Originally hailing from Edmonton, Amy Keating is a Toronto-based actor onstage (Mr Marmalade; Passion Play) and onscreen (Killjoys). A Dora award-winning co-founder of the Outside the March theatre company, she has appeared in many of their productions, including 2019’s The Flick, where she gave a deeply felt and naturalistic Outstanding Leading Performance as Rose, an employee at the rundown movie theatre where the action takes place. She told us about her road to acting, delving into the world of Annie Baker’s minimal but richly worked-out text, and collaborating with her partner Mitchell Cushman.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yup. My parents signed me up for acting classes when I was like eight or something, with a company called Stage Polaris in Edmonton. I hated it. I remember playing a Lost Boy with a Nerf Gun in Peter Pan. The second that performance ended, I made my parents take me out of the class and I think they bought me gerbils instead…? Seems like a fair trade.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I was pretty shy and awkward as a child. When I was in Grade 9, a travelling theatre company came into our school, and each class did a scene from Romeo and Juliet. Junior high only goes to Grade 9 in Alberta, and since we were the last class in the school, we got to do the final scene in R+J (obviously the most epic). I played Paris when he gets killed in Act V Scene iii. Everyone else was too cool to buy in or care, which was probably a better move for their social life at school, but I gave it my all and it was the greatest day of my life. The rest is history.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever performed?
You mean other than Paris?
Before playing Rose in The Flick, which is definitely up there, I would have to say playing the Village Idiot & Violet in Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play is a top contender for fave role. It’s a beautifully-written three-part saga that examines the collision of religion, politics, and theatre through amateur actors staging traditional passion plays at three different eras in history. The play was took a small village of indie theatres to produce: Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, and Sheep No Wool.
The character I played in the first part – the Village Idiot, is a sort of a Seer, and ostracized from the community for being different. In the next two parts I played Violet, who is the only Jew in a town of Nazis, and later the illegitimate daughter of the man who plays Pontius Pilate (my first time working with the incredible Cyrus Lane). Violet was a fascinating character, both because she was part of the world she was living in, but she also had an awareness of the meta-journey that the play itself was taking: an outsider in many different respects.
It was one of the most rewarding productions I have ever done, not only because of the journey my character took in the play, but the journey that all the actors and audience members took together, as a community, over the course of four hours.
Were you familiar with The Flick, or Annie Baker’s work in general, before you joined the show? What about her work did you respond to?
Like a lot of people in Toronto, I was introduced to Annie Baker by Company Theatre’s production of John in 2017, directed by Jonathan Goad. All I knew is that it was over 3 hours long and everyone was talking about it. It is still one of my favourite shows I have ever seen. So simple, hilarious, quiet, and human.
Honestly, when I first read The Flick, I was a little on the fence. Because Annie Baker writes with such nuance and subtlety, I found it hard to find my way into the text and the lives of these people just by reading it. I have always found it difficult to read plays, because it is in the action of theatre that one truly experiences it, I believe.
Once we started rehearsals I was floored by how intimately Annie Baker knows her characters, and how they go about getting what they want. It is not always obvious, but it is always intuitive. About halfway into rehearsals, I hit a point where I was questioning everything. I went back to the script – and sure enough, the script had all the answers: a sigh here, a pause there, everything I needed to clarify a moment or moments.
The set is so detailed – can you tell us about working in it every night and what kind of flexibility it allowed you?
Okay. My thighs and butt while working on that set… oh my god. #goals. Working on Nick Blais’ set, and in the world that our entire design team created was intimidating and exhilarating and ultimately freeing. I had never worked on stairs or such a steep rake before, and I was a little nervous. But the designers created a world that the actors could really own and live in.
The set is deliciously simple – stairs, movie theatre seats, some garbage cans, and yeah, it allowed the characters to navigate the space and claim it as theirs. Rose is a wild child, and The Flick is her playground. When she enters, the goal is to get all eyes on her – pretty easy to do when I enter from two double doors at the top the stairs.
On the subject of the set, you spend a fair amount of time up in the projection booth changing film reels – were you instructed on how to work with film reels? What else did you learn about working in a projection booth, and what was it like performing in a sort of isolated but visible section of the set?
We spent a week rehearsing at The Regent Cinema at Mount Pleasant and Davisville, a lovely old classic movie theatre. It has just one screen, a lot of stairs, and is quite similar to The Flick. I spent a lot of time in that projection booth.
Most of our movie theatre equipment (chairs, reels, cans, etc) were purchased from Humber Cinema after it closed, and we didn’t get too many film reels, so I was only working with a select few. Nick Bottomley our projection designer, and design associate Hans Krause set up the projection booth at Crow’s and took me through everything I needed to know and do.
It was VERY WEIRD spending so much time in that booth. I did feel quite removed from the action of the play and my fellow actors. The thing is: that’s the point. Rose has aspired to be projectionist because it gives her power, exempts her from other menial movie theatre tasks, and sets her apart from everyone else. Rose isn’t wrong: there is a lot of power in being the projectionist, thank you very much.
The naturalistic dynamic the characters share is key to pulling off this play – what was it like developing that rapport with your fellow actors? Did it take you some time to figure out your approach or did you vibe together instantly?
Working with my castmates was the best: Durae McFarlane, Colin Doyle, and Brendan McMurtry-Howlett are all acting powerhouses. We did bond instantly, in our own weird ways, because the play required it. The four of us are all quite different and have very different processes, but we were rigorous and demanding with the work and with each other. It made for a challenging (in a good way) and rewarding process. We made lots of time for movie nights and pizza along the way.
You’ve worked with Mitchell Cushman several times already – can you talk about how your creative dynamic applied to working on this character?
Mitchell is my partner in art and in life. Over the last ten years, we have developed a working relationship that thrives on challenge. We share similar tastes in art, and enjoy debating when we don’t. As a director, Mitchell creates environments for actors that are safe and fun, making space for two important elements of creativity: play and risk. Rose lives in a world of impulse, and I don’t know if I would have found her as easily in a different process. I took a lot of risks, made a lot of mistakes, and was a bit of a brat at times too, but I always felt I had room to try and fail, led by someone I implicitly trust (and like a fair bit, too).
Rose is such a rich personality, though Baker’s text is so naturalistic in its dialogue that I imagine there’s a lot of rehearsal work you had to do to discover her. Can you talk about the process of developing your performance?
Discovering Rose was by far one of the most challenging and most rewarding processes of my career. She acts from a place of utter instinct, which is a thrilling place to approach the work from. Rose (and Mitchell) really gave me license to play and to discover new moments every night. This freedom really let me live in Rose’s skin.
Early on, in my prep work and at the beginning of rehearsals, I was struggling to discover who this gurl was – she does one thing and says another, she is impulsive and passionate and irresponsible. She is a fierce beast on the outside, and a tender lost soul underneath. I found her hard to pin down. My process was realizing this, and embracing and welcoming it. The moment I accepted all of who Rose was, then I could really start to dive in and play.
What was the most unexpected part of working on this play?
Annie Baker writes in layers – a gift that keeps on giving to the actor. Just when you think you understand a moment, you realize there is more: stakes, emotion, subtext. I think things were happening in rehearsal and on stage that I didn’t even realize. I learned to trust her words, and let the character take over. It was a great lesson in doing the work, and then getting out of my own way, and listening to my impulses and instincts.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
YES. Scene 6: Friday Night, the epic-ass scene right before intermission. The night that Rose and Avery are going to watch The Wild Bunch after the theatre closes, while Sam is away for the weekend. That scene alone is a good twenty-five minutes long, and has many movements. It’s a motherf*cking BEAST, and was a wild ride to do every night. There’s the silence at the top of the scene, while Rose is in the projection booth and Avery sweeps; then there is Rose’s dance; then Rose and Avery’s conversation; then Rose teaches Avery to use the projector; then they watch the beginning of The Wild Bunch, which leads to an awkward sexual encounter (aka the failed handjob), and then the horrible/wonderful moments after it.
Annie Baker writes in the script: “Rose proceeds to do a totally awesome improvised dance in the aisle and maybe even some of the rows. It’s pretty cathartic. It should be different every night.” I don’t think there has ever been a greater gift given to an actor.
What were you hoping audiences took away from the piece?
Empathy. I really hope that the audiences saw themselves in these four nobodies working in a rundown movie theatre in small town Massachusetts. While talking about Parasite (which I watched while doing The Flick) Bong Joon Ho said “the more personal you get, the more universal the appeal”. I like to think that this is exactly what Annie Baker has done with The Flick. Aren’t we all just trying to find hope and figure out where we fit in in our over-capitalistic, increasingly artificial world?
What are you up to now/next?
Well. Great question. Because of everything that his happening in the world right now, I know that all actors and theatres around the world are dealing with lost contracts, cancelled productions and seasons, and a whole lot of uncertainty. My heart goes out to everyone who is dealing with this. I was supposed to be working on a new play called For Both Resting and Breeding as part of the WOW Collection, a site-specific theatre festival that Talk is Free Theatre was organizing in Toronto in April.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I think both this play, and theatre and the arts in general are about teaching empathy and compassion. Let us not forget the value of human connection and the arts right now and always.