CENTAUR STAGE with MARCEL JEANNIN by Katia Lo Innes
PARADISE LOST by Erin Shields with Gabriel Lemire and Marcel Jeannin photo by Andrée Lanthier Season 21 (2019-2020)
Marcel Jeannin, one of Quebec’s most beloved stage and voice actors, returns to Centaur Theatre as Jon Macklem in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Jeannin is a Centaur favorite, having first stepped onstage over three decades ago for Woman in Mind in 1989. Jeannin took time to chat with Centaur about his current production, and how things have changed (or not)!
– After 12 productions, how does it feel to be back onstage at Centaur?
– Short answer: It feels great! Although that feeling is mainly due to being back onstage after two years of doing theatre on Zoom and masked play readings!
TAKING SIDES by Ronald Harwood with Susan Glover, Marcel Jeannin Season 29 (1997-98)
RELATIVE GOOD by David Gow with Marcel Jeannin and Mikel Mroué photo Yanick MacDonald Season 39 (2007-2008)
VINCI by Maureen Hunter, Marcel Jeannin and Carrie Colak photo Yanick MacDonald Season 34 (2002-2003)
– Your last role was in Paradise Lost, which ran in our 50th season in 2019. This was a large cast with 11 actors while Sexual Misconduct… is a two-hander. How has this changed your approach to the production and your role?
– Nothing really changed in terms of my approach to a role, although I varied my preparation slightly. The biggest difference was my need to be “off-book” at the beginning of rehearsals. Usually, I prefer to learn my lines in rehearsal by osmosis: involving my body in the process of marrying the thoughts to the words and letting my body inform or inspire certain thoughts. For this production, I felt that process wasn’t an option because of the amount of text, and that much of that text is direct address to the audience: my de facto scene partner for a good part of the play with whom I felt the need to connect to as soon as possible. I consulted with dramaturg Maureen Labonté and implemented her method of close reading of a text. My habitual way of analyzing a script is from a motivational point of view, whereas hers is a strict structural analysis, which proved to be very useful on a piece like Misconduct, as it removes the actor’s “self-interest” from the first reading and takes a lot of preconceptions, prejudices and suppositions out of the initial appraisal of the work.
I also requested a few one-on-one script sessions with director Eda Holmes a few months prior to rehearsal. Speaking as a man, it is a very disquieting piece to be a part of, and I felt the production could possibly fall into a few traps I was keen to avoid. As the play is about Perspective, I wanted to be sure that the director and I completely understood each other’s point of view, the points of view of the characters, and agreed with what the play was saying
– As this is a small cast, you’ve gotten to work closely with your cast and crew. What was it like working with Eda Holmes? With Inès Defossé? What have you learned from them, as fellow creators?
– I last worked with Eda about twenty-seven years ago at NTS when I was only a few years into my career and she was making a career shift from dancing to directing. Her directing style at the time was very movement based and I subsequently incorporated elements of her process into my own and have used them ever since, so it was a thrill when she called to offer me the part. When we started working together again after more than a quarter-century, it felt like not a day had gone by. I am getting a kick of seeing how she has grown as an artist. Her direction, which was always very clear, has gotten even more concise, and she has since developed a laser-like succinctness when putting forth her ideas, which makes my job a lot easier. It also forces me to be clearer and concise in my own work and gives me a little extra drive as I try to anticipate her next steps, so that I feel I am always moving the process forward rather than bogging it down.
I met Inès at the audition, and it was the first time in a long while that I met an actor who was so open, available and honest in an initial meeting. It was also a shock because she is still relatively new to the business, but she brings in a confidence that belies her years. In rehearsal, she has only doubled down on those qualities, and her generosity as a performer forces me to make sure that I am constantly open and taking advantage of her wonderful offers, and that I am also pulling my own weight. She is a terrific stage partner.
It’s important to note that although it is a two-hander, there are actually quite a few people who have been in the room with us creating this piece, whose own work and input is an intrinsic part of the heartbeat of the play. To name just a few, Georgia Holland who is part of the Stage Management team is a fundamental part of the all-important tempo of the show. During rehearsal and run-throughs, she displayed a preternatural ability to anticipate needs with regard to props, scenery shifts, etc. Much of the flow of the show is in her hands. Chelsea Dab is our assistant Director who offered invaluable advice and insight during the process. Luciana Burcheri was adroit at navigating us through the relatively new process of Intimacy work with precision and conciseness, (crucial, when Time is a precious resource). Finally, Danielle Skene is at the helm throughout, safeguarding the integrity of the designers’ and director’s work (and even the actors’ own work at times, despite ourselves!) In the end, I’ve come to appreciate and value these aspects of a production more than ever. They are not only the net under the high wire, they are also the high wire itself!
– Looking back on your 12 productions, was there a landmark production or role of yours that you remember fondly?
– It’s hard to pick just one. God of Carnage and The Comedy of Errors are big favourites of mine. Besides being absolutely brilliant scripts to work on, I was surrounded in both instances by people I love, respect and admire, and perhaps most importantly, people with whom I have had a long, personal and professional relationship. The benefits of this are twofold: you all come in with an established working shorthand, which gives you the freedom to make choices or offers that are instinctively followed up on by the other actors, or allow you to intuit what idea someone else is trying and support it, all without ever really discussing anything (like good jazz musicians do). In the second instance, I believe you need people you can trust when working on a comedy. Rehearsing comedies is joyous, painstaking, exhilarating and brutal work, much like a good marriage. There are many moments where tempers fray or frustrations build, and it would be impossible to continue without feeling that forgiveness was always there in the room, if not instantly then at least by the end of the day. It is only with that trust that we can really begin to take risks, and it is only through risk that you get comedy.
GOD OF CARNAGE by Yasmina Reza with Mark Camacho, Ellen David, Janine Theriault and Marcel Jeannin Photo Lucetg.com Season 43 (2011-2012)
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS Stephen Lawson, Marcel Jeannin, Danielle Desormeaux photo Yanick MacDonald SEASON 41 (2009-2010)
– Since you’ve begun, how has Centaur changed? How has it remained the same?
– Centaur hasn’t changed as much as the neighborhood has! The other day on St-Antoine, I was given my first ever ticket for exercising a Montrealer’s Divine Right to jaywalk. To think, when I was working on The Stone Angel in 1995, I used to take my breaks at my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s loft around the corner on Le Moyne Street, where she was paying $500.00 a month for 3000 square feet! I remember driving my car to work and being able to park just about anywhere in Old Montreal. Now, when stopped at a red light, I’ll either get a parking ticket or someone will try to turn my Honda into a condo. I miss the quieter, simpler, (cheaper!), pre-gentrification days. I take comfort in the fact that Stash’s is still around!
As for the Centaur itself, I suppose what hasn’t changed is the underlying vibe of the place. I’ve seen many people move on or pass away over the years, yet I still feel their energy in the halls. People like Griffith Brewer, Mary Thomas and designer Michael Eagan to name a few (the latter giving me my best opening night gift ever: a piece of the Berlin Wall)! When I look at all the wonderful people who are running the place now, who are part of my professional “family,” I feel they continue in the spirit of those who have come before, insomuch as they are among the hardest working, caring, fun and down-to-earth artisans I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. If this sounds overly sentimental, it is partly because after two years of being deprived of close contact with these people, I am so grateful to be able to work with them again!
As to what has changed at the Centaur, I can say that it’s great to see so many young people attending the shows alongside the regular audience of subscribers that has supported the theatre over the years.
– The last time you were onstage at the Centaur was before COVID. How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped your craft as an actor, and as a writer?
– Actors exist in one of two states: Working, or Looking For Work. The pandemic obliterated those two states, so for the first time in my thirty-odd years as a professional, being out of work didn’t come with the usual anxiety, as there was no work to be had. In a way, I felt a certain measure of peace with the idea that most of the world was in the same boat (i.e. not knowing what comes next). Like many, I used the opportunity to take stock and reevaluate certain lifestyle choices and habits, with the aim of improving my life and by extension, my work. I read the books I had always been meaning to read, saw the films I had always been meaning to see, and did my utmost to keep discovering or learning something new every day. I think in the end it has brought a little more focus and depth to my approach.
On the downside, as the health emergency is still not quite over, I live with the constant concern that a production may be shut down at a moment’s notice; that the sword of Damocles hangs over the whole process, because one positive test can postpone or close the show. I knock wood as I say this, because it is a great fear that the hard work of all the people in a production has the very real possibility of never seeing the light of day, which would be a real waste. The pandemic has made a fragile and ephemeral art even more evanescent.
– While in isolation, you made this hilarious video that you shared to your Facebook page: Marcel Jeannin. Can you explain more the thought process behind making The Lions Sleep Tonight, as well as your thoughts on the general response to the video?
– When the lockdown hit, many of us in my profession were forced to quickly set up ersatz voice studios in our homes to keep from missing out on the recording sessions that had suddenly become remote. If we wanted to eat, we had to learn to become sound engineers, videographers and editors almost overnight. I created this little project as an exercise to learn how to use and test all the new equipment and software I had been forced to purchase. I gave myself a small writing challenge by composing a little skit for four voices with a lot of overlapping dialogue (and some harmonizing), and then I gave myself a little film acting challenge by playing all four characters. This last bit proved to be a fun but daunting puzzle. As I had no actor other than myself to work off of (or anyone reading the other lines offstage for me), the trick was to play one character and keep all the lines of the other characters (and their timings) in my head, to react at the proper time and in the proper direction, and of course to say a particular character’s lines at the right moment. Multiply all that times four! As each character was shot in “one”, if my timing was slightly off at any point, the take became unusable. I shared the result with my friends on social media, and a few people got a good laugh out of it. There is a surreal, paranoiac, cabin-fever tone to the whole bit that I’m sure was a universal feeling for the first few weeks of the pandemic, and that most of my friends recognized.
The Lions Sleeps Tonight with Marcel Jeannin X 4
– Many of your past roles, including God of Carnage have been quite funny. How have you brought these comedic chops to this role? Jon Macklem has some self-aware, funny moments, but also a darker, complex psychology.
– Jon Macklem is an ordinary, hard-working, well-meaning man who has achieved some measure of success. One day, he finds himself in a “strange land” which threatens to destroy everything. There is a very simple maxim: “When playing tragedy, find the humour; when playing comedy, find the tragedy” (and play that tragedy for all it is worth)! While Kings and Gods are the subjects of Tragedy, the Common Person is the mainspring of Comedy. Paradoxically, the closer to the breaking point the Common Person is pushed, the better the comedy, and the funnier it is. When we did Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, director Peter Hinton gave me an invaluable and brilliant piece of direction for my character, who finds himself lost in a literal “strange land”: he told me to remember that from my character’s Elizabethan point of view, the inhabitants of this particular “strange land” were magical and dangerous. It was not a Disney “strange land”, where the inhabitants were benign talking crabs or singing teapots. It was a land where the charming person I was talking to could at any moment start vomiting frogs! I was to look at my surroundings as if I was trapped in a living nightmare, a Bosch painting, with no way out. How is that for being pushed to the breaking point! It’s fascinating to think about why the everyday person put into miserable circumstances in Drama is such an effective engine for laughter. Maybe it is as Mel Brooks says: “Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy is if you walk into an open sewer and die.” Maybe laughter is our way of saying: “I’m so relieved it is you going through this and not me, ‘cause it could very well be me!”
– You have also participated in Urban Tales–a series of holiday-themed monologues. Did this in any way help you prepare for the longer monologues that Jon delivers?
– I think so, yes. Each one-character play, monologue or soliloquy is in essence, an actor in a one-on-one relationship with an audience, where the actor’s subtext is: “I’m going to tell you a story…” Start telling a story and you have an alchemical reaction: the actor and audience enter into a kind of dance where a singular experience is created. Almost everybody has an “Uncle Jim”. My Uncle Jim was a great joke teller. I never remember his actual jokes, but I remember vividly the experience of listening to him telling them. The experience of him telling the stories and us, his audience, listening to the stories was more complex and profound than the actual jokes themselves. I can’t help but think that with every kick at the can, an actor (hopefully) learns a little more about the mechanics and dynamics of storytelling and, at the same time, learns to become more empathetic and open to the audience, essentially putting themselves in their place. In the back of their mind, the storyteller always carries the weight of Diaghilev’s famous challenge to Cocteau: “Astonish me!”
URBAN TALES 2011 Marcel Jeannin photo Yvan Bienvenu