Outstanding Performance (Leading) nominee Sean Arbuckle has long been one of our favourite performers at the Stratford Festival. A winner in 2012 for Pirates of Penzance, Sean is nominated for his fifth Critics’ Pick Award this year but his first as the leading actor in a play for his beautiful performance in Stratford’s Casey & Diana (now playing at Soulpepper!).
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I remember in elementary school… I don’t remember when; very young, but not kindergarten. A student teacher of ours was doing You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, community theatre, so the whole class went to go see him. I remember thinking, “It’s big and fancy”. I’m not sure about inspiring, but I got a taste of it.
A lot of my earliest experience was actually performing in youth theatres, and watching those shows.
I saw a touring production of Big River; I was a little older, maybe junior high. There’s this moment where Huck and Jim are on a raft. They’re smoking, and they blow their cigar smoke up into the air, and the sky fills up with stars. It’s a really beautiful moment. That was my first awareness of theatricality. It was directed by Des MacAnuff, who was the [Stratford Artistic Director], so I got to tell him about that moment and the big impact it made on me. He was very proud of that moment, too. I think he actually mentioned it in rehearsal for some reason, once, and I was like, “I remember that!” It was big for me.
This is actually your fifth nomination for our awards. Do you mind if we take a little walk down memory lane?
In 2012, you were nominated twice; we’ll start with 42nd Street, and you actually won for Pirates of Penzance. Do you want to tell us about both those shows?
Wow. It’s so funny because I just saw the Mirvish production of 42nd Street last night, because I’d never actually seen a production of it before, and I wanted to go.
What a great show it was. That was such a great season. If someone were to ask me “which is your favourite show,” it would always be whichever show I was preparing to do that day. I got to 42nd Street; I was like, “no, this is definitely my favourite”. Then I got to do Pirates – “no, this is actually my favourite”.
It was such a wonderful season; one of my first times playing big roles, and two big roles. I remember the pirate king was a role that I wanted to play, and never really had it on my radar as something that would be possible.
Gary Griffin, who directed 42nd Street, had such a great understanding of the show. He had been involved in the creation of The Color Purple musical, so he knew what it was like to put a Broadway show together, and the blood, sweat and tears that go along with it, so he had invaluable insight for me playing Julian Marsh, the director. It really felt at the end of each show that we had somehow put on a Broadway show, and it was very fulfilling.
In 2014, you were nominated as part of the ensemble for London Road.
That was an amazing experience. It felt like calculus class, every music rehearsal. The musical’s written in these impossibly difficult time signatures, so it felt more like math than music when we were learning those songs, and we had four straight weeks of just music rehearsals. Luckily, we had a theatre [Canadian Stage] that was willing to do that, because I can’t imagine trying to do that show in less rehearsal time. It was just impossible.
But once we learned it, I remember thinking I could do this show for a long time. It felt so comfortable, and so satisfying. So fun to do with that ensemble. That was the first show I did in Toronto, so that was also very special to me.
In 2015, you were nominated for The Immigrant. Want to tell me about that one?
That was also a musical; the musical version of a play. That was really great too, because it was a very small ensemble of lovely people. Lovely director [Robert McQueen]. That was my second show in Toronto. The original play was written by Mark Harelik, a guy that I had worked with a couple of years before, and it’s his family story, so it felt like a strange connection that way. Once again, very difficult music, in a different way.
I felt an enormous responsibility playing a Jewish man, to try and get that culture and language right. I remember Shabbat dinner, messing up the words to the prayer, that felt particularly humiliating. But you keep singing.
Casey and Diana is the first non-musical you’ve been nominated for. How did that role come about?
I was asked to do a workshop reading one day, right before the pandemic, in the end of 2019. We read through the play twice: once, switched characters, switched actors, read through it again because the playwright [Nick Green] was still formulating the play and how he was seeing the characters. I guess he wanted different perspectives.
Both times we read the play, the entire room was in tears. The second time we read it, we had just read it; we were in tears again, which told me that there was something really… necessary. For those of us in that world, there was maybe a grief, or a memory that needed to be re-encountered. It was the first glimpse of why it was so meaningful.
Then, thankfully the playwright and director liked me enough to offer me the part later, when we’d finally come back to the theatre in 2023. It’d been scheduled just for a three-week run. I didn’t know if that would be the only thing I could do that season, but I said, if it’s the only thing I can do that season, I want to do that play. It’s a great role, obviously, but it seemed important to do. Luckily, I got cast to do Frankenstein Revived last season as well, so I had a full season. But I knew that this was it: this was a show that I needed to do.
Having been with it from the beginning, were there any major changes or anything that you noticed through the development process?
The basic structure was there, from the very beginning; from my beginning. The playwright was still developing the characters anyway, but when COVID hit and caregivers and first responders became even more important to us, he made sure that he expanded the roles of the caregivers in the play to reflect how necessary their story was and how necessary they are to caring for us. That became more of a focus of the play.
He fleshed out the relationship between me and Andre, the other patient at Casey House, and fleshed out a lot of backstory. Like I said, the structure was there at the first workshop, but he really fleshed everything out from there. It was very different.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of working on a totally new script like that?
The rewards are watching Nick Green, the playwright, work. He’s so inspiring, because he’s not precious at all about his writing. He changes things, sometimes a lot. There are whole new speeches; some speeches are cut – and it’s all in pursuit of a truer representation of this place and this time. Watching him work on this new script has been really inspiring. There’s a thrill of “No one’s ever seen this before; no one’s ever done this before – will it work? Will people like it?” There’s that risk, and that terror, but also the thrill of maybe being able to show the world something brand new.
The challenges are obviously a big opportunity too, because it’s completely uncharted territory, but you don’t know if it’s going to work. We were pretty confident and had a lot of trust in Nick and Andrew [Kushnir], our director, that it was gonna work. It takes a lot of trust to be able to just take the empty-handed leap into the unknown.
Tell us about working with Andrew. What were some of the most important conversations you had with him in developing your interpretation of Thomas?
Andrew had a lot of faith in me, which was really comforting and inspiring. I felt guided in a very trusting, gentle way.
At the same time, one of my favourite pieces of direction he used to give us – especially as we started to get into performances – he encouraged us to be reckless. Sometimes, direction hits you at the right time; that word hit me at the right time, because it felt like it was encouraging play and freedom and exploration even throughout the run. That was the piece, the guidance, and the little nudge towards chaos that I really appreciated.
How did you approach playing Thomas’s growing illness? Did you do a lot of research?
We did work with a speech pathologist. The whole company met with a number of hospice care workers and grief counselors – what those last days and weeks in palliative and hospice care could be like. I worked with our Alexander Technique coach to try and negotiate walking with a crutch. I did a lot of research, and of course your imagination takes off.
Another piece of direction that Andrew would give me was to encourage me to remember the cost of everything. When Thomas has bigger outbursts or more physical gestures to remember, at that stage of his illness, they cost tremendously. I could have big emotional or physical, vocal moments, but it was always about what that took out of him, to remember that. That was pretty much how I could make my way through the play.
Tell us about working with some of the other actors.
I hate them all. Terrible people!
No. It’s been wonderful. We have a new Diana [Katherine Gauthier] this time, so it’s been lovely to feel like we’re embracing and welcoming someone else into the circle. Wonderful people. They push each other. I think we all feel like we’re encouraging the best work that we can bring out of each other to every rehearsal. I trust them all. I admire them, and I’m thrilled to get to share these very intense emotional scenes. I never feel unsafe. I always feel supported. I hope I give them the same amount of support. It’s been wonderful.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
I have a lot of favourite moments. One I can pick out is with Davinder [Malhi], who plays Andre. We share a little moment when we talk about how important humour is to survival, and life, and the situations that we find ourselves in. We decide to tell each other jokes – or, I decide to tell him jokes; I love that moment because it’s a moment of joyful rebellion against the gods, and fate, that I really like the connection that we have in that moment.
You talked about this when you were talking about the reading, and the reactions around the readings, but being a part of the audience is such an emotional experience. The Stratford ushers would have boxes of Kleenex for people leaving. What were some of the most meaningful interactions you had with people who had seen the show?
I met a number of people who had visited friends in Casey House, back in the 80’s and 90’s, and would hear about how the play would remind them of that experience, with the people that they’ve lost. That was amazing. It felt like, “Okay, we’re doing something good here.” People would remember all kinds of loved ones that had passed through their lives, and what it was like to let them go. It was hard not to be moved by their reactions, more so than ours from the play.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from Casey and Diana?
Nick talks about the importance of kindness. A story of kindness. In our particular moment, there’s a shortage of kindness. I don’t know if that’s new, or ongoing, or just shifted, but we just went through a pandemic, and for some reason around people with auto-immune deficiencies, or the elderly, it seemed to be a huge ask for people to wear a mask, and take care of each other.
Casey House is an extraordinary example of people who saw the need for compassion and allowing people, through illness, to live dignified existences. I think that model is necessary to do right.
You’re in rehearsals for the remount with Soulpepper right now. What’s it been like revisiting the role after some time away?
Thankfully, lovely. We were pretty confident, I guess, during the Stratford run, that someone, somewhere, might want to do it again. Whether or not we were part of it, but it just felt like this might get picked up. So after the Stratford run, I put my script away, and I did not look at it, because I didn’t want to, in a potential remount, be just remembering what I had done before. I wanted to rediscover.
I knew somewhere that it was going to stay in my body, so the lovely thing has been re-encountering Thomas, rediscovering his situations, but also finding new things. Nick has also made some tweaks, and some edits, and some changes, so the thoughts are not exactly the same, so I’ve been forced to make some new discoveries. The wonderful thing is that it’s all still there. It feels nice.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Just that I’m so thrilled to be able to do this show in this city, where it took place. It feels like such a gift to be able to share this part of history with Toronto, to show Toronto its own history, and the extraordinary people that have lived in this city. It’s a gift to the city, and I hope this city gets it, and knows that it’s for the people of this city.