Performer/Producer Cass Van Wyck had a breakout year in 2018 with two extremely different and totally indelible star turns in productions she played a huge role in ushering into existence. Her Outstanding Leading Performance in a Play nomination is for the first of these two productions- Therac 25, in which she played a cancer patient with incredible honesty and total commitment.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Theatre has always been a part of my life in one shape or another. My parents, both actors, met when they were cast in a children’s theatre production and as soon as I was old enough to travel, I was on the road touring with them. I suppose my first experience with theatre was from the wings. I would sit backstage with whatever poor theatre usher was tasked with looking after me as a toddler and I would watch my parents perform from the wings. My first real acting experience was for the screen – kids TV shows, commercials and made for TV movies, but my first acting experience that had an immense impact on me happened on stage when I was in a grade 6 musical theatre production. In this show, there were two songs which had very similar intros. During the dress rehearsal, a few members of the cast screwed up and started performing the wrong song. Not really knowing what to do, the cast of 11 and 12 year olds followed suit and ended up on stage at the wrong time. By the end of the song, we were all stuck there, not knowing what to do. I ended up improvising and adding a line to get us all off stage. And it worked! The rush of living in the moment up there in front of a live audience had a profound effect on me and I knew I wanted to feel that again.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Because I started acting at such a young age, I never really had the life changing “I want to be an actor moment”. It had always been a part of my life that I never really had to think about it. When I was a kid, it was kind of like a hobby – some of my friends played soccer, and I was in commercials. It wasn’t a big deal. When I graduated from high school, I decided to give up the acting dream and become a teacher. I figured I could become a high school drama teacher and still get my creative fix molding the minds of future artists. I lasted all of a year. I switched to the acting program and never looked back. I had been acting for so long that I didn’t realize what an integral part of me it was. I took it for granted and it wasn’t until it was absent from my life that I realize just how much I needed to do it. It sounds so cliché, but you really don’t know what you want until it’s not there anymore.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
It’s hard to pick a favourite. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had an opportunity to play a variety of amazing characters, each as unique as the next. I take them very personally and choosing a favourite is like trying to pick your favourite kid. That said, the most FUN I’ve ever had playing a character was a role in a production of The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman at University in my final year. She was this old Russian lady named Sarafima; a tough old dog who was sassy, opinionated and a total boss. She was a hoot to play.
Do you have a dream role you’d still like to play one day?
There are a lot of roles I would like an opportunity to play some day. I think sometimes people idolize iconic rolls too much which lead to a crazy amount of self-inflicted pressure when given the opportunity to play them. You want to do the iconic characters justice and end up getting in your own way. In my experience, certain roles come to you when you’re ready and as long as you keep an open mind, things will fall into place without the pressure. That said, I dream of working with certain artists more then I dream about playing specific roles. I’d love to work and learn from Kat Sandler, Corrine Koslo, Tim Carroll, Ric Reid, Eda Holmes, I could go on and on and on. One of my favourite things about this industry is that you are continuously learning, and I would love an opportunity to work and learn from these people someday. That’s the real dream.
How did you get involved with Therac 25?
Therac 25 by Adam Pettle was a show I came across about two or three years ago when I was looking for two hander scenes for the Storefront Theatre’s general auditions. It was recommended to me by a friend of my mums and as soon as I read it, I absolutely loved it. Never in my life had I felt so compelled to tell a story after reading it. It was so genuinely beautiful and honest, and I knew it was something I wanted to share with audiences. Not really knowing what to do, I called up my friend Luis Fernandes who I knew was part of the team that had just opened their new space the Assembly Theatre. I asked Luis if I could take him out for a beer and ask him some questions about producing. Luis was kind enough to agree and over a pint, we started talking about Therac 25. Luis said he’d read it and get back to me. Two days later I get a call from Luis saying that he’s very interested in the show, is going to talk to the team at Unit 102 and then things kind of went from there. I give Luis full credit for making this production happen and will be forever grateful for his confidence in me and in the story.
You shaved your head for the show. Was that a difficult decision to make?
I did shave my head yes. It was a difficult decision, and, at the same time, it really wasn’t. It is mentioned a few times in the script that Moira is bald, so we knew this was something that needed to be a part of the character. At the time, my hair was very very very long and very thick and I knew we needed to do something about that. It was going to be very difficult to hide. There was a discussion between myself and our director Jessie Fraser about the possibility of using a bald cap, but we knew that would be a very difficult nightly process, and if it didn’t look good or real, then we would be completely undermining the story and anyone’s experience with losing their hair because of cancer treatments. That’s the last thing we wanted. Because of the subject matter of this production, we knew we wanted to have an element of community involvement and we wanted to be able to give to an organization which helps support those battling cancer. We decided this would be a good opportunity to raise some money and if the goal was reached, I would shave my head. We were fortunate to raise a great deal of money to donate to the Princess Margaret Cancer foundation. I’m very proud of that. I was lucky to have one of my best friends Tricia Daw who is was a hairdresser in Welland, ON be the one to do the big chop. One chilly March afternoon I drove down to Welland, sat in her salon chair, and had her cut all 14 inches off (which I donated to the Canadian Cancer Society), and then shave the rest down. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Mostly I was hoping that my head wasn’t a weird shape. I had so much encouragement and positive feedback from people in my life after I did it. I know the people every day lose their hair not by choice but as a symptom of the chemotherapy, and I don’t want to try and sensationalize that experience, but this experience really did change me for the better. I found a confidence in myself that I didn’t know I had. I realize that although my long luscious thick hair was a part of me, it didn’t define me. I’m so thankful for this experience, and for everyone around me who supported and donated.
How did you approach the challenge of playing a cancer patient? Did you do specific research or physical work in approaching the role?
One of the reasons I felt so connected to this story is because of my cousin Cameron who sadly lost his battle to cancer at the age of 19. We were very close. I was with him through a lot of the experience. I was there during the chemo, during the radiation, through the 13 hour surgery he had which resulted in him losing 3/4 of his pelvis, through the late nights at the hospital, and the early morning talk at home over a cup of tea. Although it wasn’t you going through it, I had a real glimpse into the world and saw what it’s like to be that ill as a young adult. Being that sick when you’re supposed to be the healthiest the strongest age. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s frustrating. I saw the brave face he was putting on, I saw the fight, but in the end, he was very tired, and I don’t blame him one bit. Fighting the cancer was a true assault not only on his body but also his mind. Therac 25 is the story of Moira and Alan, but it’s also the story of my cousin. Although his story was very similar to the one in Therac 25, there were some differences. We did a lot of research into the type of cancer that both Moira and Alan had and researched the treatment plans, side effects, and how it would affect your day-to-day life. Our amazing director Jesse worked with both Luis and I on the physicality of what it means to be sick. She was such a guiding light in that process and was instrumental in creating the most authentic version of these characters we could.
The play is a two-hander so all your scenes were with Luis Fernandes. Tell us about working with him.
What is there to say about Luis Fernandes. The man is an electric current who spreads out his love and joy and energy at all times. He’s infectious. In the best way possible. In a way that you can’t help but get sucked into this loveable Vortex . He was a true partner in this, and I trusted him 100%. There aren’t many people that I would trust to tell the story, the story of my cousin, and I am so fortunate that Luis wanted to be a part of it. Being on stage with Luis is an actor’s dream. He is giving, he’s trusting, he will give you 100% and then add 10% more on just because he can. There was this mutual trust, respect and understanding that happened between the two of us on stage and I honestly cannot wait for another opportunity to work with him. He is amazing. And what he did with that character and the vulnerability he showed was mesmerizing. It was brave. I get weepy just thinking about it.
Did you have a favourite moment in the piece?
I think my favourite moment of the show was when Moira is waiting for her chemotherapy and Alan comes in her hospital room pretending to be a mad scientist. There is this really fun back-and-forth that happens between the two of them in that moment that is contradicted by the underlining reality of the fact that they are both there for treatment for a disease that is killing them. In that moment, they get to be just two young 20 something-year-old’s falling in love, and it was so much fun to play that.
What were some of the most interesting reactions you heard to the play?
I was so thankful for the conversations I had in the lobby after our shows. Therac 25 is very relatable and although we were telling the story the story of Moira and Alan, I felt like we were telling story of my cousin, and in turn, many audience members felt like we were telling the story of their loved ones too. There were multiple people I spoke with after who just wanted to talk to us about their loved ones. Those they had lost, those they knew who were battling now; they wanted to share their stories as well, and we were privileged and honoured to hear them. Because of the subject matter, the show became personal to the audience, in the same way that it felt very personal the first time I read it.
You also produced and performed in Anywhere this year at the Toronto Fringe. Tell us about that experience.
Anywhere was an absolute blast. When I found out I got into the fringe Festival, I did what any panicked “what the hell am I gonna do I don’t have anything prepared” actor does, I called one of the smartest, amazingly talented, and just downright lovely human beings I know – Michael Ross Albert. I met Michael a few years ago during the Storefront Theatre’s run of Tough Jews and we became fast friends. I knew in that moment that he was someone I wanted to work with some day. So, I called up Michael and I said “Michael I got into the Fringe Festival, and I have no idea what I’m doing. Help!” To my surprise, he not only offered to write an original play but also agreed to come on as a producing partner. Things kind of went from there. We got the amazing Dave Lafontaine on board early in the process to direct. We were blessed that Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster who is an absolute force to be reckoned with agreed to be involved as well. And the amazing team just grew from there – Marvin Araneta as our stage manager, Lindsay Dagger Junkin who put together the most fantastic costumes and fake tattoos, and of course the incredible Jeff Hanson who helped choreographed the climactic fight scene at the end. We were so lucky to have the team that we did and the entire process because a real team effort. We were so honoured that audiences responded so positively and I want to thank the staff of the Factory Theatre and all the Fringe volunteers for being so freakin fabulous.
What are you working on now/next?
I was lucky enough to find out recently that I got into the Toronto Fringe festival again for a second year in a row and being smart person that I am, guess who I called up? That’s right – the incomparable Michael Ross Albert. He is currently writing a brand new comedy called The Huns. In anticipation of this show, our collective One Four One, is also hosting a fundraiser night at the Monarch Tavern Saturday February 23rd. This, coincidentally, coincides with my 30th birthday so it’s going to be a real banger of a night. We are hosting a comedy show from 8pm – 10pm featuring The Diddlin Bibbles, Erotic Friend Fiction and many more and then finishing off the night with a sweaty dance party starting at 10:30pm. $5 at the door. Hope to see you all there!
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I just want to add that I’m so thankful to everyone who made Therac 25 happen. I want to thank our amazing team: director Jessie Fraser, stage manager Erin Maxfield, assistant stage manager Emily Cully, associate producer Kevin Chew, community outreach co-ordinator Alana Perri, projection designer Christopher Lewis, set designer James McCoy, costume designer Janelle Hince, sound designer Aaron Collier and lighting designer Steve Vargo. Together we created a very special production that I couldn’t be more proud of.