Sebastien Heins & Wayne Burns: From NTS to Soloicious

sebastien heins, wayne burns & me

I met with Sebastien Heins and Wayne Burns on a brilliantly sunny Friday at the Coburg Coffee House in Halifax. Both have recently returned to Halifax from The National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. Heins is a very recent graduate of the school and Burns has just finished his first year. They both have strong connections to Halifax, Burns is in town for the summer, Heins leaves on Monday, but on Sunday night (May 27th) they are coming together with six other multidisciplinary local artists to present Soloicious, a one night only, Solo Show Festival at the Bus Stop Theatre.

The three of us immediately started chatting as though we were old friends beginning with an interesting conversation about how in Canadian theatre, and film and television as well, we don’t have a star system and how difficult it is to get the Canadian public to recognize the truly extraordinary talented people who live in our cities. Here is how that went:   

Wayne Burns (WB): I want everyone in town to know who their stars are. I mean, I am so excited to see Sebastien perform and I feel like, “I know you, so I am so excited to meet the other people that you know!” It’s all a collaboration. For example, my girlfriend’s friend, she’s really into music, and she is SO stoked to see DJ KDZ (at Soloicious), and she’s like, “I know you’re in the show and that’s great, but I’m REALLY pumped to see him! (laughs)

Sebastien Heins (SH): It’s great to bring people together from different areas of the Arts this way. In Soloicious we have dancers, we have spoken word, we have theatre artists and we have music. In this industry especially, it’s all about networking, but it’s the same in any industry. You want to know who your accountants are and your publicity people and who are the guys who are building the set backstage, and so it’s the same way here, you might see someone who does this really phenomenal solo work and think, “Oh my god, I TOTALLY want to collaborate!” It gives the chance for people to really strut their stuff, like at a showcase, and then people get the chance to see all the phenomenal work that is going on in their community.

WB- You think sometimes that you’re too busy with other things or that you’re not looking for something that specific right now so maybe you want to hold back or not put yourself out there to network. But, well, I was talking to Emmy Alcorn yesterday and she was asking me if I was auditioning for the Neptune General (Audition)s and I said, “No” because I’m still in school and I wouldn’t be able to take a role if they gave it to me. She told me that this was the wrong attitude to have. She said, even if you go in there and say that you’re really committed to school right now, you go in anyway to be seen. It’s all about being seen. Some people there aren’t even casting right now. She mentioned that when her and Daniel MacIvor were casting for Bingo they were going through all these people and Emmy remembered that ages before she’d seen Heather Rankin in a general audition. And she ended up in that show. It’s all about building a community. You put yourself out there so that someone might see it and say, “Who was that kid?!” and you’ll get on their radar for the future. Even the June 4th gig that I just got, that was totally random! Andrew Chandler got a day on Haven and so he asked me if I could take over for him working on this show with his girlfriend. And when I went to see Jeremy (Webb)’s show (at Supernova) it was so great to see everyone there and to reconnect, because immediately everyone was like “Oh! You’re back in town!”

SH: We are each other’s casting directors.

Amanda Campbell (AC): Absolutely. I know you have both been away at NTS. What are your connections to Halifax?

SH: I came to Halifax originally to run away from my passion for theatre. (laughs). I went to Kings and Dal and did the Foundation Year (at Kings) and then went into International Development, but I kept ending up in the rehearsal hall more than the library! (laughs). So then finally I realized that it was so apparent that I knew what I wanted to do and so I auditioned for the National Theatre School of Canada. But while I was here I had met a lot of the people in the [theatre] community. I worked as an usher and bartender at Neptune so I got to see a lot of those shows like fifteen times. I worked with the KTS, which is extremely strong. Then, in my second year I went to El Salvador as an International Elections Monitor and that was the one experience that almost pulled me back into my degree. I worked the NGO… but I quickly figured out that the second you know what you really want, you should go for it.

WB: I was in the same boat. I was going to school to become a dental hygienist in Truro, which is where I’m from, at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, and I had planned to transfer to Halifax because I had gotten a job as part of my Science Major and I was going to finish Dental Hygiene at Dal. When I was here I started working with Halifax Theatre for Young People and I met Tessa Mendel and I worked on a show called Merlin where I met Tessa and Lee J. Campbell and Karen Bassett, all these big Halifax theatre people. And they were constantly being like, “Wayne! Meet my friend so and so and meet my friend so and so.” Also, Drew O’Hara was in that show and he knew a lot of people as well and so I just kept building and building this great community of theatre people I knew and I loved it.

AC: So, what brings you back to Halifax to do this show this week?

SH: I graduated from NTS two weeks ago and I had planned to go on this trip to Halifax as a vacation with my friend James Rendell, who also went to Kings. So, as we get on the train to come from Montreal to Halifax, I had this idea that wouldn’t it be great to just rent a theatre in Halifax and put on a solo show. But then I would think, “No, you can’t just DO that!” I was on the Internet a lot searching people and stuff and I realized that I really wanted to do something with El Jones and I started watching more of her stuff online and she was really an inspiration to me. So then I started to think maybe I could bring together a whole bunch of different artists, like El and dancers and that I could make a show that was sort of a multidisciplinary evening of solo work. We have to do a solo show in the second year at NTS, and it’s really a rite of passage at the school, but it’s great because you really get to see people shine, it’s a defining moment of your training. In first year you do what’s called a vocal masque, where each person does a series of scenes about one theme. Wayne’s this year had me in stitches and really moved me, so I am so excited to have him as a part of Soloicious. All of this has been evidence for me of how powerful and phenomenal solo performance can be, and that is where Soloicious, which no one seems to be able to pronounce, came from. I woke up one night and just said aloud, “Soloicious… because it’s delicious” and I thought everyone would immediately get it. But, they didn’t (laughs) and that’s okay.

WB: I live here. I knew that I was going to come back for the summer because my girlfriend lives here and really, I feel like I haven’t exhausted all my options in Halifax yet. I would really like to explore what this community in theatre and in film and TV, because I’m really getting interested in film and TV, has to offer. Halifax has always had a strong place in my heart, and it’s a great place to come back to while you’re in school because you can pick up a couple of TV series to work on and make a little money and get to live in a place that makes you feel really comfortable. Honestly, and this is going to maybe sound bad, but I’m not sure how long I am going to stay into the future… but I absolutely want to be here now to make sure that I’ve shaken everybody’s hand and met all the awesome artists who live and work here.

SH: There is something so romantic about the idea of hopping on a train and coming to Halifax.

WB: Coming home to Halifax is so serene because the people here are so different from the people in other cities. I love that it’s so small that in a matter of two days you can reconnect with almost everyone you know. I have been spending a lazy couple of weeks just doing nothing, unlike Sebastien! There is such a joy for me in coming home, I get to chill out and go to the library- there is so much free stuff there for the borrowing!! I just love being able to sit back and read. After a year at NTS I’m having to remind myself of the things that I used to do for fun. (laughs)

SH: The summers while you are at school are so important. They are almost more important than the school term because it is when all the stuff that you are learning settles in your body. It’s when you get inspired to do things… or not to do them. It is a time to recharge and to open your eyes up to the world.

WB: Yes. We are told that a lot of what we are learning will take time to settle, but you never really think that it will be so instant or such a revelation moment. I find sometimes just walking down the street it will hit me out of the blue, “OH! That’s what that meant!” And I find that I am noticing everything now. People. The way they walk. I just want to study that and be able to imitate it.

SH: Yes. I have watched people and just become so enthralled by the way the move, that I have followed them sometimes taking on the manner of their bodies. You can tell so much about a person and their story by the way they move and it’s fascinating to see that in everyone you come across on the street.

WB: I have been noticing the way people talk too. There was this guy just now who was yelling really loudly, “ZERO! OH PLEASE NO! NOT ZERO!!” and probably normally I wouldn’t have noticed, but after a year at NTS, I’m immediately captivated and thinking, “Wow! How theatrical!”

SH: You suddenly start seeing everything with fresh eyes. It’s like getting culture shock in the country where you grew up. I had that experience, actually, when I was in El Salvador. There, they just care so much about democracy. They have their colors hanging off trees and these huge billboards about voting and the elections. So, after that, when I came back to Halifax, I was in this parking lot at Sobeys and there was this huge ad for Shreddies and it was back when they had that campaign, “Vote. Diamond or Square?” And I suddenly saw that from a whole different perspective and was like, “WHAT ARE WE DOING!?” Our voting apathy is almost on par with the states but when it comes to cereal we’re all over it!?

AC: So tell me a little bit more about Soloicious. What are people going to see on Sunday night at the Bus Stop?

SH: People are going to see eight phenomenal solo shows that are going to each ignite in a spark for up to fifteen minutes. Afterwards there is going to be a massive dance party! That’s what people will get (laughs). A massive dance party! There is also going to be a sense of professionalism with the design of the night. We talked at first about maybe doing what I think a lot of people do at the Bus Stop, filling it with couches and sort of a lounge kind of feel, but we decided that we wanted it to be as neutral as possible to really give each performer a fighting chance to fill the room.

WB: I’ve actually had some parents of people I know reach out to me and ask, you know, “Is it going to be a hipster, like, talent night at the Coffee House sort of deal?” And when I say to them, no, actually, we’re all professionals, they have been like: Oh, wow, that’s interesting. It’s also going to be so diverse. There is going to be music, there is going to be theatre and spoken word and dancers, so there really is something for everyone. I know sometimes with stuff like this people are worried that they are going to feel out of place, maybe that it will just be the theatre community there and they won’t know anyone, but the way I’ve been trying to market this night is, it’s like going to an art gallery, there is something there for everyone to love. Again, it is about knowing the talent that exists in your community. I’m excited to see Sebastien’s solo show because I was blown away by it the first time I saw it, but now he has graduated, so I know that it’s going to be a different piece than the one I saw before. I know that since Sebastien’s work is so great that the other people that he recruits are going to be AMAZING.

SH: Write that down! They are AMAZING. (laughs) And I’m excited to see Wayne’s Vocal Masque again.

AC: Can you explain what Vocal Masque is?

WB: Vocal Masque at NTS is taught by Damien Atkins and Paul Dunn and it is a yearlong project. You pick a series of themes that interest you and then Damien and Paul will help choose the best one. It has to be a theme that is of great interest to you and that you can work on for the whole year. I chose addiction because, well, my family has been in contact with all sorts of different addictions. So, then you work and build a series of scenes around this theme. They are between 30 seconds and 2 minutes long and you can have as many characters as you want. The only rule is that there can be no “no sounds”, so in all of them you have to either be speaking or singing. After a couple of months you have about 24 scenes and you show your best ones and they all get paired down into an 8-10 minute vocal masque. So, the point is that it is rapid movement between characters, and constant movement and sound all based around a single theme. The solo show in second year is similar, and Damien and Paul don’t really work with you a lot, I mean they’re there to guide what you come up with, but mostly it’s just you alone working in a room six days a week. You are really the master of your own ship.

SH: It is a lot of learning about yourself as a creator and that learning lasts a lifetime. It also builds amazing discipline. In the first year Vocal Masques they are more bare bones, you make all the sounds for your character. The solo shows can be a little bit more tech heavy, but still, you are essentially creating something that you could put in a suitcase and travel with all over the country. The solo show is a show you create of 15 minutes that can be whatever you want. You have to seek to answer one burning question that you have. It is not about finally coming out at the end of it all and saying, “Ah! I got it! The answer is THIS,” but it is more about the pursuit of that answer you may never find and where that journey leads you. My solo show is a hip hopera and the question that I used is, I’m an only child, so my question was, “what if I had had a brother?” I just think it’s such a human question, and one that a lot of people ask themselves, or wanted to explore, that brotherhood idea, so I thought it would be a good idea to turn that into art.

AC: Why did you decide to do your solo show as a hip hopera?

SH: I love hip hop music, probably more than I should. I listen to it so much. I dunno, I think in artistic liberal environments, like I went to a Performing Arts High School, and then at Kings and even at NTS, people don’t like hip hop. I mean they will dance to it when they’re drunk and they sort of like it ironically and they do all the moves like a joke, but I legitimately LOVE hip hop and R&B music. Everyone gets it when they listen to that kind of music. And so, in my solo show everything is either spoken word or rap, and it was an additional challenge to make sure that the words all rhymed and I got to self produce all the music so I had more control. R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet was a real inspiration for me because it tells a story and not very many hip hop songs really do. Beyonce has this Hip Hopera Carmen that was on MTV… but that’s really it.

WB: When my mom was growing up a lot of the songs that she listens to from that time told a story and now a lot of what we have is just, “We’re going to the club!,” which I guess is kind of a story… but it’s not the same thing. But now you have some artists like Aloe Blacc who are using R&B as a forum for storytelling. We’re slowly getting back to this, I think, rather than it just always being about just the vocals being amazing. You walk away from it feeling fulfilled.

SH: In most rap right now there is a certain story or arc encapsulated in each verse, but they don’t really link up. You sort of just talk about yourself and then it becomes about who can get the best one liner in there. But then you have something like Slick Rick’s Children’s Story which actually tells the story of this kid who robs a bank and holds up a pregnant lady and then dies at the end… that has an effect on you. That’s something that you want to follow along for the whole ride because there is something so powerful about the story.

WB: You should tell them about what the future plans are for the show.

SH: Okay! Yeah. I have been thinking about next year already.

AC: I noticed it is marketed as “Halifax’s First Soloicious”.

SH: Yeah! On the programmes for the show on Sunday I have put instructions on the back on how people can help make Soloicious a yearly thing. Saying, “If you have a phenomenal solo show you would like to submit for next year, please email me!” I would love to see the event expand to a two-day period as it picks up steam. There are lots of solo festivals in cities like New York and all over Europe because it’s a very potent medium. Solo work is just so strong.

WB: The artists are just so vulnerable.

SH: Exactly. The work is not diluted at all. I think Halifax artists deserve to have a space like this where they can perform their solo work and that Halifax audiences deserve to have a space where they can come and watch them!

It is so fantastic to have these passionate and industrious young artists here to share with us something very unique and encouraging the community to come together with open hearts, minds and a desire to collaborate.  

Soloicious plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street, Halifax) on Sunday May 27th at 8:00pm. Tickets are $12.00 for the Arts Workers and the Underwaged and $15.00 regular. They are available at the door. Performers include: Wayne Burns, Sebastien Heins, El Jones, Veronique MacKenzie, Kyle McCracken, Lisa Phinney & Special Guests. 

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