This One Goes to Eleven: Denis Simpson

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.

Kick ass.

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.

11.What’s next?

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.

At last! A call to arms!

Canterbury VP Header

Ah, the long, languid days of summer. The West Coast has settled into the torpor of a brain-mush inducing heatwave and everything seems, well…West Coastey. I do anyway, with my crew in recess for the summer and that pre-Fringe dip in Indie Stage activity I’ve been feeling like a kid on summer vacation. That should be in summer school. Isn’t it funny how when artists aren’t in the middle of a project we feel like we’re playing hooky? There’s been this guilt gnawing away at the back of my consciousness making me feel lazy, like I should be writing copy or blogging furiously or fund-raising or something instead of just going into work every day at my full time day job. It’s kind of sick.

Well, Rebecca and the Zoo Crew have taken care of that. She’s asked me to pinch-hit for her as ITSAZOO’s publicist while she treats herself to a Grecian vacation. It turns out there is some indie theatrical activity in the offing, and I’m pleased as punch to be helping out this young crew of artists determined to hammer out a niche for our art form here. They’re a brainy, genuinely talented crew out of UVic who have been turning heads with their smart and playful work, both onstage and in clever site-specific productions as well.

They continue to build their canon with the original adaptation The Road to Canterbury, opening here at Queen Elizabeth Park on August 5th. It’s a re-working of Chaucer’s Picaresque tales by Co-Artistic Director Sebastien Archibald that leads you through the park and through some surprising contemporizing of several classic legends. You can read more at their Facebook event page here…

So yay, back in the saddle again. And there looks to be a few more projects bearing down on me, not the least of which is working with the Plank gang again to prepare a critical Fringe guide for this year’s fest (Psst, in case you missed it, they announced this year’s line-up). After the resounding success of last year’s guide, we don’t have much choice.

Anyway Vancouver, that’s what’s going on with me. What are you all working on, besides a killer tan?