One of the great success stories of the Vancouver acting world, John started down his career path at Simon Fraser University, moving on from there to New York to study and work in theatre. He is a lifetime member of The Actors Studio. Returning to Vancouver, John helped found the storied Gastown Actor’s Studio and gained momentum in the burgeoning TV/film industry developing here at the time. This led John to LA for a time, where he was a founding member of the Third Street Theater, directing and acting in a wide array of successful plays. He also found time to create, along with brother Frank, the industry-insider-favourite feature Break a Leg, for which he produced, co-wrote and starred.
Now back in Van, John is still working constantly on screen and stage, having just wrapped the Arts Club run of the Pulitzer Prize winning Rabbit Hole. He teaches here as well. I have no idea where he found the time to answer our eleven questions.
1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
2.) In more than one word, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
Well, it’s tough to get audiences in this city, especially when the weather’s nice. It’s just that type of city, so we’ll always struggle with that. Theater is a night-time sport. Vancouverites go to bed early so they can get up early and go for a hike. Enjoy the outdoors.
As far as quality, I have seen some great stuff and some not so great, but that’s the way it is in any city. I do really like most of the people who are heavily involved in the theater world here. Find them very passionate about the work and keeping theater alive, and that’s inspiring.
3.) Why is theatre necessary?
Why is any art necessary? We learn about ourselves, our humanity, lets us know we are not alone. When something is truly expressed from a place of truth, it becomes universal, and we all see ourselves in that truth. That’s why we are moved even if we have not gone through that particular event we are watching, we are moved because we are linked universally as people who have souls. It’s why art can be a healer, can cause change in a moment. I mean, you are brought to tears at the sight of a great painting or piece of music because you see yourself in the piece. You feel seen by the piece. You are not alone! Theater sits you down in a dark room with others and says, “okay, let’s have an experience”. Shit, I get emotional as the lights go down.
OR – read the answer to question #4 in the interview you did with Lori Triolo, that pretty much sums it up beautifully.
4.) What style or styles of plays should we be producing to turn the uninitiated audience member into a return customer?
It starts with the writing, then its execution. If it’s truthful, not derivative, has a voice that is authentic, then it doesn’t matter what style it’s presented in.
Not for me anyway. I just ask for the truth – not presentational crap.
5.) Historically speaking, what can we learn from New York that will help turn Vancouver into a rabid theatre town?
We are not New York. No place is New York, that city has an energy that feeds everything that’s in it. Rabid theater town? I don’t know…stop looking for a result outside of servicing the play? Just tell your stories. When we do the published plays, the classics, or the stuff that was a hit on Broadway the previous year, do them with integrity and an authentic interpretation. When I worked for the Arts Club this year I was fortunate enough to be re-acquainted with some people, and met many I had never met, and I gotta say, to a man there is a love of theater over there that is inspiring. We did a challenging piece commercial wise, “Rabbit Hole”, not everyone wants to see a family struggle through a tragedy. The next play they did was “The Producers”. Thats a great balance! Next they will do Doubt, another thought-provoking play. Do we learn that from New York? Well, maybe in some inadvertent way. Broadway is perhaps the model of what works from an audience perspective…perhaps. I don’t know, you have to know your audience and find a balance. When it comes to subscription theater you can’t bombard them all season long with tough subject matter, you find a balance – you build a season and hope for the best. You do it well, more people will come, you do it poorly, less. Bard on the Beach is real successful, seems pretty rabid over there. Sold out night after night. Why? Good shows, outdoors, best of both worlds. One of the hits on Broadway this past year is a three-act family drama. Almost 4 hours long. Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. Did they know it was gonna be a hit? Sure they did…NOW!
Small theater is a free-for-all, let’s face it. There’s never enough money to truly compete in the marketing world – trying to get audiences to come to your little black box theater and see a play rather than a big movie or the fireworks at English Bay. So we rely on the theater community, the people who look in the Georgia Straight to see what’s up, and you keep those guys loyal, hungry for more by having a reputation of putting up good theater. I had a theater company in LA for many years, and we packed the house on some shows, but a full house was 65 seats and the shows ran primarily on weekends. If you ran during the week you would have three audience members. But those sold-out weekends were fuckin’ magic, man. You couldn’t tell any one of us that it wasn’t Broadway. Lights go down, the playing field levels, either the play works or it don’t. Theater audiences will always be tough to get…but we do it ’cause it goes beyond that for those creating it. Probably more important that the artists stay rabid. That they don’t lose their hunger to create theater, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
6.) In your experience, what’s the most important aspect of actor training that is being discussed the least in acting schools?
Well…I feel that way too many classes are these month-to-month classes that at the end of the month you do the scene and you move on. And maybe they tape you so you feel you got your money’s worth. The scene is never really realized and you’ve cheated yourself out of really working your instrument through that scene by doing exercise work on the scenes, sensory work, private moments involving the character, etc…creating a full life. There seems to be this idea that at the end of the month the scene should be done. In the professional world we are asked to come up with the goods fast and furiously, so why go pay a class to do the same? No athlete trains by doing his or her event every single time. I guess it comes down to teachers not teaching how to rehearse a scene, or being pressured knowng that it’s what the students want. The quick fix. I was really lucky, my training was always the opposite of rushing to the scene, and it hasn’t hindered me from coming up with a performance for work on a days notice if need be. Students shouldn’t have that fear.
Work the different muscles separately as well, then when you go show the whole body it will be balanced and fit as a fiddle with no weak areas. I know some of the teachers at Lyric, Michèle specifically, teach this way. I know that when I’ve taught there, the students have responded strongly to working this way, they just have to be introduced to it. Class shoudn’t be run as though it’s an audition coaching, thats very different, you have to be very result-oriented with an audition. Nobody wants to see you do an animal exercise on the character in an audition, but that said, class shouldn’t be performace-oriented, but about the process. Too many teachers direct and not really teach. Some push their students to an emotional place by barking things out at them, and sure enough the student goes to a place, something happens in the scene, but they have no fuckin’ idea how they got there, and won’t be going there anytime soon…not without someone yelling at ’em anyway. Directing and teaching should be at different ends of the spectrum. And quite frankly, to grow as an actor you must grow as a person, and you have a better chance of exploring your being when you are not pre-occupied with a result. It’s that way when discovering a spiritual practice, and I believe it’s that way with acting. But that’s just my opinion :)
7.) What do you need from your director, above all else?
A vision for the whole play. To have a strong handle on the arc of the play or screenplay, and my character. That makes me feel safe so I can really concentrate on the moment to moment work. That allows me to dive in deeper with the character. That the director has your back and is watching the story-telling for you because he has done his/her homework. And respect, if I feel the director has respect for the work, for his team, for the whole process, I’ll go to the end of the world for them. That said, you do this long enough you learn not to let a bad director affect your work. But with a good director, and I mean fully engaged, a combination of dictator and collaborator, you can go anywhere, a director has the power to hold many doors for you to walk through, to places even you didn’t imagine, and that is euphoric. You live for those moments of surprising yourself. I fall in love with my directors when they care, when they are prepared, and invested, and can’t fuckin’ stand the sight of them when they suck…and that’s just the plain truth of it.
8.) What’s the best piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?
See that’s tough, because there are so many wonderful things to remember when preparing for a role. Mmmm…well, it would be regarding the importance of relaxation and not muscling a scene, allowing yourself to be affected. Okay, how ’bout “we want your blood, but it doesn’t have to be a pint, a drop may be more than enough – all of the DNA exists in the drop as in the pint.” A great teacher, Susan Peretz, told me that once, and whenever I remember it it does me well. I think she got it from Strasberg, and he probably got it from good old Stanislavski.
9.) If you could have drinks with 3 actors, living or dead, who would they be and why?
That is a crazy question! I’ve got to meet some of my great acting heroes at the Studio, but sit down and have coffee? Okay…
Meryl Streep – Do I really need to explain why?
Daniel Day Lewis – But only if he agreed ahead of time that he would talk about acting.
Brando would probably piss me off with his bitterness toward acting.
Heard DeNiro and Pacino speak at the Studio several times and Deniro was quite articulate and practical, Pacino was electric, but to really sit down…? Oh shit, I know! Yes, he is a great teacher but was also a wonderful actor – Lee Strasberg!
10.) What are your top 3 essential theatre reads?
I know, I know, more than three, but really it never ends…
11.) What’s next?
A great summer, I hope!