My Theatre

20 February 2019

Nominee Interview Series: Thomas Gough

By // Theatre (Toronto)

photo by John Gundy

Before we announce the winners of the 2018 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Thomas Gough is a staple of Toronto theatre, and a veteran of many shows at Campbell House, who has worked extensively with Outstanding Direction nominee Sarah Thorpe. In Soup Can Theatre/Three Ships Collective’s site-specific reimagining of A Christmas Carol, his Scrooge was a wonderfully complex portrait of a figure that can easily become a caricature. He’s fully deserving of his Outstanding Leading Performance in a Play nomination, but any excuse to hear tales of his life in theatre is a welcome one.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I was the Innkeeper in my kindergarten’s Christmas play. I got raves.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I want to be very careful answering this, for the sake of those who make too many assumptions about how a life in art comes to be.

I know at least one extremely good actor who went to the theatre for the first time in his teens, was enchanted, decided that he wanted to be an actor, and set out to become one. I think a fair number of actors start that way: with a magic moment of realization. On the other hand, the famous actor-manager Sir Charles Hawtrey became an actor to make money so he could support his love of racing horses, and was never especially devoted to, or even greatly interested in, the work itself. (I know, the very idea of going into the theatre to make money seems utterly bizarre to us in this country now, but that’s honestly why he did it, and it worked for him.)

But I think some people are like me. I’m a born actor. In saying that I’m not making any claim to remarkable talent, which is the idiomatic meaning of “born actor”; when people say things like “Oh my God, that Troy Donahue! He’s a born actor,” they usually mean they think Troy Donahue is really really good. But that’s not what I mean. I mean that I have been an actor since I was born. The whole business of standing in a conspicuous place in front of an audience of strangers, adopting a persona and using someone else’s words in order to convey truth through fiction – I didn’t have to learn how to do that; it’s hard-wired in me, and I’ve been doing it from my tiniest infancy. I’ve had to learn a great deal about how to do it better, to nurture a natural inclination and so on, but the essential need   – and it is need – has always been there. Even before I was first actually on a stage I played little scenes for friends and family. Very often it was my intention that my audience should be unaware that I was playing a character; I did it entirely for my own satisfaction.

So the short answer is that I discovered that I was an actor long before I ever thought about whether I wanted to be one. And when I began to think about it, instead of just doing it, I realised that I did want it more than I wanted anything else. And I still do.

I think a lot of people in the arts will understand this. You don’t always get a choice. Sometimes your fairy godfather waves his wand over your cradle and says “You have two arms and two legs and blue eyes and you’re an actor, and you might as well start learning how to deal with it right now, because that’s what you get, and there are no refunds or exchanges.”

What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
This is like asking “What’s your favourite book?” It’s impossible to answer. My favourite rôle is usually the one I’m working on, but what stands out in memory? I loved playing Harry Raymond in Timothy Findlay’s heartbreaking Stillborn Lover about fifteen years ago. That was the first major rôle I played at Hart House and the first one in which I was directed by my late friend Martin Hunter, who gave me tremendous encouragement about acting generally. I also loved playing Gloucester to Peter Higginson’s Lear, also at Hart House, directed by Jeremy Hutton, my favourite Shakespeare director. And I had a riot playing Leonato in the Single Thread Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing at Spadina House. The play is utterly nonsensical but tremendous fun, and playing in that space with all those wonderful people was pure joy. I loved the physical, mental, and emotional workout of Bakersfield Mist in the Fringe last year. And most recently I had a wonderful time playing Scrooge. One of the many reasons I loved those shows was that they all forced me to do things I’d never done before, which is something I’m always looking for.

Do you have a dream role you’d still like to play one day?
There are several, most of which are impossibilities because I’m too old for them. I’ve wanted to play Richard in Richard III since I was a boy, but never had the chance. I’d love to play Elyot Chase in Private Lives, but at my age it would be absurd. I never had the smallest desire to play Hamlet, so I don’t mind being past the age for that. But there are still lots of possibilites. Some day I want to play Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came To Dinner, and I’d love to play Sandor Turai in P.G.Wodehouse’s English adaptation of  Molnar’s farce The Play’s The Thing. I’d love to play Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy, partly because he has the best first-act curtain-line in the history of the English theatre. I’m sure if I thought about it for a while I’d find dozens. And I hope there are many I don’t know yet. One I very much want to know is the rôle which the ridiculously talented Brandon Crone is going to write for me some day. And I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever be ready for King Lear.

in Bakersfield Mist (photo by David Eden)

You’re a mainstay of Toronto Theatre. What stands out most in your memory about each of the following productions?
Equus (2011), Bent (2013), Hamlet (2015) & The Crucible (2018) at Hart House
Campbell House Story (2012) & Much Ado (2011/2014) with Single Thread
Antigone (2012) with Soup Can
Donors (2013) with Safeword
Bakersfield Mist (2018) with ytheatre
I could write forever about any of these, but I’ll try not to. What I remember most about Equus is that the boy, Alan Strang, was played by Jesse Nerenberg, who is an absolutely riveting actor. I’ve wanted to work with him again ever since.

I had two experiences in Bent that I’ve never had before or since. I hadn’t read the play for many years and had forgotten pretty much everything about it except the general theme. And as I re-read it to prepare for the audition I decided I wanted to play Nazi Officer A, but what I really wanted was to combine the rôles of Nazi Officers A, B, and C, and play them as a single character. So I went to the audition and did a monologue from another play, and the director, Carter West, whom I had never met before, got up from his chair and said “Well, I’m really looking for an actor to play Nazi Officers A, B, and C as a single character. Do you think you’d like to do that?” And I calmly allowed as how I’d be perfectly willing to do that, and went home hugging myself. And the other thing that happened was this: at the very end of the play, I order one of the characters, Horst, to electrocute himself on the prison fence. And Jad Farris, who played Horst, would start towards the fence, turn and look at me, and make a desperate attempt to kill me before being killed himself by the guard. Then the play ended, and almost immediately Edward Karek – the other Nazi – and I would come out first for the curtain call. Well, the look Jad gave me every night was heart-wrenching, and every night I struggled not to cry. And one night I couldn’t hold it in, and went out for the curtain call in tears. That was the only time I’ve ever been completely unable to control myself on stage.

In 2015 I played Polonius at Hart House for the second time. A terrific young actor/director named Paolo Santalucia (if you’ve never heard of him you will), whom I knew casually through Jeremy Hutton, and who had done a very good Romeo at Hart House a couple of years earlier, called and invited me to audition, saying he thought he’d like me to play either Polonius or Claudius. The whole production was great fun and very well received, but during rehearsal I had one of those completely weird moments that make you wonder why you bother trying to make sense of what you’re doing. It was late in rehearsal, so we were all pretty much off the book. We were tightening a scene – I can’t remember which- in which Polonius had several significant speeches. And Paolo said after I did one of them “All right, that’s good, but I want you to do it again, and here’s where I want you go go with it.” And he proceeded to give me two minutes of extremely articulate but extremely complicated instruction. And I said “I think I understood about a quarter of that, but let’s have a shot at it.” And I repeated the speech, certain that I was doing it all wrong, and when I finished I said “I’m sorry, was that completely off the wall?” And Paolo said “No. It was exactly what I asked you for.” And we went on to the next thing. And I have assumed ever since that he meant it, because we did nothing further with that speech, but if it really was what he wanted, I’ve absolutely no idea where it came from.

I was cast in The Crucible more or less by accident. I didn’t audition for it because I wanted to be in a conflicting show, and thought I had a very good chance of getting the rôle I wanted. But I was not cast in the other show, and three days after I learnt that, I got an e-mail from Michael Rubinstein, of whom I had heard but whom I had never met, saying that he was stuck for an actor who was old enough to play Giles Corey but could still walk across the stage without falling over, and that Doug Floyd, the manager of the Hart House Theatre, had suggested that he call me. I had a wonderful time with that group and I loved every minute I spent working with Michael Rubinstein, who is now my agent.

There was one thing I felt I never got right in that show. Michael wanted Giles Corey to walk with a stick. I walk with a stick all the time in the country, so I look perfectly natural doing it, but for reasons having to do with blocking, Michael wanted me to carry it in my right hand. I’m extremely left-handed, and I never felt comfortable, and I’m afraid I wound up looking like someone who simply didn’t know how to use a walking-stick.

The Campbell House Story was my first show in Campbell House. It was written for the space by Alex Dault. I remember two things about it particularly. First, it was during that production that I realised what a dazzlingly talented actor Leah Holder is. And second, I remember that Brandon Crone (who played my grandson) and I would constantly change little things in our scenes together, so that every evening there would be something genuinely new to react to. It was always some tiny thing that nobody would notice but us – a different emphasis, a drink poured and offered three lines earlier than expected: just tiny things to keep us paying attention to each other. I love being on stage with actors I can trust that completely.

I’ve already mentioned Much Ado About Nothing in the answer to a question above. It was my introduction to site-specific theatre, and I nearly missed it. We did it twice, in 2011 and 2014. I had stuck pretty close to the Hart House Theatre, doing only one or two shows a year, because I hadn’t yet decided to quit teaching and become an actor full time, and it was this production that got me out into the larger independent theatre world. The 2011 production was directed by Jonathan Langley, with whom I had done two shows at Hart House, as Old Montague to his Romeo and as Polonius to his Laertes. Late in the summer of 2011 I got an e-mail from Jon explaining that he was directing this production and asking if I’d like to be Leonato. Now I have to confess that I had never heard of the Single Thread Theatre, and my first reaction was more or less “Well, it must be a fairly sketchy outfit if they have to ask people to come aboard.” But then I thought “No, if Jon Langley is working with them they must know what they’re doing.” So I said yes. It was a blast from start to finish, with a marvellous cast. I was somewhat taken aback when, while we were having a drink together after the dress rehearsal, Alex Dault (or possibly Jon) said to me “You know, we were waiting for your name to appear on our audition schedule, and we were disappointed when it didn’t.” And I had to confess that I had known nothing about it until I got Jon’s e-mail. But talk about lucky breaks! That was the show that introduced me to the indie theatre community and started the process that led to my realising that I had to become a professional. It was also the first time I repeated a rôle. I had played Leonato a few years earlier with the now-sadly- defunct Canopy Theatre, and the only thing that remained the same was that Albert Masters, who had been Antonio in the Canopy production, played the same rôle in this one. Playing the same rôle in a completely different production was fascinating.

Antigone must have been my first Soup Can show, and it was my first Fringe show. It was a lot of fun and a lot of very hard work with a very talented group. The thing I remember most insistently about it is that I never got Creon’s emotional collapse right. But it was nice to have something very specific to be dissatisfied with in my own performance, instead of just vaguely feeling that I wasn’t doing a good enough job, which is what usually happens.

I absolutely loved Donors. It was written and directed by the ridiculously talented Brandon Crone and the other principal actor was Jakob Ehman. Jakob is the kind of actor who makes you work your tail off because you desperately want to be good enough to be on stage with him: a fabulous talent. I loved everything about that show.

I’ve also mentioned Bakersfield Mist in an earlier answer. I did a production of August, Osage County three years ago at the Alumnæ Theatre. I played the poet who appears in the first scene and then disappears and is never seen again (which allowed me to do one thing I’d never been able to do before. I didn’t read the rest of the play, and on opening night, after finishing my scene, I ran out to the back of the auditorium and watched it.) Marie Gleason, who played the lead, called me a few months later and said she’d found a great two-hander called Bakersfield Mist and would I please read it and tell her what I thought. So we did it for four shows at the Theatre Centre while I was waiting for surgery for kidney-stone (that was fun, especially the last day, when I’d run out of painkillers). Then we entered it in the Fringe. I loved it. Marie is terrific to work with, the script is a challenge, and performing it is a real workout. The room was insanely hot, and it’s the only time I’ve ever performed in a space beside a room in which a large and noisy meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous was taking place. I was so exhausted after every performance that I didn’t have the energy to see anything else in the Fringe. It was home, food, and deep unconsciousness after every show.

How did you get involved with A Christmas Carol?
Sarah Thorpe sent me an e-mail saying, more or less, “We’re doing an adaptation of  A Christmas Carol at Campbell House. Assuming you’re not completely senile yet, how’d you like to be Scrooge?” And there’s really only one answer to a question like that.

Because I’d already been cast, Sarah and Justin [Haigh] asked me to attend the auditions to read with prospective cast-members. So apart from a small number who submitted tapes and a few who read at some other time, I got to read with almost everyone who auditioned. We held the auditions in the drawing room at Campbell House, which was nice, and we spent something between eight and ten hours listening to an endless stream of beautiful talent. I remember as I left at the end of the day I said something like “I’m glad you didn’t ask me to help make the casting decisions; you’re going to have a hell of a time.” But they got it right, because that was one of the best, most cohesive, most uniformly highly talented casts I’ve ever   worked   with;   there   wasn’t   a   single   person   among   them   I   wouldn’t   be thrilled to work with again.

You’ve worked at Campbell House before. What are some of the challenges of that space and site-specific theatre in general?
I made a few preliminary notes before starting to write, and my only note for this question was “everything is more fun”. I love site-specific theatre. Campbell House is pretty well ideal for a domestic 19th-century show. First of all, the staff there are lovely to work with. They actually want shows performed there and they accept the fact that if that’s going to happen   there’s going to be a certain amount of fuss and bother by way of preparation. They’re tremendously helpful and accommodating, and very patient.

The only real problems are that, as in so many historic buildings, the temperature is difficult to control; that there’s too little dressing-room space for a big cast (which is hardly Campbell House’s fault); and that there are far too many stairs. And that was only a problem for this show; I had to do too much racing from cellar to third floor in order to keep ahead of the moving audience.

As for site-specific theatre in general, the chief potential problem – which doesn’t always become an actual problem   –   is accommodating what you’re doing to a space that probably wasn’t intended to be used for performance. Sizes, shapes, structural quirks, wonky acoustics, and inadequate light may all cause trouble to various degrees, depending on where you are and what you’re trying to do. Choosing the best space for your script – or, of course, writing a suitable script for the space – is the first thing you need to get right.

As an actor, do you feel your relationship with the audience changes in such a small, intimate setting?
Definitely, and almost entirely for the better. It may seem odd to say that it feels natural, but when you consider the alternative, where you’re standing on a special platform playing to hundreds of people penned up in their own special section of a very large room, playing to a couple of dozen people in a human-sized space immediately seems natural by comparison. At Campbell House I always feel   as if I’m in my proper domestic environment and a few friends have dropped in to listen to the conversation. Having the audience literally inside the fourth wall somehow   makes   me   feel   relaxed   and   casual.   For   some   actors   I   know   it’s uncomfortable being so close to the audience, accidentally making eye-contact or suddenly realising that that’s an old friend who’s not paying attention in the back corner. But those things don’t usually bother me. After a while an actor learns a strange trick of remaining aware of the audience’s reactions while at the same time ignoring the audience completely; I don’t know how to explain it. You have to be prepared for the occasional person who stands in a doorway or something like that, but we don’t expect everyone to have an actor’s awareness of space, so we are prepared.

with Christopher Fowler in A Christmas Carol (photo by Graham Isador)

You have discussed a key challenge for any Scrooge: avoiding seeming like “a one- dimensional character who suddenly turns into a totally different one-dimensional character”. How did you handle Scrooge’s delicate transition?
I’m not sure that I did handle it. One of the constant frustrations of being an actor is that you can’t watch your own performance. But if I got it right it was largely because of the very clear signposts in Justin Haigh’s script. The first tiny crack in Scrooge’s shell comes early, when he eavesdrops on a scene from his childhood and remembers how much he loved his father and how shattered he was by his father’s trouble. Before he has time to recover from that he watches himself as a young man falling in love, and losing the woman he loves because he’s so wrapped up in his filthy “business”. But what finally tips the balance is Tim. Scrooge sees Bob Cratchit’s family being happy with pretty much nothing but each other, and he is confronted by the idea of himself as an object of pity when Tim proposes a toast to the Scrooge he has never met because “father says he has no one and loves no one, so he must be very lonely at Christmas”. It’s partly that and it’s partly that Tim is a completely unselfconsciously charming kid (and the rôle of Tim was shared by two genuinely charming kids, Chloë Bradt and Makenna Beatty), and if there is the smallest spark of goodness left in you a loving child will fan it into flame. And after the vision of Tim’s death and Bob Cratchit’s agony it’s all terror and remorse for Scrooge until he wakes up and realises that he has a second chance. I don’t know how many of the marks I actually hit in performance, but they are very clear in the script.

We see Scrooge at all phases of his life, portrayed by different actors. Your portrayal of Scrooge in the present day has to be convincing in its own right but also has to seem like a natural continuation of these other actors’ performances. Was it difficult to navigate this challenge? What was the dynamic on set between the Scrooges?
I think you’re getting too complicated for my tiny mind. None of these questions occurred to me during production.

This was a very friendly and collegial group, and back-stage dynamics were lovely. As for the actors playing Scrooge, the rôle of Scrooge as a little boy was shared by Makenna Beatty and Chloë Bradt, who also shared the rôle of Tim. Working with children is of necessity different from working with adults – you have to guard your tongue, and you can’t be carelessly inconsiderate or unkind and bank on being able to fix it later with apology and explanation, and things like that. But the   girls   were   both   sweet-tempered   and   clever   without   being   in   the   least sophisticated. They were a pleasure to work with and they both performed very well. And as for Mike Hogan, who played Scrooge as a young man, we got about two minutes into the first rehearsal before I thought “Yeah, he knows exactly what he’s doing” and we just settled down to have fun. Like all the good ones, he’s smart and serious about his work but not in the least stuck on himself for being talented, so we got along just fine.

Now about the “natural continuation of these other actors’ performances”: that’s the kind of thing that always escapes me, and that I leave completely to the director. I’m very much a detail person. I don’t get big pictures, which is why I am fascinated by designers, because they do a kind of work that completely mystifies me; it’s also why I don’t understand how music works, even though I’m helplessly addicted to it. (In fact now that I think of it it’s probably one of the reasons Vladimir Horowitz is my favourite pianist; one of the complaints some critics had about his playing was that he paid too much attention to details and not enough to organic wholeness.) I concentrate on the scene, the speech, the line, the word of the moment, and I need the director to tell me “Wait a minute; that’s fine in itself, but it’s completely inconsistent with what you did in Act One” and then tell me how to fix it. If it needs to be fixed, that is. I tend to agree with Michael Shurtleff that consistency is the death of good acting.

The character of Scrooge is an iconic one with which most audiences are already very familiar. To what extent should/did you try to make the role ‘yours’?
First, for background to my answer: I read Dickens’s book about thirty years ago, but I’ve never seen any acted version of the story: Alastair Sim, Joan Crawford, none of them. So I had only my very hazy memories of the book and Justin Haigh’s script to work with.

In general, I think every actor with any integrity makes every rôle his or her own. This is always supposing you’re not doing satire or sending someone up, of course. When I’m preparing to play a character, the last thing I want is to know how someone else did it. And as for deliberately trying to act the way someone else does, that’s just foolishness and bound to end in disaster. If you want to see Lucille Ball as St. Joan, go and and watch Lucille Ball’s St. Joan; unless you’re an idiot you don’t want to see me as St. Joan pretending to be Lucille Ball as St. Joan.

To a large degree, of course, an actor is a conduit for other people’s voices. When I play Scrooge I’m telling Charles Dickens’s story, revised by Justin Haigh, filtered through the mind of Sarah Thorpe, and affected by the place I’m performing in and the people I’m performing with. But it’s also influenced by me, by my experience and my opinions, by my love of children and my fury that we allow people to sleep in the streets of an insanely rich city. And it has to be influenced by the genuine me. If I start pretending to be somebody else and then, on the basis of that pretence, start figuring out how to pretend to be Scrooge, I’m setting myself up for bad, false performance.

While we’re on the subject of how actors do stuff, here’s something that I think a lot of people outside creative disciplines don’t understand. (In passing, I loathe people who talk about being “creative”. I know dozens of artists- actors, musicians, painters, architects, dancers, designers- and I’ve never heard any of them talk about being “creative”. They bitch about how much work they have to get done by next Tuesday and worry about whether it’ll earn them enough to pay for their ‘bus-tickets, but they never say “Oh my God, it’s nearly nine o’clock! I have to go and be creative now.” Talking about being “creative” is for the personnel departments of big fat disgusting corporations that want to cheat their employees into believing that they’re not wasting their lives.) Anyway, I think a lot of people fail to understand that artists aren’t entirely in control of what they’re doing. This is one of the basic reasons that it’s so necessary to start preparation with your genuine self, to be as honest as you can about your understanding of the story you’re telling and your goals in telling it. You are not the sole maker of what you’re making, and you need to have as clear an idea as you possibly can of which bits you can control and which bits you can’t. Because, on top of all those other influences you have to contend with, art insists on participating in its own creation. At some point in the process the thing you’re making comes alive and starts saying things like “Mmmm, no, I don’t think you should do it that way; try something else” or “Here’s the voice you need to use; never mind why, just do it” or “No, you’re going wrong there! Hey! You need to LISTEN to me!” And you can argue and sometimes you can compromise, but if you try to ignore it your work is doomed. And I’m not being metaphorical or colourful here. I am being coldly literal: art insists on participating in its own creation, and if you’re honest and respectful of your craft you absolutely cannot get away from it.

Your director Sarah Thorpe is also nominated. Tell us about working with her.
Sarah has all the essential characteristics of every good director I’ve worked with. She’s demanding; there’s not a lot of use in a director who isn’t. She’s also extremely patient, which is a blessing for her actors. And she’s extremely articulate in explaining what she wants from you. Demanding, patient, and articulate: that’s an absolutely wonderful combination. And, mirabile dictu, she LISTENS. She wants to know what her actors think, even if it temporarily gums up the works. She’s also endlessly good-humoured. She’s an actor herself, of course, and she knows how to talk to actors, which not all directors do. She understands that, as Gertrude Lawrence said, “actors have one less skin than other people” – we have to have, because we have to be absorbent. So she never barks at her actors. I imagine she has a very well-worn punching-bag at home. I love working with Sarah, and I am very eager to get to work on our next project together, of which more below.

What are you working on now/next?
I’m looking for auditions, trying to get my final credit towards full membership in ACTRA, and scoping out likely sites to set up a shoe-shine stand before I starve to death.

The only definite future project is Edward Bond’s Lear, with the Kingdom Collective/Soup Can Theatre. Sarah cast the five principal roles two years ago, but we’re waiting to begin until the producers have raised enough money to do it right and, as usual, it’s tough sledding. I did a few little workshops with Sarah and the other four principals and I can’t wait to get started. One of the major characters is to be played by Kwaku Okyere, who was hilarious, heartbreaking, and brilliant in Stephen Elliott Jackson‘s hit The Seat Next To The King in the 2017 Fringe, and I live in terror that he’ll be swept off to Stratford or Hollywood and be lost to us. Please no.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
For any intrepid soul who has managed to wade through all this, a little reminder: The great Austrian-American pianist Artur Schnabel – known as “the man who invented Beethoven”- played what turned out to be the last recital of his life in 1951. And afterwards he was asked why he was so cheerful (he was generally a rather dour man). And he said “For the first time I succeeded to-day in playing the last line of Beethoven’s Opus 90 (Sonata No. 27 in E minor) so that I found it convincing.”

I think that’s the best thing performers get: the occasional moment of knowing that for once we got a little something right. We don’t get many of those moments; we have to treasure them, and they have to be enough.

Thanks so much for the use of the soap-box!

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