Winner of the 2012 Best Actor MyTheatre Award for his performance in French Without Tears, Shaw Festival favourite Ben Sanders returns to the Nominee Interview Series to discuss a season during which he appeared in no fewer than three different shows nominated for Outstanding Production, including the world premiere of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt for which he scored an Outstanding Actor nod for playing a young seminarian obsessed with the world of theatre.
Catch us up on what you’ve been up to since we last spoke for the 2012 Nominee Interview Series.
I’ve had a terrific few years at The Shaw — working on my favourite Shaw play, Major Barbara; dipping a toe into a musical with Cabaret, some Edward Bond, some Somerset Maugham — it’s been all over the map, which is a good thing. That’s the great joy of being in a repertory company. I’ve been lucky enough to do over a dozen workshops of new plays at The Shaw — one came to fruition in 2015 (The Divine) and two are debuting this year.
You’re one of our most-nominated performers this year with roles in three different Outstanding Production nominees. What were some of the highlights of 2015 for you?
For me, 2015 was all about great words. I consider Michel Marc Bouchard one of the greatest Canadian playwrights, Tony Kushner one of the greatest American playwrights, and Caryl Churchill one of the greatest British playwrights. Working on all three in one year was beyond lucky; the words do so much of the work for you.
Let’s start with your Outstanding Actor nomination, for the world premiere of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt. Tell us about your role and some of its rewards & challenges.
I played Michaud, a young Seminarian in Quebec City in 1905 who is enamoured of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt. He’s wildly enthusiastic about the theatre, and also very naive. I tend to play characters who are cynical, and “knowing”, so Michaud was a challenge in that respect. I had to toss aside the fear of looking like a fool. Which, if you can manage it, is terrifically rewarding.
What’s it like working on a major world premiere?
It’s heaven and it’s hell. Heaven, in that you’re there at the birth of something new, abreast of a moment of real creativity (which isn’t as common as you might think in the theatre), and you have the freedom to make it your own without the burden of precedent (see: Shakespeare). Hell, in that you never really get to know if you’re completely ruining it or not — you have no guideposts, but your own intuition (dull, at best), and the people around you (Jackie [Maxwell, the director], thank God).
How involved were Bouchard and translator Linda Gaboriau in the rehearsal process? Did the text change at all?
We’d been working with Michel Marc sporadically for a couple of years — there were several readings of the play at various stages. He and Linda Gaboriau kept tweaking and rewriting right up until the third preview. They’re remarkable people. They work from a place of love and enthusiasm for what they do, and that infects the whole company.
Jackie Maxwell is nominated for Outstanding Direction for her work on The Divine. Tell us about working with her to develop your interpretation of Michaud.
Michel Marc’s scenes and characters exist in a world that isn’t familiar to Anglo-Canadian actors. It’s a “heightened” reality, a kind of dramatic poetry. In her time as artistic director of Factory Theatre, Jackie had commissioned and premiered several translations of Michel Marc Bouchard’s work. So she was our trusted guide. I think at one point I likened it to exploring a dark cavern, with each actor wearing a flickering little headlamp. Jackie was at the front of the group with a 1,000 watt floodlight.
That’s another benefit of having a repertory company — the director builds trust with the actors, and can take them places they wouldn’t normally be comfortable going. This play, more than anything I’ve ever done, required trusting the director, because the territory was so unfamiliar.
You’re sharing the Outstanding Actor category with your frequent co-star Wade Bogert-O’Brien (also nominated for The Divine). How did your longstanding working relationship affect the dynamic between Michaud and Talbot?
Wade and I have been roommates at Shaw for 4 years, joined for the last two by his fiancée, Jenn Dzialoszynski, and in that time, we’ve done six (!) plays together. He’s one of my best friends, so ending the play with us sharing a big bro-hug was pretty nice. It’s a brotherly relationship.
The author Sheila Heti talks about “parallel” mentoring, which is to say learning from your peers and friends, as opposed to “hierarchical” mentoring (learning from those senior to you). There’s a lot of world-class hierarchical mentoring at The Shaw, but I also treasure the parallel mentoring, and Wade is one of the people I learn from the most. I still admire the way he takes direction: graciously, constructively, and clearly.
Also, he drools a lot as an actor. It’s disgusting. In our fight scene in The Divine, snot used to drip from his nose onto my face. So gross.
Your character idolized the actress Sarah Bernhardt who was played by one of Canada’s most iconic performers Fiona Reid. How did her pedigree help you develop that delicate power dynamic?
Well, on the one hand, I felt much the way about Fiona that my character felt about Sarah Bernhardt — enamoured of her persona, fascinated by her talent — so some of the work was done for me. On the other hand, where Bernhardt was a grandiose diva, Fiona is down-to-earth, generous, and truly hilarious. So, while I wouldn’t say the spell was broken, she made it easy to connect.
I didn’t feel like I fully understood her process until we first had an audience. She had them all in the palm of her hand — laughing when she wanted, gasping when she wanted, crying when she wanted. That day, the awe that Michaud feels while watching Sarah Bernhardt was N.A.R. (No Acting Required).
By the way, I feel like two of the most under-appreciated performances of the year were her [Fiona Reid] and Richard Sheridan Willis in Talking Heads at Campbell House. It was a jewel of a show.
Did you do much research into the religion that is central to your character’s conflict?
Everyone laughed at the stack of research books that sat in front of me during table work: in amongst the Bernhardt biographies and Quebec history was a bright yellow copy of Catholicism for Dummies. I was raised in the United Church, so I had some catching up to do. To be honest, having Michel Marc on hand was a real blessing (apologies for the pun). He was educated in a seminary school, so he knew the territory well.
One of the important lessons for me came after we opened. I had been a little apprehensive about how the play would be received by Catholic audience members. It isn’t exactly a flattering portrait of the Church at the time. To my surprise, it was Catholics who seemed to engage with and appreciate the piece the most. They tend to have terrific humility, sense of humour, and compassion. The people I spoke with want to have the difficult conversations about the Church’s past — about abuse, about politics, about power — and there’s no sense of wanting to hush it up anymore.
Two of my favourite Shaw patrons happen to be a pair of retired Catholic priests from Rochester, N.Y.: Father Bradler and Father Reif. I was nervous when I bumped into them on their way to the show, but to my delight, they were warm and friendly afterwards — we exchanged email addresses and are planning to meet again this summer.
Anyone who read the program carefully would have noted (likely with some confusion) that the entire play takes place in the seminary, despite there being scenes clearly set elsewhere. This is a hint at a pretty major final act twist involving your character. If we throw out a big *spoiler alert* can you tell us a bit about incorporating the “it’s all in your head” reality into the performance. Were there any other hints?
The conceit of a character who may or may not be writing the very play that you’re watching presents a fascinating paradox. There have been a number of plays and films that toyed with this in different ways — I’m thinking of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, for one. In our case, Michel Marc had no interest in delineating what was “real” and what was not — that was beside the point. If fiction is, as Albert Camus wrote, “the lie through which we tell truth”, then the play has several layers of lies, in the interest of a big, heavy, layered truth. The plausibility of the play is next-to-none, but the characters couldn’t arrive at the truths they discover/confess without the injection of much-needed fiction into their lives.
Luckily, for the actor, the task is simple: we had to play all of it as real, as urgently happening in the moment, with no awareness of the surreal, meta-theatrical elements, or else it would have been dramatically dead.
You were also in one of the most celebrated productions ever at the Shaw- The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to the longest title ever. Tell us a bit about working with your Outstanding Ensemble-nominated co-stars in that production.
I remember looking around the room in the first week and thinking, “Damn. This is a dream team.” There’s something both scary and emboldening about realizing that everyone in the room is better at this than you are.
You were a one-man Tarts & Vicars party last season, playing a priest in one show and a prostitute in another. Was the juxtaposition ever disorienting?
I’ve never heard of a Tarts & Vicars party before, but it sounds pretty terrific. Let me know when the next one is happening.
The juxtaposition was refreshing. Both plays are by major gay playwrights who wrote groundbreaking hits in the early nineties and are now having a mid-career peak. Both plays referenced oppressed workers, a feisty female labour leader, a saucy little brother named Leo, a gay teacher of theology, a wrongful assumption of a theft, and an explicit demonstration of Marx’s theory of the labour-value hidden in objects (an orange in The Divine, my body in iHo). But beyond those bizarre coincidences, they were as different as any two plays I’ve ever done.
Tell us about your IHO character Eli and his place in the drama.
Eli is a young prostitute who is in a relationship with an older, married man (Pill), whose family of hard leftists is falling apart.
In a play about ageing Marxists, Eli is the only character young enough that he wouldn’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. His entire political life has been after the collapse of communism, and subject to the neoliberal consensus that still dominates our discourse today (Bernie Sanders aside). He sees the commodification of everything around him — everything evaluated in terms of its economic value to a capitalist society — and he takes that thinking to its next logical step. He sells his body, and, beyond that, he sells his genuine, emotional love.
Gus, the communist patriarch of the play, says at one point that “the world’s dying … it’s upon us, every horror that was anticipated when money becomes truth … money’s the air and the weather and water and the only knowable, lovable thing.” That’s the air that Eli breathes.
You worked primarily with former MyTheatre Performer of the Year Steven Sutcliffe. Give us some insight into developing Eli and Pill’s complicated dynamic.
Steven’s been a great friend for many years — the first play I ever did at The Shaw was An Ideal Husband, and I had all of four lines, all delivered to Steven. He was a generous and patient scene partner then, as he is now. We had some laughs about the fact that we’d be making out in the show (he kept asking if we could just shake hands instead), but the truth is our friendship gave it a built-in comfort and intimacy.
You’ve worked with Eda Holmes (the director of IHO who is also nominated this year for her work on Bouchard’s Tom at the Farm) many times before. What were some of the key insights she brought to IHO and Eli in particular?
Tony Kushner’s writing is more naturalistic than anything I’ve worked on before, and I loved that. But one unexpected side effect was that, because I felt the text and the character were very close to me, very personal, it was hard for me to make changes, and to see the big picture of the story. I tended to take notes personally, which isn’t helpful to the process.
Luckily, it was Eda at the helm. She’s very sensitive to actors, but she will fight for clarity, and for story, and she’s articulate enough to make her case persuasively. She also has impeccable taste. That makes her easy to trust.
One of the most daunting aspects of iHo is the breadth of the material that Tony Kushner references: everything from pure Marxism to gay history to trade unionism to several conflicting branches of theology. Eda has a voracious appetite for knowledge, and she learnt it all, so that we wouldn’t have to. That was a gift.
What were some of your other favourite Shaw productions of 2015?
Top Girls has always been one of my all-time favourite plays. To see it performed by Fiona Byrne, Tara Rosling, Julia Course, Tess Benger, and that whole team, was thrilling for me.
Finally, we saw you outside of the Shaw for the first time in Praxis/FeverGraph’s production of Objections to Sex and Violence. How did you get involved with that production?
At the last minute! Another actor had to drop out of the production about a week and half before it opened. I was in Niagara, eating a pizza alone, celebrating the fact that I no longer had to take my shirt off onstage, when Michael Wheeler called and said he needed an actor immediately. As soon as I opened the script, I saw in the stage directions that my character was shirtless (again!). I finished the pizza anyway, and bought a bus ticket to Toronto.
Tell us about working with Outstanding Direction nominee Michael Wheeler on that show.
I love Michael — he was one of the first people to give me a chance in Toronto, before I came to Shaw. We have a political affinity. I have a lot of admiration for his activism in life and his political focus in his art, so it’s nice to be able to communicate on that level. He’s always got an angle, an interesting perspective on the scene. And thanks to years of working in indie theatre, he’s willing to make big choices very quickly. That was a big asset on this project.
It’s also up for Outstanding Ensemble (in the small theatre division). What were some of the highlights of working with that set of performers?
Part of FeverGraph’s ethos is that they work with their bodies as much as their minds. Sometimes at Shaw, we’re grappling with ideas and words so much that we forget the importance of physicality.
And damn, they were committed. Generally, when I stumbled in 5 minutes late with a half-learned, coffee-stained script in my hand, they’d have been there, warming up voice and body and mind, for a good 45 minutes already. It was inspiring.
What else have you been up to in the off-season?
Drinking coffee. Making cocktails (at home, not professionally). Saw some terrific plays. Worked at The Grand Theatre in London, ON, which is my hometown theatre. Also, The Divine is the third or fourth time I’ve been cast in the role of a playwright, so I thought I should just take the hint and try to write a play. It’s not going well.
What are you up to now/what’s next?
Now I’m madly preparing for the 2016 season at Shaw. For me, that means two more world premieres: Lisa Codrington’s adaptation of Shaw’s The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God, and Peter Hinton and Allen Cole’s all-new version of Alice in Wonderland. I’m a compulsively late and frequently stressed-out person, which has led me to playing the White Rabbit (“Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting! I’m late! I’m late!”). Our weaknesses and our strengths are sometimes very hard to distinguish.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Nada! Thanks for putting so much thought into these questions.