My Theatre

29 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Geoffrey Armour

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

Raised in Toronto and Goderich, Geoffrey Armour cut his teeth as an adolescent performer in shows at the Blyth Festival, before studying theatre both at George Brown and at L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Seemingly at home in a range of genres (from clown work in the aptly titled A Funeral for Clowns to Shakespearean comedy like Driftwood Theatre’s production of The Taming for the Shrew, for which he has been nominated for Outstanding Actor), Geoffrey has also taken on the mantle of director, returning to the Blyth Festival in 2015 to direct the Young Company in Hatchlings and Hayseeds. His nimble and open-hearted performance as Petruchio in Shrew offered a refreshing and plausible take on a character whose controlling behaviour is seemingly celebrated by the play, contributing to its reputation as being famously misogynistic. Framed as a member of a consenting sadomasochistic relationship by director D. Jeremy Smith (Driftwood’s Artistic Director) in his fun and ambitious interpretation, Geoffrey played very well off of Siobhan Richardson’s excellent Katherine, combining convincing introspection with a pansexual playfulness that surfed happily along the production’s sometimes overly-specific but often intriguing attempts to rationalize its characters’ behaviour.

You went to school in Paris to study theatre, tell us about that.
Yeah, I did 2003-6 at George Brown theatre school, a classical repertory training program, as everyone probably knows. And then in 2008 I went to Ecole Jacques Lecoq, which was actually the school I had originally wanted to go to, in the 10th arrondisement in Paris. When I was eighteen years old, I had seen a production by Theatre Smith-Gilmour. I watched that piece and thought to myself: ‘That’s the kind of theatre I want to make.’ I thought it was just so riveting and interesting. They were making fire with tissue paper. There was basically nothing onstage – it was Chekhov’s long In the Ravine. And from that very moment I wrote an application to apply to that school at the end of high school, and they wrote me back saying, “You know, you’re pretty young, you should probably have a bit of life experience.” And so I got into George Brown, and completed that program, and at the end of it I thought, “No, I still really want to go there.” So I wrote an application, and I got in. And I was like, “Well, I don’t have enough money for that right now,” and so I called them and they told me I could postpone my acceptance. So in 2008 I moved to Paris with a guitar and a suitcase and nowhere to live, and found a place, played some guitar and worked in the theatre there for three years. Four years by the time I came home.

And were you immersed in clown work after that?
No, for me in theatre, a style is a style. You learn to adapt and get into the style and the world and universe that you’re working in. And the flexibility of it, and knowing each of those styles, and how to utilize them. Like my palette, if I were a painter, knowing when to use a bit of tragedy or a bit of clown, or a bit of melodrama, or any other style – absurdist theatre, for that matter. Use everything. Contrary to popular belief, yes they do do clown at that school and that is what it is, but it’s also heavily into mask and all different styles of theatre, so that you can pull from them and draw from them and know what kind of a space is required in order to execute that style efficiently and effectively. Clown was actually the thing I was worst at at that school. Because you get up onstage and if you’re not making people laugh within five seconds the teacher’s like, “O.K.! Thank you! Get off.” And most of the projects I worked on in that school were pretty well received. Sometimes you flop, sometimes you don’t. But with clown I flopped every single time. I was just so bad at it! I just didn’t have at that moment the ability to go onstage and be that vulnerable and that genuine. And it wasn’t until after school that that penny dropped, right after I got home from Paris, I did a production at the Fringe called A Funeral for Clowns, which Kat Letwin was a part of- she’s nominated for one of these things; I was happy to see that! We did a great show, but that was the first time that I had actually successfully been a part of something that was clown, and nobody singled me out in a review saying “Boy, that guy’s awful,” so I figured that that was OK. And then I ended up directing a clown show years later. It’s kind of funny how that all worked out.

Do you think being outside of the school environment brought it out in a different way – because they’re not looking at you in the same way?
Perhaps. I think it was just getting a bit more time with it. It’s the last thing you learn at that school, so it’s quite under the gun. They save clown to the last. It’s the world’s smallest mask, and it’s a very challenging thing. Some people get it right away, and I’m a born clown for sure, but that kind of almost doesn’t work in my favour, because when you try too hard, it becomes overwrought with this sense of effort. It has to be well-rehearsed – a clown is very precise. But it’s also just being there, and being present and allowing people to see you and see you fail, remarkably fail. And that just wasn’t something I was prepared to give I guess, at that time. And then it just sort of came out eventually.

Were there actors in that world or outside of that world who inspired you coming up?
Lots and lots. I grew up in the Blyth Festival, and worked with a lot of great people. Paul Thomson was one person I worked with. Working in that collective environment, where you’re creating a play on the go, and you just pick and choose parts that function, you put them together – – it’s an alchemist’s kind of process. You’d get to the end of it, and you’re just . . . we didn’t have a show until the day before we went onstage, and Paul just said “this scene, this scene, that scene, this scene, in that order, go.” And we knew it so well because we’d been rehearsing it all that time, so that the show just managed to be pulled off. That gave me a really strong sense of how to both work in a group, and create on-the-fly. That was very useful when I got to the Lecoq school, because that’s all it is there, creating. You don’t work with scripts. So he was a very large influence early on in my career as an actor, and it came back later on. I have lots of film idols, especially old film: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, are some of my absolute favourites. Gary Oldman has always been an actor I’ve had my eye on, because he just disappears. There’s something about him where you don’t see him. I remember liking a bunch of different films, and then realizing when I became a young adult that he was the guy in all of those movies. And it dawned on me, that you can work hard enough to just disappear into a piece. Then I started noticing how a lot of different actors do that. I always have my eye on different actors, and their qualities, and their values, like what can I cherry-pick, what can I assimilate into my process? What inspires me? Everyone has something of value and I think when you work as an artist you learn what to steal what you can where you can. I saw a show, Slava Polunin, Slava’s Snowshow – I just think it’s one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre, with hardly a word spoken. Watching companies like Footsbarn Theatre in France . . . and definitely theatre companies here in the city. Theres so many fabulous companies I could talk about all day. Adam Paolozza’s company is fantastic. Dean Smith-Gilmour. I grew up watching Soulpepper, even before they were in the Young Centre – I was the first year to graduate from there. George Brown moved in at the same time as Soulpepper when it was all first happening. So yeah, tons of influences. I love just finding my inspiration from this industry in this city who have come past a certain point, and who are well-seen and well-sought after, and learning how they did that in this climate. It’s sort of dependant on where you are. Success in theatre in Paris is a little bit different. People expect to go to the theatre, it’s a very common thing – -I would say more of the general population attends theatre in Paris. Their national theatre, the Théâtre Français, has a law that makes it mandatory for a certain chunk of five-dollar tickets to be made available at an accessible price for the lowest common denomination of financial support. It’s a guarantee, you can go and see the big show.

Let’s talk more specifically about Taming of the Shrew. How did you get involved with Driftwood?
Driftwood was just one of those miraculous, stars-aligning moments in life, actually. They have a core group of members that work for them quite often, and this summer, one of their main members, Steven Burley was getting married to a woman I actually went to theatre school with. And they were having their wedding on one of the weekends of the shows, so he couldn’t be in it. Chris Darroch, who is also commonly a part of the company, was part of the wedding party, so he couldn’t be in it. And so it just kind of opened up the possibility of auditioning more people for different roles. And so I was actually approaching Gil [Garratt], the Artistic Director at the Blyth Festival, saying “Hey Gil, I directed that young company show last year, but I’ve never actually acted on the main stage of the Blyth Festival before, and I would love to do that.” And Gil said, “Great! There might be something for you, but in the meantime let me set you up with the Ontario Summer Theatre panel audition, because I’m on that panel, and I can do that.” [laughs] I was like, “Great! That would be appreciated.”

And so he put me into an audition slot, and I was coming off of a tour that day, and so I ran to the theatre, sweating, ready to go, and I did two Canadian pieces – not a Shakespeare. But [director] D. Jeremy Smith must have read my resume and realized I had classical training, he e-mailed me out of nowhere, saying would you like to audition for Driftwood, I’d like you to audition for the role of Hortensio. So I said, “Cool! I will absolutely audition for you.” So I memorized my monologue and the sides and came in for the audition, and got a call-back, and that was fantastic – again, for Hortensio. So he sent more sides, saying “you’re going to be reading with this person, that person, etc.” So I came in for my second audition, and we did the whole thing, and then after that he said, “I’m just gonna surprise you here for a minute.” And I was like, “Oh, O.K., what have you got for me?” And he said, “I’d like you to do the fight scene between Petruchio and Kate.” And I just started laughing because when I was in George Brown, I did that scene with a young woman named Denise Pinnock. And we did it as a sword fight for Breakfast Television. And I loved the language in it so much that I still have it memorized, to this day! In the shower sometimes, or when I’m walking around, I’ll just recite all of the lines from that scene, both Kate’s and Petruchio’s – – so I knew it completely by rote! So I just said, “Yeah, no problem.” Then with the dramaturge, Myekah Payne, she read, and I did the scene, and it went very well. So he said “Listen, I’ve got this young lady coming in for a callback for Kate right after. It would really help if you would do the scene with her so we can have the dramaturge just watch for once, instead of being the reader as well.” So Siobhan Richardson, who ended up being Kate in the show, strolls in, and we do the scene together. We nail it, and then a week later I got offered the role.

How early in the process was that?
Quite early. I think that audition process terminated around the beginning of March. I was a part of the table work with the designers and everyone on the crew of the show in Driftwood’s creative summit that they hold every March over the course of a week – in Jeremy’s house! So we call sit around a table and we read the play, we talk about the images and what they’re trying to achieve, and the costume design, and why are the sets going to look like. I was invited to be a part of that process because my casting had been nailed down. Siobhan had been as well, but I think she was busy with another project. So I was able to come and sit at the very early table and hear about what the show was going to be, which gave me a nice preface for what was to come.

So how much of the final concept of the production, like the 1980s Toronto setting, had already been figured out? Was a lot of it determined during that summit?
Jeremy knows what he’s doing, big time. He’s meticulous, dedicated, and an extraordinary director. And he knows the show he’s going to do, usually give-or-take a year before. He starts conceptualizing about it while the other one is running. He doesn’t decide exactly what he’s going to do, but by March he definitely knows, and probably sooner than that. So as soon as we walked into the room, we knew that was what the concept would be – – it’s 1989, it’s Toronto, it’s Pride Week. And that’s what this show is. The casting was being figured out, but he knew he was going to be coming from the concept of domination and submission between Petruchio and Kate, because in reading the play and choosing to do the play he knew that it’s a problematic play, and that he really wanted to address that relationship in such a way that it could be consumable for audiences, or understood in a new light – opening up a new dialogue about that kind of relationship, and that it does exist, and that it’s not something to be ashamed of. And that was definitely nailed down fairly early on.

And can you tell us about working with the dramaturge, Myekah Payne?
She had worked as his assistant director the year before, if I’m not mistaken on a production of Hamlet. She is a wonderful young dramaturge. She did some really great work with the show. They definitely worked very closely together to figure out the language.

There were certain line changes, weren’t there?
There were, but not many, contrary to popular belief. People thought we had changed a lot of things, but it was actually almost extemporary verbatim the original text. But with Lucentio’s character we changed the pronouns, so it was “they” or “them”, as opposed to “he” or “she”. So we left that character in the non-binary space. So we never fully identified that. Same with Paolo Santalucia’s character, who was potentially homosexual, but it was never explicitly said. So there was a lot of subtlety that went on between the dramaturge and the director. We were all in on it before we came onto the project. We all decided we wanted to be there, and we wanted to explore these themes together. There was no one walking into the job blindly.

So what was the rehearsal process like in terms of discovery, specifically in regards to the production concept? Were there major discoveries?
Yeah. Just the depth that we gained. We had to do a lot of research. I myself am a part of a polyamorous relationship which was an interesting place to be in regards to this production – the idea of consent in polyamory is crucial. And in regards to why I was cast –  I don’t think I’m a typical dominant male, although I do have that side to me. But I also have a submissive side, and I think I was allowed through this role and through this work to really cultivate and understand that part of myself a little better. It was all already there, so in terms of massive discoveries? I don’t know. But certainly being able to express that in a light that I hadn’t been able to do before, and has seen made me a stronger and better person. It has helped me to develop as a human, playing that role, and being a part of this project. And I think we certainly discovered how far we’ve come, and how painfully obvious it is how much further we have to go in this world community. In 1989, you could still get fired from your job for being gay. And to hear those stories and to read those articles and to learn about how police treated the issue – and even recently, what’s happening out there in the park in Etobicoke. The way people treat that community even today.

And knowing the village was this sanctuary for people, and that Toronto has for a long time been a refuge, just learning more about that culture. My Uncles Keith and Mike were married as soon as the law came down. I have a nibling who’s non-binary as well in my family, and having grown up around that community, it just seemed to me, “of course!” But not for everybody, you know, and growing up I was very much accused and criticized and brutally made fun of for being gay, even though I wasn’t! It just seemed to people that I wasn’t normal, so therefore I must be. And I found solace in Toronto – so I can identify with getting out of my small town to graduate high school, because I couldn’t function there, I couldn’t be artist that I am in that space. And now, going back there I’ve done lots of work in that community and it’s been a really interesting and rewarding thing. So yeah, throughout the process, those were the big a-has! Seeing where it was, seeing where it is now, and bringing that kind of culture to small communities around Ontario. Really the big a-has were when we were on tour, and we were seeing how people were dealing with the themes of the play. And sometimes people would walk out! I hadn’t been in a play for a long time where someone would get up and leave because they were uncomfortable with the show’s themes, and that was surprising, and yet not, because I come from small-town Ontario, and I know there are sects and groups of people out there who are not willing to accept that kind of lifestyle, or that kind of nature.

How many locations did you guys end up touring through?
At least thirty different towns. It was a bit of a blur. Before I was even cast they had nailed down that they were doing a show in my hometown of Goderich. I was born in Toronto, but my dad was a teacher, so we moved out there when I was very young. So I got to visit my hometown, and it was really interesting to do a show there. That was super cool. I had performed there in the past, from time to time. If I’m in a touring show I try and bring it through there. The more art that comes in and is in people’s minds is great, and it’s in this lovely area that encompasses the Blyth Festival, the Stratford Festival, the Grand Bend Country Playhouse, which are all around Goderich. But nothing ever usually gets to Goderich. Even though they do have a vibrant community theatre. To bring professional theatre to the town I grew up in is of great importance to me, so I try to do that whenever I can.

So yeah, at least thirty different productions. So you’re in a different town everyday, six days a week. Except for the week that we are here in Withrow Park, in Toronto, with Driftwood Theatre – so they have their week there, and then the rest of the time everyday it’s a different place.

We had a really good team, we all loved it was one of those miracles. No one there, except for Paolo Santalucia, had been in a Driftwood production before, so it was all new cast. And we were on the bus, driving all around, and I would sometimes just lie on the bus floor with my earphones in, some people would be playing cards . . . it was just the most relaxed setting. We quite enjoyed ourselves. We really never had a big problem, the whole summer, which is amazing with that kind of environment, to not have any sort of issue whatsoever. And it was beautiful weather. We had a few rain-outs, but always had a backup venue – in one place we performed in a city hall. Our opening night in Oshawa was rained out, so we moved the whole audience under a massive gazebo, an just did the show in close quarters. And our preview in Toronto was rained out as well. We actually hadn’t done the whole show outside since the first dress rehearsal until the third or fourth show in the tour. You’re in a different configuration and all the props are in different places and you just go on-the-fly.

That must keep everyone mentally stimulated.
Oh yeah. You can’t just show up to work and fly on your laurels. You’re cutting your teeth everyday. And you have to stay awake, and alert with your audience everyday, because they can go from ten feet away to two feet in two seconds – – we have to learn how to play, big and small, real close, with your mic, without it. You ave to be on your toes.

Related to that, can you talk about the singing and dancing in the show?
The singing – Tom Lillington and Suba Sankaran were the heads of the music. Throughout the rehearsal process, Tom was the Director of Music. And Tahirih Vejdani who’s a very accomplished singer – thank God she was in our cast. And everyone else can more than carry a tune in a bucket, and I think we were all auditioned on our ability to carry a tune at least. All the arrangements were done by Tom and Suba and they were wonderful four and five-part harmonies that we worked painstakingly to get right. It was super difficult. Throughout the whole rehearsal process we had a section of movement every morning and a section of music every morning, followed by rehearsals in the afternoon. So with Richard Lee and Jennifer Dallas we were doing movement, and then we’d switch to Tom and have music, and then all afternoon we’d just be popping through the show as much as we could. And all of those things were important because of the multiple mask characters. With everyone playing the same mask character, we had to do movement workshops to articulate the same body with different actors in the same sort of mannerisms so that there was continuity throughout the show. And even though everyone brought a little something different to those roles, because inevitably that has to sort of happen, we wanted to make sure that the audience would be able to say “Ah, that’s that character,” and pick up on it right away. But yeah, it was quite difficult to be learning all of your lines, and all of the music, and all of your movement all at one all the time. And there were times in dress rehearsal where we didn’t know if it was going to work. We left rehearsals sometimes just devastated. But we kept coming back. And that’s what it is!

It must make everyone so aware of each other.
Absolutely, and supportive in this case, because we were all new. And we all had to be patient with each other, and encouraging, saying “You’re gonna get it, it’s gonna happen.”

So what have you been up to since?
I finished the Driftwood tour, and went right into another play by a brand new theatre company called Lark and Whimsy, we did a production called Salt, it was in the upstairs space of the Alumnae Theatre. After that I went on tour with Metaphysical Theatre, a commedia dell’arte piece, finished that, and then saw this wonderful application for something called the AXTP, the Artist Cross Training Program, developed by Remington North and the people at Crow’s Theatre, to train artists (set designers, directors, actors, sound designers), whoever works in the industry but on the fringes of the manual labour itself, were given the opportunity to apply and do a three-week training program, and then start being an employee of Crow’s, doing all the load-ins and load-outs of the shows, to become a qualified theatre technician. Because inevitably in the theatre for a lot of people, you end up doing a lot of jobs that aren’t necessarily the job of choice or the job you want to do. And this gave me a real inkling for a number of reasons because I thought to myself, “I can learn to be a technician, and so when I’m not working as an actor I can still be helping to create theatre. Because in my spare time I’ll work as a construction worker – I ran a Haberdashery, the Goorin Bros. Hat Shop on Queen West for two years, all of these different jobs which have given me such wonderful insights into the world and into specific things. If you want to know about hats just call me. So it just occurred to me that it would be a wonderful thing to go along with my career as a theatre performer and director. And also, when I start working more frequently as a director, which I hope to do eventually, that I will know what to say – like, “Give me more swag on that curtain,” etc. Knowing what to say, when to say it, and how, to design teams, to technicians themselves in the working space, and to really develop that language so that as a director I can ensure that my work is much more inclusive and conducive to a positive working environment. In all aspects of what it is, because it takes a whole village. You need to know how to talk to people, and how to get the work that you want to create to really fly, and to succeed. So I thought that that Crow’s cross-training program was a pretty great idea. And I’ve been loving it. My hands are covered in paint right now because I’ve been putting in a set all day. It’s just a wonderful thing, and everyone who’s been accepted into the program is top-notch. Remington North, the old technical director of the Theatre Centre is wildly talented and wonderful to work for. And it’s going to be a great show. And it’ll be like my first show all over again because I’ll get to go see it and say “I painted that, I hung that, I did this”, etc. And I get to watch it. And in some way it’ll be partly my baby too, and that’s a really great thing too.

Was that part of the pleasure of doing Taming of the Shrew, being involved early on in behind-the-scenes aspects of the show?
Yeah! I love behind-the-scenes things. I love being a part of the whole process, I love being able to communicate what I think and feel about a thing, but also just being able to step back, and watch what other people are doing, because it allows you to learn so much about other peoples’ process. What is the costume designer thinking when they get a script? What is the lighting guy dreaming about? Where is everyone coming from? And then we can all come together, and that’s when a play really functions, is when you have that kind of complicity, and that’s a wonderful thing. When you can achieve that complicity, that means a show has a life – that means it’s a living, working, breathing thing that’s going to succeed – it can’t not succeed if you have all of those elements working together. And it excites me to be a part of those processes.

Anything you’d like to add?
Well, thank you for the nomination. That made me feel wonderful, on New Year’s Day. I’m not even on Twitter anymore, and it was tweeted on New Year’s. But I still get an email notification. So I was just quite honoured and tickled, and just thought that that was a really lovely thing. And I do very much appreciate that my work has been appreciated by other people in the community, so thank you for that.

Petruchio . . . he’s a strange duck. He wants a family – the first thing you learn about him in the play is his dad is dead, and he has no one, and he is alone. And when you come from that heart, it’s hard to make a monster of him.

He wants to make it work, he wants to be himself, and he wants to drive people crazy, but it’s not necessarily masochistic.
Not at all. He’s hurting. And anything he does that seems vicious is lashing out at that pain, I think, and thank you for noticing. I worked very hard to achieve that kind of amicable portrait, where you hate him, but you love him too. And that you see that he loves and is caring. I spent the majority of the show looking at Kate, trying to figure her out, and everything I did, I did for her. So to hear that that was received by someone else is a great validation because we spent a lot of time trying to cultivate that. And I’m glad you saw that. So thank you!

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