My Theatre

17 April 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Joshua Browne

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

Joshua Browne is a past Supporting Actor nominee and Outstanding Production winner who is nominated again this year in two different categories for his leading roles in Outstanding Production nominee Byhalia, Mississippi with Cue6 Productions (Outstanding Actor) and The Queen’s Conjuror with Circlesnake Productions (Outstanding Ensemble), which he also co-wrote and produced in a watershed year for him as a multi-hyphenate theatre creator.

So catch us up on what you’ve been up to since the 2014 Series which is the last time we talked to you.
Last year was a good year! It was a big year for me. I joined Circlesnake, I became a full member of the company, I became the Artistic Producer over there with Alec [Toller] running the place, so that feels really good. I have done a number of productions with them, and Alec and I get along really well, work really well together. We have a similar ethos in terms of the kind of work we want to make. I started getting into the producing side of things while working on Byhalia, Mississippi with Cue6 last year, and I found that I really liked elements of it. I think, like a lot of people, you get out of school and you think ‘I want to be an actor! I don’t want to produce anything!’ and of course, that’s what we’d all like to do, maybe, but to get the work you’ve got to make the work sometimes. I mean, I’m not the most personally organized person in the world, I’m better than I used to be, but I’m generally kind of a mess in terms of scheduling and well, just living, so I thought “producing isn’t for me- you have to be on time, you have to do stuff”. And that’s true, and it’s helped me be better at that. But the other side of it is talking to people, and getting people excited about what you’re doing, and that I’m good at. I’m good at chatting with people and telling them what I’m so excited about, and I think that’s somewhat infectious. So I joined Circlesnake as Artistic Producer, so that’s nice to have a feeling of ownership over the work. It’s been lovely – Alec and I are friends as well, and it’s been a really lovely negotiation to figure out. And we’re still figuring out what my role in the company is, how he can maintain his feelings of ownership and generation, and I can also have mine, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m working for him, and that it’s his company but it’s starting to feel like our company which is great.

With that company we did Queen’s Conjurer as you know, in November, which was nuts! It’s the first time we’ve written something in period- or in a very specific, long time ago, very much changing the language period. It was also the first time we wrote a first draft of the script before we started generating material with the actors. Generally we write a structure and then we improvise and then we write a draft out of that, but because of both the story points as well as the language, and just how intricate that story was – a lot of threads – so we really wanted to have something solid. And terrible! We wrote a vomit draft that was like, ‘this is what the story might be, but it’s not gonna be!’ so you know, there were a lot of lines that were placeholders, there were scenes, acts, that were placeholders, but those need to start from there.

And I was out east all summer with the Watermark Theatre Company, which was a lovely experience being away from the city for a while, out in Prince Edward Island. I got to play Tom in The Glass Menagerie there, and Dr. Bradman in Blithe Spirit, which was a lot of fun, working with Edward Kinsella, who directed Blithe Spirit. He does a lot of stuff here in town, I think. They are just lovely humans out there and it was a really great process artistically, and nice to be away from the city, and to just be an actor for a while and not wear any other hat. I was writing a bit, but it was a nice break. And there’s something about being on contract while away that’s really nice too, and a team of people who are new to you, and most of them are not from there either, so you’re really digging each other really hard – that sounds horribly, horribly sexy, but you become really fast friends which is really lovely.

And Byhalia, Mississippi was at the beginning of the year, and… oh god, now I’m going to piss people off by not mentioning other projects I worked on, but I’ve probably talked for ten minutes already, so.

How’d you get involved with Byhalia, Mississippi?
I was originally just going to help produce. Jill Harper from Cue6 and I are good friends, she and Christine [Groom], who run the company together, along with Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman, who lives in Chicago, we talked about me helping them produce the show. And then I read the script, and I basically just said to Jill, ‘you’re gonna let me read for this, right? Because it’s right up my alley, it’s a young, passionate, dealing with a huge amount of loss, emotional dude’ and I was like, ‘you have to let me read for this,’ and she very graciously let me do so. And then, at the end she was like, ‘yeah you have to do this.’ It was a good fit, it was great, it was a really great process, it was one of the most fun times I’ve had working on stage in a very long time, and maybe in my life. I’ve worked on a lot of great projects in the last few years, but that one was really special: new project, new script, dealing with stuff that I really care about, social issues that I really care about, as well as interpersonal ones. Working with Claire [Armstrong], and Mazin [Elsadig], and Virgilia [Griffith], and Kyra [Harper], and Jill, and Christine, the whole team was just dynamite. It was a real privilege.

That show was a part of a simultaneous premiere, right?
Yeah, it was premiering in seven cities, if I remember correctly. I think four were full productions and three were readings, if I’m getting the numbers right. But all of them were in the States. We were the one Canadian production. Evan Linder who runs, I think it’s New Colony Theatre, I think that’s the name of his company, but if I’m messing that up. He’s the playwright, and the Artistic Director of the company, and so he set all that up.

Did you get to talk at all with the people playing your part elsewhere?
Yeah! Well, Evan was playing my part in his production. Yeah, so the playwright, which was cool. Also he’s from very close to that area so the dialect was something that I was really really lucky to talk to him about, because that’s his dialect. I mean, not anymore, he’s in Chicago, and he’s left some of his accent behind, but he knows what it sounds like and he can dip into it and as an actor dialect is so tough to get right, and it’s so important to start early and to really immerse yourself. Because otherwise, everytime you get upset, or angry onstage, then all of a sudden the accent’s gone. So it was great to talk to him about the dialect as well as about the play. It was less talking to him about my specific part, and more about talking to him as a playwright. As a company we got to talk to him about, ‘hey this part feels weird, what’s going on here, how can we massage this if it needs to change,’ he was really open to changing stuff. But it’s lovely to have the playwright be able to explain to you what they were thinking.

Was it somewhat different approaching the text from a Canadian perspective when it is such an American-rooted piece?
Yes and no. Certainly all the issues they talk about are issues here, and that’s something we talked about a lot. There might be a different flavour to the racism in Canada, and to the systemic inequalities we have here. To be honest – and I’m not an expert on this stuff, I do read about it and am interested in it but – I think the differences are more perception than reality. I think because we didn’t have the same scale of an economy built on slavery, a country built on slavery… I’ve talked to people who didn’t think that Canada had slaves, which is not true at all, we definitely did. We’ve certainly got our unique relationship as a colony, a colonial country, to both the Indigenous population here as well as those that were brought over and kidnapped to work. You hear Americans especially talk about how it’s black versus white down there and up here it’s not, and well, you know, that perception might make that true to an extent but talk to some black people who live in Canada. My partner happens to be black, and we talked a lot about her experiences. It’s alive and well – racism, I mean. And the play discussed these things in such a beautiful way, because it wasn’t just about racism, it was also about forgiveness and fidelity, and social change in general. And it discussed these things in a way that was so intimate and beautiful. And the more intimate and personal those things can become, and the more detailed, the more they ring true, they become universal. We talked about the fact that it’s an American play and obviously we’re doing different accents, but I don’t think it makes it less relevant at all. If anything it adds to the sense that it’s neat to see stuff from a different place, but of course we’re starting to see more Canadian content now, which is great. It’s nice to get into a different world, that’s what the theatre’s for.

In participating in a world premier, especially when concurrently the part is being played by the playwright elsewhere, did you feel that you had less interpretive license for the part than you would with say, if you were playing Tom in Glass Menagerie (which is so established that you can really play with it)?
No. I don’t think you ever can. I think that there’s what’s on the page, and there’s what’s inside of you, and you’re trying to bring those two things together. And so if you’re going to keep that honest, interpretation is a really dangerous game. ‘This is my interpretation’ – that’s imposing something as opposed to discovering something. Now I know we start talking semantics really quickly, which is why actors, including myself, are really boring to listen to talk about acting. Rarely do you hear something really insightful about acting. Maybe interesting anecdotes! We like hearing about what happened on set, but in terms of how to act, when you do just explain it, it’s boring. But I digress.

But even in terms of that line, of applying yourself to the role. So you’re applying Josh to the character of Jim (as opposed to applying Evan to Jim), what was different about your Jim from Evan’s Jim, or George’s Jim?
That’s a really good question for Jill Harper who went down to see Evan’s Jim. I didn’t see Evan’s Jim. I wish I had, but I couldn’t make it down to Chicago. You’re creating something in the room, with other people. My Jim is as much dependent on Claire’s Laurel as it is on me. I don’t have anything to compare it to. What’s on the page isn’t a person yet. It’s a set of lines, and, hopefully if it’s well-written then it’s a really clear roadmap to a set of motivations. If I gave you the script of Byhalia, well you’d probably picture me now because you’ve seen it, but if you hadn’t seen me do that part you would be picturing a human. The way the delivery, the beats between things, whether something is fast or slow or loud or soft… there might be a roadmap for that in the script, but it’s just a map. So in terms of approaching it versus approaching something like Tom, I would say it’s nicer because I don’t have anyone else’s Jim ringing in my head. You know I’ve seen John Malkovitch do Tom. I was careful not to watch it in the months leading up to my time doing the part, but it’s nice when you get to be the first on something, and when you get to have a conversation with somebody else who’s being the first on something. I saw a little clip of Evan from a promo that they did, and it was wild. I didn’t watch it until after we were closed. Because I just, I’m not a fan of having other people’s words ringing in my head. And they were wildly different, for one thing he could get away with mumbling more, because he was doing it in America, and he had more facility with the accent. The one thing with the Mississippi accents is that we push it so far until it’s unintelligible… but there’s an entirely different cadence, an entirely different feel to him, even in that one scene. And an entirely different feel to the scene! Because he didn’t have Jill… he had, I believe his name is Tyrone Phillips, who directed it down there. It’s just a completely different show. And talking to Jill about having gone to see it, it was just a completely different show. I wish I could give you more detail but I never saw it.

You and Claire had such a really lived-in chemistry, as if you’d been together for years. How did you guys develop that closeness?
Claire makes it easy. Working with people, what you want is for people to be present, and in the moment. And Claire not only is, but also taught me a lot about being better at that. People talk a lot about emotion, and being emotionally full, which is great, and if you can’t do it, you’ve got to learn. But I think most actors are pretty good at playing emotions, and some are really good at letting emotions fill them up, but to play the actual moments, moment to moment, so that you’re really having a conversation up there, that’s the hard part. And it’s also the job, and the difference between – ah, I think it was Mr. Nappoholics Anonymous, Tony [Nappo], who said something in one of the first [columns] that has stuck with me, how 90% of actors can go out and – I’m paraphrasing here – and play something, and make a set of choices, and fulfill those choices. The other 10% are the ones that can just be up there, making decisions in the moment. And actually really listening, and talking. Working with Claire, and with Jill, and just everybody on that show, but working so closely with Claire… but to answer your question, that’s where that chemistry came from. She sets the bar really high, in terms of being really present. And I know when I’m there and when I’m not. And no matter how good you are, you’ve got moments of not being there. And we’re buds, we’ve known each other a long time. We’ve never dated, which helps. As much as there’s tons of love there, and she’s certainly a very attractive woman, but there’s never been a weirdness there which is really nice. So that helps, but there’s a real comfort, a lot of jokes.

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Oh gosh, I don’t know, a thousand of them? The fights were a lot of fun once they started really living, once they started changing every night. Where, from moment to moment, you know, one night this would be really loud and angry and crazy but full and honest and the next night it would be a lot more subdued, and a lot more twisting the knife at each other, those were a lot of fun. The ending of that play is beautiful, and the final scene where we’re sitting on the roof, smoking the joint, and there’s so much said about the relationship, and actually so much of it is unsaid. She says ‘tell me something true’ and he says ‘I love you,’ and that’s the moment where you’re like ‘ohhh he might forgive her!’ And the moment when the baby starts crying, and he – nobody’s gonna know what the hell I’m talking about if they haven’t seen the show – the baby starts crying and he passes her the joint and is like ‘I’ll get it’ and at the very end he’s looking down at this beautiful little baby and is like ‘you’re my stupid baby’ … I’m getting choked up even thinking about it. So to finish something off like that every night is really, it’s a joy, it’s a lot of fun.

photo by John Gundy

You also co-wrote and performed in The Queen’s Conjurer this year. Tell us about the genesis of that show.
Alec brought the idea of John Dee to me, and was like, you know, ‘I’d like to do a show about this’, and we just went down a Wikipedia hole, and this guy is rad so we started reading some stuff on him. I’m sure Alec and you talked about why he really liked him [Ed. Note: we did], so let me say that as much as I’m every bit the nerd that Alec is when it comes to wizards – I play D&D once a week and I love that fantasy side of things and I’m a big history nut – but for me it was mostly the interpersonal conflicts, and just – what was he doing? We’re working off historical records, so when a fortune-teller, a guy who’s scrying the voices of angels, starts speaking in Greek, a language he does not purport to know, to his transcriber, telling him from the angel not to trust the scryer, like, what are you doing?? And so it was this really fun Gordian knot of humans to try to unravel and it was a great place to jump off of.

We brought people on, and started the development process and we went through a lot of people, talking to a lot of people about John Dee. Not that Tim [Walker] was in any way our millionth choice, he’s lovely and we might have thought of him quite early, but you start looking around. But yeah we had Andy Trithardt in the development process which was great but then he had to drop out, which happens. And then we had a big audition room, and we had a lot of people come in, and then we thought, well, what about Tim? Because he wasn’t, to be perfectly candid, he wasn’t the first thought in terms of type. He’s this scholarly, imperious, high-status… and Tim has made a good career out of playing pretty low-status characters. That’s his bread and butter and he’s really good at it. He’s also a really good actor and can stretch himself. But we had him come in and read and we were like: yup. And again, presence was so much about it. He was one of a few people, not the only one, but one of a few that I was like ‘yes, now we’re playing a game.’ Because I read with people for the audition which was really nice too, as someone who gets to help with casting, it was nice to know what it feels like to play that ping-pong up there.

Alec mentioned that you were always going to play Edward Kelley. What attracted you to the role?
I’ve always found pain attractive, which is so weird to say out loud and sounds so ‘uhh I’m such a struggling artist.’ But I’ve always found pain to be a really attractive jump-off point. Pain really is just emotional complexity. There’s certainly searing, mind-numbing, one thing kind of pain, but I think a lot of the pain we go through as humans is really complex. The long-term insecurities, the things that drive us to do the things we do that may not be good for us, the complex emotional lives that we lead. It’s compelling stuff, it’s interesting. And part of investigating it with someone else is investigating it for yourself. Humans are really really cool, and really complex, and messed up, and interesting. And Kelley is tortured. If you were to look at casting break downs, ‘tortured poet’ is my bloody hit. That’s what I end up going out for a lot. The supernatural aspect of it as well was really neat, and the line between whether he’s just a charlatan who says he can talk to angels, or he believes it himself, I leaned towards the latter.

I’m really excited to look at that project again. It’s not done. It was just the first iteration. That’s something that I feel we – I’m really proud of the work we did – but I also want to go further with it. We talked to a lot of people and there was a lot of feedback about the show about the charlatan thing being hinted at. And we thought we’d have to work really hard to just make people not think ‘oh, this is dumb, these people are dumb, like John and Jane Dee are stupid because they’re being duped by this guy who says he’s talking to angels’. We thought we’d have to work really hard at that, because most people don’t believe in angels these days, and certainly don’t believe that regular people can talk to them. But we found, through doing the show actually, once we had the costumes, the language, the world, that that actually wasn’t a huge leap for people to make, and so maybe we had more room than we thought to play with this idea of, is he lying, or is he not? So that’s something I’d like to layer in more.

How did you approach capturing that type of language, and writing that as contemporary people?
I am a big word nerd. I love words. I’m that nerdy kid who started reading when I was three and a half… I mean there’s a lot I’m not good at in life, I’ll say that, but words are the thing that I … I was a super socially isolated kid. I was a ballet dancer in a small hockey town. So I did not play well with others, even though I wanted to. They didn’t play well with me. So I retreated into books a lot as a kid. So the connotative values and the physical values of language are things that I both really enjoy and because of that I’m pretty good at it. The way a word feels versus its synonym is really important to me. So we knew that we didn’t want to do Middle English because that’s insane, or even early modern English like Shakespearian, that would be nuts. We didn’t want to do it in verse, because once again, just not our bag. Beyond that we wanted it to be kind of old-timey, because it’s weird, if they’re speaking in completely modern parlance so it’s things like intead of ‘maybe’ you say ‘perhaps’. But then curating that and ‘saying okay, we said “perhaps” sixteen times, and you can hear the writer there’, you know? So it was a negotiation as well, between me and Alec. And not just Alec but once we got our actors on board, all of our actors were really great at being like ‘this feels weird’ and sometimes it was like, ‘yup that feels weird because it’s not a modern parlance and you have to figure out how to inhabit it’, and sometimes it was that it feels weird because it’s weird and so let’s change it. So we went for old-timey but it was also important that it feel natural and from what I heard from most people it succeeded in that respect. The largest heaps of praise we got for the show were for our language.

You mentioned you started as a ballet dancer. How did you manage to leave behind that strict physicality of someone who has a dance background?
I mean, I don’t think that when ballet is good it is all that stiff. I know what you mean, that there’s … well… sure, yeah. The thing is that I’m not a ballet dancer anymore. And I don’t have the posture I had when I was. Which part of me is lamenting and part of me thinks, that’s okay, I don’t look like I’m walking above everyone all the time. (Not to be unkind to ballet dancers, they’re lovely.) For me it was about, with Jim, it was less about being relaxed, and more about being still. And just embracing stillness, and stillness without stiffness. I’m an incredibly physically expressive person. If I’m outside a theatre with some people talking, and I’m excited, I’m moving in a much larger radius than a lot of the other people I’m talking to. I talk with my hands, I move my body a lot when I talk. If I’m excited about something having a conversation I tend to stand up and walk around as I’m talking to people. And one thing that was fun – and Jill was a big help as an outside eye – was to find stillness. And when you’re running away from that, not because something is propelling you out, but because you’re propelling yourself away from something. That something is hard, emotionally, or hard in terms of vulnerability, and so there’s a natural impulse because things are getting intense to be like ‘yup I’m outta here!’ and to get up, and walk away from it, or make some bold physical move. So yeah, embracing stillness was a really fun thing to do.

When I talked to Alec about Queen’s Conjurer and Edward Kelley specifically, he really placed the discussion about him into a mental health framework. How did you approach capturing that struggle?
I talked a lot to people who knew what they were talking about, which was really important to me. Because I think we all have become ‘mental-health experts.’ And I’m happy about that, I’m glad that as a generation we are talking more about mental health, talking more about what we’re feeling. But I was really wary of diagnosing. I’m not a doctor. Alec is currently getting his Masters in cognitive behavioural therapy. And we certainly talk a lot about mental health just as friends. His partner is also a therapist. And it’s a fun thing, it’s an investigation, because again we just have a historical record. And so what would lead somebody to be so afraid of intimacy. Or first of all, why is someone doing these actions? What is happening here that they are so erratic, and they are so needing validation and needing these people, but then pushing them away at the same time, and acting in ways that are so anti-social and really combative. Violent, even. What’s going on in someone’s head? And there’s a bunch of different possibilities for the story you’re going to tell there. You can talk about schizophrenia if you wanted to, you could talk about borderline personality disorder, you know. And you would pick up things from talking to people, and I talked to Skye, Alec’s partner, as well as other people, as we were working through, as I was working through things, and going ‘okay, this is what this feels like’. And asking people about their clients who are going through similar things and maybe exhibiting similar behaviours: ‘Does this ring true? Does this make sense to you?’ And they say yes, or they say ‘kind of but it’s kind of like this’, or whatever. And then you take what you can use and what works dramatically and leave what doesn’t. You’re not beholden to anything beyond it ringing true for people. We talked a lot about borderline personality disorder. There was a line a friend of mine used, talking about people who are emotional burn victims, that any emotional intimacy elicits such a strong response because they are so traumatized. Did Edward Kelley have borderline personality disorder? Well, first, it didn’t exist back then, as a diagnosis. Second, I’m not qualified to diagnose anybody. Was the idea of him as an emotional burn victim useful for me? Absolutely.

What’s your next project?
I’ve got some stuff coming up on the producing side with, well we’ve got Slip going up in March at Tarragon, a remount of a Circlesnake show that we’re very excited for. We’ve got Special Constables coming up at the Fringe, and we’re working on a new project, we’ve got a long timeline on it which is really nice. And we think it’s going to be called Descent.

Right now I’ve got a new agent, which is great, so I want to be focusing on film and TV for a little bit, and giving that a shot. I’ve never put a great deal of effort into it, I’ve been theatre guy for a really long time. I just did a short film that was really fun with a young talented filmmaker named Michael Tobin, and actually Tim and I were in that together, along with a friend of ours Tennille Read. So really excited to see what comes out of that, to see the finished product there.

I’ve got plans to travel this year. My partner and I are talking about going down to Brazil to visit a friend who moved down there, and taking it a little slow right now, which is really nice. Getting my life together a little bit. I think it’s really easy to be focused on being productive and it’s also really important to be healthy. So I’m doing a little more right now to take care of myself and worry less about achieving all the time. Which, conversely, a lot of the time you end up achieving more because you’re in a healthy place and you’re doing things for the right reasons and you’re chasing after the right dragons.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Oh gosh. Well it’s certainly an honour to be nominated. It’s so lovely to be recognized. A friend posted a couple of years ago around awards season that awards for art are dumb. That it’s arbitrary and subjective. And I’ll be honest, I agree with him. I also think that validation is really important for people, and I also know in this business these sorts of things, this sort of recognition, can be a light to shine on people, and for them to use in terms of promoting themselves and their work. It’s such a sea out there, it’s really hard to stand out. And so both on the end of hearing someone say ‘hey, I really like what you’re doing, keep doing it’, as well as gaining some profile in an industry that is so obsessed with that. It’s really lovely. And the Awards Show is always fun, because it’s just a big party with a lot of friends!

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