Kaleb Alexander’s Outstanding Supporting Actor-nominated performance in playwright Meghan Swaby’s fantastical deconstruction of modern (and not-so-modern) black womanhood Venus’ Daughter with Obsidian Theatre Company was dynamic and versatile, leaping in and out of realism, backwards and forwards through time, across age and gender lines like they never existed at all (which maybe they don’t). We caught Kaleb the day before he left town indefinitely to look back on his final (for now) productions as a Torontonian.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I guess the first experience that I had doing theatre was when I was in grade 7, and I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was playing Bottom and I was really upset that I got to play Bottom because my teacher was like, ‘No, it’s a wonderful role! You have so much juice in it!’ and I was like yeah, but I wanted to play Lysander because he gets to kiss a girl, and of course, I wanted a girlfriend and I didn’t have one, so the easiest thing was to do a play.
Oh THAT’S why you’re an actor!
[laughs] That’s not why I’m an actor, but anyways over the Christmas break that year I had gone to Whistler with my dad to visit some friends and go snowboarding and stuff, and we’d go snowboarding and skiing all day and at night I would just spend my night learning my lines. It was so much fun to learn the lines and learn the text and after that when we ended up doing the play it was just an absolute blast. I secretly continued to pursue [acting] while I was in high school doing all this sports stuff. I would go to after school programmes at the local theatre… and so yeah, that was my first – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, trying to kiss a girl and ending up being the funny guy who just became a donkey.
Interesting, because then you’ve spent most of your career playing the Lysanders of the world.
Yeah. [laughs] That’s true! It’s funny how it all flipped. As soon as I finished school I ended up doing Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare in Action and then I ended up playing Demetrius with them as well. Then I guess it was two years ago with Ted Witzel, we ended up doing The Marquis of O. So, it was kind of like, oh yeah, he’s the Romeo! (But, he’s also a rapist.) So Ted said, “Okay, let’s play with this, let’s mess with this”, and then he did it again when we did All’s Well That Ends Well, where he was just kind of like, “Oh this is a twat that nobody will ever like, so, Kaleb, let’s make him loveable.” And it was fun. I wished to be the lover, and I became the lover, now I want to deconstruct it, and throw the book away.
Bertram is not supposed to be an unlikeable character, right? We’re supposed to like him?
No, the thing is, it’s so easy for Bertram to be just a snivelling rich boy. Just a kid who doesn’t get what he wants. It’s so easy to fall into that. But to see someone struggle with never being allowed or given the chance to make a choice for himself in a world that is – granted, he’s the upper crust right, he’s been given or handed everything – but, being given and handed everything it just means, THIS is the path that you have to take, this is the person that you have to love, this is how you have to be in this world. You can’t have male to male relationships that are beyond friendship, you know what I mean? And so you see him try and struggle with that, whereas I feel like, well Ted and I were talking about it, it’s easy for this person to just go “But I don’t want to marry her, I want to marry who I want!’” and to just easily shirk that off, that taking away of that choice. So if you don’t acknowledge that choice then he just becomes a snivelling brat. So it was fun to play with that, and try to be loveable and so on.
Right, even though a contemporary reading of it would be quite critical of him.
Right, which is why the play is also so problematic; she did rape him. Like, he didn’t consent to have sex with her, and we’re supposed to believe that everything ends up all right, because she tricked him into having sex with her? So it was a fun journey to put classical storytelling.
Who are some of the artists who’ve always inspired you?
When I was in university, my dad, who is a huge tech nerd, loved one of the writers for… it was like, a tech magazine. I can’t remember the name of the magazine. Anyways. He had also done rewriting, or an adaptation of Peer Gynt. And so, for his [my dad’s] birthday, we ended up driving down to Minneapolis to go and see Mark Rylance perform in Peer Gynt. And it was possibly one of the most stunning experiences I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m in theatre school thinking, “I know about theatre” and then, the way it was presented, the set design was just this bare boards of a farm, and then what Mark did on it was to transform it into the desert, into the ocean, into, you know, the depths of hell. And so simply! And so from then on, watching him perform, in film, and then reading about him and seeing clips of him was a super influence. He’s an incredible storyteller and performer and transforming actor. Who else was a big influence? I always kind of dreamed about Philip Akin, and who he was. And then I wrote about him… I went back to university, and I was reading and writing about “What’s the black theatre community in Canada?”
That is Philip Akin.
Right! And he does so much! Like the Black Theatre Workshop, but I was like, that’s great for the Black Theatre Workshop, but I’m not in Montreal, I’m in Toronto. And then seeing so much as I go through films that I love and going through theatre plays I love, and the more I would go out to theatre I would see him in every original production of every play that I adored. And so I was just in awe of him and everything that he does. And even from when I finished university, he would be like ‘”Hey, we’ve got this opportunity to do a workshop for Stratford” or “Let me know when you’re available, come into the office and chat”. He does that for everyone, across the board. And I know for myself, since leaving university and since getting into contact with other young black performers that have come out of that same programme, I’ve told them, “You need to go walk into this man’s office, because he will give you guidance or he’ll just have a conversation with information that you need”. And so to have the opportunity to finally be able to get to work with him was a dream. The first week of rehearsals a couple of us went out for sushi and when we sat down, I had just come back from my trip to Brazil, he told me, “You know what, the first time I went on a vacation, for myself, I think I was in my fifties, and that was the first time and that was for two weeks. It was in France visiting some friends.” And I thought, “Okay I think I need to go away and do some traveling and exploring”. I was like “I totally support that. I wish you could stay here and work with me more, but I totally respect and love that you need to do that. So keep in touch.” So yeah, that was a big influence, that one.
Well, we will return to him in a second when we talk about Venus’ Daughter, but this is actually your second My Theatre Award nomination, because you already brought it up but you were nominated for Romeo back in 2011.
Oh my god that’s right!
So what do you remember most about your Shakespeare In Action days?
Oh my god! That was such a huge learning curve. I loved that. I LOVED that. Oh my gosh, I was terrible but I loved it! There was something so wonderful that I learned during one of the greatest stories I have from that experience. One day I was doing the show and we were doing the balcony scene and I guess I wasn’t in it- I wasn’t living moment to moment and I was kind of gauging what the audience was feeling. (Of course it’s an auditorium full of 600, 700 kids). And one of these kids in the front row started throwing pennies at me. And I thought, “Yeah, I’m not in it, and he can tell.’”And it was that moment that just kinda made me realize, “Oh shoot, right! There’s a job! There’s a life I’m supposed to be living and right now I’m watching it, rather than being in it”. And in that moment I tuned out, and I stopped indulging in my own stupid thought process like “Oh these are such beautiful words I get to say” and then I got to really … I looked at the kid and I just started using him as like, “Don’t you get it, don’t you see how beautiful this woman is?” And it was so funny, because all of his friends just started saying “Ohhhh my god, he’s talking TO YOU”, and this beautiful moment just came alive with the audience. And from then on it was a constant reminder, these kids. And Michael Kelly, to his credit, made sure that these kids were on their toes, so we’d have entrances that would come right through the audience, and engage them in a way that was not like “Oh they can’t see us, we’re in the dark, they’re not a part of this”. And it was really wonderful to just feel them and know when they were with me and when they weren’t. And I remember as well, it was just such an experience because sometimes, in certain shows, I remember when I was playing a different role at the same theatre, and at the same company, and one of the leads had come off and was like, “Man, I’m about to stop the show”. And my reaction was, “What are you talking about? You can’t. You have to do this. And they’re children. So if they’re not paying attention, then there’s something going on”. He said, “They’re just being so disrespectful!” and I was like “An audience’s job, and let’s think back to when this stuff was first written, was to be entertained. And if they’re distracted it’s because you’re not entertaining them”. And that was it. You’re doing Hamlet. Doing, arguably, a very boring, long play for a fifteen-year-old child to sit through; it is a tough job to do, but if they’re waving their cell phones around, and they’re not paying attention, then … then that’s my job. I need to do better at my job. And I learned so much about being a performer and trying to feel an audience while still staying in the role, and so it’s just a lot of craft stuff I really feel like I took from that experience, and it was phenomenal.
Your nomination this year is for Venus’s Daughter, which you appeared in alongside the playwright, Meghan Swaby. How did working so closely with the playwright influence your approach to the text?
Meghan was lovely, Meghan was absolutely lovely. I know Meghan and we’ve worked together before, but it’s always tough with a playwright who’s also the lead character in the room, and she did such a beautiful job. I guess she’d also worked with Akosua [Amo-Adem] and Philip [Akin] so long with the project, that she was so clear about ‘I’ve got my writer hat on, I’ve got my actor hat on.’ And everyone was such a wonderful team, that she was like, “Okay, what does this text actually mean? I know that I wrote it, but what does it mean now that I’m the actor doing it?” Because she had watched other actors do it in the workshop productions or developments of it. So it was wonderful to explore blank slate, carte blanche, with “I don’t know what the playwright is saying so what am I trying to say as the actor saying this?” It was fun to get to work with her in that dynamic, because she had a big job in that play.
You played multiple roles in that production, including a few women. How did you approach portraying something so outside your own experience?
It’s funny… it’s very very very funny. So with the first girl that I had to play, the girl trying on bras in the dressing room, I also used to bartend at a gay nightclub so I met a lot of drag queens, and for me she was just one of those queens. I was trying to think, “Well, what would I be like if I was that?” So not necessarily a woman, I mean, it comes out as everyone perceives me as a woman, but I was just thinking more about “What would that queen do?” Because I’ve seen so many be snippy, with “Bitch please” and all that stuff come out, and it was so funny. And even when we were doing the audition and chatting with Philip, he was just like, “I’m gonna let you, I’ll just let you do that. I’ll pull you in, but you just fly and we’ll do the edges.’” And it was so funny because Akosua, and Meghan, and AC were all there and they were just like “Yes! Yes! Oh my god, oh my GOD I know that bitch!” And so it was fun, it was just fun to play around with that. And also, arguably, that character was a stereotype. She’s a real person, granted, but we needed to go bold and then figure out who she is as a person. So I started off with really broad strokes and then turned her into a human, or tried to anyway.
And then, with the little girl, I’m the oldest of my cousins, and I did a lot of babysitting for a lot of my little cousins, and there’s only two boys now, but it was just funny to think about when I used to play with them – the beauty of children is their innocence, and their desire to question everything: the world around them and the people and everything. And so it was kind of like, yeah she’s a girl but a child is a child is a child. Arguably boys are rougher but so are girls too, right? So it was just tapping into that. I just remember, god, one of my cousins, Fay, they live out on this island and I remember we would go on hikes, or go berry-picking, and she was just so sweet, she and her sister, were just so sweet. When they would pick berries, they would just look at some of the berries – and they lived in the country so it’s not like they hadn’t seen berries before, it’s what they did all the time – but just watching the delicacy with which they would touch stuff and look at things and I was just kind of like, yeah, that’s who I need to be, I need to find that person in them in the character.
Tell us a bit about working with Philip on that show. What were some of the more important conversations you had during the rehearsal process?
Phil’s wonderful, he had a great conversation at the beginning of the process, just letting everyone in the room – because there were also some assistant directors, and people that were just auditing to watch Philip direct and to be a part of the process – and he spoke to us all about the way in which he creates a piece or directs a piece and it was this wonderful image of this rope, and he’s like “We’re all building this rope and when I say upstream or downstream, think about where this thought or this question will lead you further down in the process of the play.”And so he kind of just gave us all these key words and key notes to think of when we’re thinking about the piece and thinking about everyone within this piece. So, we all have journeys but all of our journeys wind together to make a really taut, beautiful rope. It was this wonderful idea to start a process instead of coming into the project with your own personal research for the show, and then going “Okay, this is my journey, this is my journey, this is my journey’”and then you ask questions on your way about how people relate to you. But it was really wonderful in the way that he started the journey by saying, “This is all one journey, and we are all parts of it”. It was this really great way of keeping everyone involved in everyone’s process. It was really fun and super respectful, and very … not safe but, I mean, it was safe but it was really just a generous room that he created on that first day. And also he was like “Some days I may be coarse, some days I may be not, but you know it’s all in love” and it’s funny because sometimes in a black room it’s just… the energy is different. And having the opportunity of having so many black people in one room is such a different rehearsal space. I had the same experience with Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God and it was just like, “Oh my god there’s like twelve, fifteen black people in this room, and never in a show do you get more than one, even”. And again working with Venus was just like, “Whew, okay let’s breathe”. And we can talk about things in a different way. The explaining of hair, the explaining of being, of heritage, is so different. Because now we’re speaking less to inform but more like, “This is my story”. I mean, not like “This is my black story” but like, “This is my story and we don’t have to think about colour in the same way”. So it was just a weird, awesome dynamic to have in that room, and to have someone lead it in such a generous way was really a treat, so.
On that topic, you wrote a really beautiful piece for Intermission Magazine over the summer, about diversity in Toronto theatre. What are some of the ways you think we have improved over the last few years, and ways that we still need to improve?
There’s constant improvements. And it’s really clear to see that there are so many improvements that have happened over the years, in terms of the audiences that are coming out to see theatre and to involve themselves in the arts, and the communities that are being created around them, and to watch companies like fu-GEN and Native Earth grow, and to watch Obsidian and Black Theatre Workshop, and to watch these companies grow and constantly involve themselves with younger actors and performers and writers and so on. And watching that happen with those theatre companies is beautiful. And to watch them get awards for – Buddies in Bad Times as well – is really great. And it’s hard to describe what needs to be improved. I don’t know what needs to be improved; there’s always room for improvement everywhere, right? I guess… I can only speak from when I saw theatre as a child to when I was learning about it in university to now that I’m in it. And when I saw theatre when I was a child, it was predominantly white. I was fortunate to have two parents that were very involved in making me aware of diversity. Like, my mother would put down a magazine and say “How many black people do you see in this magazine?” And this is why I read Ebony magazine because how many black people do you see that are beautiful and successful? And so that was always a present thing for me in my parenting – my parents parenting me – and so being able to identify with a lot of those characters who changed over the years, because there’s always that – for people of colour, I feel there’s always that gaze when watching something. I mean, this is what I do and this is what my mother does, I know she does it, and it’s like, “Okay, this is an awesome story”. I love The Matrix. I love… well name any movie, and there’s one wonderful black character and it’s either the storyteller, it’s the best friend, it’s the best friend’s friend, it’s the magical person, the sage, the villain, the gangster, the thug and… that storytelling, yes, is still present. There are more colours inhabiting those roles which is important. There are more and more people trying to tell stories that are not of that same mold, and you can see that. Ted Witzel, this white, queer male, is directing All’s Well That Ends Well in the summer with a leading female of colour. It’s happening.
But you also have other things like, don’t get me wrong, I love Canadian Stage, because they’re a wonderful company and they’re trying to do a lot of stuff, but you also look at the base of each one of their projects comes from a white person. Like yeah, okay, but can you expect those people to do any differently? Because that’s their gaze and that’s where they’re coming from. So for any real, big, monumental changes you need institutions like that to be run by people of minority or of colour or whatever. And I’m not saying just because we need to have an Asian person or a South Asian person to run the company, we need Ravi Jain to be the head of Canadian Stage just BECAUSE, like no, they should be deserving, but it’s a slow process and it’s gonna take time. But like I said, Obsidian, fu-GEN, Native Earth, and multiple other theatre companies are getting the space that they need to be heard and be seen. And getting the funding to do things which, I think the Canadian Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council are doing, they’re making opportunities so that these people can make art so that they can have a place in the scene.
To go back to Venus’s Daughter for just a second, did you have any favourite moments in that production?
Yeah! My favourite moment was totally when I became the Uncle. And I come on, and Meghan’s baby, Akosua, Meghan’s at home, I can’t remember the names right now… the main character is at home and getting ready to go to the funeral of her grandmother, and while they’re getting ready, the creepy uncle walks in and just kind of oddly hits on the girl, right? So this is a man who is family, who’s kinda going, “Mmmmm you lookin’ good girl,” and giving this creepy side-glance, and it’s so telling for the audience and what it says about people and how terrible we as humans are and how far we still need to go. That’s the sad part. It was beautiful because it was kind of funny, but it was also so sad that everyone had someone like that or knew someone like that in their family. I wish it wasn’t such a funny joke. But it’s also a cultural thing, and there’s plenty of terrible history in Jamaica don’t get me wrong, but everyone has a creepy uncle. And that was my favourite terrible moment.
We already talked a little bit about High Park this summer, you were doing arguably the most famous play in the history of English language theatre, and one of the most obscure – what’s more difficult, the iconic or the obscure?
I wasn’t really doing much in Hamlet, to be honest with you. I came on, said goodbye, and then died at the end of the play with a giant sword fight. In terms of those productions they were also so vastly different productions in terms of how the cast was used, and the story telling style, because granted we’re kind of following Bertram and Helen’s journey, but we’re following them as they’re being very much guided by their circumstances and by the people around them. And there’s so many people involved in their movement in that piece, and there was so much movement that Ted was just like, “Okay everyone’s on, everyone’s on, how can we get as many people on to fill this beautiful space?”. And then, in Hamlet, there’s just so much that went into the journey for that character, because it is really him and him struggling, his struggle with the choices – what choice not to, and to, make. And so it was just different journeys. And they were presented in two completely different ways. Whereas I feel like Birgit [Schreyer Duarte] was trying to do something that was a more classical, “This is this room, we’re now in this room, we cannot see people who are not in that room”, whereas Ted was just kind of like, “Uh, this is a mess, uh this is kind of a different mess” and the space was just organized differently. And it was much more non-linear. So they’re both equally difficult, because with the contemporary and ‘classical view’, well, they both have their difficulties and their challenges. It was interesting because I got to read about India and Australia during most of Hamlet. And then I would warm up and then I would go on stage and die. It was great!
You’ve worked with Ted before. What is it about his directorial style that works for you?
Um, you kind of just have to trust him. Which I’d like to believe we’re all very good at but we’re not. And the first show that we did together, which was The Marquis of O, and I didn’t really know him from Adam. Then when we met it was clear that Ted and Lauren [Gillis] were very intelligent and very wickedly off-the-wall crazy as well, and I was like, “Okay, cool, I know crazy, I’ve worked with crazy”. But I didn’t understand the brilliance of it until we got on stage and had our first audience for Marquis that I was like, whoa, there are seven different kind of stories that we’re doing – because there were so many layers put in to each show. And so much thought, to the point of like “You’re moving here, for this reason, and this reason and this reason, because it will affect what our psychoanalysis of Schrödinger’s cat is in the next seven scenes” or something right? And I didn’t realize that because we were rehearsing in shoebox rooms with chairs that on stage ended up being these nine-foot by eight-foot tall flats that moved around and there was a smoke machine and there were lasers and projections on these giant flats. And there’s so much storytelling and so on, but there was so much meaning and so much purpose and so much deconstruction of a classic story that I just had to trust and go with it and was like “Whatever you need man.” And it wasn’t until we did that first show that I was like, “Oh, okay you know your stuff, I just have to go along with it.” Because like anything, you kind of just have to fall and close your eyes and hope you land on your feet. And it was very similar with All’s Well That End’s Well where it was like “You know, I might not get this now but it will make sense and it will all become clear.”
You mentioned the big fight in Hamlet. Simon Fon choreographed a big duel between you and Frank Cox O’Connell’s Hamlet and your Laertes. How did you incorporate the physicality and training that defines that scene and Laertes in general into your interpretation of the character?
Simon’s wonderful, and I’ve literally worked with Simon for the past ten years from my grade eleven entry doing Pirates of Penzance with eighty kids onstage in high school to doing Romeo and Juliet to doing Macbeth to doing all of that stuff. So he really knew me physically, so he was like “We got you, let’s just make sure everyone else is in on the game.” So it was cool, and fun, and one of the great things about working with Simon is that he would have the general wash of what the fight would be, but the individual choices of how we would get the swords or how we would change things, he would ask questions like, “Well what would Laertes do? Why?” And so, what Birgit made us do would be to ask us questions at the beginning of the process of what she thought everyone’s backstory was, so we created this whole bio for each one of these characters, and then broke it down in the fight, and seeing how or if they played out properly or well in the fight. So what we had started off playing with was that we had been childhood friends and it was more jealousy like “I don’t want you with my younger sister because I know you, you twat. I know me, I know you, so don’t… that’s my sister, you don’t fuck around with my sister.” And so it gave it more sense, for me, of why there’s zero conversation, really, with Hamlet, that Laertes had. It was just like “No, I have no respect for this human being. You may be the king but I’m going to France, and y’all can go fuck yourself.” So every beat became very clear.
Do you have any dream roles you’d like to tackle?
Any dream roles… no. People always ask that question and I don’t ever have a dream role. I don’t know, I guess there’s stuff that I wanna do, and I’ve gotten a chance to do a lot of it, but maybe on a bigger stage would be cool. I’ve always loved violence, and doing violent things, and I’ve wanted to do it with a bigger stage, and I ended up doing an opera…Hercules, yeah! And I ended up being a soldier, and this wonderful woman, she’s a soprano. I forget her name – yeah she was just … wow. She had the most beautiful voice. But she was also four months pregnant. And the director, Peter Sellars, was like “I just want you to throw her down, put that gun to her head” kind of thing, right, and she’s got a bag on her head and stuff like that. And I was just like “Uhhh okay,” and there was no fight choreographer, and I was just thinking “What would Simon do, what would Simon do, what would Simon do?” And so I threw her down and oh, I remember it was one of the dress rehearsals, and they don’t really rehearse that much, because it’s opera, and I did it on the wrong melisma, and I just forced her down, and she was trying to fight it, and I was just like ‘”No” kind of thing, and it was at the end of it, where they’re just like “Yeah, so, you just have to wait one more beat, you were almost there…” and I was like [gasp] “Oh my god! Is she okay? Are you okay???’” And everything was safe and wonderful, but 3000 people for every show was an incredible experience, it was so awesome. And terrifying. I was more terrified for the baby, like my energy was just holding that baby meanwhile I was throwing it around. So yeah, bigger audiences? I don’t know. The more interesting the characters, the more fun it is to do. Doing boring stuff is boring. [laughs] It’s so much more interesting to have a conversation with a director where you get to talk about why they want to do this play. For example, “Well Shakespeare’s free, and people will buy tickets to it” is not a reason for me to do any show. I don’t care if it’s Othello. Othello is a show I never want to do. I never want to play Othello. That’s my answer to the anti-question right. Because… I don’t want to play Othello because guess what? Everyone actually wants to play Iago. Let’s be real. Who wants to play the most evil character in all of Shakespeare? Or who wants to be the one who gets duped?
So you are leaving town and not doing theatre for a while?
I’m going to do theatre, I just don’t know where, or how, or when.