Vanessa Smythe, a young Toronto actor who just finished working with Woody Harrelson in Bullet for Adolf, took a shot at the Fringe Festival lottery without a play in mind. When she got in, the pressure was on to create an original work she was proud of. The result? Beast, Smythe’s second original work, which centres around two ex-lovers and their dead best friend’s goldfish.
We talked to her about getting up the guts to mount your own work, some of the best resources for young creatives in the city, and who she hopes to see front row centre on opening night tomorrow, Friday, July 8th.
As a young actor deciding to mount your own work, what is the most terrifying part of the process? The most exciting?
I think the most terrifying part of mounting my own work is that there’s nowhere to hide. I truly have to open my heart, and reveal any part of myself that the story needs. Because I also wrote the piece, and because my writing necessarily comes from a very personal place, the work is very close to home and requires an added courage since some of the content is so familiar to me.
It’s thrilling though, to meet the challenge of it. To push myself farther than I think I can go, and to truly collaborate with other artists so that the play takes on a life of its own, and goes where it wants to go. I’m so grateful for the team working on Beast. Together, we’ve transformed my affinity for goldfish into something that’s all of ours. And not ours at all. To be present when the play is born, and to be with it as it grows legs and learns to walk. That’s pretty amazing.
How did you get up the guts to do it?
I submitted to the Fringe Lottery without a play idea in mind, and decided that if I got in, I’d have to create something. I work best under pressure, and though I’ve heard pressure makes diamonds.. (the jury’s still out), I can say that it does make Fringe plays. Sometimes it’s about requiring yourself to take a leap. It’s when we’ve got to proceed without knowing how that we can sometimes stumble into our most extraordinary or courageous work. And our scariest work, too. I just try to remember why I’m telling this story, and that it’s not about me. When I remember why I tell stories and why I believe in them, then some of the guts come. Hopefully.
What are some of the best resources you’ve found for young performers in the city?
One of our actors, Matthew Gouveia, is a Humber Theatre Grad, and Humber Theatre was generous enough to let us use their studio space for rehearsals. We’ve also collaborated a lot with TonyMac, a production studio created by another young creative professional who I met on an indie film set. Sometimes it’s just about participating in the creative scene as much as possible, and teaming up with the people you meet and the people who are after similar goals. The Fringe is really helpful with offering instruction and seminars also, and of course family and friends.
What has been your most memorable moment on stage?
That’s hard. There are so many. Recently when I acted in Woody Harrelson’s Bullet for Adolf, though, there was one scene that felt so good to do, every night. It’s a moment when after everything is nearly disastrous, all the characters start jamming at a birthday party together. People start banging on furniture and clinking cutlery, and dancing together. The scene would change every night, and each time we’d all be playing off each other and seeing how far we could take it. Part of the climax involved me tap-dancing on the dinner table and everybody chanting. On some nights, I forgot completely where I was, and it was just me and my friends making music. I love that.
What other Fringe shows will you be checking out?
Every Woman I Slept with Before I Met You and Swoon! both feature good friends of mine who are extremely talented. I’m also a huge Chris Gibbs fan so I’m excited to check out his Sex, Religion, and Other Hangups. Others near the top include Cancer Can’t Dance Like This, Kim’s Convenience and Theme Park. I’ll see how many more I can squeeze in.
Compare Beast to any animal, living or dead, and explain your choice.
It’s hard for me to think of Beast as anything other than a goldfish. The whole play is really about this goldfish, and how being with this goldfish reveals people to themselves and to each other. Goldfish are strange companions. They don’t really give you anything other than quiet and companionship. And usually there’s no telling how long. There’s something endearing about them though. Since the first draft was written, we bought our Beast and I’ve been living with him ever since. I get really attached to the guy. I talk to him. Feed him. Turn on a lamp for him before bed. It sounds pathetic, but I guess it’s just nice to have another creature in the room, another heartbeat, swimming around.
If Beast had a theme song, what would it be?
Though this song’s not in the show, a song that’s always seemed to suit the feeling of Beast for me is Noah and the Whale’s Blue Skies. That song tends to be what most of my writing is about. The main lyric is “Blue skies are coming, but I know that it’s hard”. Listen to the song. It’s beautiful. Heartbreaking and hopeful. Optimistic but not straight-forward. I feel like Beast is an articulation of that. Let’s go, even though it’s hard.
Who would you love to see sitting in the front row?
Edward Norton, with an engagement ring. Otherwise, I hope I’m too involved in the show to notice who’s sitting where. Hopefully they’re smiling though. Whoever they are.
Beast opens Friday, July 8th at the Factory Studio Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. For showtimes and tickets: http://www.beasttheplay.com/home
A portion of the proceeds from Beast will be donated to the Horizons for Youth shelter.