This One Goes to Eleven: John Cassini

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?

Strasberg at the Actors Studio – Tape recorded sessions.
Letters to a Young Poet – Rilke
An Actor Prepares – Stanislavski
Respect for Acting – Uta Hagen
Let me throw in Herman Hesse’s Siddartha

I know, I know, more than three, but really it never ends…

11.) What’s next?

A great summer, I hope!

Nepotism Alive and Well in Ontario Public Arts Funding

Praxis Theatre Co-Artistic Director Michael Wheeler leaps out of the comments section of his company’s blog and onto the front page with a lacerating and in-depth exposé of the Ontario government’s biased financial support of the brand-spanking-new Luminato ‘Arts and Creativity’ Festival in Toronto.

As if being an independent artist wasn’t hard enough without bureaucrats using public funding as their own back-scratch fund. Read the full article here.

What do You Want From Your Critics?

There’s been a lot of discussion about critics and their place in our theatre scene around here lately. Established critics are reaching out, new critics are popping up, and so I think the time is ripe to hear from you about what exactly it is that you expect when you take in a review.

I’ll start.

The main function of a play review for me is to provide a general idea of the quality of a work before I budget the time and money for it. I’m not long on spare time or money these days, and nothing will put me into a foul mood more easily than spending some on a stanky play (or movie, for that matter). And I hate filmed trailers for theatre, even the best stage work translates terribly to a little 2D box on a monitor, and marketing copy speaks only to content, not quality. So unless I know someone that’s already seen the play I have only the critics to trust…that is, those that have earned my trust. There are those here in town whose opinions I have disagreed with so often in the past that I don’t use them any more, and I’ve come to rely on the rest to help me with my play-going decisions.

Not that I pick plays exclusively from the opinions of a particular set of critics. I’ve gotten to know their voices and I know where my opinion differs from theirs. And the strength and history of a particular company or director or performer plays into it as well. But for the sake of this discussion, I would like to talk plainly about the mechanics of criticism.

So there it is: I’m a pre-play review reader. As such my bar-none, number one, all-time pet peeve is the descriptive spoiler. Why any reviewer feels that it’s okay to detail narrative business is beyond me, unless they think that the only people reading them have already seen the work too, and are looking for someone else’s opinion, or something. You can comment on context, intent, message, metaphor, tone, success, failure – virtually anything opinion based, but please don’t waste word count on anything that physically describes what you have seen. If all else fails and you can’t come up with any other way to examine your experience, please consider the ol’ default standby: “and then – well, I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s [insert intensifier-adjective here]”.

I’ve read some reviews that are almost entirely composed of the tourist version of the narrative. That’s not writing a review, it’s composing a study guide, and it’s selfish. Stop it. If I’ve paid for it, I want to experience it all – from the first glimpse of the set to the director’s blocking to the big revelation in the third act – without any presuppositions.

I would also like you to tell me why you think a particular aspect of the production succeeded or failed, taking into account the intent of the artists. Not good enough to say that something is ‘great’ or ‘not-so-great’. A frame of reference is required.

Enough from me! It’s your turn. The critics are listening, what do you want them to tell you? What do you love in a review, what do you hate? And for any of you new critics out there, please feel free to jump in and introduce yourselves and ask any questions you may have of your audience. Reviews, like theatre itself, should be dialogue, not monologue. Let the conversation begin!

The Punks of the Industry

Resolved: In the interest of its proliferation and popularization, Canadian theatre needs more creative marketing solutions.

Magnetic North kicks off its Industry Series tomorrow at 1 pm with a keynote address delivered by – wait for it – a real, live marketer! Richard Laermer is CEO of the New York marketing firm RLM PR and co-author of a book called Punk Marketing: Get Off Your Ass and Join the Revolution. He is also, incidentally, a theatre critic and produced playwright. His public speaking engagements are described as “outlandish”, yet “logical”. I’m in.

Some highlights from the Punk Marketing Manifesto:

1. Avoid Risk and Die – In times of change the greatest risk is to take none at all.

4. Don’t Pander – Customers are important but they are not necessarily right.

6. Expose Yourself – A relationship of trust between brand and consumer, like that between two people, is built upon honesty.

10. Don’t Be Seduced By Technology – The media is not the message anymore. The message is the message is the message.

12. No More Marketing Bullshit – Get to the point. Express it clearly and simply. Einstein said — we believe he meant marketers: “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.”

d’bi.young on Theatre and Service

As of today there are three more chances to catch d’bi.young.anitafrika‘s ‘one-womban’ play blood.claat at Mag North. Here’s what’s so great about d’bi: she works the way an artist should work (a lot), and she talks the way an artist should talk…

I am becoming less pre-occupied with being served by the former definition of ‘contemporary canadian theatre’ and more concerned with creating it. I feel that that is one of the solutions I can offer. therefore I feel that indeed in creating the stories that I am telling, I am serving canadians and am representing myself.

-From an interview with Praxis Theatre’s Ian Mackenzie over at Theatre is Territory

Dub poet, playwright, actor…and inspiration. Read the interview in its entirety here. Then buy a ticket for blood.claat here.

Listen to Your Elders

Rebecca over at GreyZelda Land unearthed this story about the unearthing of a code for being a healthy member of a theatre company, a code inscribed on yellowing paper buried in the personal papers of a deceased actor and found by the executrix of her estate in 2001.

You may recognize the actor in question. She has one of those fabulous utilitarian faces that puts her in that “I totally know her, couldn’t tell you where from” category. As a matter of fact, she graced the cover of a book called “Who is that?”, dedicated to those performers that toil in secondary roles but never take the lead. Character actors. Workhorses. The actor was Kathleen Freeman, among the shows she worked on were The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Singin’ in the Rain, The Fly, eleven Jerry Lewis classicsthe list goes on and on…and on. Seriously, check out this career. Kathleen trained in the theatre.

Her parents were in vaudeville, and so this code of ethics originated from an early exposure to the theatre, which was apparently catching. The code was written in 1945 as Kathleen, in her early twenties, was establishing a small theatre in LA, a group that was to become the Player’s Ring, a popular theatre-in-the-round that turned out a lot of West Coast acting talent, Jack Nicholson among them.

Her company’s list of theatrical rules-to-live-by is tremendous, it’s like a guide to maintaining a healthy and harmonious theatre company. Here are a few of the highlights:

– I shall play every performance with energy, enthusiasm and to the best of my ability regardless of size of audience, personal illness, bad weather, accident, or even death in my family.

– I shall not let the comments of friends, relatives or critics change any phase of my work without proper consultation; I shall not change lines, business, lights, properties, settings or costumes or any phase of the production without consultation with and permission of my director or producer or their agents, and I shall inform all people concerned.

– I shall respect the play and the playwright and, remembering that “a work of art is not a work of art until it is finished,” I shall not condemn a play while it is in rehearsal.

and my personal favourite…

– I shall forego the gratification of my ego for the demands of the play.

Great stuff, and a must read. Click through to Rebecca’s site for the list in its entirety. If you’ve worked in theatre for a while it will totally resonate, if you’re just getting into it the code will prove invaluable. It’s a solid foundation built by people in it for the long haul.

The Buzz is Back: HIVE 2 Sweetens Mag North

In November of 2006, 11 of our most progressive indie theatre companies joined forces to present Vancouver with the maiden version of HIVE in a retrofitted chapel in the downtown Eastside. And something in our theatre world shifted. Hailed by Colin Thomas as “the stuff of legend“, and by me as the very future of theatre, this one night smörgåsbord of experimental work and artist solidarity became the most talked about theatrical event of the year, despite the fact that too few Vancouverites got to experience it.

Ladies and Gentlemen, round two has landed. And this time you’ll have nine nights to take it all in. We caught up with HIVE producer and Neworld founder Camyar Chai at the H2 dress rehearsal, and asked him for the lowdown…

HIVE 2 at Magnetic North, June 5-8, & 10-14. You’re going to want to say that you were there.