An unmissable presence on Toronto’s indie theatre scene lately, Jakob first caught our attention in last year’s Best New Work-winning play Donors (by Brandon Crone) before going on to steal many a 2014 production from Much Ado About Nothing to Skriker (as well as direct Sex and This, one of our Best New Work nominees). Arguably his most brilliant work came in the production that scored more My Theatre Award nominations this year than any other, Kat Sandler’s Cockfight where he played the innocent but volatile youngest brother Auggie.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
When I was in the first grade our class adapted the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam Mcgee” into some form of a play that we performed in the gym for the rest of the school. I don’t really remember much about it… but I do recall that somehow I ended up getting to play Sam Mcgee, which was huge for me at that age, I was extremely competitive and playing the title role seemed like the only option. I also remember we had some sort of tent with lights in it to represent the cremation chamber or whatever it was that they burned me in.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I’m not sure I know the answer to that yet but I will try and talk about how I got into it. I started high school in Toronto having just moved from Nova Scotia and found myself in a drama class with an incredibly influential teacher named Heli Kivilaht. We were learning a conservatory style, quasi Stanislavski method of acting while doing scene studies of Mamet, Pinter, Beckett as well as Canadian writers like Daniel MacIvor, Adam Pettle, George F. Walker etc. The writing was edgy and exciting for me at that age; it felt much more connected to my mind than most of the writing we would study in English class. One of the big discoveries for me while being on stage for the first few years was that I had the ability to lie directly to the faces of the people I was performing with, as well as the audience. It was fascinating to be able to say things that were not true of myself but somehow because of this strange convention the suspension of disbelief, when I said these lies, people would pretend they were true. I liked that and that I had an outlet to be manipulative without affecting the real world. I also liked that I felt that I understood the audience very quickly and I knew right away how to get them on my side and how I could make them laugh or do something strange enough to keep their attention on me. I gravitated very early in this stage as well to playing the crazies. I was obsessed with De Niro and DiCaprio and all of the films they did with Scorsese playing what I thought were mental characters. Being different was very important to me, and I bathed in the work of a lot of method actors trying to learn their tricks. Eventually I applied to a couple of Theatre Schools but I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be an actor, a lot of self doubt sprang up when it came time to audition for these places, so I had also applied to an English program at U of T that I ended up being accepted in to. I figured if I didn’t get into an acting program, I would just go there. At that time I was also still quite desirous of policing and military work. All I’ve ever wanted is to investigate things. I got into George Brown and Ryerson, chose George Brown and never really looked back. An actor though is still not something I know I want to be; I just want to be an artist. I want to create, which a lot of the time I don’t feel like I get to do enough of when I’m acting, sometimes, but not always. This is why I also have started directing in the past couple years, as well as writing. I directed a play I wrote this past summer in the Hamilton Fringe Festival. I also create electronic music, though almost exclusively as an output for instant creative gratification. I don’t share that with a lot of people but I spend a lot of time on my own making music and it gives me a lot of pleasure. Though did also lead me to sound design, which I have also done quite a bit of since theatre school. All this to say though, I don’t want to be an actor. I want to act. I want to make art.
How did you get involved with Cockfight?
Before Cockfight, Kat and I had wanted to work together for quite some time and she had asked me to be in a few projects that didn’t work out due to our conflicting schedules. Cockfight came at a perfect time for me and I leapt at the opportunity to finally work on one of her scripts. She contacted me while she was writing it saying that she wanted to do a reading of a script she was working on and so we met at a bar and did just that. When you’re working with Brouhaha, that read through of a first draft is huge; it’s already in workshop phase at that point. Tom Mcgee, Brouhaha’s brilliant dramaturge and unsung hero, Kat and Danny Pagett (also integral to the company) are already using the actors brains as much as they can, cross examining characters stories with us and seeing what jokes aren’t working. They are even taking suggestions for how the plot functions at that point. It’s a fantastic way of working that feels very unique to them; they take the preciousness out of theatre creation.
What’s Kat Sandler like as a director? How does working directly with the playwright affect the rehearsal process?
Kat is a fiercely driven woman who works her ass off every day. She does a great job of balancing directing and writing in the sense that she can obviously so clearly see and hear exactly what her scripts should be in her head but is a huge advocate for the collaborative nature of theatre, she wants the play to be the best it can possibly be and knows she can’t do that alone. I think her and I have a sort of symbiotic relationship in rehearsal, she wrote a character for me to run wild with and allowed to work in the way that I like most, which is to improvise a lot. That requires a lot of trust from a writer I think, especially to the point that we got to where improvisation is still happening in performance. For us it sort of became offers back and forth, where something new would happen and she would either say I love it, keep it or just nope. With Brouhaha, entertainment comes first in the mandate and I think that idea really starts in the rehearsal hall with entertaining each other. It felt like we were always trying to make Kat laugh or keep other cast members on the verge of corpsing during the scenes and meant that we are all having fun, and when that comes across to the audience I think most of the time they have fun with us.
What would you say is the most important conversation you had with Kat in developing your interpretation of the character?
It’s really hard to remember now specific conversations that we had but I think the rehearsal I remember most was a day we were working on the scene where Ingrid, played by Caroline Toal, is first introduced and comes over to our apartment. I was having a lot of trouble with figuring out how to balance how inept the character was while still giving Caroline enough motivation that she justify her character having some sort of crush on him. Kat let us try a lot of different versions of the scene out and find the balance naturally. I don’t think there are specific conversations that took place that we figured how to develop the character, mostly just a lot of trial and error, taking things too far and not being afraid of when we liked what taking it “too far” felt like.
Tell us about working with the actors who played your brothers (both also My Theatre Award nominees this year).
Ben Blais and Brenhan Mckibben. Those two guys are incredibly generous on stage as well as off. They brought me in to their relationship and told me a lot of personal things about their lives that really helped me to bond with them and see them as my big brothers. Brenhan has a really warm energy to him, I think he has a really big heart and that type of rare person in a project makes you appreciate how special what your doing can be. He brought those qualities to his character in such an honest way; I just think he’s lovely. Ben is a tornado made of aggression and love that somehow doesn’t spiral out of control and never hits me in the wrong way. He’s so passionate about the work we do and of independent theatre as a whole, it’s infectious, he makes you want to push harder and burn brighter. He is also really kind and affectionate, a good friend. I would also be remiss to not mention how incredible Caroline Toal and David Tompa are, it was a magnificent group of people to work and play with on every front.
As the Chiavetti brother with the most tragic backstory, you had to anchor the play’s tragedy within a comedic framework. Tell us about striking that key balance.
I think that is a lot simpler than it might seem. For me I didn’t have to think about a comedic frame work, I thought my character and my story was tragic and I approached the psychological problems of my character in as logical a manner as I could figure out. All I had to do was try and go on the journey as truthfully as I could within that world, Kat had already ensured that if I did that, it would be funny. That was what was so great about the character, if he heard anyone laughing at what he was saying, he would have absolutely no idea what was going on and probably just get really sad… or furious.
Did you have a favourite moment in Cockfight?
There as a bit about Brad Pitt that we came up with in rehearsal that we all thought was hysterical and I loved it so much and I don’t think it got a single laugh over the whole run and I couldn’t understand how people didn’t find it as funny as I did. There was another moment between Caroline and I when I was talking about Ramona’s big breasts- Caroline had shared with me before that she hated when adults would say things like belly or tummy, booby etc, so I always threatened that I was going to say “She has really big boobies!” and she said she would kill me if I said that and so whenever that line came up I would always try to say boobies and would start laughing and she would have this death glare in her eyes, I only managed to get it out of my mouth once and managed to keep a straight face. That play was full of moments like that though; we had so much fun and so many laughs.
Also at the Storefront last year, you appeared as The Passerby in Skriker, spending the whole play dancing in your underwear. Do you have an answer to the question “what does it all mean?”?
I have some ideas of what it might mean but I think for our production the most important meaning I took from it was that it was a straight up challenge to everyone else on that stage. You have to be more interesting than a guy dancing in his underwear for an hour and a half right next to you. That’s how I looked at it as a theatrical tool. As an actor playing the part… I entered, danced, stopped and exited. Sounds sort of similar to life I suppose.
You also directed one of our Best New Work nominees Sex & This as part of Circle Jerk. Tell us about working on that incredibly emotional piece.
Wesley and I had a mutual friend who died last year. Wesley wrote this play about how young people encounter death for the first time and sent it to me. I felt like it was written about me, and him, and all of my friends who knew the deceased and I didn’t want anyone else to direct that play. I wanted someone who knew our friend to tell the story. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about our friend that I wanted to express and didn’t know how; I think Wesley felt the same way. Sometimes it made me feel like a terrible person to watch it, specifically to hear people laughing at what I knew was supposed to be funny and that I had tried to ensure would be funny, but was so incredibly tragic to me. That play was more personal than anything ever written by my hand.
Last year you were nominated for a Dora Award for your performance in Brandon Crone’s Donors (which won Best New Work in the 2013 My Theatre Awards). How did you approach the task of playing two characters in the same show?
Going way back here. That was a scary idea to reckon with actually, it seemed like a daunting task. Brandon let me work in a similar way to Kat Sandler though, he never stopped me from adding things in rehearsal that helped me get into the world of these two very different guys. One of them felt a lot like how I was in high school and I so I had a lot of myself to draw from, I was able to do things physically and vocally from my past that really helped me to distinguish clearly and quickly between them. Once I figured out the way each of them moved and what they sounded like, the script did the rest of the work. One of the other big things actually that I just remembered was wanting to make Jonathan, who was the “normal kid” of the two them…the one who wasn’t a gay prostitute, equally as interesting as the one who was a gay prostitute extorting thousands of dollars from his biological father. That was very important.
You’ve also done some work with Single Thread Theatre, exploring Spadina House in Much Ado and Mackenzie House in Firebrand. Tell us a bit about working with that company and their site-specific mandate.
Those guys are a bunch of nerds. In the best possible way, I love them. They care about Canada and it’s history so much and they want to share their passion with as many people as possible. I think the site-specific mandate is brilliant, especially when those sites are super cool museums that people already want to check out without the addition of a narrative to the experience. Even if someone doesn’t like the story, or maybe has a problem with the acting or something like that, they are travelling back in time. It’s cool stuff if you’re into it.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
Don John from The Libertine by Thomas Shadwell. The first Don John I played. Playing that part in theatre school gave me a confidence that made me feel I was capable of playing a leading role, that I could carry a show. When, in the next and final year at school, I wasn’t given a lead role in one of our shows, that confidence made me keep working harder. It made me feel like it didn’t matter and that when I graduated, I would play those big roles in the real world. It sounds kind of petty now but there was a lot of immaturity around casting in theatre school, it was life and death. Don John is the rock star version of me though, every woman likes him, wants to marry him, have sex with him and every guy either idolizes him or dies trying to fight him. He’s a bad ass fucking pirate.
Do you have a dream role you’d like to play one day?
I gravitate more toward new work at this point, so I’d say that dream role maybe hasn’t been written yet. If I had to pick a classic though: Richard II.
What are you working on now or next?
I’m back in the twisted world of Brandon Crone, acting and sound designing Nature of the Beast. This will be the third show we have done together and I’m thrilled to start rehearsal on that. It will be a little different this time, it will be the first time Brandon hasn’t directed his work. Sitting in his place is Luke Brown, a fantastic director who I have every confidence in and am looking forward to working with. It’s a fantastic script and I have been around it and wanting to do it for a few years now. It’s the one that people who know Brandon and his work say, “This is the best play he’s written yet.” It’s going to be delicious.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Conversations can be started with me via firstname.lastname@example.org