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

As an actress, the dynamic Anne van Leeuwen delivered two standout performances in 2016- in Unit 102 Actor’s Company’s/Leroy Street Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing and Unit 102’s Old Times– but it was her work as a director that scored her her first MyTheatre Award nomination- Outstanding Direction for the remarkable and challenging Red Light Winter (one of the very first things I saw last year and still one of my favourite reviews I’ve ever written). Anne dropped by the nominee interview series during rehearsals for Storefront’s Tough Jews (on stage now) to look back on her fantastic 2016.

Do  you remember your first experience with theatre?
I came to theatre in a roundabout way. I came from the world of dance. So my experience of the stage- probably earliest was I was 4, in a dance recital for A Very Happy Unbirthday. And I tried to eat the fake cake.

But when I fell in love with theatre, my mom brought me to the Stratford Festival when I was 14. We saw As You Like It and then it was kind of a done deal.

How did you get involved with Unit 102?
When I first moved to Toronto in – I think it was 2012 – one of my best friends from university also came to the city, and we wanted to produce a play, Time Stands Still. Unit 102 was probably the 2nd or 3rd space that we went to see. Dave Lafontaine was there- he just gave us such a great vibe, and it felt like somebody already welcoming me into the community. I’d only been in the city for a couple of months, and the idea of starting over in a new city was really daunting. So it was Dave Lafontaine, and that stone wall in Unit 102, because we really wanted a brick wall. But also Dave Lafontaine.

You’re both an actor and a director. How does one role influence your work in the other?
I think the biggest thing for me as an actor is the ability to empathize with our fellow humans. As an actor, you’re focusing on one character and portraying them and going through what they’re going through. I think as a director, it’s an extra layer, so you’re empathizing with all of the actors who are going through this. So you’re empathizing on two levels- with the characters, all of them, and with all of the actors, so I think that having the ability to do that as an actor makes it easier for me to communicate with the actors, and to trust them. To trust the process.

Chloe Sullivan told me you came in partway through the process of Red Light Winter.
I did.

Was it difficult to jump onto a train that already was partway down the tracks?
Yeah. [laughs] I think in some ways, it was nice coming in with the actors. We always say we’re going to be off-book when the rehearsals start, but they were actually pretty close to being off-book. Any of the issues that we came across were, if they had been running these lines as they had been, and they had formulated these ideas about the characters, then there were some issues with getting them to look at it from a different point of view. They’d already kind of locked in what they thought made the most sense, so sometimes we struggled to break out of that.

Did you end up being able to break out of it?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. We worked together a lot. There was nothing where I put my foot down and said “do it this way, or else.” It has to make sense to the actor, and it has to make sense [to the director]. I’m sitting on the outside looking at the bigger picture, whereas they’re looking at it in this one moment, of this one person’s life. So sometimes- and I know this as an actor- it’s hard to take a step back and say “but what about this other perspective?” But generally we had to have consensus on everything as a team. It really was a team effort.

What was your first thought when you read the script?
Chloe is the bravest woman I know [laughs]. It frightened me. That script certainly frightened me. It deals with some heavy issues, especially as a woman, for that character to go through that. I’m mostly referring to the ending with Davis, and the rape scene. It’s hard for anyone to set, really. That was scary to me. And to Chloe. And even to the men [Luis Fernandes and Omar Hady]. They were terrified of coming across as monsters in this. There’s a lot about these three characters, you can easily find things about all three of them that are easily unlikable, and unrelatable. So I knew going into it, it was going to be a huge challenge to make them human, and to find something that you can relate to in each of them, so you can understand them.

It’s a very male play. It’s dominated by the male voices, it’s written by a man – how do you think having a female director influenced the project?
I think on a very basic level, it made Chloe feel more comfortable having another woman in the room. Not that those two are bullies, but I think three men and one woman in one room would have been a little bit more uncomfortable for Chloe, certainly. And it was very important to me that her character was more than a character. While she has the least lines- those two guys yammer on – there’s something so captivating about that character when you allow her to be more than a deceitful, conniving prostitute. And Chloe really nailed it. I think having another woman in the room, having me in the room, to watch her in those moments when those two were just talking each other’s ear off, to see her sitting there in the silence really going through something, definitely really helped the process and helped tell the story. Because in my view, those two characters – Matt and Davis- wouldn’t be characters without her on the stage, even though she isn’t saying anything.

The play touches on a lot of really complicated issues around mental illness. How much research and discussion went into portraying those struggles with clarity and nuance?
Quite a bit, I would say, especially on Omar’s part. I know to a certain degree that Omar is method, so he was definitely struggling with the role a lot in that he took on a lot of the character, which was kind of hard to watch.

I think a lot of actors- that I know, anyway- struggle with some level of depression; and anxiety, certainly. So I think, in that respect, it was pretty easy for each of us to tap into that, and to talk about it amongst ourselves, which is something that is getting easier now to do, but still, we generally try to put on a bright face, and smile away the issues, but I think they’re all there, and it was very helpful for us to sit down and talk through some of that shit. 

Pascal Labillois is nominated for his set design. How much guidance did you give him on the creation of that shabby aesthetic?
My big thing for it was, I wanted those windows at the back, just for that one aesthetic of the three hookers and the window, at the top of the show that we threw in there. Other than that, he was kind of left to his own devices. We grabbed a lot of the stuff from 102’s green room. That bookshelf, and I think the mattresses were from Omar’s house. But Pascal is used to working on much larger-scale theatre productions- like huge, massive things with money! People throw money at him and he builds dreams. So, for him to come in and us to say “we need a really shitty hotel room. Go”, he really knocked it out of the park. It really felt like you were in that room with them.

What were you hoping the audience would take away from the show?
Part of the reason that I really wanted those windows at the back with the hookers dancing in the background was to make the audience a bit uncomfortable, right from the get-go, knowing what you’re getting into. Some people come into that show not knowing what they’re getting into. And it was interesting because I ended up being one of those hookers in the windows for a lot of shows. It’s interesting to watch the audience watch us- or not watch us, which is more often the case. The things that people do to look away, and to not have to confront things that make them uncomfortable. There’s a lot of that in this show, specifically with prostitution, with mental illness, with rape… I guess I wanted the audience to come away and talk about it. And think about those things. And think about those people. Those women. And being voyeuristic.

I keep going back to this, but when I first read it, I so disliked all of the characters. I strongly disliked them, and the number one thing about going into a project, whether you’re acting or directing it, is that you have to do your best not to judge the characters. You can’t decide that you hate them, you can’t decide that they’re bad people, you have to find the thing in them that you can connect to on a human level. And I think that was the most important part for me of this project, was finding these qualities in all these characters, and that’s what I wanted the audience to see. I wanted to see that they weren’t just this self-pitying playwright who plays the victim, and this jock dude who has nothing interesting to say, and this prostitute who is a lying sneak. I wanted them to see these people. So that’s what I wanted them to do. I’d never seen the show before, so I don’t know what other productions of it are like. But I could see, reading it, how easily they could become caricatures of those three things. The prostitute. The dude. And the suicidal playwright.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Chloe’s singing.

She says that’s her least favourite bit.
I know, I know. But every night it was different, and every night it was so raw, and I would just stop breathing every night and watch that moment. And to see- there was no acting going on with those two guys on the stage, which is why I staged it that way so you could see their faces and less of hers. Because the looks on their face, they’re going through exactly the same thing that the audience is going through, and it was just beautiful every night. Beautiful.

You also appeared onstage a couple of times this year. Tell us a little bit about your experiences in Much Ado and Old Times.
Well, Much Ado was a collaboration with Unit 102, so it was a lot of people from Camp 102, and a lot of people from Camp Leroy Street. So it was kind of like a big family reunion, a little bit- a lot of familiar faces, and a few new ones. And James Graham, the director, was a revelation. We’d never worked with him before. Scott Walker brought him on; he’d done a couple of classes with him or something like that, and he just blew me away as a director. Probably one of my favourite directors that I’ve ever worked with.

In what way?
He showed me parts of that character that I had never seen before, and Much Ado is such a well-known play. We all know the movie with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh – probably seen it 100 times – but he brought stuff out of everyone that made these characters not just fairytale characters in a Shakespearean show, they were real people, and it was so honest. And he brought in modernity to it. That moment with Clare Bastable playing Hero, at the very end, where she’s left sitting there where it isn’t a ray of fucking sunshine, it’s real life! And it’s not great, you know? He was just a delight to work with, and I think we’ll be doing another show with him this summer, which is exciting. 

You work a lot with Scott Walker, who played Benedick. Tell us about that dynamic. 
Oh, Scott. Yeah, we call ourselves Fred and Ginger. We work well together. I think we have great chemistry. I annoy the hell out of him, and I find him a curmudgeon, but we get the job done. And we’re a good sounding board for one another as well.

Tell us about Old Times.
Scott and I butted heads over that one a lot. 

Over what?
We had a fundamental difference of opinion around that character. Pinter leaves a lot of stuff open to interpretation. It would probably be difficult for anyone going into a Pinter project to not have fundamental differences of opinion, because it really is so subjective. I guess when it came down to it- oh God, you’re going to publish this- [deep breath] Scott was right [winces]. I guess that’s why Scott and I work well together- when we approach a role, we generally trust that what you, the actor, are feeling in a moment in rehearsal, is where you’re supposed to be as a character. Lean into that, rather than shying away from it and trying to find something more official that you think you should be playing. If you’re just feeling it and letting it happen, you’re generally on the right path. So, during the rehearsal process, I was stopping a lot and saying “I don’t think, I don’t think, I don’t think,” and he was saying, “what do you feel, what do you feel, what do you feel?” I guess in the long run… he was right. I say that begrudgingly.

What are you working on now, or what’s your next project?
I’m acting in Tough Jews, by Michael Ross Albert, which is produced by Storefront Theatre and directed by Ben Blais [on stage at Kensington Hall until April 16]. 

Then I have a Fringe show coming up. It’s a play called Letters to Annabelle by Stevie Joffe, who’s actually acting in Tough Jews as well. I read the script and I loved it.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
I just want everyone to know how much of a collaboration Red Light Winter was. I really lucked out with those actors. Coming on after it had already been cast, the luck of having three crazy, talented, brave, wonderful, giving actors… they made it an easy job.