The incredible André Sills is deep into a whirlwind of rehearsals at the Stratford Festival right now where he’ll be playing the title role in their flagship production of Coriolanus directed by Robert LePage. It’s arguably the most coveted job in Canadian theatre this season and, after two years in a row of Outstanding Actor -calibre leading performances at The Shaw Festival, it’s easy to see how André got that call. But enough about what’s next, we’re here to talk about what he did last year because we’re still grappling with it. As “BJJ” in An Octoroon, André played a version of the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins as well as two characters in the play-within-the-play, at one point donning two costumes at once as both hero and villain.
We interviewed you last year about your role in Master Harold…. Catch us up on your life since then.
Artistically, I have been blessed to be able to say a lot has happened since “Master Harold” … and the Boys was in Toronto [Dora Award Outstanding Performance Male]. Since then I was in ARC’s production of Pomona, which our fabulous AD/director Christopher Stanton won a Dora for. After that, I made my way back to the Shaw Festival for a very busy season where I was in The Madness of George III and An Octoroon. After these shows closed, I had the pleasure of playing Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at The NAC.
As 2018 started, the Shaw Festival and Obsidian brought back “Master Harold” … and the Boys, which played in Montreal at the Segal Centre, in association with The Black Theatre Workshop and made a VERY brief trip to Buffalo at Shea’s 710 Theatre. And finally, after 9 years, I made my way back to the Stratford Festival where I am currently in rehearsals for Coriolanus and The Tempest, and will begin rehearsal for Napoli Milionaria! in June.
What attracted you to the role in An Octoroon and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ script?
The first time I read An Octoroon a few years back way before Shaw announced that they were doing it, I recall myself being speechless. The show is Crazy! I mean a black Playwright walks on stage in just a pair of underwear, talk about his “experience”, then proceeds to go into white face because no white actors wanted to play these parts (Slave Masters). Then a white Playwright comes on and goes into Red face to play the “Native Indian” and an indigenous actor goes into Black face to play the male slave. And that is just how the show starts. So with this as just the prologue, my interest was definitely piqued to dig into this melodrama.
You played Jacobs-Jenkins, or a version of him, in the framing device of the play with the concept that “BJJ” was then playing the characters in the story, not André Sills. Did that extra level of distance and added layer of character/point of view affect how you approached your performance?
I recall looking up YouTube videos of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins being interviewed to see who this man actually was and is, but I came to the quick conclusion that I couldn’t imitate him, I had to find my own way in. And you talk about layers of distance? As mentioned above, I started the play walking out in nothing but black Calvin Klein bikini briefs to confront the audience, to tear away the fourth wall, to let them know that I could see them and to invite them to actually “SEE ME!”. The program might have said BJJ played by André Sills, but I had to be André Sills and invite them into BJJ.
In both a technical and emotional sense, what were the biggest challenges of playing both of the plantation owners?
First, I had to play the hero George Peyton and the villain Jacob M’Closky and make them different from each other, find their voices, find out how they move/walk, and interact differently with the rest to the cast. A big technical challenge, which happened often, was George would make an exit and, sometimes less than 20 seconds later, M’Closky would make his entrance in a completely different costume. The show was a marathon starting from BJJ to George to M’Closky and going back and forth until the end of the fourth act. Really the audience got to hear the words of a white slave owner through a black lens! To actually hear words they may have been comfortable with otherwise.
How does Peter Hinton’s process compare to other directors you’ve worked with?
Every director is different in how they approach text, and I remember asking Peter before we started rehearsing, what his vision was. His answer was: the play is the vision. And he was right! The play has so much going on already that there was no need to screw around with it, but just to be brave and bold to step into what this play requires. We started off with a lot of table work because we all had to be on the same page as to what we were reaching for.
We were doing a melodrama: “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.”
And in the words of Peter Hinton: “Melodrama is to awaken Sensation!” We all had to be clear about that. I loved working with Peter. I had worked with him once before in my first year at Stratford in The Duchess of Malfi and seeing what he did with that play I knew I had to work with him again and this was the perfect way to reunite. He will make you leave the theatre wanting to talk, wanting to discuss whether you agree or not.
Did you have a favourite moment in the show?
I have a few favourite moments:
- Standing centre stage in underwear making them [the audience] feel comfortable as I talk about my revelations through “Therapy,” then pressing play on my remote and giving Lil Jon and The Eastside Boys their debut in Royal George Theatre. The chorus is: “If you scared to throw it up get the Fuck Out The Club!” That gave me a lot of pleasure. Really setting you up for the strong language to follow. Have a listen just prior to putting on the white face!
- Beyoncé dance sequence! My God! Lisa Berry, Keira Sangster, Starr Domingue bustin’ a move in the silhouette screen and joined by Patrick McManus – Oh, it filled my heart. ‘Nuff said!
- In the script in the middle of Act III, George Peyton and Jacob M’Closky enter the stage at the same time. Now remember, both of these guys are played by me. The amazing costume design by Gillian Gallow put me in a half George, half M’Closky costume – which also included a half blonde/half brunette wig and half a twirly mustache. These two characters also have to bid against each other for the Octoroon, then later proceed to fight each other in a very elaborate way.
- The deconstruction of Act IV – really if you didn’t see it, just go and read it. This is where the moral is revealed.
- Giving a voice to the women who didn’t have one – the black slaves, Dido and Minnie.
- Our “no lights performance”, just turned into a magical night at the theatre
- Really, just playing with all of these wonderful actors, Patrick, Ryan, Diana, Vanessa, Starr, Lisa, Keira, Sam, and the little white baby in black face.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from that production?
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins says in the play that the whole point of this whole thing was to make you feel SOMETHING (in whatever way possible). For example, which word offends you more: “FUCK” or “NIGGER,” and you would be surprised which one people often pick.
Sometimes I feel that some audience members go to the theatre to forget, we have to remember that theatre is also there to challenge your mind and your soul, because if we just go to forget then how does the theatre make you a better person? I believe that is the true purpose of theatre – to help you change from the inside out – otherwise, what is the point? And really, at this moment, the world, North America, you and me, we all need a good wake-up call! Get out of your gated community (literal and figurative) and see the world as it actually is. Don’t look at the images and footage of violence and destruction on the news, or as some looked at this photo from the show and said “it didn’t do it for me!” Wake up! How far have we really come from 1859? So talk about it, that’s what this play does. It will make you talk, even if you left at intermission. What is funny is that Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins said that he wrote this play for an audience that doesn’t exist yet, but we saw them throughout the season, especially the night when we had students from NTS and Sheridan, their energy set the theatre ablaze.
You’re at Stratford now working on Coriolanus. How is the jump between festivals working for you?
I have spent the past three seasons at the Shaw Festival which have been very rewarding years as an actor, and I’m really thankful for the opportunities given to me by Jackie Maxwell, Eda Holmes and Tim Carroll. Now I am making my return to the Stratford Festival after nine years away. When I was there previously, I did the last two seasons with Richard Monette, along with the Birmingham Conservatory under David Latham, and then the first two seasons with Des McAnuff, and let’s just say I wasn’t playing Coriolanus back then. So Antoni [Cimolino, artistic director], I am truly grateful for the opportunity to make my return in this capacity after so long, and I know that I have a lot to prove, but I am up to the challenge, and excited to be working with you on The Tempest and Napoli Milionaria! But really, it has been pretty smooth transition for me, and at the same time, I am surrounded by an amazing cast and crew!
You’re working with Robert LePage. Tell us about that experience and a little of what we can expect from Coriolanus.
What an amazing whirlwind this process has been from the beginning. First off, there was a “workshop” last March in Quebec that I heard about, but was not cast as of yet, so Stratford/Coriolanus were not on radar. But Robert Lepage piqued my interest, and thought what an amazing opportunity that will be for whoever takes it on.
Jump ahead to being cast, and having the equivalent of a severe heart attack, to having the chance to work with Robert Lepage! Now “workshop #2!” in Quebec City for two weeks and arriving in the Ex Machina space and seeing their black box space and what looked like a very small stage – my mind says: “I guess we aren’t getting on our feet while we are here.” Oh, also all of the Ex Machina crew and some of the Stratford Avon crew were present.
We gather and read the play, we talk about the play for a good part of the morning. We take a break, and when we return someone approaches to fit me with a mic, and I am being put into a costume and the crew is actively moving and putting the first scene together on stage. And we begin to stage the play. Robert is an artist who really knows how to put a show together. His imagination … that word alone isn’t even quite enough to encapsulate what I mean. The way he runs a room is also very gracious, playful and safe. And the people he surrounds himself with are at the top of their game, beautiful French- Canadian crew from Ex Machina. The collision force of Ex Machina and the Stratford Festival is going to bring you a Coriolanus like you have never seen. The best way I can describe it is: An Epic Film Live!
It’s a great role but one of the least well known in Shakespeare’s canon. Has anything about Coriolanus surprised you thus far?
Less well known indeed. Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a complicated man, not as straightforward as some of the other title characters in Shakespeare’s canon. He isn’t necessarily a likable guy, a Roman Warrior who is being made into a statesman. At the same time, he is a man who is called too absolute in his beliefs, yet at the same time seems like he does not know exactly what he wants. A man who is of noble birth but also very alone.
I remember talking to Tom McCamus last fall at the Shaw Festival, once we both realized we would be playing onstage for another year. Tom is Menenius (he also played Coriolanus at Stratford back in 1998), and he said this play was one of his favourites. I have found from the digging and searching from the fall, this play and this guy with all of its complexities is really growing on me. In his mind the world is black and white, but he is only one man in the actual world that works with many shades of gray, so is there a place for a man like this in the world? Let’s see.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Trust me Do Not Miss It. The cast that we have is kinda ridiculous. There is a saying from when I played rugby: “You move as fast as your slowest player.” Well, we are all pretty damn fast, and Robert Lepage is the coach.