When it comes to Toronto women, Woody Harrelson knows what’s up.
Nothing could prove that point faster than sitting at Kos on a rainy day with Tashieka McTaggart, Vanessa Smythe, and Meghan Swabe, the three young female stars of Harrelson’s new play, Bullet For Adolf.
Opening Tuesday night to an enthusiastic crowd at Hart House, we spotted Harrelson chatting with Jian Ghomeshi before curtain. When the lights went down, the 80s came up: music and MTV clips got us in the mood to follow seven friends and an old German contractor through a hot Houston summer.
The young cast sparkles in a play chock full of one liners, stoner comedy, and playful pokes at racial tension. It was important to Woody to choose strong local performers for the play. Tashieka McTaggart plays Jackie, a career woman who worked her way from the ghetto to a successful job, and is forever sparring with her best friend, Shareeta, played by Meghan Swabe. Shareeta is a psychologist intent on helping kids in her neighbourhood, the troubled Fifth Ward, a passion she shares with Batina, played by Vanessa Smythe. The 18 year old Buddhist is full of good intentions and naivete, with an overbearing father who apparently employs every guy she’s ever wanted to make out with.
When we met the three women in Kensington Market, they were nursing tea,talking about writing projects, laughing about rehearsal visits from Owen Wilson, and fielding texts from Woody about last minute line changes. All in a day’s work for a young actress.
The play is based on a true story. Did you get to meet the women who inspired your characters?
Vanessa: Two of the actors in the cast are literally playing the writers, Woody and Frankie, who are in the room all the time. Because the story starts with Woody and Frankie’s perspective, there wasn’t a whole lot going on with the female characters in the first draft. We’ve had more liberties to really add dimensions to these people, as long as Woody gives us the go ahead. I feel like we’ve had a lot of freedom to read these words and see who these women are.
Meghan: Any sort of descriptors that we get from Woody are from his interactions with them. But aside from that, I feel like we do have the liberty to do anything.
Was it intimidating, going into the audition process knowing you could be working with Woody?
Tashieka: For me, it wasn’t intimidating at all. I was very focused. If anything, he was very helpful and supportive in the audition.
Vanessa: I was doing a workshop in Banff, and it was such an inspiring workshop. I literally flew home, got picked up from the airport, changed my clothes, and went to the audition. I felt really full of energy, and it didn’t give me an opportunity to let it all sink in. The week after we got cast, I think it was sinking in: this is a job, yes, but this is also a really unique job. Almost a delayed reaction, which I’m glad for, because I didn’t get to freak out.
It was important to Woody to cast local actors in the play. Do you think Toronto has influenced the development of the show at all?
Meghan: Toronto is such an eclectic mix of different cultures. We’re here in Kensington, you want rotis? You can go down there. You want dim sum, you want sweet and sour chicken balls? It’s all within your reach and it’s so accessible, which is really cool. In terms of us building our characters, letting us shine through, there’s an opportunity in one scene to say one of the lines in Patois, and both Tashieka and I are Jamaican, and so it’s letting that come through. I’m born here, but my mum’s Jamaican, so my version of replicating Patois is obviously butcherizing it, but I call it this pan-Canadian-Caribbean-Patois. There’s an influence, being from a city that has so much life in it.
Vanessa: Canada, and even Toronto, can get a reputation of being very polite, and playing safe when it comes to creative choices, and this play is definitely not one of those situations. We don’t shy away from saying things that are probably going to affect people strongly. I think it feels good to take that risk, knowing that you’re not sure how it’s going to be received by everybody in the audience, but knowing that it’s too important not to say.
What is the dynamic like between the cast?
Vanessa: I think it’s neat, because it means a similar amount to all of us. We’re all roughly in a similar spot in our acting careers, and everyone is just so lovable. Because we play this cast of friends, more or less, it’s fun to actually feel genuine connections to people, and to let that inform the script. We’re all rooting each other on, too.
Meghan: It’s really supportive. We’re all laughing at each other, if someone busts a joke we’re rolling on the floor.
Tashieka: We’re always playing, too.
Meghan: Singing songs. Instant dance party.
What have been some of the best moments in rehearsal?
Meghan: Last week, we came in, working on transitions. And then our stage manager’s like, ‘Yeah, so we’re going to do a run for Owen Wilson.’ It’s moments like that where you’re like…oh right, this wouldn’t happen normally.
Tashieka: When Matthew McConaughey came, unfortunately, we weren’t there.
Meghan: The ONE DAY the girls weren’t there! We were like COME ON!
What advice would you give to young woman breaking into theatre today?
Meghan: Find your voice, what you’re interested in. And if you don’t know it yet, then going to see things is so important. That’s part of research. Discerning your own tastes of what you like and what you don’t like will inform what you put out there. There’s so much new play development going on in the city, it’s hopping on those bandwagons, offering insight, getting together with other actors, reading plays to get to know plays.
Tashieka: I would say don’t give up. If it’s something you really want to do, follow your dreams.
Meghan: Keep on keepin’!
Vanessa: I’m finding that to be an actor, I really have to keep that child in me alive. I have to always be stimulating my imagination, and playing, reading stories. I know it’s so cheesy, but you have to just kind of follow that heart, and follow those instincts that you have when you’re young, and just hang on to them. Anyone can tell you to be more practical, but I think it’s really those dreamers and those people who play, and who can imagine things, those are the most exciting actors to me.
Where do you hang out in the city when you’re not rehearsing?
Meghan: When I was in writing mode, it was so important to find a place. Where can I park myself, be a disaster, have my papers everywhere, and have no one bug me? Jet Fuel. http://jetfuelcoffee.com/ That was my home office.
Tashieka: I like to do karaoke at Toby’s on Sundays and Mondays, I’m a big karaoke person.
Vanessa: Never do karaoke with a bunch of musical theatre kids.
Meghan: It’s sabotage.
Tashieka: Nooo, it’s not like that, though!
Vanessa: I’m a huge concert person, I love going to see live music as much as I can. Even just going to the Cameron House, the Garrison. My roommate, Paula Perry, is an amazing singer-songwriter, I go see her wherever she goes. It’s a good way for me to just turn off my brain. I think we all need those things that bring us back to ground level. And the waterfront. I could go to the waterfront all the time.
Meghan: In the summer, it’s all about that place. They do Femi Kuti, Hawksley Workman. It’s great when you have no money. When they have the food festival, it’s like ‘Okay, let’s go and see how many free samples we can muster up.’ The biggest thing about summer here, there’s so much going on. Like Manifesto, that’s something I look for in the summer. Free concerts at Nathan Phillips Square are always amazing.
Bullet for Adolf runs until May 7th at Hart House Theatre. For tickets and showtimes: http://www.bulletforadolf.com/
by Haley Cullingham