As the hostess of a surreal dinner party in Theatre by Committee’s Omnium Gatherum, Shalyn McFaul gave a standout performance that earned her an Outstanding Actress nomination. Charming and witty, Shalyn expertly balanced her character Suzie’s hilariously single-minded desire to throw the perfect dinner party with sober and thoughtful conversation, and she did it all while madly dashing around the table to serve dishes.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My very first one is a little cliché, it was seeing Cats, but I was fortunate to get to see a number of Broadway shows when I was younger because my mother was from New York, so in early years that was our return base and later on it was home for me so I was fortunate to get to see a lot of stuff there.
How did you later pursue a career in acting?
I think it was a passion from an early age when I got exposed to opportunities with kids theatre camp, that I really loved, and started exploring that. Then I got pretty removed from that track for a long time, mostly because I graduated high school very early and started working fulltime for six years before I went back to school. When I did that I ended up not being certain what I was going after because security is very addictive so it was hard to step away from that and know whether or not I was willing to endure the fight that was needed or if I was going to go on this track that was presenting itself to me. After I went to university, I got suckered right back into the theatre department and couldn’t step away again and I was so happy for it.
You were out in B.C. to go to school. How would you compare the theatre scene in B.C. to the Toronto theatre scene?
There’s so much wonderful theatre that happens in Vancouver and I miss a lot of amazing, amazing people and artists that are out there. I do feel like one thing that is common noticeably between the places is that the populace in Vancouver is much less of a theatre-going populace, so while they’re creating amazing work, there’s a significantly smaller pool of audience members who want to spend their time at the theatre vs. climbing a mountain that weekend. And that’s cool, everybody has their priorities, but I love that theatre in Toronto is such a strong cultural component for so many people, I really appreciate that. I also feel that Vancouver had more concentrated niche areas but perhaps less of a through-line sometimes in terms of it going evenly from the smallest of theatres up to the largest in different areas. Whereas in Toronto I love that I was able to start in with Shakespeare that I didn’t get a chance to do while I was in Vancouver and there’s a huge, thriving indie Shakespeare scene here that can go all the way over to Stratford, so all of these different areas of focus really do have the full scope of what size of theatre and what capacity that you can go and enjoy.
Talking about the play, what initially attracted you to the role of Suzie, and how did you get involved with Omnium Gatherum?
I knew a couple of the members of Theatre by Committee beforehand and I saw that they posted auditions for it and there were only two female roles up for availability. There are three in the show, so I knew obviously they had someone in mind for one of them. The role that was not available was Suzie, and one of the other two roles that were available is for an African-American actress, so there was one that I was looking at. I submitted to hopefully be seen by them and I sat down in the Reference Library to read the script and I stupidly did so on an empty stomach because the show is chock-full of mouth-watering food descriptions and so I was sitting there drooling over the descriptions of food the whole time but I was also reading through it and feeling the most drawn to Suzie out of the roles and thinking ‘that’s too bad that’s not an option’. And then I heard back from them that they were so inundated with applications that they weren’t able to see me at all and I kind of went ‘aw shoot, well it is what it is’, but later on they came back to me saying they wanted to offer me the role of Suzie, so things shifted around and it completely worked out and the role that I was most attracted to the first place end up being the role that I got to enjoy playing.
What was it like working with the rest of the cast, and especially with your fellow nominee Basel Daoud?
He was great to get to know over the time of that. The majority of people in the cast I didn’t know well going into it. I had kind of gotten to know Brandon [Gillespie] because I did Boeing Boeing with him and Lindsey [Middleton] I had gotten to know through social networks. It was a big team. I loved that it was a two-director team; it’s only the second time that I’ve worked on a production that had co-directors and I thought that it was particularly fitting being that the play is co-written, it has two playwrights, so I thought that it was very interesting in terms of it being such an ensemble piece and coming from two minds to have it be worked on in that way. They were really wonderful about everybody being such a strong contributor to the team and bringing any experience or knowledge that they had to it. It was great.
How does it change the experience working on a two-director piece vs. having one director?
I think the strong point of it is that you get to bring the strengths of the two opposing sides and I think something that they were deliberate about going into it is knowing that they each had kind of a different tack and focus that they would usually approach a work with that were on opposite ends of the spectrum so it was great that we got the benefit of both of those. Of course if they’re not both able to be at the same rehearsal for every single one of the rehearsals, then inevitably you’re going to go back and forth sometimes with notes that are like mom said this, but dad said that and have to decide as you tried out each option where you were going to go with it and so it occasionally provided a few more opportunities to try different things and see which way you wanted to go.
Your character Suzie is a Domestic Goddess and I understand you also love to bake. Do you have a specialty or a favourite dish that you love to make?
I love layer cakes because I feel like anything is a party once you have a cake. So I love to play around with that, usually being a little bit of a foodie perhaps when it comes to odd flavour pairings, that’s not outside of my personality to do that. It’s a bit of a joke that last birthday of a friend of mine, her boyfriend told me that her only request for her birthday cake was that it be named Cake Winslet so I made a mille crepe cake that was Earl Grey crepes with lavender buttercream frosting. I enjoy a pun; if you give me a punny opportunity, I will bake for that.
In general, how similar do you think you are to Suzie, where are the similarities and differences?
Well I hope not like the racist parts of her, I really hope that! There’s definitely a people-pleasing part of me that’s in there. The desire to host and have everyone having a good time is a strong impulse for me; I love throwing parties and I love cooking and baking for people and bringing them together over that. She’s a bit more all-over focused than me, whereas I tend to get so focused on one thing that everything else fades into the background and I will forget to do normal life things because I’ve been tackling that one task so hard. So she’s a lot more fluttered and everything catches her eye.
Omnium Gatherum mixes comedy and wit with discussion of serious issues. A good deal of the comedy falls to your character and her need to keep the dinner party on track. Did you find it challenging to balance the humour and frivolity of the role with the more dramatic and intense scenes?
That was definitely something that was a focus for me because she says such outlandish things but there’s also such a dark undertone to some of the things that she’s saying and it’s because she’s so unaware of the weight of it, but she wouldn’t say them unless that was not on her mind. For her that’s totally not on her register; her sightlines are very narrow in terms of what she sees for her world but I couldn’t neglect the depth behind a lot of it and the play itself had a lot of darker meaning for me, I guess, with personal experiences where I felt the weight of that. I also felt the sense of remembering times when you needed to just move on in the conversation because it would go back and forth from realizing what the situation was to flipping back into the silly things of life that you get caught up in until something else happens and reminds you that oh, this is what’s going on as well.
One of my favourite lines is when Suzie, trying to show she’s in touch with the economically oppressed, says, “I used to be middle class. I know how that feels.” Do you think Suzie is well-intentioned but so privileged or ignorant that she doesn’t understand those outside of her bubble, or is she willfully blind to other ways of life?
I think mostly well-intentioned with a strong sense of the capitalist background of thinking that she’s there because she worked hard enough and therefore all she has to do is encourage others to work hard enough and not really tracking how many other factors there may be or how much privilege she actually started out with in the first place.
Did you have a favourite moment in the play?
There were a lot of delicious ones. All of my fondest memories are also mixed with terror a little bit. I felt so precarious during some of the most enjoyable parts because there were so many mad dashes around the table to serve dishes. I loved introducing the meals as well but I think I was constantly teetering on this edge with it; I had a very fluttery feeling at all times but there were so many great one-liners that you could hardly recover from one before you heard another that you loved.
There’s an increasingly surreal aspect to Omnium Gatherum as it unfolds. How did you balance the realism of the political and social discussions being held with the more abstract elements of the play?
It WAS really abstract and I can’t deny that! There were also weird parts for me because I came into the process feeling that some of the stuff that registered as surreal for other people didn’t register as surreal for me. I lived in New York during 9/11 so some of the things like helicopters outside and things like that, everyone would go ‘oh that’s so outlandish in these odd non-realism moments’ and I would go that’s realism for me; those were realistic moments. You would have conversations with your friends and then a Blackhawk helicopter would go by and your panic would kick in and you’d think ‘oh something might not be right’, and then as soon as it passed you would find yourself stumbling back into normal life briefly and back and forth. So there were elements like that where they thought that that was really surrealistic and I thought it could be, but there’s also ways in which that’s not for me. But then there’s the HYPER-surrealistic stuff like the Hell door that would open and steam and glowing light coming out of there. And for me, or at least the way I approached it for my character was a bit selfishly perhaps, in that I viewed it as being the moment after death for Suzie of not knowing what’s going on and that dream world where you see things that are outlandish but your subconscious is like no that’s not a problem, I’m just going to ignore that. One of the directors, Ben [Hayward], would often talk about moments where you see something that’s very surrealistic and you go no I’m definitely not dead, I can’t be dead, but those moments of the surrealistic things making you clock that this isn’t life as normal just long enough for you to force it out of your mind again.
The directors’ note discussed how the play makes the case for a good argument. Instead of becoming trapped in our insular worlds engaging only with those who agree with our point of view, we should engage those who see things differently with empathy and understanding. How important do you think this idea is at a time when notions of “fake news”, for example, allow us to surround ourselves with biased media and perspectives that reinforce existing views?
I think it’s really important. I frequently stop myself and wonder and worry about the number of people in my life who might have drastically different viewpoints than me and maybe I have a suspicion of that but I probably don’t even have a full grasp of it because most of the time Facebook has probably filtered out their likes and comments and posts to that point that they know that I don’t want to necessarily see and therefore also, when I do the meager act of social media support for anything that I believe in, how much are they even aware of that? They might have that equally filtered out of their sphere so even though there are these people in my life connected at one length or another from me that I think I know to some degree, I’m not having real discourses with them and the majority of the time we’re preaching to the choir for whatever we happen to feel passionately about and it becomes very hard for us to articulate our points clearly and because of that, we don’t learn to reason through an actual argument based on solid facts that are stated in a way that is relatable and hopefully less combative to someone coming from an opposing view, who would probably be pretty turned off by some of the really angry ways that we phrase things half the time so we’re not filtering through very easily and it makes you realize how even maybe just a good dinner party might be a great way to have actual conversations and get to know people and maybe mix up your guests a little from everyone who agrees exactly with you; that might not be the worst thing in the world to do.
And I think Suzie really walks that line of on the one hand, she almost should be unlikeable because of some of the views she holds but on the other hand, I think we’ve all known someone like that who walks the line or is similar in that way as well.
Absolutely, and I would hope, also, that if someone is walking that line that if they have conversations they might be open to thinking through some of those things and open to reconsidering some of those points as well eventually because nobody is born perfect but I hope we can all get a little closer to a kinder state.
What were you hoping that audiences would take away from the production?
A good, strong desire to have some good conversations with people afterwards. I feel like it’s one of those plays that you have to have somebody to talk it through with afterwards but also, a sense of being ready to look at people from different groups outside of your own with more loving eyes and being willing to see more of that humanity in each of them.
If you were holding your own ideal dinner party, who would your guests, alive or dead, be?
It would be a very long list! A regular joke when I do try and hold parties at my place is – my husband is far more of an introvert than I am – so my list of people that I’m trying to invite is always expanding and he’s always going ‘no, that’s so many people, that’s so many people, you have to cut it down’ and I go ‘no, I can’t’, so I would invite everyone I know really. If I had an ideal dinner party, I would invite everyone. I would want to be able to spend that time with every single one of them.
Your recent credits include a lot of Shakespeare. Do you have a favourite Shakespeare role that you’ve played?
Beatrice is a favourite and one that I longed for for a long time, so it was a huge pleasure to get to do that with so many wonderful people [in Hart House Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing]. I’m in the process of rehearsing for another role that I’m excited for so that’s another one on my list is Tamora [in Titus Andronicus]. That one is fun to start getting my teeth into but that one’s yet to come alive fully.
Are there any other dream roles that you’d love to tackle one day?
There are a number of them that I would love to work on but I’m not certain that I’d actually be a top choice in terms of being an easy cast into them, maybe some of them are more that I would want to work with the text with people but have so loved watching other people’s performances of them that they just resonated with me so strongly. I’ve been trying to avoid having favourites as much as I can because I want to approach every role as a new, exciting favourite whether I anticipated that as a possible role that I got to play or not, I want to explore that as a surprise opportunity to get to know that character.
What are you doing now/what’s coming up next for you?
I just finished Richard III for Shakespeare BASH’d at the Monarch Tavern. I’m currently in rehearsals for Titus Andronicus at Hart House, which opens in March, where I get to play Tamora.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
I loved working on this show so much; it meant a great deal to me personally. I loved the material, I loved all of the team that I got to work with. It was such a tightknit ensemble and such a cohesive team effort. There were no scene breaks in the entire show, it’s all one long conversation of numerous overlapping smaller conversations, so the way in which everyone came together to make that such a strong show was just a huge pleasure. I was mostly thrilled just to think back on this show with pleasant memories when I saw this so thank you so much for coming to see it and thank you so much for taking note of what a great thing it was.