Q&A with Mike Ross

Soulpepper’s Slaight Family Director Music talks about musical creation and the return of Spoon River.

What is appealing to you about the musical format as a theatre artist?

Combining story with music is one of the oldest paths to the human heart, and it has been a major form of storytelling from the Greeks, through opera, and through the advent of musical theatre in the 20th-century. When words meet stories meet notes in that perfect way it can make people feel something profound. There’s great power in the form. But it takes a great amount of energy to create memorable moments. You have to build towards those moments. And it’s knowing how to build that momentum, that is the challenge. And it’s the exciting part of writing musicals. When you can create something meaningful, it feels like a service, not just something for your own success or ambition. You’re the creator of something that is bringing energy into people’s lives, and you can feel really good about what you do.
I’ve been at Soulpepper for 10 years studying words and storytelling, and that path has led me to bring music into the creative equation when I’m working on a new production.

What do you think contributes to the success of Spoon River, which is returning for its third run at Soulpepper, and touring out of province next summer?

The amazing thing about Soulpepper is that I know I have a chance of my work being heard and that fuels me: it’s motivating and inspiring. The landscape here gives artists lengthy meaningful employment – it inspires creation. You know you can dig into the work and not have to get distracted by outside concerns.

And you have access to people you know, and that will be around, and so you build things around certain people and their talents, which also inspires creation. The music for Spoon River I wrote partly on my own, and partly for specific people I knew would be in the show. And that affected the range, the energy, and the tone of the songs.

I’m really excited that Spoon River is going on the road next summer, and that it will be part of the Charlottetown Festival, my PEI hometown. My personal connection aside, there are universal themes in Spoon River that I think could resonate anywhere else in the world. People want stories about where they’re from. And small towns – they’re everywhere. And the themes in this show are universal, about living your life every day to its fullest, something everyone strives for. And there are songs about gossip and that’s everywhere. Death – everywhere. It’s about America also – it’s familiar, audiences get it, and the situations of the characters can be applied to personal situations.

I would love to see this show reach an audience as wide as it can, and for people to know that it can be performed by virtually any group of people willing to take on a whole bunch of characters and strum some guitars – it can play to 100 or 1,000 and ideally have the same impact. I would love to eventually see more companies perform it as well.

You’ve performed this show hundreds of times, and you’re on stage again now. Are there still moments that move you?

There are still moments that make me laugh. There’s a moment you can feel the audience understand what the show is about, from whose point of view – I never get over that moment. I never get over the musicianship present on stage. Or the journey that Albert Schultz and I created in terms of meeting characters in a certain order so the train of the show keeps carrying the story through the Spoon River community. And I love standing backstage with the ensemble before we go on – that feeling of anticipation.

Staff Profile: Duncan Johnstone – Head Scenic Artist

How long have you worked at the Young Centre and tell us a little bit about what your job consists of lately.
I have been working at the Young/Soulpepper 5 years and three of these as the Head of Scenic Art. Prior to being with Soulpepper I worked at the Stratford Festival for six seasons and before that in film and television.

The past four shows have varied considerably; the designs were all over the map. On the Baillie stage in Victoria Wallace’s design for The Play is the Thing Paul Boddum (scenic painter) and I started off by painting a parquet floor witch was quite involved, it was like painting three different wood grained floors in one. The show also had a lot of ornate gold trim work and a large gilded looking frame, which we made with plastic bits and bobs from the dollar store and some penne pasta, then painted it all gold. The show that repped with this was Marat/Sade designed by Lorenzo Savoini which was the polar opposite; concrete, grunge and rust. On the Young stage again two completely different designs; Happy Place had clean lines and was so eloquent, this was juxtaposed with Glen Charles Landry’s organized chaos of a car crash with rusty car parts and broken windshields witch we achieved with hot glue from a glue gun.

What artistic projects have you been involved in outside of work?
I also work outside of Soulpepper occasionally. I’ve worked on:
• George Brown Theatre School, Head Scenic Painter, 2-3 shows per season – 2013-Present
• Toronto Centre for the Arts, Head Scenic Painter – Driving Miss Daisy – 2015
• Crow’s Theatre/Canadian Stage, Head Scenic Painter – The Seagull – 2015
• nightswimming, Head Scenic Painter – Fish Eyes – 2014
• Adelheid Dance Projects, Drop Painter – Elsewhere – 2014
• Canadian Stage, Head Scenic Painter – Dream in High Park – 2013
• Opera Atelier, Drop Painter – Der Freischutz (The Marksman) – 2012
• Canadian Opera Company, Scenic Painter – Aug 2012
• The Royal Conservatory of Music, Drop Painter – Nov-Dec 2011
• Stratford Festival of Canada, Scenic Painter – 2003-2009
• Partners Film/Mood Design, Head Scenic Painter, Carpentry, Props, Set Deck – 2001-2003
• Hot Sets Film Scenic Painter – 1999-2003

I am also a visual artist and have been showing and represented by Alison Skinner at the Distill Gallery for over ten years. My web page is: http://www.duncanjohnstone.com

When you’re not at work, what are you doing?
When I’m not at work I’m usually hanging out with my partner, my dog and my two kids: Ada, my daughter, who is 14 and my son Emmett who is 12. Hiking, cycling, gardening and cooking are a big part of my life, and of course painting.

What is something we would be surprised to know about you/what is a hidden talent?
Hidden Talents………. Hm? I wish I could say something like I can burp the alphabet but I can’t. I grew up in Rossland BC and spent most of my youth ski racing downhill and X-country, mountain bike racing, X-country running and Rock Climbing. I then moved to Vancouver and attended Art School at Emily Carr University of Art & Design and planted trees in the summers to help pay my way through school.

What do you love about working at Soulpepper?
My favourite thing about working at Soulpepper is the diverse and supper talented people that are working in every department of the organization. I also really enjoy the smell of our neighbors SOMA Chocolate which somehow manages to work its way through the wall and right into the scenic shop on a regular basis

Donor Profile: Ken Gingerich and Michael Oakes


How did you first learn about Soulpepper?
Ken: Through a very dear friend of mine who unfortunately died a number of years ago – Marilyn Michener, who was also a very good friend of Albert’s. Marilyn introduced me to Albert and the rest, as they say, is history. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion to become involved because he just had such an amazing vision for what he wanted to do.

What has inspired you to continue your support for a number of years?
Mike: The more we saw of the productions, the more we wanted to come back and say “What’s happening next year?” The donations just became second nature after we realized that this is really great theatre.
Ken: We were made to feel welcome, always. We were made to feel like we were part of the family and that’s important.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about giving to Soulpepper?
Ken: I think that Soulpepper is unique in the city. There are other organizations that are also very very good, but I think that one of the things here is that it’s year round and the company has a very clear vision. Your commitment to outreach and community involvement…
Mike: I think that’s extremely important. Things like the Soulpepper Academy you don’t get in many theatre organizations.
Ken: And the fact that the productions are, let’s face it, top notch. Year in and year out they are the best in the city, if not the province. It’s an easy sell for people to become involved.

Why do you think the arts should be a priority for philanthropy?
Ken: When I was in my working life, I was a strong supporter of the arts because I firmly believed that the arts reach so many people, as many people if not more people than professional sports. There are all sorts of causes that you can give to – healthcare, social services and education, but the arts, broadly speaking, rounds out a community. You need all the various parts for a community to be whole.

Where do you see Soulpepper in 10 years?
Ken: Ten years from now, what we’d like to see, what I think we will see, is Soulpepper being a much more diverse organization. There is increasing diversity in terms of the ensemble and I think there is growing diversity in terms of the canon – the third part of that will be the diversity of the audience. And that’s tough and everybody recognizes that. But in a city as diverse as Toronto… Out of all the arts organizations, Soulpepper has a vision and a strategy laid out to do that. And we think you’ll do it.

Michael Oakes and Ken Gingerich, photo: Nathan Kelly.

Soulpepper Company Member Mikaela Davies discusses the making of Marat/Sade


Marat/Sade is a huge ensemble piece which is rarely done on professional stage. How do you describe this play to others?

The complete title of the play tells us the facts of the story: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. There’s a beautiful irony to a group of people locked up in a cage putting on a play about the French Revolution and its fight for freedom, equality and brotherhood. The inmate’s production challenges them to negotiate their own relationship to these ideals behind bars.

What is particularly striking about this version?

In our version of the play we are set in 2015 Canada and have shifted the focus from the performers being in an asylum to a prison. Peter Weiss wrote this play during the 1960s in Germany, using the French Revolution to speak to the political unrest in his country at that time. Albert Schultz, our director, has set our production in the present and the meaning has shifted to address our own issues as a nation, with echoes of G20, Guantanamo Bay, and the plight of our First Nations. Fifty-two years after publication the play is still strikingly relevant.


In the same way that we are using anachronisms in our setting of the story, Mike Ross, our musical director, has set his original music to a mixture of genres. From revolutionary anthems, to soft rock love ballads and rebellious punk, music is at the heart of our production. Mike has been able to access the patriotism, rage, idealism, chaos and sex that are at the centre of the story.

What is your role in the play?

I play Rossignol, a prostitute who is one of the inmates in the institution and cast as one of the five singers in the French Revolution play. The singers serve as a musical Greek chorus commenting and elevating the action of the piece through song.

What was rehearsal like for this production?

This has been the most unique rehearsal process I’ve ever been a part of. Most of the cast are playing inmates who have little to no experience performing in plays so they are dealing with nerves and in some cases mental illnesses as they perform their roles. We have a giant copy of the script on stage with one of the inmates as a prompter who tries to keep everyone on track if someone forgets their lines or the order of the scenes. Albert has purposely crafted in loosely staged moments which add to a real feeling of “what am I supposed to be doing now?” None of the cast ever leaves the stage and the performance pressure creates a heightened awareness and interaction with the audience which changes from night to night. It is an exhilarating ride.



What makes this a must-see play?

Marat/Sade is offensive, sexy, and very funny and has something to say about our government and country. I wish I had seen a production like this when I was in theatre school. It would have opened up my ideas of what theatre could be. The play challenges conventional audience expectations. The fourth wall is consistently broken, the audience is thrown into the spotlight and I hope challenged to confront their own beliefs and participation in the political apathy of our society.

For tickets and more information visit soulpepper.ca

Mikaela Davies, photo: Nathan Kelly. Stuart Hughes & ensemble, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann. Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Hailey Gillis, Mikaela Davies & Stuart Hughes, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Staff Profile: Kanika Ambrose – Administrative Coordinator


How long have you worked at the Young Centre/Soulpepper and tell us a little bit about what your job consists of lately.
I started working at The Young Centre as a Front of House Floor Captain in the Fall of 2011 and I have been working at Soulpepper since January of this year.
My current job is multifaceted; I perform administrative functions for all departments. Currently, much of my day is occupied with coordinating invites and seating for the upcoming openings of the shows in our Fall 2015 season.

What kinds of artistic endeavors are you involved in outside of work?
Outside of work, I work as a playwright. I have written and produced my own shows with Crows Theatre and at Toronto Fringe. I just completed a season in playwrights units at Obsidian and Cahoots theatre companies; I’m back at Obsidian for a second season working on my play; The Reception.

What else keeps you busy outside of work?
As above, I write a lot. I see a lot of theatre; I’m a Dora Juror for theatre for young audiences this year. I enjoy the outdoors as much as I can; my boyfriend and I like to go on little day trips. As I’m sure many others do, I love to cook and eat… particularly dessert; I do quiet a bit of baking for family events.

What is a hidden talent of yours?
I don’t know how hidden it is, but I am trained in Dominican cultural dance (The Commonwealth of Dominica not the Dominican Republic). I perform quite a bit outside of work and I also teach; I have a group of 6 little ladies.
Recently, Dominica was devastated by a hit from tropical storm Erica so I’ve been helping with the relief effort as much as I can in my spare time.

What do you love about working at the Young Centre/Soulpepper?
I like that…
Every day is different and presents unique challenges.
I work in a theatre; my favourite places to be on any given day.
The people here make every day a pleasure.

“One step further and the ensemble would be singing”

Soulpepper’s Katie O’Connor interviews Yours Forever, Marie-Lou actor Suzanne Roberts Smith

This fall Soulpepper presents the world premiere of Linda Gaboriau’s new English translation of Michel Tremblay’s Yours Forever, Marie-Lou. This is Soulpepper’s first time staging a piece by the artist many consider Canada’s greatest playwright. Founding Member and Governor General’s Award recipient Diana LeBlanc directs this emotional and unflinching story of a Quebecois family. Along with Mr. Tremblay, making their Soulpepper debuts in this production is an ensemble of Francophone actors, including Suzanne Roberts Smith.


Smith will be tackling the role of Carmen who attempts to overcome a tragic circumstance involving her parents (Christian Laurin as Leopold and Patricia Marceau as Marie-Louise) and her younger sister, Manon (played by Genevieve Dufour), in order to move on with her life.

Smith describes joining a Soulpepper production as a wonderful opportunity. “It’s a company I’ve wanted to be a part of for a long time and to be part of it in this way, with this piece, with this ensemble, and this translation, it’s like layers of dreams coming true.”

Along with this being Smith’s first time performing at Soulpepper she is also working with LeBlanc for the first time. YoursForever1She says about Leblanc: “Here she is having previously played both the roles of Manon and Marie-Louise in both languages and having directed other versions. And she has this relationship with the playwright’s work. The play lives in her in a unique way, and I can’t imagine anyone else on the planet better suited to directing it.”

Smith knows that taking on a new translation means tackling the complexities of communicating the themes and messages of the original script. “He [Tremblay] gave Linda Gaboriau a key insight into the translation and also for us as the actors. He said; ‘One step further and the ensemble would be singing.’ It’s a series of duets between the sisters and the parents.”

Along with Yours Forever, Tremblay’s productions perfectly illustrate Quebecois identity and the social struggles which are faced against the rest of Canada. The importance of bringing this production to the Soulpepper stage is to recognize Canadian identity through the Francophone culture. Smith explains there is an importance in Soulpepper showcasing this production with a Francophone ensemble, centered on this type of Quebecois family, to English speaking Toronto audiences. “He is this figure in Quebec to transform and to bring so much pride to this culture. He’s using a microcosm of the marginalized and disenfranchised Quebecois family to tell the story of Quebec’s relationship with the rest of the Canadian family.”


When asked what she hopes audiences will take away from this production, Smith says, “I hope audiences can see themselves, their own struggle represented. I hope they can identify with the characters and can feel a catharsis from this manifestation. I hope audiences can feel a sense of liberation and a sense of hope.”

Yours Forever, Marie-Lou is on stage from September 14 to October 17. For tickets, visit www.soulpepper.ca.
Suzanne Roberts Smith, photo: supplied by artist. Patricia Marceau & Suzanne Roberts Smith, photo: Nathan Kelly. Diana Leblanc & Suzanne Roberts Smith, photo: Nathan Kelly. Suzanne Roberts Smith & Genevieve Dufour, photo: Nathan Kelly.

Summer in the City

Soulpepper’s City Youth Academy is a six-week intensive summer training program for promising young artists in Toronto ages 16-19. Ten youth this summer will be given six weeks of skills training and artistic development as integrated members of the Soulpepper company. Participants Tatyana Mitchell and Nick Eddie share their thoughts on the experience so far.


What are your personal artistic areas of interest?
Tatyana: My areas of interest include acting and set designing.

Nick: I have been very interested in theatre arts for a long time. It was only after many years of my grandparents dragging me to plays before I realized I actually enjoyed it. I personally, enjoy acting the most, but am more than content to participate in the THEEAHTER in any way, shape, or form.

What expectations did you have coming into the City Youth Academy, and how has the program differed or met them?
Tatyana: I didn’t think there were going to be so many activities jam packed into 6 weeks. Before my audition I was still unsure of what exactly we’d be doing. However, when we started, I was kind of overwhelmed. In a good way. I was surprised by how much we were doing.

TaiChi 2 (Fiona)

What is your group currently working on?
Nick: I am always surprised by how much work a theatrical production is. So far we have mostly done work with strengthening the ensemble; learning new things, working as a team, etc. And then occasionally we will have time dedicated to creating pieces, which is mixed in outcome, as it always is with collective work. Hopefully by the time we are done we will have enough material to pick and choose all the best stuff, but honestly it is just so nice being involved in creation work again.

What activity/workshop/moment has really excited and inspired you so far?
Tatyana: A workshop that has excited me so far is music. I don’t sing in public unless it’s required, and now singing solos and being surrounded by people who enjoy singing has helped me cope with my nerves. Other workshops that have inspired me are Text and Design; Text has helped me look at scripts and characters more in depth. I was able to create a background, how my character would interact with the people she surrounds herself with, and I have learned not to judge my character no matter how troubled they are. And although Design was one session, I still learned how creative you can get with a setting that is not just three walls, a table, and a chair.


Nick: Working with Greg Oh has been one of the most gruelling processes I have had the pleasure to experience. We’ve been working on a song with four harmonies, and every note is a battle. Learning with him takes so much dedication and focus. And Greg makes it easy. I wouldn’t want to have a bad teacher when it comes to something like this.

How do you see the City Youth Academy affecting your future artistic journey?

Tatyana: I’m going to Humber College in September for Theatre Performance and I’m treating the program as if it’s pre-training, before I head there for the next three years. Movement and Text are helping me be the most prepared for what’s to come. So I’m grateful.


Nick: Well, I hope to stay connected with Soulpepper in any way I can. I constantly have to remind myself that I need to use every moment of this great opportunity, not just those in workshops and activities. So this time, I have been making a concerted effort to meet people, and to prove my worth. But damn it, it’s hard. Anyway, that’s my goal, to become an active member in the Soulpepper community.

Anything else you want to share?
Tatyana: Best advice I’ve received so far is “Don’t be an Adam Sandler.”

Visit soulpepper.ca for more information.
The Soulpepper City Youth Academy is generously supported by Scotiabank with additional support from R. Howard Webster Foundation.

2015 City Youth Academy participants and staff, photos supplied by Jennifer Villaverde and Fiona Suliman.


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