Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.
Jesse Aaron Dwyre won a MyTheatre Award in the second year of their existence (for the 2011 season) and has since been part of quite a few nominated Ensembles and Outstanding Productions. For 2016 he’s back in the Outstanding Actor race for his role as Bernard in Kabin/Litmus/TPM’s ambitious adaptation of Brave New World, one of our most nominated productions of the year (it’s up for Production, Director, Lighting & Sound, Ensemble, Actress and two different leading Actors- Jesse’s up against his co-star Eli Ham).
We caught up with Jesse to fill in the gaps since his last Nominee Interview Series appearance and find out what it’s like living adaptation to adaptation.
We last interviewed you in 2012 when you won a MyTheatre Award for Eurydice at SummerWorks. Catch us up on what you’ve been doing.
I did Red in Montreal at the Segal Center. And I did Tin Drum and Great Expectations pretty close together. One was at Soulpepper and one was with Unspun Theatre, so some indie theatre mixed in with larger houses as well. They were all very very different.
How did you get involved with Brave New World?
Matt [Thomas Walker, adapter/director] came to me directly. I’m not sure exactly how he found me, who he found me through, but he came to me and he said “We were thinking about you–” I think he saw The Ugly One. Because Matt had also directed and played in The Ugly One, I believe, down east, Halifax. He saw that show here and through mutual friends he got in touch with me and he said “There’s a part that I think you’d be good in, and there’s some twists and turns and I’d like to see if we could work it out with you–” I hadn’t read that book, but in doing the two other adaptations, Tin Drum and Great Expectations, it was kinda, “Yeah, let’s do another massive novel in a couple hours!” These adaptations have kind of been my wheelhouse the last couple years. Translating these massive books and stories to the stage have really been what the deal’s been since Eurydice and Ugly One.
Did you read the book in preparation for the show?
Oh yeah, yeah definitely. It was tricky, I read it really close to the rehearsal process. I wanted it to be really fresh, the images. And it wasn’t as long a read as Tin Drum or Great Expectations, it was a swifter read. So that really helped. But I scoured that book for action, for what I could use. I wasn’t looking for the descriptive stuff or the adjectives. I knew that we were going to have to get down to the action. So I kind of read the book with that scope in mind. I had just finished the book and we went into rehearsals like three days later, so it was really fresh [laughs].
What did you find appealing or interesting the most about the role of Bernard?
He’s written initially as a romantic character, I feel. That’s what Huxley wants you to think, but you realize that inside that romantic shell, he’s more ambitious than he is romantic. So when you look at classical tropes, I was looking at Bernard through the sense of, say, a forlorn lover or a guy who had unrequited love and couldn’t quite get the girl- as a Romeo type person- but then if you look at him as more ambitious- like Cassius, or an Iago who is more of a political thinker, or even some of the smaller lords in Macbeth, Lennox, and those kinds of lords who are the manipulators and political thinkers who maneuver- then, I realized, that that was where I think I wanted to put Bernard, and that’s what Huxley was after. I don’t think he could just do it, in the time period. He couldn’t do it as blatantly. He needed to disguise it a little bit as a romantic story and then put it into a more ambitious kind of character. So that was the trick I really wanted to figure out with Bernard. Hopefully we got something like that.
Psychologically he’s caught between this inferiority complex about being undersized in his community and the superiority complex of being an Alpha Plus in the caste system. How did you use that juxtaposition in your performance and really capture the tension?
Physically, that wasn’t really a problem in a sense. It was more his mental state. I wanted to put him in a bullied state. We talked about the kids who got into trouble a few years back – they were called the Trenchcoat Mafia – and how they were really just bullied into being angry, and I wanted to get that sort of feeling into his body. Mentally his mind was always going, to the point where he’s really frustrated. And that frustration, I think, came out later in the show when he actually explodes at his friends who are the worst people to explode at. You see that frustration build, almost in the sense that you see a teenager going through growth. I looked at it in classical terms. I was like, “Oh, maybe in this scene he’s like this character, oh maybe in this scene he’s like this Shakespearian character, or Chekhovian character” and I found that comparing him to classical characters helped me find what the essence of each scene was about.
How would you say your interpretation of the role differed from what someone who just read the novel might expect?
Well, I had folks come up to me afterwards or even send little notes, saying Bernard was a character that they always saw themselves as when they were going through harder times with their peers or their parents or jobs or systems, so, hmm, that doesn’t really answer that question…
Did you bring much of an interpretational eye to it or did you just try to embody what you read in the book?
Well, I read books, always, whether it was religious texts or comic books, or novels in public school, I always read them as if I’m going to play them on stage or shoot the film. That’s how I’ve always read. I think it’s partly why I act. I was always read to, by my parents, or once I started reading myself, I could always envision myself in those stories, so these are gifts, these last three or four projects, when someone gives you a book and says, “Here, be this guy” – those are massive gifts. That’s sort of the dream. I always wanted to be in period-type pieces that have resonance today and allow us to look at history and take lessons today. So, yeah, that’s a massive gift. That’s how I always read, and that’s why I’m writing a lot today, because I’m starting to find stories within myself, in my own imagery or in my own bloodline I think, that are starting to come up now that I’ve had the experience of being in these larger stories. I can almost feel my own stories coming out of the woodwork now.
Brave New World is one of our most nominated productions this year, including nominations for your co-stars Eli Ham and Zoe Sweet, plus an ensemble nod. Tell us about working with that cast.
Oh man. The whole cast – the ensemble nod, I’m so thankful for it, because Matt and Claire [Wynveen, dramaturge] and Adriano [Sobretodo Jr., producer/castmember] have been working on this for a couple years now, really hard, and they did so much of that work. We just had to come in and embody it and give it, especially the first half, they had already workshopped it. It was in decent shape.
Eli is wonderful because he’s so open and so generous, and you could see that juxtaposition of being young and innocent but also having a beastly rage buried inside that amazing body of his, so as an actor he’s just so easy to work with. Zoe as well, has the kind of, like, effervescence and, just an openness to her work. She never ever says no to anything. She’s such an amazing collaborator that way.
The whole group worked together- Matt did a really great job at using physicality and using our bodies and allowing us to use the space of Theatre Passe Muraille in a way that hopefully others haven’t used before. It’s a tricky stage, you know, you want it set up normally and we just blew the walls off it and that really helped. But the whole group was really great. It was really really fun.
You mentioned the way the stage was set up was really different for TPM. Tell us a little about the technical side of the show and the unique way that you used the space, and how lighting and sound (also nominated this year), came into the play.
Nick [Storring] and Patrick [Lavender], sound and lighting, were with us most of the time. That’s how Litmus likes to work- as a collective. We would just offer suggestions on how to play a scene and then they would build on top of that, and we really worked together. Sometimes we had ideas for lighting. Sometimes they had ideas for what we were doing. We didn’t step on each other’s toes too much. It’s always tricky once you get closer to actually presenting it. Then people have to kind of duck back into their traditional molds, but Litmus does a really good job – and I hope they continue to do it as they move forward into bigger spaces – at breaking that mold and allowing people to collaborate truly. Some of the lighting and sound sequences were brought up by the cast and some of the acting work was, you know, inspired by their sequences as well. It was a really cool collaboration. Especially in that historical space, that old fire hall slash bakery.
Tell us about working with Matt. What were some of the most important conversations you had while developing your interpretation of Bernard?
The first couple weeks were amazing table talks. You would think we were at the United Nations. We were talking about philosophical ideas and we were really trying to build the world. Three of us hadn’t been in the workshop that had previously happened. We had to rebuild a lot of the world that some of the group had already discovered initially. The Trump-Hillary election was happening at the same time so we were bouncing our ideas off of the political landscape that was pretty much up in the air at that point. It was very political but it was really inspiring, and I took a lot of inspiration from what everybody was saying around that table, which is the best way to work, as a collective especially.
How has the story of Brave New World, and Bernard’s role in it specifically, been altered by our new point of view 85 years after when it was originally written?
Especially the pharmaceutical aspect of the world, so much of it is here now. We’re living it in a way that- Huxley was so prophetic. He layered in Soma as a drug that is just taken on a daily basis, and if you think really carefully, we all probably take something, whether it’s for a headache or for birth control, or you know, something that is in our systems constantly. You could even be breathing in a certain air, or washing with water that is full of chlorine. We are living in a pharmaceutical age. And we’ve come to accept it. He was incredibly against that, and incredibly aware of it and afraid of it. He puts that in there with Soma very blatantly and I think that is an element of the show that I think was one of his largest concerns. He could see where it was going, especially with North American consumerism and the culture that we have. That’s an element of the show that I think is really prevalent, and it came completely to fruition. Which is kind of concerning, but, here we are.
Now, this might be entirely in my imagination, but – was your hair used as a metaphor? It was slicked back and heavily controlled and then, as the play goes on, the curls start to pop out. Was that on purpose, or was that just over time your hair dried?
It wasn’t anything that we talked about but, I tried to make him very contained for the first third of the show. When they go to find John, he starts to open up, and physically open up and find who he is, to when he comes back and he’s actually becoming sexually liberated, physically liberated, mentally liberated, excited. We don’t see him like that. So, hopefully, every part of my body was doing that. So, though it’s kind of funny to say, I’m really glad you said that.
With a character like Bernard, the book doesn’t really give him a definitive ending. Huxley does that with many of the characters in the book. I really wanted to give him a physical shape at the end of the show that was very different from what we saw him walk on in the first scene. So finding that arc- from toenail to last hair follicle- was something I thought about. So I’m really glad that you maybe picked up on the metaphor.
What were you hoping the audience would take away from the show?
Bernard does fight until the end. He does come up against a system that in a way is unbeatable. And in our production, he went away into a kind of freedom. He lost it, basically, and he lost. But he never stopped fighting, and I think up until the last moment of our show, he was always trying to get at that agitation that he had inside of him. So that is something that I think – there’s strength there, no matter what other people say. So hopefully all of these characters are fighting against that thing that you think you can’t beat. And that’s kind of I think one of the main themes that Huxley wanted to get across with Brave New World, was that there is hope, glimmers of hope when you’re facing large oppression, there are always glimmers of hope. You might not win, but you have to keep trying, you have to keep fighting. So hopefully that’s what we got across, all of us, the whole crew.
In the book, he’s kind of a darker character. Were you really looking to it with an eye towards humanization?
Well, Huxley didn’t write this to be on stage. He wrote it to be in our minds. And when looking at the whole arc, I thought that I needed to find points that he was not just a dickhead. And he wasn’t just arrogant, and he wasn’t always – that there was a reason for his agitation, there was a reason for his pessimism. I actually, in working with Adriano, who played his best friend, that is where I found the heart of Bernard, because he’s looking for friends, and he’s alone. I wanted to convey someone who’s alone rather than someone who’s dark or negative. If that came across as maybe a somewhat nicer version than what you read in the book, that’s okay, because the arc of what we need to show theatrically is often different from what we need to show literarily.
Did you have a favorite moment in the production?
There’s a moment, actually, that I heard, I never saw it, when Eli and Zoe are having confrontation over a Shakespearian text. I think Eli drops the book – and I heard that thump every night, which I thought was effective.
The scene where Bernard and Mustapha were kind of jostling for who was the top dog, was a tough scene to crack, but I think we found it, actually, when we started playing with the sensuality, and the manipulation of what could possibly be a sexual relationship. It’s always really fun to play that- because there’s danger in it. And the audience – you can feel them go “Oooh” -like, there’s a little shiver. That was a scene that I was really proud of because it was a tough scene to get but I think we got somewhere that was effective with it. Hopefully.
The sequence of solitude that happens in the middle of the show where everybody is isolated and it is the first time that the audience sees Bernard take Soma, physically take it and we see the effect on him. That was a section that we all put together as a dance, guided by Matt the director, and that was the section that I was really, in a sense, the most proud of. Because, he does take Soma throughout the book, but I didn’t find that it was in effective places, theatrically. So we held back on taking the Soma until a very pivotal moment and that was a section that basically is a point of no return for Bernard and I think, theatrically that really worked, and that’s a section I think that, as a group, everybody performed really beautifully in.
And what are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
Theatrically, I don’t know what’s next. It might be another adaptation, we’ll see. I don’t know. I just did a thing in Ottawa that was called His Masters Voice, for TV. For feature film, I did something in the summer where I got to play a Hungarian Astrophysicist in the 1900s. So that was really cool. I’m writing a lot, like I said. There’s I think a point where as a performer you’ve been through so many massive classical arcs that you – I really want to find some of the stories that I think are through my family and through my imagery. There’s a couple – but I know they’re a couple years away, because the more I write, the bigger they become [laughs] and I kind of write backwards. We’ll see. Performance-wise, I’m not sure exactly, right now.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
You guys do really good work, and I really thank you for seeing our shows, seeing the work, and bringing us in. These are platforms we can share ideas on, and I’m really appreciative of that. I think the whole community is.