Soulpepper Academy alum and Howland Company founding member Paolo Santalucia is our reigning Outstanding Actor winner in the medium division for his extraordinary performance in Driftwood Theatre’s new cut of Hamlet in 2015. For the 2016 season, he’s nominated as part of the Outstanding Ensemble of Kat Sandler‘s new play Mustard at Tarragon Theatre. This marks Paolo’s fourth MyTheatre Award nomination overall and third in three consecutive years including Outstanding Director in 2014 for 52 Pick-Up. He stopped by the Nominee Interview Series to look back at Hamlet and Mustard and forward to Soulpepper’s upcoming New York debut.
We last interviewed you in 2015 about 52 Pickup. Catch us up on your life since then.
My gosh. Well, I’ve been super lucky and super fortunate to be able to work at numerous places since then. I did Mustard at the Tarragon, obviously. I did, since then, two other seasons at Soulpepper. And I’ve also been able to do some work with Canadian Rep, and do shows with Driftwood.
It’s so funny, I feel like every time someone asks “what’s new?” it’s sort of like, we’re so lucky to say “kind of nothing. And also everything,” because it’s all new and it’s all old at the same time, and that’s the amazing thing about what we do. It’s cyclical, so I feel like it’s super boring to bring up, but I feel so lucky because I’ve been able to do all of those things.
And then the Howland Company’s produced a couple of workshops since then, and I’ve been adapting something, so it’s been great. It’s been a very busy two years.
You’re the reigning outstanding actor winner for Hamlet. How did Toby Malone’s unique adaptation alter how you approached that part?
That’s a really good question. I guess part of the thing that surprised me the most about it is that it’s so much more direct – that adaptation is so much more direct, and that character in that version of the play is not someone who’s ambivalent. So Toby’s adaptation – and thankfully he was able to keep all the beautiful poetry that exists, and manage to figure out a different form for it – but it kept all the bigness of thought that I think Hamlet has, but it was also able to just make it something that was forward. I mean, Hamlet – in the very first scene of that play, says “I’ll revenge my father, and I’ll kill him” – so, from that moment on, it’s just forward action, forward action, and there’s very little backpedalling. There’s lots of thinking about what it means to take a life, but there’s not a lot of consideration about “should I, or shouldn’t I”. And I think that, more than anything, was the biggest shift. And what was great was that it was all in the words. There was no way to take too much time to pontificate or think.
And more than anything, I think the circumstances of doing it outside changed the approach more than anything, because when you’re outside, you can’t take as much time. You can’t sit back in your thoughts as much. There’s nowhere for big thoughts to go. You have to keep it going, because there’s nothing but space around you, and that, even more than the script, affected the way that we had to approach it. Which is really exciting.
Do you find that when you’re working outside, you’re competing with other distractions? Like a dog could bark at any time, you might lose people’s attention, you need to keep it going?
Yeah. I mean, it’s so funny, though. In this day and age- I feel 70 years older than I am with what we’re about to say- but our attention spans in theatres are so low anyways these days. Yes, there’s more, other distractions [with outdoor theatre], but I didn’t find the audience any less engaged than I do in a normal theatre. Every year it changes, and it’s not people trying to be disrespectful, it’s just our relationship to phones, and our relationship to all of that.
So what was so wonderful, I think, of being outside, is that anyone could show up and just leave when they were bored if they wanted to. That’s sort of forgiving, because I never took it personally. In the theatre, I’d say to my family, “you understand that every time you cough in the theatre, it’s awful for us onstage. We take it so personally.” It’s so hard – and the great thing is when you’re outside, even though it might be more distracting for people, as a performer, it actually feels a lot less distracting, because there’s so much stimulus going on that it doesn’t – all the little things don’t matter. Like when you hear someone shift in their chair, you don’t go “oh my God, I’m boring them.” So yes, there are more things to look at, but ultimately, it was actually kind of more freeing. I’ve found to go “well, the ice cream truck is here. I’m not going to compete with it. If you want to look at it, look at it, and maybe in five minutes, I’ll be doing something more interesting.”
More interesting than the ice cream truck? That’s a tall order.
I know. Well, one time in “To be or not to be”, [the ice cream truck music] came on. So “to be or not to be, that is the – ” [imitates ice cream truck] and I did the whole speech that day to the [music]– when I was talking about who should “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous –” it was too good to pass up, the fact that everyone was waiting for the speech, and all those famous words were being overshadowed by a whole neighbourhood of kids screaming about ice cream.
Takes it off its pedestal.
Totally! It does. A part of me – because I’m such a nerd and romantic about those things, I feel like what’s so awesome is, that is how those plays were originally kind of done. It’s closer to the spirit of those plays, I think, to have them outside, surrounded by people selling things, surrounded by animals barking, and people getting up, and leaving, and quarrelling. All of that is so built into the nature of those plays that I love it. As much as it can be frustrating, it’s sort of amazing to me. This is a 400-year-old play being performed in the way that it would have been with vendors and street people. Drunk people in parks. It’s all there, you know.
Then this past summer, you returned to Driftwood, to the same tour of parks settings to do Taming of the Shrew, which was set in the 80s during Pride Week. What were some of the most interesting reactions you heard to that concept?
Well, people find that play very problematic for very obvious reasons, and I think one of the things that was exciting to me about that production was – despite whether anyone thought it helped them engage with the problematic relationship between Kate and Petruchio – all that aside, I felt the whole “live your life” aspect of it was freeing, and allowed people to engage with it in a way that they knew that they could laugh. And the spirit was always going to be fun. No one was going to be devastated, there weren’t going to be any tears before bedtime. I think what surprised me was how much laughter there was throughout the show. And that was really exciting to me, to know that – because it is a comedy, and it is really problematic, but at the same time, it also has some of the most amazing bits of clown I think that Shakespeare wrote. It’s so complicated to me, and I’ve done that play once before, too, so it was cool to do it again, and see – even though it was a completely different context – to hear people react to it as a kind of clown show, in a way. And not be feeling like they were engaging with something too political, because I feel like what was great about what Jeremy tried to do was by taking the politic out of gender norms. Or male-female relations – and putting it into another sphere. We were able to engage with the politic differently, and we were able to forgive the glaring misogyny that that play has to an extent, I think. And I appreciated that. Whether it was wrapped up in a nice bow at the end or not, I have no idea, but it was fun from the inside to give people the story in a way that I think allowed them to think about – not the bigger picture, but so that it wasn’t just about a relationship between a man and a woman. And that you got to see love between two women, you got to see that struggle, and the struggle to sort of fight for love, whether it’s kinky or whether it’s just love. And I think that was really fun to give over.
How did you get involved with Mustard?
I auditioned, and thought I had the worst audition of my life. As I often do. But that one, I felt went particularly badly. I don’t really know. I just remember sort of thinking “well, that was terrible”. You know, when you sign into those auditions, you see who else is auditioning, and I thought “wow, it’s so great that they had enough pity in their hearts to see me for something”. I thought “that’s nice”. And then the funny thing is that I auditioned, and then hadn’t heard back for so long. But I really felt like I wanted to write Kat [Sandler] and just say “I loved your play” – because I’d never really met her before, so I wrote her this seven-page letter, basically, on Facebook, saying “thank you so much for letting me come out. I’m so thankful for it. I just needed to say I loved the play – I loved reading it, I loved prepping for the audition, it’s such a rare opportunity to feel like when you audition for something, you actually feel connected to the thing,” wrote it, sent it and got an e-mail back not too long after. This was like seven weeks after the first audition, and then got an e-mail back from Kat saying “you know, you have a callback.” I had no idea. Thought I totally blew it. So, that’s how I found out that I even got a callback for it. And then I auditioned again, and then – shortly thereafter I heard that I got it, which was great. So, super exciting, and I feel very thankful to them for seeing me for that.
What was it about the script that connected with you?
There were a couple of things. One, the notion of someone growing up and really being at a crossroads – making the decision to go, “Am I going to be an adult now, or am I going to stay where I am, or stay as a kid?” And for me, that really resonated. I don’t really know why it did, it just did. I just sort of went “oh, I’ve had so much sympathy and love for Thai and for Mustard and for Sadie” – for all of those characters to me just felt so close to the bone. Not because I have any kind of – I didn’t have an imaginary friend. There was just something about the nature of their relationship that I fell in love with, and was very moved by reading the play. And then Jay, also, was like “I feel like I am Jay!” I am hopelessly romantic about so many things, and also have zero skill to make that turn into anything that isn’t embarrassing. So I feel like that relationship that he has to trying to make these big gestures – I totally have written someone a poem that was bad. You know? Just all of it. I just went “oh man. This is such an extension of who I am, really.” So I fell in love with it.
Kat famously writes to her actors and develops through the rehearsal process. How fully formed was Jay when you first read the script?
Funnily enough, a lot of the script changed, Jay really didn’t. From the moment that I got the script to the last day of rehearsal, so much was changed, but all of those scenes remained pretty much as they were from the first draft of the play that I read to the end. One of the reasons that I also fell in love with it too was that they were so clear who he was right from the beginning, so nothing really changed in that department.
Kat usually directs her own work, and I know that Ashlie really welcomed her into the rehearsal room. What was it like having that weird balance of the writer always in the room, but you also have the director there?
I really liked it. I think because of my training in Soulpepper- so much of the work there is so collaborative, in the sense that oftentimes we wear many hats there, and whether someone’s a music director, and they step in to help direct a moment between two actors, or whether the director needs to give advice on some of the words you’re saying, everyone there, I feel like, is super comfortable taking notes from people who aren’t just in the director’s chair from adapting to things that the director themselves might not say, everyone’s point of view is valid, and everyone is trying to put on the same good show that everyone wants to be. So, as a result, I think I didn’t feel that it was ever un-useful to have the writer in the room in that setting. I loved it, actually. It was so wonderful to have the support there from Kat. Like, if she needed to change words, she could do that right then and there, and there wasn’t that three-day period of me going home to memorize a scene, and then coming back, and having the scene different – it was like “let’s just solve this problem right now”, so we can take ten minutes and sit down around the table and Kat – she has this amazing skill of just being able to, like “can I just take two minutes” – –[imitates gears working] and then it would be done. You wouldn’t even really know what changed, but suddenly seven words would be missing, and the thing would land, and audiences would laugh. She’s just amazing at it, so it was so wonderful to have her there. Because I think, without her in the room, those quick processes can end up taking twice as long, you know, and so it was just so immediate, and I loved that.
Tell us about working with the rest of the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast.
It was just incredible. Sarah, who I’ve seen in so many things, Julian, who I’ve seen in so many things, Tony, who I’ve seen in so many things- it was just such an incredible dream of a process, and to have someone like Rebecca involved too, was so great to feel like you had our little generation that we were working towards and then immediately connecting on, and then had this incredible support system around us of people who were just at the top of their game who were able to do and teach us all the skills that we lacked. That I lacked, I mean. So I’d be able to watch Sarah, who’s a master of comedy, and just sort of watch her and Anand go through something and go “oh, my God, that’s it! That’s truthful, honest clown right there. Okay. I can’t wait to be in rehearsal in ten minutes.” It was really, really amazing. I know that sounds super boring to say, but it really was, and everyone, I felt like, really supported each other through that.
Previews were hard in a way because it’s comedy, and you only know when comedy’s working when you get people to watch. And it chafes a lot during previews – not because it wasn’t working, but because we can make it more economic. We shaved about, from the first preview to opening night, about half an hour of the show was cut. It was crazy how much time – it was always under two acts, but the first time we did it, it was an hour, pushing an hour 50 minutes. By the time we opened, it was like an hour and 20. So all of that came from our last week of rehearsal, watching those amazing actors deal with the brunt of the changes that were coming, and then still being out there and running the lines over dinner and coming in. And the rigour that came from backstage anxiety – what that fed, and watching people handle that with grace and courage, and still maintain good company membership, even after the hardest day, there was always a box of donuts or something backstage. And that’s so amazing. They took such good care of us. I learned so much about what it means to be a good company member and an actor. Have ease in that world from them, because they’ve done it before. It was so inspiring.
Then you went back to your theatrical home base and did The Heidi Chronicles at Soulpepper. What stands out in your memory about that production?
Timeliness, I think. What was amazing to me about that was – you know, versus six months later – I don’t think this is necessarily a terrible thing, nor do I think it’s a good thing, but that what strikes me now is that we were engaging with it. We had questions about its… relevance is too strong a word, but we had questions about what that play was about, and it felt very strongly for me inside that at its heart was something that needed to be discussed, and say – this woman who’s sort of at the centre of it was trying to find her place when everyone around her was saying that they’d achieved everything that they wanted and that they’d set out to do. And having talkbacks afterwards, and having some women in the audience going “I think we’ve moved on from this, I think we’re way beyond” – I don’t know what the relevance is, and then in hindsight seeing what’s been happening without getting too political about it, and going “oh my God. It’s happening again!” and to me – we were kind of picking up on it, I think we opened that play the week that Hillary got the Democratic nomination. So it was already kind of fuelling what we were doing, and I think because we’re artists, we were so sensitive to what was going on, and what happened at Pulse happened, and then suddenly – the night that that awful thing happened – suddenly Peter’s storyline that night, you could just feel in the audience that there was a connection to something there. So when he talks about loss – even though in the play it’s centred around the AIDS crisis – suddenly there was so much going on with the world that it felt like at the time that we were performing that, which echoed and was an extension of the play. I just remember feeling, and still feeling very connected – that experience feeling very potent for me, because it felt like it was – I don’t remember having experiences in the theatre where the show I was doing – I used so much of what was happening during the day to feed the work that night. Because it felt like a direct extension, and felt like what we’re using are – what was that thing that Carrie Fisher said? Take your broken heart and turn it into art? Like, it really felt like that, I think, for us as a company. And there was days during that run that were – just because of what was happening outside of the walls of that beautiful space – that were really hard, you know. We came in and were upset, and we needed to hold each other, and then we would go out there and give that story. And that was amazing. And watching what Michelle [Monteith] was able to do night after night in giving a voice to her, giving a voice to Heidi, giving a voice to Wendy Wasserstein, giving a voice to the first woman who ever won a Tony award in 1990 – you know so much of that was really important to me, and felt very personal.
You’re also returning to Of Human Bondage this year and taking it on tour. What are you most excited to explore in returning to that piece, and how do you think New York audiences will react to it?
That’s such a good question. I’m excited because – it sounds so silly, but that book is beautiful, and I’ve always loved the story. So I’m just excited to go back into the world of that, because that is a play that – it feels every night we do it, the story of what we’re telling feels so exciting to me to give over every night, because it’s one of those things where you think about what people walk into. And then when we’re backstage and thinking about the first moments of that show, and thinking about what the last moment of that show is – it’s an amazing story that I feel that people can engage with. And so I look most forward to that right now, at least. I can’t wait to tell that story again and let them fall in love with all of us, and hate all of us, because they’re all flawed, and they’re all complicated.
I know it’s cliched to say, but you always get to go deeper. And it’s always – in my limited experience – it’s such a gift to be able to return to those things, because I hope I’ve grown in the last two years, and so it’s really exciting to go back and re-assess. Because there’s always little moments- no matter how much you love doing something- there’s always little moments where you go “yeah, that’s a sticky bit”. Even if it’s just one word, it’s nice to be able to go back and go “I’m going to iron the kinks out here, really get in there and re-assess what I did.” Because invariably, you can always do it differently. It’s always going to be more personal, or differently personal years later. So I can’t wait for that.
My maybe naïve hope is that however the audience reacts to it, that the story is still going to be as moving to a New York audience as it would be to a Toronto audience. And the great thing is that they just have access to so much theatre down there that my hope is that the world that we’re going to bring is going to be separate enough from things that they’ve experienced there, that it will be exciting. It will be exciting to them. And so I hope that it’s as enjoyable to give over every night there as it is here. And I think it will be. And New York has such an amazing – that period in history that that play’s about, I feel like New York engages with a lot. I don’t know if you’ve seen the show The Knick– I feel like it’s all kind of, even though I know the play takes place in London, the world of that play is so connected to New York and that vibe. I’m actually just really excited to be down there, because a lot of the architecture’s from the time that this play is written. A lot of the Industrial Revolution that that city’s built upon is sort of underneath a lot of what this play’s about, so I’m excited.
You mentioned that you’re adapting a play for Howland. Tell us a little bit more about that.
I adapted a version of Spring Awakening, the play. We had a reading of it in May, and I was able to do a two-week workshop of it in November. And the focus both times was specifically on the script, so hopefully the next step is that it will go to production, so that’s where things are at right now with it. My interest in engaging with it came from the complications that were coming with the sex ed reform that was coming through when Kathleen Wynne was trying to include same-sex education in schools thinking, probably as many people do, that it would be okay. And the incredible backlash that came from – not just school boards where you might think that there might be complications around that, religious school boards, but just public school boards. I’ve always loved that play, and then I’ve always wanted to do something with it, and then as soon as that was in the air, I thought “oh my God, we are so – we are nowhere near as progressive as we think we are”. Because the exact same issues that are happening in Spring Awakening, which was written in the 1860’s, are – it’s the same conversation that’s happening now. And I just thought, now’s as good a time as any to sit down and go through it, and before I knew it, it was out, and I couldn’t stop. Our reading took place, and it finally came through for a workshop, but then a workshop took place, and now I’m searching for a venue, and where its future is, I don’t know yet, but there’s lots of pots on the stove. Lots of logs on the fire, that’s the one. Finger in every pot, that’s what I was trying to say. That’s an expression.
Do you have anything else coming up that you want to talk about?
I probably can’t say yet. So yes, but I will hold off until I know for sure what I’m allowed to talk about. I’m so sorry, I don’t mean that pretentiously at all.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
No. Thank you so much for this.