From his Wikipedia page: Denis is a Canadian actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, songwriter, writer, director, judge and humanitarian. (He is involved in charitable work with Aids organizations, and hosting local events.) The original bass vocalist for The Nylons, he left the band to appear in the Broadway musical Indigo before they became commercially successful. He was also a longtime host of the children’s television series Polka Dot Door.
Denis is the director of the upcoming Fringe production Nggrfg, written by and starring Vancouverite Berend McKenzie, a touring Fringe hit that’s been gaining a lot of traction on its way back here. He talks with us about the play, the condition of the theatre scene here, and how we should be reacting as artists to the government’s treatment of our industry…
1. In one word, describe your present condition.
2. In as many words as you need, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.
As subjective as such an answer as this will be, I think that thanks to the smaller, independent theatre companies, that the theatre scene in Vancouver is thriving. Any opportunity to express and share stories is a vital way of communicating, in this show and tell art form…a way to truly heal and unite people, regardless of age, race, economic advantages, abilities or disabilities….we are all in this ‘culture’ together. Life is short and precious, and thank God for theatre that tells our stories of hope, loss, love, and that can not only engage and stimulate the mind, but also heal the soul. I think there are enough budding companies in the city that are taking chances in that direction…new voices need to and are being heard.
3. What first spoke to you about the script for Nggrfg?
Berend (McKenzie) is brave enough to shed light on two words that we as black gay men, have heard too many times in our lives…words that have been used too flippantly without consequence to the recipient of them. The history of the words are best researched and thought about, before they are fashionably used to be ‘hip’.
4. What is the temperature of the reactions to Nggrfg so far?
The reactions to NGGRFG in Edmonton, have been unanimously positive, favourable and thought-provoking. Critics love it, and most importantly, the door has been opened through Berend (McKenzie’s piece) to engage in a dialogue about the power and effect of the N and the F word.
5. What is your best piece of advice for our neophyte directors?
Yikes! I am one of those people. I think that one has to be a dramaturg, making sure that the story is the important thing being relayed, and that the actor is in the safest and most exhilarating place to tell the story, emotionally and creatively.
6. What was the best piece of acting advice you’ve ever received?
Listen…listen…listen, and listen. Acting is the ability to ‘do’, under imaginary circumstances. Listen to what your partner is telling you, and respond truthfully, from an emotional place or point of view.
7. Where is the next generation of theatre audiences going to come from?
They are in the streets, in Safeway, on the sky-train, waiting to see their lives represented on stage. We are the story-tellers, and we have a tradition to maintain…we writers and actors.
8. How should the Canadian independent arts be dealing with the persistent funding cuts from our government?
I believe that it behooves those with imaginations to dare to live and dream and act outside the box: write….create….share, and don’t depend on government bodies to help us. I have been the recipient of government help, and I am grateful for that, but I also have been a self-starter, and it is a place of power from which to share.
9. Given a time machine, what would you tell a young Denis Simpson just starting out on his career?
I know…there are a few of them out there, but have they earned their battle scars yet? There is an old Jamaican adage: You live, you learn. Experience, is one of the biggest teachers, and style is attractive, but substance is seductive, and will keep you engaged for the long haul.
10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?
My old acting teacher (William Esper) has written a book. It is refreshing my soul. Reading books that stimulate my imagination….the story grips me, and inspires me to dare to write….books like Laurence Hill’s The Book Of Negroes. Reading friend’s new works is also a thrill….to see how people express themselves inspires me too.
I have written a play (STRUCK!), and am going back to the drawing board to finish up my James Baldwin script. I will be in a production of staged readings of The Trial Of Judas Iscariot, at Pacific Theatre in October, and then in the Gateway production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and then the re-mount of The Full Monty, in Saskatoon in spring.
“…style is attractive, but substance is seductive…”