Keenan Viau can kill you.
An experienced student of ninjutsu who knows all about your pressure points, Viau is also at ease with the bo-staff, broadsword, rapier, and katana. Of course, those skills will not help him in any direct way as he prepares to play Clifford Bradshaw in Hart House Theatre’s upcoming production of Cabaret, a play based on stories by Christopher Isherwood. The actor sat down with us to discuss the challenges involved in getting ready for his Hart House debut and to meditate on art, theatre, and the function of the actor.
The Medium: What is it about performing that strikes you?
Keenan Viau: I just love entertaining people. I have a blast when I’m on stage, but if I know that I’ve made someone’s night, then that really makes me happy, or if I make someone cry—to make them feel something that they might not necessarily feel in their ordinary lives. The actor’s job is to sort of feel the emotions for them, and that helps bring it out for them. They get to experience [something] and identify with a character that much more.
TM: On your blog, you wrote a piece about the role of the performer that encourages them to break out of their respective moulds and try something a little out of their range, to become artistically daring. In what ways is this role as Clifford Bradshaw a departure from some of the stuff you’ve done before?
KV: Well, I think the way we are doing the show is a departure from the way it’s usually done. Cabaret is normally focussed on the MC, and it’s this disconnect between his story and what Cliff and Sally’s story is. The way we’re doing it through the eyes of the Christopher Isherwood character, Cliff, we see the cabaret through his eyes. He gets up on stage and is the only person who isn’t a member of the cast, so the MC is commenting on what is happening between Sally and Cliff and the other couple, Schultz and Fraulein Schneider. That is the difference we’re making artistically in taking that risk and seeing it in a different light. And that’s kind of the way I’m seeing this: rather than Clifford being the usual, you know, “strapping young man”, who either completely falls in love too quick or completely doesn’t—it’s all these different levels and layers. Is he gay? Is he not? We’ve come to our own conclusion, but now we’re leaving it up to the audience to come to that conclusion as well.
TM: Generally speaking, Canada is a relatively accepting country. However, the LGBTQ community is one that still experiences a great deal of persecution. What challenges are faced in portraying a character whose sexual orientation is unclear?
KV: For Cliff specifically, we talked in the beginning about him being “try-sexual”; he will try anything. But as the rehearsal process has gone on, it’s become more clear. Cliff has spent his entire 25 years of living being a gay man living in a conservative society where he is not allowed to be. Coming to the cabaret where it’s allowed, it’s okay. That’s one thing that I really like about what we do in this show: the bisexuality and the homosexuality is just part of it. It’s not weird. It’s just there and it’s accepted and no one seems to care.
TM: Even by today’s looser standards, many of the topics touched upon in this musical are contentious issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. What do you think are the merits for that type of boldness in theatre?
KV: Oh, you should always do it anyways! I think it seems like there is a disconnect between the older musical theatre crowd, which is more classical—they’d see shows like Hair, Ragtime, things like that—and then you’ve got the younger, contemporary crowd, which is all about things like Wicked, Mamma Mia, and American Idiot. It’s about finding topics which are relevant to both.
TM: We’ve got an active theatre program at UTM. You’ve got a clear and obvious passion for this and you’ve been around, done a number of productions —
KV: You make me sound like a loose woman! “I’ve been around”…
TM: [Laughs] What I mean is, you’re experienced at this point with a number of productions. What advice do you have for someone right now who looks to get involved with theatre—acting, specifically?
KV: I would say, find out your process. Everyone has a different way of doing it. Some people will absolutely need a teacher to be there, someone with that outside eye to tell them what they are doing and what they should be doing. My process became more refined over the last few months, being outside of school. But get a good teacher, get a good vocal coach, and keep taking dance classes. This is a community with a lot of support. And never hesitate to ask questions.
TM: This is your debut at the Hart House, a theatre with a long history of outstanding performances and performers. What are your thoughts on it? Do you feel some sort of pressure?
KV: It’s pretty scary… but, obviously, I’m not going to let it impact the performance at all. I’m still going to do as good a job as I can and put out my best.
Cabaret opens Friday, January 13 and runs until January 28. Visit http://www.harthouse.ca/hart-house-theatre/cabaret for more information.