As business-minded (and brilliantly besuited) Ben, Blue Bigwood-Mallin quietly anchored the rambunctious Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast of the Storefront Theatre’s site-specific indie hit Tough Jews. Though he claims that he doesn’t “generally come across as super friendly”, the actually totally friendly Blue made time just before opening a new show to talk to us about one of our most-nominated productions of 2017.
We last interviewed you in 2016 about A Man Walks into a Bar. Catch us up on your life since then.
Oh God, [laughs] so many things. I have a company that I work with [Coyote Collective], that I helped found with a couple of friends of mine. After Man Walks Into a Bar, I got into the Fringe again with that company, and I ended up writing, directing and acting in that show, sort of by fluke of just not having someone else to do those jobs. So I did those, and we did that Fringe show, Like a Generation, and we actually got Best of Fringe for that one as well. [The character’s name was] Mr. Flowers. That was not written for me at all. I don’t generally come across as super friendly [laughs] but we worked on it, and it worked. Me in clown face is the most terrifying thing ever, but we worked on that, we got best of Fringe for that, which was great.
Then I started doing a lot more film stuff, and that kind of thing. Got a new agent, did a bunch of short films, some feature films like lower-budget straight-to-video stuff, which is all really, really great.
There was that show I did with my company this spring. We toured to Montreal, so I’ve definitely been keeping busy. I started writing short films after writing the play, for these producers I work with. Actually, one of those is getting made, which I’m really excited about. [I’m] just kind of swinging at things. Man Walks Into a Bar really kind of kicked my ass to get back into it, and really get into it, and be like, “Oh, this is something I can kinda do.”
How’d you get involved with Tough Jews?
I auditioned for them. I went to the Storefront general auditions, and they pulled me from that. I really loved the sides.
I actually read for Teddy, originally. It’s a monologue that he does that’s all about how much people hate us, and where all this anger comes from. And being Jewish, and being raised by my father, who grew up in that time- he was in small-town Ontario, where he was just bullied constantly, beaten up constantly. He was the one Jewish kid. They kept calling him “Christ-killer” all the time, and shit like that. Not great. So that Jew rage was there. And I really liked that in the writing it was there too, and he wasn’t portrayed as a victim, he was mad about it.
So I went in and auditioned for Teddy, and I didn’t get it, and they were like “Thank you so much for your audition,” all of that. And then I ran into them at the Storefront closing party, and got pulled aside by Ben [Blais, director] and Michael [Ross Albert, playwright]. They were just like, “we really loved your audition, and we want you in our show.” Apparently, something had happened with the person who was originally meant to play Ben, I think? So they invited me to come in and play Ben.
How did having the playwright around affect the rehearsal process?
Oh, it was wonderful. Michael’s just such a great human being to have in any room, I think. Honestly, he’s so great. When I first started, I was a bit behind everyone else, because I got cast a bit later. I had to sit down with him, and he’s not a very invasive playwright, or anything. He’s never gonna say “Well, this is what’s true in the play, and this is what’s true in the play”.
It was just encouraging because of his energy. He gave some clarifications on some history, and that sort of thing. But he never really got in there and was really telling us, “This is what I imagined”, or “This is what I pictured.” Even though I asked him direct questions about that, he’d be like “Nope, it’s all up to Ben. I don’t really do that.” Also, his excitement about the show was kind of infectious, because it was something he has worked on for so long. You want to give it some love, because he had given it so much.
The play is based on true events in Toronto. Did you do much research to get into your character?
Not really. Maybe I’m just a bad actor [laughs]. No, I did some reading. Ben set out some reading when we first said we were getting into it. Just about Kensington, about the community there.
For me, the core of it was just there, because my father and my family were Jews who came over, and were involved in crime. In Montreal, not here. They kind of made it out and that is my family’s history. So I just fed off that, and read the notes that I got about Kensington. But I didn’t really have to dig too much to get to the heart of what the show is about.
Do you have any cool family dinner party stories about your crime life in Montreal?
They don’t talk about that. They’re all well-off now. My dad became a philosophy professor but they’re all doctors, stockbrokers, screenwriters – most of them live in the States now. It’s something that got offhandedly mentioned now and then by my uncle when he would have a few drinks, or something – “Well, you know so and so cousin, he did some stuff down in Montreal.”
I have yet to dig. I might one day. Really try and see what did we do. But also, I assume that kind of activity was just what you did if you were an immigrant community back then. I assume they weren’t going out and killing people, or anything. Probably just low-level crime stuff, just to make money.
Tell us a little bit about working with Ben the director to develop your interpretation of Ben the character.
Ben as a character was kind of confusing at first, because he’s not like a pivotal force in the show. He’s part of the world of the show, so it took me a while to wrap my head around that.
Working with Ben was great because he’s really good at throwing curveballs. He would constantly shake me off my feet, throw some weird thing at me that would just keep me from getting too into my head with the whole thing. And he just bends energy. It was wonderful. He would get so into this character when he’s talking to you, and he’s just so there with it. It gave me a lot. That intensity sort of translated through into playing Ben, in the show. This sort of shark-like intensity.
Most of you played family members in the show. How did you develop that dynamic and that sense of history and familiarity?
We did a lot of improvs of just us hanging out at the bar, when times are good. I think those really helped, because we got to just have some fun. In the show, so much shit is happening. There’s no just hanging out. I think the family dynamic really evolved almost during the lead-up into the show, and kind of during the show. We all grew a lot closer just because we’re in such close proximity. We’re doing this really intense show in this really weird location, where everything is just going wrong, and going crazy, and we have 15 fight scenes we have to do. So through that, I think that that really helped us kind of get together.
And also, having [Theresa] Tova there, briefing us on real core Jewish family dynamics, which I’ve seen a bit of in my family, but my family are not the hardcore old-school Jewish. So she would always have a little nugget of information. I learned a ton of being Jewish just from being around Tova. And Maaor [Ziv] as well. “Oh, when you’re saying this, what you’re doing is this thing, and every Jewish person does this thing”. So that definitely helped as well.
Tell us a little bit about the development of those fight scenes, especially executing them in such tight quarters.
I’d never worked with Simon Fon before. But I liked the way he approached the fight scenes a lot. He’s a fight director, so he’s supposed to direct them. But it wasn’t just moves, it was all about intention, and why you’re doing this thing, and safety was huge with that show. We had to do it a lot over and over and over again.
I think I was in like ten fight scenes. It was all pretty dangerous, and I think the hardest thing was doing it on a concrete floor. There are times when I had to drop to my knees, or take a hit, and I could do that once, but then I’d think “Okay, I’m gonna have to do this every single night.” I got a huge gash on my arm just from the friction moving around on the floor. And the furniture was a constant concern. I had to throw Stevie [Joffe] over a table, and we were always just so worried, and he had to jump over that table, too – that table was so important that it stayed together.
I think we got comfortable with it, but for me, we were always very mindful going in. Our fight calls were very focused, and very well run. Anne [van Leeuwen] usually took the lead on running, just because she was in the fewest fights. But also, having a live gun onstage. I was pretty terrified for most of these fight scenes, but Simon always gave us that confidence, and we always ran it.
Also, I really trusted the people I was working with. We were all very respectful of each other, constantly checking in and making sure “Okay, that was okay, that was okay.” The one that gave me the biggest jump was holding the live gun with rounds in it up near my face, and firing into the air. It’s a great thing – got me into the show, because I needed to be really focused on that. And I know both me and Stevie – just having that gun flailing around, was all very controlled and all very choreographed, but you can’t help but be concerned. [laughs]
Adam Belanger and Lindsay Junkin, who did the design, are notorious for the incredible detail in their work. How did the set and the costumes help bring you into the character and the world?
It was everything. I don’t even think I did any work. I think just wearing that suit and being in that set was pretty much all my work done for me. It was absolutely huge. The set still blows my mind. I don’t know how [Adam] did what he did in the time that he had. I don’t think he slept for, like, four days.
It takes so much of the work away, because you’re just there. You’re wearing the clothes. You’re in this real space, that feels real, and that you’ve lived in it now, for a bit, too, once you’ve done the show a bunch of times. We really knew that stuff, and we’d been all over that bar. Literally. And it was hugely informative. The photoshoots we did, and the trailers we did, and walking around Kensington in these outfits, with each other. It definitely helped a lot. But also, it was just so much fun, because we got to live in it. I wish I’d gotten to keep that suit, because I loved that suit.
Lindsay was such a champ with me. We went through, like, eight pairs of shoes. My feet are weird, or something. But they would cut the back of my foot. We had to put some stuff in them. All my fight scenes, I’m really tussling around there, so they kept breaking apart. We went through a lot of shoes, and she’d always find them, and I’d always feel very guilty that she’d find this wonderful pair of shoes, and I’d destroy them again, and she’d fix them, and they’d get wrecked again.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
One of my favourite moments was during dress rehearsal. We had guns going off, and we were screaming, and stuff. Cops showed up. [laughs] It’s Kensington, who knows, this is a back alley. But the cops showing up was pretty great, because it was like, “Well, we’re doing something right! We sound like we’re having a domestic in here.” So that was good.
We also had this drunk guy come in halfway through the show once, and just sit on the stairs and watch the show. We had to exit out those stairs and we had to shoo him up. That was a lot of fun. The area was always, always interesting. Always totally bizarre.
I liked all of that show. I loved being cramped in the upstairs entrance. There’s like six of us up there, and it’s like a hallway with props. We would just be cramped in there with all these amazingly talented people, and watching all of us try to do our thing in this tiny little confined space. I’d say that was my favourite. All the weird uncomfortable moments. [laughs] Being together, trying to make this thing happen.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
Going in, I had no idea what people would think about the show. I hoped that they would take away some of that kind of Jewish anger, and suffering, and history. I think being Jewish is weird. It’s a weird minority to be in, because you’re not visible until you say anything about it, and it’s kind of passed on. Jews have integrated, so to speak. They’re everywhere. Who knows anymore, but it’s not really talked about. It’s not talked about when this was really these people from this totally different place, in this very small area.
I really hoped people would take away some of how much richness there is in our city. Everyone knows Kensington, and we love Kensington. But knowing how dirty it could be, and knowing how much suffering there was, and strife, and these things that we don’t really connect with Toronto, because it’s such a new place. So I really hope that they took a little bit of that away. And I think putting it in Kensington, in an actual basement, definitely helped.
Tough Jews sold like gangbusters in part because the Jewish community really came out in droves to see it. What do you feel like that says about representation in theatre, and how we can maybe improve in terms of telling inclusive stories?
It’s hard to say as a Jewish person that I want more Jewish plays. I think there’s a lot of stories we just don’t tell, because they’re not really in our focus. I mean, that’s what representation is, obviously. But because the Jewish community’s kind of a strange one that’s not incredibly vocal in the mainstream, they’re not really pushing for this representation, but I think this show really showed that there is this kind of demand to tell these stories. Especially from the Jewish community, [which is] pretty well established. There’s a yearning for that. Just to have our story told, and to look at some of the uglier bits as well, because I think that gets put away. The idea of Jewish criminals. There’s always one in a Mafia movie. But the idea of low-level – it helps to flesh out who these people are in Canada, and what it was actually like to be an immigrant community here.
You mentioned your company, which is called Coyote Collective. You’re working on a new show with Leroy Street. Tell us a little bit about that.
Oh, HOMEWRECKER. It’s written by Danny Pagett, directed by Anne. Me and another one of my company members, Susanna [Mackay], are acting in it. We’re partners in real life, which makes it very interesting, because she’s playing my mistress.
It’s a dramedy about this guy whose life has come apart. He’s a professor. I don’t want to spoil the thing. He has been divorced from his wife, and other things have crashed, as well. He has invited the only person he could talk to, his mistress, who he’s also stopped seeing, to come and try to fix it. To try and fix himself. And she’s also doing a couple of things that I don’t want to reveal. There’s a lot of secrets, a lot of manipulation. It has a very [Who’s Afraid of] Virginia Woolf-y feel to me, if that makes any sense. These two very desperate people who are having very big internal pains that they’re trying to deal with, but they’re very incapable of addressing them front-on, and are trying to manipulate and deal with it through the other person.
It’s a very fun, wild show, to be sure. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a crazy sprint of a show. It’s just under an hour long, and it’s just these two people going through it. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s very wacky, and I like it a lot. [Homewrecker plays at The Assembly Theatre until March 10th. Get your tickets HERE].
Is that conflict really hard to play with your real-life partner, or is it somehow more safe?
Parts of it are much easier, intimate things. I mean, she and I have acted in a number of things together, so we’re confident acting with each other.
I think the weird part is the talking about my wife to her, where obviously the image for my wife that I’m using, the real-life relationship, is her. And she has to be my mistress, so she’s not the person I’m talking about. So I had to talk to the person I’m using as an image about how I don’t love them, I love them in real life. So that’s a bit kooky, but it’s very fun.
I talked to her about it before we went in. We were like, “We’ll both have to say some pretty horrible things to each other,” and stuff. Then we talked about performing together, and she said, “You know, I think with us, everything’s fine. It’s just the stakes just get that little bit higher.” Which is fun to play with.
Do you have anything else coming up that you’d like to talk about?
I have Lost and Found, the short film that I wrote, that hopefully will be in a festival sometime next year. We’ll see. And I also have another short film that’s being sent out to festivals as well that I performed in, with Olympia Dukakis, of all people, that’s about Jews as well. During Tough Jews, I was doing another film about Jews, as a Jewish person in a concentration camp. It’s quite a big gut-punch here, but I really liked the crew I worked with on it. Hopefully that’ll be interesting.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
A big thanks to the wonderful people who did that show with me. I miss the time I got to spend with those people, for all of its weirdness and craziness.