My Theatre

13 April 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Sarah Naomi Campbell

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

Sarah Naomi Campbell stood out in two very different new works in 2016- Cue6’s collectively created issue play We Three and Caitie Graham’s family dramedy Paradise Comics, the final play in Filament Incubator’s ambitious 8-plays-in-8-months inaugural season. The latter performance- as a grieving wife battling a teenage daughter she doesn’t understand- scored Sarah her MyTheatre Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress. An unexpectedly cancelled production left space in her schedule to stop by the Nominee Interview Series and discuss the state of Toronto theatre and her newfound role within it.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Well, I’m from Stratford originally, and I was very lucky in that I had family that worked in the theatre. My dad’s girlfriend was in the jewelry department so, because of that, growing up I was able to see shows. I think my first show there- I was 5 or 6, so I saw Gilbert and Sullivan, and then we gradually moved into the Shakespeares. So I was lucky. Then that was my summer job, working at the theatre. I worked in the box office. I worked there in high school and then in university. And then I worked in admin for a little bit as well. So I was kind of always able to see shows there, and so that definitely is probably the largest influence.

How did you get involved with Paradise Comics?
I had done a show with Zach Parkhurst. I had done Leroy Street’s Winter’s Tale, and both Zach and I were in it about a year and a half ago. He was producing this, and he loved the script. He had told me months and months before, he said “I’m sending you the script. I really want you to audition.” And then he reminded me to come back in. So I came back in, and I auditioned for Darwin [Lyons, director] and Caitie [Graham, playwright] and Zach, and then they cast me.

What attracted you to the script and to that role?
There was something really interesting to me about how everyone struggles with grief separately even though they’re grieving the same thing. And it had been a long time since I’ve actually seen a really small family drama, especially in an indie theatre. Which is strange, because you’d think it’d be really common, because it’s a small cast, but I think, partly because of age casting, but partly just because of what the new scripts are that are coming out, it was maybe the first time in a long time that I’ve worked on just a really small family drama. 

Your relationship with both David Ross as your husband and Sherman Tsang who played your daughter felt very complicated and lived-in. How did you develop such a sense of history with such a short rehearsal period?
Part of it is just process. There were kind of these great little hints in the play itself as to what maybe their lives were like. Or at least questions. There were a lot of questions like, if this hadn’t happened, if he hadn’t killed himself, what did I expect was going to happen? But I also, I recently studied in Chicago, and a lot of the work that I learned there and did there was really about that, was really about not just building relationships, but also trying to really deal with the person in front of you, in a live way for theatre so that people are actually seeing two people have an experience together at that moment, rather than, like, a remembered moment based on homework that you’ve done about what it’s like to be married to this person, and blah blah blah blah blah. So part of it comes from that.

Part of it comes from just really building in specifically things with David as my husband around wanting something from him, both as the actor – wanting something really specific from him in that moment, and if I get it. And also just – There’s something about family in which – when you’re dealing with, I find, grief and betrayal – that if you can fight hardest for the things like comfort and love, that really resonate with me. And it seems like a contradiction, because the people who betray you the most are the ones that you should not seek comfort from, but it’s actually what you want. Like a lover who’s betrayed you or something like that, what you actually want them do is to comfort you and make you feel like everything’s going to be okay. So I found if I really dropped into those things and made myself really vulnerable to those things, and fought from this really open place of love instead of expecting him to fuck up, or expecting her to be an idiot kid. Because I think with the people you love and with your family, you actually expect the best out of them, even if you know them really well, and you think that, like, “ugh, they’re going to do this.” The more you hope for the best, particularly in theatre, the more you set up a really interesting place for you to go.

What brought you to Chicago?
A couple of things. I stopped acting for a really long time. I went to Humber here, and I acted really briefly. And then I had difficulty with the life, the lifestyle and dealing with rejection and why I was doing it, and so I stopped for a long time. And then it kind of never went away. So a friend of mine who’s from here, Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman, she has moved to Chicago since. She now lives there and works there and is a theatre artist. And I had asked her, I said, “If I was going to, like, get back in and take a class or do something,” and she said, “You have to come to Chicago,” which is her answer to everything. And I went, and there’s a really amazing – it’s a studio there called Black Box Acting, and it’s young and it’s boutique acting. And I went for a month and took a week night class, and then I thought, “This is it.” This is what I have been looking for in Toronto theatre, that when I am critical about things and I feel like something’s missing, that this is teaching me, or confirming things for me. And then when I was there at the time, they were auditioning. Well, they weren’t quite, but they gave me a special audition for a five month academy that they were doing. So I got in, and then I scrambled together some money, and I went there for five months.

Did you think about staying? What brought you back here?
I did think about staying. I got cast in something and I couldn’t get papers together, and also I needed to make some money because I was very broke, so I came back here. So for a long time I was kind of in this limbo world of not quite in Chicago and not quite in Toronto. Because I’d been gone for so long and never really, really established myself, it was like starting from zero again. And I had a community in Chicago, so it was odd to have a community – and I still have one – I got to have a community there, and then when I was here, to not have a community but be here trying to do work. But now that I’ve been back for about 2 years, it’s interesting. I’m not sure about Chicago. I mean, also, the political climate in the States… 

But there’s so much interesting, there are so many interesting things happening here that. Because Chicago is the home of storefront theatre in a lot of ways, it’s given me a slightly different voice and a slightly different way of working and a slightly different way of seeing things here. And it’s interesting. It’s interesting to see what will happen and where things will go.

Starting again in Toronto after having already been through two phases of your career, do you find that there’s a noticeable generation gap with the new theatre grads who are coming up in indie theatre now?
A little bit. I actually find it really exciting. Most of the artists that I’ve connected with, like Zach [Parkhurst, co-founder of Filament Incubator], are really recent grads. A lot of them are in their early 20s. Part of it is because I think this is their reality that they’re going into. When I was in theatre school, there was still this very strange ingrained idea that you would audition for a bit, and then you’d get something at, like, YPT or Tarragon or Passe Muraille, and then you’d get Stratford or Shaw, and then that’s what your life would be like. And there was this weird idea where if it wasn’t that, then you were kind of a failure. There was really no indie theatre. There was like “amateur” or “you’ve made it”. That’s how it felt to me. And now, that is clearly not the reality. I mean, yes, we would all like to get paid more in indie theatre, but definitely it’s very different. And so I feel like a lot of the grads coming out, they know that, they’re excited about it. I mean, Filament to me is an amazing thing that this group quite new out of school got together. And yes, Aaron [Jan] wrote some of it, and some of them wrote things, but it wasn’t that idea of, like, “We’re going to put up stuff so that we can act.” It was like, “We’re going to produce things.” And the fact that there’s so many young artists coming out, saying “We need to make theatre; I’ll be a producer,” it’s not just about “I’m getting up and acting and getting my name there”. It really is about making theatre in this city, which is really exciting.

They produced 8 plays in 8 months. Was there a sense of interconnectivity or some sort of community within the larger Filament Incubator season, or was Paradise Comics a separate entity that happened to share a label with seven other productions?
The thing is, it actually ended up being 8 plays in probably about 5 months, I would say, because the last 2 months were, like, 4 of the plays. And part of that was intentional. I think they were really smart in taking the summer off. I feel really lucky that Paradise Comics was the last show, the 8th show, because I feel there was a lot of momentum. With ‘Til Death and Swan and all of those shows that were right before it, which were really strong and really great.

But I think because we were also in different spaces, we didn’t necessarily have that continuity; there was never that kind of crossover. That said, I would run into other artists and be like “I’m in Swan!” “Oh, I’m in Paradise Comics!” And there was a kind of like, “Oh, this is great!”

But it was kind of nice to be in that final show and be part of that push. And really, by then, I think people were like “Wow, they’ve done it.” I’ve got to hand it to those guys. They really actually followed through. A lot of people are going to produce a season, or produce something, and they kind of at some point crap out. And these guys pushed, really pushed all the way through, so that I feel like, by the end of the season, they’d really kind of found their legs.

Let’s go back to the production a little bit. Talk to me about working with director Darwin Lyons.
I didn’t really know Darwin before. I mean, I’d met her, because I was in a play with a really good friend of hers, so we’d kind of seen each other socially, but I’d never worked with her professionally. Darwin was really interesting to work with because she definitely has a very strong vision, she’s very much a leader in the room as a director, especially as a new director, which is rare, I think. But also, she came in, from the very first read, having all of us in the room, including stage management, including producers and playwrights, looking at different ideas of what it means to grieve, and what are the things that we remember about the people we’ve lost. And also just trying, I think, new things in terms of processes she’s used as an actor that maybe we haven’t. And really ultimately from the very first rehearsals, it was really about, like, really connecting, and really, really about honesty and what’s actually happening in the moment, which I really appreciated. 

What were some of the things you were hoping the audience would take away from the show?
It’s a tough one with this show because there was a point at which we got so in it that it was hard to come out and see it from the outside. But the biggest thing is that, for me, I think it’s fighting for the people in front of you and fighting as hard as you can, even if you feel lost, and sometimes that’s the most important time to do it. You know, it was a strange time, because we were rehearsing, and the election happened. And I remember, we went to rehearsal the next day, and we were all kind of, “ugh”. And it took me a few weeks, but I remember finally posting something and saying, “You know, there are times when you’re grieving something, or something’s happening and you don’t know what to do, and sometimes just going and watching other people go through that process in a way that is disconnected from your real life has its own catharsis.” And so I was kind of hoping that, given that time, considering that it’s a strange family play, and it’s not political, and it’s not all of those things, that it would give people that journey to go on and find some kind of resolution in humanity, in connecting with others around us at the end. 

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
The fight scene between the husband and wife. That scene got rewritten so many times and got reworked so many times. And it was kind of one of those scenes where we just banged our heads against the wall. But by the end, I loved it, because it was a real journey that had happened, from the beginning of that scene to the end. It was only about 5 pages, but it was a real rollercoaster. But then I also loved working with David again, as the storage man. It was this great kind of dichotomy to get to work with both sides of him, and then also have it being, like, joyful and flirty and strange. 

You also worked on We Three last year, which was amazing. What stands out to you about that production?
That show was really interesting. It was semi-verbatim in that it was done using a process by a Chicago company called The New Colony. In that, the playwright gives you kind of a breakdown of what’s going to happen, and then you do a bunch of workshops kind of improvising around these things, and the arc based on what she’d given us. And so then it was all recorded, and then she went back and did some verbatim stuff and then shaped a play out of it. So it was really interesting trying to talk like a human being, even though it had been written exactly the way you speak.

It was very difficult. I hadn’t done an issue play like that before, which is hard. It’s hard to do an issue play and still fight for people in front of you in a really human way and not get lost in a giant argument all of the time. But what’s really interesting was doing it at Tarragon and, if the show downstairs at the time was sold out, we had a few, kind of, Tarragon base ticket buyers, shall we say, show up and buy a ticket for our show. And so I would have friends sitting there, like, nodding along with my character, being this kind of feminist character, and watching this older group in front of them nodding along with the much more conservative character. So I think in that way, it was really interesting being in that space, to have a bunch of people who really – you know, we assumed that kind of everyone would be younger, and to not have that happen… I’ve also had a lot of people kind of out of the blue, like, on the street come up to me since then and be like, “Were you in We Three? I loved that play.” I think it’s people that maybe don’t see a lot of theatre. Somebody else had said to someone involved in the show, she was like, “I mean this in the best way, because I don’t really love theatre but I love Twitter, and it was kind of like Twitter on stage.” And I was like, “That sounds terrible, but if that did it for you, I guess that’s cool.” You know what I mean? Like, it sounds awful, but it was kind of like that, right? I think it’s definitely a younger generation who were just like, “Whoa, I’ve never seen something that was really exciting.”

How did you end up tackling the weird dialogue phenomenon of delivering lines that were exactly what you would say?
The play was really dense, because it was so much argument. It was so much text that eventually it had to become hardcore rote. You always have to find your way into language, but then to find your way in and just be like, “Oh my god, do I actually say ‘uh’ that many times?” And probably I say it more, and she edited it out so I don’t sound like an idiot. But yeah, at a certain point, you kind of just had to buckle down and just be like, “Okay, it’s got to happen.” Because the other thing that, when it’s really like how someone speaks, it becomes even easier to paraphrase. And especially when it’s like, “Well, it’s how I speak, so I’ll paraphrase how I speak,” and then it’s just like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Sarah did a lot of work. The playwright did a lot of work to actually, like, craft those arguments”. 

What are you doing now/what’s next?
Well, I was supposed to be in Divine at the Storefront; it would have opened last week [if the Storefront hadn’t closed]. It’s all postponed, as you know. I’m not really sure when that’s going to happen, but I really was excited about the play, so I’m hoping that I can do that when that happens. There’s things in the pipeline, but we’ll see. But nothing else imminent right now. 

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’m so grateful for you and for the work that you do, and the fact that there’s so much interest in theatre right now, that you and others like you are investing all the time in Toronto theatre. Within a year having Storefront, 102 and Videofag all close their doors was kind of really jarring. That doesn’t mean there isn’t theatre happening, but it really felt to me like both 102 and Storefront were really on a cusp of really finding a new level for them and taking off. And I think they both still will, don’t get me wrong, and in fact I’m sure in lots of ways this is a blessing in disguise- I’m excited to see what happens next- but right now I do feel like we are in a bit of a limbo. So, thank you. The more that there’s people talking about theatre, and the more that there are voices out there, or people giving voices to theatre artists out there, it’s exciting and it’s important. Because it means that people aren’t like, “Oh, these things are closed. Where are we going to do stuff? I don’t know. Let’s give up for a bit.” You know? Which can be really easy sometimes as theatre artists. It’s so insurmountable sometimes. 

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