Outstanding Actor nominee David Mackett’s sympathetic portrayal of Dublin undertaker John Plunkett was the highlight of Fly on the Wall Theatre’s intimate production of Dublin Carol. In a subtle and affecting performance, David conveyed the depth of the character’s loneliness and shame, and convincingly took the first steps toward redemption.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My earliest recollection is going to see a play at the Tarragon Theatre as a child. It was the early days of the Tarragon and it was a children’s play called The Stag King, which was one of John Candy’s first gigs as an actor.
How did that parlay into pursuing acting as a career?
It took a fair bit of time actually. I acted through high school and through university, but I was on a different track altogether; I went through university for biology and went on to do graduate work in zoology. Acting was always an interest of mine, but as a hobby. I found myself spinning my wheels as a biologist though and really not getting anywhere in that field. I was still acting in one or two shows a year, mostly at the university, and I knew I had this passion for theatre so a lot of the barriers I had erected that prevented me from pursuing it started to fall away, and I decided to change course and go to theatre school.
What was your training like?
When I first started thinking that I wanted to take a crack at acting, I was living in London, Ontario and would commute once a week to Toronto and take a class at Equity Showcase Theatre. I happened to meet someone in one of my classes who had just come back from New York, and auditioned for Circle in the Square Theatre School. Circle in the Square wasn’t on my radar at the time, I was exploring Ryerson and George Brown, but they were three and four year programs and I had already done seven years in university so the prospect of doing another degree was daunting. I was past the deadline for applications for the coming year, but on a whim I sent in my application to Circle in the Square and got a call a few days later saying they wanted to see me in New York to audition. I hopped on a plane to New York, auditioned, and was very fortunate to get in, and that was my immersion into theatre training.
Circle in the Square was a two-year program and their selling point is that they don’t teach one specific approach to acting, so we had instructors who had a background in Meisner, Stella Adler, and Strasberg. Also the Shakespeare text teacher, Ed Berkeley, was on faculty at Julliard. He was the head of the undergraduate opera program there but was an established Shakespearean director as well, and was heavily influenced by Cicely Berry and the British approach, so he was very text-based. His classes really opened up Shakespeare to me and I wanted to do more and was looking for something to do between my first and second year, so I applied to an eight-week program in London at RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and was again very fortunate to get in. I got a good dose of Shakespeare over there. I experienced the very American approach to acting through training in New York, but then a taste of the British approach, which I would say is more text-based than method.
Your recent credits include a lot of Shakespeare. Do you have a favourite role of the Bard’s that you’ve played?
I’ve just finished doing Titus Andronicus at Hart House. It’s a role that I never thought I’d be given the opportunity to play, but I’d worked with director James Wallis before on his company Shakespeare BASH’d and he approached me about doing [Titus]. It was a frightening role to do, and the more I got into it the more I became a bit overwhelmed by it, but by hammering through I started to relax into the role and find more and more stuff, so I would say Titus. It’s certainly a role that I wouldn’t mind having another crack at down the road.
Talk about your collaboration with director Rod Ceballos.
I met Rod at Equity Showcase Theatre in this class called the Classical Theatre Lab. Every Monday night you brought in a classical piece to work on and the facilitators would change every week so you could do the same piece for a few different facilitators, who were directors and actors. Rod’s a pretty intense guy and for the longest time I thought I’d just go and watch, but Rod was able to pull out so much from the actors that he worked with, that I thought I should go up and do it. Then he was directing Arthur Miller’s After the Fall for Equity Showcase. I didn’t submit for it, but was working for Equity Showcase at the time and Rod asked me why I didn’t submit and said I should take a look at the role of Lou. I auditioned and got it. He was able to pull out of me a performance that I didn’t think I was capable of doing. Rod’s been very generous to me in terms of giving me opportunities to perform in shows that he’s directed. We clicked artistically and both were looking at doing more projects together and that’s how Fly on the Wall came together.
Tell us about the formation of Fly on the Wall Theatre and the goals of the company.
A friend had connected me with Greg Garson, who at the time was the General Manager of Fionn MacCool’s. He had this backroom that he only used occasionally for parties, but he wanted to use it to do something cultural. Rod Ceballos and I went and checked out the space and it wasn’t suitable to do a performance in, but we thought it would be a good place to do some staged readings. Given the theme of Fionn MacCool’s as an Irish bar, we explored some Irish plays. That put us in the direction of Irish playwrights. I think we did ten readings there and that was the start of it.
I did a production of The Weir with Rod at the Fringe Festival in a venue called Rower’s Pub. I did it with a company called MacKenzieRo and their idea was because The Weir takes place in a pub, let’s do it in a pub. So we built a bar upstairs and did the play there. The audience was right on top of us, it was very intimate, and one of the audience members said, “I felt like a fly on the wall, that I had this glimpse into these characters’ lives” so that was where the idea for Fly on the Wall Theatre came from and the idea to do plays in intimate settings so the audience is sharing the experience with you as an actor on stage and there’s not that separation. As an actor you don’t have to push to hit the back wall and it creates a very interesting dynamic.
Dublin Carol isn’t the first Conor McPherson play that you’ve appeared in for Fly on the Wall Theatre, what is it about his work that appeals to you?
I’ve listened to interviews with McPherson and he’s said that not a lot happens in his plays. There’s not a lot of action, it’s just people talking, but many of his plays involve characters dealing with loneliness and the choices they’ve made in their lives when something happens. It may be a very small thing, but it forces them to look back on the choices that they’ve made. I wouldn’t say that they necessarily regret their choices, but these characters are forced to at least confront them in order to move forward, and I’m very much drawn to that. I also think that he taps into the inner emotional life of his characters in a way that a lot of playwrights don’t. The characters are so deep and there’s so much lying under the surface that through his text but also through the built-in pauses, which as an actor are gold because you want to fill those pauses with something so it’s not just dead air, I find that the more I work on his plays, the more questions I ask. With some plays you have all your questions answered in the first week. With McPherson, right up to the end you’re always thinking. Also the fact that he’s Irish and I have an Irish background so I’m very much into Irish theatre, and I just think he’s one of the finest living playwrights.
Speaking of Irish works, I’ve noticed that a signature of Irish Literature seems to be this fusion of tragedy and humour, coping with the past through black comedy, is that something you find with Irish plays as well?
Yes, I think a lot of that is borne out of the history of Ireland. There’s so much tragedy in Ireland’s history and so much unrealized potential through the years. They start to come out of it with confidence in the Celtic Tiger and then get hammered by the recession and the banking collapse. The black humour is a way to deal with the tragedy. Particularly with their contemporary playwrights, but it’s there through Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan and all the playwrights that came before as well.
What initially attracted you to the role of John Plunkett in Dublin Carol?
Like Titus, it was a role that wasn’t really on my radar. Rod [Ceballos] and I were looking for a project to do and he asked me about Dublin Carol. I had read the play a number of years ago and when Rod first suggested it I thought ‘no, I’m not old enough’. I couldn’t imagine doing the role, but Rod thought it would be a really good role for me and I’ve worked with Rod on so many projects that I said okay. As an actor, it’s usually the roles that scare you and the roles that you don’t want to do are the ones you should do. Certainly as I got into the role it started to open up and I found more and more commonality with John. My thoughts on the play itself started to change as well. John is dealing with loneliness and the choices he’s made and trying so hard to keep his past hidden from his family but also from himself. He’s a very flawed character and being given the opportunity to play a complex character like that is really exciting.
John’s a kind of unlikable person to a certain extent. How do you make him sympathetic and find these commonalities?
You can’t be afraid to not be liked as an actor, so you have to be able to present the character as written by the playwright and not be worried that the audience will recoil at whatever your character does. When I’m playing a character like that I always try to find moments here and there that reveal the other side, whether it’s through interacting with another character or dealing with whatever circumstances they’re dealing with. You try to show the reason why the character is the way that they are. There’s a bit where John Plunkett describes his relationship with his father and it’s a glimpse into his past. He lived with an abusive father who beat the hell out of his mother and he was a little boy who was scared. That’s why McPherson is so great, he gives you that. All of a sudden you realize that’s the reason behind all of the terrible things that John has done in his life. It opens up the character to finding some redemption and finally confronting his past and being able to move forward in some way.
The ending is left somewhat ambiguous. What do you think happens to John in the future? Is he able to take what he’s learned and move forward, or is he doomed to repeat himself?
I think the final image where he starts redecorating the office with Christmas is a glimmer of hope. I certainly don’t think he’s going to stop drinking, he’ll drink until he dies, but it felt to me that there was the opportunity for a new relationship with his children. There was this tiny crack that wasn’t there at the beginning of the play, and I thought he was going to open that crack. Maybe not all the way, but he’d find a way to move forward with his life and to forgive himself, because one of his biggest demons was that he couldn’t forgive himself. My sense is that there’s a possibility of healing, but I don’t know, I just hope.
When you’re playing one of these darker characters, like John who is in this headspace of shame, loneliness, and self-loathing, is it easy to shake off or do you find yourself taking it home with you?
I’m pretty good at separating work on stage but it does linger, certainly for the rest of the evening, because you go through an emotional ride. Just like in real life if you’ve had an experience that moves you emotionally, it sticks with you. I’m pretty good at separating the two so it doesn’t overwhelm me in my personal life, but it does linger and for this role it took a couple of weeks to get rid of all the remnants.
Did you have a favourite line or moment in Dublin Carol?
One that comes to mind is when John and Mark are parting and he wishes me “Happy Christmas”. It’s the first time in many years that John is able to say “Happy Christmas” to someone and mean it.
Did you already have the Dublin accent in your back pocket from having done Irish theatre before?
Yeah, having done a lot of McPherson, a number of his plays are set in Northside, Dublin. The more I started doing it, the more I keyed into the regional dialects so if I’m doing a project I try to dive in and be as specific as possible with the regional dialect. I have a fairly good ear for dialects.
What were you hoping that audiences would take away from the production?
You can judge the character of John harshly for his actions, but everyone has a story and it’s not until you know a person’s story that you can fully know who they are and why they’ve made their choices. Even someone who we would judge harshly deserves understanding and deserves to be heard. Although the choices he’s made aren’t the ones that a lot of people would make, there’s a reason for that, and it helps to not be as judgemental and to be more sympathetic. That’s when communication can happen and lives can be affected.
You were also part of the Outstanding Ensemble nominated Tragedie of Lear. Tell us about that experience.
Ash [Knight] asked me to come on board as a co-producer as well as performing as Albany. I’d met Ash when I was at RADA and we stayed in touch and he’d always talked about doing a project together. Then he started putting together the team, and it was a bit overwhelming for me because he was bringing in some actors with a lot of weight and presence in the Toronto theatre scene, so it was very exciting. The fact that the cast was diverse and reflective of Toronto was appealing to me as well. It was a wonderful opportunity to share the stage with some pretty extraordinary actors. Playing across from Deb Drakeford, who played Goneril, was wonderful.
Is there a dream role you’d like to tackle one day?
In Shakespeare it would probably be Richard III. Also, if I had the opportunity to do another McPherson play, I’d love to do The Seafarer. There are a couple of roles in there. We did a staged reading and I played Ivan, but also the role of Sharky would be a great role to tackle.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m involved with Bloomsday Toronto, which is coming up in June. Bloom on the Beach[es] involves excerpts from Ulysses performed in the Beaches, but otherwise it’s the actor’s life so we’ll see when the next project comes along.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just a shout-out to you guys for coming out to Dublin Carol. It was a challenge to get any coverage of the play. We happened to open in a week where there were nine openings in the city over two days, so it was a busy time of year to open and it was a challenge to get any press coverage. The fact that you were able to come out to the show was appreciated, and also the support for indie theatre, which struggles at times to find a presence in a city where there’s so much happening.