This One Goes to Eleven: Christine Willes

Christine has been a professional actor since 1976, and now holds the positions of Department Head and Artistic Director at the William Davis Centre for Actors Study (which recently merged with Vanarts, Vancouver’s institute of media arts). She has just started work on her next directorial effort: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, a contemporizing of several of Ovid’s Greek myths set in and around a swimming pool.

1. In one word, describe your present condition.

Working.

2. In as many words as you see fit, describe the present condition of the Vancouver theatre scene.

Thriving. You have to remember that I have been part of the theatre scene in Vancouver for 30 years. When I arrived there were 4 theatres in town and UBC hired guest artists to perform with students on their main stage shows.

Because it was so difficult to launch a career as a freelance actor, I became part of the group that pioneered co-operative production in Western Canada, first in Edmonto, then with Roy Surette and Michael McLaughlin here in Vancouver. I was president of the board of directors at Touchstone for several years. I built on the groundwork of cooperatively created new plays with the Modern Girls Collective. So to pick up a Georgia Straight now and see the choice theatre-goers have is absolutely amazing. The range of work is also spectacular – pure commercial to pure experimental and everything in between.

The place I see where not enough is being done, and I can contribute, is in offering first rate productions of internationally celebrated plays by women that will never be produced by the larger theatres. I did that with The Unexpected Man, and now with Metamorphoses.

3. For an actor, what’s the best argument for pursuing theatre in a town with so much dangling film and TV work?

The best arguments are artistry and employability. We have to keep practicing what we do, and change the frame to stay vital. The great artists of all ages move between genres – in visual art from painting to sculpture to print-making. The actor that can move from stage to screen to TV to voiceover to videogames is the most employable, the most engaged in the practice of their art.

4. Is there an air of elitism surrounding theatre here?

There is an air of elitism surrounding theatre everywhere, as there is for any high performance activity from sport to art. That doesn’t mean we get to sneer – it means we have to accept the responsibility of making theatre for our community with dedication and humility. We are public servants, not elitists and/or sycophants.

5. What have you found to be the most common misconception surrounding actor training here?

That you’re either born with talent or you’re not – that acting isn’t a skill that can be learned. Acting can be taught, and it can be learned. I’m a “90% perspiration, 10% inspiration” kind of artist. And the perspiration has to go into skills – use of self, voice, movement, memory, text analysis.

6. What defines ‘risk’ in terms of theatre work in Vancouver, and what kinds of it should we be taking more of?

Daring to do what no one else is doing.

7. What is the criteria that you have for selecting plays to mount?

I have to love the play, and be absolutely terrified because I don’t know how the hell I’m going to do it.

8. What do you see as the most counter-productive aspect of actors training here, and what’s the fix?

Avoiding the Herculean task of teaching beginning artists how to use their personal experience to bring characters to life.

9. As a director, what are your chief expectations of your actors?

Tell the story and leave the audience gasping in the aisles.

10. What are your top 3 theatre reads?

Anything by Chekhov, the Poetics, all the produced women playwrights from Aphra Behn to present day.

11. What’s next?

Release of the Dead Like Me movie, season two of Reaper, the first year of actor training now the the William Davis Centre has merged with Vanarts.