about that with Burke as well- this guy is just too fucking dumb to realize how dumb he is, you know? How indoctrinated he is by Horizons, by the company, and how little he really does understand. Because he spent his whole life being told that he’s brilliant, that he’s healthy, that he’s the coolest dude. That’s why he gets to have sex with tons of girls and wear cool suits, like he’s got it all going on, he’s got it all figured out. But he doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing. And that’s very relatable.
How did you get involved with Theatre Brouhaha?
I don’t remember. Danny Pagett was a year behind me at George Brown and Tim Walker was a year ahead of me. So, I was aware of them, and of Kat [Sandler], for a while, kind of peripherally. And then my ex-girlfriend Gwen Cumyn got cast in the Next Stage run of Love, Sex, Money and I think that’s when I met Kat. And we just hit it off. We were just buddies. We really get along.
Gwen’s dad is a novelist- his name is Alan Cumyn; you can buy his books at Indigo, he’s like a working novelist- he mostly writes young adult now but he wrote a play for Gwen and I that we got Kat to workshop. And from that Danny asked me about casting for Sucker. He said [they were] looking for someone who I fit the description of exactly. And I said ‘well why don’t you just let me come do it?’ So I went and I did a reading for it. At the time, Carter was just the opening monologue and the scene at the end, and Kat told me ‘I want you for this part’. This is the way that Kat does things- she compliments you and then sort of insults you and the compliments you again. She’s like a delicious candy. She said ‘I want you for this part, but part of the reason I’m hiring you is because I want you to help me write more monologues for this character’. So I showed up and she had kind of some loose [outlines], and for Kat a “loose outline” is like a fully written monologue that she’s just not happy with. So I would just kind of improvise and fuck around and joke around in rehearsal and she wrote down what she liked and we worked it together.
So, when we were doing Sucker, I was doing punch up for a living. I was joking up other scripts, and Kat had never heard of that before. So we thought that this was such a hilarious thing to do for a living, and that’s where the idea for Pat and Duncan came from.
Ah ha! My next question was about whether that character was written for you!
Yes. And partially by me. All three of those characters were written for the three of us. The cast we have was Kat’s dream cast for Punch Up, which is awesome.
Punch Up was a lot more collaborative than Kat had been used to in the past. She tried it out with Sucker with me and did it with all three parts for Punch Up. It’s still very much her thing, but Punch Up was the first time there were other people that had [writing credit]. I think [the credit on] Punch Up is like: “Punch Up written by Kat Sandler, with additional writing by…” and it’s basically the entire Brouhaha team- me, Tim [Walker], Caitlin [Driscoll], then Danny [Pagett] and Tom McGee and everybody. Which was a really big thing for Kat, because she’s really protective of her work. As she should be, because she’s such a super star. Her style is so distinct.
She did the same thing with Retreat. I did a little punch up and I did some joke passes on Retreat and we had meetings. I was going to be in it, but my schedule didn’t allow for it. So, I hope that that continues, because theatre should be alive and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be.
Your Punch Up character Pat is a stand up comedian. Do you do stand up in addition to improv and sketch?
No. I have but, when I do stand up, I just tell stories. I don’t really do jokes that I’ve written down and constructed. That doesn’t really interest me. But storytelling is much more interesting. The stand ups that I like are those real life, kind of crass philosophers and storytellers, like Carlin and Mike Birbiglia. And I think the culture of stand up is changing in a way. Mike Birbiglia does one man shows. They’re sold as stand up, but they’re Sam Mullins shows. Those two guys are much closer than Birbiglia and Louie C.K. are, or Chris Rock.
Even outside of being kidnapped, Pat’s a really angry and heartbroken character. Is that a trope about comedians that you think rings true?
Well, I think this is related to what we were talking about before. Stand up is a really isolating profession. You’re on your own. You do four or five shows a night, if you’re doing it right, you’re zipping between bar to bar. You know all the same people there, but they’re all your competition. It’s friendly competition, but it’s really strange; I find it very acidic. A lot of stand ups I know are really, really nice guys. But there’s a lot of depression. A lot. It’s hard to open yourself up, open your eyes to see the world the way it is and then to open up your heart and take all of that in. And then to say it. And the way that stand up, particularly, and entertainment is treated- entertainment is treated like a commodity. Entertainment has no value until it’s assigned a value by the people that are receiving it. And some of the people that receive it are very callous, very cruel about it. It’s really hard to put your heart out there, have it be, in some cases, literally spat out, stepped on. It’s very, very difficult.
Pat Wallace, he’s been betrayed as much as any man can be betrayed. He had a good thing going, he lost his lover, and the lover took what she wanted from him. And I don’t think he’s blameless; I think Pat’s a real son of a bitch. He probably deserved a lot of what happened to him. But one of the things that I really like about Pat is his anger is just covering up sadness- a really, very deep depression, sadness, and terrifying anxiety. Because he does not know what the fuck he’s doing. His identity is completely shot. Duncan throwing “the Funniest Man Alive” [label] back at him so much, he can’t appreciate Duncan means that genuinely. All he can hear is the hecklers at the beginning of the show, the people who have eviscerated him publicly for losing his act, for losing his wife, and for his wife taking what was good about him and actually doing something with it. And he responds with anger.
I did Punch Up right after Gwen and I broke up, so it was an extremely interesting time for me to be dealing with those kinds of [themes]. I had not fully appreciated or understood the magnitude of what had happened to me, of the decision that she had made, so [I was] interested to do it again almost a year later [at Ottawa’s Undercurrents Festival in February]. To see how Pat [evolved] now that I’ve had some time to be angry and to not quite forgive the two of us for the mistakes we made, but to at least understand that they happened and they’re not going to go away.
In Punch Up there’s a lot of discussion about what’s funny. Is that a conversation that went through the rehearsal process?
All the time. Creating a comedy is 98% dumb, dumb, failure. Really fun failure, but Danny Pagett said that my motto as a director should be, ‘that’s really stupid, we’re definitely doing it’, because I say that a lot in rehearsal. Something you just laugh about, you just giggle about for so long, you have to keep it in, and you have to make it work. The day we got the whoopee cushions on set, we blew the next three hours of rehearsal. We just couldn’t get anything done. They were too funny.
Kat [brings] such a level of classic comedy- and obviously she wrote that ‘Who’s on First’ bit, which was so amazing and so exhilarating to do- but there’s a lot of discussion about what is actually funny, what’s universally funny, what’s funny in the moment. And I have a weird position in the indie theatre community; a lot of people think of me as “the comedy guy”. I’m not just [the comedy guy] but that’s how a lot of people think about me, so it’s interesting. It was interesting to do that play for the first time in that huge theatre with a sold out house at the Toronto Fringe, being “The New Kat Sandler” that everyone was so excited about. To open that show and it’s like, ‘oh, here’s the comedy guy, pretending to be a real actor’. The negative parts of my brain like to turn that on. It’s a very small part of my thought process, but it’s just part of that right-before-the-lights-come-on anxiety. I just went through it in Montreal as well, because as far as Montreal is concerned, I’m the new guy in Uncalled For. I’ve been playing with them for 7 years. But there’s a lot of people who don’t know who I am, so it’s easy for that part of your brain to kind of bubble up to the surface.
Tell us about working with Tim and Caitlin.
They’re the nicest people on the planet. Their hearts are so big, they love each other so much. They love love so much. They are just a hundred miles an hour into whatever they’re into all the time. Tim’s favorite thing in the world is to bring you over to his house and show you his toys. He’ll get on something, like a new band or something, and he’ll invite you over to his house, and he’ll just play you song after song after song after song and just like share, share, share, share, share.
It’s the best. It’s so great. He’s the easiest man to be friends with. [Editor’s Note: we couldn’t not include Tim’s take on his friendship with Colin- “I guess we love each other is the simple way to put it”, easily one of our favourite quotes of the Interview Series].
And Caitlin is so sweet and so funny and so down to earth and so normal. She’s so weird but so normal at the same time. They’re just a wonderful [couple], just how incredible they are to each other. And they’re very easy to work with. They take their work very seriously. And they both have an incredible capacity to feel, and that makes them really terrific. That rehearsal process is very fun. It’s a really, really fun room to be in. Because Kat is really good at keeping us on task but she’s just as good at letting us blow off steam and fuck around. It’s great.
You’re sometimes seen as “the comedy guy” in the indie theatre scene but then you’re also sort of “the theatre guy” in the comedy community. What’s the balance between the two in your life?
Yeah, I’m thought of that way too. My mission has been to kind of blend improv and theatre together because they’re the same thing. They’re just sold different ways; they’re marketed different. Bad Dog is called the Bad Dog Theatre Company- improv and comedy isn’t anywhere in our name. Our space is called the Bad Dog Comedy Theatre, for marketing purposes, but our core team all comes from theatre. Liz [Johnston, Lead Producer], Jess [Bryson, Academy Director], Lisa [Amerongen, General Manager], and Julie [Dumais Osborne, Artistic Director] all come from theatre. I do too. So I’ve really been trying to bridge the gap.
I’m running the first improv for actors class at the Bad Dog Academy [ending March 30]. The thing that drives me nuts, and I get pretty angry about this, is actors think they can’t improvise. Actors are told over and over again that they’re not writers. It’s so, so terrible that these incredibly vibrant, intelligent, emotionally bare and vulnerable people think that the ideas that come up out the top of their heads have no value. It really bums me out and I have no tolerance for it. As soon as somebody tells me that they can’t improvise, or that they’re totally blown away by the work I do, I don’t accept it. I just don’t let them get away with it. Because we’re all storytellers. And actors are the best improvisers. Actors are so much fun to teach improv because I don’t have to get them used to being on stage. I don’t have to get them vulnerable. I don’t have to teach them what blocking is or sight lines or anything. They all get it. But there’s a real culture, especially people coming out of theatre school, that an actor’s job is to show up and do what they’re told and not fuck it up. And to be able to do it the same over and over and over and over and over. In film, that’s not true- you want to do something slightly different on every take.
Theatre should be alive and it’s most alive when it’s literally being made up on the spot. So I’m really trying to blur the line in a really big way. And it’s slow, but it’s happening. Toronto, I Love You, the last run we did, we did a Wednesday to Saturday, 8:00, every night. We’ve never done that before [most improv shows are weekly] and even just structuring it in that way did a lot to legitimize it. And I think the sales really speak more to that than I ever could. We sold out our last performance eight hours in advance. We sold out our last Friday night performance a week in advance. So I think people are ready to respond to that. If you did an entirely improvised play in the theatre, you just wouldn’t tell people, or call it Revised, or, I don’t know, come up with some way that doesn’t freak people out.
Like I said before, your biggest job is to let people know everything’s going to be okay. And I think just having that confidence to slow down and believe in what you’re doing, that’s all that an actor does.
What else do you have coming up/what are you working on now?
That Improv for Actors class and [performing in] a run of one of our signature formats called Push Pins [Fridays at 9:30, closing April 10], which Julie developed a few years ago. It’s like Toronto, I Love You in that it has a heavy emphasis on world building, on creating a living space that can have different stories within it. It’s very cool, very visual, which I really like doing. And I’m directing a show [also at Bad Dog] called The Board [Fridays at 8, closing April 17].
Then my next really big project is Trout Stanley at the Storefront, directed by Danny Pagett. I’m doing it with two really, really dear friends of mine: Hannah Spear and Tess Degenstein, who are both Bad Dog Repertory Players who I’ve been working with for years. Hannah and I have an improv duo together as well and they are both classically trained actors. Tess has been travelling all over the world acting. She just did a stint acting at Thousand Oaks Playhouse. I think she’s a U of A grad. And Hannah’s at the Banff Center doing the Conservatory right now. They’ve been trying to break into theatre for a couple years here, but improv is just so much more seductive and so much easier because they’re both such incredibly accomplished improvisers. So I’m really, really excited to do that. That opens the second to last week in May [May 22nd- June 7th] and will be Danny’s second play, after Skriker, and the first time that we’ve worked together, other than Play, the Film, but we didn’t really have that many scenes together. Danny is just the best. He’s one of my best friends and those girls are awesome; that play’s gonna be so good.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Just that this was nice. Thank you for everything.