Good Old Neon’s Blue Remembered Hills– one of the darkest and most disturbing productions of the year- began with Jeff Dingle making play airplane noises. Jeff’s happy-go-lucky presence usually signals you’re about to see something fairly fun (he’s very often holding a puppet) but in Blue Remembered Hills, that joyful quality was deployed to haunting effect as the fun and games quickly led to tragedy. Representing the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast, Jeff stopped by the Nominee Interview Series to talk about various silly things and also burning a boy named Donald to death (spoiler alert, I guess).
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I was in the Christmas pageant at my elementary school. I played Piglet from Winnie the Pooh. I had two lines.
Why was Piglet in the Christmas pageant?
From what I recall, it was a fun “look at all these cartoon characters Christmas shopping!” It was basically one long skit.
Oh, so they weren’t at the birth of Jesus.
No. Although that would be wicked. [laughs] I remember my friend was Charlie Brown. Or Linus, but someone was Charlie Brown. Oh, I can’t remember who else was there. I think Aladdin was there. It was the Grade 4 teacher going, “What the hell can I do with all these kids?” [laughs] And that was my acting debut.
How did you get involved with Blue Remembered Hills?
I knew Nicole [Wilson, director], and Alexander [Offord, producer/castmember]. Nicole and I were in the same class at George Brown. We graduated the same year. It’s not a big story. I just saw her post on Facebook being like, “We’re having auditions for the show!” I’d never heard of the play, but I was like, “I’d work with Nicole again, let’s do it” – and I just shot her a submission, and she gave me an audition, and then I ended up in the play. That was it.
What did you think when you first read the text?
It was fucked. [laughs] Cause it is written as adults playing children, and it’s like Lord of the Flies, because there’s almost no plot, and so at first it’s like, “This is gonna be hard”. It was really hard text to get off-book, but I thought it would be really challenging and dark, and it had a clear through line. Now, our version was much more abstract, but the script in general is very much this is what these kids get up to left to their own devices, when they’re not supervised. And of course, someone gets murdered, and there’s bullying. I thought it would be a cool show to do, but at first I was like, “Oh Jesus. What have I gotten into?”
What appealed to you about the character of Willy?
It’s funny. I just had the cast breakdown, and I never read the script when I submitted, so I was like “uh, Willy or Donald”. The thing I like about Willy – and we discovered this as we went – first he’s very at face value in that opening scene, with me and Michael-David [Blostein as Peter]. He seems like an almost comical character, like this clown, or the nice friend to Peter. As the play [goes] on, you learn none of the characters are perfect. Even Donald was a bit of a weirdo. [laughs]
The thing about Willy is, and it wasn’t like an overt thing – but as we went on, we discovered that he wasn’t actually a very good friend to Peter – understandably, because Peter was a bully. But he jumped ship to John very quickly. I don’t want to say spineless – he wasn’t a bad dude – but he followed Peter because Peter was the bigger one, but when someone challenged Peter, he was quick to jump ship, because Peter was a dick to Willy, ultimately.
As we went on, we did a lot of exercises, and Nicole and I had this revelation, because we got up, and we talked about other characters – it was basically like a hot seat, where you sit on a stool and talk about your relationship with the other characters. And no one else in the company had really cared about Willy, except for Peter. Nicole was like, “I just realized that Willy’s actually kind of the loner of the group.” I was like, “Yeah! But I don’t think he minds.” [laughs] That was a bit of a rant. But we see him [as] the free spirit. At face value, the most likeable, and then the play progresses, and then you realize, [it’s] not just him, but everyone is sort of hiding this darkness underneath.
There was a restlessness in Willy, and a chaoticness. He really wanted John and Peter to fight amongst the lot of them, and I feel like he would’ve hopped on board with whoever won in that conflict. So there was a bit of a nasty underbelly to Willy. That never played a huge part in the plot, but it was a neat character thing to have, and be like “Oh, Willy’s actually not that nice.” I guess that’s what I liked about the character. [laughs]
What were some of the other interesting conversations you had with Nicole in developing your interpretation?
First, I was wary of us all playing children. In my experience, that can be a trap for adult performers if it doesn’t work. If it works, it’s magical. But I’ve seen some bad TYA shows where someone who’s 36 is playing an 11-year-old, and it’s like, “Oh, buddy, no.” We kept [the element of us playing children] in there, because it’s in the writing, but don’t go overboard with it. Don’t actively play a child. So the characters became this own weird clown world.
I appreciated that [Nicole] didn’t enforce the child-like aspects, and let the writing do its thing. As actors, that freed us up to not be locked in child mode, because the author had already done that for us, so I didn’t have to put on a voice and pretend to be – I think they were 7 in the script? Like between 6 and 9.
We talked a lot about PTSD. It wasn’t a thing we overtly played, but if people wanted to read into it, it was there – that we actually were adults suffering from some sort of stress from whatever mystery war, attack or something. That came up in conversation a lot. And Nicole also had a real, strong physical element to it, so it wasn’t just us playing the text as is. It was a lot of gesture, and a lot of exercises we did that that bled into the production. That was really neat, and cool.
You’re here representing the Outstanding Ensemble nomination. Tell us a little bit about working with that cast.
It was great! It was very much an ensemble piece. I felt that Michael-David’s character was a bit more of a throughline, but on the whole, we were all there. We very rarely had rehearsals where it was just specific call times. We were always called. Even Hayden [Finkelshtain] as Donald. We would do this entire scene, and then we’d look over and he was just in the corner rolling around.
But it was all about our ensemble interactions. We did a lot of games and exercises. We played a lot, which was important, because that’s all they’re doing in the play, just playing. Michael-David and I worked on our opening scene together. The girls and Donald had a couple of rehearsals, but in general, we were always there, and always playing, and always discovering new relationships with each other. It was funny, too, because everyone brought their own thing. Everyone had different backgrounds. Ara [Glenn-Johanson] and Nicola [Atkinson] are very like-minded. They like interesting physical things that don’t necessarily have a narrative. I’m a little less like that. I like stories, but I enjoyed re-opening up that part of myself. Everyone brought something, which was really cool.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
Heh heh. It was a very bold piece. It’s funny. I don’t know. It was one of those plays where I understood that people would like it or not, and that’s exactly what happened. I had friends who saw it who were like, “That’s so amazing. I had no idea what was going on, but for all the right reasons,” or vice versa – there were some people that came up to me and read so much into it that I hadn’t even thought of. Then I had friends who were like, “What the hell was that? I had no idea what was going on. I only saw it because you were in it.” I guess that’s what I wanted people to take from it. I wanted the people who did enjoy it – or even the people who didn’t enjoy it – to get something from it, because there wasn’t a completely clear message. There was things to take away, and that aspect of loneliness, restlessness. That stuff with Donald and bullying. I think that was the big one. And not just from Peter, but all the characters weren’t very good to each other – that got out of hand, and then this innocent guy ends up getting killed. I just hoped that people took something from it, and didn’t just go and see us dressed in white throwing mud at each other, and being like, “What the hell?”
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yes. I had a couple. I enjoyed the halfway through game where there was no dialogue in the scene, it was just us. I can’t even remember now – we all became dogs, and we were sniffing each other, and then I’m pretty sure there was a scene where we first actively introduce mud, throwing mud at each other, and it just became this weird tribal hunt / dance.
Also, this is the most I had to do in the play, but I did love the opening scene with Michael-David and I. We just had so much fun playing off each other, and the back-and-forth of the power play, because Peter was such a physical threat, but Willy had this way of getting under his skin, and picking at his ego that really drove him nuts. It was just fun to play, with the airplane and all that stuff. Those were probably my two favourite bits, for different reasons.
What are you working on now or next?
At the end of the month, I’m doing a reading of a couple of short plays I co-wrote with my friends Jake Martin called The Adventures of Ryan Griffith. Part One is Ryan Griffith and the Attack of the Abominable Snowman. Part Two is Ryan Griffith and the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. They are basically short romps, and we’re doing it at the May on March 30th. It’s just gonna be a fun evening of reading two extraordinarily stupid and ludicrous plays.
What is Shakesbeers?
It used to be all the Shakespeare companies in town, now it’s open to everybody this year. We all compete, and we have to read very, very challenging first folio text, and if we screw up, we have to drink, and at the end of the night, whoever read it the best while inebriated is the ultimate Shakesbeers champion.
Are you any good at it?
No. This is my third year doing it, and [Shakey-Shake Artistic Director] Tom McGee and I have talked about this – it’s actually extraordinarily difficult because every team has to have a colour or costume or something, so we obviously just come with the puppets. Which is obviously lots of fun, and people enjoy it, but it’s really hard to speak Shakespeare and move the puppet and drink at the same time. But hijinks ensue, and it’s always fun.
One year I made it to the second round. The first year I did it, I actually made the second round, and I think it was the first time ever Shakey-Shake did not get disqualified in the first round. And then I was immediately defeated, so that was a takeaway. But it’s always lots of fun.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I hope we win lots of awards [laughs] because the show was fun, and we deserve it. But so does everyone.