The delightful and versatile G. Kyle Shields is one of the great staples of the Toronto indie theatre scene. He’s delivered memorable performances in some of my favourite productions of all time but he stepped up his game in 2017 with a career-best (and Outstanding Actor-nominated) turn in the key role of Teddy in the Storefront’s smash hit new play Tough Jews, staged site-specifically at Kensington Hall after the company abruptly lost its storied storefront space.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yeah. I’m pretty sure it was my grandmother taking me to see – I don’t remember which one was first, but it was about the same time – it was either The Lion King when it came to town, or Beauty and the Beast. I watched a fair amount of Disney as a kid, so that was obviously a super magical experience. And then being in theatre wasn’t until, like, a Nativity story in sixth grade when I played Joseph. I didn’t revisit theatre again until high school.
I’m fairly certain the first thing I ever saw you in was Sucker, a play that still lives right next to my heart. What are some of your main memories from that experience?
In my heart, the main memory is that that was like my essential Toronto theatre debut after I graduated school. And that was almost a full year after I graduated. It was a terrible year- we don’t have to get into that- and then Kat Sandler cast me – first she cast me in The Unseen Hand, which was part of the Playwrights’ Festival, when they did Sam Shepard, and then she cast me in Sucker. So we already had a bit of a working relationship. I was excited to be there. I was young. And I was really happy to be in a play at all. And it was fun. Working with Jess Moss was really fun.
And future Broadway star Astrid van Wieren!
Yeah, exactly. It’s crazy how far she’s come. She was so lovely and motherly, and she was doing a lot of indie theatre at the time, but I knew that at the time she had come off doing other really commercial productions and just kind of found herself in a place where she wasn’t doing that kind of show, and was trying to do a lot more indie theatre, and then took off from there. And that was one of the first times where I realized that your career’s always going to ebb and flow, and you kind of have to go with it. And she was also one of the first people that expressed how she’s never really said no to a project, unless it offended her. And that, for me, was the beginning of a formation of how I approached taking work. Which has become really important.
You just always say yes?
Well, I end up saying yes, for the most part. But that’s after a series of filters that have to do with, primarily, the people, whether [the show] can financially support me, and the project itself. So after examining those filters, one, two, three – if none of those are there, then it’s hard for me to see a reason to do a project.
My other favourite production you did was Maypole Rose. Can you tell us a little bit about that one?
I knew Brandon [Crone, playwright/director] from before that show, and so I had expressed that I really, really wanted to do that show, and auditioned for it. He cast Alex [Plouffe] and I, and that was really, really exciting. Rehearsals were always somewhere different, and of course, because it was such an intimate show, we spent a lot of time playing, and getting to know each other, and – spoiler alert! – during that process, falling in love. And then we did it in a tiny basement, which was again a really intimate space, and allowed for us to keep that relationship that we’d been developing, and a really strong sense of play. I hope- my fingers are crossed- that we can revisit it someday.
Yeah. Just gonna put that out there. [Ed. Note: he’s playing coy; just days after this interview, a new public reading of Maypole Rose was announced for Feb 18th at Tarragon Theatre].
How did you get involved with Tough Jews?
I had performed at Storefront [Theatre], and I’d been friends with a lot of those people for a while. So originally I did a reading of it, which went well, and I was like “Yeah, this is a good script”. Then I auditioned for it again, and I really wanted it. So I pursued that and put a lot of my energy into the audition, which is always a double-edged sword, because you have to want it, but you can’t be relying on it, or want it too much. And then Ben Blais [the director] just put his faith in me for a kind of role he’d never seen me in before, but from the beginning, we had good communication and a good idea of where we both wanted to go with the role. And we had an agreement that we would help push and pull each other into creating that character, and creating that space.
How involved was the playwright Michael Ross Albert during the process? Was the script still changing during rehearsals, or was it pretty locked in and handed off to the director?
If my memory serves me right, it was pretty locked in. Minor changes here and there. Cuts and revisions. It largely didn’t go through any huge transformations during the process, which was great because it was a big script. It was a big show, and it was good that it didn’t change too much. I do appreciate that he took a lot of the period-specific language and toned it down throughout the rehearsal process. It was fun to explore and be in that world, but I think it was a delicate balance for a modern audience to both know what was being said, but also not have it come across as being too kitschy.
The play was based on real events in Toronto history. Did you do much research going into it?
Oh, yeah. Michael lent me a book, and I tried to read into the events surrounding the Christie Pitts riot. When I did start to read into it, which I think was even before I got the part, you start to see a lot of parallels between what’s happening today – especially surrounding the world’s attitude towards the Muslim world, and outsiders, and “foreigners”. You start to see a lot of parallels because several years before the Christie Pitts riot, and the events of World War II, there was a huge influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe escaping the pogroms. They were all Jewish, for the most part, and they came to Canada, and they were largely marginalized, and redlined hardcore into certain neighbourhoods. And experienced lots of discrimination. In housing, in jobs, even just trying to go to the beach, which is where a lot of the drama that eventually became the Christie Pitts riots started.
Going to the beach?
In the beaches for sure. If I remember correctly, I think the beaches were 80% British. And when the Jewish community started moving in, they would, on the weekends, travel to the beaches, because they’d never had a beach before. They were never allowed to go to the beach in the old country. And because of the differences in their culture, and them meeting in this small space, a lot of discrimination started to flare up. A lot of the residents of the beaches didn’t want Jewish people. They’d put up signs saying “No Jews” in store windows around the areas. “No dogs, no Jews.” And that’s where a lot of the tension started that eventually became the riots.
Tell us a little bit about working with Ben on developing your character.
Ben is really passionate, and I really appreciated that about him. He knew that he wanted to bring the character into a space that existed on the cliffs’ edge. And I knew what he wanted. I think that because he’d never seen me in that role before, he wanted to push me to the cliffs’ edge, to a certain extent, in my volatility, in my aggression, in my ability to lash out and my ability to take power in the room. And I wanted that too. But also, that not necessarily being my comfort zone, in terms of character, I knew that I wanted him to help me get there. And he did. He was the perfect balance between push and pull, and keeping me confident as an actor, and keeping me exploring and playing and moving towards that space that we’d built that we wanted to go to, while also reminding me that I just needed to go further. So I really enjoyed working with Ben. He’s hands-on. It’s great.
The cast is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble. You were mostly playing family members. How did you go about developing those relationships?
Well, we did spend a lot of time doing table work, which was really good because it gave us a lot of opportunity to talk about what the history of the family was like, and especially about this character, the father, who’s spoken about a little bit but not seen. So it gave us a lot of time to talk about it, and get on the same page. Everyone in that cast had a lot of ideas and was willing to share them, so I think that that in and of itself was really helpful for ensemble-building when you’re coming at it with a shared imagination. And then all of us having strong personalities, but a playful room, and a space that we can express those personalities and those ideas, goes a really, really long way to creating a sense of ensemble that reads, to an audience, as play, and cohesion.
Tell us about working on those intense fight sequences and the physicality of the piece. Especially in such tight quarters.
Oh my God. Simon Fon. I was so happy we had Simon Fon. He’s so good. He taught me in school, so I already knew his style, which is “work fast, work safe, get in there, try it, if it doesn’t work, change it”. He’s so malleable, which I think is his strength in being able to work on the Festival stage, and small intimate stages like Kensington Hall. He’s great. But it is also dangerous. Obviously, because he knows how to work a space, he’s always clear about what safeties are in the place.
Maybe this is slightly tangential, but in my experience with him in school, I did not do as well as I could have in stage combat class. I bombed one of our major assignments, and I was not confident, so I didn’t approach it with the same kind of control and ownership over my own work that you need for stage combat. You have to take ownership over what you’re doing- the effort that you’re putting into it, the energy that you’re sharing, and the safeties that you’re taking with everyone else. You have to be able to say, “Stop. This doesn’t feel right for this reason,” and then work on it together. I didn’t have that then. Coming into this process now, I was so much more confident as an actor. And that made every difference in being able to do that, and make sure that it was safe for everyone.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I think it would have been two-fold. I think my one-on-one scenes with Theresa Tova were highlights for me, because she’s so seasoned- she takes up space, which is great, because she is a powerful character in that show. But also, she’s pushing you, which allows you to push back. So that tug and pull is there onstage, but offstage, she’s caring like a mother is, so there’s never any resentment around actions taken backstage, because the dialogue is always there, and the sense of wanting to take care of you is always there.
Another highlight would have been my scenes with Maaor [Ziv]. I’d spent a lot of time having a good struggle with them, and they were hard scenes because of that relationship, and the way that it changed over the show. I struggled with that difficulty, and looking back now, I really appreciate that. Those are the kinds of things that help me grow as an actor. So that’s a retrospect highlight, I would say.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
It’s super entertaining. It had a lot of things that people like- it’s got those plot points, it’s got explosive physicality to it, it’s got really enjoyable characters, it’s got humour.
But also, going in, I really wanted to draw those parallels between then and now that I saw in the research. In seeing how we react to unfamiliar people and cultures, and how we have historically been unable to check internal biases toward people we don’t understand. And how that affects communities now, that are still affected by being redlined, in a lot of ways. So yeah, the historical parallels were largely what I was hoping that people would take away from it. And they did, for the most part, which is great.
You also worked on Cloud this year. What stands out to you about that experience?
Well, getting to work with Alex, my partner, again, which is always really, really fun. And getting to work with a really great cast. Like I said with filters before, there’s got to be something there- the people, the project, the financial stability. And I think that for this one- Khadijah [Roberts-Abdullah] I’ve wanted to work with for a long time, Danny [Pagett] I’ve wanted to work with for a long time as a director. Tim Walker. Anand [Rajaram], I’m really happy he was cast, because I loved him in Mustard, and anything else that I’ve seen him in. He’s got such a great brain, and you can tell just by watching him act that he’s got this really cool, weird- I think weird is such a copout word, but he has a very outside-the-box way of thinking, and I really, really like brains like that.
What are you working on now, or next?
This year so far is pretty open. I have some things coming up that are unfinalized, so I can’t speak explicitly about them, but I’m really looking forward to workshopping a script that I’ve done before, and that’s coming up soon [Ed. Note: again, this is Maypole Rose; go see Maypole Rose on Feb 18!].
And in the future, I believe I have a venue tour in the works that I haven’t signed anything for, so I’m not going to say anything concrete about [it]… but I’m really looking forward to both of those. Other than that, it’s gonna be filling downtime, which is always a double-edged sword. Lovely, but I’m still searching for what that is.
And do you have anything you’d like to add?
Only that I’m really looking forward to the awards ceremony, and the party, and getting together with a bunch of people that I love. And seeing so many people that I really love nominated is really great – so thank you for providing that space, for all levels of theatre work in the city.