My Theatre

20 March 2015

My Theatre Award Nominee: Q&A w/ Joshua Browne (II)

By // Theatre (Toronto)

1-In Image5Before we announce the winners of the 2014 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

This is the last Dark Matter interview, we promise (including director Alec Toller and Three Other Castmembers, we’ve interviewed pretty much everyone but the crew at this point) but what would Heart of Darkness in Space (one of the Best Productions of the year) be without its Kurtz? On the flip side of the Best Ensemble category, Joshua Browne is the only cast member we’re speaking with from Shakespeare Bash’d’s splendid Fringe comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which he made an unlikely star out of Dumaine. Whether he’s navigating crippling existential sadness and terrifying corruption as the most serious man in space or playing beer pong and courting a cool chick as the least serious man in Navarre, Joshua is never less than captivating.

JoshBeyond the two productions we’re about to talk about, what have you been up to since we interviewed you for the 2012 Nominee Interview Series?
A lot! Too much to go into any detail about, but I’ve worked with a bunch of companies including Circlesnake, Shakespeare Bash’d, Theatre By The Bay, Classical Theatre Projects, Theatre Gargantua, Obsidian Theatre/Ift Theatre, and a few more. Been a busy and rewarding couple of years.

Let’s start with Dark Matter because it happened first. How did you get involved with Circlesnake?
I first met Alec when I auditioned for him for Sam Shepard’s Angel City as part of the 2013 Playwright Project. The script was insane, like nearly unintelligible, but the incredibly talented group of people who worked on it managed to pull a (semi) cohesive and (weirdly) entertaining story out of it. Alec and I had a great rapport and a challenging and rewarding dialogue as actor/director. When he and Colin [Munch] came up with the concept behind Dark Matter and gave me a call, it didn’t take any convincing at all.

Dark Matter was ensemble-created. How did that work? Did you have much experience with writing or devised theatre?
Yeah I’ve been writing little bits and pieces of things for as long as I can remember. Actually, my first paid theatre gig was back in high school with my drama teacher Mike Halfin and a couple of students, one of whom was James Wallis. We developed a short series of scenes based on the riveting true story of a group of renegade Quakers. Surprisingly licentious. I was also a trained dancer (mostly ballet) from a very young age, and a lot of my work in movement-theatre has been devised. If the room is good, there’s nothing like it.

As for how it worked with Dark Matter, the short answer is beautifully. We all re-read the book, got together to talk about the world we wanted to create, and then started plotting out story points. We improvised scenes and then wrote dialogue based on the improvisations. At various points, the scope of the conversation would zoom in or out from a specific moment or word, to the larger themes we were trying to discuss and what we were trying to say, to the arc of the story and where a scene fit in that arc, to the development of individual characters. Nothing was precious or sacred, everybody got all up in everyone else’s writing, and it was glorious.

How familiar were you with Heart of Darkness before Dark Matter?
Only vaguely really. I had read the book in high school at some point and liked it, but it had been years. Apocalypse Now blew my mind when I saw it, as a movie and an incredible phenomenon culturally. When I re-read it, I was shocked at how much of the myth in my head had been created by the movie, rather than the book.

photo by Alec Toller

photo by Alec Toller

You played the most iconic role from the novel (and the movie and the Heart of Darkness legend in general). How did you go about capturing that legacy within a wholly original framework?
Luckily, everything about Kurtz in both the novel and the book is incredibly opaque. In the novel, he actually says virtually nothing, beyond a few memorable sentences. For the vast majority of the book we hear hints about his actions from Marlow’s point of view, and Marlow himself is at a loss to explain his fascination with the man. And though Marlon Brando said A LOT in the final scene of the movie, I think it left a lot to the imagination about the machinations of his madness, and his specific worldview. Brando’s performance was certainly iconic, and he found something terrifying, but I imagine if you watch that footage unedited, it might just be a bunch of spooky gibberish. I say this opacity is lucky because it meant we had to start nearly from scratch. We had his actions. We knew what he did. The decisions we made about who he was, and what a man who’s lost that much faith in the moral structures he lived by thinks, feels, and says were our own. The iconic elements were great to borrow from (shaving my head for example), but I was never really worried about being derivative. I can do a pretty wicked Brando impression though. For some reason my compatriots nixed it for the show. Jerks.

How did the sci-fi elements inform your interpretation of Conrad’s original story?
The story, for us, was about loneliness, and existential crises. The darkness (sorry) and emptiness of space are a useful backdrop for these ideas. The depth of emptiness and meaninglessness that it’s possible to feel as a human being seems more potent when you’re isolated in the void of space. So that’s fun. Aside from space itself, as soon as you set something in sci-fi you’ve got a massive canon to pull from in terms of tropes. And tropes are super fun in live theatre, because it’s something familiar, but if the reference isn’t too cute or obvious, and the moment on stage is honest and full, it feels fresh and vibrant just the same. Also the book is a trip down a river, so the intergalactic journey to a colony on the outer rim (did we say outer rim? I hope so. What up Star Wars.) is a fitting analog.

What would you say is the most important conversation you had with director Alec Toller throughout the rehearsal process?
I remember it well. He said, “Wanna do Heart of Darkness in Space? You’ll be playing Kurtz.” I said, “Fuck yes.”

But seriously, I have no idea. They all seemed important. Other than the dick and fart jokes. Which were absolutely vital. We talked a lot about the writing of Kurtz. Though we all had a hand in any given piece of writing, everyone obviously had a special attachment to their own character’s voice. Because Kurtz spent most of the time up there monologuing, I got to take a first stab at a lot of that stuff. Alec was ruthless with anything redundant, or off point, which was very freeing. We spent a lot of time gleefully arguing over what was important.

How crazy is too crazy for Kurtz? Where did you find that line and the humanity buried beneath the horror?
That’s easy at first. As you’re building, everything comes from somewhere so the crazy doesn’t feel arbitrary. As we developed the voice and the physicality, it became even more important to me to make sure that everything I was doing was coming from somewhere honest and alive. For me, because this particular character was so still (which I’m not) and so menacing (again, not so much), I really tried to guard against that becoming a suit I put on for its own sake. I hope I was successful, I suppose that’s up to whoever was watching. In the end, you’ve gotta trust yourself, and trust the people around you to reel you in if you’re full of shit. Whenever I really freaked Colin or Kat [Letwin] out in a scene, that was encouraging. More than once, the final tense moment of a scene would collapse into one of them squealing and me giggling. Never freaked out Mikaela [Dyke] though, because she played a computer. And computers don’t get scared. Science.

You’re nominated along with the rest of your cast for Best Ensemble. Tell us about working with the other actors.
Where to start? I can say without hesitation that the cast (and Alec, who was undeniably part of the ensemble) are some of the most challenging, generous, and capable people I’ve ever worked with. I remember walking into the room on the first day and being just blown away by how intelligent and on-point everyone, to a (wo)man, was. Every single person brought their A-game, and was crucial to that project becoming a reality. I mean, I just look at the work these people are doing everyday and feel very humbled and grateful that they want to collaborate. And my respect and admiration, and love, only grew while we were working together. I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a room that free of ego. Everyone was constantly challenging each other, while supporting each other, and there was never a shadow of doubt as to why we were there, it was a rare thing.

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
I have a few! The first scene that I actually got to interact with people on stage, after spending the first half performing these “videos” as monologues, was super fun. Everyone else was frozen onstage (To be clear: by a super cool futuristic weapon, not a lame tableau.) and there was a real sense of danger and play in walking up to Kat and Colin and getting very close to their faces. Another (somewhat similar) moment was in the final scene when I backed Colin against a wall, spitting this insane, vaulting rhetoric at him. It’s fun to be the bad guy. Finally, there were tons of moments with Kat. She’s got such chops, comedic or otherwise, and it always felt like I was up there with a real sister-in-arms. Just to pick one, the scene when we were in the local dance club on a space station was always a favourite. Starting off broodily staring at each other and then turning it into a case of mistaken identity (or hallucination), breaking character and being a total moron trying to hit on her was a great time, and the only real comedic moment in the show I got to participate in. It was a fun, silly interlude into what was, for me, an hour and a half of pretty dark stuff.

photo by Jesse Griffiths and Kyle Purcell

photo by Jesse Griffiths and Kyle Purcell

Moving on to Love’s Labour’s Lost, let’s lightly rephrase most of the same questions, starting with: how did this production come onto your radar? Were you familiar with Shakespeare Bash’d and their bare-bones mandate?
Yeah, I first saw their work when they did The Taming of the Shrew at fringe a few years ago. James and I actually were good friends in high school, cut our teeth onstage together. We sort of lost touch through University and in the years after when I was living in S. Korea. Then I came back and went to see him and was blown away by both his performance, and the company’s work on the whole. I’ve been bugging him to cast me ever since, and when he asked me to come on board for LLL, I was thrilled.

Dumaine is a somewhat under-written role but your interpretation felt more fully fleshed out. What key aspects of the character did you focus on?
The concept for the show was basically that these young guys are kind of bro-y, frathouse, college students. So that was basically where everything came from. Textually, there’s not a ton of differentiation between Longaville and Dumaine, and even less for their female counterparts, so we each had to look for clues and find an angle that would make these people feel real. Early on, we decided Dumaine worked as a bit of a partier, and perhaps not the brightest dude. With that skeleton in mind, I’m a big ham, and James was really receptive to the ridiculous bits I came up with when they supported what was happening onstage.

Dumaine’s character is largely defined by two relationships- his boys and his girl. Tell us first about developing the fantastic chemistry between Dumaine, Longaville, Berowne and the King of Navarre.
That was such a blast. Jeff [Hanson] and I have been friends for a decade, so being idiots together was just business as usual, but I didn’t really know Jesse [Nerenberg] or Andrew [Gaboury]. It’s one of the perks of being an actor, the camaraderie and intimacy you get to develop with talented people who you’ve never met. As to how it developed, it really just came out of working the moments. We all had a fair amount of time onstage when we weren’t speaking (except Berowne, that guy never shuts up), and in those moments when you’re watching what’s going on and sharing mischievous glances, friendships are born. All of us are incredibly different people, and nobody is new at this, so we just sort of did our job, which is just playing a big game together, and the group dynamic worked itself out. I will give a big shout out to James for creating the kind of environment where that can happen.

I also loved the specificity of your relationship with Catherine Rainville’s Katherine. With so few scenes to develop that love story (the characters talk a lot about each other but you’re rarely on stage together), how did you go about making that connection feel real?
Again, just by playing around together. Cat has a great presence onstage, and neither one of us are particularly fond of being scenery. When we were on together, we were interacting, keeping things moving. She played Katherine as a bit of a badass, so we decided Dumaine would be kind of freaked out by her but seriously into her.

Tell us about working with James Wallis as a director.
James loves Shakespeare more than almost anyone I know. His sense of scholarship with the text, and his instincts as an actor serve him really well. He’s very open to anyone’s ideas on what a given moment is about, and will challenge you to argue your point of view if he disagrees. That’s what collaboration is all about. He manages to do it while being incredibly sweet and caring at the same time. He and Julia [Nish-Lapidus] gave me the opportunity to Associate Direct their production of Macbeth, and I had some of the most interesting conversations about Shakespeare I’ve ever had. On top of this, he creates a space where people can really play. A lot of directors, especially young directors, are too focused on their own version of how something should look, or what a moment is about, the tape they have playing in their head, but not James. I’ve never seen him get in an actor’s way, which is unusual.

Did you have a favourite moment in that production?
The poem for sure. It’s always a treat when you get to be a total goofball while talking directly to the audience. Getting to do it while your buddies are all “hidden” and reacting to all the stupid things you’re saying is even better.

What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
Right now I’m actually writing a lot. Last year was incredibly busy for me, so the last little while has been a nice break to recharge. There’s a project in very early stages that I’m excited about, looking at the work of HP Lovecraft, but it’s way too early to say anything else about it. I’m also in the process of putting together some demo material and getting packages ready to get myself an agent, because it’s past time. I’ve been interested in the TV/Film world forever, and have never really given an effort to anything outside of theatre, so that’s new.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for supporting my work, see you out there!

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