Monday, May 2, 2011

Coffee Talk with Aslam Husain

Last year Aslam offered to write a guest post for the blog so although he is the cast member who has been with Prodigals the longest he is now the last cast member to finally answer the TST Coffee Talk Q&A. I didn’t know Aslam at all before he showed up to the first table read. A couple actors that I had lined up to read a couple of the male roles ended up having to pull out so I asked a mutual friend and colleague, Julie McIsaac, if she knew any young male actors who might be interested. At the time she was working on The Secret World of Og with Aslam and somehow she managed to convince him to come read with us. And, I am so glad that he did!

Not only is he a great actor. He is a very articulate, intelligent person (as you will see below from his answers) who works very hard at his craft and every time he has tackled Eliot he has breathed new life into the character. It is truly an incredible thing so I will turn it over to Aslam and let him share his process with you...

You’ve been with this show since the very first table read almost two and a half years ago. What’s it like to have been developing this play for so long?

This is my favourite part of being an actor; I love to be a part of the creative process. Imagine playwriting is like building a house: the playwright is the architect, the dramaturge the supervisor, the director the contractor and the actors are the people who eventually come to populate the house. Very few of us ever get to own a newly built house, and even fewer get to have a say in how theirs will be built. For two and a half years I have been able to have my say in how Sean’s play is constructed.

I have been involved with several workshops of new Canadian plays now. Here are a few of my observations about the process. The dramaturge and the playwright are in charge of the foundation of the play; it can be easy to step on their toes, especially if you are a writer yourself. But the story belongs to the writer and that must be respected; too many opinions in one room can become a hindrance. The actor is most helpful in a workshop when he is studying his own character in detail. I am very lucky to have been, with one brief exception, the only Eliot during the workshop process. So, after two years, I think it is fair to say that I know Eliot better than anyone else, even Sean perhaps. With so many characters and the plot to worry about the tracking of an individual character’s arc can become tricky or forgotten. This is where the actor becomes instrumental in the workshop; they act as the representative of their character. As someone who will eventually live in the house being built, they must remind the architect that though the house should be visually beautiful, people must be able to live and play in it.

In most cases the actor is simply a vessel for the playwright, disengaged from the creative process. The actor is cast based on their similarity to the essence of the character; they must bring life to an idea that was pre-formed, like buying or renting a house that was built for someone else. It is not your own; you must make it your own.

A thousand actors will live in the house of Willie Loman, but it will always originally have been built for Lee Jacob Cobb; a thousand actors will live in the house of Blanche Dubois, but it will always originally have been built for Jessica Tandy. Hopefully, a thousand actors will live as Eliot in Fratesi’s pub, but it will always originally have been built a little for me.

What is your favourite role to date and why?

(Aslam as Proprishin in Diary of a Madman)

There is no question it is my role as the madman Proprischin, in the play Diary of a Madman. This show began as a little project for David Savoy, an MFA Directing student at UBC, and ended up being the first successful North American entrant into an international theatre festival in the Czech Republic.

In our rehearsals for Prodigals we’ve talked a lot about why we, as actors, love our characters. I loved this character ferociously. I became so deeply involved with Proprischin that it took me many years to fully shed his skin, to recover my own outlook on the world and on people.

Adapted from the famous short story by Nikolai Gogol of the same name it tells the story of a lowly civil servant in 19th century St. Petersburg. His lonely life of monotonous work combined with a bitterly unrequited love would turn any man to despair, but Proprischin also suffers from undiagnosed schizophrenia. He imagines dogs talking to him and when his illness takes complete control of him he believes himself to be the King of Spain. He is committed to an insane asylum where treatment consists of water boarding and beatings. It is tragic, hilarious, and unapologetically theatrical. The play is essentially an hour long monologue, all the characters besides the madman are played by four other actors dressed entirely in black; they create the universe around him with nothing but black sticks and chairs.

I loved the role so much because I love to create characters. I am not an actor who likes to play himself on stage. The actors I admire are the versatile and transformative ones, those who are more than just compelling personalities, those who can sink so deeply into somebody else’s mind it becomes their own; actors like Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. This role was so much my favourite that sometimes, like after a first love, I wonder whether I will ever love another role in the same way.

Tell us your “I wanna be an actor” story…

I was always a weird child, more interested in the world in my head than the one in front of me. Luckily, however, I was never ridiculed for it. I was so uninhibited and committed to my imagination that people wanted to be a part of my weird world.

I attended an all boys private school as a young boy. We all had to wear uniforms: blazers, collared shirts, socks pulled up to our knees. Navy blue turtle necks were as casual as you could get. But I remember once, in grade 3, I decided to go to school as Dr. Who (the Tom Baker incarnation for those who care). I donned a scarf and hat and was Dr. Who for a day. I don’t think anybody knew who Dr. Who was then. I was raised on mostly British television, no wonder I was so weird. Who knew fifteen years later I would be doing what I did that day for a living.

(Aslam as Dr. Who [Cutest pic ever!])

While most everything I’ve ever done has seemed weird and unnatural to me, acting has always been the one thing that has felt natural. I have always preferred dealing with other people when I’m somebody else; I feel safe and liberated wearing a mask. I think we all do.

In grade six, in my spare time at home, the conflation of my strange obsession with cows and Star Wars resulted in an afternoon spent recording myself impromptu narrating my own two hour epic parody of the entire Star Wars trilogy. I called it Star Cows. On a whim, I brought it into my class and played it for them. I would never have the courage to do something like that now. But, they loved it. On the insistence of my teacher I wrote a play-version of Star Cows and we devoted hours of class time into the rehearsal of my new play. We then performed the twenty minute creation in assembly, cutting into regular class time. The play was such a success I was asked to write a second installment, which was a parody of both the Empire Strikes Back and the Return of the Jedi. Star Cows is still a bit of a legend at my old school. This was a formative moment for me; it was such a wonderful experience, as an oddball child, to be accepted and loved for the expression of the weirdness in my head.

I have never set out to be famous, or to be a movie star, though I’ve dreamt of it. I have just wanted to keep doing what I love, sharing the weirdness in my head.

How do you relate (or not) to your character, Eliot, in the play?

Eliot is about to break. Life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would and he’s angry about it. He is seething with self loathing. He feels like a failure, he’s fallen so far he can’t get back up. And he blames it all on circumstance; if only he could have left this city and made something of himself. The saddest thing about Eliot is that there is so much joy in his life, he just can’t see it; he has a beautiful daughter, a girlfriend that loves him, and a loyal group of friends.

I think we have all walked in Eliot’s shoes. I have self medicated, I have lost sight of the joy in my life, felt like a failure, sabotaged relationships. Eliot wants to find a way out, he wants the weight to be lifted, but he’s not willing to try. He’s been filled with such hatred for so long, it’s become his personality; I don’t think Eliot would know what to do without his anger and depression. Joy is such a foreign emotion for him now that it’s uncomfortable. It will take a major epiphany to pull him out of the hole he’s dug for himself (no spoilers!!)

How has Eliot evolved over time, especially since the workshop production? How will this production be different? And, why should people come out to see Prodigals again?

In the first workshop of the play, Eliot was much more volatile; he was a violent meth addict. Eventually his past of substance abuse was cut from the play and he was toned down into an angry “union slacker” with a big chip on his shoulder. With this production, I wanted to reinsert the substance abuse into the play, but as subtext. Eliot has a harder edge; this time around he’s one step away from becoming the next Benny.

Prodigals is such a perfect play for Twenty-Something Theatre; the prodigal characters are wrestling with the ubiquitous twenty-something crisis; “what the hell am I doing with my life?”

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring young actors, those just starting a training program or going to their first audition, what would it be….

My advice would be to take all advice about this career with a very large grain of salt, including my own. I don’t know how many lectures and classes I’ve been to outside of theatre school where I’ve been given contradictory advice from jaded skeptics. Be skeptical of the skeptics!

With that said, here’s my advice: find your own way in this industry. There are so many different avenues to success. If you love it and are driven enough, everything else will follow. A word about success: it is psychological. Stella Adler said that the only real validation you will ever get as an actor is from yourself. No amount of encores, no amount of awards, no amount of winning reviews will ever be enough; you must love yourself. As artists we are often forced to think of our work in terms of success and failure, but that’s a false dichotomy. Acting can’t be just about vigorous applause or getting a laugh on your line, because there will always be nights when the audiences fail to laugh and applaud without vigour even when your work is spot on. You may be reviewed spectacularly and atrociously from the same night’s performance. Art is subjective. In the end, you must look to yourself for validation.

Today Aslam and the rest of the cast move into the venue!! You can check them all out starting tomorrow at Studio T, SFU Woodward's at Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

See you in the "Soo"!!

~Sabrina Evertt
Artistic Producer

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