My Theatre

12 March 2016

MyTheatre Award Nominee: Q&A w/ Brett Donahue

By // Theatre (Toronto)

2015 Featured Image 16Before we announce the winners of the 2015 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

The gut-punch centrepiece to the Theatre Centre’s spectacular November Ticket was a bold, terrifying, hilarious, provocative, imaginative think piece called We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915. The multiple MyTheatre Award-nominated piece featured a brilliant and brave six-person Outstanding Ensemble, including the thoughtful and charismatic Brett Donahue as “the Actor playing White Man #1”.

Brett Donnahue 1bCan you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first experience with theatre was doing a Christmas play when I was in grade 4. I remember my friend Christian and myself running out of your gym with joy, after we had gotten the part. I can’t remember the plot, but I remember that I had a “bit”. My character would always fall asleep and the rest of the characters would find me and then say my name with resigned frustration. I screwed it up on the night. I had gone to the wrong side of the stage, and my falling asleep gag failed because I was washed in with the business of that side of the stage. It wasn’t clear, and I blew it.

Do you have any dream projects?
For the last few years, I’ve followed and adored a director named Ivo Van Hove. Everytime I’m blown away and shaken by his work, I’m instilled with this desire to share a room with that man. So anything with him and I’d call it a dream.

Which directors, writers and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?
Yael Farber, Ivo Van Hove, Anthony Hopkins, Terrence Malick, Denzel Washington, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender to name a few….But it’s a hard question. I think that I’m always searching and am informed by different things at different times, and even in the above mentioned, there are aspects of what they do that I find inspiring and don’t. It’s always fluctuating.

What’s your favourite production you’ve ever worked on?
In school I had worked on a production of The Crucible, with Yael Farber at the helm. It was an incredibly concentrated process. One where, as best as we could as a collective, communally entered a specific process. It was one of the hardest and most demanding experiences I’ve ever endeavored, and very much so because of the unbending demand of Yael. It was an experience that I’ve searched to replicate, but one that was so particular, I don’t if it’s possible to have again. I suppose that’s part of why I cherish it so much, because I can never have it again.

How did you get involved with We Are Proud to Present…?
I was having a coffee at The Theatre Centre’s café, and Aislinn [Rose, general manager] had started speaking about their upcoming auditions for the piece and she had suggested I audition. It was more of a her elbow into my arm kind of suggestion, so I quickly contacted Franco [Boni, artistic director] and expressed my interest. From there it was a pretty typical audition, but I was in Montreal during the initial auditions and had to join them in the call back period. I found myself doing an audition and coming back in for the callback that afternoon.

We are proudIt was a play about theatre artists trying to fairly and accurately tell a racially charged story. As theatre artists trying to fairly and accurately tell a racially charged story, what were some of the biggest struggles that came up in the rehearsal room?
I think one of the most eye opening things was the fact during the early stages, our rehearsal process started to mirror the silencing process found in the rehearsal room of the play. At the beginning of the play, most of the lines are dedicated to the white actors who are busy speaking their opinions and objections, searching for how to properly portray this story. Of course, during these moments we as the actors in reality, were busy investigating how to do this piece (as we do when trying to create a piece), meaning the bulk of the conversation was coming through and towards us as white actors speaking for the white characters in the play. It wasn’t until my colleague Brendan stated, “Can we just be conscious that most of the conversation is being dominated by the white people”. When he said that, I was internally enraged. I felt like I was being ridiculed or accused of something that I wasn’t doing, or was harmlessly unconscious of. Now, of course he wasn’t accusing me personally, or blaming anyone, but it really aligned us all. It was a real eye opener to a facet of our existence that can be blinded or kept completely unconscious. What had occurred was a sense of ownership that wasn’t fully shared by all in that moment. Even in the safety of that room. A shared space where we, as racially opened minded, progressive Canadians, were reminded of an imbalance that stakes it’s claim everyday. I suppose I speak more so for the white people in the room in that moment, but even for my colleagues who live that experience with more familiarly, it [showed] how it could happen in the most subtle and well meaning of situations.

As one of the white characters in a play about race, you tread on particularly uncomfortable territory dealing with privilege, guilt, empathy and the tension of who can tell whose story. How did you deal with that dynamic? Did you find yourself taking a bit of a backseat or speaking on behalf of a large portion of the audience?
I think as a group we created a safe space among us to deal with these issues. Allowing ourselves to go to the necessary places that the story dictated, no matter how uncomfortable or horrible they were. I think this was particularly important for our group, and a dynamic of support that we developed pretty early on. We very much had to feel safe within ourselves to go through the hard content that we eventually portray. We certainly talked at length about issues like white privilege, and difference of experience. It was something that I was interested in before this process, and having this process really gave me the chance to explore, and deepen my understanding of the systemic deep set vapors of racism and division that still sit at the bedrocks of our society. I wouldn’t say I took a backseat, because I knew that my experience would represent a similar experience of the bulk of our audiences, and the more consciousness I could bring to myself when dealing with race dynamics, the more understanding I could acquire, the more of a tool I would have to take to people more similar to me. Sometimes people are unaware. I find that a lot of people are completely ignorant to many of the issues, because they are so systemically ingrained. They lie so concealed in our society, but are still completely present. [Just] because we don’t have a more overt race issue like the U.S.A, [it doesn’t mean] that we aren’t guilty of many of the same problematic dynamics

Each of the characters in the play is a vaguely defined actor known as “White Man 1”, etc. Does that mean you were playing some approximation of yourself or did you develop an idea of your character as a different person with a different perspective than your own?
I suppose so and not. I mean, there is always an aspect of myself in anything that I do. But as we went along, we found aspects of these characters from their viewpoints, and what they put importance on. For instance my character was very much focused on the text aspect of what we had available, and from that stance we decided that he probably had more of a classical theatre training. Which funnily cycles back to the training I went through. I certainly didn’t share his point of view on everything, but sometimes that’s where the fun/challenge is. To put a perspective in which is way off the mark of your own. Also, I thought Jackie [Sibblies Drury] (the playwright) did such a great job infusing our opinions in a balanced manner, that it was easy to really get behind them.

Tell us about working with the rest of the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast.
I had such a wonderful time working with this group of people. It was a real pleasure. Like I said earlier, we established a real bond early on; one that was protective and supportive, and really allowed us to explore fully without of judgment when running into the uncomfortable aspects of the play. It was a real joy to walk into the room of people that was this cast. It was such a swing of extremes finding the “play” between us, as well as forging into those dark places. I’m very proud to have been in this piece, and that’s due to a large extent, the people that I had the chance to work with. Beyond the cast members too, it was the design team to our stage manager, to the administration of The Theatre Centre. It was really a stunning group to [be] a part of, and it’s partly why I miss the piece so much.

Take us inside the rehearsal room with Outstanding Direction nominee Ravi Jain. What did a typical rehearsal day look like?
It was my first time working with Ravi, and what I was really impressed by was his sense of inclusion in the building of the piece. There was no ego, or sense of hierarchy, he really welcomed a sense of debate around the piece, and wasn’t pretending to have an over arching plan. He really responded to what we were giving, and we only had that freedom to discover from his openness. What I respond to is collaboration; an equal playing field that informs a shared sense of ownership and culpability in the piece. I’ve had projects where this isn’t the case, and what [it] becomes is a situation of trying to appease the other, rather then find it together. I mean, if we’re trying to find something as two artists, why exact a power dynamic that separates us as artists, or lessens the weight of one’s voice. Ravi was the opposite of this.

What were some of the most memorable reactions you heard to the play?
When the audience would enter the space we tried as best we could to segregate them by race. We would purposefully divide the audience so that the poignancy in the final moments of the piece would confront them after we actors left the stage, leaving the audience to sit there within their own thoughts of the piece, but also reminded starkly of the divide that exist among a white person and a person of colour, no matter what their personal connection to race politics are. One night, an aisle of our audience that runs along the side of the playing space was made up completely of black people. There came the moment of the show where my character has an altercation with “Black Man” (Marcel Stewart), which culminates in me shooting him repeatedly as he lies dying on the floor, gasping for air. In that moment a young black man in that row started weeping, and slowly his experience flowed from person to person as if overrun by his emotion, to the point that one of my colleagues couldn’t look over in his direction for fear of being overtaken by him as well.

Another point came during one of our talkbacks. This time it was a young white man, who when he spoke, a clear South African accent emerged. He started to say that the piece “Reminded me of my home”, and it was the instant he said the word home, that his voice broke, and his eyes started shedding tears. With an effort to suppress this, he finally finished saying, “It reminded me of home, how we all knew it was happening, but we just did nothing to stop it”. It was a piece that moved people in different ways. Some found it horribly beautiful and powerful, others hated it, but it’s the first time I’ve been so eager to see how people react to a piece, because their reaction would often lead to their own connection to the politics of race, power, privilege and denial.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I don’t think one in particular, but before every show we would share an embrace among the company, and then again after the piece. It was just a real moment of collection and an accord among us. I also would say the nights that we had talk-backs about the piece. As I mentioned above, I found seeing peoples reactions to this show fascinating and felt as if we were engaging them in a higher conversation. Or maybe a realer one.

What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
Just finished doing a show at the Segal Centre in Montreal. Couldn’t have been more different. Now I’m trying to finish editing my first short film and find my next project.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’m so happy to have this piece nominated for Outstanding Ensemble, because it was very much an ensemble endeavour in respects to everyone that came to make this happen. I’ll keep it close to me for a long time.

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