Martha Burns is a Canadian theatre legend, appearing on stages across the country and serving as a founding member of one of our greatest companies- Soulpepper. She’s most beloved, however, for her award-winning turn in the cult classic TV show Slings & Arrows where she starred alongside her husband Paul Gross as an ageing diva at a suspiciously Stratford-like Shakespeare company. The erstwhile Ellen is back on TV these days bringing heartfelt ferocity to the recurring role of Conner matriarch Rebecca Baker on the Global medical drama Remedy, making the theatre artist a My TV Award nominee for Best Guest Actress.
I think it’s really important for Canada to have strong, commercial shows like Remedy to help grow the industry so that it’s strong enough to support more niche shows like Orphan Black and Slings & Arrows.
And especially ones where the writing gets better and better and the characters they’re following are really good a variety. I particularly like the emphasis on the downstairs characters.
Is there more of that in Season 2? Because they weren’t as explored in Season 1 as the upstairs.
You see certainly that Zoe is more explored. You get glimpses of that, the life downstairs, but we do know more and more about these people.
So often the case with season two, especially in something successful, is people take that [success] as a license to make it a soap opera. Or the formula becomes even more formulaic, which is just a big bore to me. But the really fun thing for me in working on Remedy is to see that the writers are more and more interested in the characters and their dilemmas. The plots are driven by that rather than just procedural.
Are we seeing more Rebecca in season 2?
Yes, particularly in the last two episodes, I have some great things to do. Too bad I can’t tell you. But I think one of the things that has been a really nice surprise for me is to see how well the writing really does reflect the life of a high functioning alcoholic, which we don’t really get to see on TV very often. I think they’re writing her really well. It’s really a pleasure to go in and do those scenes. That completely unapologetic, narcissistic nature of the high functioning alcoholic and how she affects he people around her, they really got it, I think.
One of the other really interesting things about that character is the sort of amicable divorce dynamic and the really low drama way they’ve dealt with her homosexuality; it feels really refreshingly modern.
Yes, yes, yes! She is recurring, and I’m only around when the family is in crisis because I’m practicing law somewhere else, but it’s certainly that, I imagine, quite hard-earned amicable relationship between Rebecca Baker and Alan Connor. But also, at 50, he’s such an enabler. Part of that relationship is built around that so, actually, even though it seems like they’re amicable, it’s actually an extremely unhealthy relationship. And I really love the subtlety of that; that’s an example of how they write her without hammering something through.
Do you feel like some of that, especially her treatment as a homosexual character, has to do with the show’s Canadian identity?
Oh, well that would be nice. Certainly I think that, they haven’t really explored that yet, but it’s accepted, it’s just a fact about Rebecca that everyone just accepts. And the resonance of that I think is truly Canadian, that we’ve come quite far quite fast in accepting- certainly there’s always work to be done because, you know, not everybody does, but it’s a given in our country that that is as normal as any other behaviour. And Rebecca exemplifies that.
Can you tell us about working with Enrico Colantoni and the rest of the cast?
That’s another pleasure of the show. And also again really lucky for me to come in as a recurring character and have that group, they’ve already formed such a strong knit family. I have a helpful outsider feel because Rebecca, as that estranged mother, is like an outsider. And yet their response to me as an actor coming in is so warm and welcoming and we just all get along so well that we do build that really nice layer of it being a happy family, or having been a happy family, which I think is one of the most important layers you have to have to make any tension or drama believable.
What’s the theatre to TV balance like in your life these days?
At the moment, I’m sort of tipped toward theatre. I’m doing three plays this year. One of them is something going on right now, a series of shorts by the American writer John Patrick Shanley- these really delightful, witty, acerbic plays about love and sex. And I get to play a banshee. Which is the second time I’ve played a fairy. Because I played a fairy in Susan Coyne’s play Kingfisher Days which is based on a really delightful book. Then I was in my 40’s and now I’m in my 50’s getting to play another fairy, so that seems too good to be true, which I think is the sense of humour of our director Andy Shaver because John Patrick Shanley actually didn’t write this banshee character and as an old woman. He wrote it as a young woman, but Andrew thought it would be funnier or more pertinent to his vision of the show if it had the banshee and the fellow that she connects with as older people. So it’s a really fun part to play.
Then I’m doing the Glass Menagerie in a little theatre in Hudson, Quebec. And then a play called Domesticated, a really sharp interesting timely look at, again, love, sex, and marriage. Bruce Norris’ Domesticated; Company Theatre is doing it in the fall.
You mentioned Susan Coyne, creator of possibly your most beloved project ever which is Slings and Arrows. You two have been friends for years; did she write the character of Ellen for you?
I don’t think she really wrote if for me because she was writing with Mark McKinney and Bob Martin. That came to us in a 6 hour chunk. It was like doing an 18 hour movie, so they had already written like 6 hours of Ellen before they even thought of the casting. And then, certainly, once we were doing it, they were probably writing more for the actors. I remember Bob Martin saying that he really loved writing Ellen. I think it was a really magic combination of those three writers for sure that made that show so special, because the writing was just so easy and fun to act. Everyone was just having such a good time.
That show is famously based on the Stratford Festival where you spent a couple of years. How did your real life experiences compare to what we saw on the show?
Yeah, it sort of was and it wasn’t. I mean, they certainly used a lot of Stratford stories, but also it kind of was a mix of a lot of people’s theatre stories. I was never at Stratford for a long period of time and I’ve never really been that kind of festival actor that becomes a part of the festival and has that kind of continuing passion which Ellen had. That sort of workplace tension of artists versus management is always ongoing because the decisions are often misunderstood, so that was always really fun to play because everyone had their examples, not just of Stratford, of everywhere they worked. It’s funny because everyone asks that question or ‘I wonder which stories are based on which incident’. I certainly had one director who I just had a horrible time with, and he was somewhat like the Don McKellar character. Don talking to Ellen in front of the company about her old, saggy breasts, stuff like that. I mean, it was never that bad, but there were, you know, quite a few. And it wasn’t at Stratford, but certainly my early career as an ingénue was colored in gray and black by some of my experiences with British directors, who thought that they could come over and be kings. Yeah, the Darren Nichols character certainly had a little flavor of that.
You co-starred with your real life husband Paul Gross. What was it like sharing the screen with him?
That was really fun, I think partially because the parts were so well written. That tension between the actress and the director was written so well, so that was really fun to play. And because we hadn’t acted together since the second year of our relationship, when we did a play in Montreal together. It was just sort of the logistics of being able to get in the same van and go to work and have some time to talk about work at home, and to be talking about the same work, it was really fun. You didn’t see the other person’s mind wandering when you were jawing on and on about your job [laughs].
I think as an actor, when you’re just playing a part that fits well, there’s a real joy in that. And then when you’re watching someone play a part that fits well and it happens to be your husband or wife, there is a real joy in that. So we just had it all compounded in that show. Specifically, after the first season, when everybody already knew that it was being followed, that people were really excited about it, that’s a really nice thing to be able to share with your mate.
Do you have a favorite moment or episode in that show?
One of my favorite moments was when we were killing ourselves laughing about something, probably because we were off standing behind the monitor, watching Mark McKinney being really funny.
I was acting with Steven Ouimette. We had done Romeo and Juliet together 20 years before, and now here was this Oliver-Ellen relationship that had so much history.
The few scenes that Susan and I had together, we would just look at each other, look into each other’s eyes and we would just know what was playing around in that person’s head.
It was so much fun to act with people where the history was just all over the place. You could see it in their eyes. You could feel it all the time. The scenes were always really rich.
I had never met Mark before. And Luke Kirby, Rachel McAdams- all these people that were just on for one season were also good too. It was just a really fun set to be on, because you were always watching someone be really funny or good. You would get the most dramatic scenes and we would be laughing a lot because it was sort of a way in or sort of that pure relish of reading good material, that you can be doing something very heartbreaking but still have a really good time doing it, laugh between takes because you’re almost stirred up in the right places.
You’ve played on most major stages across Canada, directed, and taught for years. Do you have a favorite credit from your theatrical resume?
Wow, that’s a big landscape. I would say that one of the parts that probably affected me the most, that probably taught me the most, was doing Happy Days, which was for Soulpepper.
You’re one of the founding members of Soulpepper. Can you tell us about starting that company?
That was such hard work, and then starting the youth mentorship program at Soulpepper- which was bringing in a group of 12 people for the summer and creating the ultimate theatre experience. The most important thing for me was to make sure they were connected to the theatre, that they knew Soulpepper was their theatre; we wanted to make sure that the actors and the company was connected to these kids. I think we accomplished that in that first summer, and then that set the tone with all the mentorship programs. So I was really proud of that.
Was that something that was important to you, having been raised in Manitoba? Is there a lot of access to theatre out there for young people?
Yeah, because Winnipeg’s famous for Manitoba Theatre School. I’m pretty sure it was the first theatre school attached to a regional theatre company, because Eddie Gilbert went to England and brought back to Canada these people that were the first graduates of theatre education programs. And one of those people was David Latham who then went on to teach me at the Manitoba Playhouse and has been the mentor and teacher for so many of the actors across the country of my generation, and the next generation. He was beloved and my teacher when I was like 12 at MTC. Also, David Barnett- who went to Edmonton and the DSA program and the UofA drama program for many, many years- certainly taught a whole generation of actors. That sort of seems incredible to me now that I got that from these really talented, devoted people.
Young people should be connected to this, to the theatre, in a very particular way. And there are so many people who went to theatre school in Winnipeg and still do. In fact, I was just at MTC in late January and talked to a group of kids, grade 11 and 12, and they’re in a very special MTC program- it’s a club where they get to see every show and then get to do a day workshop based around that show.
Do you have any dream projects that you’d really love to do?
Well for a couple of years, I was doing some arts projects up north in Iqaluit. Just that experience of being up north, that landscape, the people, to be exposed to a culture that you just read about and partially understand but to go in there and realize I really don’t understand it but I would like to, and to look at it as a culture to really be valued and learned- I would love the opportunity to go do something in the north again.
And my big wish is to finish a documentary I’ve been working on. Susan Coyne and I have had a project for the last two years of filming Mark McKinney working with Robin Phillips, another one of our mentors, with Mark doing Shakespeare for the first time, Richard III. Mark’s always wanted to do Shakespeare and Susan and I wanted to film Robin’s very particular process working with an actor. I think we got together maybe 9 times, Mark working on Richard’s monologue and Richard and Anne scene. So we’re just cutting that and hopefully we can get that finished so that people can actually see it because it’s a really wonderful example of a mentor working with a really enthusiastic student. Robin has such a great gift for getting inside Shakespeare, helping an actor getting inside Shakespeare, so I hope our film has caught that. I’m hoping it will have a festival release. I just think that, particularly for people in our business, it has a lot of resonance. I think it’ll appeal to people on that basic level of everyone loves to learn something, that’s why docs that take us inside the process or so popular. I think it speaks on that level.
Oh, I’m looking forward to it already. Even just the scene in Slings of him branching into the performing arts at all was just so endearing, when he does the Gilbert and Sullivan audition.
Yeah, I think transformation is what people want. People go to the theatre to be transformed, even though they can’t maybe articulate that really well. Certainly, that’s what actors always want to be, transformed when you’re doing it. It’s part magic and part dogged, dogged work. And so it’s nice to see that, to see Mark and Robin doing that dogged, dogged work and then see the magic kind of creep its way out of that.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve really enjoyed reading some of the interviews. It’s a very nice informative intelligent site and I love the fact that theatre is part of it.