Every time I write about a new Michael-David Blostein performance, I find myself calling it a “career best” because he just keeps getting better. In Good Old Neon’s bold and brutal Blue Remembered Hills, one of our most-nominated productions of the year, he found the perfect vehicle for his ever-evolving skillset and a company with the creative aesthetic to redefine his limits and his “type” (not a top hat in sight). It’s bittersweet just how great Michael-David was in his Outstanding Supporting Actor-nominated performance because he’s since moved to Berlin and it sounds like it’s a longshot that Toronto will ever lure him back.
The last time we interviewed you was for the 2011 Interview Series around the time of Cabaret. Catch us up on the highlights since then.
In autumn of 2012 I dove straight back into the post-secondary cave and did my time at George Brown Theatre school.
Since graduating in 2015 I haven’t exactly been prolific; that being said there are two productions I’d like to mention that were personal milestones.
I got to play Prospero in Ravenous Theatre’s production of The Tempest. That was truly a lovely experience – at the time I hadn’t acted in about a year, and I suddenly found myself right back in the thick of it with a cast mainly comprised of familiar faces from my program (as well as some lovely new people as well). Playing Prospero isn’t exactly a small undertaking – at first I wasn’t sure I had the age or experience to put forth a worthy portrayal. Luckily I was able to play him as a much younger man who struggles to prioritize his daughter’s happiness beyond any private, dark wishes for revenge against the men who betrayed him. In the end, to my surprise, that was probably the most vulnerable performance I’ve given in my life.
The second show I would list here was a two hander I did with Foxglove Theatre called The Four Of Us. That was about as far from heightened, Elizabethan text as you can get – the language was deeply colloquial and, seeing as the play revolved around a playwright and a writer, it was, well – text heavy. For the most part, it was just two actors on stage for an hour – Šimon Mizera and myself. It was a lesson in stamina as an artist and a serious moment of growth for me as an actor.
Šimon poured his heart into his performance, while Samantha Holland made me wonder what the hell I was doing at 20 years old, because she directed the living crap out of us two old farts.
How did you get involved with Blue Remembered Hills?
Nicole [Wilson] and Alexander [Offord], the power couple behind Good Old Neon, had been friends/acquaintances of mine for a few years, and we had always talked about doing a show together.
My introduction to Alexander as an actor was back at George Brown – he was in his final year as I was entering the program. I remember watching him play King Leopold in Howard Barker’s The Europeans. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the opening of that play – John Zorn blaring through the auditorium’s speakers, and Alexander being carted around on a trolley with a paper crown on his head, screaming “I laugh! I laugh!”
I had never known Nicole as a director, but had seen her act in both in Hystericon and Potosi – I remember feeling totally blown away and intimidated by her as a performer, and was super excited and absolutely terrified when I got a message from her about the possibility of auditioning for Good Old Neon’s new show.
What attracted you to the role of Peter?
My hope at first was to land a softer character, like Raymond or Donald, who are in turn a sensitive underdog and completely victimized, bullied child. I rarely get to play a character who appears completely honest, helpless and vulnerable.
When I was cast as Peter I was a little wary at first – but over time he became appealing because I don’t often get to play cruel people who aren’t good at their jobs. I’m usually typecast as some son of a bitch with a hint of supernatural about him, usually with some conspicuous piece of Victorian clothing. I stopped counting how many goddamn tophats I’ve worn.
With Peter, he simply isn’t the bully/alpha everyone thinks he is. Case in point: when presented with the opportunity to torment the most defenseless character in the play, he can’t bring himself to see it through. I like that he’s probably as sensitive as Donald, but feels he must prove to the world that he’s tough.
Ultimately Peter picked the wrong vocation.
In the original script, the adult actors play children but, in this interpretation, you’re adults who claim to be children. How did this shift affect how you approached the character psychologically?
Each member of the ensemble was given freedom to find inner justification for this new premise. In my mind I envisioned that the playing space was a room in a penitentiary, or an asylum. I played with the idea that we were all adults who were incarcerated since we were children. We had been put away for having killed a kid in our youth, and now were undergoing some sort of radical 1960s style therapy in which we acted out what we had done before; perhaps to see if we could arrive at a different conclusion. So we have to kill Donald over and over again until we understand that it had been our fault.
As actors, the fact that we were grown men and women playing at the games of childhood meant that a lot of parts of being a kid – for instance, the awkward flirtations that come at the very beginning of discovering one’s sexuality – were fully developed here. As well, the anger and cruelty of schoolyard bullying was given a particularly vicious upgrade, which hopefully created a sense of danger and unease for the audience – adults capable of causing serious damage to each other, but being driven by emotions appropriate to children aged 7-12.
What were some of the most interesting conversations you had with director Nicole Wilson in developing your interpretation of the character?
Originally the play takes place during the Second World War – many of these children had absent parents, off fighting the Axis Powers. Nicole and I talked about Peter in particular worshiping his father as a role model – but also, that Peter’s home life could be comparable to Donald’s, whose mother was cruel and abusive toward him. Peter has imaginary eyes on him for much of the play – role models, peers – but especially the eyes of his invincible, tough dad.
When the play begins, Wallace Wilson, the group’s genuine Alpha, is nowhere to be found. So it’s Peter’s chance to step up and prove to the group that he’s a worthy replacement – ultimately he fails, which is not just a loss of face, but also a total failure as a son. A lot of Peter’s constant bluster and chest beating is both an attempt to fill his father’s shoes and a front to mask his total terror for his father’s safety, who is off risking his life at war.
Peter is an alpha male schoolyard bully, something most artistic kids don’t particularly relate to. How did you approach finding that headspace and treating that character with empathy?
There are many ways a person can react to a difficult life, to unbearable private emotions, or family abuse – one person might bury and suppress; “I wasn’t affected, only weak people give into this or that”, while others completely collapse. Peter has to dominate, and has to be bulletproof, because the moment he is vulnerable, or unsure, he feels as though he will fall apart. Like I mentioned before, one of the pivotal scenes in the play is where Peter confronts Donald alone in a barn. Given what we know about these two people, you would think Peter would eat this kid for lunch. After an initial attempt, Peter realizes he can’t do it. If anything Peter awkwardly attempts support, to lift, and even act as brother to the weaker kid.
In terms of empathizing with a person like Peter – that’s a good question. In real life I’m not like Peter, really – but maybe that comes down to how I was raised. I had the luxury of being raised by open minded parents, going to art school…it was safe for me to be emotional and vulnerable as a kid, as a teenager as well. In Peter’s case, he comes from an environment where he would lose his reputation, social standing, perhaps even the respect of his parents, as soon as he is seen by anyone as being “soft”. I wasn’t raised with that fear, but in order to play Peter, I had to imagine what that fear would be like.
I had to ask – what kind of person finds their own vulnerability so horrifying and shameful that they must do anything to convince others that they are hard as a rock?
You’re a classically trained singer. How did the musical elements of the show factor into your overall performance?
I’m afraid it might be a little misleading to talk about my voice that way. To be clear – when I first started taking singing lessons, it was in a classical style; but that has very little to do with the kind of music I value most, or the type of singing I aspire to do myself. As grateful as I am to have been given the opportunity to learn that skill-set, I used to worry that being trained in a style of singing widely recognized as “beautiful” functionally excluded me from finding my own authentic voice. As a teenager, after practicing Schumann in a little cubicle in the RCM, I’d go home listening to Blixa Bargeld screech his heart out on a track like Armenia and wonder if I’d ever be able to sing something that raw.
With Blue Remembered Hills, the use of music was a directorial choice made by Nicole – but was in no way an attempt to beautify an otherwise ugly play.
The music, to me anyway, illustrated the inner, uglier motivations of the children – or in this interpretation, adults. Remember the opening sequence? It was a reworked version of Bon Iver’s “Woods”. We all contribute to this mantra like piece – it begins soft, personal, heartfelt; from there it crescendos into an enormous peak, and then devolves into a primordial chittering and screaming. Any real moment of musical beauty we presented would eventually be met with its total match in sonic cruelty.
It’s also a hyper-physical show with a lot of movement and a lot of violence. What were some of the challenges of executing those sequences?
I LOVED the physicality of the show, the challenge of it! Freedom in my body was always a tough issue for me in my early days acting, and especially at theatre school – in fact, I was told point blank by the GB Head of Acting that I was a “profoundly awkward human being onstage”, hahah! See look, a man can change.
As an ensemble, I think the biggest challenge for all of us was not getting too um…enthusiastic with the total besmirchment of the playing space. There was a bucket full of moist fertilizer, fake blood – we had a lot of weapons in our arsenal. In early rehearsals, we went a little overboard. Who wouldn’t when you have the freedom to chuck globs of wet soil at people? There is something so completely satisfying about beginning in a pristine, clinical room that will be rendered increasingly unrecognizable, buried in dirt and blood.
What were you hoping the audience would take away from that show?
I remember how I felt when I saw Good Old Neon’s Hystericon, and later Potosi. Nicole and Alexander have a way of creating immersive and disturbing work that leaves a lasting impression. My greatest wish was that people would walk out of that auditorium feeling the way I did when I was in the audience – stunned into silence, slightly nauseous, extremely impressed.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
There are so many and it feels unfair to pick one…but for personal reasons, I’ll pick the barn scene between Donald and Peter (Hayden Finkelshtain and myself). From the inside, that scene was an extended trust-fall – working entirely off the endless intricacies of Hayden’s work at any given time. The man is absolutely mercurial and absolutely dedicated 100% of the time; it was inspiring to see and I feel pretty blessed we got to play a scene that exists at the heart of the play.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
After BRH ended I put all my energy and time into something that’s been a huge dream of mine for a long time, which was moving to Berlin – a dream that came to fruition this past fall. The culture shock was pretty massive, and my response to that wasn’t always the healthiest – its mostly involved careening between working almost every day of the week to make ends meet, and then diving into the ridiculous Bacchanal that constitutes a weekend in this city – fun, but ultimately unsustainable. Things have been slowing down and settling recently, and I’m looking to start making some goddamn art again.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
The nomination is greatly appreciated – Blue Remembered Hills was a true ensemble piece, with the most formidable team I’ve ever worked with. For this reason, being nominated like this is both extremely flattering as well as a bit uncomfortable. Ultimately, I’m honoured.