Photo Alexei Anikine. Rabbit, Rabbit by Amy Lee Lavoie. Directed by Guy Sprung. With Ashley Dunn as Britney & Howard Rosenstein as Larry/Cosmo. Set & costume design by Ariane Genet de Miomandre. Light design by David-Alexandre Chabot. Sound design by Tai Timbers. Stage managed by Kathryn Cleveland. Infinithéâtre, November 2009

 

Montréal actor Howard Rosenstein in conversation with Serai’s Rana Bose

 

Serai:  Good afternoon, Howard!  The theme of this issue is Performance as Change. I will begin, though, with a slight diversion. I’ve come across your opinion on various contemporary issues on social media and I believe there’s a studied frustration in you about the state of the world…

HR: (laughs) Ha ha!

Serai:  So my question is, when you get cast for a role or are being considered for one that could be totally socially irrelevant or quite contrary to your opinions, do you actually squirm and get it over with, make a purpose out of it?  (And by the way, I’ve seen you in the Oka crisis take, where you play an old school police interrogator, cold and calculating. It paid off for me and I also love the Elvis impersonation, likewise, for Mike’s Pizza!)

HR: (laughing) Well, Diana Fajrajsl, a pillar of the theatre community, an outstanding actress – and I really love her whacky and yet completely connected view of the world – she posted that as a director you have no business attempting to direct something you either cannot appreciate, understand or want to do. And I wrote in response that this also applies to actors, but it beats the hell out of dry walling. Her response was, “No, it does not!” It made me really think, you know. What would seem like banal exchanges on Facebook actually make me think sometimes, and I decided this year that I no longer wish to partake in anything that I disagree with on overall message… I don’t care… I mean, that excludes playing a murderer or rapist or pedophile or any of those things that I don’t approve of personally, but if it is for an overall story that serves humanity, then great. I became an actor, I chose to sacrifice much of my life in terms of what people expect one’s life to be, you know, (with) a house, a wife, a child, in terms of the normative way of looking at this world anyway… and I didn’t do that in order to work on stuff that I find offensive, distasteful and contradictory to my own world view.

Serai:  I appreciate that quandary, the conflictedness that you have to deal with in your life, and you have to pay your bills. Moving on to the next question that I have, about two terms that are kind of bandied around a lot these days in theatre and journalism, which are: Orwellian and Kafkaesque. Do any of the plays you have done so far reflect either of these conditions? What is Kafkaesque in your world of acting? And what does Orwellian mean to you today and how has it affected your life in general?

HR: Um yeah, well… I currently play one of Kafka’s characters, Redpeter, in an adaptation by Guy Sprung. So I’m quite familiar with Kafka’s words in one of his short stories, A Report For An Academy, in Kafka’s Ape. So, yes to your first question. The current state of the world I find Kafkaesque, in the sense that all those things that we thought were not possible to actually be, are – and I don’t mean technology, I mean the ways we deal with people, the norms of mistreating people, including our reducing carbon emissions to 30% below 2005 emissions by a date perpetually twenty years from now as we continue to increase our emissions year over year.

Serai:  Also, the process of obtaining justice has become almost like an act of absurdity… anybody seeking justice, anybody seeking any kind of redress is subjected to an ordeal that is totally absurd and it is almost as if the theatre of the absurd has become the theatre of reality, in some ways… Injustice has become acceptable.

HR: …I find theatre so fucking bland it kills me these days, but absolutely! I find it horrific at so many levels that the 45th President of the United States can commit crime after crime – actual crimes, not just faux pas (which he does on a regular basis) – and not only is he not considered impeachable [Editors note: This interview was conducted well before there was any talk of impeachment proceedings] or capable of being prosecuted in a court of law, he’s going to run in the next election and he will probably win it… It’s just as you say, completely absurd, but I think a lot of people attach too much importance to who is the President or Prime Minister because ultimately they have little to no power, and yeah it’s true, they’re entertainment.

Serai:  … or diversion … from a larger spectre of a shadowy cabal (without sounding like a conspiracy buff) … that decides how much unemployment should a society actually budget, so as to keep wages low and thereby have a reserve army of the unemployed ready to jump in, into a gig economy, and sort of sabotaging all the past progress in terms of social compensation, pension, leisure, health coverage, everything you need…

HR: Yes, unions…

Serai:  Everything is kind of arranged… The other question I had that is related to this is…

HR: Yes, the Orwellian thing…

Serai:  Yes … How much of this intrudes into your creativity in terms of how you feel you are being watched, how you feel you are being judged, and what has the world come to in terms of theatre as to how you feel you’re being followed, you know?

HR: Well, I mean I’m an actor so I’m constantly being judged no matter what, in terms of my work anyway, and then of course I’m on Facebook, so I’m stating all kinds of opinions that are not in line with…

Serai:  Like fuck nationalism! As you did recently…

HR: Yeah!  Like fuck nationalism! Nationalism to me is something that is being used by leaders, so-called leaders, at the top… for centuries… and they will continue to use it to divide and conquer people.  Religion and nationalism are the same… slightly different words… the same core… different words… same passion… the same feeling… Identity politics… you can get people to do anything… life or death… us versus them… that’s what I mean by fuck nationalism.

Serai:  That’s a very concise point. We will now move on to another area: the play, Kafka’s Ape, which you have been doing for six years or more… So, does every performance of Redpeter leave you grunting in a primal manner at least for a few hours after you have already taken your bows? Just kidding! I just want to know what is your background in training… what kind of school of acting you feel most comfortable with… or have you found a groove of your own? I am just curious as to know how you have worked out a model in terms of character representation on stage in front of an audience.

HR: I do Kafka and I just get in it… I feel that all art, all performance art, and even that which is not performance art, even if it is writing or painting, it’s a channelling… of the universal subconscious, if you like… when a musician or dancer or writer or painter does what they are doing, they are in a zone, a trance… or as you say, in a groove… and they are really channelling… I mean, there is the occasional thought involved but it’s more of really working with the subconscious, working with instincts… Now in terms of getting involved or doing work(s) of art or work of value, then, yeah, there is training involved… and I have trained in methods – various methods – Stanislavski (well he uses as if)… the method that was introduced by Strasberg, by the Adlers…

Photo Cécilia Bracmort. Kafka’s Ape based on the short story “A Report For An Academy” by Franz Kafka. Adapted & directed by Guy Sprung. With Howard Rosenstein as Redpeter & Alexandra Montegnese as his companion. Make up & prosthetic design by Vladimir Alexandru Cara. Set & costume design by Ariane Genet de Miomandre. Light design by Eric Mongerson. Sound & video design by Nikita U. Stage managed by Michael Panich. Infinithéâtre November 2013

Serai:  Group theatre, yes…

HR: Yes, Stella Adler, after coming back from visiting Stanislavski, their idol, she is famous for saying “Stanislavski is wrong!” and I think it is because she felt there was a barrier to entering the true state of being in Stanislavski’s way – I don’t go for the method per se that they helped to introduce, because it just, I think, gets in the way of actually working in the aquarium, where you have to work within the created space and you have to create safety for the other actors… you can’t just be in that zone, full-on imagination, and divorce yourself from the reality that you are in… you can’t just show up drunk or without sleep to do your scene because you are playing a drunk or someone who is sleep deprived… ha!… like Hoffman did for his performance in Marathon Man. Laurence Olivier said something like, “Well, my boy, why don’t you just try acting.” Ha ha!

But you know, there is certainly a divergence there between… not to say that the Russian method and the British method are the same… but they seem to have a certain detachment which I think is necessary, so that you are able to have a certain control. And the beauty of the American method is that you ideally have no control. You never know what you are going to see – Marilyn Monroe peeing all over her chair in a master class… And there is a certain beauty to that, a reality to that, which is fantastic… but there is the danger that you find yourself in a dangerous situation not only for yourself, but for others… falling off a stage, for instance.

I find when I am in my channelling thing, whether it is Kafka or anything else, especially if it is well-written, then you lose yourself… you lose yourself but still maintain something, some small voice at the back of your head, saying “Oh! Don’t go out of your light…” or “try this or that” or my favourite, “forget your next line and find it again” … or take into account that somebody is sleeping right in front of you… that sort of thing. So I… ha!… I was not there in Shakespearean times, nor was I there in centuries past to watch Bernhardt’s performances, amongst others… I can only look at what was documented in films from the 1910s onwards or in theatre since the 1980s and so on… And I can see that we have moved from a far more presentational performance to as real as possible, and I really commend that, even if you are speaking the poetry of Shakespeare, Molière, or anything else…

There is a certain dedication to being there, in the moment, as real as possible. So there is a sweet balance between those two methods that you can find (as I feel that I have, most of the time), that brings you into the perfect place to feel real and at the same time allow for the technical constraints of what surrounds you… a fine balance between freedom and accountability.

 

Serai:  So, as a kind of follow-up to that question the way you defined it – you know, your rigorous and dedicated training in methodology and how you developed a mature compromise between reality and your acting career – I appreciate that, but you know, you may have also participated in plays of a different sort, a sort of epic but agit-prop style maybe, especially like you did with Guy Sprung’s Fight on! Part One and Part Two, which was a reading…

Did you feel that this was a different kind of theatre, more detached? And like it was poking the audience in the eye and saying, look, we are doing it but we’re not pretending it’s reality, we are on a formal proscenium stage with costumes and props – which I know you did – but you were at least undermining the notion that the audience should be in the dark like plebeians there, and up on stage are the Greek gods, preaching… it was clear from the snarky comments by a First Nations writer, projected on the screen in opportune moments. And that was a different staging. Did that deconstruction really happen?  And you know, the multimedia effect of Fight on! I kind of liked it.  What do you feel about that, what is your feeling about that kind of theatre?

HR: I think the overall effect of having staged it that way was fabulous in that space, and very ambitious (and expensive) for a workshop production. I love pulling audiences out of their place of security and comfort because for me – and I don’t see it very often and I don’t just mean English theatre in Montréal but across this country – I find that theatre is no longer dangerous, it’s no longer thought-provoking, it’s not… it’s like having a Rothko in your room and saying, well that’s my red piece of decoration or whatever it is – there’s no appreciation of what theatre is anymore.

I mean, I went to see a production of Little Menace, which was a combination of short plays of Pinter at Soulpepper Theatre Company – critically raved, “how Pinter should be played,” etc. – which has more money than almost anyone (save perhaps the Stratford Festival) in this country for theatres, so they can afford to pay their actors and designers and they have these great spaces and a great bar in the Old Distillery district. Anyway, that was my problem right there in the title: there was very little menace, you know? Like Tim Horton’s is not really coffee… it’s more of a caffeine-delivering liquid device that you put cream and sugar in. It’s hot liquid dessert.

What we’re doing is not real theatre, most of the time. Yes, people pay for tickets and they sit in a space and the actors are on stage and there are usually curtains, but those actors, generally speaking, are not in it, they’re not entirely committed. They’re very proficient, very professional, they know their lines and their blocking, they’re going through it, but it’s just it’s not emotionally connected work. That’s not their fault. The dynamic is off. Whether it’s the choice of play or the direction or the simple fact that all of us in the theatre are playing to expectations, it’s dead in the water.

Theatre in this country, generally speaking, is bland to the point of exhaustion, like listening to muzak in an elevator – it will put you to sleep. People who have worked their asses off or just put in a lot of time doing whatever it is that they’re concentrating on doing during the course of the day come to the theatre in the evening after a glass of wine at dinner and are just comatose. So I love the idea of taking audiences out of their comfort zone – firstly, so they don’t fall asleep and secondly, so they are actually in a position where they’re put off balance…

Serai:  … they are disturbed, yes, they leave the auditorium disturbed. And even feel a bit galvanized, you know…

HR: Ideally, yeah… Now Fight On! itself is a white saviour story, and I hate that we are still doing white saviour stories in the 21st century. It’s ridiculous at this point, and I understand that Guy (Sprung) has a love of Charles Dickens and wants to emulate his style in the present day. I say feel free to read Charles Dickens. He is a wonderful writer, he’s created some amazing characters and stories, but the white saviour story is dead and has been for decades.

Serai:  … so we’ll move on…

HR …ha ha…

Serai:  …what? what!

HR: I told you I would give you some answers that may not feel very good… but to me, ultimately, what going to the theatre is… I came out of a Tableau D’Hôte Theatre production of Encore recently at the Mini Main at Mainline, a two-hander with a violinist re-enacting the same seduction scene every anniversary of this couple over the years of meeting, marrying, having a child, breaking up and finding each other again after many years apart. I… I was crying, not boohoohooing, just constant tears going through…

Serai:  …drainage happening…

HR: …drainage yes for the last half hour of a 70-minute show, and when I came out of the theatre I went down into the street and I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know who I was, I was very…

Serai:  …disturbed!

HR: Very disturbed, yes! I had somebody come up to me that I know very well, Geoff Agombar of Mainline… I didn’t know his name, you know. I didn’t know anything at all. He saw that and left me alone. I ended up going into Segal’s Grocery and doing a mundane thing, buying food… it slowly brought me back to my reality. But in that place of imbalance, that place of not knowing what your life is, because we contain everything in boxes tied together with ego – when all of that is gone (which is ultimately what ideal theatre does to people at least for short periods of time), that’s when we have the potential to change, to learn, to see a different point of view, to unblock to and see parts of ourselves, previously hidden. Theatre can be that catalyst for change, but only if it risks being true, addressing things that need addressing.

Serai:  OK!  Thank you very much for (that)… I’m thanking you, as it also simultaneously clears my brains about the same kind of things that I think about all the time anyway. Now I just want to ask you some relatively banal questions, like what are some of the best roles you have played and some of the best plays you been in, and why?

HR: I have two roles that I’ve done with Infinithéâtre: one is Redpeter, a talking ape in Kafka’s Ape, which I’m still doing… and the other was a birthday clown pedophile, Larry, who becomes Cosmo the Clown in Rabbit, Rabbit, written by Amy Lee Lavoie. That was the first time I worked with Guy, and I must say his direction was exceptional. I would love to do those shows in tandem someday, but, you know…

Serai:  What is it about those roles you played that…

HR: Well… because they’re so far outside the realm of the everyday that I can express myself, given the circumstances of the play, in ways not expected, especially to me. They both required a great deal of research and work in rehearsal to get to where I needed to be to portray them as ultimately human and real. They both have the ability to show us our humanity, which again is what theatre is supposed to do: show and allow us to feel our humanity and not to make us feel great that we went to the theatre and deserve a gold star for culture! It’s to show us our humanity, so we feel… I mean, everything that these oligarchs want us to do just prevents us from feeling – with our daily dose of Celebrity President – so we don’t rise up and bring them the torches and pitchforks to their front gates, forcing them to hire even more security people with guns to defend their property, even if it’s only a mansion. These roles on the outside of the normative, these heartbroken weirdos, these are my favourite roles because they allow me to be the best I can, communicating and sharing the human experience with the audience. Theatre is full of possibilities rarely realized and it’s really something…

Serai:  Now I’ll fire off three quick questions in a row… Have you ever directed plays at any time, would you like to direct sometime soon, and would you feel comfortable acting in a play where you have to play an African American slave?

HR: Right. No, I have not directed a thing yet and yes, I want to direct a play very badly, and I actually made the decision this year that I am going to start directing more than I am acting, and one of the reasons is because I feel that after all this time I actually have something to say to other actors, that I have a certain opinion as to what directors should be doing and what they should not be doing. To me the ultimate director doesn’t need to have their name as big as the playwright’s on the poster or anywhere else, and has no business being seen anywhere. (As Spencer Tracey once told Paul Newman about acting, “Don’t let anyone catch you doing it.”) And this applies to film as well. The direction of the story and everything else is going to be influenced extremely (for good or for bad) by the guidance of the director, but the director’s job is to get out of the way and to allow the actors to get out of the way of themselves and to say things that the actor can actually understand and work with, as opposed to some sort of speech that would be better served in a classroom…

There are far too many academics working in the theatre right now and consider themselves directors and/or run theatres, and frankly they have no business directing, so I’d like to at least have an opportunity to show what I think a good director does. I’m sure there are good directors in this country. Finally, one of the reasons why I want to become a good director is that the progressive… the political correctness of what is considered to be good theatre these days, I think, is adding to the blandness of what is going on. I mean, at this point, as an actor, I’m supposed to only feel comfortable playing normative white Jewish cis male characters?

I think the whole process of this political correctness is not currently conducive to the best work, and I understand that the pendulum is swinging the other way and it’s going too far in the direction of… let’s be careful we don’t offend anyone… well, theatre is about offending everyone. Everyone! So… while theatre, whatever that is, is going through this pendulum swing, to take it to its logical conclusion, the only people who are capable of or “should be” playing murderers are murderers, and they are all in fucking jail! Or in hiding, you know. Or rapists. I am going to explore working as a director so that at least I feel there is something else I can do, so I’m not limited by others’ opinions of what I am allowed to do or not. As far as playing an African American slave, I would feel comfortable doing it, but only if other people of colour were doing other roles and there was no sense of colour and terms of what the rules were…

Serai:  You could dissolve in that…

HR: Yes, I could dissolve into that but I couldn’t play an African American slave if there were other people of colour, specifically African Canadians or Americans, playing alongside me as slaves – unless there were enough of a balance on the other side of things, the masters, traders and overseers. But God knows there are enough African Canadians out there to play all the slaves in a play, if that’s what they want to do… And until we actually employ actors of colour, and I’m talking about everyone now, in roles where their skin colour is not part of a character description, until that becomes routine, I don’t feel comfortable taking away work from someone who can play a black man better than me in his sleep.

Serai:  Fair enough! I mean, just a comment here, is that you know, like, you are talking about the pendulum swing… We can just indulge in all sorts of identity-based politics, and basically it is dividing the opposition to the oligarchs, the economic power-holders. Because I also believe that if you don’t fight cultural dominance you will never be able to assail the centres of power. Thank you very much, Howard. It was a fantastic interaction and I loved it.

++++++++++++++

Howard Rosenstein is a Montréal-based actor who has worked across Canada, the US, Scotland, Germany, Japan and China. Audiences may be familiar with his extensive work with Infinithéâtre including as Redpeter in Kafka’s Ape and as Larry/Cosmo in Rabbit, Rabbit, as well as in The Dumb Waiter for Theatre Esperance, amongst many others.

Please visit howardrosenstein.com for access to demos, pictures of past productions, headshots and further credits.