ryan kelly & dale miller
Cape Breton native Dale Miller chats with me about Christopher Wilson’s musical Living With Henry which emerged out of the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival as one of twenty international musicals chosen to be performed at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in July. The production has an IndieGoGo campaign to help get them there, so please check it out and support the success of Canadian-made musical theatre!
Amanda Campbell (AC): Who are you, where are you from and how did you get so talented?
Dale Miller (DM): Talented? Is that the word on the street? Well, I’m Dale Miller. I currently call Toronto home but I grew up in Cape Breton, NS. I come from an extraordinarily talented family and was surrounded by music my whole life. I was a band and choir nerd and eventually studied at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS where I completed a double degree program, receiving a Bachelor of Music Education and a Bachelor of Music in Voice. I’ve been performing ever since.
AC: Tell me a bit more about Living With Henry. It’s a new Canadian musical, it’s written by Christopher Wilson and it focuses on a character named Michael who is living with HIV. What else should we know about it?
DM: It’s about hope. It’s about life and death, but mainly it’s about survival. This is Chris Wilson’s own brave and personal story. Too many times we see a show about cancer or AIDS or any other disease and we can assume what the outcome will be. This is different. It changes the way we perceive this illness and it forces us to have conversations about it. This show doesn’t only appeal or apply to those affected by HIV. Henry represents any struggle or illness. We all have a Henry in our lives and this show gives everyone hope to know that you can find the strength to choose to survive.
AC: You play “Henry,” which is a personification of HIV, right? Can you talk a bit about that? Did you do any special research into the disease to help shape your character and how did you go about turning something so horrific and frightening into a multidimensional character??
DM: The dramatic device of personifying HIV is brilliant. Chris Wilson really hit on something remarkable when he chose to write it this way and director Donna Marie Baratta was clever with her staging. Henry is initially seen as just another character, interacting in the scenes or just hanging out. About twenty minutes into the show he reveals himself as much more than the guy who seems to be attached at the hip to Michael, the main character. Only those characters infected by Henry actually see him. The others look through him, walk past him or simply turn a blind eye. It’s very Sixth Sense. Henry is that horrible elephant in the room.
I tried to find a balance between what the disease is and what the perception of the disease is. It is what it is. Does a cancer cell know it is evil? No. It just is. It’s directive or mission is to ultimately destroy its host and therein lies its sinister nature. When one contracts HIV, with the exception of a tainted blood transfusion or through childbirth or drug abuse, it is usually done so through consensual, heated, passionate sex. It is bred and passed on through love, for lack of a better word. Perhaps lust is more appropriate. So finding the balance between sexy and sinister was my main goal. I wanted the characters of Matt and Michael to feel the initial heat of the chemistry with Henry and I wanted the others to feel uncomfortable and uneasy, knowing they were in the presence of something ultimately destructive and life threatening. It was both challenging and exciting.
Playing the dimensions just kind of fell into place after that. It wasn’t that difficult to find the moments where Henry was less threatening, where he was in total control and when he was the insidious voice inside Michael’s head. It was even easier having such an amazing cast with whom to play. Ryan Kelly, who plays Michael, is pretty much on stage the entire time and I’m right there with him. He is so amazing to be with on stage and our mutual love and respect for each other as artists and friends makes it so easy.
AC: I’ve read in the press that Living With Henry has sort of been marketed as the HIV show that sort of takes shows like Angels in America or Rent and thrusts conversations about the diseases, which is often no longer a death sentence for people, out of the 1980s and early 1990s and into the present day. Can you talk a bit about that and why that’s so important?
I love that you bring up shows like these. With plays like The Normal Heart and films such as Jeffrey and Philadelphia, we’ve gotten used to the idea that if you have HIV or AIDS then you die. End of story. Or at least this is what those pieces show us. What’s important about Henry is that it isn’t about death. It’s not about being toxic or dirty or an outcast as previous productions may lead you to believe or history has demonstrated. Henry is about hope and survival and life. There’s a line in the show that likens the disease to diabetes in that it can be managed and people can now live long, healthy lives. That’s not to say that the diseases are in any way similar, but the comparison is that they are both controllable and are no longer the cruel death sentence that they once were. It’s been 30 years since the AIDS epidemic began. It’s important to see where we’ve come from and it is equally important to see where we are now and what our future will hold with this disease. Future being the key word. You CAN have a future and you CAN have hope and you CAN have life.
AC: So, Living With Henry is going to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Which is where [title of show] began, which is so wildly exciting. How did that come about and how can we help you get there?
DM: Holy exciting! Amazeballs for sure. Chris decided last summer after our tremendously successful run at the Toronto Fringe Festival that he was going to submit it to NYMF, the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The answer is always no if you don’t ask, right? It was thrown into the mix with dozens of other potential productions, was reviewed and judged by a highly talented panel, was short listed and ultimately selected. I am certain that the story’s originality and sensitivity to the subject matter is what pushed us to the goal post. It’s a touching, personal account with great music and is a story of survival. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
DM: I’m sure you read in all the papers about DanCap’s hiatus, and there seems to be this huge misconception in the press that this means that Mirvish now has a monopoly on musical theatre in Toronto. Yet, of course with The Drowsy Chaperone as the most obvious example, the Toronto Fringe Festival seems to be a fantastic breeding ground for Canadian-written and produced musical theatre. Can you talk about how important that is and where you see things growing from here?
DM: Big theatre is just that. Big theatre. But big isn’t always better. There have been some pretty uninspiring tours that have come through lately and are being passed off as “straight from Broadway.” Of course they fail to include “via Boise, Little Rock and Fargo.” Fringe festivals give smaller theatres and individuals the chance to thrive, develop and blossom. Why, from just this past fringe festival alone, we get to see numerous shows having successful journeys. Living With Henry gets to go to New York! Michael Hughes’ Mickey & Judy has been invited to the Edinburgh Fringe and Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience was included in Soulpepper’s season. There are a lot of amazingly talented writers, directors, singers and dancers in our own backyard. We can’t forget that and we need to get out and support this talent. Just because it has a million dollar flashy marquee doesn’t mean it will be any good. Sometimes you end up laughing and crying for all the wrong reasons. A turd is still a turd even if it has glitter on it.
AC: You have been really busy lately with Living With Henry and then with Seussical at YPT and at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. What do you miss most about Nova Scotia and would you ever consider coming back and doing a show here?
DM: Yes, it’s been quite the year both professionally and personally for me. Last summer I starred in two shows at the fringe festival; Living With Henry and The Giant’s Garden by Scott White and Peter Fenton, two more amazing Canadian writers. That led to Seussical at YPT and The Citadel and I am currently starring in Summer In The City at Stage West Calgary. I’m optimistic that the next big project is just right around the corner.
Nova Scotia is home for me. My family is from there, it’s where I got my education and it’s where I cut my teeth in this business. Literally. I fell on stage in my very first professional show at Neptune Theatre and knocked my teeth clean out of my skull. My porcelain pearly whites are now brought to you by American Standard. I miss the people and the feeling of just being home. You can be more grounded and authentic there. That’s how home should always make you feel. I’ve done eight shows at Neptune Theatre but I haven’t been back since Cats. Mr. Pothitos, if you’re reading this, and I know you are, I’d love to come back. Anytime. Say the word. The prodigal son returns, false teeth and all!
AC: Just for fun, if you want to, you can tell the story of how we met and why you call me Chuckles.
DM: Ah Chuckles. Love it. So way back when I first got started, I was very fortunate to do a number of shows in a row at Neptune Theatre. Inevitably, at some point during the run, or numerous times, we knew that our biggest fan was in the audience. From the stage, we’d hear the most amazing, joyous, infectious giggling you could ever imagine. I had no idea that this person was you. So I started referring to you as Chuckles whenever the cast would hear you in the audience. I can’t remember the exact show where we met and we were finally introduced by name. It didn’t matter what your name was to me. You were and will always be the beautiful, amazing Chuckles who can brighten the darkest day with your smile and your laugh. You’re better than medicine, kiddo.
AC: Aw. Shucks. Yes, I was still a teenager at the time. I can’t remember exactly which show we met after either, but I know Raquel Duffy was involved. Typical.
I am so disappointed that I have missed seeing Living With Henry along its journey to New York. I hope that you will all support the future of this exciting and important production and I am looking forward to seeing it remounted when we both return to Toronto.
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