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.

Torrance Coombs

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

Theatre is Dead, Long Live Theatre

Right, summer blogger break is officially over, as indicated by the pissy weather out of the dining room window, so it’s time to resume my diligent blogging duties, instead of hanging this site on the interview series alone. Thank you to everyone who checked in during the summer, which has been one of many revelations, theatre-wise. People, we need to talk.

The theatre here is stagnant. I’m not breaking any news here, and I know I talk about this all the time. As a matter of fact, lots of people here talk about it all the time. And talk. And talk. It’s time to do more than talk if this is ever going to change. It’s time, if you will, to act. So let’s break the problem down…

1.) What do I mean when I say that theatre is stagnant? There are several groups and companies in town that are working hard to put good theatre up, right? Indeed there are, God bless them. And we all have the same number one problem: how to get our houses as full as possible, so we can make a profit, so we can put up another play. I’ve yet to hear anyone complain that they keep turning too many people away. If we get enough people out to our shows on a regular basis, not only could we put some money back into our companies, but everyone involved could get paid for their time as well. Wouldn’t that be something? But the single hardest part of mounting a play is getting an audience of people that we don’t know personally in the seats and their money in the shoe box, that is, the enormous number of people who don’t have the word theatre in their list of entertainment options. The problem is not only getting our marketing in their face, but convincing them to spend the time and money on our little thing that they know nothing about, using only our enthusiasm. This is, incontrovertibly, our number one problem.

Now my key point about this issue is this: this is not a new problem. This has been the problem in Vancouver for years and years. And yet we keep plugging away, show after show, using the same marketing tactics and theatres and programs and street cards and posters and fundraisers…and theatre doesn’t get any closer to the mainstream, to a larger media, or into the consciousness of the city outside the choir stalls. We’re spinning our wheels. We’re running around within a model that doesn’t work, and it’s been given more than it’s fair chance. It’s time for a new model.

2.) What’s the new model? I have absolutely no idea. But, but, I’m pretty sure that the answer lies within the theatre community, or rather, strengthening ties within that community. It’s not that big. We’re not in direct competition with each other. And we all love theatre, with the kind of verve that can only be described as infectious. If we get behind each other, communicate with each other, and support each other, it will cast a net over the entire city that will create such a buzz that everyone will want to know what all the fuss is about. That’s how this city works, it’s fueled by trends. From Critical Mass to pole-dance classes, cool experience spreads virally here when people start talking about it. The groundwork has been laid for theatre to be Vancouver’s next big trend, it just needs us to push it out of the darkness and into the light, and it will stay there, it’s theatre for crying out loud, the greatest communion of humankind to its universe that’s ever existed. It’s bigger than my company, or your company, it’s necessary, in a way that no other form of art is. It gets us talking. Let’s start by talking amongst ourselves.

3.) Prove it. Fine. I will. I have personally had friends come out to our shows that have come up to me afterwards and said “dude, I’m gonna be honest. I only came out tonight because you’re a bud and I wanted to support your shit. But seriously, that was awesome. I thought it was going to be boring and preachy and over my head, but that ruled. That’s theatre? I will see anything you guys do.” Many friends. And I hear the same story time and time again from other theatre people I talk to. Vancouver is a latent theatre town, it loves it, it just doesn’t know it yet. Getting the word out to it is a responsibility we all share.

But really, the proof’s in the pudding. And the pudding last year came along courtesy of Hive, or as I call it; the future of Vancouver theatre. Please observe…

There it is, Vancouver independent theatre working in harmony to create what could be the single greatest theatrical happening ever in this city. The irascible Colin Thomas of the Straight had this to say: “Hive blew my mind. It’s one of the most exciting artistic events I’ve ever experienced…I relished everything I saw. This evening will be the stuff of legend.” (Click here for the full review.) The movement’s already begun.

Let me put it to you this way: if your company is comprised of 12 artists telling people about your play and they tell 20 people each, and half of them tell two people, that’s 480 people that have heard about your play. Now, if there’s 12 other theatre companies of the same number telling the same amount of people about your play (and you about theirs, of course), 5760 people that have nothing to do with you have heard about your little production, and the exponential buzz marketing starts from that number (which is completely arbitrary and produced from about the lowest figures I could justifiably use here). I’ll hand out your street card to 20 people, easy.

I don’t have any answers here. All I know is that I love what I do, and I’d like to do it for a living. I think it’s possible. What do you guys think?

This One Goes to Eleven: Rhonda Dent

Rhonda has been a TV/film actor here for over a decade and decided 3 years ago to roll up her sleeves and start producing independent theatre with a vengeance. Most recently she produced and performed in Spanish Girl at the Havana. Somewhere in her busy schedule she finds time to be a freelance photographer.

rhonda-dent-headshot1.jpg

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

Happy and content

2.) In as many words as you’d like, describe the condition of Vancouver indie theatre.

Small, hard working, and growing day by day.

3.) What prompted your move into theatre production?

A friend’s storytelling and success of producing a showing of Hamlet on the North Shore. A conversation that took place in LA before making my move home again to Vancouver.

4.) What informs your choices of stage material?

The size of the cast, the set design, and content.

5.) What is the responsibility of theatre to our audiences?

To evoke people, to awaken their inner souls.

6.) What has been the biggest challenge in running your theatre company?

Finding people to run the box office.

7.) Where will Vancouver theatre be in five years, and what must we do to get there?

Well, with a few people I know and have worked with I think it is on the up and up and will develop to a scale of beauty in no time, and with the only thing that gets you anywhere: HARD WORK.

8.) How do you view the relationship between the theatre artist and the critic?

I think UNTIL a group of hardworking theatre critics get together for FREE in their spare time and put together a full play, and invite a long time standing thespian to sit through it, make notes and pick it apart for all it’s worth, their opinions don’t really matter, because the only point of having them there is to help fill the seats and so far we have no trouble doing that (LOL). Unless of course they are of the positive sort, then they are invited time and time again.

9.) What’s the best experience you’ve had at a play that you weren’t involved with?

I’d say a showing of Cabaret on the North Shore had solidified my decision to one day produce Moulin Rouge on stage.

10.) What are your top three must-reads?

A Sense of Direction by William Ball, The Boys Next Door, by Tom Griffin, and The Actor’s Checklist by Rosary O’Neill.

11.) What’s next?

Thinking about doing a documentary, or perhaps directing another show, haven’t quite made up my mind yet.