Paul Dunn is one of the most engaging actors in the country, a multi-hyphenate who brings incredible depth to everything he does and is impossible not to root for. He’s nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor for his standout performances in multiple scenes in Outside the March’s all-star ensemble for TomorrowLove- an immersive, site-specific, constantly shifting futuristic collection of vignettes about how we connect as human beings in a technological world.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
We went to the Ice Capades every year, which is not theatre, but as a kid, I remember, what I was super excited about and kind of got obsessed about were the very theatrical parts of it. But in terms of actual plays, I kind of came to it of my own volition. I just started signing myself up for drama classes when I was 12, just out of instinct.
How did you get involved with TomorrowLove?
Mitchell [Cushman, the director] just asked me out of the blue, which was great. I guess they were looking for people who they felt could play lots of different roles and also take on that amount of work. I was very excited because I welcomed the opportunity to work with him, and I admire his work a lot, and also I had been introduced to Rosamund [Small]’s writing.
How many different versions of the show did you perform over the course of the run?
There’s eight possible ways the show could go down. And that includes all the permutations, because even if you do the first scene with the same person a couple of nights in a row, the second scene might be with a different person. So all the math breaks down, but they say there’s eight ways. And I think we did them all, in terms of the order and who you’re playing.
How many scenes and characters did you learn?
I was in… seven scenes? Four scenes with the track that you saw then, on other nights, I did three scenes, because one in the middle was “Paris Departure”, and that was almost an hour long. So they were very different nights and, of course, completely different depending on who was in the room when you got there.
How was the opening number set up so the randomization connected you with someone who knew the same scenes that you did?
The dance was choreographed so that the possibilities for me to start the show were either with Anand [Rajaram] doing “Office Friends”, or Damien [Atkins] and/or Katherine [Cullen] doing the fridge scene. Those are the only people I ever danced with, so that no matter where it stopped, I was with someone who I could start the show with. So it meant that 50% of the time I was starting with Anand and “Office Friends”, and the other 50% of the time, I was starting with Damian or Katherine doing the fridge scene. You’d see the button out of the corner of your eye and be like, “Okay. I’ve done this one track three nights in a row – please, please, someone hit it when I’m with Damian or Katherine”. It evened itself out over the course of the run.
So it all mostly evened out or was there one scene with one partner that you did once and never came back to?
The latter half of the run I stopped seeing Cyrus [Lane] for whatever reason, the way it broke down. I don’t think the last week of the run that we actually did anything together. So that can happen but I think, the first week of the run, I saw him every night, we did the same scenes in the same combination.
Were they always in the same order?
Yes. So each of us knew what our individual journey would be, and that didn’t change. So, for me, it was starting with the fridge scene, going to the avatar scene, going to the fast-forward scene, going to the Skype scene- with all the interstitial stuff in the middle- or it was doing “Office Friends” then doing “Paris”, and then doing the memory scene. So that didn’t change. But who was going to be there would be one of two people, and that was the variable.
With so many different possible iterations and criss-crossing tracks, rehearsals must have been a very different experience. What was that process like?
It was a lot. It was a lot for all of us to learn, and very quickly it started to sink in, just the bulk of material we had. We had I think a full four weeks of rehearsal before we went into tech, because each of us was learning three hours of material, essentially. Each night of material would have one hour and a half hours of scenes, and all of them are two-handers, so you’re kind of on all the time. We very quickly figured out, “okay, I need to learn this many pages a day on top of just rehearsing stuff. I need to go home and make sure I have this stuff in my head.” That was pretty daunting for the first little while.
You’d rehearse in a group of four and you’d kind of swap out, which was interesting, to watch another actor take on the scene and the choices they were making and see how that resonated with you. It also meant that we just didn’t have a lot of time on our feet, so it really was a test of each individual performer’s ability to kind of take care of themselves. We rehearsed in the funeral home, and there was all this stuff being done to different rooms, so you’re often moving to different spaces and finding spaces to work. I found it all pretty exciting, but it really is a testament to Mitchell [Cushman, the director] and the company of actors and the stage management team that pulled it all together. That’s why it would have been nice to run for longer too, because I think the first week we felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants. By the end, you felt like, “Okay”, and started to really enjoy this, all the spontaneity and the stuff that’s different.
Who did you share a track with?
Amy [Keating] on one night. She shared the track that was the fridge, the avatar scene, the spaceship and Skype. So the other night it was Mayko [Nguyen] in “Office Friends”, “Paris”, and the memory scene.
At some point did you get to play a scene with everyone else?
Because of one of the scenes being longer, I ended up not getting tracked with Mayko or Amy, which is a shame. We discovered that along the way. So much math, so much plotting out, and then figured out that that wasn’t going to happen. But everyone else, yeah.
What were some of the interesting ways the scenes changed depending on whom you were playing them with?
Every actor has a different sensibility, a different sense of timing and drive. And because we didn’t actually spend a lot of the time rehearsing in each combination, you really just had to go with what was happening in the moment. So you learn to adjust based on other people’s energies. In some combinations, the comedy of the scene, it would be comedy that is sort of fast and furious, and other combinations it would still be funny, but sort of a laid-back comedy. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that was one adjustment.
The other adjustment was the gender of the person, so a scene like Fast-Forward- where the character is someone in their thirties who started an inappropriate relationship with a twelve-year-old, and then went to outer space and waited for that twelve-year-old to also become thirty and then they came back, and they’re both the same age- that scene resonated very differently when I was doing that scene with Cyrus, and he was the older person who instigated that relationship. The scene is the same, everything we say the same, but the audience would adjust to it differently as it went on, or they’d catch on sooner, or it would just hit them in a different way. So gender would affect it- if it was a gay couple or if it was a straight couple. I loved that about the writing, that it would fit all of those things. We didn’t make any adjustments for ourselves, like “this is the gay version of us, so we should behave this way”, or “I’m straight now, so I guess I’d better act more whatever”. But it did have an effect on how the scene played, and how it was received.
Which of the futuristic concepts in the show do you think is most likely to come true?
Well, I think we’re pretty close to that avatar thing of being able to program sexual fantasies, avatars for ourselves and our partners.
I heard an interview on CBC with some neuroscientists a few weeks before we started rehearsals that was about the science behind capturing people’s consciousness and programming it so that you can continue to relate to them after they’ve passed on, so they would save all of the neuro-pathways or whatever in your brain, and the way you think and the way you talk, and respond to things, and then people would have access to your consciousness after you died. Which is very much like that Skype scene.
So what do I think we’re closest to? Well, it’s not teleportation. You know, maybe the soul-match app in the Office Friends scene, I think we’re already pretty close to that, we’re already trying to match people based on all sorts of things, so a kind of anonymous app that matches people based on whether they should be soulmates or not. I think we’re pretty close.
Did you have a favourite scene and person to play it with?
I loved doing the Skype scene with Anand. I think it was my favourite scene that I got to work on. I loved all the scenes that I got to do because they were all so different. But that one I loved doing.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
Well, one of the reasons I loved the writing when I read it was that even though each had this technological idea which in some cases felt kind of far-fetched or far away from where we are, essentially every scene was still about the human condition and challenges in human relationships. So I guess why I was excited to work on it and what I hoped an audience would take away was that- I think we fear technology a lot. It’s happening so fast, and it’s changing so fast, and it’s easy to get freaked out and be like “it’s taking away our humanity”. What this play kind of says is that, in a way, that’s just augmenting the challenges that we have already as people. The responses that we got from people were because they related so much to it. They felt so connected to the content of the scenes, which is wonderful considering that some of them were crazy, the premises.
Were there ever timing issues or traffic jams?
Our two associate directors, Llyandra [Jones] and Griffin [McInnes] really did a great job of working it out. They created all of that what they called “interstitial” stuff so that it was flexible, so that there would be a set amount of activity to it, and then there was room for there to be a buffer. And they would cue us in very subtle ways. They or the ASM would come by and nod, or whatever, and you’d know in that sense, “okay, well, we’re gonna skip the second part,” or “we’re gonna draw it out if we need to, to fill the time.” So I didn’t experience any traffic jams.
You’re also a playwright. How did that develop?
I mean, I wrote plays when I was a kid, but they were very earnest. They weren’t very good. In theatre school I started writing material for myself to perform. When I graduated from NTS [National Theatre School], I didn’t know where I was gonna fit, in terms of being a performer. I didn’t want to wait around for someone to validate me and hire me. So I decided to write my own one-person show and do it at the Montreal Fringe. So I was playing around with some writing while I was at NTS, and I sealed the deal, and that choice ended up informing the next decade. That was the smartest thing I ever did.
One of the most notable things that you’ve written for yourself is The Gay Heritage Project. Tell us a little bit about the genesis of that project and what it means to you.
The genesis of that project was actually research I was doing for another play that I was in, which was Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin. There are the sons of Nazi war criminals who were living in Paraguay, and this character was gay, and so I was looking at the history of gay people under the Nazis to get some kind of insight into what kind of culture he was growing up in. And so I read this book called The Man with the Pink Triangle, and it was this horrible account of what this young Austrian man endured under the Nazis. So I just got angry at the history, and I got angry at myself for not knowing the history better, and I got angry at myself for not being more connected to my own community. It made me want to reach out and connect with my own gay community, and delve into our history together, and ask some questions about it. So that was the genesis of it, and then I went to Damien Atkins and Andrew Kushnir, and we built it together. From that point on, it became something very different from its genesis.
For me, it means I’ve participated in not only acknowledging and preserving some important history, but passing it on to a new generation. On a community level, that’s what it means to me. On an artistic level and a theatrical level, I think it was a pretty exciting project. Coming together as artists and the way that we created it was pretty unique, and I think an exciting contribution to queer theatre in Canada, and just theatre in Canada. We had a good run. We toured it across the country.
What were some of the interesting reactions you found in different geographical locations across the country?
Everywhere we found a really great and welcome response from the gay community and from the theatre community there. Vancouver was particularly celebratory and awesome. We were in the Cultch theatre there. It’s a historical building and it’s a beautiful mid-sized theatre space where the balcony kind of wraps around you and you just feel everyone kind of with you and on top of you. It made us feel very much part of the community. Edmonton was home for us, in a way; Damien and myself grew up in and around Edmonton, and Andrew had been to school there, so being back in that building felt like a homecoming. They were very welcoming as well. While we were there, there was this young man who was kind of struggling with the school that he was in because of harassment, and it kind of made the papers. There were a few cases with young people suffering from being targeted. And the theatre arranged for them to come see the show, as special guests, and we met them afterwards, and that was really really great. Edmonton has come a long way in terms of being a welcoming, inclusive city for gay people, and that was nice to see. We came back and our faces were all over the Citadel and so that was nice. And Victoria was also lovely, a lovely community, a lovely theatre. Even though the play was created in Toronto, we had done so much to try and include the history of gay people throughout the country, not just in Toronto. It resonated with everyone, which we were glad to see.
Tell us a little bit about how that play developed and how the casting fit in with the original conceptions of the characters.
I wrote that in 2008 as part of the Playwrights Unit at the Tarragon. I was wanting to look at this idea that we have around meritocracy, that everyone just sort of gets where they are because they deserve to, and a way to address the concept that there’s always that, but there’s always a mix too of people getting to be where they are because it also suits the person who puts them in that position, right? So I wrote it back then, and it was one of those plays that at the time, it got to the point of public reading at the Tarragon, and it went really, really well, and was well-received, and then kind of just- no one picked it up. No one wanted to develop it further, and I moved on to other things. And then Matt Gorman e-mailed me asking did I have anything lying around? And so I sent him that, and another one, and he read that, and because his father was a professor and he had sort of grown up in and around universities, he was excited by it. I think I did some updates to it, because when it was written, everything was still paper in 2008. So I had to update the office culture a little bit.
I loved the cast. Julia and Andy and Marcel [Stewart] and Catherine [Fitch]. They were perfect, so I’m glad that they’re recognized, cause they were right on.
What are you doing now / what’s your next project?
Right now I am writing a play that’s part of the in-development programme at Studio 180, called This Great City. We did a workshop and a reading of a draft back in 2015 as part of their in-development. It’s looking at how the personal intersects with the political in a city like Toronto under a mayor like Rob Ford, sort of looking at what happened to us during that time. It was not about Rob Ford, it’s about us. So I’m working on that, then I’m off to Montreal to do a remount of Bed and Breakfast, which premiered at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, I think in 2015? Directed by Ashlie Corcoran; I’m doing that with the playwright Mark Crawford. We also do that in Victoria in August, as well.
And do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just, TomorrowLove- that’s one of the most exciting things I’ve gotten to do in this city. You don’t get to do a project like that very often. So I was really thrilled to be part of it, if I hadn’t said that already.