My Theatre

23 March 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Steven Vlahos

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a second actor has been nominated for playing the same role as a previous nominee in an original work. The character of Roy in Brandon Crone‘s brutal black comedy Turtleneck is apparently something of a kingmaker, sending Steven Vlahos to the Outstanding Supporting Actor race four years after he did the same for John Fray. I never saw that original production but Steven’s new version of Roy is now etched permanently in my memory. He completely owned the Pirate Life/emerGENce production with a complex, commanding performance that had that magical indie theatre “who IS that guy?!” effect that makes you want to see everything he does from here on out. Keep your eye on him, I expect big things.

Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
I know in elementary school, they had sketch troupes that would come in a lot, and I always loved watching those. But I would say my first official theatre experience that probably drew me to theatre was actually my high school’s open house. They were an arts school, and they did just little sketches, and dances, and scenes and stuff. That show got me wanting to go to that school, and that’s how I got started.

Did you grow up in Toronto?
I did. I’m from Scarborough. I went to Wexford Collegiate.

They’re famous for their musicals. Were you in them?
I did, yeah. I was Corny Collins in Hairspray, and Thenardier in Les Mis.

How did you get involved in Turtleneck?
I’d just finished another show I was working on, and was just looking around for auditions. I found the listing on TAPA, so I submitted, and it turns out that Brandon Nicoletti – the director – he went to school with a few other friends of mine from Humber, who had been at both Humber and George Brown. And I just went in for the audition, met them, and basically that was really all. Interestingly enough, I was supposed to audition for Louis. I went in and read for Louis, and kind of immediately got asked to switch over to Roy. So that was actually a cold read audition. Louis was played by Bryce Fletch. He was the guy that was Vicki’s new potential love interest.

This was a rare second production of a local playwright’s work. Was Brandon Crone around during rehearsals?
Brandon Crone was there for the auditions. He was also there for a few of the rehearsals. He couldn’t make all of them, just because of scheduling. But he’s a great dude, and he was super helpful. He was really big on how the fact that raising the stakes was his thing. The fact that the events of the play were insane. Crazy. And to try to normalize them, and make them casual, wasn’t really the way to go with that. Just embrace the fact they were ridiculous, and terrifying. So I met Brandon Crone, and he was great. And he and Brandon [Nicoletti] actually knew each other from before. So they had a good dynamic, the two of them.

Did you talk at all with Brandon about what John Fray had done with the role originally, and how you were gonna make it your own?
He spoke a little bit about what John did, and he would reference the original production a lot, especially because we hadn’t seen it. And sometimes you had very specific thoughts in mind for one moment in the play, maybe. But I know that the idea is – it’s never really stated in the play, but it’s in the air that maybe Roy is from Brooklyn. He’s definitely from the States. We threw that down, because of the ideologies, and the way he speaks is very American.

Actually, you know what? I did see parts of the original production, because there was a recording. But Brandon Nicoletti, the director, was adamant on not wanting us to see it before we did the show. We didn’t end up watching it until the show was completely over, which makes sense, and is great, because I’m very happy he did that. It was much easier for me – and always is – to not try to emulate something that another actor has done. It was a ride, finding my way into this one.

How did you prepare for such an aggressive role, and how conscious were you about navigating the violence and intimidation in a way that was comfortable for everybody?
Just speaking to each other during rehearsals. There was that one scene in the beginning between Darcy and Roy. Even though there’s no physical violence or anything happening in that scene, just the things that he has to say to her – that was one of the first scenes we’d rehearsed, and I barely knew Annie [Tuma] at the time. So we were very open with our dialogue between each other, and wanted to make sure if either of us were ever uncomfortable. But we just stopped, talked it out, and that was really important. And with the fact that we all ended up getting very close over the course of rehearsals, and doing two runs – one in Kingston and one in Toronto – especially during the Toronto run, we really came to trust each other. There were no problems there.

Roy had a sense of vulnerability underneath all of the aggression and the fury. How did you find the right balance between the threat level and the humanity level?
For me, personally, it was to just focus on the humanity. Because I find, in my brain, the second I’m playing the bad guy, it can go to a very two-dimensional place that is not interesting, or fun to watch, and just makes people just [go] “Uhh?”

He’s a very flushed out character, and he’s very smart, and logical. A lot of the time you’ll find after speaking to some audience members, that people were in favour of a lot of the stuff he was saying. People related to him. So really, it wasn’t about playing the aggression as much as it was letting the aggression just be there in the things he does and says, because that’s what it is, and letting those moments of humanity and vulnerability sit in that for a while.

You mentioned that he’s from Brooklyn. Tell us a little bit about developing the accent and how you used your voice in the role.
There wasn’t much actual dialect work. It was just something I was playing with. I myself am Italian, and can sometimes default to that kind of thing in my life, so I just exaggerated it a little bit, and ran with it. It really worked, especially for the way the lines are written. It just felt good to say it that way, and I’ve had a lot of people speak to me about my voice, actually, after that show. But that’s just something that I feel like it’s just a matter of talking, not just trying to put anything on. Like when you let however you’re feeling in a certain moment come out, then your voice just follows you.

I feel like just the way I sound as a human being probably really works for Roy, but I had to obviously scream a lot in the show. If you’re not pushing, you’re not trying to put anything on, then it really fit in it, and just sitting in what you’re saying and listening to other people especially, so developing that for Roy was like an ongoing thing that came really naturally, I think, for me.

Tell us a little bit about working with Brandon Nicoletti to develop your interpretation of the character.
Brandon was great. When we first started working on the actual script, he focused a lot on table work. So we broke the entire script down into sections. Not just scene by scene, but within scenes, there are other mini-scenes. So we’d break that down, and then give each section a title, which would be the kind of driving action of whatever that section was. That was really helpful, because it gave all of us something to do when we were actually up on our feet. There was a reason we were saying all this, and it’s not just up in the air. Like, the first section where I come in and I first meet Louis, and then there’s that whole bit with his nose, and then me trying to help him and basically get him out of the room. The whole driving action of that little moment is “Roy tries to get Louis to leave”. That’s all it was.

He wasn’t the kind of director [to] tell you specifically what to do, how to say a line, which is frowned upon in general, but he wasn’t like that at all. He asked very good questions. There was one moment in particular that flipped the show on its head. It was when we were getting ready to leave for Kingston, and we did a little dress rehearsal, an invited dress, and I think that was the first time we ever ran the show. We weren’t feeling too great about it afterwards. A lot of people just fumbled on a lot of lines, and maybe the pacing would go off, at some point, so we just didn’t feel like it was where we wanted it to be, at that point. After that rehearsal, Brandon had a little meeting where he gave us some notes. All the notes were in the forms of slight questions, like “Think about this, think about this, think about this,” and the big one was just raising the stakes. Then we did another run the next day and it flipped on its head. And it just worked out great. He was very helpful, and he was very willing to let people try their own stuff, and play, and that whole scene with Sean [Jacklin] throwing the toilet paper around – it was all so much Sean. Sean was good at playing around, too. But he was a great director.

What was the reaction of your family and friends of seeing such a startling character in a boundary-pushing show?
My family did not see it. I told them not to come. I told them what was going to happen, like, “Listen. If you really wanna come, you can. Just know what’s going to happen.” Anyways, my family didn’t come see it. But I had a lot of friends come and see the show. [laughs] The biggest thing for them was how much they weirdly enjoyed how uncomfortable it made them. A lot of my friends who weren’t theatre people – just old high school buddies and stuff; a lot of my friends are musicians so the arts isn’t foreign to them, but they just don’t go see plays very often. And especially this, too, because it was in the Tree of Life space, it was in an abandoned warehouse kind of deal. They really enjoyed it. That was the one thing, was that they enjoyed how uncomfortable it made them. I’ve said it before – a lot of people kind of sided with Roy. And they hated that they did, or found things he said funny. That was an ongoing thing too, that click for them. That “This is obviously supposed to be terrible when he’s saying what he’s doing, yet I’m laughing, and I get his point”.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Hmm. There’s one moment I liked a lot. Brian’s entered, so we’re in Vickie’s apartment now, near the end of the show. And it’s Louis, Roy, and Brian in the apartment. They’ve had that long conversation about Vickie, and who’s gonna get to have sex with her first, basically – and then the giant fight that ensues before Darcy comes bursting in the door. [laughs] And just that moment of the second she comes in, they all know that it’s completely gone to shit for them. I loved that. Every single time. just the fact that everything stopped when she came flying in, and then Roy just goes “Aw, shit.” That was great, for me.

What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
I literally have no idea. I wasn’t really hoping for anything. I was just hoping that we could, if anything, pull them in and not bore them. If you were able to sit and watch a show and take anything away from it, then that’s great. Because there’s obviously no real moral to the story. If there were a moral to the story, it would be a bad one. It would be that misogyny and sexism are good, and that’s what it would be. But that started a lot of conversation in Kingston and in Toronto, if we talked to anybody or even just listened to people as they left the venue. That’s probably the most you can ask for when doing something as provocative as this show was, I think.

What are you doing now? What’s your next project?
Right now, I’m doing a staged reading of Animal by Romeo Ciolfi as part of the New Ideas Festival, so that’s what I’m currently working on right now. I’m working with my smaller theatre company, called the Theatre Circuit, and they’re doing a run. It’s actually a trilogy of plays at the TPM Backspace, called Inch of Your Life.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for everything. I did not expect to be nominated for anything after this show. That show in itself, and the whole experience, gave me a lot in my life, and so I just wanna say thank you to everyone involved.

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