TWO WORDS FOR SNOW by Richard Sanger, directed by Ross Manson, with Nigel Shawn Williams, David Fox, Lucie Idlout, Tom Barnett, Jerry Franken and Hugh Thompson. Presented by Volcano at Artword (75 Portland). Previews from Wednesday (January 8), opens January 11 and runs to January 19, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 2 and 7 pm. $15-$26, Sunday matinee pwyc. 416-504-7529.
Ross Manson was fated to work in the theatre. After all, he's been around the footlights since he was a kid.
"I played a baby," laughs the actor/director. "My mother directed high school plays, and one of my first memories is of her using me in a production. I remember the lights, and I remember this woman who wasn't my mother that I was supposed to pretend was my mother. It felt odd, but fun. And I got what it was all about."
Some three decades later, he's still playing dress-up, pretending and having fun. No offence to his Sackville, New Brunswick, mom, but these days the intellectual content of his work is a bit higher. So are the stakes.
Manson's one of those theatre artists who make the scene happen. He's a gregarious, constant presence, organizing and hosting the eclectic works-in-progress cabaret night Short Stuff, adding his grizzled, reliable acting chops to shows like Inexpressible Island and Faust and, most importantly, directing shows for his theatre company, Volcano, which NOW recently named the best independent theatre company in the city.
Volcano's shows, which include David Gow's controversial Neo-Nazi-skinhead-meets-Jew two-hander Cherry Docs (in which Manson played the skinhead and got a Dora nomination) and Michael Redhill's Chalmers Award-winning Building Jerusalem, are shot through with recurring themes.
"Stuff around race, identity, how people get along with one another," says Manson a couple of weeks before the opening of Richard Sanger's Two Words For Snow, Volcano's latest and most ambitious project to date.
"It never occurred to me growing up in a small town in New Brunswick that people from different cultural backgrounds wouldn't get along together. I'm a product of Trudeau's big push to multiculturalism. One of the greatest challenges of any modern Western society is inclusion. Just how do you do it?"
Sanger's subtle, evocative memory play is based on the 1909 Peary expedition to the North Pole. At its heart are various betrayals, including explorer Peary's (David Fox) refusal to acknowledge the help of his black colleague, Matthew Henson (Nigel Shawn Williams), in reaching the pole, and Henson's abandonment of Akatingwah, the Inuit woman he loved (played by theatre newcomer Lucie Idlout, better known as a musician) and who eventually bore him a son.
"It's a profoundly Canadian play even though there isn't a single Canadian character in it," says Manson. "Peary is from New York, Henson is from Pennsylvania, Akatingwah is Inuit but from Greenland, not Canada. There's a sea captain from Newfoundland, but Newfoundland in 1909 belonged to Britain, not Canada, so he's a British citizen."
Manson's analytical approach comes naturally. At the same time that he was appearing professionally in summer plays (a production with Gordon Pinsent made him want to pursue theatre seriously), he took a pre-med degree in biology at Mount Alliston.
"My science training made me respect research, getting to the heart of things, asking the right questions and, above all, seeking clarity," he says. "All those skills transfer right over to directing."
On a big table in the drafty rehearsal room lie stacks of well-thumbed research materials.
There are photos, dossiers on each of the play's characters. A VCR in the corner contains a cassette about Arctic exploration. Manson surveys it all.
"A lot of this is from my training in Germany," he points out. The year in a directing apprenticeship at the Staadttheatre Freiburg was, he says, awesome. Besides learning about the importance of research (hence the table), dramaturgy and long rehearsal periods, he also saw how directors and designers could work for months before a show, an experience that trained him to think visually as a director.
"When I came back here, I wanted to approach the possibilities of the stage differently," he says. "We've inherited a method of work here that's part history, part England, part budget. It's very efficient -- but it can hem you in artistically."
Of course, comparing generously subsidized European theatre with the meagrely supported Canadian arts scene can make you wanna slit your undernourished wrists.
But there are bonuses to the local scene. New script development is healthier here than there, he says. And actors are asked to think and contribute here, whereas in some European theatres they're simply told what to do.
"I also found a lot of self-indulgence and waste in the European rehearsal process," he laughs.
"There are these big-baby directors over there -- usually men with lots of power and money. The emotional age of the first director I worked with was about five. The artistic director was the same. Tantrums, screaming, that sort of thing."
No tantrums on the set of Two Words For Snow, where Manson quietly directs the three leads, whose experience ranges from pop singer Idlout to the elder statesman of Canadian theatre, Fox.
Volcano and Manson are busier than ever. They just finished an international tour of Weather, a work by Hope Terry that wowed the Edinburgh Festival, as did a remount of Andrew Alexis's SummerWorks hit, Lambton Kent. With choreographer Kate Alton, Manson's developing a full-length piece about 70s sound poetry troupe The Four Horsemen. He's also co-directing a vaudeville-style show with Eda Holmes inspired by a work by 20th-century German-Argentine composer Maurizio Kagel.
Manson's determined to stick it out in the indie scene, but knows it's a struggle. Last year, he was invited to apply for the artistic directorship of the Tarragon. He declined, reasoning that the way theatres are now, they weren't for him and he wasn't for them.
He can't wait to see what Richard Rose does there, and what Daniel Brooks does at the helm of Necessary Angel.
"They're my two favourite local directors," he states.
"It's such a Canadian phenomenon. As Volcano becomes more successful, my income has dropped enormously. I haven't been able to take any big acting gigs. My agent is exasperated. I'm working all the time but I'm having more trouble buying food."