COWBOY MOUTH by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, directed by Esther Jun, with Jason Collett and Jessica Huras. Presented by Heart in Hand at the Cameron House (408 Queen West). Previews from January 25, opens January 30 and runs to February 14, Wednesday-Sunday 8 pm. $15-$25. heartinhandtheatre.com.
Jason Collett is known for wearing a number of different hats around the Toronto music scene, but now the veteran singer/songwriter and Broken Social Scene guitarist is trying on a totally new one: he's making his stage debut in Cowboy Mouth, an explosive theatrical rarity co-written by Sam Shepard and punk singer Patti Smith back in 1971.
"There's a pretty big question mark hanging over this for me," says Collett about tackling his first-ever acting role. "But I'm a big fan of Smith and Shepard, and I'm fascinated with the process of making theatre. I think I'll learn a lot regardless of if I have any real talent for it."
In the emotional and at times surreal drama, Collett plays Slim, a mess of a man who has just left his wife to embark on a drug-and-sex-fuelled bender with a girl named Cavale (Jessica Huras) in a shack in the desert.
"Slim is a very rock-'n'-roll character, and this is a very rock-'n'-roll play, so it's not a huge stretch for me," chuckles Collett, who mentions he'll be composing some new music for the show.
"That's going to be the easy part!" he laughs. "It's not a musical, but there are a few songs I'm going to write music for. In the script, only lyrics are given - there's no indication of what the tunes should be."
With just two weeks of rehearsals, Collett's biggest challenge is to develop some acting chops under the guidance of director Esther Jun, a relationship he considers semi-analogous to working with a record producer.
"Esther is someone who has a strong artistic vision and who I know will challenge me, push me and won't be precious with my feelings.
"So far, we've had a few read-throughs and discussions about what the play means. She gave me a book about acting called Actions, but I haven't opened it yet," he snickers sheepishly. "She'll have my ass for that."
For Collett, the most interesting part about Cowboy Mouth is the special mystique surrounding the obscure piece based on Shepard and Smith's tumultuous affair; they performed the play only once together.
"There's a lot to dig into. So much of each of them is being divulged through their characters: Shepard's guilt about the affair is very evident, and Smith is so mystical and riding on this edge. It comes out in the play as this constant struggle. Studying the lines, it's easy to tell who wrote what."
Collett says he's amused and a little surprised by all the attention his acting experiment is getting.
"Here I was thinking I was doing something low-profile, and not under too much scrutiny."