There was a lot to cry over in The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company’s production of The Immigrant, Mark Harelik’s musical about Russian jews settling in small town Texas. If you’re anything like me, your biggest cry trigger is unconditional and unexpected kindness, in which case it was Kathryn Akin’s Outstanding Performance in a Musical-nominated warm and wonderful portrayal of a woman trying to do good that turned you into a sobbing mess.
Can you remember your first experience with musical theatre?
Yes I have many wonderful early memories of doing both plays and musicals whilst growing up in my hometown, Guelph. It was (and still is) full of high quality arts organizations, some amateur some professional, who used younger local actors in projects. I was very lucky to be born in such a town. When I was in the fifth grade I was in a city wide youth musical for the Edward Johnson Foundation celebrating Guelph’s founding father, Tiger Dunlop. Tiger was played by none other than the fabulous Eric Coates who was in high school. To my 10 year old self at the time it was all quite thrilling.
What are some of your favourite musicals?
Yipes. So, so many. Any work by Sondheim, especially Company, Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park, Passion and Into the Woods. Oldie goldies like Gypsy, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Cabaret, Chicago, Fiddler, A Chorus Line. More modern work like Ragtime, Next To Normal, A Light in the Piazza….I could go on an on. I clearly do not wish to choose!
Do you have any dream roles you haven’t gotten to play yet?
Oh many. In all kinds of theatre, not just musical. In musicals specifically I’ve been quite lucky, particularly in the UK where I’ve spent a lot of my career, to play some dream roles in large scale productions. This was either as an alternate or a cover to the star but it allowed me a serious crack at a couple of great ones… Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Alex in The Witches of Eastwick, Mama Rose in Gypsy. In Canada, playing Diana in Next To Normal in three productions over a year was also a dream role come true. In the future? I could never name them all but a few faves on the current wish list would be Desiree in Night Music, the Witch in Into the Woods, Rose in Gypsy (again) and Margaret in Piazza.
As far as plays go- how long have you got?
Where did you develop as an actor and a singer?
All along the way and still going hopefully! I’ve worked with many incredible teachers, directors and performers over my career, first in Canada and the US and then later in the UK. Their influence on my development is immeasurable. I had my Equity card and was working in the professional theatre from 17 years old so basically I trained as I worked right from the get go. I took it very seriously and took big chunks of time off performing to train, funding all of it myself. It’s a different route than many take but there are others out there- Fiona Reid, Kyra Harper, Nicole Underhay, Sara Farb to name but a few- who didn’t do the more traditional drama school route. I was fortunate to train early on with legends such as Uta Hagen, Kristin Linklater and Patsy Rodenburg amongst other great teachers in NYC and Toronto. Then later whilst training and working in the UK I was very influenced by my long and intensive training in the Alexander Technique (becoming a qualified teacher) and it has been the major cornerstone of my work for almost two decades now. AT has supported me in a lot of very challenging roles both musical and dramatic. Then the related training and then work I did with the celebrated British companies Complicite and Shared Experience and especially my mentor Monika Pagneux also helped me achieve levels of performance I know I would not of otherwise.
Vocally I’ve been singing from childhood but again I’ve been so lucky with some wonderful teachers especially in my 20’s. I also worked as a folk singer in Ireland whilst out backpacking around Europe for eighteen months. I sang in all kinds of different musical settings up and down the West coast and that period taught me an enormous amount. And of course doing many long run theatre contracts over my while career, on big stages, often going between two roles every week…as well as those very demanding roles when the come along…it all refines and develops your instrument… if that’s the kind of performer you are.
How did you get involved with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company?
I became aware of them when I returned from the UK to Canada in 2010 but there wasn’t really anything I was suitable for until this project. I knew Avery Saltzman from years ago when we worked together in a production of Damn Yankees at The Royal Alex so when they were looking for someone to replace their initial offer for Ima (who got another gig) I wrote to Avery and said hi, long time no see etc. He was like whaaaat! at what I’d been doing etc, very sweet and he brought me into audition for Robert McQueen. I had been trying to meet Robert since I got back to Canada, high caliber talent that he is, so I was very grateful and very happy to audition for him. Due to so much of my career being in the UK theatre, I’m not known to a lot of the theatre community here in Canada. Hopefully that’s changing…
The story of The Immigrant is the story of nearly every North American family. Are you familiar with your own family’s story of coming to Canada?
Yes, I’m familiar but there is always more to learn it seems. Both sides of my family came from Scotland, hence my last name being a strange spelling from the Isle of Skye. My mother’s grandfather was a master cabinet maker in the shipping industry outside of Glasgow and that family came over to Halifax initially to fix war ships. My father’s family came to Montreal from Leith outside of Edinburgh via Jamaica actually where they owned and eventually lost a sugar plantation. Not an uncommon immigrant story for the Scottish I learned when I met one of the higher ups in Redpath a couple of years ago on a corporate gig. Who knew!
Your character showed great kindness to the characters who arrived in her small town from Russia. Why do you think we’ve become so hesitant as a society to welcome outsiders and help those in need like she does?
Yes, Ima is a great example to us all this way. After some initial qualms based on hand me down prejudice, her truer Christian values win out and she is very focused in helping Haskell and his family build their new lives. However Haskell also fills a void left in Ima’s life by the early departure of her one and only child. That’s an important combo in the writing. In this way, perhaps human charity is brought out in people when lives ‘collide’ like this, when needs on both sides are rawer. I think that’s partially the answer to your question although there are other indications in the script that Ima generally has a big giving heart. Human beings are fundamentally resistant to change and I think quite fearful too. It seems easier to pass people by, say someone else will deal with a situation, until we are jolted out of stasis by a photo of a child washed up on a beach for example. Or like Ima, when in a more open state due to personal circumstances in our own lives.
Also the reluctance to embrace and support strangers is about ownership. The hard nut of the disagreement between Milton and Haskell in this piece really is- who should decide? Who decides when someone has been in a country ‘long enough’ to criticize it, to vote, to complain, to take social assistance, whatever. And of course even before that -who decides how many new people should come in at all. Someone eslse who has been there what? One or two generations longer? Is there an immigrant senority? Look at Europe right now dealing with the refugee crisis. Look at the different views within countries let alone between them. We are all over the place as a species trying to figure it out but as I said in my bio in the programme ‘we are all neighbours now’. The world has changed. I hope we can admit this basic truth of the ‘fear of the new’ in ourselves and proactively shake off that resistance to change. It’s kinda time. And let’s face it , if we more affluent citizens been born into what millions are and saw a better life beamed into our terrible living conditions by those almighty sattelites up there- we’d want to chase that better life too . That’s fundamental to human nature.
What were some of the key conversations you had with your director in developing your interpretation of the character?
Robert is very specific, very well researched and also very tangential in his thinking. He can be very associative in a beautiful rich way. All of this makes for a rigorous yet stimulating creative environment every day. We talked about so much but… some specific conversation examples that come to mind are about Ima’s incredible vitality, the absolute life force that she is. We discussed her contradictions given her background that she left behind with the life choices she makes, (her surprising toughness about mothering for example) We talked about her achieved place in her society and how she might be running the world if born in another time, or born a man. But how in a true Southern way she works wonders whilst still maintaining the status quo of her marriage and her position in the town.
What were some of the biggest challenges to the role?
Aging thirty years convincingly and all the life experience in there. Nailing the quite difficult music which we could not have hoped to without the incomparable Shelley Hanson to guide us. And as is so often the case, balancing the quite emotional states at times with having to sing.
Tell us about working with that incredible cast.
Well what more can be said except they were all such talented pro’s and I was completely honoured to be in their company. After other experiences I’ve had recently it was a relief and a joy to work with such calm, hard working, talented and experienced performers as Tracy Michailidis, Steven Gallagher and Sean Arbuckle. We were all there for the right reasons and I found the whole experience very healing and affirming. As I said many times, that cast (and Robert and Shelly) really upped my game and I will be forever grateful.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
I have some favoured moments to remember with all of my comrades. Some very wordless layer moments with Sean/Haskell. Some great moments of banter and tenderness with Steven/Milton. And Tracy/Leah and I had so much connection through the scene and song ‘Padadooly’ and other moments in the show too.
The HGJTC often does talkbacks after their productions. What were some of the most memorable reactions you heard from audience members?
There’s a few but I remember one man who was an immigrant to Canada from Russia 50 years ago said the production had changed his mind about Canada taking in Syrian refugees from his previous Harper aligned position. I remember being curious about his original view given that he himself was an immigrant (see above!) and also happy that the piece had given him pause to reconsider. He said he was going to go home and call his (adult) children who would be amazed at their ol’ Dad’s shift.
What’s next for you?
I recently shot a docudrama for Discovery as well as a low budget film for hot young talents in the Canadian film world, Hannah Anderson and Aiden Shipley. Both should be out soon. I’m keen to do more theatre of course- always! The Immigrant closed in late November.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I know it’s been said many times but huge thanks for your support for Ontario theatre and it’s artists.