Hey Toronto, Need a Laugh?

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See that cute couple up there? That’s Justin and Kristi; dear, sweet friends of mine. Many, many moons ago they were 2/5ths of my very first theatre company, Face Full of Theatre, a sketch comedy/sketch drama troupe that was poised to take over the world (as are all first theatre companies, aren’t they?). We done real good too, as I recall, we even went so far as to shoot a CBC sketch comedy special with Kevin McDonald. Alas, these two heard the siren call of the Big Smoke and, packing their lives into the VW van, graced the other side of the country with their talents a couple of years back.

Well, the two of them have been at it again. They’ve written a sketch show about the whole coupling fiasco and trust me, as someone who’s spent literally months together with them in a room laughing until I couldn’t see straight, it’ll be worth the price of admission. The show’s playing until Sunday, December 2 at the Diesel Playhouse, check it out if you can. You guys in Toronto could probably use a good pick-me-up, eh?

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This One Goes to Eleven: Ben Ayres

Next up in our jPod special series of interviews is Mr. Benjamin Ayres, a fixture on Vancouver’s indie stages in between his burgeoning TV/film career (and, I should mention in respect of full disclosure, a regular collaborator with yours truly). The hardest working man is show business, Ben’s theatre hyphenate list stretches the gamut from actor to playwright to director to, I don’t know…set builder – you get the picture. Benny is a testament to making your own career happen, and that there’s no substitute for hard work paired with talent, or that success = preparation + opportunity, or that…well, what can I say, I love the guy, he’s not only a great inspiration for me, but a constant reminder that I don’t work hard enough. And, as you’re about to discover, can opine with the best of ’em…

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Conscious

2.) In however many words you’d like, describe the current state of Vancouver theatre?

In the past eight years I have performed, written, directed, produced and supported many independent theatre productions in Vancouver. I do it because I love it. That said, it is always a struggle, here’s why:

Rant 1: Put your hands up if you want to make a lot of money acting in film or TV, or even be a stand-in for a big name actor in a movie or television series where you can watch and learn and prepare for when you get the opportunity to be the star and someone is standing in for you? Wow. Pretty much everyone. Okay. Now, put your hand up if you would rather perform in a play that means a lot to you but there is no money, it’s a two month commitment, not many people will see it, and you can’t audition to be the film or TV star you want to be. Come on! Where are the hands? That is the state of Vancouver theatre. It’s not always a priority. Actors move to Vancouver from all over the country to become screen actors. Once they arrive in the Big City they take classes with acting teachers who supplement their own screen careers by teaching out of their bachelor pads on Tuesday nights for $350 a month. This is where the spark to do independent theatre is ignited. They are taught that theatre is a launching pad for the film industry. That if you mount the show from the scene that you “rocked in class”, then there is a great chance casting directors and agents will come and scout you and put you in their movies. And it works! I have actually landed film roles this way. Therefore, the actor is guilty of participating in theatre only to further his or her film/TV career. The problem is that so many of Vancouver’s most talented actors waste their abilities working on sub-par television series, and miss the chance to tell real stories on Vancouver’s stages.

Rant 2: The amount of time and work that goes into producing a show compared to the amount of people attending the show is absolutely ridiculous. The main supporters of indie theatre are other actors and artists. We want the young, movie watching, night-life hungry crowds – but we can’t seem to reach them. Why not? We need gritty, guerrilla theatre advertising. Ineffective marketing by theatre companies is the reason indie theatre often plays to empty houses. Many companies produce one show and never repeat, because it’s extremely frustrating having no one in the seats. We must work together, as an artistic community, to reinvent the experience and make theatre sexy to a wider audience.

3.) What is the recipe for your success as an actor?

The word success is a label that seems to only apply to other people. It’s an awkward term to use to describe myself. Everything that I’ve done has contributed to my success, but I have difficulty seeing those accomplishments as “successes” when they occur. It’s in hindsight that I realize what my recipe for success has been:

The moment I finish a project, I dive into something new.

I continually create new goals.

I aspire to be successful, but not for success in everything I do.

I studied at Lyric School of Acting with M.L.S. for two years and still try to hone my craft there whenever I can.

It is integral that we remain committed to the work. Laziness is artistic suicide.

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4.) Which 3 actors would you like to be marooned on a desert island with, and why?

How horrible to be trapped on an island with three actors!

Marlon Brando – He has the best attitude towards life. He’d make me laugh, and he’d bring booze, drugs, smokes and stories. He’d probably be the first to go…and he’d feed us for months.

Charlie Chaplin – His ability to express feelings without saying a word will be greatly appreciated.

Veronica Lake – Because……

5.) Compare and contrast your TV/film work with your theatre work, in terms of artistic satisfaction.

I originally thought the worlds were very similar, until I started working a little more consistently in the TV/film industry. I’m sure when you have the luxury of working for four to eight months on a major motion picture with a director like Lynch, Cronnenberg or Tarantino there is time to rehearse and create together. However, some of the local production companies will shoot an entire feature film in two weeks. This leaves no time for rehearsals and little time for dialogue between director and actor. With independent theatre you sit in a dark room for a month with your peers and search for meaning and truth and humanity within the context of the written work. I find the rehearsal process more rewarding than the performance of the play itself. I have yet to experience this shared exploration in the film/TV industry. I always thought television acting would be much easier than stage acting. Initially there was great disappointment in knowing that once a decision is made to play a scene a certain way you will never get the chance to do it again. When I’m driving home after wrapping for the day on a film or TV set I often second guess the choices I made. However, I have learned to rely on my instincts and trust that what was done in the moment was good.

6.) Given a time machine, what would you tell the young Ben Ayres as he arrives in Vancouver to pursue his career?

I know for a fact he wouldn’t listen to me. I’d probably punch him…then get drunk with him. I am lucky to have a great support group, and my years in Vancouver have been productive and fulfilling. The one thing I’d tell him, knowing what I know now, is to buy some fucking real estate!

7.) What is our responsibility as theatre artists to the city of Vancouver?

Our responsibility is to get people together in a room watching real stories on a small stage that reflect our own lives, where we can learn from our flaws and grow as a community. We have a false sense of community in Vancouver, and we need to strengthen that bond by expressing our commonalities instead of distancing ourselves through a false sense of individualism. Artists have an unbelievable power: to bring strangers together; to change their perception, to make long-lasting impressions, and to impact their lives.

8.) What is your proudest career moment to date?

I have formed bands and done stand-up comedy, written and directed plays and short films, started one of the funniest sketch groups in town, promoted gala fundraisers, performed in critically acclaimed theatre productions, starred on TV and on the big screen. It’s only in answering this question that I realize how proud I am because at the time, I just wanted to do the work, keep busy and create art. It’s much more rewarding being the one that chooses then waiting to be chosen.

I am currently playing the Cancer Cowboy in Douglas Coupland‘s new television series jPod. It is a project that I am very proud to be a part of and, as far as my career goes, it’s the best experience I’ve had.

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9.) What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before writing and directing your own play?

There were no mysteries in theatre that were unearthed by me writing and directing a show. However, controlling the overall look and tone of the story was the most artistically satisfying moment I’ve had. Collaborating with brilliant, committed actors on a personal story was a beautiful experience, and I look forward to doing it again.

10.) What are your top 3 must-reads for the aspiring actor?

As an aspiring actor myself I believe that it is essential training to always be reading.

Zen Physics by David Darling – I’m infatuated with what happens to us when we die and what the point of our existence is. I think this book is essential for anyone who contemplates this ultimate question. It is a great study in human consciousness, and it inspects our persistent need to create individualism.

Intent to Live by Larry Moss- A perfect reminder that we are all lazy. Larry is always kicking artists in the ass to do more and dig deeper, and I find his approach to the craft is similar to my way of thinking.

[…] by Michele Lonsdale Smith – She hasn’t put the words to paper yet, but I know that when she does we will all be better and thankful for it.

11.) What’s next?

I’m heading to Churchill, Manitoba for three weeks to film a movie with Judy Davis and Derek Jacobi called Diamonds. Thankfully I’ll be back in time to spend Christmas with my family. As I said above I just finished co-starring in jPod which is a new TV series airing Tuesdays at 9pm, premiering January 8th, 2008 on the CBC. We will wait to see how the audience reacts and prepare to film season two in the new year.

So please tune in and sit back, relax, and enjoy our feature presentation.

Getting the Ball Rolling…

My bogging has been a little blogged down of late, but my excuse is a good one: I’m back in the director’s chair workin’ on a new piece that I wrote for the company as my contribution to this summer’s Write Club. The work my lovely cohorts turned up with was breathtaking (it turns out actors, when pushed, have a natural bent for writing great dialogue), and duly inspired a new and ongoing LSP series of short play productions we’ve titled Riffs. The first series runs November 30 to December 2, details to follow. So, in preparation and inspiration I’ve been seeing tons of theatre around town and re-reading William Ball’s A Sense of Direction, as good a focuser of nervous energy as any book out there, some would agree. It’s too good not to pass on, so, inspired by Ian’s ongoing series of talking points over at Praxis, allow me to share some of the sentences that I’ve been running my turquoise Staedtler Textsurfer Classic over:

Theatre…is expected to reveal Universe.

The most important characteristic of a work of art is unity.

When it is not art, it lacks a sense of the beauty of humankind.

The experience of drama is one of those moments in which a human being sits in awe, wonder, and admiration of something outside of self.

[The actor] is revealer of the universe.

The director is entrusted with the care of these very special creatures. They are unique in society, and most of society does not understand them.

The artist is the conduit by which Universe expresses itself.

It’s important for a director to know when to keep his mouth shut.

Failure is a necessary and important part of the creative process. A director must encourage it and reward it.

A thing becomes beautiful because of the possibility of its absence.

To complain merely gives evidence of amateur status.

A wise director touches.

To interrupt someone who is trying to express himself is unforgivable.

For directors, line readings are forbidden.

…never permit an actor to tell another actor how to do something.

All directors, in my opinion, should have to act.

The best relationship between a pair of onstage lovers is a remote and professional relationship offstage.

If the director does nothing more than continuously ask the actor for his objective, he will have a successful production.

…most actors tend to resist acting.

The first off-book rehearsal is always a disaster.

Very few people can improvise in iambic pentameter.

The purpose of the improvisation is to awaken the actor’s imagination to the total life, the total experience, of the character.

One puts a pebble in an actor’s shoe by asking him to memorize before he understands.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

This One Goes to Eleven: Torrance Coombs

I first caught Torrance onstage last year in Bard on the Beach’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which, being one of my all-time favourite plays, I was nervously hoping they weren’t going to screw up. They didn’t, not by a long shot. They took a difficult play and made it look easy, top to tail showing a sound understanding of its intricacies and finding all the funny there was to be found. Torrance’s work was exemplary, displaying a talent that has found a home on both the local stages and TV shoots. He is a series regular on the soon-to-be-aired CBC series jPod, based on the novel by local writer/artist/actor/playwright/blogger/legend Douglas Coupland. According to sources close to this reporter, it’s going to be awesome.

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1.) In one word, describe your present condition.

Charged.

2.) In the amount of words of your choice, describe the condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m a relative newcomer to the scene. That being said, here’s what I’ve noticed…

There seems to be three main types of theatre happening in the city right now: 1) the theatre desperately clinging to an aging, conservative audience, 2) the theatre desperately trying to reach a new, avant-garde audience, and 3) vanity pieces, mounted not necessarily with the purpose of entertaining or enlightening, but simply as vehicles for actors to show off.

It is very rare that I see an awful play in Vancouver. It is also very rare that I see a truly amazing play. I think the main reason for this is often the script. Plays aimed at the older crowd are a little too “Aw, shucks!” while plays reaching for a new, young audience try too hard to be relevant and end up preachy. Whatever happened to just telling a good story?

Take a boring or incomprehensible script and throw a lot of talent at it, and you end up with something decidedly mediocre. I think we get a lot of that in Vancouver. Having not seen a lot of theatre in other places, I’m not sure that it’s much different anywhere else.

All this being said, I think there are some really exciting things happening in the city. I really love the Electric Company’s work. I also love that James Fagan Tait and Joelysa Pankanea’s work is trickling into the big theatres like the Playhouse and Bard. I also think that the attendance at Bard’s studio stage is very encouraging, getting mostly full houses out to plays like Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens.

Slight tangent here. Wouldn’t it be interesting to test the limits of the audience that Bard has nurtured? People have proven that they’ll come to see weird Shakespeare, and even a little Stoppard. But what would happen if they were to mount a new Canadian play? Would they still pack the house every night? I have a feeling they would. There’s something about the event that is Bard on the Beach that gets people excited about the show.

I do wonder sometimes if the quality of the plays has any effect on attendance? People go see the shittiest-movies-that-ever-shitted in droves. That seems mostly to be a product of marketing, and an abundance of people with no taste whatsoever. Is it simply a lack of marketing keeping these people away from plays? Or is it that people want to disengage, and a play requires active participation?

3.) What is the place of theatre in our bustling TV/film town?

I’m not sure that the TV/film industry really affects the place of theatre. Firstly, Vancouver audiences tend not to even watch locally made TV/film. Secondly, local TV/film tends not to tell local stories. So really, the only place to turn for our own stories is the theatre. Think of it in terms of satellite radio versus local radio: sure, satellite gives you great stations from all over the world, but sometimes you want your Vancouver radio personalities and your Vancouver traffic report and all your other Vancouver shit. In the end, they serve different functions and both are relevant. The same can be said for film and theatre.

4.) How does the fact that most actors here target a TV/film career affect the quality of stage acting in Vancouver?

Having recently gone from doing theatre for several years to doing TV, I can say that it’s a bit of a tricky gear-switch. It might be even harder to switch back. In my recent theatre auditions, I’ve had to struggle to project and be a little bigger with things. So I can understand the criticism that Vancouver stage acting can be a little too subdued at times. Maybe film and TV have something to do with that.

That being said, maybe it’s just the generation gap or different tastes or whatever, but I think some theatre acting can get a little hammy. Sometimes I’ll be watching a show and I wish things were a little more grounded and stand-and-deliver, you know?

5.) How well did your BFA in acting prepare you for the working theatre?

The training I got at UBC was pretty superb for the most part. I was lucky enough to be in a class that went through the program during a number of staff leavings and hirings. In the end, we got the best of both worlds in that we had the support and nurturing of the full-time profs coupled with the industry expertise of some great sessionals. They’re also really good about bringing in outside directors to work on the shows with the students, and doing co-productions with local companies. I can directly attribute my career at this point to a single play I did at UBC that started a chain reaction.

6.) What’s the single greatest piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?

Be passionate about what you do. If you don’t give a fuck about what you’re doing, nobody else does either. Actually, now that I read that out loud, it extends beyond acting too.

7.) Christopher Gaze has called his Bard on the Beach the “quintessential Vancouver theatre experience”. Please defend.

Well, judging by their attendance, I don’t think I really need to come to their defense, but here goes!

Starting with the obvious, it’s outdoors, in tents. This actually facilitates something much more interesting than a view of the Vancouver skyline. Without the controlled environment of an indoor theatre, the performance is subject to rain, torrential winds, party boats, airplanes, birds flying into the tent, etc. This adds an element of unpredictability not only for the actors, but for the audience as well. Vancouver never really lets you forget that it’s right outside the tents, happening all around you.

Secondly, the shows are filled to capacity every single night. And while the reasons for this can be argued, what it means is that you’re sharing an experience with hundreds of other people on any given night. Bard seems to attract a crazy cross-section of the population, from Bardophiles reading along in their scripts to ESL schoolchildren looking really bored. There is definitely some kind of uniting force about the whole event.

And the last point I’ll touch on is the diversity of the shows presented. The mainstage rakes in the people who want to see the big plays, particularly the broader, bawdier comedies. The studio stage is actually an amazing place to see lesser-known plays. The mainstage goes big, while the studio stage keeps it deliberately small, creating a more intimate experience. So if you want to see something a little more “for-the-masses”, they’ve got you covered. But if you want to see something more weird and experimental, they’ve also got you covered.

8.) Why, to you, is the bard still relevant?

There’s something about his plots and characters that are incredibly universal. Someone watching a Shakespeare play for the first time would probably feel like they’ve seen the same story a million times before. So the stories feel very modern. But the language is what sets them apart. We all wish we could express ourselves as eloquently as he can. There’s something about the language that elevates a simple story to epic proportions.

9.) Given a time machine, what would you tell a young Torrance Coombs just starting out in the biz?

Shut up and listen. But when you really believe something, stand up for your idea. Wishy-washy is boring. Don’t be afraid to fail.

10.) What are your top 3 reads for the aspiring actor?

A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder – the process it describes is a little more mechanical than I like, but the principles are essential to the way I work.

Acting in Film by Michael Caine – really helped me out in the conversion from theatre to film/TV.

The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare – not so much for the aspiring actor as for the actor looking to dig a little deeper into Shakespeare. A fantastic text that can provide some really helpful clues in deciphering some of the trickier scenes in a play.

11.) What’s next?

At this point I am unemployed indefinitely. Fingers crossed for a second season of jPod. But the cool thing I’ve discovered about TV is that even when my work is done, the show isn’t over. I haven’t even had an audience yet! I get to look forward to watching jPod on TV at the same time as everyone else. Which, by the way, will be airing Tuesdays at 9pm on CBC, beginning January 8th, 2008