SEMINAR, a co-production with the Manitoba Theatre Centre, is in previews Nov 14 and opens Nov 18 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street.
Renowned Canadian actor Tom McCamus is not a nice man. Well at least not in his new play Seminar, an edgy comedy by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Theresa Rebeck. McCamus plays a respected author hired to teach a seminar on how he does what he does. Well-meaning students have paid him a great deal of money for the opportunity to hear about his artistic process. But they’re taken aback just as the audience is to find he’s a tyrannical brute, verbally abusive, divisive and egomaniacal. Among his unsavoury tricks is pitting the students again one another as a kind of life lesson. The play is in Toronto after a successful run in New York and we had the chance to speak with McCamus from his southern Ontario farm.
The New York critics called Seminar “fiercely funny and cringe worthy”. I like it already! I think we have all have tyrannical teachers or bosses. How is it that they often have a lot of power?
He is tyrannical in the way he does stuff but he’s smart and basically his justification is that he is teaching them valuable lessons. He’s not doing it necessarily to hurt them. He’s obnoxious and he’s mean but he’s also a very flawed individual. And he’s a heavy drinker so he’s not always aware of where he is. But the show’s entertaining and there are lots of opportunities for laughter.
As an actor, I guess you have to find some way of connecting to a guy like Leonard. What did you look for?
In the script you find out something. He reveals himself because what he says you understand. As an audience member you don’t know it right away but as an actor, you do. He’s passionate about his subject. It’s one of the things attracted me to the play. It also talks about writing and the cost of art.
There is ego all over the place in this business, directors, and actors. It’s about a healthy ego that allows you to get in front of people but not that strong that is turns bad. It’s confidence. A sense of ego in a director is perfectly fine. You don’t want an actor to clash with that. It’s not the norm but most people have experienced it. As long as it comes from a passionate, caring place.
What wisdom or caution did you receive from tyrants you have known?
In that artistic thing and I don’t subscribe to it, I don’t like it. There are other ways to get your message across than that and if I work with people like that I don’t negate what they’re saying but the manner in which they say it. I listen to what they’re saying because it can be brilliant.
You’re also in the film Room which is getting Oscar buzz. You and Joan Allen walk on eggshells as parents of a kidnapped girl who is returned home with a son after 15 years.
I loved the writing, I’d read Emma Donoghue’s book and the character you see in the film is an amalgamation of characters for the film, the way she describes him. I got to be a positive male in the film and it was such a joy!
I remember being blown away by your performance in I Love a Man in a Uniform way back when and you’ve gone on to have a solid career.
I enjoyed working with David Wellington, the director. He taught me how to enjoy making movies just by the way we worked. He is a fantastic director and helped me feel free to play in front of the camera when before I had felt so much pressure.
Do you still get nervous onstage?
Always. And at different times but usually I find when we put a play in front of people, I get nervous because that’s another character in the scene, the audience.
Seminar runs until December 6th. McCamus gets a week off before starting work on Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale at Ted Dykstra’s Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto.