My Theatre

01 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Dan Chameroy

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

Dan Chameroy is a very big deal to me. He’s a big deal to a lot of people in the Canadian musical theatre scene but he’s especially important to me. He’s the first live performer I remember being aware of, starring in two of my most formative theatre memories from my 90s childhood; I still listen to his solo CD on the regular. A three-time MyTheatre Award nominee and past winner, Dan is nominated once again this year for Outstanding Performance in a Musical for his performance as Agatha Trunchbull in Matilda, a role he performed in Toronto and is now taking on the road as part of the American National Tour.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Let me think about it – I mean, I can vaguely remember my first experience. It wasn’t professional theatre. The first time I was on a big stage was in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, and I think I was probably five or six, and my parents put me in this tap-dancing program, and there was this year-end show. I had to do a dance number in that, and I just remember being backstage and waiting, and the excitement of doing that number, and all the people that were in the audience, and just the thrill of the experience. That’s what I remember, vaguely. The experience, and how exciting it was. That was my first real experience with live theatre, and from thereon I started doing more things: I got out of tap and started doing more plays, and improv. Loving the in-the-moment experience. That’s what I really got out of this first couple of times I was in front of an audience. And just the thrill of having an audience reacting and responding to what I was doing – – it gave me a great feeling.

Two of my own earliest theatre memories involved you. First, in Camelot, then in Beauty and the Beast. What do you remember of those experiences?
Camelot was a major thing for me because that was my first time working at Stratford. That was a magical place to work, and that stage is like no other stage, certainly in this country. The history that goes with working at Stratford is a really amazing thing to be a part of. Camelot was special because we had a great cast and it was opening the festival – I think it was one of the few musicals that opened the festival season. It was a perfect show to open the festival because it’s about loyalty and it’s obviously filled with drama and beautiful music, but it was also designed by the late Desmond Healey, who was an extraordinary costume and set designer, and that was another great thrill of mine, to be dressed by one of the greats. So there were so many aspects that were exciting to be a part of, to work with Cynthia [Dale], to work with Tom [McCamus], to work with Michael Therriault, who had just started his career at that time – it was his first professional show. So there were just a lot of great things about it. And the music, and the opportunity to play Lancelot, and explore who that character was. And at the point I hadn’t done anything where we were really originating the roles. I had done a lot of commercial theatre in Toronto, and it was like, ‘This is what you’re going to do, this is how you breathe, this is where you’re going to walk, and this is what you’re thinking.” And all of a sudden I was at Stratford, we’re doing Camelot, we’re doing our version of it, and Richard [Monette] was directing it. It was a different use of creativity than I had used previously, and it was thrilling to do that.

Beauty and the Beast – that was another wonderful experience because it was a film that I really loved, and so being a part of it was really great. I didn’t think I would ever get the show because I thought it was something very different in terms of type, for the part of Gaston. So when I got it I was really thrilled and also slightly surprised, and it opened my eyes to not limiting myself and thinking I could only do one sort of thing. If you prep for something, and you really want something, there’s a really strong chance that it can happen. That show was also wonderful because it was at the Princess of Wales, another beautiful theatre. Working with really great people like Kerry Butler, Chuck Wagner, Chris Saunders – a really great team of actors. The really great thing about being a part of this business is being serious not just about the work but about the people you work with, and I’ve been really lucky over the years to work with amazing people.

Your album, Me, is still one of my favourite musical solo recordings ever. How did you select which songs would be included on that?
My wife and I, and my producer named Jonathan Schwartz- he’s really a smart guy in terms of musical theatre- we talked a lot about the types of material I wanted to do, and what would capture my voice, and I wanted it to be a variety of different things. I didn’t want it to be one type of things, like show tunes; I wanted it to be kind of like a mix of newer musicals, older stuff, stuff that I enjoyed singing. And that’s how we came up with it. It’s difficult when you’re doing albums, because there’s so much to choose, there’s so many options. And because I’ve done a lot of musicals, I’m certain people would assume I know every musical in the book, but I really don’t. I know the musicals that I work on, I know a few other ones, but I don’t listen to Broadway albums very often, so I really needed to be advised, and Jonathan was a great help to me.

You’ve been nominated for two MyTheatre awards in the past, winning once for Barber of Seville. What can you tell us about that adaptation for Soulpepper?
That was great, but, well, it was intimidating. When I was told about the project I said “Oh, O.K., an adaptation of the opera: this will be interesting, I can do that.” And then I got the job, and they were like, “Actually you’ll be singing the opera.” And I was like, “Shit.” So I was extremely intimidated because the first song of the show was this huge tune which people refer to many times. I was overwhelmed and extremely nervous about pulling it off, and I really didn’t know how I was going to be able to do it, frankly. It was just a big thing, and not the type of material that I’m used to singing. The fact that it had been adapted somewhat in terms of its musical arrangement kind of took some of the stress off, but I still had to vocally accomplish what had to be accomplished. So there were a lot of nerves around rehearsing that show, in terms of the music. I loved working with that cast, and Soulpepper is amazing. Again, I keep going back to those people that I get to work with. The experience really for me is spending time with people and being creative and listening and playing and coming up with stuff on the spot with the people that I get to work with. They have a really strong ensemble of actors there, so that made the experience very easy. It was a very collaborative experience putting that show together. I love that kind of process. And it was a great opportunity to do something that was out of my comfort zone.

Speaking of the people you’ve gotten the chance to work with, you performed with an all-star cast in Company in 2014, a real return to the kind of strapping leading men roles that you cut your teeth on early in your career. Can you tell us about working on one of Sondheim’s most coveted roles?
It was pretty thrilling. I can comfortably say that that cast was filled with many of my great friends, and also fantastically talented people. So it was great to be in a rehearsal hall and feeling the safety and support of your colleagues, and I certainly felt that with that cast. There were many opportunities for people to start acting like monsters, and it never happened, because in the end these people are great professionals, and it was so wonderful to know that they were all there standing behind me. I mean not standing behind me, supporting me, through that experience. It’s a tricky role and again that was also intimidating but I like taking on things that are challenging, as I get older those are one of those things that you need, and the challenge of doing any Sondheim show is always intimidating but extremely fulfilling and gratifying to do. His material is some of the greatest stuff out there in terms of theatre repertoire, and I’ve had a couple of opportunities to perform his stuff . And having Gary [Griffin] in the room who’s a real expert when it comes to Sondheim materials was great, having his eyes and his life. Just grateful for that team. Having Brent [Carver] and Louise Pitre, Nora [McLellan], Nia [Vardalos], [Steven] Sutcliffe, and [David] Keeley, the list went on and on. It was just amazing. They were so good to me, and I feel grateful that I had the opportunity.

Your nomination this year is for the role of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. What do you think the choice of casting a man as that character brings to the story?
I think that it’s an aggression that I think a man brings to the part, or that I think I bring to the part – it’s a tricky thing. A lot of people will go, “Well, why does a man get to play a woman’s role?” and I’m not getting into that political game because I don’t really know how to answer that question – I’m just grateful to have the job. And I don’t know how different it would be if a woman played her, to be honest. I don’t know if that’s how they chose to cast the part, and I just try to approach it in a way that I’m comfortable with.

I don’t think I really have an answer, I don’t know what it does. For me, doing the part, I’m on the inside of it, so I don’t really know how it’s relating to an audience, so I can’t really tell you that. I’ve seen the show in New York, but I didn’t see it in a way that I can fairly observe, because I was observing it as an actor going, “Oh, I wonder if that’s a part I could play,” because I was in the midst of auditioning for it. I can’t really tell you what that might feel like. So I can’t answer that question, sorry!

Though a terrible villain, Miss Trunchbull has a lot of sadness underneath. Are there any moments in the musical where you’re able to bring that into play?
You know, there’s not a lot of room for that in the show. They haven’t really given her any space to expose that. People who behave the way that she behaves, people who are struggling, have a lot of vulnerabilities. The thing about Agatha Trunchbull is she doesn’t really have any regrets. She doesn’t really accept that in people. She’s like, “You made the decision, you do it, boop, you move forward, and you don’t look back and think, ‘Oh, what did I do?’” The one thing she struggles with the most is her Olympic abilities and her athleticism, and if she did anything wrong – it’s all about precision with her and perfection. If she has an inkling of doubt, it kind of haunts her. But there’s nowhere in the play where they allow her to show that kind of emotional side. She’s kind of got her mission and her mission is to keep everyone on track and not be fooled by anybody, and that’s what she’s doing. She has to have control, and everyone has to be very precise around her.

You mentioned the athleticism that really defines the character. Your big number, “The Smell of Rebellion”, requires a large number of physical tricks. How much training went into pulling that off?
When I auditioned for it, we did a kind of boot camp thing – it was myself and Kate Dunn, who was the right hand to Peter Darling, the choreographer of the show. So we did an hour and twenty minute-long boot camp: cardio, movement, etc. It was very intense and intimidating, but also I love the challenge of being pushed to the brink, so I faced it and hopefully did it as well as I could. Then after we did that, there was the whole question of whether I could leap over things, and was I afraid of heights and bouncing off things. In New York I worked with a former Olympian and we worked on trampoline, jumping, stuff like that, just to see what level I was at, how easy it would be to train me in a certain amount of time, determine that I was going to be able to do it, and they saw that I wasn’t really fearful of it. After that, once I got the job, I was in New York for about 2 1/2 weeks, and I think I was at the gym around three times a week, for an hour a day, working on that – just jumping, racing the height of things. So we did that for awhile. I spent two weeks just working on choreography, with the ribbon, and all that stuff – it’s a very specific type of skill that they need to have for someone to play this role. Before I auditioned for the part I had spoken to a couple of people and they said that the audition process was very demanding, that they wanted to make sure that the people who were going to play the role were in pretty good shape in terms of their physical health because it’s easy to get injured playing that part. People have injured themselves quite a bit in this role, so they just want to make sure they’re not in a position where they have to keep replacing the actor.

A lot of the really memorable and magical moments of the show happen at your expense. Is there anything you can tell us about how those moments are created? The cake, the chalk, etc.
I can’t give that away, I‘ll be honest. I think they’ll be annoyed if I did. I can say that it’s obviously quite clever. What I love about what they’ve done, in terms of the cake specifically, it’s extremely simple, and obviously people who are watching in the audience are thinking, “Well surely that boy could not have eaten that entire cake.” But the magic of theatre, and the experience that hopefully the audience is having means they instantly accept it, and that, for me, is great trickery. You don’t want the audience sitting there wondering “I wonder how that happened, I wonder how that happened.” It should go by quickly and people should ponder for a few seconds, but it’s when it’s poorly done that people are sitting there in the moment thinking about it and missing half the show. I think all of the choices that they made in the show were done really tastefully and very inventively. The whole show for me is a triumph in terms of its staging and accomplishing what could be impossible. To take a novel that’s so beloved by people and putting it onstage, turn it into a musical, and honour the work and its characters can be a challenging thing to do, but I think the creative team on this show really hit it out of the park. I love doing the show because I don’t feel like there’s any cheap tricks or anything mediocre in it. I think it’s all at the high standard that it needs to be for it to be as successful as it’s been.

What are some of your favourite Matilda memories thus far?
It’s the people that I have the pleasure of working with. Just hearing audiences relishing Trunchbull’s insane reactions, and feeling the energy of an audience going through Matilda’s journey – going along with her through this two-hour and fifteen minute journey. I love that. I love that people are connecting with the piece in whatever way they connect with it. It’s always great. And as harsh as Miss Trunchbull is, there’s not really anything very redeeming about her, but because it’s been so well put together and because it’s been so well-written, and because the characters by Roald Dahl are so beautiful, people can still see the humour in someone as horrible as her. Because she’s a horrible, horrible human being. I appreciate the fact that people can see it and still go, “O.K. this person is troubled,” and the fact that Matilda can sort of brush it off I think is what makes the audience accept Trunchbull without hating her, because Matilda’s character is so strong, and she’s such a good person, and she’s so strong with who she is, that everything that’s happening around her is kind of managed because she can deal with it, which is so beautiful. And that’s a lesson for all of us – we can all learn from that. As crazy as people are around us, if we know who we are, and we’re centred, and we’re strong with our belief, that everything else doesn’t have to affect us in such a deep way. Trunchbull could learn a lot from this kid, if she could actually think further than herself, but she’s so busy trying to deal with whatever history she’s taken with her. We could all learn from Matilda.

Because Matilda was still running, you weren’t able to return to your usual role as Aunty Plumbum in Ross Petty’s holiday pantomime. Tell us about the evolution of that character and some of your favourite memories in the tutu.
[Laughs] Well, first of all, when Matilda came along, Ross and I had a conversation pretty early on that we knew I wasn’t going to be coming back to that. So he was prepared for that. And the panto’s been going on for many years without me. They’ve had dames and men play women there many times before. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to return over and over again to play this crazy woman. And I guess the evolution is one of the great gifts that I’ve had because you rarely get to go back and play the same character in different plays. It doesn’t really occur. So it’s been kind of a privilege for me to keep investigating who she is.

I think Plumbum is who she is. She doesn’t change a lot. She doesn’t really evolve throughout every show. She doesn’t come back in the next pantomime with any great understanding of anything. She is who she is and she doesn’t really change a whole lot. For me I’ve gotten to know her a lot better: I know what she is, I know how she phrases things, I know what her habits are, I know what she loves and what she doesn’t like. And so that’s kind of fun to sort of make things concrete with her, going, “I think I’ve made that decision,” and then the show’s done and you’ve finished with it. So she comes back every couple of years, and it’s a treat to put her skin back on and see how she’s going to behave in a different situation. It’s a very freeing and collaborative experience: the scripts are written by some really cool people, and they’re cool enough to let me put in my two cents and make some adjustments and make it feel like she is who she is. Like I said, when you only have an opportunity to play a character once, and it’s written, you just do it, but when you get to re-visit a character that you’ve created, then you know them better than anybody. It gave me an opportunity to write and to investigate that side of the business which I’ve really been grateful for. It’s a great delight. And I got to work with Ross a lot, and so I’ve become good friends with these people. It’s nice to be in a room where you’re surrounded by people who trust you.

Between Plumbum and Trunchbull, you’ve crafted a very strange secondary niche for yourself. What is it that attracts you to these roles?
[Laughs] Yeah. I don’t know, they seem to be attracted to me. I turned forty a couple of years ago and all of a sudden I’m playing zany, crazy women. I don’t know what’s going on there. I’m grateful for the opportunity! It just seems to have happened that way. I don’t think it’s going to be happening for many more years because people are going to go, “Oh, can you do anything else?” It’s nice to be able to do stuff that’s different and unexpected. Now people expect me to play women, so it’s probably time to switch things up again. It’s been a great opportunity, and it’s been a lot of fun. And to all the women out there, I apologize, because I know I’m far from being the perfect woman, or even a great representation of what a woman is, but I’m doing my best, dammit. And I hope you like it.

Is there a specific role out there that you’ve always dreamed of playing?
It’s hard. There are so many new musicals that are being written now. Out of the classic ones, I would love to do Harold Hill in Music Man – I think that would be great. It’s a beautiful show with some great music. I guess that’s one of the great classics I would love to re-visit at some point in my life. And anything that Stephen Sondheim has written, I’m there. It’s great material to play. He does about 95 % of the work for you. It’s all there – physically, lyrically. It’s like Shakespeare – if you pay attention to punctuation and rhythm, a lot of the work is there. You just have to be the vessel for the material. If you spend time just listening to the words and then where the words go musically, it’s so filled with information. Anything Stephen Sondheim writes, I’ll do. He’s an amazing composer. So of course I’d love to do Sweeney Todd one day. It’s a great part. I think every male musical theatre performer wants to play Sweeney Todd. It has great depth, and it’s a big thing, and it’s a challenge for an actor, so I would love to play that role some time in my life. You know, roles I can actually play, as opposed to saying, “I wanna play Romeo!”, “You’re a little long-in-the-tooth for that, Chameroy!” And you also have to shift in your visions of what kind of parts you want to play. So maybe one day I’ll play Valjean. There’s a lot of great parts out there that I’d love to play – some of them haven’t been written yet! So for now I’d say that’s where my interests are.

You’re about to head out on the road with Matilda. What are you most looking forward to on the tour?
Getting to explore different parts of that country. Enjoying the weather! And just having experiences with American audiences. They’re different from Canada. I was in Boston and Pittsburgh before I joined the Toronto company, and when we got to Toronto we got a very different reaction from the audiences. People listen and react differently here. So it’s going to be interesting going back out on the road and feeling that different energy from American audiences. I’m looking forward to that change. And just getting to spend more time with Agatha Trunchbull and seeing what mischief she’ll be up to over the next couple of months.

Do you have any idea what you’re going to be doing after the tour?
There are some things, but I can’t talk about them! I’ll be back in Toronto after the tour, and hopefully something should be coming up soon after I return.

If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?
It was before I went professional, but it was a shift in my life where it was like – – I was a part of this program in Edmonton. I was probably sixteen? It was a group of people and everyone was a little older than me – it was this amateur theatre program. I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting an opportunity to sing a solo. I wanted a solo to sing and I wasn’t getting it. And it was really frustrating to me, and I went to the woman who was running the program, and I told her I was frustrated. I was kind of a snobby little shit and I went up to her and said, “I don’t understand why this person gets to do it, why can’t I?” And she said point-blank to me, “You’re not ready. You’re talented but you’re not ready.” And it annoyed me, but it was a moment where I went, O.K. So I can either be defeated by this, or I can face it. So what is it that I need to learn in this moment? And I think what I had to learn was, for me to be ready, I had to be more present, and work harder. And about six months later everything shifted, because I figured out what I needed to do to be ready. I think if I hadn’t gone to her and been very direct with what my feelings were, it may not have turned out the way it did. And I may not be where I am today because it sort of pushed me in a positive way, and it also got me out of my head, and made me appreciate what was around me, and made me use what was around me to motivate me, and not to make me bitter or angry or make me feel “why not me?” You can only make things happen for yourself, you can’t rely on other people to do it for you. So that was a big moment for me. And it was early, and I’m grateful for that, because I think it led me to where I am today. This business can be a challenge, but I think that I’m constantly reminded of that moment. And that’s what I would say was one of the big moments of my life.

Is there anything you would like to add?
I think you asked a lot of great questions! I don’t really have anything else to add. Thank you for all the nominations. Thank you for coming to watch my work. And thank you for supporting me and appreciating what I do.

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