Despite being a perfectly nice, approachable, seemingly non-homicidal individual, Dylan Brenton plays a lot of murderers (the first time I saw him was literally a production of Assassins). It’s fitting, then, that his performance as arguably the most famous murderer in the western canon led to his MyTheatre Award nomination for Outstanding Actor.
We interviewed the Wolf Manor Theatre Collective artistic director about being “the Macbethiest Macbeth that ever Macbethed” and why he keeps coming back to Shakespeare.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
My father is an actor back home in St. John’s, NL and I remember sitting under the overpass in Bowring park watching him (Bruce Brenton), Aiden Flynn and Neil Butler doing the Cmplet Wrks Abrdgd with Shakespeare by the Sea as a remount from what had been a legendary sell out at the LSPU Hall (People sitting in aisles and everything.) I was maybe 3 or 4, and couldn’t really understand why my dad was in tights, but it was really funny. I’m sure baby Dylan had been around for a few other plays dad did, considering my birth actually interrupted a dress rehearsal for a Robert Munsch show he was doing.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
Macbeth. Always. Seconded maybe by Portia in Julius Caesar.
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
Definitely, a few I guess. Would love to play Eddie in Fool for Love, Katurian K. Katurian in Pillowman, Jacob Mercer in Saltwater Moon and basically every part in the Shakespeare cannon.
How did your experiences at Ryerson Theatre School shape you as a performer?
I’m really interested in physical work and the actor being really connected to the body. Ryerson relentlessly beat me out of my head and into my body. Most importantly I met a lot of incredible people I want to work with for the rest of my life.
How does playing Shakespeare compare to contemporary or musical theatre? What keeps bringing you back to the bard?
I wish I had an easy answer. I do more Shakespeare than anything else, because I love the text, the stories, the connection to the audience and just the amount of ‘play’ allowed in a good Shakespeare performance . Contemporary theatre is a lot more subtextual frequently, while Shakespeare really lets it all out. Musical theatre isn’t something I’ve done a lot of, so I don’t really know how to approach it all the time. I really want to delve more into it, mainly to explore voice training. Regardless of it being classical, contemporary or musical the one thing I always anchor to is ‘play’, it’s about the game the actors build on stage together and what game they really get to play for real with one another. That transcends genre, it’s all about what’s really going on.
Tell us about the formation of the Wolf Manor Theatre Collective. What are the company’s goals?
Going to Ryerson gave me two important things: A database of actors that I wanted to work with forever and fever to be creating my own work (no one else is gunna give it to ya’). I’ve known for a long time I would want to run a theatre company, so Wolf Manor was the chance to get the ball rolling. Originally coming from a lot of talks in a dingy basement apartment, myself, Hugh Ritchie and Tom Sinclair decide we we’re just going to go for it. I was really inspired by a talk from Phil Akin (Obsidian Theatre), to make the work I wanted to see. So we took the name we’d given to our apartment (a bit of a party house legend at Ryerson, we’d like to think) and decide to tackle my favourite Shakespeare: Julius Caesar. This show gave me a chance to take a solid crack at directing and play with my ideas about what I want to see in theatre: real hard play amongst actors. We did a tight 90 minute cut of the script and built some crazy character cross-casting with 5 actors taking on the entire world of Caesar (Anna Fraser ferociously building 13 full roles). We played physically, we explored genuine actor to actor relationships, we made some sounds, we went for blood and tried to make something we could all be proud of.
Since then, Wolf Manor has been focusing on building a style that is uniquely ours, which has been navigated by 4 very different directors. Moving forward, we are working to grow our mandate of ‘Theatre Built to Roam’; hoping to prove that our shows can exist in any space (though we’ve only been in sorta-conventional theatres thus far). We are aiming to take some shows (Shrinking Violet, Macbeth, etc.) on tours through High Schools, Shelters, Community Centres, parks, or any venue where people would be willing to sit (or stand) and watch. Our major goal is to acquire a theatre space where we could develop and premiere all the shows with our artistic ensemble and then ready them for tour. Eventually we hope to have a 25 – 30 artistic contributors who could be ready and willing to remount and take any of our past shows on the road for whatever reason they may be needed.
Did you choose to produce Macbeth knowing you wanted to take on the title role? What drew you to the play?
In our first year of theatre school, Tom Sinclair (cofounder of WMTC) told me that, due to my being a six-foot Scottish giant, I would some day be “the Macbethiest Macbeth that ever Macbethed” and, at that time, Nicole Hrgetic (WMTC’s Lady M) and I had already talked about our deep love for those parts. When it came time to program our second show, we decided to ambitiously go for Macbeth. The idea was in my head to play the man, and Claren [Grosz, the director] and I talked about it from the get-go. I did still have to audition, and was also being considered for the male witch role. We all sat down and together made our decisions for casting. At the end of the day, we collectively made the decision to let me live the dream and take on this character I love so dearly.
What draws me to the play is the progression and the speed thereof. While the historic Macbeth reigned for at least 10 years, Shakespeare’s play always feels like it happens in under ten months. This man moves from a skilled, loyal soldier into a ruthless murdering machine, all for his wife and all for the idea of family. I see him as being someone obsessed with preservation of what he has and the greatest thing he has is Lady Macbeth, his ‘dearest partner of greatness.’ It really all hinges on that idea of ‘To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus.’ The arc, or spiral, rather, into relentless blood lust is tragic, all coming from a need to keep going, to be ‘safer’, to acquire what he thinks would be the ‘best thing.’ It just all seems to happen so naturally and so justifiably and so logically. Macbeth finds a means to justify every action until he slaughters the Macduffs. Then he starts thriving and breathing the fear he claims to be absent of and living off simple paranoid impulse. That’s when the audience can really begin to despise him, because he’s so far from acting with purpose. He doesn’t even become aware of his relentlessness until Lady Macbeth’s death. After she’s gone, he literally becomes a machine: killing and fighting just to die doing the only thing he knows how to. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what appeals to me about just Macbeth himself, don’t even get me started on Malcolm (whom I just played over the summer), or Macduff and his family, The Witches, Banquo, Ross (especially Ross, biggest question mark of a character) and the depth of Lady M. Everything in the play is loaded and I will never stop discovering new angles to crack the incredibly clean story of such treacherous action.
So you’re handed a mammoth role like Macbeth- where do you start?
The words. No part is any different from any other part, all the hints are in what you say, when you say it and when you choose not to speak. For me, locking in to Macbeth was about locking into my own anxious, stressed out nature and breathing that into his text. All I wanted was to be clear, understood and honest. I think the best thing came from the other artists, everyone else was so strong that everyday I was challenged to meet them and match their work and play a hard game with them. It was deeply rewarding to work with a bunch of people I admire and it made me work harder than I ever had before.
What was it like working with (Outstanding Direction nominee) Claren Grosz? How did her ideas about the role mesh with your own?
We both very quickly agreed on one point: that we didn’t see him as some kind of misled hero. He is a servant, he is a fighter, and he is not someone able to stand up for his own ideals (if he even truly has any). He very clearly sees what is wrong and right, but is so easily swayed because of the tear he has between his loyalty to his country and to his wife. I think the thing Claren and I most intently capitalized on was his paranoia and anxiety, as that’s really what fuels everything. So much hinges on being safe and finding safety or preservation. I don’t think we once disagreed on who he was as a man, we just worked really hard to get me there, or as close to there as possible. I’m definitely not done exploring who Macbeth is, and I doubt Claren is either.
Macbeth has been called everything from a tyrant to a coward, a tragic hero to a psychopath- what were the traits you zeroed in on for your performance?
I saw three predominant things in Macbeth – servitude, love and fear. That’s where the tragedy of the play is. I think above all Macbeth wants to be a lover and probably a father. He is so detached from that beautiful role of manhood, as he just lost his own father (Sinel) and his wife had lost a child. So in some ways I saw that as being a loss of both past and present. This landed especially while being 22, he is without a male role model (something I think he had found in Duncan) and also without the prospect of passing on his legacy. He’s so trapped in the immediate. His love for his wife is all he knows about himself and therefore his acts really seem to serve the fear and anxiety he feels in that instant. As he trudges deeper into the bloody business, his fears deepen and, as a result, his desire to incite fear grows, ultimately just trying to mask his own terror. I could never see him as a psychopath, a tyrant yes, but never a psychopath; he’s too aware and too hurt by all of his actions unto others. I think he above all else is a worker, a serving man, and that’s why he makes a terrible king and crumbles under the weight of his guilt. He loved Duncan, he loved Banquo and I’ve been in productions where you actually saw him show love for the Macduff family. The truth is that above all he loved safety, and preserving his own life in order to keep his wife exactly where he thought she wanted to be. Ultimately, he’s not an intellectual man, he’s emotional, immediate and highly erratic. He wrestles really deeply with very common conflicts about what is right and wrong, so mainly I just see him as human.
How did you approach the power dynamic between you and your Lady M?
I see these two as something so malleable, such a rich thing to play around with. Nicole and I work very hard and well together, so we knew we could make the dialogue make sense and serve whatever version of their story we went for. Right off the bat we decide this was an equal household, neither partner was subservient to the other ever but were a team. That is where the play starts from, it changes very quickly. I think we really played with that line of something being unrequited or lost between these two. For me everything I did was fuelled by her or for her, and eventually even without her actually asking for it. For me I constantly felt like my purpose was to serve her and satisfy her, but eventually that is distorted because of the paranoia he lives in. I think the real interesting thing that happens is how she uses his love to get what she wants for both of them. However, she has to witness him become a monster that she wasn’t ready to see and thus stems her deep guilt. I think that was definitely part of our tragedy, was her witnessing the monster she had made from such an honest and simple person. I very much see it as her having ‘manipulated’ him, sure, but it was to acquire something for both of them.
What is it that ultimately drives him to kill Duncan? It didn’t seem to be strictly ambition in your performance.
Macbeth is all heart in my mind. But he’s too soft. Sure he can kill enemy soldiers relentlessly, but he feels the weight of every other murder as they stick to his (and his wife’s) hands. Duncan’s murder is the first step into the blood. I feel he believes he is doing what is necessary to secure what will make his family safe. I think my Macbeth lived in the idea that by being king he could preserve the life of him and his partner, forever. While they knew their line would never be succeeded, a kingship meant something safer, something more lasting and maybe a way to renew the love between himself and his wife. Everything, for me, served that ideal of family and love.
Everyone but you played at least two roles. Was there an important significance to you in the doubling- say the concept of being killed by the man (Macduff) whom you murdered an hour earlier (Duncan)?
The creative use of doubling is often a Wolf Manor standard. Claren definitely liked the idea of Hugh being able to get his revenge. Mainly the way the Witches took over the play was what got me so excited. I could always feel their presence and it was so interesting to watch how they impacted or influenced the world of the play. I really liked the idea of a witch playing the porter, as it meant the witches opened the door for Macduff. I think that is the starting point of Macbeth’s undoing. A lot of that idea comes from my interest as an artistic director in how certain actors behave together and what really goes on between them. The game was so real for all of us because we encountered and played with so many versions of one another.
Also, I got to double as the third murder – which was straight up Macbeth in disguise. What it gave me was the adrenaline rush of Banquo’s murder running right into the banquet scene and an injury from the fight that also had me already in a very frazzled and weakened state. Because, come on, he’s pretty chicken shit scared at that banquet.
Macbeth’s soliloquies are some of the most famous speeches in the Western canon. Which one did you find the most challenging, or which forced you to delve deepest?
‘To be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus.’ This speech is probably the least referenced, maybe because it’s so deeply tangle-y. While the dagger speech is a fun challenge, it always made so much sense to me. ‘If it were done.’.’ is a weird gnarl too, but it’s so high energy. ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow…’ is a speech that takes care of itself, as long as you hear the words coming out of your mouth and know what they mean, it doesn’t matter where you are or what your Macbeth felt. ‘To be thus’ is just deeper, it’s his ultimate moment of vulnerability and really the point where he makes a decision he can only accomplish through absolute cruelty. He has take away his best friend’s life, and the life of an innocent child, whom I think he cares for – all out of fear. This puts everything Macbeth wrestles with in one place, and is a moment where he confesses all of his fear, anxiety and stress. Claren and I worked very very hard on this speech particularly, doing a lot of different exploration that built some very specific images and ideas about anxiety and how it feels.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
“Turn, hell Hound, Turn.” You need to know Hugh and I to know how much this scene meant to us. We’re like… acting soulmates, no two actors are more different but make each other work harder for each other’s benefit. We are best friends and heterosexual male life partners or ‘Wisebands’ as we call it. (not Wives, not Husbands… wisebands.) Every night we knew we were there for each other one hundred percent, and everything in both of our tracks of the show led up to that moment. It was never the same thing twice and it was always a real game being played. We were so locked into that idea of what we had done to one another that we were both so filled with guilt or hatred or earnestness or anger or repentance, anything. It was always exciting.
Plus… I really like swords.
Wolf Manor is doing Richard III next. Tell us about that production and how you’re involved.
This is Wolf Manor’s fourth show and we are super excited to be working with Tarragon to make it happen! The show is made possible by the generous support of the Tarragon workspace, which we are so grateful for. Our Richard III is directed by Mallory Fisher and stars Jeff Hanson in the title role. Mallory is a great friend of mine and one of the most exciting young artists I know; we work in a very similar way but have an amazing balance of strengths to support one another. Her vision is one of the ‘animal kingdom’ which definitely sits well with Wolf Manor’s interest in highly physical theatre. The play will be vicious and bold, really culminating everything WMTC has worked towards. We have an incredible cast of nine actors, of which I am honored to be part. The show will play at 8pm for the first two weeks of March at Tarragon, Tickets will be on sale through their box office soon!
Do you have anything else coming up?
Nothing yet! RIII is a huge undertaking as a producer and while I’m lucky to have Hugh Ritchie, Jade Douris, Elizabeth Elliot and Maria Colasante as the best team around, I’m still very much consumed by the one project. However, WM will have a show for the summer season just before or after Fringe season. I also appear in one of the last episodes of 12 Monkeys Season 2 on SyFy!
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
It’s pretty incredible and humbling to see my name on a list of such incredible local actors. The independent community has been doing some fantastic work the past few years and I am honored to be joining amongst them as an actor and with WMTC. 2015 was an incredible year and I cannot wait to see what’s happening in 2016!