The low-key and “luscious”-haired Oliver Koomsatira usually plays innocents but when director Nina Lee Aquino tapped him for the role of Dave in her Factory Theatre production of Banana Boys, he got the chance to really rage against the machine and all the racism, privilege, stereotypes and lack of diversity it perpetuates.
Oliver joins his fellow Outstanding Ensemble nominee Simu Liu in the Nominee Interview Series to give us some insight into the world of Banana Boys.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
The first play I remember seeing took place in my elementary school gym. A small troupe of actors performed a piece about some sort of quirky justice system. I can’t remember much of it but I do remember falling madly in love with the lead actress… So I got her to sign my phone book. I was quite sad when they told me I couldn’t bring her back home to meet my mom.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
This will sound funny but playing Dave Lowe in Banana Boys is probably one the most satisfying acting experiences I’ve had so far. Only because he’s so well written. He’s such a multifaceted character, it required me to completely modulate my interpretation from moment to moment. That’s incredibly gratifying as a performer. I also really enjoyed playing Mowgli in Geordie Productions’ The Jungle Book, directed by Dean Fleming. It was performed in Montreal, Edmonton (Citadel Theatre) and Winnipeg (MTYP). Mowgli was my favourite childhood hero so having the opportunity to portray him for the next generations was an overwhelmingly great privilege. I won’t lie, being awarded the Elsa Bolam Award in recognition of Outstanding Achievement by an emerging theatre artist for my interpretation of the role also cheered me up.
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
Well, I have a few, for different reasons. On the Shakespeare side, I’d love to play Iago. I find him so fascinating, with endless contradicting possibilities. Otherwise, I tend to like archetypal characters that [made] strong impressions on me. For example, probably like most Asian kids of my generation… Bruce Lee. Growing up, I didn’t want to be like Bruce Lee, I wanted to be Bruce Lee. There’s also Charlie Chaplin because he’s such a physical genius. His work appeals to the dancer/choreographer in me. I would also like to play roles that don’t exist yet. Like an action hero in some sort of intelligent psychological thriller, be it on stage or for the screen. I had a taste of such an experience when I played Kip in Amazone by Vangarde Theatre. The play was packed with martial arts and stage combat. It sort of made a dream come true.
How did you get involved with Banana Boys?
Well, I saw Factory Theatre’s general audition notice with Banana Boys in the season and I submitted my resume. Nina had directed fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre’s Ching Chong Chinaman in which I played Upton Wong in 2013 so she knew what I was able to do. But it’s actually a funny outcome because Dave Lowe isn’t really the type of character I typically get cast as. He’s a racist, misogynistic, alcoholic, violent guy who picks fights with strangers. So I pictured the actor playing him to be 6 foot tall with a shaved head, bulging muscles and tattoos. The type of dude you wouldn’t want to get into a bar fight with. I’m short, lean, calm and women keep telling me they’re jealous of my “luscious” hair. Directors usually see me as more of the innocent, young lover type, akin to the characters of Sheldon or even Luke. So I was incredibly surprised and unsettled when she offered me that part. But in a sense, looking back, the only reason I was taken aback was because I usually get typecast based on look and ethnicity. Asians are often stereotypically portrayed as shy, soft and geeky in a lot of unidimensional parts. That’s the beauty of the complex roles found in Banana Boys. As well as Nina’s ability to pull a strong performance out of you. A performance sometimes quite beyond what the industry or you, as an actor, allowed yourself to imagine.
Banana Boys is about the contemporary Asian-Canadian male experience. In what ways does the play parallel or differ from your own experiences? Was there a character besides your own whom you identified with more?
That’s a really good question. In a sense, each character appealed to me for very different reasons because they each represent different shades of my experience as a man. Be it Asian-Canadian or just as a man. Dave resonates with the part of me that’s sick and tired of (insert swearword) racism, privilege, stereotypes, lack of diversity, etc. He’s not afraid to confront his assailants and shake things up. I also identified with Rick because he’s the ambitious guy that accomplishes whatever he sets his mind to. Which, in a way, is something we all need as actors, in order to beat the odds. Even more so as Asian actors, with the very limited opportunities we have. These two are the more aggressive, in your face, personalities of the group. On the other side, I identified with Luke as well because he’s the idealistic, spiritual, soul searching guy living very much in line with his highest values. All the while not getting anything done because he questions everything he does, to no avail. His spiritual and ethical quest appeals to me. Mike is also easy for me to relate to because he’s [a] writer. Writer’s block, creative voids, fear of never being able to make it. I understand all these concerns as a songwriter and creator. Self-doubt can be frustratingly paralyzing. Finally, Sheldon, the romantic lover who puts his women on a pedestal so high they’re out of reach, is probably the way most guys act when they enter the mysterious game of love. At least I can remember behaving like him as a rookie bachelor. For some reason, this approach tends to push the ladies away so some of us then become the Daves and Ricks of the world.
Overall, I’d say that what the banana boys’ experience in this play is very similar to what I experienced in some regards. For instance, there’s always the occasional racial incident you choose to confront or ignore. Ignoring it is usually the wise decision as it can get emotionally exhausting, financially costly or even physically dangerous. On the other hand, my experience differed a lot from Mike’s as far as my parents are concerned. I never really felt pressure to become a doctor, a lawyer, etc. My father always said, whatever you do, just make sure you become the best you can be at it. So I never felt forced into a career I didn’t want. Nor was I discouraged [from] pursuing this one. Although I’d probably discourage my own kid from becoming an actor, knowing what I know now! No, no. I would just have a serious talk with him or her to explain how excruciatingly challenging it is.
Nina Lee Aquino is nominated for Outstanding Director for her work on Banana Boys. What were some of the key conversations you had when developing your interpretation of the character?
I always come into rehearsals heavily prepared, especially when it’s a challenging part like this one. However, I also have an open mind to switch things up. Nina knows these characters better than anyone else. Therefore she could give us valuable insight when their behaviour became mysterious to us. I tend to search for the human reason why people do what they do, as despicable as some actions may be. Tracing their behaviour back to moments when they switched from being healthy and normal to traumatic and evil, for instance. Dave completely loses his mind at some point in the play. So building that arc, I asked Nina a lot of complicated questions to ensure we were on the same page as to why he became the way he did. We pieced some of his backstory very much together, I’d say. Conversely, we didn’t always agree on certain elements which gave birth to his psychological complexity and multiple possibilities. I usually tend to see the good in people/characters so she would sometimes quite boldly point out that perhaps, at that moment, he was just simply being an asshole. Which ended up being quite true.
Tell us a bit about working with the rest of your Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast.
It was a real pleasure, honestly. I doubt you ever interview actors and they say it was a nightmare but there definitely was something special about these guys. I think part of it is attributed to the fact that Asian actors don’t often get opportunities like these. Playing lead characters in an established theatre is pretty rare for us so everyone was really grateful and egoless. It was like being with a bunch of friends, all extremely eager to piece this monster of play together in time for opening. And then surviving the run.
The production was part of the Factory’s “Naked” season, meaning bare-bones production values and a real focus on the performances and text. How do you feel that approach impacted the production?
Well, like I said previously, this really is a monster of a play. And Nina didn’t cut us any slack, being on stage from top to bottom, in every scene, acting, reacting, dancing, creating the soundscape. It was a true test of endurance. She kept saying “Stamina, boys. Stamina!” And she was right. We had virtually no set, no sound support, no make-up, minimal costume and no props except cellphones. All we really had was the text, the lights and each other to create 2 hours of show, right there, a foot away from the audience. It’s very risky but at the same time it forces your acting to be the best it can be because nothing else will save you. I think that’s part of the reason why audiences were so enthusiastic about the show, leading to a sold out closing week. We proved Asian actors are capable of handling challenging, complex, lead characters and did so with nothing but acting.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I won’t lie, the drowning laughter we got night after night was really invigorating. The audience’s reactions during the Battlefield of Love, where Dave explains why Asian guys can’t get girlfriends and the Banana Banana Pageant, where Mike is forced to become a doctor in this weird, reality show contest, were just unbelievable. People were howling with laughter and cheering at the end of the scenes. Sometimes we had to wait and wait until they stopped so we could move on. It was brilliant. I also loved when Dave loses his mind and beats up a random guy in a bookstore… But that was as scary and challenging as it was rewarding. It’s a different type of feeling. I had to manage an intricate 3 person fight choreography while blurting out text that was impossible to memorize. Ok, obviously not impossible but very challenging because he kept repeating the same bloody beginning of a sentence and switching to a new idea midway. Your brain starts to short-circuit itself. Keeping the emotional honesty of his raw fury while remaining physically safe and saying exactly what the playwright wrote was definitely challenging. So I felt proud about getting it right.
Which directors and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?
Well, Nina has had a big one because of the trust she placed in me. She offered me the really challenging parts that were highly coveted. I think a lot of Asian actors feel grateful for the walls she knocked down for us. This industry wouldn’t be the same without her. I think Dean Fleming also had a major influence on me as well when he cast me as Mowgli because a lot of people from the community didn’t know who I was before that show. Even though I had been performing in plays for a while. He also gave lots of opportunities to actors of other ethnicities so many people regard him with a high degree of respect. Otherwise he’s also really easygoing and down to earth so it’s really fun to work with him.
Do you have any favourite people to work with?
Aside from the aforementioned directors and actors, I toured 2 seasons with a 2-actor interactive play called Bullying and Violence. My acting partner Mario Thibeault is just such a generous, easygoing and funny guy. It was really fun to work on this show with him. Long tours can sometimes get tense but this wasn’t the case at all. It’s like we became great buddies while having a really positive impact on this phenomenon of bullying. Otherwise, I really enjoy working with the people involved in my next projects.
What are your next projects?
In the near future, I’m supposed to take part in Red Snow Collective’s play Comfort written by Diana Tso and directed by William Yong. It should be around October to December of 2016. It’s a play about the women who endured sexual slavery during World War II.
Fleuve-Espace Danse, a company I’ve been dancing for since 2010, is currently building a tour for a piece we created this summer called Hommes de Vase.
Otherwise, I’m working on developing a tour for a piece I wrote and choreographed entitled The Midnight Birth. It mixes rap, contemporary dance, projections and comedic sketches. The dancer and co-creator of the piece, Kim Henry, and I, performed it 23 times in Montreal, Magog, Toronto and Wakefield. We’d like to tour it across North America and abroad.
I’m also currently recording a 2nd album entitled Open Fracture, from which I aim to create another multidisciplinary show, once it’s mixed and mastered.
Next, I’m playing a lead character in a web series called The Wok. It’s an edgy dark comedy about 4 Asian friends who work in a Chinese restaurant. They essentially get in a myriad of ridiculous situations, some absurd, some life-threatening, and then try their best to come out of them alive.
The film entitled The Fish, which was featured at Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner in May 2015, is being presented [at] The Snowtown Film Festival in Northern New York. I played the role of Quentin in it: the right arm of a mob boss hunting down the lead character. We hope it gets picked up by other festivals.
Finally, I wrote a one-man show about a young man caught up in the criminal underworld. He’s gets to a fork in the road, having to choose between pursuing his impractical dream of becoming a rap star or allowing himself to get sucked deeper into his already well-advanced career of organized crime. I’m looking to workshop the piece and produce it in the near future.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thanks a lot for offering this interview, I really appreciate it! If people want to know more about my projects, they can visit www.oliverkoomsatira.weebly.com.