My Theatre

01 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Benjamin Blais

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

The founding Artistic Director of the Storefront Theatre, Benjamin Blais has produced, directed and appeared in many productions in the company’s time at 955 Bloor Street West. With the recent announcement that the space will be closing, Contempt by Brandon Crone will always stand out in my memory as the final time I saw Ben perform at the Storefront. The performance was also one of his best, a complex and bombastic show-stealing turn that earned him an Outstanding Supporting Actor nomination, his second MyTheatre Award nod for his work in the house that he built at 955 Bloor.

Catch us up on what you’ve been doing since the 2014 nominee interviews series
Oh my, much has happened – let’s see, well I directed an interesting project, an experimental project called the Numbers Game, which went up in November of last year, which was a six-part serialized piece of theatre written by six different writers, all with a core group of actors and directors. So that was really educational. Very exciting, very demanding, and very much a master class in directing sort of in rep but then leaving things behind as they would finish their run, like we would be running this week’s episode and last week’s episode, two show nights, and then rehearsing the upcoming week’s episode during the daytime, sort of the leapfrog thing. That was great, moving real fast, fantastic creative team, wonderful actors, and all the actors played a bunch of different parts. That was great.

And then I went out west. I played the Mad Hatter for Theatre Northwest in their production of Alice in Wonderland, which was fun – a small town show. It was nice to get away for a little bit. Although, that town, even though it’s beautiful, British Columbia, you know, you can get kind of bored. I did get to practice my driving which you don’t get to do in the city a lot. Then I went up to Barrie and worked with Talk Is Free Theatre. I played in the Libertine, directed by Jeanette Lambermont-Morey, which was an interesting play to do, really short run, bit of an experiment as well, on their part. Great swashbuckling. I didn’t have very many lines. All I did was work out, look pretty and fight with swords, so that was nice and easy. It was like a working vacation. I got to meet some fantastic players. Jake Ehman was the lead, and Tim Walker was in it, a fantastic actor. Ruby Joy, Tiffany Martin, Theresa Tova, Mikaela Davies, these Stratford actresses, all these indie boys.

Other than that, just running the Storefront Theatre. I guess there were lots of productions that I helped pull off the ground. Since 2014 it all comes as such a blur – the remount of Chasse-Galerie, Beaver, How To Kill Your Parents in Viking Alberta. We had our solo sessions, which was an interesting new addition because there’s so much talent in the city, so there were nine shows that came out through that. We opened a studio that is booking like crazy, especially since the Fringe Creation Lab had to shut down. So lots of cool shows are coming in and out of there. What else? That’s not it, but that’s the short list of things that have been keeping me busy. 

So what came first, Contempt’s spot in the Storefront season or your role in Contempt?
Uh, it would have been it in the season. I’m trying to remember how all of that went down. Yeah, we programmed it – I’d been wanting to work with safeword again since their great show Nature of the Beast, and looking for an opportunity again. You know, I truly believe in, as many people do, in the social capital of these artists. So you give them more opportunity to showcase their craft, the more recognition they’ll get, the better their work will become. Knowing Brandon [Crone, playwright/artistic director of safeword] for a while, and having them in for Nature of the Beast, I was looking forward to an opportunity to put them in again. He submitted with Contempt and it was a really interesting piece, with what it’s content was, dealing with disability and sexuality, and then he approached me with it.

It wasn’t finished. It had a lot of work to do, especially with the character that I played, Ryan. So I remember him talking to me a lot about it in the onset, “So uh, what do you think of this character, what do you think of this idea?” and I go, “Well I don’t want to just play, like an asshole, or the foil or antagonist. I feel like there’s got to be more to it than that.” So he went back with that in mind, and I guess this guy’s story sort of came out of that. I remember us having a debate once though. He was like – he ended up, being the writer, the winner in the end – about what the guy does for a living – he was like, “I think he works in a bar” and I was like “Oh my god! There’s got to be more interesting things than just being a bartender.” I thought it’d be neat if he was – like, how would he know this young woman, how would he have met her – maybe he’s in the medical profession. It was cool, Brandon and I were having a lot of back-and-forths about his character.

And that ended up being in there, this idea about potential. He wasn’t just a bartender, didn’t he study math?
Math or biology or something, but then it was like, it was too hard for him so he didn’t do it–Yeah, exactly, which I think is, you know, seen a lot as a symptom in our culture, this Western world – these white guys who go to school but don’t have any direction in life. We don’t have a lot of rites of passage in our society, so we have these men-children who float around. You work in bars because everybody goes to bars. There’s lots of disposable income to be made. But then you wake up in your late thirties and you’re like, “What the hell am I doing here?” [laughs] Unless you own the place, and if you own the place then you’re probably jumping off a bridge. So there was something that resonated with me about that, this guy’s everyman quality. Everyman in that young hipster way – nothing but promise, but what’s going to happen with that, to what end. You find things in life to fixate on or to become the purpose or the drive, and I guess in this case Ryan got really hung up on her and her job and what that meant and then this disabled rival of his as he saw it. He needed to understand it. He breaks into the guy’s house, lies to his mother, confronts him in his own weird and passive-aggressive manner. When faced with the reality of the situation, what was he expecting was going to happen? Was he going to fight this guy? No. When I read it, I wasn’t – I don’t want to say shocked, I wasn’t shocked, I mean it’s an awful scene, but there’s something that’s like, I guess I get it. You need to answer some kind of questions. He goes to the guy’s house and looks at his dick. So strange, such strange behaviour, but I guess when you’re sort of depressed, when you don’t really know what’s going on in your life, you don’t really know what you’re going to do, you end up doing some pretty crazy things. The drugs were a big part of it too. Brandon was like “I want him high. But I don’t want to see him doing drugs. But he’s got to be on drugs.” Like “Okay. Okay, you got it.”

The character is such an everyman when we meet him, easy to relate to, but did you struggle maintaining your empathy when he crossed some of those huge lines? Did you find a way in your mind to justify his actions so you could play the motivations?
Well I think it’s important not to judge your characters too much, right? Otherwise you’ll never be able to embody them. And so, this guy – he’s just a kid. He grows up, because he can’t help but grow up, but he doesn’t have a support structure or a much of his own strength. To say “justify the actions”, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right thing, more so, to sort of forgive them, or understand them, or even if you don’t understand them – yeah, forgive them, so that you can portray them. If you’re there in the scene saying “I can’t believe I’m doing this, who would do this, who would be this person?”

He had to justify them to himself, right?
Well, I don’t know, I don’t necessarily know if he does.

He knows he’s being the bad guy in that moment?
Well, he knows he’s doing something wrong, but he can’t help himself. What he ends up doing is, he sort of gets away with it. Freddie isn’t able to tell anybody what happened, and he understands his impunity but he feels sick to his stomach when we leave that scene because he knows inside that what he’s done is wrong. But – justifying it or rationalizing, I mean – sometimes things are too much. You compartmentalize them and ignore them. In the end he ends up buying these tickets to go to Mexico together. And they’re almost in this plane, almost doing it, and she leaves him at the airport. And good for her. There is a toxic relationship about to evolve. He in that moment is, he’s just as upset as ever. He’s incredulous. He can’t believe she would leave him like this – “what are you doing? This is crazy!” It’s not like he’s like “Oh, okay, I was such an asshole and I broke into your lover’s house and he’s a quadriplegic and picked on him.” No. I mean, what he does is, he leaves there and is like “At least I didn’t kill him.” Or, “At least I didn’t this,” or “At least I didn’t that.” Or maybe the justification lies in him having been able to fulfill his curiosity and be able to stand prouder. “Great, yeah. I saw his dick and I’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ve got the power back.” But that’s not necessarily the case. At the end of that scene he knows that he’s done something wrong. And maybe that’s the real tragedy, right, that people can actually ignore that, or that they live with it, sit with it, their entire lives until that moment on their deathbeds when they regret it.

Having the writer in the room as the director, did the script evolve very much to adapt to your voice?
Yeah, for sure, absolutely. I wanted to cut a lot of it. Brandon did not want to cut things. But it was great to have him in the room. He was watching it on a variety of different levels. I’ve worked with a number of different combinations, directors, writers, their relationship to the work – and sometimes the writer can hold it too precious and things can get sticky, but in this case it wasn’t. Brandon was very open to collaboration. Emma Mackenzie Hillier was quite often in the room with him as well. She was his dramaturge. After rehearsals they would stay behind and they would chat and talk. You saw a lot of things evolve. Ryan’s storyline, not so much, because it was the subplot, but there were things that grew and solidified with regards to the other characters – Freddie, the family and Tara – things definitely grew there.

Especially with new works, I like having the writer in the room. I’m directing a show that opens on March 31st that Michael Ross Albert wrote and I’ve encouraged him to come and be in the room as much as he can. Things can change on the fly, or you’ll have a certain cast member there, and they exude a type of quality that you would never know until you’re there in the room and watching it, so you can fine-tune things, tweak it. Or they’ll have a great idea. A lot of these people we work with are consummate professionals and show business folks, so they’ll be like, “Hey, wouldn’t it work better if…”. 

photo by John Gundy

Brandon famously encourages a lot of improv within his scripts. What were some of the things you discovered within rehearsals or more importantly within performance that you kept?
Well, a lot of the playful stuff within that first scene where we’re running around in our underwear. Some of the weird jokes or the weird body language. Also, I kept fucking my lines up and saying things in different orders – I mean it was all this casual conversation, but I could always tell in Khadijah [Roberts-Abdullah]‘s face, she was like, “We’re off the rails, dude” [laughs] but we’d always manage to get back there, so I don’t know if it was encouraging, but he was just very supportive of the way that the conversation would evolve, and differently, seemingly, every single night [laughs]. But it was a lot of play.

I think he had spent some good time on the text work, so he wanted us to adhere to the script as much as we could, but, you know, recognizing that the sense of play is needed in the room, and the first scene being so playful, he was like “Yeah, try some jokes, try this.” There would be points where he was like “We need to get this information across. We need to do this,” so. But, yeah, aside from that, he was – he had written a monologue, my character has this monologue when he is confronting Freddie, who is a paraplegic who can’t speak, and it’s this rambling monologue where he unveils who Freddie, some secrets and some insecurities, and the way that I had delivered it was very different from the way that it was written, only because I tried to give it a sense of naturalism from me, how I might say things like that, how I thought it might come out of a guy like that, in his state. It was different from what was written down and Brandon was always very encouraging, like “This is great, that works better because it’s genuine, it seems natural, I wrote it to get the ideas out but nobody talks like that” So that was cool. It wasn’t necessarily improvd in the sense of making things up out of thin air, but it was very different from how it was written.

You were paraphrasing?
Yeah, paraphrasing, and also trimming it down and trying to make it a little more direct and connected. So that was kind of improv-y. Also that would kind of change a little bit, depending how that evening’s performance was going. Always the same points, but a different road there. 

On the night I attended, you spontaneously yelled out, “I’m Kanye, Bitch!”, which my spies tell me is not in the script. 
That’s funny! I don’t remember that. Did I yell it to him? Oh, wait yes, I do remember that – I think it was when she was leaving the apartment, I was like, you can’t leave… That’s right, that was an ad-lib. I think I’m supposed to say something like “Yeah, hold up–“, some kind of joke, and I’d just read some ludicrously arrogant thing that Kanye West had done or said. I think he had just released an album and everyone was like “I love Kanye, even though he’s an idiot.” And I figured this was the type of guy who would just love Kanye – “I love Kanye, he’s so in charge of his life” [laughs]

The play touches on some pretty difficult issues. What were some of the most interesting responses you heard from audience members?
Well, I got into this conversation – it was just an interesting question that the thing posited about sex and sex-working and sex workers… You know, we’re in a society that says that everyone is equal, and everyone deserves to be equal, and live the same kind of life. In this case, this individual, who can’t walk and can’t talk, he wants to have sex like everyone else. But, it’s very difficult for him, to what, go on Tinder, pick up a date? So he engages the aid of this sex-counselor, sex-worker, prostitute, whore, what do you call it, right? Where are those lines? We call this person a sex worker. A sex therapist, because we don’t want this person to feel like they have to engage the services of a prostitute which is what, taboo? Or to experience a life that is ostensibly normal or regular. But in order to feel normal they have to do something that is counter to the law. Now is that right? So you change the semantics, you call them a sex therapist or a surrogate or whatever it may be, but I don’t know, there’s so much hypocrisy in our society. This is a really murky but profound example of it. Here, we want everyone to be equal, but no, it makes me really uncomfortable if you bring sex into it, or the trade of sex. I don’t know what’s right or what beliefs should be maintained. I just think it’s troubling to see us “white knight” so hard about one thing and almost forget about something else. Like, where do our ethics really lie? So that was an interesting conversation. Of course there was no resolution but it was cool to be engaged in a topic like that with somebody because of the show. 

Also I had some people who didn’t like it as much as I thought people would. One friend of mine brought her sister who was developmentally challenged, accessibly challenged, she has a big motorized chair, and I thought, you know, she’s a young woman, a photographer, come by, see this play, see what you think. And she brought up a good point. Well, I had to find out later because they left at intermission. And I was like, “What’d you think of the show” and she was like “Well I thought it was kind of bullshit, like, you had this show that was about a paraplegic and his sex life and he’s the only mute in the play, the only one without a voice? Why is it that all of you people, who have the full faculty of your bodies and can walk around, can talk about this and the only character…” So she saw, which was interesting, she saw Brandon’s fear or inability to address that, or take the voice. And I don’t know where Brandon was coming from. Maybe he felt like it would be appropriating to do that, or maybe there was an issue, he didn’t want to speak on behalf of that. But that was her big problem: “I thought it was bullshit” because it didn’t have anything to do with – I mean, it had everything to do with, but we didn’t hear from him, from that character, even if he is fictitious. And of course, he’s being played by Prince Amponsah, who suffered an accident a few years ago and deals with some of these issues, and even a few times in a rehearsal he’d be like “Yeah, I don’t know why I don’t say – anything.” So that was eye-opening because it didn’t really dawn on me so it was wonderful to get that opinion rather than just “Yeah, it was good, it was good”. Because I was curious, like “Why did you leave, why did you leave” – here I am thinking this play was great. And it was a good play, but it was just like, there was something there that wasn’t addressed. And it was just like “Oh wow. Cool.”

It’s such a testament to the complexity of these issues. It was a positive play sociopolitically- it was putting good thoughts and good activism out into the world- but there’s always another side to every single point when you’re working with these issues. 
Yeah, especially hot topic issues that deal with people and their lives. And mobility, accessibility and equality are one thing – and then you bring sex into it. And sex is sloppy, nobody feels equal in sex [laughs]. I mean, that’s half the fun, right? It’s neat to have a topic that has such high stakes and then a topic that can be seen as so playful and frivolous but also so high stakes, and you mash them together because you know, sex exists in a really raw and primal place, our desire for equality and respect in a really cerebral place. So it’s neat to see them all mashed up and see how intertwined those two things really are. See how we as humans, everything in our life is intertwined. No one is an island unto themselves, nor one aspect of themselves. So it’s cool, like you have this guy who can’t move and all he wants to do is fall in love.

This is something that changed. In the first incarnation, before we did our big dance number, there was this scene where they meet in the park and they sort of come together and they do this like, little dance, ballet thing. What ended up happening was they walk off together. That had upset this woman as well, who came to see it. I invited her to one of the first shows. She was like, “Well the fact that he walks off stage was like, so you have to walk to be happy?” And it was such a simple little thing that I guess didn’t dawn on us either. I mentioned it to Brandon, who took it with great, like, it upset him that that was an oversight on his part. He was like, “I really didn’t mean to offend anyone, oh my….” Anyway, he had a deep deep think about it, on my couch, I remember. I was like, “Come over to my house, we’ll eat late night food and drink beer and talk about your play.” He had a real think about it and then the next day he was like “Okay guys, I just want to change this one little thing, and instead of him walking off, you sit back down in the chair and you push him off, because that’s your life together.” So that was a change that had come out of that one workshop presentation, opening night. So that’s one of the cool things about working with the creator. You can be there to address that kind of stuff. And I like that, you can get feedback from the audience, change a bit of the show. Stand-up comedians do that all the time. That’s how they refine it. And I guess when dealing with new works like this you don’t get a lot of workshopping time so that run at the Storefront was a bit of a workshopping presentation.

So let’s talk about what’s happening with the Storefront. You just had your big farewell party, not to the company but the 955 floor location. What’s going on?
Well, it’s a time for change, growth, sort of retooling, regrouping. We’re looking for a new space. I’ve been treasure hunting and shopping quite a bit, but there’s a lot of factors that complicate it. There’s a lot of really tricky things, you know – zoning, licensing, construction indexes versus hazard indexes – a lot of bureaucracy to jump through. And a lot of financial need, like money that arts organizations don’t really have. There’s no money from any of the government levels of granting that go to spaces or facilities. It’s all project stuff. So, there’s no help from the government. One of the things that we’re looking for is somewhere to license, so we can have a liquor license as a steady source of revenue in addition to the box office because we offer our tickets at such a low rate and because we offer the rental at such a low rate to accommodate the people, the artists that want to work there. There’s not a lot in the city that is affordable at those rates. So we’re hoping that this bar will be able to subsidize that kind of thing. And then also have a secondary benefit of having an ecology of cross-pollination, right, where people are coming for the play and then they stick around because this awesome DJ starts spinning or a band sets up, or people come for the band and they see that it’s set up on this kitchen sink set, and they’re like “What is this place?” “Oh, it’s a theater” “Oh, I”ll come back here..” Once it starts sharing the platform with different demographics and ideally it’ll grow and grow and grow, and also to sort of reinvent our relationship to the theater, of it being a place that isn’t full of too many rules and has too much etiquette but is that gathering place to go see art and a destination for you to spend an evening at. Not two hours out of your evening that you have to go, you know… You know, you can meet new people. Some of my research has shown me, some of the younger millennial kids were like “Well I don’t want to go somewhere… if we’re going to go out we’re going to go somewhere we can stay all night and have some drinks with my friends, talk to my friends, like I don’t really want to go to place for two hours where I have to sit in the dark and I can’t say anything to anybody” And you know, we all talk about how we want to create theater that creates discourse and change, but theaters are built for, they’re not, it doesn’t seem like they’re conducive to hang out, like you go to the lobby at some of the theaters, they’re not, they’re bright, they’re gnarly, and the lights get turned on, you get shuffled out so they can lock the doors, and I get it, they’re not doing anything, they’re not making any tip money. We end up shuttling all these people, after our shows, to these bars and these bars, they’re the most disappointed that we’re leaving the neighbourhood to tell you the truth [laughs]. They would light up, they would fill up with people, because these people, they come to see the show, they want to talk about it, they want to gather, they want to see the actors, meet the artists or meet the other people that were complicit to what they saw as well. They would always end up at a bar called Hurricanes, which was a local sports bar right by us. Lovely place. They spent 90 minutes at the theatre, and they spent three hours at this bar talking and sharing and drinking and cajoling. Why aren’t we doing this all? Why aren’t we mixing this together? And then the space could be active for more hours of the day. These theatres, they’re only alive from 6 to 11. Like, I love what’s going down at the Theatre Center. They have the cafe, there’s people there all the time. Anyway, that’s one of the things that we’re looking for. We hope to have a place squared away by September so we can start a new season. There’s a lot of hurdles to cross and we need the money to do it. It’s going to be an adventure.

In the meantime, we’re still putting up shows, like Deceitful Above All Things. Sing For Your Supper is at the Tarragon. And then we’re doing Tough Jews, that opens in March, at the Speakeasy in Kensington Market. We’re going to transform that place into a little time capsule. When you come downstairs, you’ll walk down a graffitied alleyway in modern Kensington Market and incidentally they just opened a VR arcade right across from where we’re doing it so it’s so funny. The future and the past. And I love it, like I’ve been hanging out in that neighbourhood quite a bit just to sort of soak it all in. There’s so much cool shit there, so much history, so I’m excited to explore that piece. So the Storefront’s still got things going on. We’ll probably throw a couple parties too, just to stay producing, stay out there, but we’re looking for a space. Thing is, it’s hard, man, and the market out there, it’s a condo market.

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