Canadian author Douglas Coupland has amongst his contemporary works one titled ‘All Families are Psychotic’. Well, they may be only somewhat dysfunctional, but certainly Steve Franco’s hilarious family Christmas comedy In-Laws, Outlaws (and other people that should be shot) hits that note. Taking advantage of both the upcoming Christmas season and the eccentricity most of us have within our own families, Midland’s Huronia Players presents next month what has been described as a combination of Christmas Vacation and Home Alone, with a cast of actors both new and veteran to the MCC stage.
One of the seasoned and most respected actors will be Midland’s Stephen Hartnell, as ‘Uncle Leo’. The Green Room’s John Bleasby chatted with Stephen (‘Skip’ to locals) on the rehearsal set about his very personal approach to character roles such as his upcoming appearance in November.
Your stage background goes back now several decades.
In 1975 I played ‘Mr Kilroy’ in Don’t Drink the Water which in fact was directed by Ron Payne (well known Simcoe-Huronia area director, and professional actor). And also with Ron I was the young ‘Mr. Kirby’ in You Can’t Take it With You back in high school. I went to York University and took Theatre Performance, and since that time I’ve done a lot of shows here, in Barrie, Niagara on the Lake, and a bit of professional work in Toronto, and in Orillia too when David Fanstone was in charge of programming at the Opera house…Man of La Mancha, A Little Night Music and so on.
Audiences are always very pleased to see you back on stage. But it’s been a while.
It’s time restrictions; trying to pay rent, feed myself.
And you haven’t wandered far afield for a while. What would it take for you to audition for a play, say, in Barrie?
A car and a driver. Unfortunately I don’t drive.
How would describe your love for the stage?
It comes so naturally to me that I can’t imagine not being on stage. It’s an extraordinary thing; it’s like I’m living on stage. I’m an avid reader and I find it captivating to make the characters come to life from the written word.
You have a reputation for being an incredibly versatile actor. Where do you find the challenges when cast in a different role than the last one?
The challenges come not just in moulding that character but also in being able to bounce off others characters on the stage. Depending on the actor opposite me, if it was you or someone else, it would be a completely different type of reaction. I act as well as react. My actions and my vision of my character are effected by the actor playing with me on stage.
Was that taught during your training or has it developed as part of your personal process?
That’s just my process. But I think it’s important. If you are doing, say, a Tennessee Williams play and there’s no reaction between the characters, the show doesn’t come to life; there’s no dramatic tension. You can portray ‘Stanley’ as strongly as you like but if you aren’t reacting to ‘Blanche’ for example and her behavior, you’re sunk, the show will flop. Even in one-man shows, you feel the reaction from the audience, whether it’s laughter or gasps or applause. If you’re not getting that feedback, you’re working in a vacuum. It would be like being in a sound booth just reading lines.
In-Laws, Outlaws is not Tennessee Williams, of course; it’s not serious at all. The characters are uniquely eccentric and often very funny.
I come from a large family and Christmas time is mad. Mind you, we don’t get as acrimonious as this family does! But somewhat like this family, there is a great deal of dysfunction within my family dynamic. As we are going through rehearsal and getting more comfortable in their roles, that lovely dynamic is suddenly coming to life.
The power of observation is important for an actor. Does working in a restaurant (Explorers’ Café) give you that opportunity?
Casting an eye over a group, it’s very easy to pick up a mood; and it’s like being on stage in terms of the action-reaction aspect I just described to you. If I don’t approach a table with the correct manner, they will react back to me. There is an assumption of protocols by both parties. It keeps you youthful because you have to stay on your toes. There’s a certain mental agility involved in looking after such a diverse group of people that you may see in one evening. And like a visual artist, you might see one little thing that piques your interest and you say ‘That’s a great idea!’ And you have that nugget and you hold onto it, even listening to the nuances of people’s vocal patterns.
I walk into Explorers’ and see you of course, plus others actors working there like Johnny Hope (Angel from last summer’s production of RENT!) and Anne Pickering (supporting roles in two recent Huronia Players productions). It seems like the restaurant is an incubator for acting talent!
As an actor I think most people tend to be very social creatures and where are you going to meet such a variety of people than in a restaurant? A restaurant is so inter-active; you are literally a part of those groups because you can join in with some of their conversations. And because I have been in Midland for so many years, I confess I know a great many of the customers. It’s a great way to catch up, or for them to ask me what I’m up to.
The characters in In-Laws, Outlaws are off-beat and in their own little worlds, your character ‘Uncle Leo’ and his wife ‘Aunt Rose’ for example. Blending their personal dynamic into a family full of other diverse personal dynamics must make for interesting work.
It does. ‘Rose’ and ‘Leo’ are like anyone’s great uncle and aunt; they come from a completely different world. ‘Rose’ and ‘Leo’ are New Yorkers who survived the War for example. They have a distinct set of values compared to everyone else and a distinct set of expectations for the rest of the world. That comes into logger-heads with the rest of the family.
The younger generation doesn’t understand where the strength in ‘Rose’s’ and ‘Leo’s’ relationship comes from, given the nature of their often contentious interaction.
Right! Fifty two years of marriage and why are they still together?
Tell me how you approached ‘Uncle Leo’ in terms of character development.
Actually I was not expecting to get this role because of ‘Leo’s’ age. So while I was somewhat taken aback to be offered ‘Leo’, I leapt at it because he is so unusual. I’m often given the role of the idiot in comedies and farces because I have always been adept at physical comedy; I was always the one who jumped through a window, had my foot stick in a toilet for 20 minutes, or falls down. This was an opportunity to explore a crusty old devil, without of course turning him into a cartoon character. Many of the characters can come across that way, so we have to be very careful.
That’s always the risk with a comedy isn’t it? Too get too extreme. In fact, in the intro to the play, Franco himself warns that “The fun in this show is how real each of these personality types are to people that we each may know.”
It has to be completely heartfelt or the audience will not believe you.
with Deb Hindmarch
How the play was chosen?
Sue Cook (past president, current executive producer) and I decided we would look for a large cast play, a play that would have fairly equal sized roles so that new people to have an opportunity to be on stage. I wanted something that would have a wide spectrum of interest, and a large diversity to the cast. We have cast members from 15 years and right up.
What do you like most about this play?
The characters are somewhat lovable, somewhat cranky, but they’re family. And we don’t get to choose our families; they’re just part of us. And I think everyone will identify with that when they see in the play.
The author has been in touch with you and the group. What did he say?
He told me that he was so pleased we chose his play. He’s a high school teacher as well as a writer and said if we had any questions he’d love to answer them.
You are making a transition from directing high school students to directing adults. How is that going?
There’s really very little difference. High school students are just young adults. Some take direction well, some don’t. It’s the same with adults.
There’s a deep talent base in terms of production support. That must be comforting.
Absolutely! That’s the part I keep telling everyone about. I’m still quite in awe. I come from a high school setting where you are relying on just a couple of adults within the school who will help and the rest comes from the students. Here I actually know that there is an adult in charge of each area who takes their role very seriously and who respects what we are doing as a group. It’s quite exciting!
In-Laws, Outlaws (and other people that should be shot) runs from November 15th to 30th
in The Huronia Players Theatre at the Midland Cultural Centre.
Tickets are $24.50 (all in) for adults, $12.65 for under 18 yrs.
except for November 15th (Director’s Night: $38.50)
For ticketing and details CLICK HERE