Next Phase, New Wave, Dance Craze, Anyways, It’s Still Rockbound To Me–

A decade ago, Nova Scotian actor Kyle Gillis played a plethora of different roles, including my Munchkin baby, in Elsinore Theatre Company’s production of The Wizard of Oz at Neptune’s Studio Theatre. Ten years later, Gillis has established himself as a strongly sought after musical theatre performer having played Curly in Oklahoma!, Horton the Elephant in Seussical: The Musical, and Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden among many others. Most recently he played Joe Todd in Theatre Arts Guild’s production of Drinking Alone and Steve in Daniel MacIvor’s Wild Abandon in the 2008 Atlantic Fringe Festival (directed by Charlie Rhindress). He is currently starring in Two Planks and a Passion’s production of the world premiere of Rockbound a new Canadian musical by Allen Cole at Ross Creek Centre for the Performing Arts. Kyle and I stopped by Pete’s Frootique on a beautifully sunny day on Spring Garden Road in Halifax to buy smoothies before climbing, and perching ourselves on the bright, freshly mowed, green grass atop Citadel Hill to chat about the theatre we love.

Amanda Campbell (AC): Kyle Gillis.

Kyle Gillis (KG): Amanda Campbell.

AC: I’m going to open with the same question I ask people in Toronto. Who are you? Where are you from? And how did you get so damn spankin’ talented?

KG: I’m Kyle Gillis. I’m originally from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, or as we say, “Annagonish”… and I dunno how I got to be so “damn spankin’ talented.” I’ve been doing this [performing] for a long time, since I was young I’ve been singing and doing plays and shows and stuff and so, hopefully all that hard work has paid off. It’s really all about then constantly honing, experiencing and living really. So yeah…

AC: You are known primarily around these parts for your beautiful singing voice. When did you start singing?

KG: Well, I started singing in the church choir, um, because, a girl I liked sang in the choir. But, I sang in choir for awhile, even though my beliefs are not really religious, I still sang with the choir until I graduated from High School and then left. I guess that through that singing, I knew that people who sang also acted a lot of the time, so that’s when I started to do plays in school and in community theatre. But, I didn’t actually start taking voice lessons until I was about fifteen or sixteen.

AC: Really? Wow!

KG: Yeah, cause I know that some people that I did shows with had been taking voice lessons since they were like five or six, and they had been competing in the music festival since then, but it wasn’t until I was fifteen or sixteen that I started to compete in voice.

AC: Yeah, because I met you when we were fourteen, and your voice was basically the fourteen-year-old version of the way it is now. Your voice was really strong even back then.

KG: Yeah, well I think being in the choir, that structure helped a lot, even though it wasn’t really the music I wanted to sing, but I think that that sort of classical music, if you will, gave me a good foundation. It was a really valuable experience in my life.

AC: What is the first show that you remember seeing?

KG: Um, Les Miz at Neptune. My aunt took me for my grade four birthday. Yeah, that was a really special show for me because I was still so young and naïve and I was in complete awe of it all. But then also when I was in grade six I went to see Theatre Antigonish’s production of Evita directed by Cliff (LeJeune) and I was so amazed and I remember that’s when I said, when I thought to myself, “this is what I want to do with my life.” So, I guess that it was Les Miz that ignited the spark in my thinking, and then it was Evita that made that thought grow. And, I don’t even like Evita! I mean, at the time I thought it was great, but not now. So, kudos to LeJeune for doing such a good job with it.

AC: Who was the first theatre performer who had an influence on you?

KG: Oh wow, that’s a tough question. Oh, here’s a funny story. Laughs So, growing up in Antigonish I got the fantastic opportunity and had the pleasure of seeing some amazing actors and actresses come through and perform in some pretty great shows. One of these amazing actresses was Burgandy Code, who I feel so fortunate to be working with now [on Rockbound] and the other night laughs heartily we were all at this party at the farmhouse and I was having a pretty good time and I suddenly went up to Burgandy and un-shed all of my younger self’s version of my huge crush on her, which I hope she was flattered by rather than being disgusted by how candid I was with sharing my memories of her. Laughs sheepishly. I saw her in a lot of shows in Antigonish. She played Laura in The Glass Menagerie and in a couple Agatha Christie mysteries. Watching her, I really looked up to her as being a beautiful performer, who is really brilliant onstage. She just really knows how to elicit emotion. And now getting the chance to work with her, I know it might sound cliché, but just sharing the stage with her, and getting to watch her in rehearsals working and playing is amazing and inspiring. And that’s true with the whole cast of Rockbound. And Burgandy is also really good at giving compliments… when they are due… and that has really helped me with my self confidence and I find that it is really admirable because just that sort of affirmation has really helped me to renew my confidence as well.

AC: What was the first show that you performed in?

KG: You mean like school plays… or Theatre Antigonish shows?

AC: Well, what was your very first play, and also what was your first community theatre show?

KG: I did a play in grade three called Which Witch is Which? I played a sort of Warlock King or something, I don’t even really remember. I do remember that I had to wear a really ugly costume, and that it was even uglier because I had to have brown or green face paint. So, that was grade three. Then when I was in grade seven, my dad mentioned that Festival Antigonish was holding auditions for their production of The Sound of Music. He had heard from a drama teacher at the school that he worked at and I remember I was like, “great, I would like to see that.” And my dad said, “No, you should try out for it.” I had never even thought of that. The audition was on the same day as a choir concert laugh and I was sick. So, I ran from that and I go and audition and it is this huge cattle call of kids. And, of course, I didn’t know what to sing. I think I sang “Do, Re, Me,” but I’m not sure. I do know that it was really bad. And Jono Logan was behind me, and of course he sounded fantastic and I remember thinking, “greaaaaat.” But, then I got a callback and they paired us all up in a bunch of different families, and when I got the call saying that I had gotten the role [of Friedrich] I ran around the whole house and screamed even though I still didn’t even really know what had happened. So, I guess that was my first go at theatre.

AC: And when did you first perform in Halifax?

KG: Well, I think it had to do with a certain wizard… and the yellow brick road with a certain theatre blogger. It was The Wizard of Oz with Jeremy Webb’s theatre company Elsinore Theatre. I auditioned for that show also on a sort of a whim too. I was in the city auditioning for [Neptune Theatre’s] YPCo [Youth Performance Company] when I met up with Sarah-Blair Irwin… Blair told me about them, she asked me if I was auditioning for The Wizard of Oz and I was like, “Who’s doing that?” And she told me they were holding auditions next door. And I said, “no” and she said, “Oh, okay, they probably won’t have any times left anyway.”

AC: She said that? That they probably wouldn’t have any times left? laughs hysterically That’s so funny!

KG: I know!

Kyle and Amanda laugh so hard; Amanda nearly rolls backward down Citadel Hill

KG: So, I marched next door, they were doing them at the Khyber, I think? Anyway, I walked in and told them that I didn’t have a time, and they said that someone hadn’t shown up, or that they had extra time or something and I sang “A Whole New World” from Aladdin laughs.

AC: laughs Wow.

KG: And then I did the Lion’s monologue. Jeremy got me to read it for him. Anyway, then I got the letter saying that I had been cast, and that was a great show and a great experience for me to have and I got to meet a lot of great people, and some of the people I still keep in touch with to this day. And that was ten years ago.

AC: That was ten years ago. Wow. We should tell Jeremy that we need to have a reunion! A drunken reunion Wizard of Oz party.

KG: Well, yeah.

AC: I like asking you questions that I already know the answers to.

KG: Don’t put words in my mouth, Campbell!

AC: giggles Where did you go for your post secondary education? How did you choose that school?

KG: I ended up choosing CCPA [The Canadian College of the Performing Arts]. Originally I had been dead set on Sheridan [College] and CCPA was going to be my backup. And things went well with Sheridan and then I found out that I had been given the opportunity to participate in the process of a summer job experience through CCPA called Spirit of the Nation, and I found of that I got that before I had heard back from Sheridan and so I decided to take it. And I moved out West and I started work on my first paying gig as an actor. It got to the point that I hadn’t heard from Sheridan and I had to make a decision because it was nearing the deadline that I had to know for CCPA, and then I found out that I had gotten in to Sheridan. And I was making great friends out West, and I was like, “well, I’m here now, I might as well stay.” And I had a great time. I mean, like any school, especially a theatre school, there were ups and downs. And there were some downs. But I did meet some great people, and there were also a lot of challenges. Thinking back on it, I don’t know if I would do it again. I don’t know, maybe I would have gone somewhere different. But that doesn’t have anything to do with CCPA as a school, it’s just that at that point of my life it was hard to go all the way to Victoria and I was sort of still learning a lot about who I was and who I wanted to become and that did effect my work. I wasn’t able to commit fully, I mean that’s not to say that I wasn’t committed, I just think, where I was straight out of High School, maybe if I had taken some time off to travel and to build up some experiences and different perspectives that would have flavoured my choices as an actor. But, now that I’m twenty-five and I’ve been working relatively steadily I would like to go back to school. That’s not to say that I don’t feel like I got what I needed from CCPA either, the acting program there, well really, all the programs, but especially the acting program is fantastic, and the teachers and mentors that you have there are fantastic. I just think that to be at a point in my life where I was able to go and study again, but also, to have what I have now is also really great. I have said it before to you, I think, and I would say it to anyone who asks, as an actor, you are constantly learning, training and experiencing. I don’t think there’s ever an end to it. And yeah, doing shows is one part of that as it gives you extra experience. It is the chance to go and learn again and to meet with different people and to have a new experience.

AC: Would you consider doing a Conservatory program, like the ones that Raquel [Duffy] did at [the] Stratford [Festival] and is currently doing at Soulpepper [Theatre]?

KG: Yeah, I would love to do a Conservatory based program. I would especially like to focus on my acting skills, and building up my self-confidence and learning to trust my instincts. I still struggle with the physicality of my body and I think I need to learn to trust myself physically. Yeah, definitely, I would love to do a Conservatory program, like the Birmingham Conservatory or the Banff/Citadel Program is great. I don’t know about many other programs for professional actors… the Lyric School of Acting in Vancouver and I know there are others in Toronto. Having said that, doing shows and getting to meet different people and seeing how they play and work, that’s all part of it too. It’s about working, and doing different shows, and getting older and trying different things and learning what’s right and what’s wrong. Yeah, without sounding cheesy, you need to feel comfortable with yourself first before you can really delve into the work. You can have experience, but if you don’t have the right vehicle, all your work could be for naught.

AC: What was the highlight of your time at CCPA. Was it playing Jack in Into the Woods?

KG: Well, I did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Kate Twa, an incredible actor/director/teacher from Vancouver and she is someone that I would with again in a heartbeat. She came in and she didn’t know any of us, and while we were in rehearsing for this show it was a long, challenging experience. She would get us to sit in a circle and we would go around and she would ask us the usual how we were doing question, and normally you would just expect everyone to answer with “I’m doing good.” But she would look at us and say things like, “No. No, you’re pissed off.” And people would usually react saying, “No, I’m good.” But she would keep saying, “No, you’re pissed off,” and finally the person would be like, “Yes! I’m pissed off!!” She got such raw emotion out of all of us. And some people didn’t like the way that she worked in rehearsal for that reason, but I found that it worked to some extent. The raw emotion, that was what it was all about. If when we were rehearsing, she saw that one of us was blocked for some reason, she would stop the whole rehearsal and do an exercise with us to get rid of the block. I experienced these types of breakthrough moments with her, personally. We were doing a scene, I remember, where we had to emit an emotion that was… not sexual, but an expression of physicality and I remember I said that [as Demetrius] I was never going to be Christian Bale. And she stopped me and said, “Don’t say that” and there I had to learn to trust myself, and to trust my demons, in front of everyone [else in my class]. She gave me this sense of reassurance in the rehearsal process which was really amazing. And to a similar extent, Ken Schwartz, who directed Rockbound, is similar. He is really open for people to try new things and to have their own interpretations. I feel truly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with them. I know that I am known more for my voice, as you said, and that’s great, but I would like to do more straight theatre in the future. I don’t know if people see me as being just a musical theatre actor, but honestly, I find straight theatre more interesting than musicals. I mean, there are some contemporary musicals that are really complex and that’s fantastic, and Allen Cole is a very interesting example. But, I would like to do some more straight theatre.

AC: How did you get involved with Rockbound?

KG: Well, I had been involved in a production with Allen’s dad and that’s how I got involved with the [Rockbound] workshop of Act I, which was all Allen had written at the time. They needed a guy and I guess my name got mentioned and so then I got the call telling me they’d like me to be involved. And in that experience I got to work with amazingly talented people like Deb Allen, Margot Sampson, Bridget Bezanson, Frank MacKay, Marty Burt… just to name a few. Then last year in September I shot off an email to Ken being like, “hey. What’s up?” because I knew they were doing the full show workshop. And I got a response from him almost immediately saying, “yeah. You definitely emailed me at the right time. We’ll be in touch.” So, that’s how I got to partake in the December… December 08… workshop. And a lot of the crew returned for that workshop, Bridget, Frank and Margot and new people joined like Ryan Rogerson, Stewart Legere, Burgandy Code and Amanda LeBlanc. And then it’s been a lot of the same cast from December for the actual premiere, except Stewart and Garry [Williams]. And now we have Cliff {LeJeune] in the show!

AC: Was that your first experience with Allen Cole?

KG: It was! I had never met him, and he had never met me. So, yeah, it was a little daunting. I also hadn’t heard any of his music before the first workshop. I had heard of Pelagie with Two Planks but I had never heard it or seen it. I had also never worked for Two Planks before and I had never seen any of their shows, unfortunately. It was great working with Allen because his music is so beautiful and complicated, he is so smart, and I mean that genuinely. His music is so complex, it is amazing. And he is a great musical director because he is so smart and he knows what he wants. He has an ear for detail, which for a musical director is so important and wonderful. I have worked with a lot of great musical directors but I would say Allen is at the top for sure. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.

AC: Can you talk a little bit about the show?

KG: Well, they’ve touted it as a romantic gothic story. It’s about a man named David Jung who comes to Rockbound to claim his rights of land which has been left to him. And he meets his Uncle, Uriah, who is like the King of Rockbound. So, the show is basically about David’s trials and tribulations as he tries to claim what is his, and then meeting all the different characters and people of Rockbound. I don’t know if I’m explaining it in the best way, I don’t know what to leave out and what to put in… it’s a beautiful story about life in the late 1920s on Ironbound, an Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, where people grew up fishing and that kind of thing. It is a story of hard times and unrequited love… and greed. Uriah and his son Casper, I play Casper Jung, he is very money driven, I mean, he is a good man, but he can be easily side tracked. I don’t want to give away too much, but it is a really good story. I want to say it’s timeless, because it explores how it is hard to be independent and to stand up for yourself and to go after what you want, because if it works out then great, and you can get great happiness, but ultimately, everything has a price you have to pay.

AC: How important is it, from your perspective, to have new works produced in Nova Scotia?

KG: Well, coming from an actor’s perspective, getting the opportunity to create a character is always a dream. And then, of course, having playwrights creating new work here is always amazing because there is not a lot of work here. You have to create your own work, and it’s nice to get to create a new show because then there is no benchmark that’s been made up that you feel like you have to hit. It’s also great that people trust in Nova Scotian artists enough to bring their shows to be produced in Nova Scotia. Having that sense of trust is irreplaceable because these artists know that we have the resources and the capabilities to get the work done.

AC: What is the allure for audiences to go to Ross Creek to see the show at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts?

KG: It’s really gorgeous out there. It’s a really humbling experience, because it is so gorgeous. And the crew at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts… everyone is so fantastic, and open and the programs that hey have there for children and for people… Ken [Schwartz] and his wife Chris [O’Neill] run the center there and they are two amazing people. I have so, so, so, so much respect for them. And the fact that we get to do the season outside- the company is called Two Planks and a Passion and this production is produced under the banner of Theatre Off the Grid, and that’s what we do. We have a stage, but we don’t have any electricity, there are no mics, it’s a really different experience for audience members to have. And I am working with a great crew of people and the space is unique and fantastic.

AC: Do you have a favourite playwright? Or a favourite play?

KG: Um, that’s a tough question. Hm. My favourite play. Well, Daniel MacIvor, of course, he is brilliant, that goes without saying. I’m drawing a complete blank. … Oh, there was this show that I saw in London called Festen.


KG: Yeah! I saw it London and then I read the play and it was amazing, amazing, amazing. It’s amazing. I was speechless after I saw the show, all of us were. It is definitely a show that I would like to do someday. I’m trying to think of what plays I have most recently read…

AC: You know, I have to say; I am continually impressed with your breadth of theatrical knowledge. I mean, growing up in a place like Halifax, where there are very few places to buy plays, and with libraries that don’t even have a good selection of theatre books. I know how difficult it is. It requires constant research. Like where would you have bought Festen?

KG: I think I bought it in London. Laughs When I was in Toronto [in June] I came back with $200.00 worth of theatre plays. It’s funny that you mention the research and the play reading, because, yeah, I do seem to have this expansive, and silly knowledge of the theatre. If there was a Jeopardy! episode that specialized in theatre information, I’d definitely win. I like to think of myself as a sponge, in a good way, I take the good things and soak them up… and the bad things I guess too… I try to learn from the bad things. I really like talking to people and finding out what interests them and hearing from them and their perspectives and then doing research into those things. And I love reading plays. I just bought August: Osage County. I’m so freakin’ excited!

AC: August O, Sage County?

KG: August: Osage County. It was just on Broadway. It just closed, so unfortunately I’m not going to have the opportunity to see it. But I have had the opportunity of seeing some great shows in New York and in London, and as well as seeing shows around here and in Toronto and in Vancouver. Surprisingly, the reason I went to TheatreBooks in Toronto was to try to find monologues, to read the plays that I was getting the monologues from, and I ended up getting a lot of Canadian scripts, so I am going to have a lot of Canadian scripts in my rep.

AC: Because Canadian plays are the best!

KG: They ARE! They really are. It’s funny that you say that you feel like I know so much about the theatre because I am continually becoming aware of how much I don’t know. And while that is sort of exciting, it is also a little like, “but what don’t I know? What are the things I SHOULD know?”

AC: That’s interesting. Yeah. Hm. Speaking of Daniel MacIvor, was it daunting to do Wild Abandon last year in the Fringe Festival?

KG: Uh, yeah, it wasn’t easy. It was definitely a learning experience. I really pushed myself, I mean it was a one-man show, and it was really talky, and it was really out there, as all MacIvor plays are. I kept asking myself, “Do I want to do this? Do I really want to do this?” Daniel MacIvor is so known around here, and it would be such a stretch for me to do it. And finally, I just did it. I just went out there. And I got good reviews, and I know that is only like, 1/10th of the equation, but regardless of the outcome, I hope people liked it because I put a lot of work into it and I know I stepped up in my own personal journey. It’s also a matter of respect. Daniel MacIvor even mentioned me on his website, although he didn’t come see the show. I believe he said something like, “Kyle Gillis is performing Wild Abandon in the Atlantic Fringe Festival and I hear it is going well”—or something like that.

AC: Where was Daniel, the bastard? Amanda says jokingly with love and respect shinning in her eyes as she speaks about one of her idols.

KG: Toronto.
AC: Oh Toronto. Of course he was. Grins

KG: I bought Confession when I was in Toronto. I haven’t read it yet.

AC: I heard Daniel do a reading of it last year in Toronto. I really liked it. It’s great. Given all the knowledge you have and the plays you’ve read, is there a particular role or show that you are still anxious to play?

KG: You know, a lot of people ask me that and I never know what to say. I have been fortunate enough to play a lot of great roles already. Jack in Into the Woods, of course. I’m sure there are a lot of great shows that will be written in the future that I’ll be eager to play. Like I said before, I would love to do Festen. I dunno. It’s such a hard question. … Rabbit Hole at Neptune?

AC: laughs I know that it’s on the radar of a lot of artists in Nova Scotia right now. What is your dream vision for theatre in Nova Scotia?

KG: Oy. Well, number one- better space. But first before I answer your question, I have to say, we… the talent that we have here in Nova Scotia is fantastic. The fact that there is theatre happening here regardless of all the challenges… I am in awe of the people here, they are here because they want to be here, that’s why I am here. If I wanted to be in Toronto, I would move to Toronto. I want to live in Halifax because I like Halifax. I want to make it work here. Maybe that’s naïve of me to say, maybe it’s unrealistic to think about… but yes, we need better spaces because just having the Bus Stop doesn’t cut it and then if you want to do something that is more technically challenging you have to go through Neptune… I don’t know, I think if we had more spaces, people would feel more confident in putting on shows and if we had funding. We don’t have any funding! It’s amazing to think that we do what we do with no space and limited funding, think about what we could do with money and space. And, of course, I’m interested to see the new direction of Neptune Theatre with the new Artistic Director [George Pothithos] we are all filled with hope at the new opportunities this presents for us in Nova Scotia. Right now, artists here get maybe one audition per month, maybe even one every two months, so people here become so dependent on them and if they don’t get the gig, they can go a long time without working. You need to make your own work here, and I guess that’s why I did Wild Abandon, really, because I knew that I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to do the show if I didn’t do it myself. I feel like the community is, it’s pretty communal but I do think it could be a little more encompassing. I hope we’ll band together a bit more.

AC: It can only help.

KG: Exactly.

Kyle Gillis can be seen in Two Planks and a Passion’s production of the World Premiere of Allen Cole’s Rockbound until August 9th. Regular performances: Tuesday through Sunday at 6 pm. Matinees at 1 pm, July 18th, 25th, August 1st and 8th To order tickets call (902)-582-3073 or toll free 1-888-895-4545. Rockbound will also be produced August 13th-16th, 2009 at Chester Playhouse. For more information, please visit this website.

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