My Theatre

29 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Qasim Khan

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

Soulpepper alum Qasim Khan is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor this year for completely redefining the key supporting role in arguably Shakespeare’s most under-explored work, misunderstood comedy All’s Well That Ends Well. Parolles is usually a simplistic jerk but Qasim’s completely engaging interpretation made him the heart and soul of the show during its repertory run in High Park with Canadian Stage. 

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
It’s a kind of theatre- I grew up going to Canada’s Wonderland all the time. I wouldn’t go on rides, I would go see the revue shows in the Canterbury Theatre, as it was called back in the day. I would go to see every showing of it, like six showings a day. I would tell my family I’ll meet them at the theatre. I think the first show I saw there was called Hot Ice; it was a revue show with people skating to big themes- the Star Trek theme, the overture to Phantom of the Opera, Indiana Jones, all kinds of big themes. I was obsessed with it. That was my first time seeing people performing something.

The first time I saw a big show, was Beauty and the Beast at the Princess of Wales. Then my first experience participating was my grade four production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor DreamcoatWe did the weird pre-Broadway version of that show that was one act and had this character in it called “the lively lad” that I think didn’t make the cut. They got the rights for really cheap. I had a single line- skipped out on stage, said something and left, then was never seen again.

I have a theory that people who go on to become professional performers never get lead roles in elementary school. 
Yeah! In Oliver I was like Orphan #3, and then in the Three Little Pigs, I was –a tree! It’s amazing.

You came up through the Soulpepper Academy, what are some of your most formative memories from that experience?
Getting to work with all of those actors and directors, that was the big highlight. Before I got into the academy, I worked in the box office at Soulpepper for like five years- to the point where it was full time like the week before I joined the academy. So I had spent a lot of time watching everyone work, and trying to figure out what they were doing that was different from every other company in the city. So getting to finally spend time in a room, and learn acting from them, that was a huge highlight. László Marton- getting to work with him and learn from him, this guy who has such crazy wisdom about Ibsen and Chekhov and stuff like that, that was really really cool. Nancy Palk and Joe Ziegler– some of the most important things I’ve learned came from them. Getting the time to spend training, without worrying about a joe job and all that kind of stuff, is a crazy experience. And the whole thing is based on mentorship- that became a really important thing to me. I totally respect and appreciate what mentorship means and the benefits of that kind of thing, especially for young artists. 

Did you have a specific assigned mentor from the company?
Yeah, each of us was partnered with a philanthropic mentor- one of the big donors and sponsors of the company- then we had a creative mentor too; mine was Diego Matamoros. It’s a formal thing, but you kind of have to seek out opportunities to make something of it. So Diego and I had lunches every now and then, or coffees, and would just talk about the work I was doing and his thoughts on it. And we got to do a show together, so seeing him in rehearsal was part of that- watching him muck around in a rehearsal trying to figure stuff out was cool.

How did your time at the Globe shape how you approach Shakespeare?
I think the biggest lesson I learned at the Globe was that, to be able to manage all the things you have to manage when you’re working on any classical text, especially Shakespeare- the language and the physical life of that stuff- you kinda have to treat yourself like a rock star. Raz Shaw, who was one of our directors at the Globe, was obsessed with Bruce Springsteen and kept encouraging us to embrace our inner Bruce when we were on stage there. So that was a big part of it.

Then working on Shakespeare in that theatre really changed the way I thought about Shakespeare. Because you have to factor in the fact that you’re in a circle and there’s people around you on all sides. Shakespeare wrote that language based on this space that they were performing in. That’s something we don’t get here all the time, getting to work “in the round”, getting to connect with the audience that’s all around you. 

What did your director mean when he said “embrace your inner Bruce”?
I think it means walking on stage and wanting to have a good time. Whether it’s a dramatic or funny thing, having a good time while you’re doing it for the benefit of everyone that’s watching. I think that’s an important thing, I think that’s a Bruce-y kind of thing. A weird kind of confidence and an attitude, I guess. I think that helps a performer rock big speeches on stage, and rock rhyming, and stuff like that.

You did High Park this year, which is two shows in repertory. Tell us about Hipster Horatio and how that contemporary interpretation shaped his role in Hamlet.
Hipster Horatio was the idea of Birgit [Schreyer Duarte], our director. She wanted to explore a specific aspect of that character. She wanted Horatio to embody the magnitude of someone who was trying to support their friend who had had this really traumatic experience seeing the ghost of his father. Those shows [in High Park] are really cut down so, in this version, Horatio didn’t have language to help him observe the world, he had a camera. Birgit imagined this vintage hipster-looking camera, so we thought maybe he was a film student at Wittenburg and his way of navigating the world is by observing stuff and making short films. In this version, he comes back to see Hamlet after his father has died and his mom got married, so he filmed stuff that entire time and, at the end of the show, you get to see this old video that he had made when they were kids. I think in this interpretation Hipster Horatio gave perspective to the audience about this group of friends and how Hamlet has changed so much- everyone has changed so much- from when they were younger to current day.

Your MyTheatre Award nomination this year is for All’s Well That Ends Well. Tell us about your interpretation of Parolles, he was so much more of sympathetic character than in most versions. 
Ted Witzel, our director, had this really specific idea about this play. It’s one of Shakespeare’s weirdest plays; it’s like the most unsatisfying ending to a story ever. It should be like a fairy tale but it all kinda turns out wrong in the end. In this version, he wanted to look at Bertram’s masculinity, and why he’s making the decisions he’s making. So in Ted’s world, for this play, there was a really toxic masculinity around the military, which is where Bertram and Parolles flee to get away. Parolles is a bad influence, he’s not a great guy, he’s hated by a lot of people for weird reasons. So, in our version, Parolles was this really bad attempt at being hyper-masculine, to fit in with the guys around him. Parolles was kinda like a chameleon, he could read the room; so with Lavatch he’s a different kind of guy, with the two soldiers he’s a different kind of guy, with Bertram he’s a bit of a truer version of himself. Our Parolles was gay and, because of this hyper-masculine world, had a really rough time with that and was given a lot of grief because of that, and then it turned into physical violence because of that too. It was Ted’s big idea about this play- Parolles, he can come off as just a cocky soldier in some versions, so Ted wanted to explore that a bit more and put a queer lens on that character and see what happens

Both Ted and your co-star Rachel Jones are also nominated for All’s Well. Tell us about working with both of them.
Rachel is a phenomenal actor, and a really amazing person. She’s very generous, really smart, and a pillar in the cast. It’s a hard job, the High Park shows; it was very hot, rehearsals were really long, doing stuff in rep is challenging for a lot of people, so having Rachel there was amazing ’cause she was gentle and kind and generous. And very very supportive, a cheerleader for everyone she’s working with. And she’s an amazing performer. She made a great thing out of Lavatch in that show I think.

Ted is a really amazing director. He has a really good sense of how to build an ensemble, which helped with the show a lot, and in turn helped us a lot with Hamlet. Then he has this really cool thing where he can direct very well for a really big big big space like the High Park Amphitheater but his aesthetic is this weird kind of, something you would expect to see in smaller indie space in Toronto. He has the ability to bring those two together and then it creates this really visually exciting and emotionally exciting kind of theatre.

You contrasted arguably the most famous play in the history of the world with one of the more obscure things in the English canon. Which is more difficult to tackle, the iconic or the obscure?
I think the iconic is more difficult to tackle. Everyone has ideas about Hamlet. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced Hamlet, in high school, or in University, or in some capacity. Everyone has these big ideas around it so, when people hear we’re doing Hamlet, a lot of people are excited to hear “to be or not to be”, or excited to see how the sword fight at the end plays out, because it’s a very recognizable story in a really recognizable play. So the challenge then is to acknowledge that these things exist, that people have these big ideas about the play and the characters, and attempt to do something fresh with it and not recreate like a library version of Hamlet. Whereas All’s Well that Ends Well, no one knew the plot of it. I hadn’t read it in a very very long time and we definitely did not study it at theatre school or high school, so it’s kinda like a blank canvas; you can approach it however you want. Our version was a lot of people’s first time seeing that play, so you have a way easier time with bringing the audience on board. With Hamlet, you can tell whatever story you want, but people are always going to be bringing their own ideas- some people agreed with the interpretation that Birgit had and some people didn’t agree with it- so it’s interesting, but definitely harder.

You’re part of the second generation cast of Alligator Pie at Soulpepper. What was it like taking over from the creators of that show and how have you made the track your own?
It was really cool. The first day, there was five new actors and all five of the original creators were there- they made that show collectively, there was no outside eye, no director- so, when we got into the room, there was like ten minutes of everyone looking at each other’s faces just going, “what do we do? Who’s doing what?” We knew that each of us was brought in to take over someone’s track, so we knew what pieces we’d be performing in the show, but no idea how to get there, no idea what any of those things meant. So the first time we did it, we were kind of like shadowing. I was shadowing Gregory [Prest] so Gregory would show me what he did in whatever song, and then we would try to figure out why that was happening so I could get my brain around it, and then I would try to recreate it. Then, eventually, when we got the general shape of the show, and the more we did it, we would bring our own ideas to the show. So like Gregory had this weird hula hoop moment that, for him, it was to show how amazing he was with a hula hoop. But, for me, that moment is trying to do magic onstage. It’s the same thing, but it’s a different attitude about it. So the more we’ve gotten to do it over the last year and a bit now, the more we’ve brought ourselves to it. It feels like our own show now, whereas before it totally felt like we were copying someone.

Do you have any fun kid interaction stories from the runs of that show that you’ve done?
Yeah, the first time we did it in Toronto, there’s this song called “Bedroom Concert” where we’re all onstage playing different instruments and then everyone leaves and I’m stuck onstage with this trombone. So I’m playing the trombone and in my head I think everyone’s still there but no one’s there. I play a little bit more and I realize no one’s there, so it turns into this poem called “Lonesome” about being abandoned by friends. I was just about to start “Lonesome” and this kid, out of nowhere, really loudly, was like “you’re not playing the trombone, you farted!” I couldn’t not die laughing- everyone, the entire audience, were like cackling; it was hilarious, so I had to acknowledge the kid. He got a round of applause, and then I had to continue with the emotional poem.

Do you have any dream roles you’d like to tackle one day?
I would love to play the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera; that’s a dream role. And I’d love to play Andrey in Three Sisters by Chekhov. Time just keeps flying by; I realize I’m getting older and older so the roles I once dreamed of, I’m getting a little too old to play. But yeah, Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, and Andrey in Three Sisters, I guess. I have directors I would really like to work with- I’d love to work with Peter Hinton, I’d love to work with Kim Collier, and people like that- and there’s plays I’d love to do.

What are you up to now/next?
I’ll do a season at Stratford this year. I’m playing Alonzo in The Changeling, that’s the guy that Beatrice is engaged to be married to; Timon of Athens, I sell shoes; Madwoman of Chaillot, I sell shoelaces! So that’s exciting.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for the nomination. Good luck to all the nominees, and keep making good theatre this year.

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