(photo credit: Sandra Lefrancois)
The Theatre Politic
A committed actor talks about those dangerous times of "I can do anything"
by Jasmine Chen
This week I sat down with Brendan McMurtry-Howlett who plays Nicholas Summers in SIA, to talk about his experience rehearsing and performing this intensely demanding play, now playing at the Factory Studio Theatre until April 15.
CHARPO: SIA is an extremely politically charged piece; as someone who is quite political himself, how do you relate to your character?
BRENDAN: It feels close to home in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways pretty different. He is a young guy, younger than me; he's rough around the edges which is something I could relate to when I was 19-21, that feeling of “I can do anything”. It is that age where you learn all that you are capable of, and very shortly after you learn all that you are not capable of. That's very much where Nick is. I come from a background of social justice. I can relate to a lot of that social consciousness that is looking outwards towards global impact. This play presents us with an interesting dilemma, how do you engage that desire to make the world a better place? Which is what I think led Nick to volunteer in the Liberian refugee camp, in the first place; which is a noble thing to do, but how do you go about that? That becomes the major question.
I think a lot of the things he says in the play are valid, some of which get him into more trouble. I don't think it is what he's saying, I think it's how he's saying it. It can be that ignorance or naiveté about the difference of the realities of living in North America vs living in a Liberian refugee camp that leads to serious breakdowns in communication. Personally, I think that is at the core of Nick and Abraham's relationship in the play. Most of the problems spark from both of them not understanding where the other person comes from, not having any context beyond the stereotypes of what it is like to be a white person or a black person living in Africa. I don't think Nick's crime was going there wanting to help. It is so complicated, because here in North America I know tons of people who have gone to volunteer in Africa.
There's the challenges of the material, I think the content of the play is so delicate in a lot of ways.
CHARPO: Much of SIA comes from Matt Mackenzie’s field work. How did this inform your process? Did you need to do any of your own research in preparation for SIA?
BRENDAN: Matt's an interesting guy, because he's written this play that some audiences walk away from thinking, “This is a damning portrayal of white people volunteering in Africa”; yet he is very much connected to the community that he worked with when he spent time in Liberia. He's become part of this amazing organization called the Liberian Dance Troupe, which is for young people who were born and raised in the Liberian refugee camps. Initially started in the refugee camps, its purpose is to create cultural leadership among the youth, and provide an opportunity besides prostitution and drug use which were rampant in the camps when they existed. Matt has done a lot of work raising money and helping in any way he can. Working with him on that has been an important way into the story for me. There's one line that Abraham yells at Nick, he says, “You come here, you do all this stuff, and then you leave, invigorated.” When I talk to Matt, that is a big part of his feelings about his work in Liberia. It's one thing to go and volunteer in Africa for 6 weeks, helping to build a school, and then leaving and having no connection to that community that you helped build. When you leave and have no contact, that becomes a bigger issue; volunteer tourism, as it is sometimes called. The idea of “leaving”, Matt hasn't done that. He has done everything in his power to help them get back on their feet. He has been invaluable to them, and they have been invaluable to him. It is a relationship that is not one sided, and isn't determined by Matt when it begins or ends. So, knowing his work there, and hearing stories about his trips have been a huge part of me getting into Nick's world and the mindset that he goes there with and how that changes over the course of the 7 days that the play takes place.
McMurtry Howlett with Thomas Olajide (photo credit: Sandra Lefrancois)
CHARPO: What was your greatest challenge in rehearsing this piece?
BRENDAN: Oh man, there's a lot of challenges! There's the challenges of the material, I think the content of the play is so delicate in a lot of ways. The relationship between Nick and Abraham is so delicate; depending on the night it can change quite a bit, and the outcome of the story, or rather what people leave with. Especially with all the very complicated issues that I was just talking about. There's that balance between being in the moment, letting the play take its course, but also still trying to shape it from within, in such a beast of a show! The other aspect is how much energy it takes. When in the first scene he is being chained to a chair and taken hostage, and then the stakes have to raise from there; that becomes an exhausting hour and a half. The other thing that was a huge challenge, which surprised me, was how much of a toll it took on me just being physically chained to a chair!
CHARPO: Yes, you spend the majority of the play restrained in a chair. How do you physically prepare for this?
BRENDAN: It has been a very different experience now that we've opened, because really I'm only in the chair for an hour and a half, and that's doable because there is a lot of stuff that I am doing. But in rehearsals when it was close to 8 hours of being chained to a chair, there were physical ramifications. There were a couple days where we'd run a scene and I'd start panicking; we'd get to the end of the scene and I would have to take all the manacles off and walk around the block. During that discovery phase when so much is still being learned and you're more vulnerable and raw; that combined with the intensity of the relationship between Nick and Abraham; being fixed and unable to defend yourself, you're stripped down to another layer of vulnerability where in the physical nature of the violence, you have to take it. There are natural things that the body does to shield itself, and you can't; which was really tough in the rehearsal process.
The base foundation of knowing the world and the characters, means you can go that much deeper.
CHARPO: SIA was originally performed at the Fringe in 2010. How has the show evolved since then? And likewise, what has been your journey like playing Nicholas Summers?
BRENDAN: It is such an interesting opportunity when you get to revisit something. You don't start at the same place. When you start rehearsals there are major question marks, the first few weeks you spend trying to figure what the story is about, let alone how your character fits into it. So we had done that work in a lot of ways, we knew the world and the characters; there were a lot of changes in the writing, which for Nick especially created more of an arch which I was happy to dig into. The base foundation of knowing the world and the characters, means you can go that much deeper. The other thing is, the Fringe was two years ago and all of us have grown as performers; Matt has grown as a writer in that time. We now have more experience so that when you get to a line that you said in the first version that you always kind of just said because it was there, all of a sudden you understand it in a new way because you've had an experience in the last two years that connects you to that line.
CHARPO: How has the change in directors impacted the piece?
BRENDAN: Nina has a different take on the play. Different things that she is interested in; different moments that she wants to highlight, or elongate, or shorten – it changes things. It ends up being big differences for us on the inside.
These things that we don't always like to talk about; this Canadian 'martyr' thing that can sometimes happen.
CHARPO: Why should people go see SIA? How do you feel average Canadians can relate to it? The show does focus on the international community and particularly how Canadians view themselves in the world, that we often see ourselves as separate from Americans. Nicholas even says it several times.
BRENDAN: First and foremost, there is a lot of funny stuff in the play that I think is also geared towards a younger audience in their early 20's. That's who these characters are, they are young men with all the problems that come with that age. It is funny and gritty, and it's not comfortable humour all the time. That gets passed over a lot when people talk about this play because people focus on the third world country, child soldiers, and kidnapping. I think what separates this play from another play that I wouldn't want to see, is the humour. Matt has an uncanny ability to unpack all these things that make us “Canadian”. These things that we don't always like to talk about; this Canadian 'martyr' thing that can sometimes happen. Us clinging to these tiny bits of identification, because we never know what to talk about when figuring out “What it means to be Canadian”. So we cling to these tiny things like, “We are not Americans!” and we pride ourselves on that, especially when travelling internationally. For years we were told to stitch the Canadian flag to our backpacks, and when you travel people will invite you to dinner because you're Canadian. I think that has probably changed, and like anything it's not as clear cut as that. When you're travelling to another country, such as Liberia that has had such a complicated relationship with North America, because of its history of being established by freed slaves from the U.S. travelling over there, there really isn't a huge difference between Canadian and American. What gets uncovered when you actually have to go deeper beyond that – I think we have this idea that because we are Canadian we are 'doing good in the world', as if there is something inherent in our nationality that makes us positive forces. I think what happens is Matt unpacks all that and you get to a point where you have to look at the human relationships. He strips away the identities that both these men cling to and you come to a very personal story between two young men. We tell stories to be understood, on a basic level; I think both these men just want to be understood.
CHARPO: How has working on this play changed you? Whether in acting, or attitude towards charitable work?
BRENDAN: Speaking specifically about the acting, it's been an interesting exercise. As an actor where your whole body is your tool; my tool is totally restricted, I'm chained. You have to connect to something a lot deeper to communicate what you need to communicate. Learning how to be a presence without making lots of movement, which has been a challenge. And just the sheer stakes of the play, it's rare that we get to dig into something so extraordinary. That has been a learning process that has changed me. In terms of charitable work, it has sparked a lot of conversation with people that I know who have participated in overseas volunteering. In a lot of ways it has reinforced the idea that storytelling is at the core of everything. I mean maybe that's a little biased because that's my job, I'm a storyteller. It is a foundation for doing other work. It's easy to gloss over because it's just storytelling, whatever, it's a play, it's a song, a dance, but there's something at the core of that that is about understanding. Even if you're going to help build a well or a school, a story has to be included in it for you to avoid the pitfalls of 'charity'; then you can build a relationship where it goes two ways. You are taking responsibility for what you are sharing and what you receive from someone. So much of community work has to be about listening. To tell the truth, we have no idea what has to be done over there. That doesn't mean we shouldn't go and help, but we cannot go in to impose solutions; we can offer resources – what we have, but listen and be led.