I always start these interviews with the question “do you remember your first experience with theatre” and, over the years, have heard countless tales of future actors taking their first trip to Stratford, little kids gazing up at the stage and thinking “how did they do that?!” and, eventually, “I want to do that!”. Twenty years from now, I guarantee young artists are going to be answering that question by remembering that in 2017 they saw Treasure Island and Katelyn McCulloch swung through the trees. In a year full of spectacle, the Outstanding Supporting Actress nominee’s heartfelt and heartstopping aerial-infused performance as a reimagined Ben Gunn was truly unforgettable.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I’d say the biggest stand-out is the first play I did. I played Slightly Soiled, the head Lost Boy in Peter Pan. It was a community theatre show in Nova Scotia where I grew up, and I wore – I think it was donated from people in the community, so I wore a dead mink across my body, and it had the head. It was like some little old lady donated it to the theatre, with a mink hat, and I got to have a little signing solo, and I just remember being like, “This is so much fun”. I played a boy in my first ever play, which is consistent through my career now, [laughs] playing little boys.
Who are some of the performers who have always inspired you?
My grandmother, first, when I was a kid. I didn’t come from a family of artists. My mom’s an accountant, my dad’s in sales, my brother’s an engineer. Lots of entrepreneurs, but no artists. My grandma was a stay-at-home mom, but she played piano and would perform in church things, so I’d say she was the very first performer who inspired me because she could kind of do anything. She’d pick up an instrument, she’d act. Everything was yes, so having that as a first inspiration performance was super important.
As I’ve gotten older, there’s so many – just because we were talking about Lear earlier – Seana McKenna. Always such an amazing inspiration, just a powerhouse of a woman. I love lots of different comedians on SNL that I grew up watching, so even now – Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, those types of women are definitely comedians that inspire a lot of the work that I do, and like to watch. And also in Toronto, I’d have to say Christina Horne. They’re all women. I keep naming powerhouse women that I will go out of my way to see their shows. And Yolanda Bonnell, who’s a dear friend as well, who’s another powerhouse of a woman I really love.
How did you get started doing aerial?
In my fourth year of university, I had a movement professor who said one of our projects was you had to learn a new movement skill. And everyone else was rolling their eyes, like “Ugh, fine, I’ll learn tango”. I was a dancer growing up, and a gymnast when I was really young, so those skills were always available to me. Right away in theatre schools, I started learning about physical theatre, and I was like “What’s Suzuki? What’s these things I’ve never heard about, growing up in a very small town in Nova Scotia?” My movement professor, Erika Batdorf, was like, “I feel like you should try silks. I feel like it will be the next big thing in theatre.” And I tried it, and I was terrible. I couldn’t climb a silk, because even though I had all this dance – the upper body strength! And it hurt so much – well, they all hurt for different reasons, but silks- it squeezes, you bruise, I had burns. And you’re gripping. Your hands are sore, your feet are aching and throbbing. The whole thing hurt so much, but I loved it. There was something I saw in doing it that I just knew I had to start learning it.
The circus school I was training at, Cirque-ability, run by Heather Kentner, who’s another powerhouse woman I’m so fortunate to know. I didn’t know, but she wanted to have her first baby, and so she trained me on everything – silks, hoop, trapeze, partner balancing, hand balancing, more acro skills, in exchange that when she had her baby, I would take over and teach for her. So I trained six days a week, or seven. I just trained non-stop. I was fresh out of theatre school, but I was like, “I want this skill,” and like I said, circus is so difficult. So if you want it, you have to really want it, because it hurts so much. And it takes a lot. It’s not like an instant “I got it”, it’s years and years, like anything, putting in your time. So then she had her first baby, and now she has three babies, and I just kept growing as her family was growing in terms of learning skills. And I travelled all over. Circus everywhere. It’s the best.
Does it still hurt, or is it something where, if you’re good enough, it stops hurting?
We always joke in the circus community that you eventually lose your nerve endings. You’re like, “I just don’t feel the backs of my knees anymore.” I would say it varies, so for Treasure Island, I was doing silks. But because I’m also trained on hoop and trapeze, which are bar apparatuses, they hurt differently. Now that I was away just doing silks, I came back, I was on a trapeze and was like “Ooooohh, that hurts, so much!” again. But it’s like anything. I think it’s like any art form. If you love it, that’s just part of the grind of it. Even if you’re at the gym, you’re like, “I don’t want to do another 15 minutes!” You do it because your drive is there. So yes and no to the hurting. Kind of hurts, kind of doesn’t.
How did you get involved in Treasure Island?
Mitchell Cushman, the director – well, this is kind of a funny story. First of all, I bumped into Nick Billon, who’s the playwright. And I knew Nick and Mitchell socially, but we had never worked together, and we bumped into each other, because the theatre community’s so small. I was at the Toronto Fringe, I bumped into Nick Billon, and he’s like, “So I heard you’re at Stratford next season,” or something. And I was like, “What? What are you talking about?” This was in July of 2016. And I was like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Stratford?”
I had never even auditioned for Stratford. I wasn’t really doing a lot of classical work, so even the generals, I didn’t even get a general pass opportunity. I called my agent being like, “Why didn’t I get a general?” She was like, “I submitted you. They didn’t want to see you” [laughs] and I was like, “Oh, shit!” So I bumped into Nick. He brought that up, and I was like “That’s so weird,” didn’t really think anything of it, and then Mitchell, three weeks later, sent me a Facebook message being like “Can I take you for a beer, and just talk about aerial and theatre?” He sat down, and then he was like, “So Nick Billon’s writing – ” and I was like, “Ohhhh! It’s all coming together”.
And we just talked about the logistics of what it would really take to have silks at Stratford, because it was their first time having silks, which was a big responsibility and a huge honour. Certain things had to change. I remember talking to their insurance broker and them being like “Well, you’re an interesting thing we had to deal with this season”, because I’m not attached when I do silks. Then I auditioned.
In Stratford, people come in with special skills, but what I love about it as a rep theatre and being there as an artist is that you have an opportunity to totally increase your range, or not even just increase it, but get to play the full extremes of it. So when I got the audition, I also made sure I prepped a Shakespeare, and Beth Russell, the casting director, was there. I knew going in, I was like, “I know I’m going in for Ben Gunn, Treasure Island, I have this special skill, but I want to make sure I knock it out of the park with my classical.”
So I had that experience, and that also led to me being in Romeo and Juliet, and The Breathing Hole. Because I believe I showed them that I wasn’t just a circus person. I went to theatre school before aerial ever happened. And then I got to understudy Juliet, and just really have an amazing, insane season.
But Mitchell definitely fought for the silks. I think nobody, including myself, could have really imagined what Ben Gunn was going to turn into. Because they had never done it. And the Avon [Theatre] built a catwalk for Treasure Island. Cause for the storm scene, which is all the flying and repelling stuff, that’s what they wanted. And then I showed up. Once I was hired for the job, I was like “This is the drawing of what I’d like”, and it just magically worked out to what Mitchell had described he wanted – that we could make both of them work, which was really amazing. It was like, “I don’t have to compromise?” It was amazing. I love Stratford. [laughs]
How exactly do silks work, structurally?
There isn’t normally a catwalk, so that was engineered and built. But basically, silks have to be attached to structural beams. Those do exist in the theatre, so [there was] an engineer and the tech team – I did not build the catwalk, but I was responsible for rigging the silks along with Pete Holland. He was the rigger on this show, but I tied my own knots. Silks are attached to a piece of hardware that then gets attached into the ceiling. So I got the silks tied on, just like you tie a knot to attach a boat to a dock. That’s what I do with the silks, and then Pete took care of rigging the rest. So on top of acting the part of Ben Gunn, I had lots of rigging days, strategy meetings – replacing silks, checking the silks every intermission, because Ben Gunn was only in act 2. I went out with Jerry, who was amazing, the fly team that you work with at the Avon, it’s the best team. Alyssa, who is the TD, and her whole team are amazing. So I’d go up, check the silks, make sure it was all sound.
So when Mitchell brought the idea of Ben Gunn to you, was all you knew that it was going to be a person who does silks? Was there any other character interpretation that had already been figured out?
Mitchell said that Nick was writing Treasure Island, and they wanted to reframe it so that it’s Jim Hawkins and his sister Bennett in the beginning, and the mom and dad. And as we go into Jim’s dream and imagination, that those characters become alive. So Juan Chioran became Long John, Sarah Dodd became Dr Livesey, and Bennett became Ben Gunn. So I did know that that was the setup. I remember Mitchell first describing the play, and he was asking me about aerial and theatre, and I was looking at him, and I’m listening, and I was like, “Wait, you want me?! To play that part?!” And he’s like “Yeah.” And I was like “What?!” I wasn’t sure if the purpose of the meeting was for me to coach a Stratford actor, so it was a total dream come true. So I knew that, but I didn’t have the script yet.
But what was so great was that when you’re in a play, and a new adaptation, and Nick was around – we did a workshop of it in the fall before we went to rehearsal in the new year. We had a script, and not much originally changed, but Nick was able to write knowing what actors were in mind. So he did know that ideally Bennett would swing through the trees, but he left it up to me and the Avon team to decide how the heck that would happen, and what that would look like.
How did the character of Ben as originally conceived, and the idea of it being the sister, how did those two come together to create, basically, a whole new character?
I think it was really cool. The first thing I thought was that I’d just be playing a boy, like Ben Gunn. And then what I loved [about] Mitchell and Nick’s interpretation of the story was that it was a family show. The kids, they’re the ultimate critics. She became me because of what I brought to the table, and I think the first thing Mitchell said was that “Little girls can make believe they’re anything. We’re not making you a boy. You could totally make believe you’re Ben Gunn.” And I think that was the catalyst to it becoming a whole new part, because Mitchell just gave me such free reign. He’s an amazing director, and so smart, and so skilled in seeing the bigger picture, and I trust him so much. But it was just like, “What would Ben want to do right now?” and I got to really discover that. You know, like in that tree scene, I had that stupid hat on, because I was like, “Can I be having a bath? Cause I feel like Ben would totally be having this bath”. And so she really became me. [laughs]
We always bring ourselves to our parts, but it was just collaborating, I think. Rather than it being this old man who’s stuck, it’s actually like this kind of Looney Tunes version of a Lost Girl, or a part of the Merry Men of Robin Hood. One of these iconic characters, that we got to make really goofy and fun. And I loved getting to be a goofy and fun best friend to Jim Hawkins, versus, like, I somehow become his love interest and we kiss at the end- which was really what I think made it super special. It being a male-female sibling friendship feel was also what made it really different, because when it is an “older man, younger kid” like the way it’s originally written, it has more of a paternal kind of feel, but this one definitely got to have a goofy best friend feeling.
As you’ve mentioned, kids are the toughest critics. What were some of the funny reactions or interactions that you had around the show?
I had the best reactions. I loved when kids would wait by the stage door. There is no better feeling than a kid being like, “We have to wait for the actors we want to see!” And I had some really amazing fan mail from a school group that came, that I saved all of them. They loved how much Ben Gunn in this version – and also in the novel – loves cheese. That was from the original novel. But I think it’s also, as a woman, and feminists, where people are like “You should eat this, this and this.” I’m like, “I wanna eat cheese! Yes, little girls, eat cheese! Don’t worry so much about that stuff”. I got a lot of fan mail [telling me about] lots of little girls’ favourite stuff and they didn’t focus as much on the silks as I thought they would. They focused on, like, “My favourite moment in the show was when you said ‘because it looks like cheese’ about the moon”. And I loved that. Of course they loved [the physical stuff], but they really loved the jokes about cheese and stuff. Those were hilarious interactions.
And kids just being like, “How do you do that?!” And I’m like, “Well, I use my arms.” And they’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “You have to get really strong. You know like when you climb a tree?” When I’m in front of them – that was kind of the funniest part. They really couldn’t wrap their brain around the fact that I was just hanging in the air, and then I was standing in front of them. So it was always kind of mind-blowing for them.
It confuses me too, honestly. It seems superhuman.
It was so funny. Even talking to adults, who are just like, “You’re so small!” and not in a mean way, because I’m only 5’2’’. I’m up there, it’s such a larger-than-life part, and people are like “What the – what?! How?!” and it was always so fun.
We have such intelligent audiences in Canada, and Stratford has audiences who come from all over, but older patrons – I’m talking older, like walkers- hanging outside waiting, who wanted to talk to me about my breath support. And my diction, and how I was so clear, and they could understand. That was such a huge compliment because again, the aerial stuff is really interesting to people, but it was always really cool- my thing about using aerial in theatre is that the story-character relationships have to always be number one. That’s what makes great theatre, and performances you wanna watch. So I was most proud when the silks were a way to get the story across. They helped people build and understand Ben Gunn, but they didn’t miss the text, and so that’s so much kudos to the whole team and Mitchell, how he directed and how we built that track. Because [with] the boat scene – before, I was going to do a bit more acrobatics in the boat, like more handstands, and we found a really nice compromise, because I was like, “It’s really important that this is a moment we get to see her just love the moon, because it looks like cheese. And it’s so pure and beautiful.” That meant so much to me, that the story and the character came across. It wasn’t just like “Oh, cool, you were in the air.”
And you did two shows where you didn’t have any silks or anything to lean on. You had to really just play the text and the story. Can you talk a little bit about those two shows?
Yeah. Romeo and Juliet was such a beautiful, pure version of the piece, and it was my first season at Stratford. We were on the Festival stage. Nothing covering it. There was something really magical. Even when you’re not doing your understudy part- I was carrying a candle-which was great, because you would play the Widows that added a neat element to the show. But it was doing the understudy work. I mean, it’s a lot of work. And especially when it’s classical text- I did lots of classical texts in theatre school, but when you’re away from it, and doing new plays, and TV, film, and circus- coming back to it, it was a lot of work on my own, but I loved it.
I’d never played Juliet, because in the past, I’ve just played really spunky girls. Or guys. That was really special, to get to work on that text there, and you’re so well supported. There’s amazing coaching staff, and so I really loved working my understudy [role]. Even though, you know, you finish a eight-hour day, and then you’re like, “I need to memorize a whole Juliet. She never stops talking!” So being in that show was amazing. To watch Sara [Farb] and Antoine [Yared] work, and Seana work, and Wayne Best. It was an amazing team of people.
And then Breathing Hole was a mammoth, as well. Treasure Island was a new play, and new plays are incredibly engaging and incredibly exhausting because the script is changing. We were changing during previews of Treasure Island- we’re having text changes and technical changes. And, while we were previewing Treasure Island, and R&J, we started rehearsing Breathing Hole. I was a small role at the end of that one, but it was such a beautiful play, and it was such an honour to be part of it and work with so many incredible artists I hadn’t met before. I don’t think we would’ve met if it weren’t for the Breathing Hole, [director] Reneltta Arluk bringing together such an incredible team.
Working on those other two, you don’t have the silks and stuff. It’s the actor work, and remembering the discipline of being in the room, and being excellent at what you’re doing. And sometimes, first, I thought it would feel like more of a break than Ben Gunn. But it didn’t, because they’re just so different. That’s where I really felt that full experience- a new contemporary play- Colleen Murphy’s Breathing Hole- new spectacle-driven Treasure Island with Mitchell, and then classical in the ultimate purest form – R&J with Scott Wentworth. I was so spoiled. I got everything. I was exhausted, but I was spoiled, and it was worth it.
What was your favourite moment of Treasure Island?
That’s such a tough one. I think my favourite moment of that experience… there was a day I came in, and I was really exhausted. And this was a very important day for me, because I have such high energy. I don’t really get exhausted. But I finally accepted it [laughs], and I’m like, “This is really hard”. It wasn’t a bad hard, it was just like, “Wow, I’m really tired”. It was our 51st show of Treasure Island. And we had 78 or something.
I got to the theatre- I never once was like “I don’t want to be Ben Gunn today”, but I was just, like, “I’m tired. I’m just going to be Ben Gunn from right here, where I really am.” And it was the best show. It’s not even about it being the best. That’s the wrong word. It was where I really understood Ben Gunn. It takes 51 shows to be like, “Oh!”. Because the silks are always changing, you can’t control [them]; they move, they have a mind of their own. And then I’m trying to engage with my scene partner, and be on top of all your cues, and then having this silks that don’t pay attention – they don’t listen. You can’t be like “Hey, get back here!”
That was one of my favourite moments, because I was onstage with Thomas in that first scene together, and I could just really, really see him. And I was like “Hi! Yes!” This is what I always wanted silks to be in theatre. Where I could be in the air but still be truly engaged with a scene partner. So that’s my bigger artistic favourite moment, I think, of Stratford, the whole experience. Definitely that moment.
And also just in Treasure Island, just acting it. I loved – the same way the kids loved the line when I was in the boat and I got to say the line – he’s like “You must really love the moon”, and I’m like “Of course, because it’s made of cheese”. Just my favourite line. Every time I got to say it, I’m like, “This is the best moment of the play!” [laughs] For me. There’s lots of great moments.
Did you get a chance to see any of the other productions?
I saw most things! I missed a few things just because you have conflicting schedules, and you kind of leave it to the last minute, and then you realize you don’t have any [shows] left, but yeah, I saw most of them.
Guys and Dolls was a huge achievement, I just loved that show, I thought it was amazing. The dancing was incredible, and as a fellow physical performer, I have so much respect. And I loved Timon. I’d never seen Timon before. Those two, I really, really loved.
And what are you up to now / next?
Currently I’m rehearsing Jerusalem with Outside the March and Company Theatre. Starring Kim Coates, directed by Mitchell Cushman, and written by Jez Butterworth, which is gonna be an amazing show. This one is Wiltshire dialect, no silks acting, and I play this really fun Wiltshire teenager, Pea. So I’m working on that right now.
And as soon as that closes, I head off to the Citadel in Edmonton. I’m playing Maid Marian in a new version of Robin Hood called The Silver Arrow. It’s directed by Daryl Cloran, and that one is gonna be a circus steampunk Robin Hood. The music’s by Hawksley Workman. I’m really excited for this one also, because Annie Dugan who runs Firefly Circus out there, who’s a friend – she’s coordinating the aerial. She’s the aerial director. And I’m her assistant, so it’ll be really nice that she can take care of all the rigging, and all of the other things. So I can keep going deeper with my research in terms of acting, and dialogue, and circus, and how those mesh together, because she can go to all the extra meetings, and I can sleep.
After that I’ll come back to Toronto, and I’m doing a show with Aluna Theatre, directed by Anita La Selva. A project I’ve been developing for the last four and a half years. It’s about stoning against women. I don’t know if our title is The Stones Project, but that’s what it’s been, a working title, and I think there’s six or seven of us. Maybe seven, because we’ve been developing but not always as a whole team. And it’s a super female-driven political movement, heavy movement, no aerial or anything, but it’s a collaboration of dancers, musicians and actors. I feel very grateful to have the range of work leading up the next few months.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I guess the main thing when I think about Treasure Island- thank you again for nominating me- it meant so much. I remember starting circus, and people just being like, “So you don’t act anymore. You do circus, that’s what you do”. It used to really enrage me, because it’s an industry where we love to put people in a box, and go, “They’re really good at classical, they’re really good at TV/film, they’re really good at physical theatre.” And I was just so grateful to get to do Ben Gunn, and have that season at Stratford, proving to myself, number one, because it’s hard when people tell you enough that you’re supposed to be in that box, to believe it, and then to be like, “Oh wait, no. I can understudy Juliet, and I can be Ben Gunn, and I can be in The Breathing Hole”. I think that that, for me, was so special about Ben Gunn, is that I wasn’t just there to be somebody’s circus monkey. There was text. There was relationship. It’s so exciting that Stratford did silks, and that Citadel’s going to do it as well, because there are so many talented circus artists, and there are actors who are interested in circus, and I love the opportunity for there to be a platform for the two to collaborate. But it’s hard, like I said. It’s a really tough skill, and it’s hard for people to even want to learn it if there’s no one who wants to do it. So now that more’s happening, I’m incredibly grateful and excited to see where the work and the research is going to go next. Cause it’s cool, and I feel like Ben Gunn was just the start!