When I reviewed The Shaw Festival’s stunning production of Middletown last summer, I finished by saying that “I’d love to see this one remounted for a Toronto run”. Well- Good News, Everybody!– Crow’s Theatre just announced that they’ll be remounting the production in November with its original cast, including Outstanding Actor nominee Gray Powell whose haunting performance as local handyman John was arguably a career-best (which is saying something for Gray, easily one of my favourite performers in the country). My favourite thing about Gray as an actor is his ease- nothing ever seems over-analyzed or processed- so of course I asked him a ton of hyper-detailed questions that forced him to analyze and explain his process. We’ll see in November if I managed to ruin everything.
Though you won the 2015 award for Outstanding Supporting Actor for IHO, the last time we actually interviewed you was two years earlier, around Arcadia time. Briefly catch us up on your life since then.
Oh my gosh. Briefly? I have a second son. He’s in the mix now. He’s 4. That’s another few years at Shaw. My dad got ill, and I had a son. Those two things happened.
Going into last season, what attracted you to the role of John?
TC [Tim Carroll, Shaw Festival artistic director] asked, and I’d never read it. Then I read it. That’s what attracted me.
I’d never read [Will] Eno prior to the offer, and I fell in love with the play on first read, and then I had to go and see anything that he’d done. And The Realistic Joneses was playing at the time. I read it, and I thought, “How do you do this?”, because it’s naïve, it’s cliché, it’s magical, it’s all of it. It’s human. I think what attracted me was just reading it.
Patrick McManus, one of your Shaw colleagues, was in that production of Realistic Joneses. Did you talk to him?
Yeah, we chatted a bit. Not much. I asked him how it was to speak Eno, because on page it seems challenging. How do you take some of these phrases- things like, “God, I had the worst sleep last night, almost non-stop meaningful silence,” is something that you read, and it shouldn’t make sense, and yet it does. It’s the weirdest writing in the world to just let it live.
So I asked him about that, and he made a great point. I think in their production, at that point, when I was talking to him, they were trying to keep it at a pace, to keep it going, not to get maudlin about it. It can’t settle. It’s something I realized in Middletown too – it’s writing that needs to be served up. It’s almost magical realism. It’s not naturalism. There’s no psychology in it, really. It just is for the audience to hear. It’s unique. Some of the most unique writing I’ve ever spoken.
How did you wrap your head around it?
Meg [Roe, Middletown‘s director] always had a great language. She would say things like, “What are the guts of this thing?” At a certain point, Meg just said, “You just have to be comfortable. Everybody in this play has to be comfortable with just being who they are, and not pushing anything, and being happy with that. So however it comes out on that given day, at that given moment, is what happens. We can’t polish this too much. If it’s too polished or if we think about it too much, if it has too much of the psychology, it sinks.” So the potential for danger in there is that you become sentimental. It becomes slow, or it just becomes neutral, and there’s nothing there. So it’s maintaining an active thought, as if you’re just thinking of these things in the moment. These thoughts, these observations of humanity, of how you feel.
On the topic of Meg, what were some of the interesting conversations you two had in developing your interpretation of John?
We didn’t talk too much about specifics. What Meg does brilliantly is, she gets everyone onto the same page, which is everyone feeling comfortable in the world she’s creating. So we would talk about these people as they were. We don’t know what John’s real problem was. We didn’t really talk about his history much. We would basically go through scenes and she would say, “Okay. Let’s clarify where the hurt is here.”
I wish I could remember some of her language, to be honest. That’s why I’m excited about getting back in the room with her, so that we can talk. What Meg does is, she just lets you feel comfortable in just being you, there, then.
You were paired yet again with Moya O’Connell. What do you think it is about your partnership that makes directors always want to put you guys together?
I have no idea. [laughs] I don’t know why we’d been paired. It was always characters that were sort of classically romantic. This one wasn’t. I don’t know why that meant something more. We work well together. Maybe we just trust each other, I think that’s the biggest thing.
Middletown was one of multiple productions last year that really embraced the idea of two-way theatre, which put you out in the audience, interacting before the show and intermission. What effect do you think that had on the production?
The play is written as if it’s meant for a proscenium. It was Meg and [Camellia Koos, the set designer]’s idea to put it in the round, along with [Alessandro Juliani], who did sound as well. They wanted a full immersive experience, and it just sort of happened [that] it was going in line with this idea you mentioned- two-way theatre- that TC’s really pushing at Shaw, which I do believe at the heart of it is just theatre. Theatre is two-way. It has to be. The audience has to be actively engaged, whether they’re actively listening or participating. The play talks to the audience.
That was Meg’s way of getting us into the idea that these people were real. We were just going to show you ourselves as a group, and as a collective, and then show you ourselves in the play. I believe it was meant to get rid of any pretence that the play had, that there was no separation.
Were you yourself, or were you in character for all of that?
Off the top, I was myself. Gray would come out off the top. Because my journey was a little different in the play, [when] I came out in the intermission, I remember I would just do a little walk across the stage, and I was a little more John there. But off the top, I was just Gray talking to people.
Tell us a little bit about that final scene and the challenges of playing something so physically specific. *Spoiler alert*.
Without getting too much into it, I think that was the beauty of it, that [Eno] made it so physically specific. It released me from trying to do anything and endowing it with other things, meaning that I could just take the physical map that he wrote.
Meg said, “Do you want to rehearse this, or do you just want to wing it, just to see?” I said, “Let’s try it.” And she helped clarify. I think she was the one who came up with “Let’s make six of these beats pretty specific.” I don’t have the script with me, but I think “he starts getting shortness of breath, he starts making strange muffled sounds, he’s dying like an animal. He starts convulsing. He realizes it. He opens his eyes, and then he looks at the audience”. I think in the original version, it would just be one look out to the audience. But because we were in the round, Meg wanted me to take in everyone as I go. And it didn’t cost much, to be honest. Other than just physically.
What was amazing was because it was just purely physical, everyone else I’d talked to who watched it – they were the ones who’d come up to me to say, “That looked realistic. I watched my so-and-so die”. They endowed me with what was going on inside. So it was almost mechanical, but it was a really unique experience for me in the theatre.
Middletown is so much about the town and the ensemble. Tell us a little bit about your fellow actors, and working with them to build that world.
It is, you’re absolutely right. It’s cool, being in a place like Shaw, because everyone works together a lot. In this group, we had some newcomers too, but it was the second show, so a lot of the people- Sara [Topham], Karl [Ang]- we worked on Saint Joan together, and so we’re developing a shorthand. I already have a shorthand with Moya, obviously. And we have a trust that’s already implicit, in having worked with people over the years. So everyone sort of jumps on board, and we can just get to places a little sooner, and then a lot of them could get a little deeper.
Unfortunately, for the John and Mary stuff, we were a little separate from the feeling of the ensemble. I didn’t get much interaction with Craig the mechanic, or there were other members of the community that I didn’t get to interact with as much. As actors, it’s always inspiring being in that place [the Shaw Festival], because you get to see people surprise you over the years. You think you know them, but you don’t.
You brought up Saint Joan. You’re actually competing against yourself in Outstanding Ensemble. Tell us a little bit about that production and working with TC and that cast.
Yeah, that was fascinating. We did Shaw. I haven’t done much Shaw at Shaw, ironically. I’ve done two or three. But with Joan, what I really appreciated and loved about working with TC is that we never talked about the play. We would sometimes in rehearsal, but we never had a read-through.
From day one, we got up, and as a group, we started doing a series of exercises that TC’s developed over the years that take the text, and take the actor, and take the ensemble – it messes with it. We will go through the texts. We’ll change roles. We’ll do predicted text, where an actor will get up in front with a book in hand, in front of the rest of the group. You’ll start going through a line, and at the end of the line, you’ll look at someone, and point to them, and they’ll have to predict what the next word he’s about to say is. Instead of working on the text from a cerebral point, we’re getting the text in our body early on, and we’re playing with it.
By the time we get to running it, we know it, and there’s also going back to the fundamental clarity of the sound that comes out of the voice, and the instrument you have. So when you get on that stage, people can hear you, as opposed to trying to muscle and build tension. It was challenging, and in the end, from what I’ve heard from people, even though we didn’t go through a very pragmatic or cerebral or scholarly look at all of the arguments and all of the history, the story was clear, which was great.
That stage that we had was so minimal. It was one of the most vulnerable stages I’ve been on. You had to be really specific about where you moved, because any movement or any action that was non-specific just pulled focus. Everyone had to develop a sense of stillness and intention, which was awesome. It’s a good group, too. Because of that, and Sara just sort of led the charge. She was so on board, and her and TC have such a relationship together that she helped all of us that were new to TC. Everyone just jumped in, which is always helpful.
Do you try and see every show in the season?
Yeah, if I can. I think I saw all of them last year.
What were some of your favourites of 2017?
I loved Androcles. Loved An Octoroon. Those are just two that stick out, but they were all – I enjoy seeing all of them. And my son and I now go. He took me to see Dancing at Lughnasa, which is awesome. He’s eight, and he dressed up, with his hat, and his coat. So now we go to the theatre too.
In Androcles, I enjoyed just watching the actors be so comfortable in the play that they were doing. I also saw the version that they did with the musical version, which was really amazing to watch. And then An Octoroon, because that was kind of an event. I was blown away by that.
You’ve just finished your run in King Charles III with Studio 180 and Mirvish. Tell us a little bit about that production.
It was great. The Off-Mirvish that Studio 180 does is fantastic. I really liked the arguments in the play. I played the Prime Minister, who’s a proletarian, who’s Labour, and he’s arguing for the regulation of the press. And he’s arguing against Charles, who is a monarch, who’s seemingly Conservative, who’s arguing for the freedom of the press. So I loved the part that he had, that that was sort of the tenor of the argument. We got to know a sense of the principled nature of Charles. Now, in doing it, [I see] he’s one of the most underrated members of the family. He does a lot of amazing work for charities and stuff. I had no idea. But it’s cheeky. It was a cheeky little piece. It’s good.
Preview for us what’s coming up for you this season.
This season, I think I start first with Hound of the Baskervilles. Sherlock Holmes. Craig Hall [director] and Damien Atkins playing Sherlock, and that will be a lot of fun. Then we move into Henry V, with TC and Kevin Bennett co-directing, with a World War I concept. So that’s exciting. [laughs]
King Charles III is written in the “style” of Shakespeare. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you do actual Shakespeare.
I haven’t done it in a long time.
Are you excited?
Yeah, I’m excited.
Terrified. Especially with TC, because he could have gone one of two routes. He said that he was on track to become tenure at Oxford. He’s decided to direct. His intelligence, especially in regards to Shakespeare, and his knowledge of the verse, and all of that – it’s amazing. I will be soaking in a lot – I already am. I’ve already started reading, and I’m trying to get a foot on the verse so I can show up ready.
They say Christopher Plummer shows up off-book first day.
[laughs] Groan. I’ll try my best.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
No, just a big shoutout to my wife, Molly – she was the intern director last year at Shaw- just a shoutout to her and my two sons, Holden and Tennyson.