“Owning Success” Sébastien Heins interviews diverse actors at the Stratford Theatre Festival
By SÉBASTIEN HEINS
A good friend, colleague, and fellow mixed-race actor, Leah Doz (Stratford, 2012) once told me about a moment in one of her acting classes in Toronto. A white female actor had insinuated that diverse actors were stealing principal roles, and in doing so, taking away the opportunities she deserved.
After the initial bewilderment of that story wore off, I started to think: Is that what people in our profession think of people of colour who are working? I don’t think people of colour work because of their ethnicity. I think they work because they work.
I am an actor working at the Stratford Festival, a sophisticated organization that attracts a half a million patrons annually to see Shakespeare, musicals, contemporary and classical theatre. It’s a very special place to work, with a unique set of challenges to overcome including its location, scheduling, and the demands of working in a repertory company. But above all, Stratford is a place of commitment, collaboration, and consistency, for all who work here.
In response to Leah’s story and to the assertion that people of colour only get work because, well, they are of colour, I decided to collaborate with alt.theatre to develop a photo and interview series showcasing diverse Stratford actors at the top of their game. They generously donated their time and energy to talk to me about their craft, rituals, and what makes them tick. Tagging along with them was a joy, like snapping pictures of Qasim Khan as he bounded from his car to the gym through the rain, or watching Déjah Dixon-Green cook up some shrimp as part of her morning meal prep.
The aim is not to educate readers as to how hard we work, but to empower artists of colour who are looking to build their careers, elevate their skillset, and/or experiment with practical tips from individuals who have made excellence a habit. I’m here to say that the successes of actors of colour in 2018 are hard won achievements. This is not something to be ashamed of, nor feel guilty about. In fact, I hope we can continue to work harder, work smarter, and take better care of ourselves.
Without further ado.
Daren’s Wife Joanne on “Passing on work”
JOANNE: Actors will often be surprised when they learn that Daren has passed on work, but if it doesn’t connect with his soul, or if it doesn’t fit with his family life, he’ll pass on it. He has a rubric. People are like, “What? You pass on work?” Like you’re supposed to take whatever is given to you. Daren is like: “I’m worth something. And so I want to be able to choose something that’s gonna feed my soul.” Can you imagine, if he’s gonna be here on a contract where he hates every single day? I don’t want to be married to that person either!
DAREN: No! I’d probably be divorced before the end of the season! So I’m like: “Why do that to myself, my wife, my daughter? It’s gonna cost too much.”
“Touch Your Life”
Colton, Bali, Eric and I, we call it, “Touching Life.” Because we get so absorbed, especially in Theatre, that it completely envelops you: “This is our life. This is Stratford.” And then you don’t know when to let go. You go to bed, you wake up, and you do it again. Why do we call it “touching life?” Because it’s literally doing that. “Should we go to the beach? Yeah, let’s touch life.” So we’ll get in the car and watch the sunset at Grand Bend.
To “act like a straight guy” on stage: Put your hands down your pants and fix your balls. This was legitimate direction from one of the most respected actresses/directors of our time. And she literally meant for me and other actors to constantly put our hands down our pants to adjust our junk during scenes. I never used this really sophisticated technique in the real world. I remember thinking: “No one does this to this magnitude in real life. This is horrible advice.” (Laughs).
Don’t pre-reject yourself. You must let others reject you. If you think you can do something, try! (SH: I like that. Let others reject you.) That’s other people’s job. Quite literally, most of the time, it actually is somebody else’s job. They are paid to reject you. (SH: Let them earn their living.) Exactly, their job is to scan through your stuff and toss it in the garbage.
Treasure Hunting Coriolanus
For Coriolanus, starting off, it was trying to understand his language, understand the words he uses and making sense of that, because if I can break down the thoughts and make them clear to myself then I can make them clear to everyone else. Once I have the other [actors] in the room, then it’s listening intently to what they’re saying to see where I’m getting the trigger words from, and what it is that they’re saying that leads me to the next moment. It’s like treasure hunting. You’re looking through the script for your clues, your hints, who this person is and who these people around you are, and with all that together, trying to figure out what the play is and what it’s trying to say. It’s a lot of combing through the text. “What exactly is he saying there? Why is he saying that? Didn’t he just say in the scene prior that he didn’t want to do that, but now he’s saying that he can do that? Ok, so there’s a moment when he’s unsure and then a moment when he decides on something.”
JESSICA B. HILL:
On Being Mixed Race
That whole quest for not caring what people think or trying to fit in, it’s very tied into being mixed race and trying to fit into both sides and appease and please. It took me awhile to let that go, even though my parents were wonderful for that. There were a lot of things they championed in me that I’m so grateful for because I don’t think I’ve had it as rough as others. We made a point when I was quite young to never straighten my hair. Until now, I have never even thought to, or wanted to. It was just the thought of, “Who am I trying to please? Who is this for?”
Déjah’s Practical Acting Process
I read the script over and over again. I first try to just read it for the story at least five times. I do my Questions, “What other people say about me. What I say about other people. What I say about myself.” And then I do my Facts and Questions. I write down all the facts from the script that I know for sure about my character, and then I write down any questions I have. Somewhere in that, I also look for any words I don’t know, or any words that might have another meaning. Then I write down what my drive is for the play, then I look for the life objective, then the objective for the story, and then break it down into the scenes. After all that, I’ll start reading it again, focusing more specifically on my character. And by that time, I’m very close to being off book. I also sometimes do a character outline, like, “What’s the age of my character, what’s their favourite meal…” I think it’s called the 5 Ps. The Psychology, Profession, Political Views, Philosophy, and the Practical Outline (like, their age) of the character. Then I’m up on my feet exploring, using tools. I’m a very physical person and very movement driven, so getting up on my feet in a room with the text is the best way I can learn it. I love going through the elements. The Laban technique. Or animal work, that really helps as well. (SH: Do you have a line memorizing technique?) There’s an app called LineLearner that’s the best thing in the world.
MATTHEW G. BROWN:
Fighting Games and Failure
“Life is a cruel teacher because she gives you the test first, the lesson after.”
Playing a fighting video game, in order to get good, is all about failure. You spend a lot of time losing, you spend a lot of time looking at the screen that’s telling you that you lost, and you see your character getting beat and slapped around. Eventually you’re going to get to a point where you start to get good enough to understand the game, and understand the things that you need to do, and you see the work that you have to put in to get better. And subconsciously, as a kid, that was a lesson I was being taught by playing so many fighting video games, and it’s now a mantra that I try to keep in my own life: to not fear failure, even when you really need the win.
A TIP FROM ME, SÉBASTIEN:
I was born a night owl, but waking up early has been a game changer for my productivity and self-care regimen. Because I get up early, I have the time and energy to exercise, journal, meditate, work on my lines, and plan personal projects (most of the time, of course). Here are a few golden tips from my friend and trainer Sheldon Persad, Co-Owner of Personal Best Health & Performance Inc., for getting up early:
The key to feeling good in the morning is having a good night’s sleep.
The keys to having a good night’s sleep are:
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time (within 30mins each end) on a consistent basis.
- No eating too late at night.
- Waking up to no alarm clock, or instead use soft music.
- No pushing the snooze button. When you are up, get up and stay up.
- Be careful with modulators (like coffee). Use them sparingly, not on a regular basis.
- Avoid sleeping pills at all cost.
- Try to avoid staying up late 2 nights in a row.
- Watch the sugar consumption.
I would like to acknowledge Timothy Ferriss’ Tools of Titans as a major inspiration for the questions I asked. It’s been a pleasure highlighting the working life and inner thoughts of these individuals.
An extended print version of this article is slated to appear in alt 14.3 with more photos, tools, tips, and insights. For now, Leah Doz has this advice, which she uses herself: “Create. Create now. Speak from the root of your own experience. Don’t wait for anyone to give you that opportunity.”
Sébastien Heins is an actor in his third season at the Stratford Festival of Canada. He stars as Ferdinand in The Tempest on the Festival Stage, opposite Martha Henry. His own show, Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, has toured Canada and India, and garnered awards in NYC and Toronto. He is a founding member of the multi-Dora-award-winning immersive theatre company Outside the March. He leads workshops in Solo Vocal Masque and Shakespeare Technique, and he is a proud alumnae of the Etobicoke School of the Arts, University of King’s College, and the National Theatre School of Canada. He thanks the Stratford Festival for their administrative support of this project, and thanks his partner Dasha for her love and support in writing this article. You can connect with him by email at email@example.com