Curtain up! Actors in Canada's top theatre productions explain how they get their heads in the game

As the curtain rises on new theatre seasons around the country, CBC Arts asked Canadian actors to share what's happening behind-the-scenes as those real-life velvet drapes go up.

It’s a time of anticipation and new beginnings. Just like every night, really, if you’re behind the scenes.

Theatre Calgary opened its 2015-16 season with Morris Panych's comedy The Shoplifters. It runs to September 27. (Trudie Lee/Theatre Calgary)

It's the new year for Canadian theatre. Right now, companies are either counting down to their season-launching shows, or staging the first productions of 2015-16. It's a time of anticipation and new beginnings. Just like every night, really, if you're behind the scenes.

CBC Arts reached out to actors performing in shows launching the 2015-16 seasons for Theatre Calgary, Neptune Theatre in Halifax and the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. The curtain is rising on a new slate of programming, but what's happening inside the world of a performer when those real-life drapes go up? Hear their thoughts, and learn how they prepare for each night's big debut, as they share what life is like backstage.

Marty Burt, Great Expectations (Neptune Theatre, Halifax)

"Early birds me and Roy Lewis. Dressing room buddies, here at 6 for a 7 o'clock call." ((Marty Burt))

Marty Burt's spent 20 years performing with Neptune Theatre, and the local actor is now appearing in Great Expectations as Joe Gargery, the loving guardian of the story's young hero, Pip. Burt knows the "rabbit warren" halls of the downtown theatre as well as he knows its people. He makes a routine of catching up with cast mates and old buddies in the crew before the show begins. Even so, before the curtain goes up, he's twitching with nervous energy.

Neptune Theatre's production of Great Expectations. (Timothy Richard Photography)

"A lot of my warm ups or rituals are about calming myself down," Burt explains. He'll arrive at the theatre an hour or more before showtime to "settle in slow" and physically walk through his lines. "A lot of people try to pump themselves up. If I were to do that, I'd just fly off the stage."

Fifteen minutes before places are called, while most of the cast is still in the green room, Burt disappears to his favourite place in the building — the back hallway. "I've always loved it here, ever since I was a kid and I started doing theatre. I love that extreme quiet of the dark backstage where it's the safest place and no one's allowed to make any noise," he says.

Ellen Denny as Estella and Ken James Stewert as Pip in Neptune Theatre's production of Great Expectations. (Timothy Richard Photography)

"There's really a wonderful kind of aloneness to that, where you can really get your head. It really stabilizes me somehow, it's really calming.

"In my last moments before I walk on, I'm thinking about where my character has just come from," says Burt. "Joe's coming from the forge, as usual. I know that Pip hasn't been back yet and that Mrs. Joe is raging out there with a stick to give Pip a whipping. So I'm out there, worriedly looking for Pip — that's our first moment together. And he runs on…"

Jeff Lillico, The Shoplifters (Theatre Calgary)

"I guess I use music to zone myself out a little bit. It puts me in a certain territory." ((Jeff Lillico))

It's not about what's running through his head, it's what's coming through his headphones. Jeff Lillico plays rookie security guard Dom in the comedy The Shoplifters. Back in his hometown for the Theatre Calgary production, the actor prepares with music every night. "I think good acting happens when you're loose and ready to just let stuff fly out of you," Lillico says. "Like fishing, just let the reel go." And finding the right song is one way to do it.

"Because this show is so physical, I want to get the body activated," he says. "It's just one song I listen to: Kanye West, 'Jesus Walks,' because my character's a religious zealot trying to convert people. And it's kind of militaristic in its beat, which he is, as well.

Stephen Hair (Otto) and Jeff Lillico (Dom) in a scene from Theatre Calgary's The Shoplifters. (Trudie Lee/Theatre Calgary)

"I grew up dancing, so I like to break out some hip-hop moves on the floor and nerd out a little. I'm lucky I have my own dressing room, because at the five or ten minute call, I'll get my iPhone going with my earphones and do a little bit of dancing all on my own.

"It's hard to describe," Lillico says, trying to find the words of what he's thinking before showtime. "I'm not thinking about things too seriously. It's like getting revved up, getting the motor running. It's much more physiological than mental."

Rick Miller, Boom (The Citadel Theatre, Edmonton)

"I've done the show many, many times and I will be doing it 200 times in the next year. Audiences are paying to see it for the first time so I need my voice and my brain and my body to be entirely focused on delivering this experience as if it's the first time." (Rick Miller)

It's their 50th anniversary, so of course Edmonton's Citadel Theatre wanted to open with a boom. Boom, in this case, being the play by Rick Miller, a solo show from the man made famous by MacHomer, and a production that will be the most presented play in Canada this season.

The action spans the post-war "Baby Boom" years, 1945-1969, with Miller connecting the essential events and players of the era with more personal stories, including those of his parents. He's the writer, the director, performer and producer — and he also did some of the sound and video editing. But his chief concern, from the moment he wakes up on a show day, is his voice.

"There are 100 voices in the show, some of them are only there for one line," Miller says — Sir Winston Churchill to Mick Jagger, he plays them all. "I abuse my voice in my shows, I go all the way to Janis Joplin," Miller says. "And my voice can handle that kind of scratching, because I've trained it a bit like a circus performer to withstand these somewhat unnatural pushes."

Rick Miller in Boom, now playing at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre. (Citadel Theatre)

After a day of vocal exercises and conscious rest, by an hour to curtain time, he'll be in his dressing room singing through vocal warm-ups. Through it all, he says, his mind is as clear as a cup of tea and lemon. "I do not worry about forgetting my lines because I wrote it myself," he says. "Not worrying allows me to not be anxious, and if I'm not anxious I can feel, or try to feel — even in 30 seconds — what these characters feel.

"Usually, I watch the audience as they walk in. I'm behind a scrim so I can see, I can get a feel of the people I'm going to be talking to in the room," Miller says.

"I stand there on the stage for about five or ten minutes, just feeling the energy in the room. … The experience of what we're about to live is in my hands, and I need to be nimble and open to it." 

The Shoplifters. Featuring Jeff Lillico. Presented by Theatre Calgary. To Sept. 27.

Great Expectations. Featuring Marty Burt. Presented by Neptune Theatre. To Oct. 4.

Boom. Featuring Rick Miller. Presented by the Citadel Theatre. To Oct. 11.


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