Stephen Joffe has the sort of unique intense energy that, when casting the role of unpredictable cousin Ziggy in the Storefront’s site-specific epic Tough Jews, both the writer and director had the same “it has to be him” idea at the same time. He’s quick and quirky and infused Ziggy with the sort of hair trigger vibe that instantly raises the stakes of any play, earning an Outstanding Supporting Actor nomination that pushed Tough Jews into a tie for most-nominated show of the year.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I was in a Ross Petty production at the Elgin Theatre. We did Peter Pan the pantomime and that’s actually where I met my bandmate Adrian [Morningstar] for the first time. I was nine or ten years old, and I got to play Toodles. I’d only done film and television before, so it was my first experience with a live audience, that high you get from being in front of them, and you can’t go back for a second take. It was a fun time. It was a mess. It was wonderful, and it’s also where I fell in love with the vagabond atmosphere of the Toronto theatre scene.
Speaking of which, how’d you get involved with Tough Jews?
I’ll tell you the true story: Storefront had this party. I forget for what – it was for some prom-themed party. Ben [Blais, director] and Claire [Burns, managing director of Storefront] got my band to play it. Birds of Bellwoods. We did it in secret, because we weren’t really supposed to be doing a lot of Toronto play at that time. But they were friends, so we figured why not, and played it under a fake name.
In typical Storefront fashion, I got pretty mangled after the show, and at some point I just remember Ben cornering me and being like, “This is my friend Michael [Ross Albert]. He wrote Tough Jews. It’s an amazing play.” I was like, “Okay, Michael, it’s nice to meet you.” He was just like, “I’ve got the part for you. You’ve got to do this.” And he was like, “End of first act, bang! You’re dead. That’s it. First act ends.” And I’m like, “I’m not in the rest of the play?” And he’s like, “Yeah. But wait till you read the first act.” And I spoke to Michael, and I heard more about the play, and I was like “Shit, this is unfortunate. I do have to do this play. It sounds fantastic.”
It’s hard. It’s always such a commitment with theatre, and there’s no guarantees. It can be the greatest experience of your life, or it can be months of your life that disappear. But I was very lucky I met such an incredible family. I made friends that I still have today, and that I hope to have for the rest of my life. And I met Michael, who was obviously prolific. But I pretty much woke up the next morning and had agreed to do this play. I was in.
How does working directly with the playwright affect the rehearsal process?
That definitely differs from playwright to playwright. We were lucky with Tough Jews because Michael was an incredibly open force. He clearly had done an incredible amount of work leading up to the production, but he still recognized that there was a lot that he could learn, and a lot he could learn from our personal experiences surrounding the lives of Jews in this era.
My family is Jewish. We’re not a religious house, but we definitely carry that history with us. So he was very open to a dialogue, and to there being a back and forth. I remember I came in, and immediately, when I started reading Ziggy, this voice started coming out. It was so much fun. That naturally started to just twist the text, not really change anything, but just carry it forward in this little way. He was always super receptive to that. So I would say, if the playwright is open, it can add an entirely new level of depth to a production, because it becomes this feedback loop.
The play was based on real events in Toronto. How much research did you have to do to get into the part?
It definitely inspired me to look into my own family history. My family, mostly, was from Montreal, and my dad’s side is from Mexico, so we didn’t have a relationship to the Toronto Jewish experience during this time. But there were a lot of similar factors throughout the experience of any Jew coming up in Canada at their time. It wasn’t the friendliest place for us. I imagine, at the time, I probably did a bunch of reading on the scene, and all that Canadian equivalent Peaky Blinders shit. Let’s just say I read a bunch of books. [laughs]
What were some of the key conversations you had with Ben in developing your interpretation of Ziggy?
Oh, man. One of the reasons that I joined the production, as well as the play itself, is that I was like “I’ve heard so much about Benjamin Blais. So many things – he’s amazing, he’s a force of nature, he’s a terror, he’s a mess, he’s a genius.” All these things. I was like “All right, I gotta get in there, and I gotta see what’s good for myself.”
When I came in, I was expecting this incredibly hands-on guy who was gonna push me around, and drag this performance out of me. What I found instead was a director whose approach shifted with every single actor that he worked with, and for me, it was none of those things. So I kept waiting for us to throw down, or something, and he kept just being, like, “All right, this is very good. Follow it. Keep going, keep going.”
I was pretty much off-book since the time I came in, and I kept expecting Ben to make me go back to the drawing board. But instead he was always just encouraging, and rewarded my work. The only challenges I really faced were him challenging me to challenge myself, which is very inspiring. And he’s a very fun person to drink with. You never have to be worried that he’s saying half of what he wanted to say.
If he treats all of his actors very differently, and caters his directorial style to them, what do you think it is about you that made you get that version of Ben?
I think I’m just a good actor. [laughs] No, he was that way with everyone. I think it’s that he knew that I was my own worst critic, and that I was never satisfied. That’s my curse in any production, especially in theatre – I never get to a place where I’m like “All right! Ready for opening.” I’m just constantly, like, “This could be deeper, this could be further. I could be more, or I could be less.” Usually I could be less. [laughs] Usually the first two weeks is “more”, and the last two weeks is like, “What am I doing with my hands?! Why?! Put them in your pockets!” So I think he just saw this internal battle going on within me and was like “All right, he’s doing that for me.” He could just sit back.
Most of the characters were family. How did you approach developing that dynamic with the ensemble?
I think it just happened naturally. We were very lucky that we have a lot in common. Family that fights together, stays together. [laughs] We had Theresa [Tova], who was this incredible matriarch figure for us all to rally behind, and support. [Luis Fernandes] and Anne [van Leeuwen] were two people who I’d been hoping to work with for quite some time. I’d seen their work individually, and I was very excited for the opportunity to collaborate with them. [G Kyle Shields], same situation. Blue [Bigwood-Mallin] and I had known each other at least four or five years. I was in a play that he directed, called Like a Generation, so it was our first time to play onstage together.
We walked in with a mutual respect for each other’s work, and an understanding of “Oh, we’re all heavy hitters here”. It’s an interesting thing with theatre. It’s always been my relationship to it that if you spend ten hours in a room treating someone like family, you’re probably gonna walk out feeling like they’re family. It’s just unavoidable osmosis.
They felt like family, and then you had to beat the shit out of each other. Tell us a little bit about those fight sequences, and executing them in such a small space.
In terms of treating each other like family and then beating the shit out of each other, I have three siblings, two of which are older brothers, so that was certainly nothing unfamiliar for me. In terms of executing them in such a small place, Simon Fon is one of the greatest gifts to the Toronto theatre scene that we’ve ever received. You know how when you’re a kid and you’re running around in the woods with a stick, and you’re like, “It’s a sword! It’s a gun!” It’s this, and that, and it’s a waterfall of inspiration. I don’t think he ever got out of that. I think he’s just still that, and he’s managed to find a way of making a living being a kid with a stick in the woods. First of all, he inspired in us a reverence for the choreography, and then understanding that yes, it’s fun, and yes, you can put everything into it, but you have to trust it, and you have to commit to it. Otherwise that’s when something gets dangerous. And then working with people you trust – I’d known Blue for long enough, I’d known Luis for long enough, and through our rehearsal, we’d come to have a respect and a trust for each other.
One of the coolest experiences was when we moved into the space to work on these fight sequences. We realized that the bar was about a foot higher than we’d thought it was, and the lights coming down over the bar were about a foot lower than we’d thought they were. So a lot of the choreography immediately had to shift. And Simon, instead of being like “Oh, fuck, what are we gonna do?”, he was like, “Amazing! Here’s what we’re gonna do next.” So as long as we were adaptable, and stayed connected, we never really had an issue.
Adam Belanger and Lindsay Dagger Junkin, the set and costume designers, are known for their insane amount of detail. How much was that a game-changer in terms of helping you get into the world of the play?
What greater gift, right? You walk in, you’re in the speakeasy, there is no question. I remember the owner of the space walked in the first day after all the adaptations had been done, and he was like, “Holy shit, I don’t even recognize this place”. And he started telling stories: “Know what I heard about this neighbourhood back in the day?”
So what it did for the audience, it did for us times ten, because there were pictures of us on the wall. There was all this history around us. Basically, they made it impossible for us not to be there, because no matter where you’d look – you could look at a speck of dust on the floor, and you know that there’s a very real and conscious choice behind it. I remember there was this particular spot on the ceiling that always ended up with bloodstains from the first shot in the first show. They’d pop the squib, it would always hit the ceiling – and by the last day, there was a lot of blood there. And the environment had just been set up so that no matter what the next thing was that happened to it, it just built the history even further. The blood stain wasn’t something that had to be removed or adjusted. Not to give away what’s about to happen, but every adaptation that happened to the space, they’d just set it up so that it just took you further and further in.
Did you have a favourite moment in the show?
That’s tough, man. The first scene, right out of the gate – so much fun. I still think it’s the best beginning of a play I’ve ever been a part of. That feeling when the lights go up, and the audience is out of their seat from the gunshot. That freak-out moment, and getting to play with four or five different actors in that first moment of making that eye contact, and being ready to go.
My favourite part was probably the scene before I died. The giant fight. Because I just got to run the entire gamut of emotions, reveal Ziggy’s core fear and pain, and then just be like a wild animal. Also, [exploding noises] Goodfellas-style debauchery. I’m still a kid in the woods, too. [laughs]
Your play Letters to Annabelle played at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Tell us about that experience.
Oh, man. I honestly wrote that play four or five years ago, and then threw it in my closet. I’d gone through a breakup, and I’d watched Moulin Rouge maybe a few too many times. I wrote it all in two days, with my military typewriter, and a pack of Pall Malls, just sitting in my room getting over it. And then I got over it.
I remember I sent the play to a few people, who I was working with at the time. I was doing music, and acting, and theatre, and fucking playwriting- I was just throwing my hat into all this overflowing creativity, and I was like, “let’s see what sticks”. So I sent it to people I was working with at the time, and got some positive responses, and just put it away and moved onto the next project. Then Yahuda wrote to me when the Fringe was going up, and was like “Hey, I have a slot in the Fringe, and I’d like to do your play.” I was like, “What?” He was like, “Letters to Annabelle, you remember it.” I was like “I don’t know what you’re – oh, shit!” And I took it out, and I was like “Oh, yeah! Okay. There’s some good stuff here, definitely. It’s fine.”
It’s like an antiquated perspective on love that I don’t share anymore. I find the perspective a bit entitled and possessive, and unfair. Definitely one-handed. But to me, that kind of revealed something in it that maybe I didn’t expect when I wrote it, so that was cool on a different level. I was like, “Yeah, what the hell, why not! Put it up.” And it was exciting to see a team take to a work that I had stepped away from for so long, and still see merit in it.
You do a lot of work in TV and film as well. What have been some of your standout experiences in that field?
Getting to do Alias Grace this year was an incredible experience, for sure. I felt very lucky to share the screen with Sarah Gadon, Anna Paquin, and get to hang out with Sarah Polley, who’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Walking into those rooms, I was always like “Oh shit. I’m out of my league” but the best actors always actually make you feel like you belong there. So that was an incredible experience.
Canadian television specifically can be a bit of a weird thing, because it’s like you do your bingo list. “Have I done Murdoch? Have I done Reign? Oh, Reign doesn’t exist anymore! All right. Cross that one out. Now there’s Frankie Drake Mysteries”, or whatever. You gotta check your card. So it’s been cool to be able to step onto a bunch of different Canadian sets. I would say the coolest thing has been not one production, necessarily, but running the gamut of them and getting to know all these different teams, and the way that they work.
Tell us about what Birds of Bellwoods are up to these days.
We just got signed to a record label, which is very exciting. Entertainment One Music is the name of the label, and they have artists like Death From Above, and the Lumineers are connected.
We have this album that we were hoping to release last year, but then these things started to cook up, and we had to shelve it for a bit while we discussed the best way to put it out. And we determined that this was the team that we wanted to put it out with. Turns out we got the time right. It will be fall. We just got the year wrong. So we have some festival dates coming up, and we’re going to be releasing some singles, and some music videos, but mostly just getting ready to get this album off the ground.
What else are you working on now or next that you want to talk about?
Right now, I’m working on this thing with Birds of Bellwoods. Playing shows, working on new music, getting this album off the ground. I collaborate with a company called Vazari Dance Projects. They just presented in Montreal a production called Decoherence. We’re working on a new full-length piece together. I imagine that will be years in the making, but actually, some of the nominees this year are involved- Danny Ghantous is involved, a pleasure to work with. So I’m working on that.
I’m always writing something or another. I have an idea for a play that’s been beaten around in my head, and I imagine that will come out at some point when I have a week to myself. Acting-wise, I’m kind of chilling. Free. [laughs] Whoever’s listening, I’m open to the possibility. Send me a script, corner me at the Storefront.
That space doesn’t exist anymore.
Oh, the Storefront Theatre will always exist. Back in theatre history, we had this teacher named Sue Williams. She was telling us back in the medieval ages, there was always this thing. Whenever the king’s court would meet, they were like, “WE must stamp out the mimes! We have to destroy the mimes,” because they believed that they were robbing society. But they never could. And to me, that’s the Storefront. Indie unites. You’ll never be rid of us.