Hayden Finkelshtain is a delightful, charming, talented, open-hearted individual who worries about things like whether it’s okay that the photos that go with this interview don’t accurately reflect what he normally looks like because the project he’s currently working on required him to shave his signature beard (we’ve included a beard-y production photo below, just in case). Good Old Neon’s Blue Remembered Hills– one of our most-nominated productions of the year and one of my favourite shows of the season- *spoiler alert for a months-old show* set Hayden on fire and let him burn to death alone in a barn. For some reason he still wanted to come in and talk about how great an experience it was working with director Nicole Wilson and the rest of the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yeah, I do – but not very well. With theatre, the first experience was playing the gender-swopped Fairy Godmother in a production of Cinderella. I played the Fairy Godfather, and they painted a little moustache on my face. Maybe that’s what’s inspired the beard growth since. That was it, and I wore a big silver top hat, and a big silver cape and suit. I don’t know where they got a silver suit, but I wore that. I remember the girl who played Cinderella kept getting upset with me because I would forget a cue. I don’t remember what she said, I just remember her shouting “Cue! Cue!” That’s my first experience with theatre, I think.
I did a commercial audition when I was really little, but that wasn’t theatre. It was for a cookie. I was, like, 3. I had to sit on a bench with an actress that was like my grandmother, and the commercial was that she was giving me a cookie. I didn’t get through the first audition because I wouldn’t take it from her, because it wasn’t really my grandmother. I’d say, “just so you’re aware, this isn’t my grandmother”, and they were like, “Can you just take the cookie from the woman?” I was like, “You don’t understand. This is not bubbe.” So that was that.
When did you start singing?
Except for the really little Cinderella moustache show, I started in local musical theatre. I’m from Vaughan, so I did it up in Vaughan, probably from Grade 4 to 12, and I only started doing more straight theatre with the Sears Drama Festival in high school, so like Grade 9, 10. But my first experience was with musical theatre, and I always had a deep voice. So I was kind of lucky in that they were all, “Well, that’s the only kid in 5th grade with a deep voice, so he can be the dad that sings a lot”. And so I was lucky in that I was often given the chance to sing in a show, because of that.
How’d you get involved with Blue Remembered Hills?
I’m a paranoid performer, and I’m like, “I need to be working all the time!” So I’m part of all those Facebook groups- like, “Toronto Actors”, and “Actors!”, and “These Actors”, and “Jewish Toronto Actors” and whatever. I think I just saw that Nicole Wilson, who directed and did all the jobs, had posted an audition, and I just applied. I didn’t know anybody in the show, because it was very George Brown [Theatre School]-heavy, because that’s Nicole’s first network. And I’m a Ryerson grad, so I think I just found the posting, and I auditioned for it because it sounded like an interesting thing.
What appealed to you about the role of Donald?
When we first auditioned, Donald wasn’t the part that I initially was super interested in. I was really interested in Jeff Dingle’s part. He played Willy, and I liked that part because there was a lot of just outright comedy with that role, especially in the beginning with the mock airplane, jet fighter thing. That just sounded fun to me. That’s more in my wheelhouse, and the kind of stuff that I gravitate towards initially.
I was like, “I don’t know how I will play [Donald]”, because it’s a very odd role. And especially when Nicole directed it, it was very challenging, because he’s just onstage the whole time. He had two scenes, really, and in the latter of the two scenes, he gets set on fire. So I was like, “This is super not the type of work that I’m used to doing, nor the type of stuff that I usually get cast as, as a nebbish-y, Jewish, typically bearded man”.
So it didn’t appeal to me right away, and then what appealed to me afterwards was just the challenge of it. I tried to really trust Nicole. I think Nicole’s fabulous, and she really thought I’d be a good fit for it, and I was like, “If she thinks I’d be a good fit for it, then maybe I can play it.” So that was really just Nicole’s confidence.
In the original script, adult actors are all playing children. But Nicole interpreted it as you actually playing adults who are just saying they’re children. How did that affect how you approached the character psychologically?
I don’t know if you’ll be speaking to Nicole about it [coming soon!], and she’d probably have a better answer, because it was in her brain. But I think it wasn’t quite as black and white. You’re right in saying that in the original film, if you watch, it’s very bizarre, because it’s these grown-ups clearly playing kids. It’s a lot of that child acting, pigtails, weird stuff like that. It’s uncanny, and I guess that’s kind of the point.
If I’m remembering correctly, Nicole really didn’t want that, because it’s super not her style, and what she thought would be good for it. For Nicole, it was more just [playing] the part. I know there were a couple of things that I knew that Donald had that I guess some might interpret as that stupid child acting. I read it, and I was like “Oh, he has a lisp”, and stuff like that. But I didn’t really think of it as playing a kid. Also, because I’m just not that, and I think if I tried to do that, my voice would give it away, and Nicole was like, “Don’t shave”. So I think I just approached it the way I would have approached anything.
I don’t think that the kid really played a part in it. Other than just from being a kid, his worldview is different. Just coming at it from a world view point of view, as opposed to, “This is a child that you’re playing”. Which was kind of nice, because it freed the whole experience up. I didn’t feel compelled to convincingly play a kid.
What were some of the interesting conversations you had with Nicole in developing your interpretation of the character?
Oh, we had a lot of conversations. Many of which were me [laughs] asking Nicole for notes, and then not receiving notes. Just because the bulk of the role was, in her interpretation of it, Donald just sitting alone onstage. So a lot of that was just like “Nicole, what do you want me to do?” and she was all “Ehh, just do what you’re doing.” I was like, “All right, well, that’s wonderfully confusing.” And we’d laugh about it.
So a lot of our conversations didn’t happen till much later, when we started looking at the arc of the overall show. Because most of the scene work was like, Michael-David [Blostein] and Jeff. They had a huge chunk in the beginning, and then Alexander [Offord] and Nicola [Atkinson] and Ara [Glenn-Johanson] – so obviously that had to get pieced together first.
Because Donald was only in two scenes, I was just always at rehearsal playing by myself. Which was kind of cool, and kind of worked, I guess, because that’s kind of the point, that Donald’s just playing by himself, right? I don’t think that that was a psychological thing, like, [conspiratorial voice] “He’s gonna play by himself” But a lot of our conversations didn’t happen until the very end, when we were linking the whole thing together, and it was just like, “Donald, if you’re there onstage the whole time, how can we be using your presence to kind of complement the picture of the whole show in a way that isn’t distracting, and in a way that makes sense?”
In a way, that’s really a means to an end, because really, Donald’s only action is that he plays by himself. He has a small interaction with Michael-David’s character, Peter, and then [laughs] he burns alive, right? So it was like, how do we justify that when it’s not in the script?
The production is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble. Tell us a little bit about working with those people.
I’m glad it was recognized for Outstanding Ensemble, I really am. Because it truly, truly was such an absolute pleasure working with every single person in that company. All of them were really super generous performers and scene partners.
I didn’t have many scenes with people except for Michael-David, who’s nominated for his own award. It was just so amazing working with him. Super generous. And the company was really nice, because it was a lot of people who just were interested in exploring. Like, we really didn’t set stuff really hard. I think that’s what Nicole wanted, because there wasn’t a set, really, and it was all pretty dreamlike and open. And that very much reflected the process, and very much reflected the people in the process. It felt like constant sandbox exploration, which was really cool. It was also a really good help, because as you know, with a lot of indie theatre, audience size varies greatly. So we had, you know, houses that were full – I don’t remember how many seats we had, 30, maybe 25 – and then we had a couple of houses of actually two people. And the show had to change, just because it was two people. There were two chairs. So that kind of sandbox style rehearsal was really, really helpful, and I think it was a really good company for that. People were really quick to adapt.
Yours was the first voice we heard in the show. How did the musical elements factor into the overall performance?
I’m trying to remember how that came to be. From the beginning, Nicole wanted music in the show, and if I’m remembering correctly, in our first or second rehearsal, we did a warmup together as a group. Nicole was like, “All right, now we’re all gonna sing as a group, and improvise. Here we go – go!” and we just started playing with how our voices worked together. If I make a sound, how does it influence the sound that you make?
I think that it came later that Nicole found that track- I think it’s called “Woods”- and we just sat with it and Ara, who’s in the company, is particularly musically inclined. So if I remember correctly, she really helped. But it actually was very simple. The music, I think, was in harmony, but I’m fairly certain we just kept it all melody, as opposed to layering it harmony-wise. We just did it in a round. Like, I started, then Ara started, then everyone else came in, then Michael-David came in at the end.
It was a funny conversation, because of the way Nicole directs. I admire her a lot, because she sticks to her guns, and has an idea, and runs with it. But I remember that music being kind of a polarizing thing for people, because I don’t think people knew whether or not they liked it. I know people saw it, and were like “That was really cool, and hypnotizing, and interesting.” Other people saw it, who were like, “That was really frigging long. Ten minutes of that song, over and over again.” Which is fair, and maybe if I saw it, I would’ve felt that way too. But I really liked that the show was kind of polarizing in that way. I think that makes for really good, interesting theatre. Especially in the indie scene, because it’s really easy to play it really safe to get an audience. That’s why I think the music, among other elements, was a really interesting way to see what people did and didn’t like.
Did you have a favourite moment in the show?
Fun is maybe not the right word, but the burning sequence was really interesting to build, and it was a lot of corn syrup and paint in my beard, which was awful. And in my eye. After, I’d look like a zombie, and be like, “Hello, thank you for coming to the show!” 20 minutes of wipes [to clean up after the show]. I think that was a really fun moment, because it was always a challenge. My movement teacher, if she reads this somehow, will laugh, because I have no endurance. I wish I was in better shape than I am. And that was a serious workout. The show was exhausting to begin with, and the end of the show, I was like “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that today. Let’s see!” [laughs] I think that sequence was my favourite, for sure.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
I don’t know that I had a particular hope for people seeing the show. I think it was more curiosity. In fact, I remember the company – maybe it was just me and Jeff, but I remember it being more than that- just sitting and chatting, being like, “We have no idea what people are gonna think about this show”. That was really cool. So I don’t think I had a hope. I don’t think I was like, “I want them to take away this lesson”, but I think it was more just, “What in the hell are people gonna think of this?” and that was really cool and exciting. And very, very scary, especially when so many people do reviews. It’s so quick to be like, “This show sucks!” and then you’re in the show that sucks. So I think that was really interesting, and really exciting.
What are you doing now, or what’s your next project?
I’m working right now on [something that’s] very different than Blue Remembered Hills – that’s why I shaved. I’m working on a TYA show with Education Arts Canada. They’re developing a series of shows for Grades 4-6, and this is the first of the series. It’s called The Secret Life of Riley K, and it’s a show that’s starting to really gently and honestly discuss mental health, in that everybody experiences anxiety in varying degrees. Some people have anxiety disorders, but everybody experiences anxiety, and that’s okay, and not a scary thing to talk about. I’m really excited to be working on that. It’s super different to all the other stuff I’ve worked on before, especially Blue Remembered Hills, because I don’t get lit on fire on that show, surprisingly. [laughs]
I’ve been doing a little bit of voice-over as well. I’ve been lucky enough to connect with an animation studio in the city. If anybody reads this interview, they should go watch Super Science Friends. That’s an animation that I’ve been working on, with Tinman Creative Studios. And now that’s kind of it. And maintaining a shave for three months. That’s also what’s up. And that’s giving me a rash. [laughs]
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’m just genuinely really glad that the folks at My Entertainment World awards enjoyed Blue Remembered Hills, and thought that it was worthy of several nominations. It’s really exciting to me, because it was a very scary show to put out there. I did not know what people were gonna think. But it was really cool, and such a pleasure to work with all those artists. I hope to work with them again.