My Theatre

08 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Alex Paxton-Beesley

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

Circlesnake Productions’ smart/funny/sad detective story Slip is the only nominated production that you can actually see before the winners are announced on April 10th if you missed it the first time. It’s being remounted at the Tarragon Workspace starting March 23rd. Reasons you should go include its nominations for Outstanding New Work and Outstanding Production but the Outstanding Actress-nominated performance from Alex Paxton-Beesley might be the biggest selling point. She’s mesmerizing; don’t miss it.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yes, I do. My very first experience with theatre, I was about four. I grew up across the street from Scadding Court, which is like a community centre in Grange Park behind the AGO. My best friend and I were in a playschool production where she played a rainbow and I played a rain cloud. I remember that because we were both really not interested in participating and I remember us both just standing on stage and being like, ‘this is stupid’. So that was my very first experience.

My first experience that I remember that was really participatory was when I was in the fourth grade. My family moved to Italy for a year, and I went to an Italian school and I learned enough Italian that I was fluent enough to be in the school play towards the end of the year. I played an old lady. It was very exciting. An old Italian lady.

Now I’m really curious, how did being the rain cloud affect your power dynamic with the rainbow? It feels like that’s maybe loaded casting.
Yeah, we were pretty much an unstoppable duo, the two of us. 

You couldn’t be taken down by that kind of politicking?
No, absolutely not. I think we would have bullied the other children because they didn’t have anything to do with rain. We’re friends to this day. We were trouble when we were kids. We had a lot of fun together.

When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
I always loved it but I always thought that acting was an impractical career path, so it wasn’t something that I wanted to do as my career. I did it a little bit in high school and drama club and stuff; I did a movie when I was in high school.

I went to the University of Toronto – I wanted to be a librarian – and I was so miserable there; it was one of the worst years of my life. The only bright spot was I did a production of Buried Child with the Victoria College Dramatic Society, where funnily enough I also played an old woman. And when that was over, I was bereft. I was devastated, so I realized that I should probably stop thinking about practicality and just go do the thing- be brave, do the thing. So that’s actually when I got my one and only tattoo, when I dropped out of university to go to theatre school instead. Which I still love, thank God, because I got it when I was 18. That was the time when I realized that this is something that I needed to pursue, it was important to me. It’s a reminder of possibility, [that] you can’t actually control everything.

How did you get involved with Slip?
Danny [Pagett] and I went to theatre school together. We weren’t in the same class, but he was a year behind me. So we became friends and have always wanted to do something together. ‘Cause we think that we’re hilarious. And Alec [Toller] I knew a little bit from, you know, around the theatre community in Toronto– everybody knows everybody in some capacity. Danny and I had talked a lot about doing something together, and then they sort of got in touch with me out of the blue and asked if I’d be interested, and the timing happened to be right, and I really liked the beginnings of the idea that Alec and Mikaela [Dyke] had brought to me. So it sort of snowballed from there. It was cool because we had such a long process of finding it, and creating it, and they go away and write stuff based on what we’d improvised that day. So it didn’t even really feel like we were actually doing the play until a week before we opened. Prior to that, I hadn’t done proper theatre since 2009. So I had a lot of terror throughout the whole process, it was scary and great.

What were some of the ways that your perspective helped shape the piece through that collective creation process?
I have struggled with mental illness my whole life; I’m chronically depressed. It’s always interesting to speak to other artists, because so many artists have something, you know? Some darkness or battle they’re fighting. So it was interesting to come together with a group of people and talk about that pretty openly, about coping mechanisms healthy and unhealthy, especially in the professional world, because we all have to cope. We all have to be able to do that. And to be able to talk about it really specifically was really neat. I think that was a really interesting part of putting it all together. Obviously we all have our own very specific perspectives about it. And then Alec on top of it is very interested in psychotherapy and psychology and mental health, so he had another sort of layer of communicative skills that he was bringing. So we were going deeper and deeper and deeper into certain avenues that I don’t think would have been able to happen without our own personal experience – my own personal experience coupled with the way he’s able to ask questions and talk about it. That was really neat.

But also what I loved about creating Slip is that so much of Danny and my friendship got to be in it, because we are super combative as friends. We make fun of each other a lot, and it’s always fun to have something – again, it’s just that specific relationship, right? Because it makes something honest when it’s based on something so specific.

If you were to read a log line of what Slip is about, it seems to be you’re a detective investigating Mikaela’s death. But partway through, another narrative starts emerging. Without spoiling it for the upcoming remount, how did that focus shift develop and at what point did that really become the A-plot?
That was always there. It was very very early in the process. That was something that I responded to and I think – and I’m not sure if this is true, because it was a while ago that we talked about it – but I’m pretty sure that was Alec’s jumping off point was investigating this kind of thing. So we were always sort of researching them both in tandem, which was a really fun way to come up with a piece. Because you’ve got to build the very specific beats of this case, and then work them in a different order, and then we also have to have this other plot going on that also exists before the play ever starts, so that has to have all of the parts in place. And then we have to reveal them. It was cool to be on the creation side of it, because I haven’t really done anything like that before.

The writing nomination for Slip is shared between the entire cast and Alec Toller, who directed the production. Tell us a little bit about your collaborators and working with them. 
It was a really fun process. We had a problem, though, that we all really like each other, and we all really think that we’re all very funny, so we would get together for like a four-hour block of rehearsal, and we’d spend a good ¾ of it doing bits. It was just too fun and it got to the point toward the end of our process where Alec would need to be like ‘okay guys, I need to lay down the law and say we can only do the bit for 15 minutes and then we have to work’. So that was pretty fun.

It was cool because Paloma [Nuñez] and Anders [Yates] are both such accomplished improvisers, so they brought a lot of those great skills to the table, and so is Mikaela, and Danny and Alec have done quite a bit of work in that world but they’re also on the directing side; Alec is on the writing side of things, as is Danny; and Danny is like me, we come from the same school. We were classically trained in the same place. So you had all these overlapping perspectives about how to make work work. That was satisfying and it was neat to be responsible to each other. Often we would come together, we would improvise something, anybody else that was there would watch, and then Alec and Mikaela would go away and write it or Danny would write it or Anders would write it, and then we’d come back and we’d do it again and we’d talk about it. It was like layers and layers and layers and layers of collaboration. We were lucky to have as much time as we did to do that. It was a really satisfying – I mean, terrifying – way to work, because it was like ‘I don’t know what this is, I don’t know if we have a beginning, middle, or end, or any of them, or if they’re in the right place, what is this scene, why is this here, oh my God’. All the time. But it was fun in hindsight, it was really fun.

You play a character who, as you jump around in time, is in a very different place mentally in each scene. How did you navigate those mental transitions when the story isn’t told chronologically?
Well, fundamentally it’s just storytelling, right? So it’s like, ‘what’s the story right now?’ Part of our creating and writing it together, we had to be very clear about what was happening when. Even if it was just for the individual performer. So, as in any work, whether or not you’re creating it, you have to know exactly what story you’re telling when you’re telling it. And that’s all that it really is when we do this piece. But my story is sometimes different from Danny’s story. And Mikaela’s is different, and Paloma’s story is different, and Anders’ story is different, and then, I think that’s what makes it interesting.

As someone who’s struggled with clinical depression and is collectively creating a piece of theatre that deals with issues of mental health, is it hard to do something that feels that personal and that exposed?
Yeah. But also really cathartic. Really cathartic and really necessary. Because when I decided to be an actor, it was because I was so sad that I was shutting down. And I realized that a really fundamental part of the way that I express myself is through making art of all different kinds but saying words out loud to another person is a really easy way to feel like you’re expressing yourself. So yeah, it’s hard and it’s scary and it is vulnerable, but I really need it. Making art is part of my self-care, for sure.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Anders’ coroner character is hands down my favourite part of the play. I want him to have his own spin-off, because he’s my favourite. I love it when he comes in and just yells at Danny. 

What are you most excited to explore in the upcoming remount?
Just revisiting this piece. I’ve never done a remount before. So to have so much time pass and we’ve all done a whole bunch of other things in the mean time. And we’re going to have a much more traditional rehearsal process. We also have a space to rehearse in that isn’t one of our apartments, which is pretty cool. But I’m definitely intrigued, and scared, and excited about what it’s going to feel like to re-invest in this character and in all of these relationships. It will have changed a little bit because they are rewriting some of it, so that’ll be cool to see too– Danny, Mikaela and Alec are tackling that. As an actor when you’re doing theatre you have to figure out how to renew your impulses all the time. In my experience, when I’m in the run of a show, I know how to do that. I know how to keep things fresh and discover stuff and stay interested and present. I’ve never had to do that having been away from a piece for a year. So I’m really curious to see how that happens. I’d done it a little bit on TV but TV is so different ’cause you’re always going to be treading new ground; they’re never remaking the thing they made before. So it’s gonna be cool and hard and fun to see what’s shifted even in me, even in my perspective about who this woman is or could be.

You do a lot of work in film and television and part of Circlesnake’s mandate is to explore cinematic genres and techniques through theatre. Did your experience in that world come into play in your performance in Slip?
The thing is, there’s not a huge difference between film and television and theatre in my experience. Technically, obviously, it’s a very different medium, and when you’re finished a scene, you’re finished. You never do that scene ever again. And so something that I’ve learned from film and TV that I keep trying to bring over into my theatre work is that sense of ‘okay, so if I’m never gonna do this ever again, I might as well just do it’. That suspension of disbelief where I have to tell myself to forget that in fact I will get to do this again.

Also, because I’ve been able to work in film and TV as much as I have, I have read a ton of scripts. That, coupled with reading plays, and I read a lot of books, I’m really starting to be able to define for myself what kind of stories I respond to, what story beats I find interesting, and why. That’s something that I’m figuring out how to use as an actor, that fundamental part of storytelling- ‘What story are we telling? What is the story, actually, start to finish?’

What are some of the story elements that particularly draw you to a project?
I don’t know, honestly. I’m still figuring that out. I like stories that are about relationships and about communication. That’s something that interests me in every aspect of life. I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and this might be a total segue, but the mom of one of the kids that I work with, she was telling me about how her kids speak more than one language, and what’s so cool about that is it means that they know that a glass is a glass, but it’s also une verre, so it expands your mind enough to understand that this isn’t just one thing. It’s more than one thing. And everybody’s going to communicate differently. I’m really interested in the way that we lose our way when we’re trying to communicate, and the repercussions of that. I just think humans are really interesting. Especially these days, because there is such a focus on communication, and yet we’re still not listening to each other and not being heard and feeling hard done by or being hard done by, you know?

But also just any story that involves research I really like. Anything where I can sink my teeth into a historical period or a place or a job. That stuff is really interesting to me.

Tell us a little bit more about your film and television work. What have been some of your favourite projects?
I’m on a show right now which was just a dream to make and I really hope we get a second season – it’s called Pure, it’s on the CBC, and that has been one of the best experiences of my career. We shot it out east, which is just my favourite place probably in the world, and we had a phenomenal crew and really excellent writing, and I wish that we’d had more time to research but I always wish that I have more time to research. We got some really interesting people to consult with us, because it’s about old colony Mennonites, so it was really satisfying to make that. Something that I love about Pure that I’m so grateful for is that it’s a Canadian show, shot in Canada, written by Canadians, starring Canadians, on a Canadian network. So much of my work has been on American shows- which has been really fun and really cool, and really interesting, and I’m so happy that I’ve gotten to actually make a career out of this – but if we’re talking about highlights, it is Pure, and the character that I play on Murdoch Mysteries. Getting to work on Canadian television is really important to me so I’d say that those are the highlights.

Do you have any other projects or things coming up that you want to plug?
There’s a film called Quantum Entanglements which is going to be pretty cool. They’re in the editing stages of it, so I don’t know when and in what form it will be released, but that’s pretty neat. And our Slip remount. It’s coming up fast. We’re gonna be doing it [opening March 23rd] at the Tarragon workspace, which I’m pretty excited about.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
I really hope Toronto sports teams do really well this spring. That’s what I want to add. I really want our guys to do really well and be proud of themselves because I just love them so much.

So the main goal is that they be proud of themselves, whether they win or not?
Absolutely. I want them to feel like they played their hearts out and they had a good time and their friendships are strong and they’re feeling good about what they’ve done for their teams because I’m proud of them so far. That’s honestly like all I’m thinking about today. I don’t know why.

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