Soulpepper Academy grad Katherine Gauthier had the role of her career thus far in 2016 when she was given the opportunity to play Nora Helmer in Daniel Brooks’ contemporary production of A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s classic domestic drama about a woman trapped by the perfect life she’s worked so hard to build and the perfect persona she’s afraid to stop projecting. Kat stopped by the Nominee Interview Series to talk about Nora’s psychological reality and her own academic pursuits.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Ooh, yes, for sure. I’ll give two options: one was the first play I saw. My grandma took me to see Phantom of the Opera. She made us get dressed up with little fake ballgowns, and little fake fur coats, and I was probably four. And it was such an event, it was so special. We were all the way at the highest balcony, and this was in Edmonton. And she got us these tiny little binoculars, and I remember this moment that I will remember for the rest of my life when he took his mask off, and I was so scared, what was going to be under the mask, and decided I would have the courage to take my binoculars and see. And it was not that bad, and I remember distinctly thinking “funny, the mask is weirder than this weird face thing that you have. Expose yourself.” That was my first memory, and the whole event was what was so special, and doing that with my grandma, and it’s funny now because my grandma – I don’t think she’s that happy that I’m an actor, but I’m “YOUR FAULT, GRANDMA!” Nana – she’s super supportive, but I think that she wishes that I would do something else. My first experience performing, I played Sophie, she’s a TV. Nuff said.
She’s a TV?
Sophie, and she was a TV. The first character I ever played was a television. And her name was Sophie. And I think I was 7. I had a duet with a lamp. And her name was Halogena. It was kind of amazing.
What actors and actresses have always inspired you, and are they the same today?
No, definitely not. I think they’re always kind of shifting. Now the people that inspire me are probably people that I work with, so people that come to mind are like Nancy Palk, she just has this incredible gravitas about her work that I kind of admire, and that I also admire who she is as a human being. Michelle Monteith, her rigour, her work ethic, Liisa Repo-Martell. Because she’s fierce, she’s so strong. I could keep going forever, there’s so many amazing women actors. Rose Napoli, Courtney Lancaster, these people are cool, strong, amazing artists. In terms of like, celebrities, probably Emma Thompson, maybe because of who she is and how she kind of comports herself, but I always find her work compelling, interesting, and she’s so powerful.
How did your experience of Soulpepper Academy influence you as a performer?
I feel like a pretty-much wholly different person since I did the Academy in almost every way. I was pursuing a degree in Psychology when I auditioned for the Soulpepper Academy, and I just sort of decided that I loved performing, there’s no place I love more than the rehearsal room, but I felt that the life was just sort of so anxiety-inducing and I felt so stressed out all the time that I couldn’t do it anymore, and also I felt like this great compulsion to not just tell stories, but kind of create stories, and help people that don’t have voices kind of find their voice, and so I always thought that I’m gonna find a way to meld my love for Psychology with my love of storytelling. So I was doing that, and I auditioned for the whole Soulpepper Academy, and as so many actors tell the stories, the ones that they’re like “whatever” are the ones they end up getting because you’re coming in, you’re not bringing this nervous energy, you’re not bringing that kind of stressed out that “I need this, please like me, please pick me” – it’s where I got it. I was flabbergasted but also like, “Why not? Let’s try.” And it sort of put me at a 180 in my life where I’m pursuing something else, and all of a sudden I was back to being a full-time performer and realizing how blessed we are as artists to do that. It was kind of remarkable for two years that my job was to study, train and be an artist, and that’s so rare. So rare, and so that gave me a ton of dignity, too, of like “Oh, we can do this”, and that’s a really important thing in society, and there are people that value that. So that alone, the worldview, and then – I think that also I’m a lot more maybe tough than I was when I went in. I think that I like the Soulpepper academy, so amazing in so many ways, but I was just getting to a point where something was going to have to change. I was living my life with a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress, and didn’t have tools to kind of equip myself – like, I’m an overachiever, I am someone who everything has to be perfect, and I’m really hard on myself. And so something at some point was going to have to give at some point, and that happened during the Academy, I just had a breakdown, like nothing was working anymore. So now I’m, like, I will never let myself get to that point, and the Academy was a safe place to explore that kind of overwhelmed feeling. So yeah. It’s like a lot of me doesn’t feel the same as when I entered it. And even something like this, I think I would have felt so much anxiety. And here I’m just kind of excited to spend this time – I would have felt so much guilt about talking so much, and feeling like “Oh, who am I, why would she want to hear,” and now it’s like “Well, maybe I’m worth something, maybe,” that’s an important part of being alive is knowing your worth, and knowing your worth. So that sort of happened, last five years.
Tell us about your MyTheatre nominated role in A Doll’s House. How is Nora’s character informed by an update to a contemporary setting?
I could talk about A Doll’s House forever. Daniel Brooks [the director] is bri-i-i-illiant, and he always thought that it was important for it to be contemporary for our purposes. He also has this amazing irreverence to Doll’s House that I think was really important – like he didn’t wanna kind of create the iconic Doll’s House, he just wanted to create a Doll’s House that was right for us in that moment, and maybe now with the exact same key we would create a different Doll’s House. But for him I think he was interested in making it contemporary for a number of reasons. One was time, he came to the project a little bit later, and so he didn’t feel like he necessarily had the time to invest in the historical time. Everything Daniel Brooks does has so much rigour and detail and precision that he’s like, “If we’re gonna do it in 1879 when it was written, then I wanna have everything be accurate and true, I don’t wanna do it half-assed.” And so he felt like for the time for the group of people, he was interested in doing contemporary re-telling, and I personally think that that was the right call for us. Namely that the first time that I read A Doll’s House, I read it out loud, and that’s a really special thing I wish – I wish that was the only way I ever counted plays. When I was reading it out loud, I knew, I knew about A Doll’s House, but I had never read it, and I was reading the part out loud where she’s the final, you know, the iconic final scene, and the things she was saying were wrecking me. And I remember just gasping, like, “What are you doing?!” and she would say things like her realization that she’d become a doll, that she’d become, she started kind of taking on the roles that everyone wanted for her, rang so true for me, and I was 24 at the time, and I had just – it was so impactful, as if the words could be my words even though I don’t have kids, and the situations were very, very different. And so I never saw A Doll’s House as “other,” I never saw it from another time. Of course, that’s so part of what makes it special, and things for us as women have changed a lot. A lot. And I’m really grateful for that. But also things for us as women have not changed as much as they should, I think, and using the contemporary setting kind of sometimes highlights the roles that we still have to play as women, as men in the page hierarchy. Daniel was really interested in how both of the main characters of A Doll’s House, Torvald and Nora, both are playing roles, and both don’t fit their roles that well, and he’s just as much of a victim of patriarchy as she is. It’s not kind of this “Oh, poor Nora,” it’s “We’re all forced in these roles that don’t work,” so Christopher Morris’s Torvald was a banker, this Bay Street kind of guy who couldn’t hack it. That wasn’t the world he was supposed to be in, but there was all these pressures that he put on himself, and that he felt that “I have to provide, I have to be this kind of man, I have to go to work, and I have to take care” – and he was crumbling under that pressure. And I think [Nora]’s an artist; I think she’s not meant to be a stay-at-home mom, I think she’s meant to be an actor, or tell stories, or be a boss. There’s just so much more in her that what she got to experience, so I think the contemporary telling just highlighted the fact that these two characters were – and the rest of the cast, as well – were all kind of stuck in this. And we still are. I still play roles all the time for people, and sometimes I’m pushing against – “Don’t make me into your little doll, don’t make me into a kind of figurehead for something, don’t – don’t treat me as if I’m a doll”. Which is kind of horrifying, but this happens, still.
Do you think that, in some ways, Nora and her story are an encapsulation of the actor’s experience?
Yeah, it certainly was for me, big-time. I think there was a time in week two that I realized, “Oh, I am a woman, and I’m working on a set made by a man, saying the words of a man, being directed by a man,” and the whole institution – Soulpepper is kind of headed and created by a man, and there was a moment where I was like “Oh my gosh, I’m a doll, and I am Nora,” and this feeling of “I don’t even have agency even as Nora” even though everyone around me was giving and Daniel was so empowering, and he really enables creativity. There’s just a realization of how even these words and the stories, it’s a male story, so that was a big challenge for me, and I’m a huge people-pleaser, so even if I’m not trying to, there are often times where I’ll be like “I just want to please Daniel, I just want to give him what he wanted, and I want to please Albert, and give them what they wanted.” And Daniel kept saying to me, “I want YOU,” like “I want you to bring what you have to bring,” and I was like “I am!” and I didn’t really know what that meant until maybe halfway through, when I’m “I play these parts for these people because I’m terrified. What it would mean to show myself? I don’t really know”. In our production at the end, Nora steps off the stage, partly because Daniel was like “How are you going to make that slamming door ring any kind of impactful way that it did back then?” So I step off the stage, and for me, any time I did that, it was like a shedding of all of the cavalcade that I play in my day-to-day life, and all the kind of roles I try to play for people, and also my life in the theatre, and the expectations I have of that. It was an incredibly cathartic experience in that way, and I think playing Nora has fundamentally changed me. Changed who I am.
How did you get the part?
God’s blessing on me. It was amazing. I just still ask myself all the time.
Did you audition?
No, I didn’t audition. In the Soulpepper Academy when I was there, because it changes every year, we started off our time with Laszlo Marton. And we started off working on A Doll’s House, and so we all did scenes for two months, and I think many academies have done that beforehand, they start and they do A Doll’s House. He does that to kind to strip us of all of our bad habits and get us ready for this two years, and I really connected with Nora, and really enjoyed my time, and had some really extraordinary kind of moments for myself, discovering what kind of artist I wanted to be and what kind of actor, and I thought, that’s great, that’s awesome, and that was the two months, and then –
And Laszlo had cast you as Nora within that?
We all were Noras. We were all Noras, we were all Mrs. Linde, we all played a bunch of different characters. Yeah, I think those are the main two characters I played. We played the kids, we were all in each other’s scenes, we were doing all these different things – and then, maybe it was like a year and a half later that I heard that they were doing A Doll’s House at Soulpepper, and I think I was instantly, “That would be awesome, but there’s no chance it’d be me, there are so many amazing women at the company,” and I was really excited to see who it would be. And then, I think it was opening night of Marat/Sade, Albert told me that I was cast as Nora, and I was like –
He didn’t offer it to you, he just told you?
Just told me. Yeah, I think it was inherent that I could say no but, obviously, I think he knew that it would be a dream come true. I think Laszlo picked me, and then Daniel inherited me. Sometimes I would wonder “would you have picked someone else?” and probably he would have, and it just happened the way that it happened.
Was Laszlo supposed to direct?
Yeah, yeah, and then because of visa issues, he was not able to do it. So Daniel inherited me.
How was the experience with Daniel Brooks different from working with other directors?
Hmm. Daniel is so capable and so – one of his many gifts is that he is – he grasps and understands truth to an insane degree. I mean, his lie detector, his kind of bullshit meter, is so good, it’s so amazing. So it’s really hard in many ways because you can’t get away with anything. But it’s so rewarding, and he’s the kind of director I loved working with. I like tough directors, and directors who push me to my limits, and challenge every part of me. I think doing a part like that is necessary, but I think Daniel’s also – he’s so rigorous, and he’s so exacting, and that bodes well with my personality, because I like being pushed and challenged, and I have a lot of bad habits and a lot of things I need to push through, and a ton of walls, and a ton of safety mechanisms to not really – even though my desire’s to expose myself and be vulnerable, I find that all of my coping mechanisms are such that it’s not as easy as – even though I want to so bad. And so he sort of whittled his way into finding the truth version of me. I think Daniel is brilliant. I think he is so incredibly kind, too, so that was an interesting combination for me, somebody who is that brilliant, that demanding, that much rigour, works so hard, demands a lot, but is so kind. He loves his actors, and he treats them with such respect, and the image I have of him has never happened, I don’t get sexual harassment, but of him holding me – that’s never happened, never held me, but that was like what it felt like the whole time – that he had me in his arms the whole time, and that he was never gonna let me mess up, and there were a couple moments. I remember one time he just came over to me and I’d started a run, and it – he’d often stop me and be like “You’re doing that thing.” I don’t even know what I’m doing. And then I think I was just at the end of my rope, and I was feeling like a failure, that I was never gonna get in, that I was going to let everyone down, and he came up to me and was like “Done yet?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” and he was like “Are you done doubting yourself? Are you done questioning yourself?” Like “Time is over, it’s time to do it,” and I think about it all the time. “Are you done?” and even to myself. “Are you done with your kind of narcissistic tape of self-criticism and stuff like that?” and “It’s time to go, it’s time to do it.” Not that it was great from that time on, but from that moment I was just trying to be done with that kind of tape. And there were so many moments like that, where he just called me out for exactly like – he saw something so true and so profound in me that I didn’t even know existed. He’s also so generous, like with his time. He would do anything for his actors. He’s like the ultimate storyteller. I would do anything for him, and do anything to work with him again. He’s extraordinary. I love him so much. [laughs]
Nora’s level of sincerity is questioned throughout the entire play. How much did you have it mapped out in your mind, exactly when you were telling the truth and to what degree you were being honest?
I came in to the first day of rehearsal, and Daniel and I had already had many, many rehearsals, just the two of us. And I had gone away, and I just worked on it for hours and hours and hours. So I had all these kind of ideas, of maps, of things like that, and then a lot of the work at rehearsal was kind of allowing her to be, and knowing that all that work was there. In terms of honesty and… that’s a really good question. I think that something that is interesting about my Nora, I don’t know if this is necessarily true of – that she often means exactly what she says, even though she’s saying a lie, but in that moment, in that split-second, that’s her truth. And Daniel often pushed me away from playing a liar. No, she’s so childlike, and she really wants to give what people want to hear, and her logic sometimes is a little bit unhelpful, so it’s not like she’s – I don’t think she would ever consider herself a liar even though unquestionably she is. She is saying things that are not true, and in another scene is saying the opposite of what she’s saying in that scene. But I think she’s like a kid trying to give the people what they want, and sometimes show off, and sometimes hide, and sometimes divert. But she’s sort of in those moments – it’s almost like she’s not lying, it’s like she’s playing, almost like she’s performing for them and kind of going, like, I’m thinking of the scene where she first sees Christine after not seeing each other for eight years, and she’s sort of showing off and trying to impress. I do that, not quite so blatantly, I don’t think I’m as much a liar, but I can see myself playing a role for someone at times and even now, like trying to adopt a role of eloquent actor- that is true, that is a version of me, I don’t know about eloquent actor, but certainly an actor that’s trying to be eloquent is a version of me. And then there’s a version of me at home, in the back, and there’s a version of me, the daughter version of me that’s quite different of the version of me that’s a friend. So yeah, I sort of see it more like that, but she’s just playing different parts and because she’s not connected to that, the real part of her, the real hunger part of her, she’s – it’s like she’s living most of her life from her chest up. She’s not connecting with the part of her that’s true, that needs something, that has a voice, so it’s all these different versions of her, it’s like, yeah. I think she also loves having secrets. It gives her an immense amount of power.
Because with Ibsen you’re always working with a translation, it’s not the most natural dialogue to deliver. How did you approach mastering that language and making it sound like words that were coming out of your mouth?
I think for something like – for doing something like Nora, you have to – at least for me – I had said the words five million times before, even before first rehearsal, and I would say them in the subway, I would say them with my mom, I would just say them because so many of them were so awkward. And because we’d decided to do it in this contemporary setting, there seemed to be a kind of dichotomy of this archaic language at times, and then the fact that we’re dressed in contemporary clothing, so for me it was just important to say those words, say those words, say those words, so it was kind of normal. And Daniel gave us a lot of license to trip over our words and go on, not to add our words to it, but just make it our own and make it sound like someone like me, and someone like all the other members of the cast. So by the time we got a show, I didn’t think of it as strange language, because we had kind of created a world within it, but I think you’re just a lot of time saying them over and over and over again until it kind of became normal.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yes, I did. I had so many favourite moments. I loved my kids, I loved these two sweet, sweet, amazing kid actors who were so talented and so boisterous and so themselves. And I loved the scenes I got to do with them, because we just got to play, and they were Lucas, who was older – he was quite shrewd, and could take direction, and was pretty – was very moldable. But my sweet Emmy, it felt like she thought I was her mom, and the way we would play was like we were actually playing, and that was something Daniel created and something that was magical about her imagination. And so when you would play hide and seek, it was like – I was actually playing – and they were both so alive, and loved me because I was their mom, and it was just – when it closed, I was like “I miss being a mom, I miss those kinds of moments,” and Nora’s not the best mom, but she certainly loves – she has a feeling of great love for those children. So those were kind of the most effortless moments. There would be some moments that were hard, and that one just felt like fun. So many of my moments with Christopher, who played my husband – he’s just so good and generous as a performer. I loved working with him, so – I think it may be a bit cliché to say the final scene, because I’m not sure if it would be my favourite moment, but working with him on that, and the realization of trying to get to him, trying to help him understand, and probably my favourite moment to watch was Damien an Oyin’s moment- that might be my favourite moment in the play- it’s their scene in act 3 where they’re exes and they have all this history, and she sort of breaks down his walls, and Damien so beautifully played this, where he let that sink in. It broke my heart the first time I saw it, and I know the first time it happened, I wasn’t in the room, and I entered in the room, and everyone was crying. There’s something so true about Damien’s performance. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than Damien Atkins, ever. Period. But the way that he allowed that kind of love to seep – to break his heart, and break him down, break down those walls, was just so incredible true. Heartbreaking. It was beautiful.
What are you up to now/next?
So, if all goes to plan, I am going to be pursuing my masters in Psychology. Hopefully continuing the work of the actor simultaneously, I know it’s a little bit ambitious, but I think that both things can really greatly inform each other, but as I said, I’m super interested in how to use what we do to maybe more tangibly serve communities that are vulnerable, and communities that don’t have voices. So great ambitions of mine, and projects I’m working on, at CAMH teaching theatre to people who have been ostracized, or don’t really fit in, and what does it mean for them to find a voice, what does it mean for them to tell their story.
I’ve always been really interested in stories that aren’t told, and people who don’t get their stories told. I think that’s part of why Nora was so challenging and so beautiful for me, that I don’t feel like a lead character. I don’t feel like a lead in my own life. I feel like I am a secondary character in my life, and always happen, and that’s sort of the part, a role that I’ve decided to take on. No one else has put that on me, but I always felt like in my family, that I was the secondary character, and in life, and I’m often attracted to really big personalities – and so I’ve always felt like, yeah. And that’s where I fit. I’m a really good best friend character, and that I was chosen to play this iconic lead part. And I have these moments with Daniel where I said “I’m not interesting enough. No one’s going to care about my Nora. I’m not an interesting person, I’m kind of, I think – ” I always thought something that I have that is a gift is that I can be sort of invisible, and I’m really good at supporting people. That’s sort of my – I never saw myself as a leader, so as a person, I’m gonna support these people with their vision. And so to have this opportunity where Daniel is like “You’re Nora! You ARE Nora! And you are interesting enough, and you are compelling enough as a person” – really moved me and implored me and is something I’m still learning, because the fear of not being interesting enough. Anyways. So I’m very drawn to people and human beings that maybe also don’t feel like they have a place to tell their story, or a place to be, and so seeking them out more intentionally through psychology, and then also really trying to find a way to do both. I’m still not sure how it’s going to happen, but I’m really hopeful that it will all work out.