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ArtsAlive.ca interview with
Jonathon Young
Actor, Co-Artistic Director of the Electric Company Theatre

National Arts Centre
March 2006 (Ottawa, Canada)

My name is Jonathon Young, I'm an actor and I live in Vancouver. I'm also a Co-Artistic Director and Founder of the Electric Company Theatre.

Could you tells us about The Electric Company Theatre?

We formed in 1996 as four theatre students having recently graduated from Studio 58 in Vancouver: Kim Collier, Kevin Kerr, David Hudgins and myself. Kim was especially interested in forming a company and began talking with Kevin Kerr about the idea of creating a Fringe show for that fall and that's how we got together. Three of them had been in class together; I was one year behind them but I'm also married to Kim now, so that was how I got in on it. The first show that we came together to do was a play about Nicola Tesla which we named Brilliant! and we had to register a company name and we thought Electric Company would be appropriate and that's how it came about. Now, here we are at the NAC ten years later doing Brilliant! and it's a very different show now but it was the story that we formed around.

What was the attraction of the Nikola Tesla story?

First and foremost that we had no idea who he was or that he was the inventer of alternating current and fluorescent lighting and radio and robotics and essentially [we had no idea] that the devices that run our modern world were largely the result of his work. That he was a mystery to us was fascinating. The company has always had an interest in technology and how it relates to society and especially the people behind the innovations of technology have always fascinated us so I think that's the main reason for our interest. And then he [Tesla] just had an extremely theatrical life. The first story we heard about Tesla was that Edison, who of course is known as a hero and one of the greatest inventors of all time, was trying to discredit Tesla's system by electrocuting [stray animals]. And that was the fist story that we heard about Tesla. And then his life got richer and richer and more eccentric and more mysterious.

What were your early steps in developing Brilliant!?

At Studio 58 we had trained under John Lazarus. He taught playwriting there at the time so we very much used his method of writing but because we were all graduating as actors we essentially all had our toolbox full of tricks that we just immediately applied to the subject matter. So, on that show we developed our creation method which is perhaps more organic than some ideologies that some other companies use to make work but it was about finding music of the period that we thought would evoke Tesla. It was about looking at early cinema. It was about finding iconic objects that could embody Tesla's vision or his dream, like the large canvass sphere. And then it was about physical ideas that we could take a chunk of the story and tell through physicality or staging. We were four very curious and excited young people coming together and trying to find a way to tell the story with as many ideas as we could cram in.

Have you done this with other topics since?

Yes. We have been creating new work every year since then. Usually one new piece a year, sometimes two. Sometimes a new work and a tour of an existing work. We've made a film of one of our stage plays for CBC. The process has evolved over the years and I think that although we still are a true collective in every sense, a higherarchy has evolved that is flexible, but Kim Collier is most often the director, Kevin Kerr is most often the lead writer of the projects; I'm most often in the show -- not always as the lead actor but most of the time I'm acting in the shows. Our writing process went from many, many hours around a table building the narrative -- a laborious process of deciding what strands were extraneous, what were essential, we spent a lot of time trying to cram in the four different visions to make something coherent -- to that sort of slipping away and going back to a much more impromptu, condensed creation period. On one of our shows we just built it in six weeks with very little research time. Generally there is a lot of research and discussion. In the past three years we decided that we would get rid of the collective approach in terms of the playwriting and I wrote a piece in which I performed -- a one man show. And the last piece we did, Studies in Motion, Kevin Kerr wrote and Kim directed but there was no collective writing.

Was there a moment when your group made the decision to work all together rather than going out on your own?

I've kind of been making those kinds of decisions annually and it's always a struggle because I often work as a performer outside of the company for theatre companies and for film and television and I think, like I say, for Kim and Kevin, especially for Kim, she was always clear that she wanted to make her own work. She's very much the kind of person who wants to be in control of her own destiny, if you will. I much prefer for someone else to be in control and for me to just do the job. I think we discovered immediately, though, that the work we were doing had merit and people were excited by it. And very quickly the company's reputation grew to a point where we had an audience, we were getting funding, we were winning awards and it was not only providing a really exciting creative outlet and connecting us to the community, it was also getting us gigs. So it was working in both ways. But, it's always a struggle I think. And more and more it becomes a struggle, like when Kevin is getting writing offers from different companies. And it's always a juggle too because a company on public funding that trying to find an artistic director wage for four people, or three people is stretching it very thin. And I like to do it all too. I'm always tentative to put all my eggs in one basket because I love doing television work when it's really good and I like working for large theatre and doing traditional work. And Kim is experiencing that right now as a director too. She is really wanting to work on a script that was written a hundred years ago and is proven. Because so much of the creation work, the rehearsal process is spent trying to decide if this is working or not as opposed to, "We know this works, we just have to decide how, and how we are going to do it."

And so it's wonderful in the case of Brilliant! and The Score, the film that we did last year, because they're a chance to go back to something that worked in many ways and didn't in other ways and then to take that a step further. With Brilliant!, the base is there and now we're able to do it with that.

Why did you decide to go to theatre school?

My dad, who was a school teacher, started a community theatre in Armstrong, British Columbia when we were young and my sister, Jenny Young, who is also an actor, and my brother and I went to rehearsals. We went to rehearsals of Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof and there's was no doubt about it that that was the hook. We also grew up close to the Caravan Theatre and so did Kim Collier and so did Kevin Kerr, this is a farm theatre out in British Columbia and Peter Hinton has worked there, of course, and Nick Hudginson was one of the founders but it's such a magical place and when you're going to the Caravan you really enter the world of the story. So if you're seeing Shakespeare you're really in the forest and the horses are real so we were captivated by that.

Aside from going to rehearsals did you have roles in plays before going off to theatre school?

Yes. Jenny and I got our public debut as the mice in Cinderella, my dad was the ugly step sister. We were very good. We were very good mice. (he laughs). And Armstrong remembers it to this day too, with this little plaque, a statue.....(he laughs)...no, I'm kidding. But other than that....I think Jenny did a little more after, but I think that was my only forray into the Asperagus Theatre.

Asperagus theatre?

Yes, that's the name of the theatre company that my dad started.

But what got you to Studio 58?

I didn't do too much investigation. Someone looked into it for me. Someone knew someone who might have an idea of good theatre schools and Vancouver was close and someone said that it was a good school. And I auditioned and got in. I didn't do much research. It is a great school and Vancouver is a great city. But afterwards I often thought, Man, I should have auditioned for the National Theatre School or at least thought about that. Or, what about New York or something? But, I was kind of into snow boarding and you know....and I didn't really save much money or anything and Vancouver was easy and close. But, you know, it's worked out great!

How important is training to you?

I think it's very important in that, I mean, it all depends on the kind of person you are and how motivated you are and how focused you are. The great thing about school is it forces you to work and it connects you to a theatre community. It opens doors and I think that's the hardest thing about coming to a city. Some people are so motivated and so extraverted that they can march in and they know they are going to make things happen. But if you're not that kind of person [then school] gets you in, directors work with you and that's huge. And I think also that if you want to become a film actor, you know, some people just have an idea that they're just going to waltz in and do their thing. But what school really gives you of course, is the means to do work or to do a good audition or perform even when the inspiration isn't there. Often times in television you're working with scripts that are just so dreadful or so thin that I find that's when I go back to the training: to apply a bunch of questions that you learn to ask or games to play to try and find something to bring. And I think that's the great thing about theatre school, I discovered while I was there, it's that it's very much a rehearsal school. You learn how to rehearse, you learn how to ask the right questions and how to interpret. When you come up against a wall you learn how to drill through it using your own personal idiosyncracies but with the tools.

What are the actor's tools?

An actor's tools...how to build a character, say. Where to begin to build a character. Asking the right kinds of questions about....well, it's different for every script or every part because they all demand different questions but you need to decide on what you want and what are your goals. You ask youself what this person might want and why they might want that. I think for monologes, which are such a big part of a theatre actor's audition process you need to know where to begin a monologue, what the moment before a monologue is, what the overall context of the monologue is, what the journey of the monologue is, and ways to approach lines of text. How to take a thought through to the end of a text.

Are there physical things that make up an actor's toolbox?

Sure, yes. Totally. For example, how to convey something physically, knowing when you're too physical, knowing when you're pushing as opposed to living in it and letting it live.

What about the voice?

Yes. Sure. For some people vocal work is no problem and articulation is no problem. And for some people it's a huge struggle. Again, it comes down that point when you get nervous and suddenly your voice is up here and you've lost your breath and then you just hear that voice teacher saying, Here's a simple thing to do. Just get down in your diaphragm and just keep the breath down there. When you are in a very nervous situation it's great to have something extremely physical and concrete to do. Just to breathe deeply. It's something practical that is essentially easy to do.

How does a person know if he or she is a potential actor?

I suppose you could ask yourself, Why? It's a hard answer sometimes, but if you come up with the answer "I want to be famous," and really that's what you want then you have to make some choices based on that. Lots of people do get into it because they want to be famous. I think many, many people do, especially for film and television. I don't really know. I always wanted to be an actor, ever since I was young. It was very clear to me. I think for someone who's quavering......and there are lots of people in theatre school who weren't really sure and who afterwards just didn't do it, but, sometimes it takes doing that, going to theatre school, to find out if you really want to do it or not becuase it can be brutal and difficult. Wnd we have a daughter and she really wants to be in theatre and Shirley Broderick, who's a fine, fine Vancouver actors has said, "With our children we said that until you've decided that there's nothing else you want to do you won't get any support from us. But if you do hit that point that you know that this is all I can do then we'll be behind you." I think it is that. You have to really just know that there really nothing else out there for you in order to endure the ups and downs. Even though you've been around for years, you're still always the new guy on set, unless you land a series or something, you're always a day-player.

Is the artist an important person in our society?

I think so and I also question that a lot myself. In Vancouver people are shocked when I tell them I'm an actor and that's how I make my living. You know, people are just floored that there actually are people in Vancouver that live that life. Often, too, the impression is that it's a hobby, that it's not a legitimate living. So, when you're faced with that constantly it's difficult to remember that the artist is an important person in society because you realise how many millions of people in our country are not at all aware of theatre as something that's going on: as an art form. It never touches their life, or it touches them only very minimally. But then you look at other countries where artists are respected. I was just reading something about Berlin and you go to live in Berlin and you get a passport that stamped "Actor" or "Artist". This is your profession: Artist. And how different that is. The perception is different. What I love about European countries, with the history, is the cultural identity and the richness of the culture and I think with Canada being so gigantic and being relatively new, especially in the west coast for us European folk, there is a lack of that identity or that cultural grounding. I think the arts provide that for a city. And I think the politicians of the city pay lip service to that too and have always been told that and essentially know it and that's why the money goes, but I think it's so important to give people a sense of place and a sense of pride, and you look at anything that's happening on television and look at any sort of computer graphics -- and that's a different art form -- but the artist is behind all that in the media and then for the live performance, I do think that now it is a more specialized art form. There aren't as many people who are in to it. Because we are in the same category as film and television and that medium just feeds human's desire to see others in acting narratives and others acting out adventures and tragedies. Atom Egoyan said that the reason film is so successful is because it's the medium that has come closest to imitating our dreams. And I think that's quite succinct. The film does do that. It puts you in a very real state when you can go on a dream. And theatre does that but it preserves the sense of community. I love being in the theatre and sometimes just looking at the audience. Sometimes my favourite part of theatre is just the fact that we're all in the building together and engaging in the story and deciding if we like it and all that. So I don't know if it's ever going to come back to what it was but I still think that it will find it's way through and evolve and and I hope that it will always have a place in the ecology of Canada's culture.

Read Jonathon's biography.

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