Rachel Jones is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress for the rare feat of playing an almost totally new Shakespeare character. In All’s Well that Ends Well at Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park, she and director Ted Witzel reshaped, redefined (and partly rewrote) the role of male clown Lavatch to instead present a compelling and complex female character whose stirring original monologues shaped the play and made Rachel a narrator of sorts.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Well, I grew up in PEI. So my first experience was seeing Anne of Green Gables at the Charlottetown Festival. And you come out of it singing, and dancing, and going “I want to do that!” I don’t do a lot of singing and dancing now, but performing.
When did you decide that that was what you wanted to do?
Well, really, at the time, when I was really tiny, I had always, always wanted to do it. But it was a really long and winding road before I actually got to do it. A whole lot of stuff came in between. I wanted to go to theatre school right out of high school, but of course the mother, being the protective person, says “Go and get a degree first”. So I went and did an English Literature degree, and I happened to be really good at that. “Go do your Masters”. So I did. “Go do your PhD.” So I did. But I didn’t actually finish the PhD. I had my daughter during – I think it was the third year of my PhD – and so at that time, after being kind of a stay-at-home mom for a couple of years, I thought to myself, “I have always wanted to be an actor. And I’ve been being an academic for all these years because it just was the easy route. But if I don’t try to do something now, I’m never going to.” So I auditioned for a show at the Grand Theatre in London, and I got it. I think my daughter was about four at the time. So that was my first ever professional gig. But then I ended up being a single mom for a really long time. So being an actor with kids is hard enough. When you’re a single parent with kids, it’s kind of impossible. So I did things sort of locally.
My daughter and I had a kind of pact. I remember exactly where we were standing, actually, when we talked about this. We were standing outside on the street, just in front of her school, and I think she was about eight. And I remember saying “I really need to go to Toronto to work, because if I want to be a professional actor, that’s kind of where I need to be.” And she said “Okay, but can we wait until I’ve finished elementary school so I don’t have to start a new school in the middle?” So I said “Okay, that’s fair.” So we waited until she graduated from grade 8. So that was a long time of scraping up different kinds of work. I went to teachers’ college in the meantime, because I thought that might be a good way to make the transition to Toronto, to have something to support us while we were here. And then finally we got here just before she started grade 9. And we had a great landing, because we found an apartment with someone who I’d worked with in a play. And he offered us this wonderful place in a beautiful neighbourhood, very close to a school she wanted to go to. And from then it’s just been onwards and upwards, and she loves it, and I love it. So I came to acting late. I didn’t go to theatre school. I just learned by doing it in an amateur kind of way, and then in a professional way, in increasingly bigger parts. So it’s a bit of a strange journey to it.
How did you get the High Park gig?
I just went and auditioned. Also, luckily, one of the directors, Birgit Schreyer Duarte– she actually, when she first came to Canada, came to London. And so she had seen me in a number of things in London. And we knew each other, and so she had a kind of sense of what I could do. And so when she auditioned me, it turned out to be right, a good fit, and then the other director, Ted Witzel, he saw me and figured out a great fit for me, which was the show that I’m actually nominated for, which is kind of awesome, for All’s Well.
You play a character who’s not really in the text as originally intended. It’s sort of an amalgamation and a gender swap and all these things. Tell us about almost creating a Shakespearean character from scratch.
That was a really interesting process, because when I went in for the audition, I knew it was for Lavatch, and I liked Lavatch as a man, so am I going in and auditioning as a man? I kind of did. I went in and did something that was quite masculine, and clown-ish, in that sort of traditional male clown way. And then he was very excited, and Ted is so excitable and so passionate, and he was jumping up and down going “That’s great. Now let’s imagine that she’s a male impersonator, but she’s had the baby of the Countess’s husband who has died. So she’s a male impersonator, but identifies as a straight woman, and she’s had this baby with this guy, and the Countess knows about it. And she’s just hanging out backstage, behind the stage door, after doing one of her shows, and she’s talking to the Countess – and go.” And I was like “Wow, okay, that’s not at all the way I conceived of this, but let’s give it a go!” So I just jumped in and did something and he was really happy with it. And so when I got the part, I thought that that’s what direction we were going in. But then when we sat down and chatted, he’s like, “Nope, actually, I want her to be basically what you saw.” She ended up being a hyper-feminine – you know, with really exaggerated feminine characteristics. But even that was a process, because I started off – for some reason I thought she should be Russian to me. I don’t know. She looked like – she wore the big cowprint, very made-up, very put-together, and very, very feminine, and to me, she seemed like some of the Russian ladies that I had seen in my neighbourhood who are always dressed to the nines. The picture of femininity, or one kind of femininity, at least. So I was doing that for a really long time, and he loved that for a while, and then he said “that’s great, but I think that kind of pushes people away, and alienates, because they won’t be familiar with the accent. And we need you to be a conduit between the audience and the play.” So he said “Try another accent that’s Canadian.” So then I was doing a maritime accent for a while. And then he loved that for a while, and then we got rid of that altogether. And I felt very naked at first without those accents, because I felt they were part of the character I was creating. But actually, it was a very smart move, because those things informed what I actually ended up with once you took the accent away. I still had those elements of the hyper-femininity, of the very casual maritime, they all mixed together to be the Lavatch that we ended up with, that we were really happy with.
Tell us about those original monologues.
Ted wrote those. And I was very surprised at that at first – I thought “Wonder why he’s adding to Shakespeare?” – but it ended up really framing and informing the play well. I found them to be very poetic, and at the same time, very direct, so I felt instantly attached to them. And I felt like I could inhabit them in a way that felt natural to me, and hopefully would feel natural to the people watching. I loved them, and a lot of people said that they were their favourite parts of the show, which was quite something. I thought he did a brilliant job writing those.
You mentioned that you don’t do a lot of song and dance, but you did sing in this show. How did it all come together?
It was fine. When I said I don’t sing, I used to sing, that used to be my main thing, singing. And then I just sort of got rusty, and tended more towards straight theatre. So I hadn’t sung in a while. So I was a little nervous, but singing in character is always a lot easier for me than just singing as Rachel. So when I was singing, I was being somebody else singing, so that felt easier. More fun.
Ted, your director, and Qasim Khan, your co-star, are also nominated for work on All’s Well – what was it like working with them?
Oh, great! Unfortunately, Qasim and I didn’t really have a lot of time together onstage. We had a little bit, like a couple of scenes, and those were really sparky, exciting scenes, because you have the two clowns bonding and repelling at the same time, because there’s an animosity between them in some senses. Sort of an aggressive jokiness, but there’s a real affinity and understanding for each other being the other in society. And so ending up helping him and championing him, in a really cool way. And then Ted’s not like any other director that I’ve worked with, and I just really, really enjoyed – he’d always say “Here’s another obtuse direction from Ted”. He’d come in saying something that I think if anybody else said it, you’d go “What? What are you even talking about?” But when it comes out of his mouth, it seems to make sense, and you just dive into it. You have to be kind of fearless, because he is, and you just have to dive into it and see what happens.
Because Ted’s conception of Lavatch as the mistress to the deceased Count was so not what that character originally was, did you ever find yourself having to reshape the actual words you were saying, and put them in a new context so everything made sense?
That’s a great question. I’m trying to remember – there didn’t actually seem to be a lot of that. For one thing, the text had to be edited because when you’ve only got 90 minutes, we really had to cut it, so obviously some of the things that are gonna go are going to be the things that don’t fit into this conception of the character. But generally it made sense. Some of the jokes that were penis jokes, or that kind of thing, you had to find a different spin. Make it work as a vagina joke. And that was challenging, but it was fun.
And tell us about Gertrude, who you did in rep with your role in All’s Well. It was a very contemporary adaptation. How did she fit into the story in a more contemporary context?
Birgit’s conception of the play was, she wanted it really to be a family-based drama. Obviously there’s a huge political frame for it, but the family was really important to her. Claudius and Hamlet and Gertrude, and their relationship – each to the other – became really important. We also tried to weight things a little bit more. Inclusively towards Gertrude, because Claudius in the original is the one who’s got all of the power. We were trying to invest a little more power in Gertrude. In our minds as part of a backstory that nobody would ever know, the idea was that in fact, the royal lineage is through Gertrude rather than Claudius. She’s the royal one. And Claudius is only royal by virtue of being married to her. So trying to weight that a little bit more. We occasionally gave her a few lines of Claudius’s to make it a more balanced and equal relationship, in terms of the power. Which was interesting, because as the play unfolds, she has less and less power over what happens, because in our conception of the play, she had no idea of the murder. She was not party to it at all. So power is gradually taken away from her altogether, because Claudius starts acting without consulting her. In the opening scenes, we see them together. When important messages come in, or things like that. But she becomes more and more removed, and their relationship deteriorates further and further, and she’s more and more isolated. They all are.
And you are a mother in real life. Your daughter, though she’s a bit younger than Hamlet – how did you draw on that history and that sort of motherly connection you have, and apply it to your relationship with Frank Cox-O’Connell?
Well, we talked quite a lot about that, actually, because having a daughter who’s becoming an adult – and then me being a single parent and actually, at the time we were doing this show, or rehearsing this show, it had not been that long since I had a new partner, so the idea of how that affects the family, because of course Claudius is a new part of that triangle. How that affects the relationship between the child and the parent, and the parent and the new partner, and the new partner and the child. That, I had some reference for that. And certainly, when I was thinking – when you’re getting the emotional background for the relationship between me and Frank, I would often think of my own daughter. How would I respond if my daughter started behaving erratically, and I couldn’t reach her? And the relationship that we once had was – because we do have a very strong relationship – if that seemed to be gone somehow, the despair and the helplessness – so it was easily imagined.
Hamlet is arguably the most famous English play in history. And All’s Well is quite obscure. Which is more difficult to tackle – something that familiar, or something that totally unfamiliar to the audience?
That’s a great question too. I guess it depends what you mean by difficult, because difficult in a sense of “What the heck are we going to do with this piece” – with Hamlet, you kind of know what to do. All’s Well, not. But difficult – how do you do something that’s original? How do you do something that’s captivating and new? That is more difficult to do with Hamlet than it is with All’s Well, because All’s Well is more obscure, and also for me particularly because Ted and I were essentially inventing a character that no one else has ever done. So that part of it was challenging, but it was – you knew you were doing something original. Whereas Hamlet – it’s more in the nuances of the interpretation, that you’re finding originality. So it’s difficult, in different senses.
And your Claudius in Hamlet also appeared in Late Night. Tell us a little bit about that experience.
Well, it was funny because I had no idea that Alon [Nashman] was part of Late Night, so when I came and sat in on the reading – I was like “Oh, we’re destined to be husband and wife in everything, I guess now”. Again, it was essentially this dysfunctional relationship between the two of them. There was a love there, and yet an isolation, partly from power and fame. So in those senses, there were a lot of parallels. In Late Night, I actually didn’t – our interaction was all in the public eye. Because we kind of ignored each other in private, in the few moments of private that there were. And so the whole relationship was kind of performed, until the alcohol and the booze kind of broke down my character Vivian’s inhibitions, and she started becoming overly real. Frighteningly real. And then, I guess, in Hamlet, there were moments of the performed, but what you saw between them in our conception of the play was real. There was real feeling for each other. So they were different in that sense.
Kat Sandler’s known for working with her actors to develop the characters once the rehearsal process starts. What were some of the ways that your voice helped to shape Vivian?
People have asked me that before, and it’s very hard to remember. We’re given quite a lot of input on dialogue, right down to that – obviously Kat has the final say, but we’re given a lot of freedom in terms of what we think our character would say or how they would express themselves. So we had contribution to the actual words that were said. It was also such a kind of whirlwind process because we did spend a lot of that time at the table, and then we had to translate that immediately into a television studio setting, working with actual TV crews. So it was a process unlike, I think, anybody had ever experienced. So a lot of the character development in terms of performance, I think, Kat was again giving us a lot of freedom to create there. So although it was already in the text, I think maybe what I brought was sort of that balance between the comedy, and quite dark comedy sometimes – and also quite dark genuine reality. So that’s what I was always striving for, at least – trying to find that meeting between “Yes, this is funny, but this is also a real person who is desperately sad at the same time”. So that’s where I always focused my energy.
Do you have any dream projects you’d love to work on one day?
Oh, gosh. I’m a huge Tom Stoppard fan. So I would love to do On the Razzle or – I can’t remember, but the one where they’re going across the sea, there’s a great farce that he’s sort of translated and adapted that’s really funny. But I’m also a big sucker for classics. I love Shakespeare. Being at Stratford would be a dream for me. I’d loved Shaw and his contemporaries when I was doing teaching assistant stuff at university, when I was doing my PhD. What it was in modern drama. I have a real feel for that too, so I would give my eyeteeth to be at one of those festivals, and be able to work all of the time. I can’t think of one play in particular that I would love to do. Just all of them. Every play there is in the world.
What are you up to now / next?
Well, I just finished that couple of weeks production at the Grand Theatre. The one thing that I know is coming up is I’m playing Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra for the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in the summertime, and I can’t wait to do that. Rona Waddington is the artistic director up there, and she’s great. She’s also doing The Three Musketeers, so I’ll be playing a musket or something in that one. And then Cleopatra in [Antony & Cleopatra] so that’s a huge challenge, and I can’t wait to jump into that one.
And do you have anything you’d like to add?
Oh, just – thank you for liking what I did in the summertime! It was such a lovely surprise to be in that kind of company, nominated with the other women who I would look up to as greats of Canadian theatre. Such a lovely pleasure to be nominated with them. So thank you for that.