10 questions: Michael Wheeler

1) What the fuck is going on?
Ommm. I’m directing two shows at the same time, which is a little silly, but also a good idea seeing as how I’m trying to kick-start a career and all. The first one is Steel by Andrew Zadel, which we’re remounting at The Queen West Arts Centre. The show did really well, winning awards in two different fringe festivals in ’04. Our new version has some rewrites, a new actor, new music, new lighting design and will be the first show to be put on in this space.

The second one is Two Lies and a Switchblade, opening March 20th at The Diesel Playhouse. It’s actually three plays by three different playwrights that three different directors (Terrance Odette, Bernadette Jones and myself) are working to make into one cohesive and integrated production . . . no problem. My play has the switchblade and actors Dave Tompa and Glen McDonald.

When that’s all over I’m acting in a workshop of Crate Productions’ show Fort York. The full production, written by Tara Beagan and directed by Chad Dembski, opens in September. This show is crazy. It is not a historical drama. I think some people will be shocked at what we’re up to.

2) How has your background in Russian theatre shaped your current work as a Toronto-based theatre artist?
The Russians take their theatre pretty friggin’ seriously, so some of it has washed off on me I guess. When I was studying at the Moscow Art Theatre I had a separate form in my wallet to go with my visa. It was a letter from Head Dramaturge Anatoly Smeliansky. It asserted that I truly was a student at the school and had a stamp and everything. Its main purpose was to stop cops from shaking us down, which happened on a weekly basis in the tunnels they use instead of crosswalks. It worked without fail. There was not a corrupt militsia in the city who did not know Anatoly by name. We usually got our paperz back with an apology. A world where dramaturges have that much power gives me hope.

3) Do you have any unifying theories when it comes to directing a play?
Don’t be late for rehearsal. Less is more.

4) How has MySpace affected your experience of Toronto’s independent theatre community?
Not so much until last month. Then I made a MySpace page for Praxis. It was a day-long activity really. I got into it. Trying out different themes, uploading images and everything. Then you get to collect all these friends, which is great, ’cause I collected basketball cards for three acne-scarred years, so I already knew how that part worked. Oh, and then you get to pick a theme song. I’ve got some fair-to-middling feedback over the song I picked, so I may have to revisit that. I’m finding that it’s kinda like having a pet. But your pet talks to the pets of all of the other people that are in your field, so it’s helpful that way.

5) What kind of questions do you like to be asked about your work?
How much is your usual per diem?

Michael Wheeler and Brooke Stubbings.

6) What would you do with a $1,000,000 no-strings production grant?
Put on the first five minutes of The Lord of The Rings . . . just kidding, thanks for the softball.

Seriously, no one will give us any money to remount our original adaptation of The Master and Margarita even though it was a huge success at the Toronto Fringe last summer. It was completely selling out the rather large George Ignatieff Theatre by the end of its run. To pour copious amounts of sea salt on this open, festering wound that was the result of three different workshops over three years, Andrew Lloyd Webber has announced that he will be creating his own adaptation as his next major project. I would use the million to challenge Sir Andrew in the manner befitting a knight with a penchant for composing catchy little ditties you can’t stop humming.

7) How would you describe your approach to the craft of acting?
I would describe it with gusto and panache.

8) Is it okay to shop at Wal-Mart?
Nope. It’s an economic atom bomb in terms of what it does to locally owned businesses. It gives employees the lowest possible wages and is being sued in multiple states for not paying people for overtime hours. Its anti-union tactics are blatantly anti-democratic. You can also get all of that stuff at other stores in the Dufferin Mall.

9) What’s the Queen West Arts Centre?
Besides being the venue for Steel, it’s also a rehearsal space with several studios that are used by a variety of companies, including the Toronto Youth Theatre and The Classical Theatre Project. I’m spearheading an effort to turn the largest studio into a permanent functioning theatre (as opposed to the temporary one we are constructing for Steel). Losing The Diesel Theatre, The Theatre Centre and Artword all to mother#%@^@@* condos will be a disaster for indie theatre. We need new places to put on our stuff – and fast. Hopefully this will be one of them. We’re interested in starting a program modeled on LIFT where we can trade time spent helping to make the theatre for time spent using the theatre.

10) Do you think Toronto’s independent theatre scene is poised for explosive growth?
Yep. One of the unintended consequences of the extended decimation of the film and TV industry in Toronto is that those of us that are left standing are serious about this shit. For various pathological reasons we have all decided to ignore what is in our economic interest and do this thing anyhow. We know how to make the most of meager resources and we have a chip on our shoulders. We will make some interesting things in the next few years.

I think we are all coming to the realization that we can gain more by working together, too. That there isn’t a finite number of NNNNN shows per year. The grade is not on a curve. If we all do well, then Toronto gets a rep for having a thriving scene and more money comes in and we all do better. And have a chance to produce even better work next time around. This sentiment is maybe the one through line to all the interviews I’ve read on this blog so far.

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