My Theatre

22 February 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Basel Daoud

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

As the quiet-spoken, but passionate, Arab scholar Khalid in Theatre by Committee’s Omnium Gatherum, Basel Daoud made quite an impression, delivering a performance that was both powerful and moving. Nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor, the warm and thoughtful Basel and I sat down to discuss everything from Terry Pratchett to the Arab intellectualist class.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yes, the very first play I did was The King and I; I was just one of the kids. I had one line and I was too nervous to even project it, but then my voice changed and that got sorted out afterwards. Then we did To Kill a Mockingbird. I was the priest, but the priest character is essentially just patting Tom Robinson’s wife on the back going ‘there there’ for the whole play. Finally, in the last year of high school, I was cast as Henry Higgins, which was awesome but my parents told me I needed to pull out to concentrate on my studies and acting died away for a few years and came back in university.

You said that you’ve been acting for the past eight years, so it kind of fell away and then you got back into it?
Yeah, I was studying engineering and I knew that I was being delayed another semester. The engineering department at the university in Cairo was in the same building as the theatre department, and the theatre department’s directing class was going on so they needed volunteers to act in their scenes. I still don’t know what possessed me, I was like ‘What else have I got to do, I’m staying another semester, I’ve got time’. Next thing you know, three or four of the students are fighting over me for their scenes so I’m like, ‘I must have something going on’. The instructor of that course was directing the main stage production for that year so he asked me to come in, I got a part in that, and even then I wasn’t quite convinced, but a few months later, after I graduated, one of the guys who was in the cast with me got a gig directing a lot of the dubbing for Disney and Paramount. Most of the Arabic dubbing that cartoons do is in Egypt because the dialect is easier in Arabic, so he got me in for a few things. Shrek was the first one. He was like ‘do you want to just come to do a voice’ and I realized that this is a career path I want to pursue, I’m having fun and they pay me for it. This was all in Egypt, and plus I was already thinking about coming back to Canada to settle permanently, so I figured I’d come and seek my fortune. That was seven years ago.

Can you talk a little bit about the difference between the Cairo, or Egyptian, theatre scene as well as here.
The language is the major difference, which was one reason why seeking any acting fortune would have to be away from Egypt – my Arabic is quite poor. I still speak Arabic with an accent. Egyptians sometimes are like ‘Where are you from?’ and I’m like ‘I’m from here’.  I spoke English far earlier, so I knew that English was going to be my weapon of choice.
Besides that, the theatre scene now in Cairo, compared to what it had been a couple of decades ago, is quite subdued. Obviously, politically you can’t really go very far out of the box, especially now. The main stage production we did in the university some folks from the Ministry of the Interior – I suppose the Americans call it the State Department – they came by to see if they needed to censor anything. Mind you, it was all Israel, Palestine, Iraq-themed. The only bits they had a problem with were the cuss words, probably, we suspect, because they didn’t quite understand the rest of the themes. So that would be a major difference between there and here. We’re allowed here to jump outside the box, quite a few boxes in some cases.

You were talking about doing some voice-over work. Have you done any of that here?
Only a tiny bit here. I primarily came to be a voice actor but it’s a very tough industry to break into, it’s a tiny one to start off with. Truth be told, my passions are with voice and with theatre. If I could do both, and nothing else, I would be pretty content. The industry doesn’t work like that, of course, so film and TV have to be kept in mind, as well as commercials, but I know what I prefer doing. Voice is a lot of fun; very exhausting on the throat.

So what are differences between theatre vs. voice-overs besides, obviously, the strain on your voice.
Voice-over shares something with commercial work as opposed to theatre in that they’re very snappy; you go in, you do a thing and thank you, and you’re done.  Voice-over is also more secluded. Sometimes you’re in a booth with a couple of your other co-stars, but frequently you have to be ready to be on your own, which is not worse, it’s just different. I do like theatre in the respect that you have time to build relationships with folks. It’s no coincidence that most of the actor friends that I have come from the theatre scene rather than film because you don’t have much time to connect with them on a set.

You’re nominated for your role as Khalid in Theatre by Committee’s Omnium Gatherum. What initially attracted you to the role, and how did you get involved with this production?
It was one of the ones that I found through social media – just plain, good old fashioned hunting around. I remember being quite nervous going in because it had been the first theatre audition in maybe three or four years where I did not already know somebody in the room but I remember they had been looking for two specifically Arab characters, Khalid and Mohammed, so I reckoned my odds were pretty good. That’s one perk of being a person of colour, you have less competition. The monologue that I had prepared for that audition was from a stage reading I did only a few months before that and it ended up being almost perfect for the sort of character that Khalid is, so happily Ben [Hayward] and Lindsey [Middleton] at Theatre by Committee seemed happy with it and took me on. As I told Lindsey when she messaged me to congratulate me on the nomination, truth be told, it’s more a testament to your casting abilities than my acting in that there’s a lot of Khalid that I already am naturally so whole swathes of those lines were not performed, they just came out like that.

Do you find it easier when a character is more similar to you or to really go outside the box and play someone completely different?
It’s more fun to go outside the box but usually I find, and I presume a lot of other people as well, that when I’m cast for things usually they cast me because they liked my strong points. I would consider those to be the parts where it feels less like acting. You can trigger parts of your personality that you know are in common with this character and that obviously comes out a bit more effectively because you know absolutely how you’re feeling at that point. Khalid represents a lot about what I’ve grown up around, the intellectualist class of the Middle Eastern world. I believe the writer of Omnium Gatherum had based Khalid pretty much on Edward Said. He was very well known at our university because he taught at the American University in Cairo, and that’s where I graduated. Every Arab knows his name, at the very least, if not more than that about him. And a lot of intellectuals do end up living lives very similar to the way that Khalid seems to have, for better and for worse, so it felt very familiar.

The role really allows you to cover the full spectrum of human emotion, beginning with a calm discussion of ideology and escalating, at its climax, to passionate and angrier discourse. Can you talk about navigating the character arc that Khalid undergoes? Was it an emotionally challenging role to play?
At moments it was; that’s the price to pay sometimes for effective performances. You take your heart to places where it may not necessarily want to go. But this is one reason why we discount the theory that acting is an easy job. In some ways it definitely is, but the price to pay is that not everyone is willing to go down to those places and that’s what actors do.
As for the first half or three-quarters of the play and how Khalid conducts himself, it felt familiar because it feels like he is conditioned to speak like this. He would prefer to speak closer to the way he does near the climax of the play but knows that the real world has limitations about that; it doesn’t really welcome those kinds of emotions, so he hides it behind this mask of logical thinking and having to over explain everything just in case he’s misunderstood but what he really wants to do is just yell at somebody about what right is and what wrong is and can’t we just work with that. And wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was just nice to each other, which is a trend with not just Arab intellectuals. A lot of the elite class around the world, I feel, tend to have that instinctual response. What’s the problem? People are hungry? Feed them, what’s the complication here? But with some catalysts to bring out the more instinctual sides of him, the Roger character being the main one, it’s not really touched on but I played it off as Khalid being relieved to have someone like that around, like finally someone who is a direct confronter, as opposed to having to sidestep through discussions. 

Characters more like Suzie, who is trying to divert the conversation.
Yes, Suzie represented the world, in general, as far as I was concerned. All the other characters, inputted their own bits. With [Aundreya Thompson’s] character Julie there’s an innocence there that Khalid misses but he can’t really join her yet. Happily, near the end he does open up. Terence represents Khalid’s world; they were contemporaries as far as the play is concerned, so he knows how Terence acts, these are the people that he associates with the most, he’s more comfortable with people like Terence, but doesn’t like people like Terence in a way. Then, of course, there’s the Mohammed character, who is the ultimate antagonist as far as Khalid is concerned. There’s the fact that he’s one of Khalid’s own. My character hates what he represents, but knows that part of what he represents also represents me, so Khalid is dealing with how to maneuver around that. He ends up taking the best course of action he can through some form of reconciliation. What else can he do? Just yelling at him is not going to work.

There was a line that I’ve kept in my mind from that last monologue. I said a lot of the lines in the play were not performed at all, they just came out, just triggered something that’s in here and let it roam free. It’s when Khalid explodes and says ‘I wish I had no brain’ near the end of his monologue. On none of the nights was that line performed, EVER. That one was very easy to tap into an energy that I already had. It was difficult coming out of it every time, but he gets to kiss Julia as well, so there’s that! 

There’s an increasingly surreal aspect to the play as it goes on. How did you balance the realism of the political and social discussions being held with the more abstract elements of the play?
That’s a good question. Even while reading through the script the first time I thought ‘where do we go from here?’ It ended up manifesting in that final monologue where now nothing matters anymore; all of the rationalizing we had just done doesn’t really matter after all so why not just say what we want to say at long last? Who else is here to listen? How are we going to change the world anymore? We had our turn. So that was the way the surreal part managed to play in for me; just try to play it off as what would happen if I were suddenly told that nothing I say or do from this point on really matters anymore in any way? It gave me license to just be myself.

Early in the play, your character Khalid says, “when you consider our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for acceptance and understanding is so urgent my friends, so urgent.” How important and timely is this idea given current world events?
It’s hilarious in a morbid sort of way, especially with this being done right when the Trump presidency was beginning to get started. It’s not in itself the biggest change but it was certainly the biggest sign that the world order as it was is not quite sitting well with us folks anymore; something is not right, which the Arab world had begun to feel really from the moment 9/11 happened. I still remember watching it on TV, in Egypt at the time, and my mom just watching it like ‘oh, we’re screwed’. So I reckon us Arabs only had a bit of a head start in getting that realization that things are changing and we’re not quite sure if it’s for the better in the short term, so now what? So those lines, and especially about what had preluded it, the analogy about breaking the world down into just a village of a hundred people where only one had a college education out of the hundred. Somebody could say now that maybe it is outdated – this play was, after all, written in 2003 so it has increased to what, 2? 3? 5? And even if it increased to 15 or 20 and beyond, then what? All this progress, and what have we got to show for it? Now what do we do with it? which is what attracted me to the script in the first place. It’s a good wake-up call, which is what all of art is when you think about it; little ways to just wake you up and keep in mind the other bits of the world you have to pay attention to apart from the little bubbles that we’re in.

You were talking a little bit about 9/11 and obviously this play was written as a reaction to 9/11, so how did you engage with that differently, being a middle-eastern man?
I have to assume that I can know how people here had felt at the time. Certainly different in that some emotions I would say we already ahead on in some ways, for example the major one being what really changed the western world from that front, especially in North America, was the feeling of – I was going to say fear, but it’s more insecurity, like suddenly you are not untouchable anymore, whereas we Arabs had already been through that. I, myself, technically was a refugee when I was five years old. I was born in Kuwait and we left in the first invasion when Saddam invaded Kuwait, which lead to the first Gulf War. I was actually just reminiscing about it with my family back in Egypt; they were talking about how we had to drive out from Kuwait across the Gulf to pick up a ferry and go to Egypt. So, that bit about feeling like we’re never really safe, that one I’d already been through, but having an intensified feeling about that when 9/11 was happening like, alright, the focus is going to be on us now, and trying to piece between that which, at the moment, is manifesting in the form of the debate about Islamophobia and Islamic culture. I tend to dislike the term Islamophobia; it’s not necessarily Muslims that one would have a problem with, it could also be Arabs, which would be a different story entirely, but it’s the same dynamic where you’re stuck between, on one end, we feel a problem with agreeing sometimes with that there are some things that our world needs to improve on to make the rest of the world a better place and then being stuck with defending and entrenching our identity, so there’s always that dichotomy we have to deal with, which very much comes up in this play, for Khalid particularly. Mohammed, kind of – Shawn Lall, who played Mohammed, could tell you better on that front but we had sort of played it off that part of his resolve was cracking a bit not about how he feels, but what he’s doing about it and Khalid, to an extent, also was starting to meet him half way.

What was it like working with the rest of the cast? You said they were mostly new to you, you didn’t know anyone, and especially with your fellow nominee Shalyn McFaul?
Oh Shalyn’s fantastic. She is somebody that I would like to see more often in the real world and happened to be the only other married person in the cast, which helped. The rest of the cast are fantastic too. Ben [Hayward], who co-directed, was a joy to work with, as was Katy. Katy Murphy was the other co-director and she is the only one that I had seen at all before I got on the project. It turned out that I had auditioned for another one of her plays with Pure Carbon Theatre right before Omnium so I was like, ‘nice to meet you’ and she was like ‘we’ve already met’, which is another thing I love about the industry. It’s just like everybody knows each other.

Small world.
Yes! I can see some folks saying it’s too small of a pond, but I have not reached that point at all. I am enjoying it thoroughly for now. Mind you, of course most of the folks at Theatre by Committee have all worked with each other umpteen times, like Owen [Fawcett], Lindsey, Ben, Jon [Walls], Brandon [Gillespie]. I believe Shalyn, Aundreya, who plays Julia, Shawn and I were the only ones who were not Theatre by Committee to begin with. The good news is, you couldn’t tell! A week into it we were all just jumping in and that is the part about theatre that is great.

Did you have a favourite moment in the play?
Julia singing is the front runner at the moment. It’s another example of going beyond what the script says. The script itself, to read it through, is a bit weird! There’s not much direction. Like, she’s singing. She sings terribly. Everyone applauds. That’s more or less the stage direction, but in the application, as you witnessed, a lot of what you saw of what we at the table were doing, was not scripted at all. Some folks getting into it, me with Owen’s character like I know this song! And putting a beat to it, this was only crudely planned. Ben was like keep doing what you’re doing. In fact, do more of it, and we just had a good time with it.

So there was a bit of a license to improv when it came to your reactions.
Yes, even though I don’t rate my improv skills highly at all. I find that actors prefer one of two ways, for auditions particularly: they’re either improv folk, or they’re cold read folk. I am the latter, squarely, but sometimes when the script gives you license to, you can do things that can work with it. It’s fun to see what you just pick out with another cast member; it’s the nice part of teamwork.

What were you hoping that audiences would take away from the production?
I hope what they get out of it is that their own perspective is not the only one that’s valid; that the real world is far more complicated usually  than someone being right and someone being wrong. And that gray areas suck, but that’s what we have to deal with to move ahead as a people, as a species, as a country, whatever you want, and it’s hard! If it were so easy, we’d all be doing it! I feel a bit reluctant to direct that answer into a more Arab-centric answer because everybody gets their turn on that front. If you’re just talking about the narrow field of terror and antagonists around the world, 20 years ago you could see it in the movies. The terrorists were European; Russian or Spanish or French or whatnot and before that, Irish for a while. If we’re going to talk about how to deal with antagonists and the bad guys of the day, you look through history and everybody gets a turn, so can we just start figuring out why people behave like people and try to see what we can do about that as opposed to turning it into a black and white kind of thing because that clearly has not done us much good. That is what I hope audiences get out of it.

Moving away from the play, do you have any dream roles that you’d love to tackle one day?
I definitely do. Most of my theatre work in Canada to date has been with Socratic Theatre Collective. I auditioned for them when they were doing a Fringe show for one of the Terry Pratchett plays Discworld. [Pratchett] is easily my favourite writer. My tattoo is a Terry Pratchett reference from Discworld. There are three characters from that world that I had sworn I would play. Happily, they‘ve allowed me to play two of them. Death is a character in those books, which was the one that I started off with. Moving away from Terry Pratchett, it sounds very trite and its very unlike Khalid, but back in Egypt when Playstation was taking off and the God of War game series was coming out, a lot of folks were like ‘Do you realize you can sound like Kratos well enough?’ I’m like,’ well mind you I’d have to eat three other people to be that size, but give me enough horse hormone, I’ll do whatever you want.’ And it stuck in my head. So Kratos from God of War, if they ever do a live action movie. And Jafar from the live action Aladdin was one I’d had my hopes set on, but they cast the man they eventually gave it to [Marwan Kenzari] a few months ago.

What are you doing now/what’s coming up for you in the future?
I have a few small film roles here and there that have been popping up. I would like to jump back into theatre very soon. One problem with theatre, especially in the small-town sort of versions that I end up doing, is that you give up a lot of time for love of the game and not for a lot of money and now I am a married man so I don’t get to do that that much; I need to pace myself before jumping into a role again, which I learned last year. Omnium closed four days before I opened another play, which was fun to do and I was glad to do it, but it’s one of those things where you’re like okay now I’ve proved that I can do it, let’s not do it again for a while. This doing two plays simultaneously thing, let’s take it easy a bit, we have housework to do, if nothing else. I’m happy to have some great agents who are taking some risks on me and sending me out on auditions for bigger things here and there, so I hope there is a more clear-cut answer to your question any day now! I’m also getting back into music. That’s an itch I have not scratched in a long time. Hopefully there will be a show coming up in the spring and I’m looking very much forward to that as well.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
You have no idea how grateful I am for just being considered for an award. The recognition is something that I value greatly, and I don’t take it for granted. It also helps with the constant doubt that lingers with struggling artists. I cannot understate how important it is to hear every once in a while somebody giving you a ‘good job’. It means a lot. You can only tell it to yourself so much. And it’s nice to know that you’re doing something that affects people, that you’re actually saying something that people find worth listening to. Not everyone gets to be that lucky. So I’m incredibly lucky to be sitting here right now.

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