Soulpepper favourites and Howland Company founding members, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia have given us dozens of standout performances on many stages in their few years since graduating from the Soulpepper Academy. We even named Courtney our Emerging Artist for 2013. In 2014 they earned their first non-acting My Theatre Award nods by teaming up to direct The Howland Company’s inaugural production with four rotating casts (including themselves) and an unpredictable concept that reordered every scene of the play at every performance.
Constantly working together, Courtney and Paolo teamed up once again for their Nominee Interview to talk about their Best Director nod for 52 Pick-Up, getting Howland off the ground, and the hundreds of other projects we demanded they tell us about.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
Courtney: I’m not sure if it was the first, but I saw a community theatre production of Evita when I was 8 years old, in my hometown, Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I hadn’t the foggiest clue what was happening (where’s Argentina? who is Che Guevara?), but I knew I loved it. I saw it twice. My aunt took a cassette recorder to the show and recorded it for me. I listened to the tape over and over again. I sang the sexy duet “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” for weeks – a bit inappropriate!
Paolo: When I turned 5, my mom took me to see Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. This was just after the show was a huge hit on Broadway. My poor mom thought that I would love it because of the music, but didn’t quite realize that the piece was so dark. Needless to say, I’ll never forget the moment when the chandelier rises from the audience and the orchestra starts playing. It still gives me goosebumps.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
Courtney: Gosh. I’ve been very fortunate to play some great parts. But one that stands out: in theatre school (UBC) I played Kattrin in Mother Courage and her Children, and I loved the challenge and the freedom of playing a mute character, who can only communicate with her gestures, her face, her body. I’m a bit prone to over-thinking and over-complicating as an actor, so taking text out of the picture was a remarkable experience for me – and it’s such a great play.
Paolo: I’ve also had the luck to play some pretty great roles. I think one of the recent ones that really stands out was playing Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. It’s one of my favorite novels, so being able to play the part onstage with such an incredible cast was such a privilege. He’s Pip’s best friend in the book, and the two of them go on a few adventures. He’s a great source of lightness in the story, so I loved being able to bring that to the production.
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
Courtney: No part in particular – all of them! I want to play all the parts! [Cackles maniacally]
Paolo: Like Courtney, I have to say that I’m not gunning to play anything specific, I like them all too! Of course as soon as I say that and go home, I’m going to think of the hundred parts I want to play right now.
Who are some artists who’ve had a major influence on you throughout your career?
Courtney: There are so many! Back in Vancouver I worked with some great people, and also in Edmonton. My excellent profs at UBC of course, also ITSAZOO theatre in Vancouver is a team of hardworking young, creative people who taught me that if you wanna do it, just DO IT. James MacDonald at the Citadel taught me to take the leap and call myself an artist, but also to work really hard. Everyone at Soulpepper has taught me something. Albert Schultz and Joe Ziegler have had a massive impact as directors. Leah Cherniak taught us clown there, and that was a remarkably freeing experience – I learned how to make a big silly mess from her, and that has really influenced a lot of my work since.
Paolo: I’m so lucky to say that this is a really hard question to answer. I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible artists who have all really had an influence on my work and the way that I think about the theatre. My training at Soulpepper, and every single one of the artists who I come into contact with there, left a mark on me. Albert Schultz and Daniel Brooks as directors have taught me more than I can summarize here about what it means to expose something honest and true on stage. Nancy Palk taught me, and always reminds me, of the power of simplicity and clarity. And Leah Cherniak taught me to play seriously.
Do you have any favourite people to work with?
Courtney: Paolo, of course! We drive each other nuts in equal measure, and sometimes come at things from completely opposite directions, and that suits us just marvelously.
Paolo: I know it’s going to sound cliché, but it’s true: I love working with Courtney. We really do compliment each other. And because of our relationship, I don’t think we ever feel complicated about giving each other honest feedback about something. That kind of trust means so much.
How did you get involved with The Howland Company?
Courtney: In the summer of 2013, Paolo called me up and asked if I wanted to meet up with a group of friends to create a little company, and that’s how it all started. The name came later. It’s so difficult to name a theatre company!
Paolo: It started out between James Graham, Ruth Goodwin and myself discussing ideas about how we could contribute to the theatre community in the city. The three of us were lucky to have graduated theatre school and work with companies who taught us a lot. We wanted to think of ways to further the conversation. We first started with play readings in James’s living room, met some wonderful people, and thought that we could use that as a platform to eventually create work, and establish a community of artists our age who we could grow with and work with consistently.
How did you choose 52 Pick-Up? What attracted you to that script?
Courtney: One of our company members, Ruth Goodwin, had been in touch with TJ Dawe about a different project, but that script wasn’t available. He sent her 52 Pick-Up instead, and we’d read it and enjoyed it. And then all of a sudden, we found ourselves with an unexpected Fringe slot! It all came together very fast – we’ve been very fortunate.
How were you two chosen to direct?
Courtney: The whole point of creating The Howland Company was to give ourselves opportunities to stretch as artists, to try things we might otherwise not get a chance to do. So I’d been saying for months that I’d like to try directing sometime, and my colleagues were finally so sick of hearing me moan about it, that they forced me to put my money where my mouth is.
Paolo: For me, it became about timeline. Because Fringe came upon us so fast, looking at our calendars as a company, and thinking about what pairings made sense (it was important from the get-go that everyone would be involved, which is where the rotating casts came from), I was one of the company members who could actually commit to the timeline and wasn’t involved in anything else. It’s so silly in hindsight because I don’t want to at all make it sound like it was a logistical thing, but at the end of the day, when we looked at availability, there weren’t many of us who had the time to work consistently with everyone other than me, so I jumped in. I’m so glad I did.
Tell us about casting. To assemble four couples to rotate performances you used mostly core company members but how did you assign the pairings?
Courtney: Well, we had one pre-existing couple in the company [Hallie Seline & Cameron Laurie], and we figured we’d throw them together, if only because it meant they could rehearse at home! Rehearsal availability actually dictated quite a bit of the casting. Also just a ‘vibe’ thing, really – Paolo and James have always been able to tease each other, so they made a good pairing, and Kristen and I had done some improv together with good chemistry, and Alex and Ruth have a similar great chemistry (eg. he makes terrible dad jokes, and she rolls her eyes)
Paolo: From the outset, it was important to us as a company that our first piece showcased everyone. It won’t always be the case, of course, but for our first one, we wanted to have an experience where the whole company could be in front of the community with something we all contributed to and were proud of. Courtney and I talked about what this piece means to us—about love, relationships, moving on—and we felt that in order to be doing a piece that involved couples in 2014/2015, we would need to showcase couples of all kinds: gay men, gay women, straight pairings were among the ones we felt we could talk about with honesty, and so we started there. As Courtney said, at that point, it became about planning and logistics, and figuring out who had time to work together over the course of the month leading up to Fringe. Luckily, the nature of the company means that we’re all familiar with each other, so ultimately, it could have been cast many different ways. It was a surprisingly complicated little machine to get it all to make sense on our calendars, but I think we’re all so glad we did it this way.
Did you rehearse each couple individually? How did the rehearsal process vary between casts? Did your experiences with one cast ever inform the choices you made with another?
Courtney: Paolo took on two couples, and I took on two, and we rehearsed separately but kept each other in the loop and checked in periodically, culminating in a dress rehearsal where everyone got to see each other.
Paolo: The incredible thing about rehearsing the way we did was that the script was constantly being re-illuminated for us in really surprising ways. The real challenge came when we were directing someone playing the same parts we would be stepping into and they made a choice that blew us away. It was hard to think that we would never be able to achieve the same thing in the same moment. But that’s also the power of presenting four versions of the same play: scenes mean something different to all of us. A scene which resonates as something very personal to me might be a complete lark to someone else, and we wanted to embrace that always. We really attempted, and still are attempting, to allow the meaningfulness of each actors’ experience with the play inform the choices of each pairing. That being said, there are some things that Courtney and I feel certain scenes need to achieve, but within the overall structure, there’s so much freedom to be had with the different actors.
Did you rehearse the scenes chronologically? How did you prepare for the task of doing them in a different order at every performance?
Courtney: We initially rehearsed in ‘script’ order, which is in fact not chronological. We did however go through the script and establish for each couple when in the timeline of the relationship each scene occurs. After every scene had been rehearsed, we started to run through with scrambled orders.
Paolo: I always liken the experience of preparing to perform this piece to studying for a big test. Eventually you get to the point where you know the material really well. All you can do is trust that when push comes to shove, it’ll all be there. What you’ve studied may be presented in different ways on the day of, but everything you need to complete the task is all there. It comes down to three things ultimately: being with your partner, being with the audience, and being prepared enough with the material that you can, at any moment, be ready to laugh, fall in love, cry, or break up.
How did you approach the challenge of directing yourselves?
Courtney: Paolo directed me and I directed Paolo! It’s amazing how different it is to be on stage vs. directing – in the morning I might be directing two actors with complete confidence, but then be on stage myself in the afternoon, totally lost, totally needing direction! However it is nice to be just directing and not performing in our upcoming remount of the show, it’s a little less harried as a result.
Paolo: That pretty much sums it all up! We would go over the arching production influences (lights, costumes, design etc.) together, then be stepping in and watching each other come up with different solutions to different problems, and helping each other when we floundered.
In addition to directing, you were the two actors who performed the roles not written for your sex. Did that fact change your approach to your characters or your experience of rehearsing a play that, as originally written, is fairly traditional in its gender roles?
Courtney: We spent a lot of time talking about how the gender swap changes the play and the characters. We had permission from the playwrights to make small changes to the script if we needed to, but ultimately we really didn’t need to change much. If anything, I think the gender swap added more depth and specificity, especially to scenes that, as you say, seem like very ‘traditional gender roles’. It helped remind us all that these two characters are people, not stereotypes or representations of gender.
Paolo: Ultimately, for us, this play is about love and relationships. No matter what gender you identify with, what orientation you are, I really believe that love is love. We all know what it feels like to be gutted by it, and to be made feeling elated from it. We thought our jobs here were to bring as much personal truth to the scenes and only change things when they were overtly speaking to a specific kind of relationship. Though, we did have to start calling the characters simply ‘M’ and ‘W’ to stop thinking of them as ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’. Like Courtney said, we didn’t want to create something that said: “this is how men are in love, this is how women are in love”. We wanted to showcase something that spoke to the experience of love.
What were some of the key differences you noticed in the final product between each of its four incarnations?
Courtney: I think depending on the couple, and on the order of the scenes, sometimes you felt ‘oh, these two should never have got together’ or ‘oh I can’t believe these two aren’t getting back together’ by the end. Hallie and Cam, who are a real couple in real life, were heartbreaking to watch in the breakup scenes, because you can feel how much they don’t want to do it! Paolo and James had an added complicating factor in some of the scenes from early in the relationship – the question of ‘are you gay?’ in addition to the question of ‘are you interested in me?’.
Paolo: It really seemed that the main differences lay in the scenes where these two people found each other, and where the scenes where they left each other. Each actor has such a different way of picking someone up, letting someone down, and the real joy in this process was being open enough to expose those personal sides of ourselves freely. But I think the main differences in the production overall lie in those two thirds of each couple.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Courtney: There’s a scene where the two of them gleefully recount in excruciating detail every moment of their first meeting. I always describe it as ‘writing the myth’ of their relationship. I love that scene because I absolutely love doing that myself!
Paolo: I love the scene where they tell each other they love each other. Watching actors say that and mean it is really moving to me because I’m a sap.
If you could begin and end on whatever scenes you want, which would you have chosen?
Courtney: I don’t know! Sometimes it’s so great to end on a totally mundane scene. I would say I don’t love starting on a big fight, because that inevitably bleeds into the next few scenes. It’s very hard to go from a big fight to ‘I love you’.
Paolo: This is such a good question! I’d love to start with the scene where they arrive at W’s apartment and have their first kiss. I also think ending on their first meeting is beautiful, again, because I’m a sap.
If you could have chosen one card to get lost behind a curtain so you’d never have to perform it again, which would you have chosen?
Courtney: Hahah, I’m gonna let Paolo answer this one…
Paolo: Okay, well….there’s one scene I never liked performing because I was terrible at it called “Snoring”. I always joked that I would leave it out of our deck and then the one night James and I went on, it wasn’t there! I swear it was divine intervention, though.
Neither of you are performing in the remount (currently running at Fraser Studios) but you are directing again. How does the process feel different this time around?
Courtney: It’s nice to be on the outside, you don’t get distracted by thoughts like “Oh, THAT’s how I should do it!”
Paolo: It also allows for a very specific kind of attention that we can pay this time. Courtney is right: there was always a part of us that was watching and taking notes about our own performances in the original rehearsal process. It’s nice to be free of that self-judgment, and in the absence of it, we can really focus on what’s in front of us. There were definitely times when I felt I wouldn’t give a note because it was something that I needed to note for myself and apply on my end before I could give it to someone. I was always nervous of being hypocritical!
How did you go about replacing yourselves?
Courtney: We saw a good number of absolutely wonderful actors for the two parts. This city has no dearth of talent, I can tell you. Casting was totally agonizing.
Paolo: SO agonizing. It illuminated so much about the process. I can’t say enough how lucky we are to work in a city with such incredible actors. Casting was tough. [Paolo’s role was ultimately given to fellow My Theatre Award nominee Alexander Plouffe].
Tell us about your experiences in the Soulpepper Academy. What did you get out of the program?
Courtney: We both finished in 2012. The Academy was absolutely formative for me. I was 24 when I started, I moved from Vancouver to take part in it. I learned so much. I also cried so much! It was a lot of work, especially right at the beginning. The whole thing completely changed my life, for the better.
Paolo: I don’t think it can be summarized adequately by me here to say how formative it was. What I learned, what it provided to me and my work, the people I have grown to call my friends, my colleagues, my mentors—it absolutely changed my life.
As the Academy nears its end, Soulpepper debuts its new class alongside established players in the summer mainstage shows. Your year, the parts up for grabs were in The Royal Comedians and The Crucible where you each played a major character. Did you feel a lot of pressure stepping into those roles?
Courtney: So much pressure, but not in a bad way. Albert Schultz was directing The Crucible and we all knew he wasn’t going to let us go out there and make fools of ourselves – he worked us very hard and I learned so much along the way. It was also really amazing to see how hard the established company members work – Stuart Hughes was tireless – you’d see him working away, coming into rehearsal with a new thought ever day, pouring over his script before every performance. It was a fantastic experience, a real pinnacle for me.
Paolo: It meant so much to me to have the opportunity. Probably because I was working on a lesser-known classic, I certainly didn’t have the pressure of anyone looking at my work in that production with a preconceived notion of who that character was supposed to be, which helped. But there’s always something that’s going to make you nervous. When you’re working with incredible people—artists you’ve admired for a long time especially, that pressure is huge. You want to meet their expectations, meet the level they’re working at. That feeling is important, I think. It helps remind me that what we contribute to is important. And things that are important to us make us nervous. The trick, I’ve learned is figuring out when those nerves are productive, and when they aren’t.
You’ve both become regular players at Soulpepper since leaving the Academy. What do you think separates the company from comparable theatres in Canada?
Courtney: Well, I can’t really comment on many other companies, but I can say Soulpepper truly puts artists first. Artists make the decisions, and drive the direction of the company, which is how it has come to be a place where such a diversity of work can happen – I mean, we’re running The Dining Room [closing March 7th] in the Michael Young Theatre, which is a lovely and in its own way very unique show, which is staged and performed in what is (I hope!) a skillful, true, and conventional acting style, on a proscenium stage. While across the hall in the Bailey Theatre, you had The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which is fabulous, crazed, fourth-wall breaking, slap-stick-filled biting political satire which takes aim at every recent news event you can think of, and is a totally daring thing to put in front of Soulpepper’s audience. Meanwhile, I watched the current Academy’s solo shows – they each put together a 10 minute show—and it was some of the most compelling theatre I’ve ever seen, and [then] I heard the rehearsals for the Concert Series, with Academy Grads Gregory Prest and Mike Ross leading the current Academy and amazing artists like Jackie Robinson, singing Maritime music. I realize I’m starting to sound like a brochure, but what I really mean to communicate is that the environment in the Soulpepper building is so rich, as an artist I am exposed to so much while spending time there, and there are so many opportunities to take an idea and really run with it.
Paolo: I haven’t really worked with many companies outside of Soulpepper, but one of the things that makes it feel so incredible there for me is the ethos of ensemble. The work of play-making is embraced as a community affair from the top of the organization down. Not only are the artists my friends, but so too are the marketing team, the administrative staff, the technical staff, the custodial staff. All of the offices, all of the levels of artistry that go into mounting a production and running a theatre are given import there. I truly feel that our work as actors is supported by an entire building of incredible people. Because the acting is always given so much weight from the outside (ultimately, it’s the thing that audiences respond to first), it’s easy to forget that we as actors are only there because of the generosity of the patrons, the donors, the tireless development team, and the efforts of the artistic administration. By the time I walk out onstage, no less than thirty people (and often more), have had a hand in me even being able to perform. What I love about Soulpepper is that this is embraced and celebrated. At the beginning of each production, the first read-thru starts with a meet-and-greet. The entire building gathers around in a circle around the table where the production team is sitting and everyone gets introduced. It’s a great reminder that what we as actors do, we can only do with the support and generosity of a huge team. Soulpepper reminds me of that at every turn. And I’m so eternally grateful for it.
In your time with Soulpepper, what’s your favourite production you’ve been a part of or seen your co-workers produce?
Courtney: The first show I ever saw at Soulpepper was Our Town and afterwards I sat in the lobby unable to stop crying. The show left me with that sad, beautiful ache, the nostalgia for a moment even as it’s happening, the feeling that it is a pity that we can’t ever quite see the beauty of our own lives as each moment is happening. I felt the same thing at the end of Spoon River this past season.
Paolo: Their production of Three Sisters changed my life. I won’t ever forget that production.
Paolo, you were nominated for Best Actor in the 2012 My Theatre Awards for your performance as Romeo at Hart House. What can you tell us about that production and how you made such an iconic character your own?
Paolo: The role was an incredible privilege to play. I’m going to sound like the worst actor in the world here when I say that going into the production, R&J was not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I loved the characters, but had trouble figuring out how to motivate the events. Being skeptical, though, I think actually helped me. Scenes that I was worried about playing became my favorite ones by the end of the production. But that happened through a process of being able to figure out what the scenes meant to me, to my experiences. And I don’t think I could have done that in the same way if I hadn’t felt a certain skepticism to the piece. I didn’t want anyone to roll their eyes at this love story, because I did in the beginning! And that helped me shape things.
Courtney, last year you were one of our most-nominated performers, at one point in the ceremony tweeting that you had lost five awards in a row (before finally winning Emerging Artist). Tell us a bit about those productions (The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw, The Tin Drum & The Barber of Seville).
Courtney: And what a thrill winning the Emerging Artist award was, thank you! I was so fortunate to be a part of those three shows, total gifts for actors. Both Weedy Peetstraw and The Barber of Seville involved the music of John Millard, who is a great friend and mentor. He gave me marvelous songs to sing, and then also pushed me to really make them my own. Those shows were also notable because I worked with fantastic directors, Jennifer Brewin on Weedy and Leah Cherniak on Barber and they were both so generous in allowing me to try many things (and it was glorious to learn from these badass women!). Barber of Seville really pushed me because I don’t tend to work in musical theatre all that much, and here I was playing Rosina in an adaptation of the opera, plus it was a farce, and I don’t do that much comedy either! I’m grateful that Leah took risk on me. And The Tin Drum is the brainchild of Chris Hanratty and Shira Leuchter, who bravely and brilliantly adapted Gunter Grass’ novel. Working with them taught me so much about the tenacity and focus you need in the indie theatre world, to bring a project from idea to completion over several years. We presented part of the show at the CINARS pitching festival this past fall, so I’m very hopeful the show will have a future life!
You were both a part of one of 2014’s most lauded plays (which is up for Best Production at this year’s awards) Of Human Bondage, which is returning to the stage this May. What was it like working with director Albert Schultz on that innovative production?
Courtney: Working on Of Human Bondage was a perfect example of how Soulpepper is ‘Artist-led’. That process involved a lengthy period of rehearsal, portions of which were simply ‘playground’ time, meaning Albert and sometimes Mike Ross would throw an idea at us, and we’d go off and come up with some kind of interpretation of that idea – shadow play, or a bit of music, or a physical improv, or a sculpture made of props and spike-tape. Whole portions of the show were created together in the room, along with playwright-adapter Vern Thiessen who was wonderfully flexible and helpful, and who also worked in the room with us. For me, it was a whole new way of working.
Paolo: This production is such an incredible indicator of so many things that make Soulpepper a true pleasure to work for. I could fill a book as to why that production epitomizes a lot of the culture of the company, but I think the best anecdote I can give is from the first reading. We walked in and were told from the outset that we had a set, we would have music, we would have a script, we would have costumes, but how those were to be used, how those were to be created was going to be a collective experience. Nothing was a given going into that room. Everything was a collaborative process where we had room as actors to shape the sound design, where the lights could shape our performance, where a set change informed the direction. We were all learning from every aspect of that production at the same time. It was so inspiring, and so necessary to have Albert there to edit and craft the moments that were being developed. He was our anchor through all of that, distilling and adding and creating along side us. We needed that anchor to get us to find focus in all that work. I’m so excited to be remounting it.
How did your interpretations of the characters relate to their literary incarnations?
Courtney: One of the challenges for Vern and myself is that my character Sally is very quiet in Somerset Maugham’s novel – she has a strong presence over a number of years in Phillip Carrey’s (the main character) life, but that presence is defined by a kind of solid, patient waiting. But in the course of a two-hour show, it’s hard to convey that same quality! So Vern has made her, in my opinion, more opinionated, and also more political (like Rosina in Barber of Seville, I think you could call Vern’s Sally a ‘proto-feminist’)– which still conveys the same positive, strong heart and mind, and the same positive influence she has on Philip’s life.
Paolo: It’s an interesting question. The character of Dunsford that Vern adapted was from three separate characters in the book. I actually found that looking at those chapters was helpful to remind me of the world of the story, but ultimately, the creation of the character I played needed to be something different. I worked to distill what those characters in the novel represented to me for Philip, and through conversations with Vern about why he chose to amalgamate them, found a path to something that was personal, but still hopefully functioned in the same way the characters in the novel contributed to the overall story.
Do you have any tweaks in mind or new ideas that you plan to bring into the rehearsal room with you when you revisit that piece?
Courtney: Nothing in particular – always just more, better! More grounded, more fully embodied, more breath, more life!
Paolo: Similarly, there’s nothing pressing at the moment except an overall desire to go deeper into that world, and relish in bringing it back to life.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
Courtney: I’m [closing] The Dining Room this week, and then the remount of [which opened last night]. Next up I’ll be performing in Of Human Bondage (May 2), Eurydice (May 19) and Marat/Sade (Sept 11) at Soulpepper. I’m also enjoying being part of Fu-Gen’s Playwright’s Kitchen this year, stretching writing muscles I didn’t know I had! And of course The Howland Company always has a few things on the go, including our ongoing public cold-reading sessions, The Reading Group, which takes place on the last Sunday of every month (starts up again March 29th!)
I’m starting up again at Soulpepper for their production of The Dybbuk (May 14). The Howland Company is also currently in workshop mode with a few pieces I’m very excited to be working towards. And, of course, mounting 52 Pick-Up!