Outstanding Actor nominee Andre Sills delivered one of the definitive performances of 2016 as Sam in “Master Harold”… and the Boys, first at the Shaw Festival then in a second run in Toronto (co-produced with Obsidian Theatre). Then he returned to ARC where he’s a resident company member and earned his second nomination of the year- Outstanding Ensemble with the rest of the cast of the dystopian thriller Pomona.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Church! Growing up in Markham, my family went to a large church in Scarborough called Agincourt Pentecostal Church, and they had Christmas and Easter productions every year, and the first one I saw was an Easter show. And I remember a crowd scene on Palm Sunday and a boy running into Jesus’s arms and the two of them raising their hands triumphantly, and that was it. The Seed was planted. And the next year that boy was me.
How did you get involved with Master Harold… and the Boys?
Well I was doing my first season at the Shaw Festival doing Tony Kushner’s IHO (for short, epic title, epic play) directed by the lovely Eda Holmes and, in the midst of the run, the 2016 season was announced. And when Master Harold was mentioned I knew I had to try to do this play. I talked over my desire to do this show with Jackie Maxwell and after some patience she decided to take a chance on me. I can’t thank her enough.
What attracted you to the role?
– Everything about it
– The play is beautiful, a classic
– Learning the South African accent; do I choose a Xhosa or Zulu sound?
– Ballroom Dancing and finding the grace and elegance.
– Being on stage the whole time, no breaks past two 30 second exits, if that.
– Cast and crew
– Working with Philip Akin again.
Are you someone who does a lot of research going into a role with such a specific time and place? What were some of the most interesting discoveries you made that informed your approach to the role?
In an ideal world, I would have loved to have taken a trip to South Africa to see where Athol Fugard laid his bread crumbs from St Georges Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth to New Brighton, and see the after effects of Apartheid.
But, being a family man, that was not possible ($) , so lots of Google, libraries and talks with Philip Akin. The main thing he told me before we started was that no matter what a white person may have done to a person of colour, they could not lay a finger on that person or that would be your life over.
Director Philip Akin is a legend. What were some of the most interesting conversations you had with him throughout the rehearsal process?
Legend Yes! And since this was my third time working with him, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get away with anything. I heard “Don’t Push, Andre” a lot, and the root of that was he didn’t want us/me to force the show. Since the play was basically one long scene, Philip said one of the most important things is your very first moment of the show, and with the relationship foundation that we had built everything else will follow. Secondly, he said you can’t “Act” this show, you have to “Do It!” Philip knew we signed up for hard show and we could have done a nice version but he knew if we truly lived 150% in every moment beginning to end no matter how hard or terrible is was, we would truly have something special. Thank you for pushing us, Philip!
James Daly is also nominated for his role in Master Harold. Tell us about developing your complex relationship with his character.
It was a pleasure working with James; he is a hard working young man. I mean, he came in day one completely off book (and Hally talks a lot) . Our journey was to build a strong foundation of love and friendship to be able to tear it all apart. At the height of the play *SPOILER* Hally spits in Sam’s face. James I think was being a generous actor and slightly missing my face, but we talked and the play needs that spit to be in Sam’s face/My face for everything that follows that moment. And before every show we would do our own kinda secret handshake, hug and then say “Let’s Play Until We Fight!”
You mentioned that moment that really drives home the brutality of the world the play is set in when Hally spits in your face. That’s not something you can fake like a stage fight, it’s a real thing you had to endure at each performance. How did you feel about that moment and how it fits into the larger picture of what is asked of performers of colour?
Before we started rehearsal for Master Harold, I had an idea of what was expected of me for this show. The play has a slow build to it’s explosion, and Philip insisted on stopping each time before we got into the hard stuff (for a while) . He wanted us to build up our foundation of what our relationship was- a man who loved this boy like a son and vice versa. He didn’t want us to force the ending of the show, it had to be real.
I remember this day coming back from a day off and ready to work bits, to be surprised by a rousing speech from Philip encouraging us to play and really get dirty. So we ran the show, and it was after going through it that time that I realized what was truly required of me and my teammates to do this show.
Yes the spit sucked, Yes being called a Nigger sucked, No we didn’t fake it and sometimes it was hard to shake the show off afterwards. But this was a show that was going to cost something of us, and cost something for the audience, and was important to me. I love theatre that really shakes people up, and gets the big conversations going, and people needed/wanted to talk after “Master Harold”… and the Boys.
South African is a pretty specific accent. What are some of the key details to getting it right?
Well the one thing people think when they think of a South African accent, you think of that famous South African sounds from the Afrikaans with the influence of the Dutch behind it, a very difficult sound and thankfully James Daly was the only one who had to do that, which he did very well. Allan Louis and I had to dig into the South African tribes and the ones with the largest influence are Xhosa and Zulu. And thanks to our dialect coach Sarah Shippobotham she kept us on the straight and narrow path.
I still remember our first read through Allan and I start the show and we are going strong with our accents then James comes in as Hally with a very strong and very different sound than the two of us, and I had to do everything in my power not to veer off the tracks into his accent.
What were you hoping the audience would take away from the show?
The main thing is about this play we are looking back at 1950 South Africa, and seeing what a terrible time that was for people of colour. And we jump to 2016 and now 2017 and really ask ourselves how far have we actually come. This play should be a museum piece but the tragedy is that it isn’t, and that we still need to be reminded not to treat people badly (or hate someone) based solely on the colour of their skin or religion.
So to answer to your previous question about what is required of performers of colour, we still got to get dirty because that change hasn’t come yet. We still have a lot of work to do. We can do better.
Did the production change much when it came for the Toronto run? Was the audience reaction different in the bigger city?
The show was pretty much the same with little alterations here and there. The show was staged for the thrust stage of The Court House Theatre at the Shaw Festival where it felt like people were on top of you and just no where to hide, which I feel drew people more.
At the Toronto Centre for The Performing Arts Studio we had proscenium seating and slight changes to the set, mainly just elevating it. Which spooked me at first, but Philip encouraged us to just do the same play we were doing all summer. I feel like we had to reclaim the show again and told the story we were telling all summer. The audience reaction seemed to be pretty much the same, but may have been a tad more diverse in the city.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
My favourite moment was at the end of the play when Sam and Willy are dancing together to the music from the jukebox and the lights start to fade, you could hear people in the audience taking their first breath since the spit in the face. It was pretty amazing.
You’re also nominated as part of the Outstanding Ensemble of Pomona. What stands out in your memory about that production?
My fight scene with Ryan Hollyman that was choreographed by the amazing and talented Simon Fon. Kicks in the face, punching, stabbing and lots of blood spray (into the audience sometimes). Brutal! Mulch! The jizz scene with Ryan; I had a really hard time being the straight man in that scene. Not easy to hear someone seriously want to cover the city in jizz because of its healing properties. Mulch. The touch scene with Deborah Drakeford. Drakeford Anytime Anywhere! Mulch! “I am walking!” “Light Dice Off!” Mulch! And ARC coming together again the way we do, just knowing that you have a group of people who trust each other to play the way we do, it is truly a special group. I’m really proud of how far we have come as a company in the past years.
You were part of the original Kim’s Convenience cast. Tell us a little bit about that experience and how you feel about that story’s trajectory since then.
The little train that could! Rolling since Fringe 2011. It was a hell of a ride. It will always be a special show in my heart, working with Paul Lee for nearly 300 shows (across the country) I couldn’t ask for a better scene partner. Hope we get to do something again, maybe something different though. Three different Janets- Esther, Grace and Chantelle, you all have a special place in my heart. And Ins, thanks for taking a chance on this guy.
Kim’s was like a snowball rolling down a mountain, I think we always knew it could and would be bigger. Look at it now! So proud of the people who could be on the TV show who were there in the beginning (Appa & Umma) you deserve it, CSA Nominations and all. Sending some love to my boy Ronnie Rowe Jr taking on the quick changes, keep your eye on that guy.
Really, though, it came down to our very first performance of the Fringe at the Bathurst Street Theatre with our very basic Fringe set. Open sign, cash register and a countertop. That’s it. And it was like riding a wave of laughter that took a sharp turn right into your heart.
You’re about to start work on your next season with the Shaw Festival. What are you up to for 2017?
I’m really excited about 2017 at the Shaw Festival, they are keeping me busy this year. A year filled with doubling, accents, makeup, wigs and two completely different worlds. First off, The Madness of George III set in the Royal Court of England, directed by Kevin Bennett and playing Prime Minister Pitt, and Doctor Warren. Secondly, An Octoroon set on a Plantation in Louisiana, directed by Peter Hinton and playing BJJ (playwright), George and McClosky. Both at The Royal George Theatre.
The whole Festival is buzzing and working hard, Tim Carroll has really put together an exciting season here, and if you feel like there is nothing here for you, I challenge you to look again. It’s going to be a wild ride, don’t miss out.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
2016 was a wild year of theatre- NOTL, Barrie and Toronto but there is the people who I do it for, my lovely wife Amanda who is a champion and gave birth to our little girl Naia on June 3rd, who is crawling all over the place now and getting into trouble, our little giant Rian who is an amazing big brother and just a joker, you make me laugh every day. Love you guys so much.
Thank you to My Entertainment World for these Nominations, I feel so blessed to be a part of these lists of Nominees and this theatre community.