My Theatre

25 February 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Jesse Nerenberg (III)

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

There are only a few artists who one might call staples of the MyTheatre Awards nomination list- Jesse Nerenberg is undoubtedly one of them. He won Best Actor the first year the awards existed, won Outstanding Ensemble last year, and has been nominated another couple of times in between. This year he’s up for Outstanding Supporting Actor in the indie category for his role as Horatio in Shakespeare Bash’d’s Hamlet at the Monarch Tavern.

Read Jesse’s previous interviews HERE and HERE 

Catch us up on your life since the 2013 Nominee Interview Series.
The last time I did an interview with you I was in Alberta doing the Banff Citadel Program- it’s a training program for actors and a couple directors; you go do a residency at the Banff Centre and do a show at the Citadel. That’s what I was doing then, which feels like a lifetime ago to be honest. Since then I’ve been back in Toronto. I did Fringe when I got back- Love’s Labour’s– then a couple shows that fall- Birth and a couple Mackers. I went to Montreal two summers ago and did Twelfth Night out there, which was really fun. I worked with the Howland Company last fall and that was a good time, doing Casimir & Caroline, and that brings us up to doing Hamlet almost exactly a year ago around this time. Then I went to the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival last summer, did Julius Caesar out there. I played Cassius, which was really really fun, and did Much Ado About Nothing. Then sprinkled in there is the odd TV gig here and there so, career-wise, that’s an update.

You mention the time you did two Macbeths in one month. What was that experience like and how did two dramatically different concepts inform the play and inform each other?
That was really interesting doing that because not only was I in the same play so close together but I was playing different roles so I got to see the play from completely different perspectives. As an actor it’s not really so much my concern what concept is being put onto a play, necessarily. I need to find my way into the concept if I’m going to be in a cohesive piece of theatre but I think actually, at the end of the day, it was more interesting that they were so different because it felt like two totally different plays to me. So it didn’t feel like I was doing the same play twice. It felt like I was in two completely different plays that just happened to have the same stories and the same lines. But you couldn’t have found two more different approaches to that same play. I happened to be a common link between the two but one was very focused on just the text, as bare bones as possible, while the other production was like “let’s see how much we can explore this idea and this world we want to set it in”. So we [had] all these costumes that go with it and these extra props and we tried to figure out how this concept meshed together with this script. Which isn’t to say that one approach is better than the other, they’re just completely different.

with the cast of Casimir & Caroline accepting the 2015 MyTheatre Award for Outstanding Ensemble

You won a MyTheatre Award last year (your second) as part of the ensemble of Casimir & Caroline. What’s something that stands out in your memory from that production?
There are quite a few things. First of all is how great that group of people is who run that company. They’re so ambitious as well as welcoming and kind and enthusiastic. Their enthusiasm is completely contagious. They’re a tight-knit, great group of people and artists to work with. Though not all of them were in that production, just getting to be integrated into that group was really nice because they’re so generous and excited to get things done.

The other very interesting part was the fact that it was a completely new translation/adaptation so the director Holger [Syme], he almost shied away from being called the director, he more wanted to be the translator/facilitator of the rehearsals and the show because he really wanted us to take ownership of what we were doing onstage. He was really open to us ad libbing bits or changing lines slightly, even giving our own input on the script- what could be cut or what could be added. In fact, some of the scenes in the show were born out of improv to begin with, particularly some of the scenes between Sophia [Fabiilli] and Ruth [Goodwin] were, I believe, born out of improvs the actors had done. So that was a very interesting aspect of it because, especially for someone like me who’s done a fair amount of Shakespeare where you don’t really improvise all that much, or where the text is often seen as this very fundamental part, which it is, it was sort of interesting to get to work on something where I was then able to shape a little bit more on that side or play around with it a little bit more.

You’ve worked with Shakespeare Bash’d a lot over the years. What is it about their style that attracts you to their work?
First of all, a bunch of people in that company are my friends so it’s always nice to work with your friends; it’s a lot of fun. If you’re gonna be working for a pretty low paycheck, if you don’t like the people who are involved, it’s probably gonna be a pretty miserable experience. But I also like that the way Wally [James Wallis] and Julia [Nish-Lapidus] have set up their company, it’s a company made up of basically two elements- the text and the actors. Every one of their shows- they have the text, then they have the actors, and you’re just gonna do it using mostly that. They work with bare spaces, in bars where they don’t put up too much of a set, and the props are pretty minimal, so they’re making their shows up out of two elements- the actors and the words. And with Shakespeare, that’s really fun. It’s really fun to have that challenge of having to bring so much of yourself to the piece because you’re having to figure out “okay, what’s my way into this world?”, “what’s my interpretation of this character?” or, even better, “how is this character working upon me?”. If I’m playing Horatio or Sir Andrew or any of the other parts I’ve played for them- what is in the text that I’m gonna have to use to figure out who this person is? So I don’t have a crazy costume, I don’t have a million props, I don’t have a huge set, it all has to come from me. It’s kind of the most basic form of theatre that you can do. We’re building it together. Their shows are so dependent upon the people that are involved. You couldn’t take half the cast away, plug it in with someone else and call it the same show, because the show is literally just made up of the script and the group of actors that they’ve assembled to do it.

with James Wallis in Hamlet (photo by Dion Karas)

Your nomination this year is for Hamlet. What attracted you to the role of Horatio?
Wally asked me to do it. He was playing Hamlet and I like acting with Wally a lot. Horatio is the sounding board and confidant of the most verbose character in English theatre, so I think that’s sort of interesting to begin with. And I like the fact that he lives until the end. In a play that’s famous for everybody dying, being one of the characters who is still standing at the end gives it a certain amount of mystery, you want to know- why is this a character who lives until the end? What is it about this guy that allows him to survive? Hamlet has a few other friends in the play who either disappear or are killed off, so what I started thinking was that Horatio definitely has to be pretty aware of his surroundings or he would not make it to the end or be able to navigate his friendship with Hamlet. Hamlet has become so volatile in the play, so distrusting of everyone around him, so Horatio has got to be a very intuitive listener and a true friend, or else Hamlet would not be sticking by him at the end.

One of my favourite parts of the play is the conversation they have before the sword fight at the end of act five. Horatio is, to the end, trying to convince Hamlet not to take part in the sword fight, because I think, not that he knows what’s going to happen, but he just has a bad feeling about this sword fight. Wally would say that line to me like ‘I’ve been in constant practice of my fencing’ and I would look at him and say, ‘bullshit. What are you talking about? You haven’t been practicing your fencing, you’re gonna get your ass kicked and you’re maybe gonna get yourself killed in this sword fight, you can’t do this’ and I try to talk him out of it. One of Horatio’s last lines in the play is something along the lines of ‘I’ll go tell them that you’re not fit to have this sword fight’ and he stops me with this beautiful piece of text saying ‘if it’s gonna happen, it’ll happen; if it’s not gonna happen, it’s not gonna happen. The only thing we can do is be ready for it’ and that would stop me in my tracks, the sheer magnitude of that. Then everyone else in the play comes in and the sword fight begins and it’s too late.

I find it very interesting to play characters that have something underneath the surface that they’re not necessarily revealing to everyone else that, if you’re an intuitive audience member, you’ll pick up on. When that sword fight started, from the moment it started, I knew that it was a terrible idea and would end horribly, and it does. The funny thing about Horatio is that he knows it’s gonna end up terribly but he can’t do anything to stop it. From the beginning of the play, he is one of the very first people to see the ghost and know that something really horrible is going on here, something is really wrong with this place.

He’s an outsider, he’s been away at school, he’s Hamlet’s friend from the outside world, which I think is an interesting part to play because you’re not so wound up in the world of the castle. Especially in the Bash’d production where they cut out Fortinbras, Horatio is pretty much the only outsider in that production in many respects- along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but they’re kind of wrapped up with Claudius to a certain degree. I like playing outsiders, whether they’re outsiders because they’re bad people or outsiders because they live by a different set of rules than everyone else. Certainly Horatio has to live by a different set of rules than Claudius or Hamlet or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because he approaches his life differently and I think that’s why he survives to the end of the play.

How did your relationship with James Wallis influence Hamlet & Horatio’s dynamic onstage?
Wally and I are good friends so really we didn’t have to build in that sense of a relationship, necessarily. It wasn’t something that we so much had to find, it was something that we just had to use. Horatio listens a lot- a lot of his scenes in Hamlet, Hamlet is talking quite a bit more than Horatio is- so it was great, I just got to listen to James while he worked through his Hamlet. That was a very fun thing to do; that was an interesting challenge.

The funny thing is- listening is never a blank thing, you need to have an opinion about what’s going on. Just like I was talking about when he was saying ‘I’ve been in constant practice’, it’s so much more interesting as an actor if you figure out or decide or one day it hits you- and it can hit you in different ways depending on the day- ‘what is my opinion about what you have just said?’. Horatio is a character that, because he listens so much, chances are he has a lot of opinions. Whether he expresses them or not, oftentimes he doesn’t or [the audience] only get[s] a little glimpse of what that opinion is. Otherwise doing the play will just be boring for you because you’ll just be standing there pretending to listen, and that’s really not that much fun.

Going back to the relationship that we formed- playing Hamlet is a really really big challenge. I’ve never done it but I know that Wally, when he was in rehearsals, there were a couple times when he stopped and was just like ‘this is why this is the big role, the famous big challenging role to play’ so being able to be there with him while he did that was cool, it was really fun. Wally and I have a very good relationship, we trust each other because we’ve worked together so many times. I can be honest with him, he feels like he can be honest with me, and that’s very much the relationship that Hamlet and Horatio have to a certain degree.

An observer character, Horatio is a very present but somewhat underwritten part. What are some of the ways you fleshed out his inner life?
I would say that it’s not so much necessarily communicating what I’m thinking, it’s just thinking it. So, if I have an opinion about what’s going on, [I] just have that opinion. If the audience is gonna get it, they’re gonna get it. If the opinion isn’t clear enough that the audience isn’t gonna get it, if you have a good director- which Catherine Rainville really was- she’s gonna let you know. She would let me know if a moment is muddy or unclear or if she thinks there’s another direction that it could go.

I decided very early on that because Horatio was described as a scholar and he’s come from school- I wear glasses but I never wear them onstage, I wear contacts all the time- I decided for some reason that I really wanted Horatio to wear glasses, mostly because I thought it would make me look like a scholar and a student [laughs]. I was thinking to myself ‘I’ve never worn my glasses onstage and I think I would like to do that, that would be an interesting thing to do’ so using that prop was kind of cool because, if I wanted to say something and was not able to, I would maybe take off my glasses and play with them a little bit or adjust them if I was feeling stressed out about something. Glasses are an interesting prop/costume piece to be able to use because it’s something that you can fiddle with if you’re expelling energy you would otherwise wish you were expelling by being able to speak.

You’re an incredibly detailed performer. Did you give Horatio any other ticks or traits we might not have caught?
What I remember so much about that production was that Catherine really wanted it to be a kingdom that had fallen into a long dead winter. Hamlet’s father is dead, he’s in mourning, Claudius has married Gertrude, and there’s just something really awful going on in this kingdom, so it has fallen into this death of winter- it’s cold, nothing is really going on, maybe the castle is starting to fall apart a little bit because something is really going badly here. So we were all wearing these coats and furs. We were running the show in basically the coldest part of the year- end of January, beginning of February- so just that sense that the cold is surrounding you and, even when you’re inside, you have to keep your coat on sometimes because it’s just suffocating you. So I guess that sense that the foreboding darkness that is surrounding this whole country, the oppressive feeling of that, was pretty informative for the whole production, including myself. Sometimes when you’re working at the Monarch, you’re waiting to make your entrance and you’re standing in that cold hallway outside or you’re having to walk around outside in the cold and though, actually, it was a pretty mild week that we did that show in, you still feel that. You’re not sitting in the back in a dressing room in this heavy coat- you’re outside, so you need your coat.

What were some of the most important conversations you had with director Catherine Rainville in developing your interpretation of the role?
Catherine asks very perceptive questions and has a keen eye about what’s happening onstage and was always aware of the periphery as well as the main action. She was not a super prescriptive director- sometimes you have directors who’ve blocked out the entire play in their minds before you step onstage so the minute you start going into the first day of rehearsal they’re already being like ‘okay, go stand over there, now you can walk here, and I think it would be really great if you did this here’. Which sometimes can be wonderful because it’s like ‘you have this idea and now we’re going to try it and then maybe we can go back and forth with what works and what doesn’t work’ but I know, for myself, I always love having a first pass at things, to be able to do what I’ve thought about or what I would like or what my interpretation of the scene or the character is. And Catherine was super super open to that. She wanted to work with the people in front of her and not necessarily the play that was in her head.

But she also had ideas- particularly in terms of the design and the world that we were creating and how she wanted to do certain scenes. She was just a really great director to work with in that respect. She also does some work as a costume designer so she always had great input and ideas about what she thought the costumes would look like. Out of all the Bash’d shows I’ve done, Hamlet was the one that was the most closely integrated with its design from the very beginning. We actually did a photo shoot for the show before the first read, so I knew what my costume was going to look like before we had even read the whole play together. We knew what the tonal quality of our dressing was gonna be and I think that, in many ways, informs the character and the play and the tone that you’re going for of the piece as a whole. If you’re gonna do Hamlet and you’re all dressed in very colourful, elaborate costumes, it’s a very different world than if you’re all dressed in blacks and greys, because those are different people who wear those things. As human beings, one of our biggest modes of expression is actually the clothing that we wear. So if I’m playing a part and I’m dressed in a certain costume, if you change the costume, sometimes it can change the entire character.

with Augusto Bitter and Daniel Briere in Twelfth Night (photo by Kyle Purcell)

Your most recent role with Bash’d is Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night which is a pretty different role for you. Have you enjoyed exploring more broad comedy territory with that part?
That’s totally fun. Doing that is a lot of fun. What I’ve come to embrace is that playing Sir Andrew, you kind of just have to go with your first instinct because that’s what he does all of the time. He’s really just someone who wants to belong, he just wants to be part of the gang. In so many scenes the only thing that he’s trying to do is be included, he so badly wants to be a member of the group, accepted and included in whatever’s going on, which is most apparent in this one scene where Toby and Maria are talking back and forth about all these things and the only lines that Andrew is saying are like ‘me too, I’m going to too! Me as well will do that’. The joy of playing a character like Sir Andrew is I can try all sorts of outrageous things. Sometimes it feels like there is no wrong choice because he really is the kind of guy who just goes with his first instinct; you can’t really do it wrong, to a certain extent. It’s very freeing. Sometimes we’ll be in rehearsal and we’ll end a scene and Wally will be like ‘what was it that you were doing over there pointing at the sky while everyone else was talking?’ and I’ll be like ‘I don’t know, it was silly, it was something I felt like doing. [laughs] We don’t need to keep it’- being able to do stuff like that, just go with your first instinct and keep trying it.

What’s still on your Shakespeare to-do list?
I would love to play Hamlet sometime, I would really enjoy the challenge of that. This is my second time doing Twelfth Night and I would do this play over and over again playing a different part every time.

What was your first Twelfth Night?
I did it for Shakespeare in the Park in Montreal. That was one of the best times I’ve ever had doing a show. We toured around Montreal and areas outside of Montreal. It was outdoor Shakespeare with everything that goes along with that. It was like a dream, it was so wonderful doing that and such a great company of people that I did it with and such a great company to work for. It was wonderful. I played Sebastian, which was so much fun. I would do that play again with any other character, basically.

I just love continuing to do Shakespeare. Shakespeare is so much fun to do, it’s a great challenge for an actor, it’s a great workout in many ways.

What are you up to next?
I’m going to Winnipeg to do a play called The Whipping Man with Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and I’m really looking forward to that, it’s a really cool play. Three characters, set in the American civil war, about a young soldier who fought for the confederate army and he comes home to the house that his family owns but it’s been destroyed and there are two now former slaves who belonged to his family who are still staying there in the house while the rest of the family has abandoned the area.

After that I’ll be going back to the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival this summer- they’re doing Antony & Cleopatra and The Three Musketeers and it’ll be a great time.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
Just that I’m a big fan of the interview series.  I can tell you very honestly that I really don’t remember who won the awards last year but I definitely remember all the interviews that I read and being able to get that window into the process behind plays that I saw or didn’t see or artists that I know or don’t know or only know a little bit. I think it’s really interesting to be able to read what they have to say about their work and what they think about the process that they went through for any particular project that they were involved in. I like how each person’s individuality comes out within each interview. Even reading interviews with people I know really well gave me a window into things that I hadn’t realized before. Or being able to read an interview with someone I don’t know very well, it’s sort of like I know them in a completely new way now. So I just wanted to say that I think it’s really cool that you interview people as a big part of this because I think that that’s almost more valuable than anything else because not very often do actors and directors and designers get a platform to talk about their work and this allows us to do it in a way that it doesn’t have to be us being like ‘I want to talk about this so I’m gonna tell you about it’. You’ve given us a way to be able to do it without us having to, you know, write a blog post or something. 

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