A standout in two different productions this year, Outstanding Performance (Musical) nominee Melissa MacKenzie was one of the great discoveries of our 2023 Ontario Theatre Tour which brought us to theatre towns we’d never visited before. Her work at Gananoque’s Thousand Islands Playhouse scored her a nomination for the leading role in Once.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Absolutely! I grew up in PEI, so naturally, my first experience was Anne of Green Gables at the Charlottetown Festival. It blew my mind. There are a LOT of island artists over the past 50+ years who share this life-changing experience — and I know I sound full cult at this point — but there is something truly magic in that show about a little redheaded orphan.
When did you first start singing? Tell us about finding and developing your voice.
Music runs in my family on both sides, and it was a language in our household. My mom, a choir conductor and pianist, taught my brother and I to spell our last name and remember our phone number through song at two years old. My first solo was a Christmas concert in church at three.
Figuring out how I want to use my voice is something I’ll be exploring forever! I love the idea of the voice as an instrument, and we use that instrument in different genres in different ways. I’m a technique and vocal pedagogy nerd (thank you, Tom Oliver!), and I firmly believe that cross-training in different styles is beneficial across styles.
How did you get involved with Once?
I got a self-tape audition for Once in 2019 while on my first Equity gig! I’ve always loved the show and hoped I’d get to do it, but it was putting the sides and songs together (during tech of It’s a Wonderful Life at Magnus Theatre) that I really fell in love with Girl and the prospect of doing this dream show. The universe had other plans for 2020 (womp womp), but almost four years later, we got to do it!
How do you maintain your voice and energy during a long run?
These days I’m really trying to listen to my body and what I’m capable of each day outside of the requirements of the show — and to be okay with what that means. Of course, there are non-negotiables (walking my dog, warming up), but if I don’t have it in the tank to do a full workout, maybe I’ll do a light stretch instead. As someone with a dynamic disability, my energy and pain levels can vary a lot day to day; I’m learning how best to treat my body in every state while reserving what I need for the show that night.
The voice is an easier beast: sleep, water, stay healthy (vitamins, hand washing), steam, rest between shows.
You work all over the place. What are some of the rewards and challenges of doing out of town contracts?
I love the adventure! It’s so exciting to get to dive into a new place, see what makes it unique, and discover how theatre fits into the ecosystem there. It’s also a crazy bonding experience with a company — to be the only folks you know in a new town, going on adventures together, it’s ridiculously fun. Once was a particularly glorious experience in this regard; we had an absolute blast together!!! It felt like the best kind of summer camp.
Of course, it’s tricky to maintain consistent habits and feel connected to “real life” outside of the world of a contract. Things I miss when I’m away: my partner, my family, my duvet, and my shower pressure.
And it must be said: being a gig worker with zero job security is not for the faint of heart.
The role of “Girl” isn’t the most fleshed out character as written. How did you approach bringing her to life and giving her agency?
The beauty of the Once script is that nothing is wasted or superfluous; it’s a tight little whirlwind of a show where every moment feels really intentionally crafted by the writers. It’s the job of the folks in the room to then bring those things to life with all the specificity and richness it deserves! Manic-pixie-dream-girl who sails in to fix Leading Man’s life is an easy trope to fall into, but that’s not something I’m particularly interested in — women deserve much more than that, and Girl is much more than that. She is the driving force throughout much of the show; she’s wildly passionate but also guarded, she holds onto hope when things are difficult, and she’s funny and blunt and sometimes can’t get out of her own way. That’s all in the text! It was a delicious script to dig into.
How did you teach yourself the accent?
Thanks to COVID I had three and a half years to work on it. For the audition and pre-production work I leaned on the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) website, as well as some sessions with Kate Webster, my dialect coach. In rehearsals we worked with Alison Matthews for the Czech and Irish dialects and Martin Galba for any text in Czech. Theatre is a team sport!
Tell us about working with the rest of the cast, especially Tyler Check as Guy.
It was so clear that everyone in the room really believed in this show and was ready to commit 100%. When everyone is on that same wavelength, giving that passion and dedication, that’s when magic happens!
The production happened exactly when it was meant to — Tyler and I have talked about how the COVID delay meant that we both had four more years of life experience to bring to these dream roles. Something that was important to us as we built this world was checking in with each other; Tyler and I would tap in and out of the day, so we could leave the work in the room but also know that we had each other’s backs.
The cast and creative team fostered such a strong sense of community throughout rehearsals, which made the experience as actors joyous and loving, and also made the show onstage cohesive and unified. I mean it when I say this whole experience, and every member of the team, was an absolute gift.
What were some of the most interesting conversations you remember having with your director in developing your interpretation of the role?
Julie Tomaino is such a generous, thoughtful director — it’s truly a privilege to create with her. She encouraged us to bring our whole selves into the room, which is something that’s often said but rarely meant; it was clear by her leadership and effort that she really meant it. I felt incredibly safe in discovering vulnerability in the room, both in Girl and in myself, and I think both are richer for it.
Something Julie and I were in conversation a lot about was keeping Guy (and the audience) guessing, particularly in the opening scenes. I as a person default to flirting as a way of communicating, but Girl is far more grounded and direct than I am; it was important to Julie and I to keep her rooted in that honesty.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Oof. It’s so hard to choose. Here are some snapshots:
- The first full company instrumental entrance in “Falling Slowly”
- Guy offering his hand to help Girl up to Howth Head
- Billy (the incomparably funny Daniel Williston)’s karate — different every night
- The strings in “The Hill”
- The Czech family supporting each other during Guy’s beautiful “Sleeping”
You were also in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory at the Grand this year. What stands out most to you looking back on that experience?
The joy of playing the hard-working and heartfelt Mrs. Bucket in Act I followed by the mania of a child-murdering Oompa Loompa in Act II is something I will never forget! Utterly delightful.
Do you have anything you’d like to plug?
I’m also a creator and producer of theatre out east! I’m part of the trio behind Kitbag Theatre — follow us @kitbagtheatre if you’re interested. Or follow @melissamackenz if you want to see pictures of Teddy (my dog) and many Aries memes.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions and for letting me reminisce about one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.