You Deserve a Break Today (or not) at #McTheatre


macdonalds I just closed a production in a theatre festival of what was supposed to be about new ideas.  Actually it was a homogenized collection of mainstream scripts.  The play I chose to direct was one of the exceptions. The playwright Gina Femia played with conventions of character, time and setting, as did I in my direction.  Not surprisingly, this was the most challenging piece to grasp and appreciate for the fundamentally conservative audiences.

While we were still in rehearsal, a cohort and friend who (several years ago) was one of my students made the front page of a major paper for distributing allegedly inappropriate material to his students for a stand-up comedy unit.  The story was picked up by other media outlets across the country and Jeff was subsequently and rather hastily and unceremoniously dismissed from his 12 year position as a teacher with the Toronto District School Board. It didn’t matter that students, colleagues, parents and alumni all rallied to support this teacher and to explain that although  Mr. Jones may be conceived as unconventional, it is because he is genuine, honest and authentic that he is so effective as a teacher.  Jeff made a difference in his students’ lives.

 Political correctness.  Cookie cutter education.  Moral sanctimony.  political-correctness_puppet

I belong to a very small minority of people who don’t really enjoy musicals and other forms of big box entertainment.  I can’t count the number of times I went to see a show that got rave reviews from audiences, but I walked out feeling “meh”.  Students and many of my friends are shocked when I announce I wasn’t particularly wowed by Rent, seduced by Chicago or touched by My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.   I understand the appeal of such shows, but the outcome is not much different than the way I feel after I eat a Big Mac.  The two beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – all on a sesame seed bun may satisfy billions of cravings, but for me the greasy, salty burger with chemical laden sauce makes me feel a little sick and a lot guilty.  The Big Mac will never, ever have the tender, rich succulent satisfaction of a prime, grass-fed filet mignon.

I do not go to the theatre to have my appetite for entertainment satiated. I need and expect theatre (and literature, film, music, art and dance) to feed my imagination and nourish my spirit.  I expect to be confronted with new ideas, perspectives and questions and I hope my equilibrium will somehow be shaken, and my boundaries be pushed.  Give me theatre that makes me think hard,  feel deeply and it’s okay to make me feel uncomfortable.  I’d so rather attend and pay good money for an unsuccessful production with noble intentions than sit through a glittering, shiny multimillion dollar production that has next to no substance.

I felt the same way about teaching.  It wasn’t about teaching my students to become entertainers – tap-dancing musical theatre performers or God help us, reality television celebs.  It wasn’t about encouraging kids to get an agent so they could audition for McDonalds’ commercials and make lots of money so they could pretend they were actors or artists.


 What I did try to teach was critical thinking skills.  I wanted my students to create, not imitate, to use the arts as a form of communication for ideas, values and issues that were universally important, and to connect in meaningful ways in order to better understand our shared humanity beyond social class, ethnicity, religion or geographical and political divides.  I wanted my students to listen to others, to empathize with those who may be different, to keep their minds open, to be accepting and to to think outside of the proverbial box.  I tried to show them that creating something worthwhile was always difficult and requires serious work ethic, tenacity, determination, sacrifice and passion.  I tried to create a safe space to explore, where they could be honest and open and real and where it was okay to fail.

So, here we are in 2013 and in many ways the world I live in has stepped backwards.  My friends still teaching in the trenches are now second-guessing themselves and their curriculum because conservative nay-sayers, book-burners, paranoid administrators and witch-hunters are on the loose and empowered by their sense righteousness. Literally, there is a climate of fear.  Based on what has happened to Jeff, I believe we are now entering an age of McSchools and McDrama classes. The best teachers: the daring ones, the non-conventional, the brave and the creative – they do have reason to be frightened.  Theatre too, is becoming increasingly safe and insipid.  Artistic directors have become afraid of punitive funding cuts by conservative governments. While razzle dazzle shows like Wizard of Oz and Cats are still attracting crowds to Toronto theatres, the really brilliant work by  talented Canadian playwrights, directors and actors is only seen and appreciated by a few.

It really is a Catch 22.




Love, Worship and All that Lies in the Human Heart


What an enormous magnifier is tradition!  How a thing grows in the human memory and in the human imagination, when love, worship, and all that lies in the human heart, is there to encourage it.

~Thomas Carlyle

Recently, I was brought to tears by a NY Times article written by John Lithgow about his discovery of a wonderful tradition at the National Theatre (see link bottom of the page.)  I was amused and surprised how easily my tears came.  Then I realized it’s the very traditions and superstitions of theatre that I love so madly and deeply.

At least once or twice or three times a school year, one of my younger drama students would speak the name of the Scottish play during rehearsal or class.  My reaction was always well-measured melodrama. I’d gasp loudly and my eyes would widen to horrified orbs. I’d look around the space with such terror – as if the Gods would strike us all down immediately. Then promptly and fiercely I’d shove the poor kid out the door while explaining to the rest that he/she must spin thrice, spit, swear and knock on the door, begging for forgiveness and our permission to be let back in.


“You really want us to swear?”

“You must!” was my response.

“And spit?”

“With all your might!”

This was one of my favorite teaching tricks.  Every student was mesmerized; even the most disinterested came to life as I explained how this superstition came to be.  No matter what  the rehearsal or lesson plan had been that day, for the next half hour we talked about Shakespeare, superstitions and and the importance of traditions in our everyday lives.

The students wanted to know if I was superstitious.  A few had the gall to even test me.  That was the cowboy of the group, the yahoo, the little sheister who’d call out the “M” name over and over again – proving to the rest of the ensemble that he or she was no coward, and didn’t believe in such nonsense. So there, Ms. Kish!

Jonathan M.  called out the name of the Scottish king repeatedly at a tech session one evening prior to production.  We were using scaffolding for the hang rather than a ladder.  I recall Jon was playing the part of George in The Actor’s Nightmare  and he was quite smug when nothing terrible happened that evening.  It was quite late when we called it quits and decided to finish the hang early the following morning.  Cast and crew showed up and the half-asleep SM asked for the 10 foot high scaffolding to be wheeled to another area.  She had forgotten that there were six fresnels on top of it, out of sight, and so we were all shocked as three of the lamps were knocked off and came crashing down one by one toward the heads below.  Fortunately the screams were loud enough and the crew jumped out of the way – just in time.  Nonetheless, all three, very new  and expensive fresnels were smashed beyond repair.  All of us angrily reminded Jonathan of his blasphemy the day before but he defiantly refused blame for this accident.

The Gods were not happy.  They got revenge.

During Jon’s first performance, he completely and quite ironically forgot George’s lines and had to improvise one entire scene.  The day of his second performance, Jon badly sprained his ankle and had to painfully walk with a crutch.  And in the middle of his third and final performance, there was a power failure.  The audience sat in total darkness for ten excruciatingly long minutes before the lights came back on.

Finally, Jon, who is now 30 and an alumnae of the Sheridan Musical Theatre program, became a believer!  No-one now is more wary of the curse than he.

Six years after she died, I still hear my mother’s voice in my head before every performance. Before each show, she, a transplanted Berliner, would wish  me “Hals und beinbruch.”  The translation of this is break your neck and your leg (compared to our simple break a leg).  Oh, those funny, funny morbid Germans!

The French say “merde” and the Spanish say  “mucha mierda” meaning much shit.  Opera singers are known to say “toi, toi, toi” before a performance to ward off any spells or hexes, and Australians reportedly call out “chookas” before a performance. The common denominator is it’s believed to be bad luck to wish good luck; therefore, it must be good luck to wish bad luck.

And so it goes…..  Never turn of the ghost light when the theatre is empty. Never whistle on or off stage.  whistling Never bring a peacock feather onstage or wear costumes of blue and silver or the colour green. Always leave the dressing room left foot first.  Do not knit in the wings. Do not burn three candles at the same time during rehearsal or performance. And never, ever, ever say the last line of the play before opening night.

But do I believe all this?

I believe that we create energy – good or bad, and it’s better to create than to destroy.  I believe Theatre is a colossal and noble tradition that is greater than you and I, and as such, it is something worthy of our collective honour.   Yes, I believe in the traditions – whether they are the superstitions practiced for hundreds of years, or the personal traditions every actor and director creates for himself.

I always wear black on opening night.  I have one other personal tradition – a ritual I’ve shared with each and every one of my companies over the years.  Before every show, the cast and crew, sit in a large circle holding hands.  Together, in unison, we recite:

The Theatre is Magic

The Magic is Theatre

May the Blessed Magic Begin.

Tradition.  What a magnificent magnifier, indeed!

To read John Lithgow’s article:

Auditions, Monologues, Music & Me

ideasmain-2013It’s been a quite a while since I last posted an entry.  Toward the end of last year, I was totally consumed with completing the onerous Teacher Resource document for our textbook Rattling the Stage.  Both the book and TR are now available and can be purchased online at,+spoken+word,+and+short+plays/  One of our iLit series was made into an iBook with Apple, and plans are underway to do the same with the rest of the series.

I’m currently directing a new play for the New Ideas Festival:  Pieces of Penelope, was written by Gina Femia from New York and selected by the festival jury.  I am incredibly fortunate to have been matched with my first choice of plays (there are twelve productions and three readings over a three week period in March.)  After I made my submission, I realized that I had chosen what may be the most complex and challenging of all the plays.  Nonetheless, it was the lyricism and theatricality that attracted me.  Gina’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice; it is a mixture of “feminist and fabulist”.   Auditions and callbacks were intense.  There was so much talent, Robin Munro my AD and I were able to fully focus on finding precisely the right actor for each role.  Casting will be announced in the next few days and rehearsals begin February 1st.  I’m also so thrilled that classical composer Alan Torok will be creating an original score for the piece.

Yesterday I received two completely different calls about the same topic.  The first call was from an actor we called back for Pieces of Penelope. She asked for constructive criticism regarding her audition.   She’s already an experienced and trained actor but is sincerely interested in getting feedback to help her further develop her auditioning skills. Too few actors have the resolve and courage to ask for criticism.  The second was a call initiated from an email from a total stranger.  She was a parent who’d googled information about auditioning for the Claude Watson Arts Program and found my website.  I was so excited to hear that people are finding the site (it doesn’t take much to excite me) that I happily answered all her questions about the program and the auditions. The most important thing I could tell both parties was to ENJOY.  If you as an actor can find joy in your audition – even when delivering a dark monologue – you’ll be so much more interesting, alive and vibrant.

Last week I submitted my first “pitch” to direct a play that goes up in the summer.  I don’t want jinx myself but I fell in love with the writing which (ironically) happens to be the very antithesis of Pieces of Penelope.  This is a play with men, about men, for men.  It is dark, violent and at times, savagely funny.  I would LOVE to work on it for that very reason and I hope the pitch will convince the producer and playwright that adding my feminine insights and instincts to such a testosterone-driven work is exactly what is needed.  My creative juices are flowing and my fingers and toes are all crossed.

Finally I had the pleasure meeting with the founders of Eclat Arts This is a private summer school studio offering enriched credit courses for impassioned drama students.  Unlike many other summer school programs and camps, Michael Laidlaw and Mary Barnes Amoroso have created a conservatory program with high standards and high expectations and also a substantial number of scholarships and bursaries available.  For those interested, courses include playwriting, improvisation and acting, Director’s Craft, and a Production course.  Their creative board, teaching and guest artist roster contains some of the finest theatre artists in the city including Fiona Boyd, Cameron Porteus and Andrew Lamb.  I’m very proud to join up with Eclat ensemble and very much look forward to working with them and their students in the summer.

Before I  retired I was afraid I’d no longer have the opportunities to exercise my artistic chops.  As the saying goes, use it or lose it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.  bigfishsmallpondThere’s nothing like jumping out of one’s little pond and diving head first into another one that’s bigger and deeper.  I’m so looking forward to working on these projects and many others throughout the year.  I wish you the same.

Happy new year!

How to Act: Don’t be a twat!

My friend and colleague John Lalor just shared with me a brilliant article from The Guardian that I wish to share with you.  Below is a paste of the article.

Following that is also a great little YouTube video about what do when you get lost with your lines in an audition.

How to act: stage stars share their acting tips

What makes a great stage actor? As a competition to find Britain’s best am-dram society gets under way, old hands Roger Allam, Miriam Margolyes and others offer a few words of advice

Miriam Margolyes in Dickens' Women

‘I don’t see any difference between amateurs and professionals’ … Miriam Margolyes in Dickens’ Women. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Roger Allam

1. Learn your lines so well that you never have to worry about them.

2. Keep a notebook about the play, the character, the period, your moves. It’ll help you remember what you have done so far – especially if you’re having to rehearse in your spare time rather than all day, every day.

3. Never go dead for a second on stage. Even if you are doing nothing, do it actively. Listen.

4. If something goes wrong – say someone drops something – don’t ignore it. Try to deal with it in character.

5. Warm up your voice and body. Get used to the size of the auditorium; if you don’t know it already, go to the worst seats in the house and have conversations with people on the stage so you get to know what kind of energy is needed to be heard.

6. Be ambitious. The great actor, director and playwright Ann Jellicoe commissioned writers like Howard Barker and David Edgar, and put on magnificent, large-scale plays in Dorset that involved the whole community.

7. On the other hand, probably avoid Aeschylus’s Oresteia or anything by the German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist.

8. Try not to worry about embarrassing yourself. That’s a lifetime’s task.

9. The Victorian actor Henry Irving said: “Speak clearly and be human” – but if you listen to his recordings, the boundaries of that are pretty vast. James Cagney said: “Never relax, and mean what you say.” I think that’s pretty good.

10. You are released from the miserable aspects of having to earn your living in this marvellous business called show, so have fun: be as serious as you like, but enjoy yourself.

Roger Allam has worked with the RSC, the National, Shakespeare’s Globe and in the West End. TV and film includes The Thick of It, Tamara Drewe and Parade’s End.

Niamh Cusack

I wish I followed these rules all the time when I act. The truth is, you really learn these things by doing it: “acting” means putting it all into action.

1. Trust your playwright. If he or she is a great one, most of the work will have been done for you.

2. Read the play at least three times out loud before standing it on its feet. A lot of the blocking (the positioning of the actors on stage) will come out of understanding what your characters want, and from whom.

3. Listen to the person who’s talking – unless your character isn’t listening to them.

4. Don’t be afraid to make an eejit of yourself.

5. Change the look in the other person’s eye.

6. If it’s in verse, paraphrase it first.

7. Keep it simple.

8. Remember that most characters use words to affect, connect with or change the other person.

9. As [the actor] Ralph Richardson said, before you leave the dressing room, look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Is it human?”

10. It’s only a play!

Niamh Cusack has worked at the RSC, the National and the Old Vic. TV and film include Heartbeat and Hereafter.

Paterson Joseph

1. Find the right level for the group. Being underambitious (thinking you can’t tackle big plays) or overambitious (thinking you can tackle King Lear on your first time out) is a recipe for disaster.

2. Choose a play you feel confident you understand: liking a play isn’t the same as understanding it.

3. Cast to the performers’ strengths. I’ve seen amateur directors pander to the ego of the cast member with the strongest personality. Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s warning from history: he says he can play lions and lovers and everything in between, but he can’t.

4. Sit around a table and read the play for much longer than you want to. It might seem boring, but it saves loads of time later: you’ll find that rehearsals fly along because everybody understands what they’re doing.

5. Leave more time for technical rehearsals than you think you need. You’ll be amazed at how much you still have to do once you get into the theatre: working out the distances between everything on stage, what the lights are like, where your props are.

6. Try to perform your play for more than five nights. Amateur groups often do a few scattered rehearsals across a few months, and then perform it once or twice. But if you perform it more often, you’ll see acting more as a job than as a one-off, razzle-dazzle thing.

Paterson Joseph has worked extensively with the National and the RSC. He also stars as Alan Johnson in Peep Show.

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Miriam Margolyes

I don’t see any difference between amateurs and professionals – so I would give my tips, such as they are, to anybody. The aim of any actor is the same: to tell the truth in such a way that people will be entertained, uplifted and surprised.

1. Listen before anything else.

2. Read the text over and over again, and make sure you know the lines.

3. Go and see other performances, and be critical about them: work out whether you’d have smiled in that place, or turned your head at that moment.

4. Never show off. You can sometimes come to a particular point in a show and think, “I’m really good in this bit.” Never, ever think that.

5. Never read reviews. I haven’t read mine since I was in rep.

6. Never know more than your character knows. I’m not talking about research; I mean that when you are performing, you must stay inside the truth of your character. Don’t signpost to an audience what they should be thinking.

7. The most important thing is to breathe. If you stop breathing properly, you get a sore throat. And if you stop breathing, you die.

Miriam Margolyes has worked at the RSC and in the West End; she has been touring her one-woman show about Charles Dickens and his female characters since 1989. Films include The Age of Innocence and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Julie Graham

1. Read as many plays as possible, especially by classical writers such as Ibsen, Chekhov and Shakespeare.

2. Watch performances on YouTube. There are so many amazing theatrical snippets on there now. It’s just as useful to watch bad performances as it is to watch good ones. You need to be able to differentiate.

3. Go to the theatre as often as you can.

4. Turn up on time. If you’re going to commit to something, you should see it through with good grace.

5. Don’t be a twat. There’s always one: make sure it’s not you.

6. Always have a huge supply of cakes and sweets – both for your sugar levels and to butter everyone else up.

7. People-watch: it’s the best way to develop a character. When you’re walking down the street, or sitting on a bus, in a cafe or doctor’s surgery – don’t close yourself off.

8. If you’re cast as a historical character, think of a modern-day equivalent. In rehearsals for Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, for instance, I encouraged an actor playing the mayor to channel Boris Johnson.

Julie Graham has appeared in Doc Martin, Bonekickers, Survivors, At Home With the Braithwaites and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

….and now for the video about what to do when you’ve messed up your lines from Casting Director Marci Liroff’s “Audition Tips: Can I Start Over?!”:  Audition Tips

Which Theatre Schools are the Best?

Stevie Joffe in a scene from “En Francais Comme En Anglais, It’s Easy to Criticize” devised, performed and produced by the 2012 graduating class of the National Theatre School of Canada


It was announced today Alissa Palmer will be the new Artistic Director of the English section of the National Theatre School of Canada.  Alissa is a highly regarded and much loved director, playwright, producer and dramaturge.  Her work is bold, provocative and passionately Canadian.  This is great news for the school, the faculty and for its incoming students.

The announcement made me think of students who want to audition for NTS.  They’ve heard it’s one of the best theatre schools in the country.   The school’s mission is “to contribute to the appreciation, reach and advancement of theatre and its related arts in Canadian society by training artists and artisans in all the theatrical disciplines at an arts-oriented school that is national in scope and at the same time open to the world”.  Without doubt, it has achieved its mission.  Many of our finest actors, directors, designers and playwrights are graduates including Colm Feore, Judith Thompson, Hannah Moscovitch, Wajdi Mouawad and Ted Dykstra.

So, is it the best?  Nervous high school students and even more anxious parents want to know which theatre school is number one – expecting there to be some type of ranking system.  However, like most things – one size does not fit all.

First of all, if you’re auditioning into a theatre school, you have to know exactly what it is you want.  You’re committing to the next three or four years of your life.  Is it a university degree that is of the utmost importance or is it to be a practicing artist? Do you prefer classical training or is your passion focused on big Broadway musicals?  Are you more comfortable with text or physical theatre?  Would you rather be in a large program with hundreds of first year students or in a smaller ensemble? What are your strengths?  What is your Achilles’ Heel?  Are you adamant about acting or do you also want to learn about directing, playwriting and design?

Do your research.  What is the overall mission and philosophy of the program?  Is the focus on academics (theory and history) or the practical (practicing the art and craft)? Do graduates receive a degree or a diploma?  What courses are mandatory?  What optional courses are offered?  How many hours a week are the students in the studio and classroom?  How many hours are the students in rehearsal or production?  Who are the members of the faculty and what is their background?  How many students apply?  How many audition?  How many students are accepted into the first year of the program?  How many students actually graduate?  What percentage of the graduates go on to acting careers?  Is the environment nurturing or is it tempestuous?

After doing your research, by all means visit the schools.  Most hold open houses to woo applicants and you will get a good idea about the program, some of the faculty and the curriculum.  Even better, go see their productions or if you can, audit some classes.  Talk to the students.  Talk to the graduates.  And if you can find people who have dropped out, or who have been asked to leave, find out why.

I’ve known students to be unhappy and disappointed in theatre programs they heard were the best.  They ended up leaving after or during their first year on their own initiative or because they were told to do so.  I’ve known others to thrive artistically and then to excel professionally after graduating from some of the lesser celebrated programs.

Sorry to disappoint, but the answer to the question is there is no one best theatre program – for everyone. Nonetheless, there are programs that will be a better fit for you.  It’s up to your doing your due diligence to know your individual needs and what the programs will best fulfill those needs.

I invite readers who have graduated from or who are currently enrolled in a post secondary theatre program to comment about their schools.  It would be great to have a dialogue.



Seven Impressions Every Theatre Student Should Want To Make

Whether we like it or not, first impressions have a great weight in how others will perceive us not only now but also in the future.  When you as a theatre student first walk into a studio, classroom, workshop or rehearsal, your instructor, director, fellow company members and/or classmates will form opinions about you based on what you do and what you say.

Often, students try to impress others with their talent, skill and how often and to what extent they’ve performed before.  Obviously, if you were accepted into theatre school, you’ve already proved that you have something.  What your instructors are looking for now is not what you’ve learned or done in the past.  They want to know what you have to give right now and for next two to four years. Are you there to learn?  Can you learn? Are you open?  Are you courageous?  Are you confident?  Are you truthful?  Are you humble?  Are you personable?  Will you take risks?  Are you an ensemble player?

What you do in the first month will determine much of your success in the next few years.  These are the impressions you want to create:

  1. You Know You Don’t Know Everything You Need to Know About Theatre:  Regardless of how accomplished an actor you think you are and as much as you think you know – your knowledge is limited. You are studying theatre because you are there to learn not to show off.  Your instructors are there to teach.  Don’t brag.  Don’t grandstand. Don’t argue with your instructor.  Don’t show disinterest.  And whatever you do, don’t read or send text messages in the middle of class. Come with an open mind, prepared to learn.  Focus. Take notes.  Ask questions. Show your professors your passion and your hunger.
  2. You Know How to Listen: Listening is an art. It’s one of the most crucial skills you need to develop as a theatre student and an actor.  Active listening requires that you hear, absorb and process.  It shapes and defines what and how you perceive and communicate.  You need to actively listen to your instructor, your director, your S.M., your fellow students and all of the company members, on stage and off.  In rehearsal and performance, your character must also practice active listening.  Yes, you as the actor may listen for cues, but more importantly, your character must be listening to what is being spoken because this is the first time (every time) your the character has heard the dialogue.  No matter how talented you are, you can’t fake active listening.
  3. You Give Respect:  Constantin Stanislavsky wrote “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” You respect Theatre because you know it is an noble tradition and an ancient rite, far greater than we will ever be.  In order to show that respect, you must be sincerely interested in the art and want to learn more about its history, theory and practice. You have already read many scripts, attended a number of good plays (and not simply pop culture films and/or flashy Mc’Musicals), you’ve read review and essays about theatre,and you think about it too.  This respect is also demonstrated toward the other members of your community – playwrights, directors, technicians, theatre instructors, fellow students and last but not least for your audience.  You are always punctual for classes and rehearsals and you’re prepared to work and to learn while you’re there.
  4. You Are Gracious and Personable:  Good manners and common courtesy are valued by everyone, and often a simple please and thank and pleasant tone will earn you many credits in the impressions department. Being gracious also means being generous.  No-one wants to work with a self-absorbed and selfish actor.  Be they type of artist that others want to work with.  Theatre is not a vacuum; its lifeforce however, is created by the energy and chemistry BETWEEN characters. Focusing on your scene partners as opposed to yourself, and providing them with the energy and emotion they need, will not only enhance your own performance but also the entire production.  You also know how to take notes and criticism with grace.   You know those notes are being given to help you, so you listen, absorb, process and then do your best to apply them.
  5. You Are a Risk-Taker:  Some artists only do what they do well and stay well-within their comfort zone.   Their work tends to be predictable, if not bland.  Risk-takers, on the other hand have the artistic courage and confidence to constantly challenge themselves.  They’re unafraid to try new techniques and methods – driving their work to deeper and more profound places.  They explore and they experiment. They dive into the unattractive or underwritten roles with the same gusto and audacity as they do with the the principal roles.  By diving into the swamp head first, these actors risk self-exposure, criticism and even failure.  But when they fail, they get back up, shake off the muck and try something else.  They continue to grow and develop and surprise us.  Their courage usually brings about breathtaking results. Their work is fresh, original and filled with a vibrant life-force we call the “it factor”.   Risk-takers have the courage to be truthful and open, to expose their hearts and share their fears.  Risk-takers stand out because of their energy. They excite us; they are special and we never forget them.
  6. You Are Mindful:  According to Psychology Today “Mindfulness is the state of active, open attention on the present.” This is one of the most difficult skills to learn.  It takes a great deal of time, discipline and training to learn how to be and stay in the moment.  When on stage, the mind tends to race in a million different directions. Lesser actors think about their lines, cues, blocking, audience reactions and what they’re having for breakfast tomorrow.  All that gunk needs to be removed from your mind when you perform.  One way to get there is to be properly prepared and rehearsed, so you can let the technical aspects of acting go on auto-pilot, Then you can be truly in the moment and in character.  This is not a skill most people have, and once they do, it needs to be nurtured and maintained. Many actors do yoga and mediation on regular basis so they can better reach a state of mindfulness.  True mindfulness creates a character that is authentic, truthful, vibrant and magnetic.  It is a skill to work toward.
  7. You Are Flexible:  There are some things we do better than others.  Some are stronger with physical theatre than text, and the opposite is true for others.  In theatre school you will be learning about all the facets of different acting styles from classical, modern and post-modern sources. You will most likely take classes in Shakespeare, clowning, dance, voice, method acting, improvisation, combat…… One instructor will ask you do something one way, and your next director will ask you to do something completely opposite.  The theatre student who stands out is the one who can adapt and adjust accordingly to the different demands being made on her or him.  Your directors and instructors are looking for artists who want to learn and want to grow.  Be that person.


Ego and the Artist

Because of the huge shape-shifting I’ve undergone lately, I’ve had to think about myself much more than I like. Right now, I feel very self-centered, and uncomfortably so.

Ego.  When is it too much, and when too little?

In July, I had a late afternoon catch up with a former student whom I will refer to as D.H.  Currently she is in the middle of a four year performance program at a highly respected theatre faculty in Toronto, where by all accounts, she’s doing exceptionally well.  D.H.’s show had just closed at the Toronto Fringe, and she received excellent reviews for her performances. While we sipped on our Margaritas, and talked about the Fringe, school and dreams.  D.H. confessed she was seriously considering dropping out of her theatre program.  When I asked her why she told me she hated how they stripped the students of their confidence and any and all ego they might have.  There is a culture of emotional oppression of “self”.   What’s the point, D.H. asked, if theatre students were too afraid to take risks, too afraid to fail?  Isn’t school a place to be nurtured?  Aren’t students there to explore and try and safely fail and try again so they can grow as artists?

What is the point, indeed?

Most theatre schools do take the same hard-nose approach and there could be a number of reasons why.  Kids often come from high school programs where they were “stars”, many with egos bigger than the state of Texas.  It’s difficult to teach someone who thinks they know everything, when actually all they know is a drop in the bucket. Or maybe the schools take such an approach because that’s how the instructors themselves had been treated when they were in theatre school?  Could it be what goes around comes around? Or perhaps, students who really want to follow a career in the arts MUST be reduced to nothing, in order to truly understand and the pain and the joy of the human condition. Maybe this is theatre schools’ method to their madness – to determine which students have the strength, tenacity, love and passion to go on despite the inflicted wounds.

Are theatre practitioners not often humbled by critics and nay-sayers regardless of talent, reputation or quality of their work ? We put our work out there for audiences and we hope for praise but must also expect to be hurt.  Some people say theatre artists have to be full of themselves in order to write the play, stand metaphorically naked on stage or direct others in what and how to play the play.  And yes, many extroverts do become performers.  They love being in the spotlight and often they are very well crafted in their staged personae.  Still, it always seems to be the introverted artists – the ones lacking a love of self, the shy ones, the quiet ones, the still ones – who usually steal my heart.  I think those actors and playwrights have spent most of their lives listening, observing, and processing; whereas the extroverts have focused too much on presenting themselves to the world.

More ego.

I remember having a conversation with Rob Kempson of Theatre Passe Muraille, and the current Director for the Paprika Festival .  Rob is also a qualified and very talented drama teacher who I used to love bringing into my classes (and I very highly recommend as a guest artist or supply teacher).  We were talking about performing artists who become teachers.  Rob observed that in order to professionally develop as an actor, one needs to be focused on oneself; whereas, those who teach need to be focused on their students.  He felt that knowing how to switch from one to the other may be quite challenging for some theatre artists.

What recently happened at the Factory Theatre between Ron Struys and his merry Board of Pranksters and founder Artistic Director Ken Gass was a clash of ideas, but also a  butting of egos. And then there’s Morris Panych’s hysterically funny but also distressed  response to critic Kelly Nestruck’s  Globe review of Wanderlust. The tennis match between the two of them, is yet another example of ego and the artist.  You can read the review and Morris’ subsequent response at  (By the way if you do take the time to read the review, be sure to link on to the comments that follow the article.)


There were a number of amazing new plays at this year’s Summerworks Festival including the deeply disturbing  Terminus, the equally extraordinary Iceland and Daniel MacIvor’s new play I, Animal.  I mention these plays because all of them consisted of extended monologues delivered by three separate and disconnected characters.  I loved the first two scripts and the productions but something bothered me.  Is this a new trend for playwrights?  There was little action, little blocking and virtually no interaction between characters.  In the rare moments when the dialogue segued I leaned forward in excitement, hoping for more physical connections between the characters. None came.

I used to think that one-person shows were egotistical and selfish but the truth is their popularity is derived from the fact they are so much cheaper and so much easier to produce.  I understand that, but why have three characters on stage in total isolation?  As an audience member I hunger for human interaction and tension between characters. How can this trend toward monologue-cum-play serve a stronger dramatic purpose? Or is it that playwrights no longer know how to develop relationships between characters?  Is it reflective of how alienated we’ve all become in our world of twitter, FB’ing,  texting and blogging?  If we function alone in bubbles, how can we not focus on ourselves and our own egos?  We talk and talk and talk, and write and write and write but characters having a dialogue on stage is becoming a rare treat indeed.

Which brings me back to my original question.  How much is too much ego?  How much is too little?