Dylan Trowbridge has been one of the most reliably excellent actors on both Canadian stages and screens for years, standing out in roles with Stratford, Shaw and Canadian Stage. But it wasn’t until he stepped onto one of Toronto’s most indie stages that he scored his first MyTheatre Award nomination- Outstanding Supporting Actor for his heartbreaking and conflicted turn in the provocative, infuriating and beautiful Taking Care of Baby at the Storefront Theatre.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yes. I was in grade 10, and I was in drama class for the first time doing a play, I was given this ridiculous Sherlock Holmes play, and ten minutes to do it. Me and my good friend played Sherlock and Watson. We alternated roles, it was funny, and it was a total rush, and it was addictive, and there was kind of no looking back from there.
You’ve performed on huge stages like Stratford and outside at Shakespeare in High Park, and then at the Storefront and indie spaces. How does that affect your process or your approach, working in such different practical environments?
With the big spaces there’s also usually the luxury of time, so that’s usually a big part of it. Because it’s in a big space, you know you’re going to have more time to experiment, and ease into things. When there’s a small space, there’s an urgency that I actually really love. The process is usually quick and intense, so there’s an immediacy to a shorter process that I like. In terms of how I prepare, I guess, on a large stage, audibility is a huge priority, so making sure that I can be heard and that the story’s being told is a constant factor in my process. Whereas being in the Storefront or a 15-seat studio, I generally know that whatever I do will be witnessed. It will be heard and experienced, so I don’t need to worry about sharing it as much. I can let the audience come to me more.
Does that sort of free you up a little bit?
I find it does. I find I can be a little bit more impulsive, both in process and in the show itself, because I have confidence that the story will be heard, in a smaller space.
How did you get involved with Taking Care Of Baby?
Birgit Schreyer Duarte, she was the director of that show, an excellent director. She was the assistant director on Mary Stuart, when we did it in Stratford, which was an amazing experience and a great show with amazing people, and she and I had connected in that show. We sort of always talked about maybe working together, and then over the summer when I was doing Shakespeare in High Park, because she was working with Canadian Stage, we would meet every once in a while. We would discuss possible scripts that she wanted to do with Miranda Calderon, who is also in Taking Care of Baby. So we read a bunch of stuff, and nothing really was the right fit, and then last December, I got an email out of the blue that said ‘Hey, we’re doing this, we’re doing it in January, and we’d love for you to be a part of it.” I read it and I thought it was such a complicated and dark and important piece of work, and immediately jumped at it.
Your character Martin is at the centre of the fake verbatim meta-theatricality. How did that element of the text affect your view of the story and where your character fit into it?
That’s such an interesting question, because I read the script and loved it, but I immediately wrote down, “If we are presenting this as verbatim, how can a character who is rejecting the whole process, how can his words be represented?” So on the first day, Birgit and I went back and forth about how to honour that, the fact that this guy’s like “No, I don’t want to have anything to do with this.” We decided that we would meet that character as an audience member. So, that was my way into it, that he’s some guy that heard that we’re doing this play, and he showed up to watch it, and he just started objecting to the material as it was happening. But then he, through the experience of watching the play and knowing the play’s happening, realizes he needs to unburden himself. So, near the end of the play, he comes and he just tells his truth, because the whole play is about versions of truth – which is so relevant right now. There could be different interpretations of what the truth is. So he articulates his version of truth at the end, in a very cathartic way.
Do you feel that ultimately his story is presented with his consent?
Yeah, and it’s hard, it’s kind of a mind-bender because he basically endorses or gives permission by getting on stage and doing it [but only after] three-quarters of the play is done. I think in terms of the literature of it, the character gives his consent by telling a story in the end.
The concept of truth is so key to Taking Care of Baby. What is your conception of what truly happened in that story?
He can never know – and that’s what’s so haunting to him. He can never know for sure what happened, but I think in his heart he thinks that his wife killed his children, and he feels so responsible, and he is so angry for so long. I think the discovery that he makes is that he is largely responsible because he saw the warning signs, he saw that she was struggling, but he didn’t prevent it from happening.
Do you think that he finds solace at all in the possibility of the medical condition in the play?
No, I don’t. I don’t think he does because it haunts him and, the deeper explanations go down a sort of psychological rabbit hole for him, the more painful it is.
You’re a father in real life. How difficult was it embodying the idea of a grieving father, and then going home to your actual family?
My youngest was two at the time and experiencing very serious behavioural issues, and I was experiencing moments of deep frustration with him, which made doing this so painful. I would get him to sleep, and when he was finally asleep, I would break down sometimes, because I was going through this rehearsal process during the day, getting home with him, finally getting him to sleep, and he‘d be violent and angry, and just seemed unhappy. It’s just the most painful thing to see your child unhappy. It’s all fine now, he’s great. But he would wake up in the night, so there was no time in my day when I would have relief from dealing with either the fictional children and the torture there, or the real life child who was experiencing a lot of difficulty at the time. Turns out it was diet-related- we changed his diet and got him to a naturopath, and now he’s a happy, energetic little three-year old. It was extremely difficult, but it gave me great access to – because you love your child so much, all the time, but when they are struggling, you love them so deeply – and it gave me such access to that. I was trying to reach out to these fictional children that died, and who I felt responsible for.
Tell us a little bit about working with Birgit, and some of the key conversations you had in developing your concept of the character.
Like I said at the beginning, the process was quick, and it was scattered, and we were moving from hall to hall. We exchanged a few emails before the process properly started, about where the character lives in the reality of the play, and that’s how we came up with the idea that he starts as an audience member and becomes a part of the play. We talked about grief and living in grief, and how to operate day-to-day as a person who carries grief. And all that was before we started. Even in the process itself, she really just let us go, let us try stuff, and then she would throw ideas out. A lot of my first big scene involved a video camera and them trying to film me. And that wasn’t an element we had until we were in the space. There was an immediacy to me actually having to deal with someone shoving a camera in my face. That was real. It was very genuine. And then the whole last scene where Martin comes and tells his story, she smartly let me just come in and do it. Like, those kind of emotional things, if they are micromanaged too much, or if you’re asked to hit specific moments, you can kill it. I think she was really generous and smart to let me just explore it, you know? And we only really rehearsed that scene maybe two or three times, which I think is right. I think you have to just put me in front of an audience of people without a whole bunch of preparation and just see what happens.
With such an emotional role, how do you approach having to also play another character?
[laughs] That was so hard and so exciting at the same time. The other character was such an official, sycophantic opposite to Martin, and when you play multiple characters you desperately want them to be really different from each other, and these characters could not have been more different. I think they would hate each other in real life. I came off from the first scene as Martin very emotionally wrecked, and I had to strip off all of my clothes and get into all of the Jim clothes basically two feet outside of the theatre and come back in with Astrid [van Wieren], being very elated at her political progress, so, there wasn’t a lot of thought to how I was gonna do this. I just had to dive in and be the different guy, and changing the costume and throwing everything on was a kind of ritual that would propel me into the other character. Jim was lighter in a sense, and more playful, and so I kind of had to just shake it off.
Was it difficult to then get back into Martin?
I had quite a bit of time after the final Jim scene to get back into Martin, so not particularly. It would have been hard, had I had to go directly from being Jim into that last scene. I think that would’ve been difficult because the emotional preparation required for that last scene was a lot to go through.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
I was hoping they would learn to question “facts”. To question everything. To see that, just because something is printed in a newspaper, it does not make it true; just because someone tells you something doesn’t make it true. To not accept a fact until it is irrefutable – which is a really hard thing to do.
My 10-year-old, he was nine at the time, he said, “What’s the play about?” I said, “This woman allegedly kills both her children.” He said, “Why would you wanna do that?” and I had to think about it. We were sitting in our condo, having this conversation, and I went “Do I want to do this?” I realized that the premise of the play is a great launching-off point for a much bigger conversation about truth, and I only learned this by trying to answer his question. This is a play about truth and the pursuit of truth, and the importance of truth, and that excited me very much. I would do this play again in a heartbeat because it feels even more relevant today than it did a year ago when we did it.
Do you find that having to explain to your kids why you’re doing something informs which projects you take?
It does, very much so. Especially because the older one is acting now as well. And he turns stuff down, or at least turns auditions down, if he’s not interested or he thinks the material is not right for him or is morally questionable. And so every single thing I do now, I think [about the fact that] the older ones going to see it. If it’s a television thing or something like that, you think the younger ones, or anyone can see it. Everything I do reflects on him, and his approval is probably the only approval I crave in the whole world. I need him to think that I’m living my life the right way, and doing the right things, and making the right choices. As actors, and as artists, the choices we make are all we have. That’s the legacy we have and the profile we build is what kind of work we choose to do. And it doesn’t all have to be earth-shattering and life-changing- entertaining people is massively important, and giving people an escape is massively important too.
You do a fair amount of film & TV work. What are some of your favourite projects you’ve done in that world?
Shortly after Taking Care of Baby, which was such a great experience, I did the best on-camera experience I’ve ever had. It’s a project that has not been released yet, called Seraphim. It’s about a father and a daughter and focuses very much about their struggles. It’s directed by a guy named Jared Pelletier, who is a full-on genius. He is someone to watch for. It was sort of a lo-fi sci-fi thriller, Julian Richings was in it, Cara Gee, a lot of great people, Thomas Olajide… I can’t say much about it, because it’s a sort of ‘reveal’ kind of thing – it’s got its own mystery to it.
What are you doing now? What’s your next project?
Right now I’m doing a TV show called Private Eyes with Jason Priestley – who I really loved as a young teenager, learning to act and seeing this guy who was Canadian on 90210. His character was so interesting. I’ve got a couple directing projects I’m developing. I work with Eldritch Theatre, so we have a couple things we’re workshopping. It’s kind of an open slate. Usually, the years where I’m doing some focus on film and TV, I have to keep blocks open on the calendar for that.
In terms of theatre work, do you have any dream roles you’d love to do?
This question gets asked a lot, and I think I always manufacture an answer that isn’t true, and I think in the spirit of the truth, I’m gonna answer this question truthfully. I don’t look at characters and think “I have to play that character”, I get excited about plays. I mostly get excited about big, huge, ensemble pieces with lots of interesting characters. And the most satisfying roles I’ve ever played have usually been the ones I wouldn’t cast myself in. Especially when I was at Shaw – when the season was announced, we’d read all the scrips, and I’d think ‘That’s a good part for me,’ and I never got those parts. I got parts I never would have considered myself for, and those are the roles in which I learned the most, and grew the most, and maybe did my best work, I think. So, no, I have plays I’d love to do – I’d love to do Our Town, I’d love to do Our Country’s Good again. I love plays about theatre, so Our Country’s Good is a great one. Marc Antony was a dream role of mine, and I got to play it a year and a half ago, which was great. I love Shakespeare. I’ve never done Hamlet – I’d love to do the play Hamlet, I like Horatio. But really, I get excited about big, energetic, powerful ensemble pieces. If I could just do those for the rest of my life, I’d be ecstatic.
Do you find that casting directors often see you differently than you see yourself?
Yes. And differently between the two media, as well. On-camera, I am an addict or a drug dealer or a petty criminal, generally. Like, nine out of 10 roles, I steal something or smoke something. Which is okay; there’s a market for that. Theatre, now that I’ve aged a bit, I think I’m castable in a greater range of things than I used to be. When I started, I was the teenager in everything I did. If there was a young guy in the play, it was generally me, in Peter Pan, Lord Of The Flies, things like that. And then I hit a point where I think I was difficult to cast because I looked really young still, but I sounded old, and my energy was old, and I had a baby and stuff like that. I don’t know how I’m castable in theatre, or how people see me in theatre. I think I like to surprise people and do things that are different from what they’ve seen me do before.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just that I think it’s amazing that you do this, and that you see all these shows and have these awards. I found out about this at 12:15 on New Year’s Day – I was in California, so there was the time difference. And I thought “what an amazing way to start the year!” I was really excited and really happy, so thank you.