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

Omie Syphu is the new chosen name of Outstanding Actor nominee Omar Hady. One of the stars of last year’s Outstanding Production-winning The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Omie (then Omar) returned to Unit 102 Actor’s Company in early 2016 with the idea to take on Adam Rapp’s dark, complex, and dense 3-hander Red Light Winter. The result was one of the most moving productions I’ve ever seen, anchored by Omie’s beautifully vulnerable and bitter performance in the leading role of depressed genius Matt. Omie has taken a step back from acting since that production but he stopped by the Nominee Interview Series to reminisce about what made that experience hard to follow up.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first ever experience with theatre? Yeah. I was quite the troublemaker in high school. And I was gonna fail my English class. But my English teacher really liked me. Said “I see a lot of myself in you, and you just need a lot of guidance. You just need something. An extra-curricular activity.” So he forced me to be in his play to get that credit. And so I was like “man, the drama kids are nerds”. I thought I was super cool. I ended up doing this thing, this play after school. I hated school, and that was an excuse to go to school, because I loved it, and the people involved were all “oh my God, you’re amazing, you’re everything I wanted to be but I was afraid to be because of where I am right now”. So that was my first experience. And then ever since then, I’m like “yeah, this is what I want to do.”

Do you remember what the show was?
Yeah. It was called Bums. It was just a bunch of monologues. I forget the writer. But told by the homeless. And I just played a homeless kid on the street.

And this was in high school?
Yeah. It was some serious stuff.

How did you get involved in Unit 102?
Dave Lafontaine and I, we worked together– a long time ago, like 10 years ago maybe– and we had talked about each starting a theatre company, and we were getting into it, and we were talking about how we loved it, the same kind of stuff, gritty, raw New York writers. And then a few years ago, after that, I saw that he was just doing it, and doing it well, and really coming from a hard space. And I just loved their shows. It was incredible. It was the kind of stuff that I wanted to see and wanted to be a part of. There’s so many communities within the community.

I said yes to everything. And it was great. Great experience. But sometimes it’s great to say yes to this [pointing to his heart]. And I found, when I would say yes to Unit 102, even saying “yes, I will see your show and support you” – it was always saying yes to this, and I felt full from [my heart] all the time. And then Luis [Fernandes] came and saw my shows that I would do in their space, and say “Man, I’d love to work with you”, and I’m like “I wanna work with you guys!” And so Last Days of Judas Iscariot, they asked me to be that person, and then Luis and I got together and said “let’s just read a bunch of plays”, and so we were gonna do Red Light Winter. We were actually gonna [both play both roles], we wanted to, but Luis was like “no way, we don’t have enough time” to do a crossover. Maybe next time. 

I was so glad I was part of this Unit 102 production, and everyone involved – to me, that’s the most rewarding part – is the rehearsal is actually connecting with these incredible people. And then the run is the bonus, and this interview here with you– that’s a bigger bonus.

What attracted you to the play when you first read it?
That play came to me two years before, someone had asked me, and I was scared. They wanted me to play Matt. And they had already cast it. That jerk-off. No. That sweet guy who doesn’t know how to be in a hard space. And I was scared. And then they came back to me again, because Luis brought a whole bunch of stuff that he loved that round. I did too, and that was a part of me that I was so afraid to share. And I would always put on these masks. And I’ve always put on masks in my real life. But when I came to theatre, and doing work, that’s when I was truly transparent, because I would remove everything, and that’s when it was really therapeutic for me. And that role was just a really large chunk – a juicy part of my pain. And I just thought “okay, well, let’s take off the mask for this one, and really be transparent, and really help yourself. Heal yourself. And maybe heal others who are in this situation. An artist who is trying to find themselves, who is abusing themselves, who doesn’t know how to give self-love.” I think there’s a lot of people who are suffering from that. I think theatre’s a great form of medicine. Sometimes I’m not really in medicine, it’s like a can of beer. But that show was definitely medicine. So I wanted to approach it in a very therapeutic way. For myself. That was the number one thing – do it for myself and everyone involved. And whoever wants to enjoy and love it, they could. Because I found – you don’t know your audience, and so we just thought, “let’s do this for ourselves.” Because we don’t want to get trapped in “would they like this, should we do this, is this appropriate?” And we just kept going back to “what would Adam Rapp want, what would the writer want, let’s just keep serving what we started.”

Your director Anne van Leeuwen mentioned that you sort of went really method with the role, and deep into it. Was that a difficult thing to put yourself through?
So method in the sense that, before, I was working out, eating well. I looked really healthy. And we were beginning rehearsals, I looked in the mirror- I was wearing the costume, and the shoes, I like to do that – and I’m like “this is not who Matt is”. We were in such an intimate space. And so, you know, if we’re in a big space, then screw that, but I really wanted to keep serving it and throw the audience in the room with Matt. Sit right beside Matt. And I wanted to show how sick he was. So it was just me being sleep-deprived, which is easy, because I was already in that environment. I was bartending, and had a terrible lifestyle, so I just gave into it. Because I knew I was getting all that out of my system. And it was difficult, yeah. It definitely was because I’d spent a lot of time alone. But it was the greatest thing I ever did. Alone time, you truly soul-search. And you really hear yourself, you know? So it was weird. Stuff that was happening with me, because I’ve truly found a spirituality right now. It’s happened within the last year. I’ve changed my name. I’m completely different. And a greater version of who I am, and every single day I’m in competition with who I was before. Yesterday. That’s my competition. Who was I yesterday? What did I do, who did I connect with? I want to be better today. And that’s the only person that I’m comparing myself with. But that, I had to compare myself to others, because that’s what matters. And it was the greatest stuff of joy, that I learnt comparison’s the greatest stuff of joy. It was just the hardest with no joy, to know how to give self-love, and I’d hang onto anything because of such a void – he had such a void within him. So any romance would do it. Anything, right? And he’d bring art – to fill the void.

I just wanted to say – I learned doing that part, in order to fill that void, you can’t look at outside stuff. You have to turn inward. And you feel it from within. So it was a great role. It was the last play that I did. A few things had come my way, and I just stopped. I just said “no, I’m working on me right now, and that piece is not speaking to me like the last one did.” And it’s the last one that I’ve done, and I’ve told myself that my theatre career is no longer my career any more. It’s gonna be my therapy. It’s gonna last a lifetime for me. It doesn’t mean that I’m not – I’m just not saying yes to everything anymore. I want to just say yes to [my heart], so that’s what I’m doing. I’m writing poetry, and I’m facilitating an event at a tea house that there’s a lot of poetry and art, and people just talking about where they are in their life. And working on musicals and stuff. But other than that, it’s very different. It’s a therapy now. It’s therapeutic when I do it, so it’s not my career. I suffered hard when it was my career. The ups and downs. The ups are great, but there’s always downs that follow. I just thought, “I want it to be better than this.”

You brought Anne on board partway through the process. Was that a difficult transition, bringing in someone who theoretically is leading the ship partway through?
It was difficult because we had worked on it, and then we had to bring in a director. We did a lot of the character work, but we still had to bring in a director. And we wanted Anne because we wanted to have a female perspective, and we thought it would be a wonderful balance with the rehearsal process, to have two males, two females, especially with what we had to do. And we wanted to make a really safe environment, and so we thought, let’s balance the room of energies. And it was wonderful. And then Anne came in and was like “boom, boom, boom, I wanna do this, I wanna do this, and let’s do this” – based on what we gave her. So it was wonderful. It was what we needed. It was just a great outside eye. When Anne came, I was in the process, I was so deep in it, and really head in the process, where I’m like “I got this, I don’t need anyone”. But then Anne actually took me by the hand and lifted me up. Took me, put me on a whole other level. And Chloe [Sullivan] and Luis, they pushed me. And at times pulled me up. They took my crafts to a whole other level. Adam Rapp, too. Everything involved – all the elements – Pascal [Labillois, the set designer]. Tim Lindsay. Everyone involved, even the stagehands. They really lifted me up. And I’m so grateful. That is truly the reward. It’s incredible how grateful I am for those people. It’s so nice reflecting on that.

One of the most interesting things about Matt is that you don’t just have to play what’s going on with him. You also have to capture this sense of potential, and all the things he used to be, and could be, and that kind of stuff. How do you infuse that sort of backstory, that character development, into someone who’s now covered over with this fog?
Luckily, Adam Rapp gives you a lot of information. There’s so much verbal diarrhoea that Matt gives you – and there’s little things that really inform you on who this character is. Even just in the rehearsal process of what was happening with my mannerisms, it came so natural. And I just started to let that happen. That informed me in terms of “why is he doing this? What was happening in his childhood? What was everything that led up to this moment?” I have such a great imagination, so my childhood – my great, wonderful, crazy childhood – and the imagination I have right now really helped in terms of what I needed to do to create that backstory. And the rehearsal process. All these little things, I just let inform who this person is.

Mental health plays such a key role in the show. Did you do much research and discussion when going into that to make sure it was portrayed with clarity?
I suffer from bipolar disorder. And I went from saying “I have bipolar disorder” to “I’m suffering with bipolar disorder”. So I’m not bipolar, but I have it. More or less. And now I don’t have it at all because I’ve weaned it off – I’ve cured myself with food; I’m not on any medication or anything, and I have a good understanding of what it was that put me in that place, that dark place. I use that dark place, and it was very much the same place that Matt was in. And I related to him very much. I’m an artist as well, and I create. There’s so many incredible people around me. Incredible souls and big hearts. They just don’t know it. And so they can come off as very selfish and obnoxious and they can tear you down, at your weakest. Sometimes the community is like that, you know. There’s such a small piece of the pie. It’s tough to be happy for who gets that piece when you’re on the outside. I get it.

In terms of the mental health elements, I had such a great, strong understanding. I was always in meetups and communities with people that suffered from PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar I, bipolar II, a lot of body disorders, eating disorders. I did a lot of good counselling where I found myself being counselled and also counselling others. And so that helped me. I was going through therapy, too. A lot of that was very informative in terms of what I needed to bring to that role.

What were you hoping that audiences would take away from the production?
That there’s so many of these people in our lives- everybody in that show was mentally ill. I think we’re all mentally ill because of this world, and when we succumb to this world that is mentally ill, there’s some form of sadness and wanting to be loved. We all want to be loved. And there’s so many people in my life who have taken their life. I did not know they were sad. They came off as such happy-go-lucky, incredible people. But behind closed doors, they’re not those people. It really taught me that we’re not really all authentic. We truly need to be authentic. And so there was such an authenticity in what was written. And what we brought to it. And I just wanted people to understand that – how refreshing and healing it can be to see something so real and true and authentic. That really relates to what’s happening right now.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yeah. I did. It changed every time. But my favourite moment was… [tearing up] I’m emotional now because it’s just tears of joy. And power. It’s not sadness at all. Let’s see… It’s Luis. I’m just so grateful for that. [My favourite moment in the production was] a time when it was just Luis and I, where she goes to the washroom, it’s just Luis and I talking – he’s prepping me. All that anxiety. And trying to be somebody for somebody else that you think is somebody for you. And the person that’s really important to you is there. In front of you. Wanting you to be your best, but doing it in the worst way. But there was a moment where I just broke down. It was just so easy to, because that moment was just always – you know. He always pushed me to that. He pushed me in the breakdown, and then he was just right there to hug me, and really comfort me, and it was my favourite part because the people who push you down are the same people that love you. They just don’t know how to love, so they love in a different way that doesn’t work. So that moment – where it was just us two – he was there for me, to hug me and hold me. That was the moment. That’s my favourite moment by far. I have so many favourite moments, and comedic moments, but that was the moment I truly loved everything that was happening.

And tell us a little bit about Luis, and Chloe, and what it meant to you working with them.
It was incredible because, you know they’re together, and I had my dick out on Chloe [in one scene]. We’d joke about that. It was such a safe environment. Luis was so incredible because, to him, the story comes first. So his ego is dissolving all the time. His ego was in the fact that he wanted to play this part and kill it. That’s where it was. But when it came to that sensual stuff, and the romance, it was so safe. It honestly felt like doctors, or surgeons, and we were trying to save a life. And that’s all that really mattered. And we had such a great relationship and rapport from working together and doing the Operation 24, and just hanging out, and going to their fundraisers, and the Fringe tent. And all the great community stuff. It was really safe and wonderful, and we could make jokes. Luis would say “try not to get hard onstage”, or that, if I didn’t get hard onstage or whatever, I’d be a bad actor, or whatever. Or “I thought you were method. Where’s your boner?” And all that stuff – it lightened it up. It made it really fun. Actually, it was perfect. I loved working with those two. I can’t wait to do it again. Do something different. It’ll be interesting.

What are you doing now/what’s ahead for you?
I’ll be away for the summer. I’m going to have a cabin off the lake in Tobermory. I’m going to be running a resort there. I’ll do a lot of writing. I’m not calling [theatre] a career, but it is a career that lasts a lifetime. I’m not actively looking for anything now, but I’m not saying no. I’m going to say yes to a bunch of stuff. I’m still in the community, I’m still seeing shows, I still have a lot of people that I love and would love to see what they’re doing, and what they’re up to, and another side of them that they’re unlocking. And so I’m open, I’m open. But I’m not hungry, I guess. I’m not hungry because I’m full. That play made me full. I went through a very dark time after the run. Because it was something so incredible. It’s like you work at a job, and it’s so amazing, and all the employees are amazing, you’re getting paid incredible. Lifts your spirit. And then it’s done. You get laid off. And then you’re done. And you don’t have that incredible job. You don’t have those incredible colleagues. And there’s just something you’ve given, invested everything, that’s what it was – given everything to it, and then I’m left empty. And that was unhealthy. Even how I approached it – Red Light Winter was unhealthy. And I know this now. But I had to do that so I could understand that and become a better artist, so that the next thing that I do that is really heavy, I can do it in a way that’s healthy. And won’t leave me empty, but I am full all the time, so now I’m ready.

You’re doing a lot of writing?
A lot of poetry, yeah. A lot of poetry in terms of just coming into consciousness and a lot about myself. About my dark time. I have this belief that time doesn’t exist, everything happens simultaneously, so I like to think of myself as a child, and give myself a hug as a child. The times when I’m down and dark and really sad. I’d go and give myself a thwap and be like “don’t worry, man. Keep going. Hang in there. You’re shining on the other end. Get through this. Embrace the darkness.” So there’s a lot of weird things that – it’s very weird, I’ve been told. And I’ve decided, “I’m going to own my weird. I’m not going to be everybody’s idea of who I am, because that’s what I was doing. I’m going to do me, actually.” And so I’m expressing that through my writing, through my poetry.

And somebody had requested that – they worked with a singer-songwriter, they loved all these songs, they want to make a musical based on these songs that make them feel incredible – and it’s about a lot of that. About going through a dark time and understanding that climb. So I’m working on a musical, I guess. Or a play with music.

Someone asked me to do a short film with them that’s about alcoholism. And I wrote it with them. I’m just not hungry to get these things done, because doing them made me feel like “oh, there’s purpose in my life. I’m doing this play so I have purpose in my life.” And I’ve discovered my true life’s purpose, and it’s greater than just this play. This play is just a small part of something incredible. Does that make sense?

Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yeah. How grateful I am for you, and for the organization. For My Entertainment World. I used to think it was all bullshit, and politics, these things. And whatever. Maybe it is. But what it truly is about is acknowledging something that is surrounded around love. And passion. And drive. Something that is about a good place. We’re all teachers. And it’s really great when people teach others and those others become something incredible. Sometimes those teachers don’t get acknowledged, you know? That’s just the way it is, but even those little things, they’re really great. But this, it’s wonderful. It brings us all together. It brings the community together, too, and understand that we can’t compare one another. Because we’re all each incomparable. And nobody’s better than Kelly at being Kelly. Nobody’s better than Omie at being Omie. Everybody who’s involved, and everybody connected to this- they’re all winners. Because they’re doing it.