This one goes to eleven: Daniel Arnold

Daniel Arnold is taking this theatre thing seriously. Armed with a BFA from the University of Alberta, where he met his writing/production/stage partner Medina Hahn, he toured the world for seven years with their first play written together: the wonderfully ethereal Tuesdays and Sundays. Off the road and relocated to Vancouver, Daniel has since been working like a madman on stages here, in works that include Tideline and Poster Boys, both of which garnished him Jessie nods, along with one for Tuesdays and Sundays.

It seems like Daniel’s work here has only just begun…

1. In one word, describe your present condition.


2. In more than one word, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Wow. Well, there’s a lot more going on than I thought there was going to be when I first moved here. A lot of independent companies creating new work and doing riskier plays that companies with money aren’t, and the Push Festival is a great boon to the city, for those who can afford the ticket price. I do wonder if there is ever going to be a mid-sized company that can afford to have its own theatre facility, a 4 or 5 show season, and the ability to both produce and present really edgy international work (Martin McDonagh, Neil Labute), a classic or two (Ibsen, Chekov, please?), alongside new Canadian work. I think it would be great for audiences to be able to have one place to go where they could see all that, at an affordable price. It’s sad that the mid-sized companies here either can’t afford a 5-show season, or can’t afford their own space. But given the piece-meal funding, it’s very hard. However, having just been in Toronto, a theatre person said to me, “Vancouver is booming, isn’t it?” And a few others have said that recently too, and were even thinking of moving here…don’t know where that comes from, maybe the “Olympic” buzz…but if that’s the feeling, then I guess that makes it true?

3. How important is a national identity to your work as an artist?

Well, I may feel a little differently than the normal actor, because I also write and tour my own work.  And I know that when I tour across Canada or abroad that I am not only part of a national identity, but helping to create it. When Medina and I toured our show Tuesdays & Sundays to the Edinburgh Festival or even to New York, we were surprised to see how much they respect Canadian plays and playwrights in the UK and USA; we were part of a pedigree just because we were from Canada, and that was nice. I think very few people here realize that. But honestly, I don’t often think in terms of “national identity”. I kind of like to see the world as one big place, with no real borders between countries. National identity has always been a strange concept to me. Perhaps because I live in a multicultural country? That said, I do believe taking art across borders is what creates a feeling of “identification” and distinction, while at the same time a feeling of sameness. Sharing art and stories, and having international stories shared with us at home, is extremely important in my view. It helps to create a more understanding world, and with understanding comes compassion and tolerance.

4. In terms of building a new audience, would you prefer to see more established works performed well, or more risk being taken with new work by our companies?

Well, yes I would like to see more established (that includes contemporary) works performed well – or at all!  For instance, it continues to baffle me why famous contemporary plays that in other Canadian cities have enjoyed mainstage regional runs and/or have played extended runs off-Broadway or in London (and admittedly are more “edgy”), are here not produced by our funded companies, but often picked up by independent or amateur companies. Is it about risk? And that it may scare away some audiences? I don’t know. Or are those plays just not even being read here? I do know that when I see risks being taken and boundaries being pushed with new creations in Vancouver, it always appears to me those are the shows that are getting great audiences, and even building new ones. To me “building a new audience” is about bringing in the kids who’ve grown up with dvds, youtube, etc, into a live theatre for a live performance, perhaps for the first time, and getting them hooked on it. What’s going to get them there? Way cheaper tickets, more agressive internet marketing, and shows that take risks, blow their mind in a visceral way that only a live performance can, and content that speaks to them, and the new multicultural world they live in. And something that speaks to them in a personal way that a movie can’t. So yes, let’s also create more bold new Vancouver works. Let’s inspire them with the bravado of live performance, and create heroes on the stage again. Local heroes. Heroes that live in our neighbourhoods, not just in Hollywood.

5. How well did your academic acting training prepare you for a career in theatre?

Hm. Well, I went to the University of Alberta, did two years of a BA Drama, and then the 3 year conservatory BFA Acting program, and that education was great. I graduated feeling prepared to be an actor, a professional, to work with different directors, to work with others as an ensemble (not as competition, which I feel some programs are guilty of). I had a well-rounded kind of feeling from the 2 years in the BA doing writing, psychology, comparative literature, social sciences, etc, and I even graduated with some “practical” theatre skills, like letter writing, tax filing, and living poorly. But I honestly believe that wherever you go to school, or even if you don’t, it’s what you put into your own education and growth that’s most important. No one can give it to you. I remember spending plenty of nights at the UofA, late in the library, or even sleeping overnight in the green room, because I was dedicated to my own growth, beyond what anyone else could offer me.

6. What is key to a successful writing partnership?

Geez, you’re asking all the hard ones…well, I’d be the first to admit that writing partnerships don’t always work, or don’t work at times and do work at others. But when they do, I guess I’d have to say respect, compromise, and constant communication. An ability to always understand what the other wants, and to try to find a common goal that you’re both shooting for – both artistically and logistically. If you can’t agree on the basic theme or message of the piece, it may not work. Or won’t work as well. Also, perhaps you need an ability to not take things too personally…and always know that what you’re creating will never be “yours” specifically, it belongs to both of you. If you want something that’s just yours, write a book, a short story, or a poem. Theatre is collaborative, and the thing that’s created is only brilliant because it’s the combination of energies that makes it so. That’s why theatre and live storytelling is one of the most healing art forms man has: by its nature it is communal, and cannot be done alone. Even a one-person show in which you write, direct, design and perform…needs a live audience before it exists.

7. What is the best piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?

In my first year acting class in the BFA at the UofA, my professor Tom Peacocke forced us to read a chapter of David Mamet’s “True and False”. I devoured the whole book, and practically memorized it. I honestly think that was some of the best acting advice I’ve ever had. I got things like this:

– Acting in my lifetime has grown steadily away from performance and toward what for want of a better term can only be called oral interpretation, which is to say pageantlike presentation in which actors present to the audience a prepared monologue complete with all the Funny Voices. And they call the Funny Voices emotional preparation. But there is no emotional preparation for loss, grief, surprise, betrayal, discovery; and there is none onstage either. Forget the Funny Voices, pick up your cue, and speak out even though frightened.

– Learn the lines, find a simple objective like that indicated by the author, speak the lines clearly in an attempt to achieve that objective. That is the job of the actor.

– It is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor’s job to make the performance truthful.

– Here is the best acting advice I know. And when I am moved by a genius performance, this is what I see the actor doing: Invent nothing, deny nothing.

– By the time you feel something, the audience has already seen it. It happened and you might as well have acted on it. If you didn’t, the audience saw not “nothing,” but you, the actor, denying something. The above is true and hard to do. It calls on the actor not to do more, not to believe more, not to work harder as part of an industrial effort, but to act, to speak out bravely although unprepared and frightened. Acting is an art, and it requires not tidiness, not paint-by-numbers intellectuality, but immediacy and courage.

– Stand up straight, invent nothing, deny nothing, and get on with it.

8. Who or what inspires your writing?

So far I’ve been inspired by true events that have not much to do with my own life. Tuesdays & Sundays (with Medina Hahn) was inspired by a true story from 1887 Prince Edward Island. Clear Sunny Day (with Medina Hahn, a long monologue performed at Catalyst Theatre) was inspired by the sinking of the Russian submarine, the Kursk. The short film I wrote with Matt Kowalchuk (The Janitors) was inspired by something that happened to my dad. Any Night (again with Medina) was inspired by a true story of a violent act committed while asleep.  And the new musical Medina and I are writing is inspired by the first kids to ever get corporate sponsorship just for going to college.  Although none of these plays are actually the “real” story, I always seem inspired by real life, not my own personal life. But something fascinates me about the story, then I try to put myself inside it, find out how it would happen, and why, and end up dealing with my own issues in life through that.

9. What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t when you started working in it steadily?

That it doesn’t pay much. Sure, back in school we were told, “You won’t get paid much; it’s a hard career.”  But they didn’t tell us exactly. I wish someone would have put it simply like this:

Best-Case Scenario: you’re doing 4 shows per year, all at A-houses. That’s a damn fantastic acting career in the theatre, and near impossible. But say you’re doing it, consistently.  And say for each show you’re getting $1000/wk, and each show is an 8 week contract (3 wks rehearsal, 5 week run, which is long). And you do 4 of those a year. That’s great! But add it up. That’s still only $32,000 a year. And that’s the Best-Case Actually Impossible Scenario.

I wish those numbers were put to me, so I could see clearly that I was choosing a life of poverty.

Fortunately, what I did see somehow were people doing more than just acting. People like Daniel MacIvor were writing, directing, acting, making movies. Others were designing. I saw something in those people and thought, “Yeah, maybe that’s the way to go …”

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

True and False by David Mamet

Audition by Michael Shurtleff

Practical Handbook for the Actor

Oh hell, one more …

The Actor’s Survival Kit

Daniel Arnold and Colleen Wheeler in 'Influence'
Daniel Arnold and Colleen Wheeler in 'Influence'

11. What’s next?

Playing Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast at the Arts Club, then doing Summer of My Amazing Luck at the Gateway in Feb/March. Writing film adaptations of Tuesdays & Sundays and Any Night. And working towards more tours and productions of Any Night – hope to have it presented in Vancouver soon! Also writing the book for a 6-person musical.

But right now, Influence with Touchstone at Performance Works, Nov 6-15. Come on out – brand new Canadian play by the witty, intelligent, and hilarious Janet Munsil.

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