"Change is constant and necessary. It’s not always fun, but there has been some worthwhile movement forward..."
Credit: Soulpepper Theatre. Pictured: Damien Atkins in rehearsal sitting on bench with Colton Curtis who plays Lord Alfred Douglas
One of Canada’s accomplished artists, Damien Atkins was raised in St. Albert, Alberta. He is a graduate of the musical theatre program at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta.
This month, he will appear as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Soulpepper’s ‘De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail.’
I held a telephone conversation with Atkins as he walked to the theatre as the show was now in preview. Adapted by the creative team of Gregory Prest as Director with Original Music and Lyrics by Sarah Wilson and Mike Ross, the production is billed on the Soulpepper website as a musical fantasy based on Oscar Wilde's letter. At the same time, he was incarcerated for ‘gross indecency’ (homosexuality) with his love, Lord Alfred Douglas, for two years at Reading Gaol. Over three months, the letter was written a page a day, collected at the end of each day, and handed over to Wilde on his release from prison.
When I asked him what drew him into wanting to learn more about Wilde, Damien paused momentarily. He added that, as a queer person himself, he has a connection to the flamboyant writer and author; however, the spectre of Oscar Wilde was a familiar nightmare of what can happen to a gay person, and Atkins didn’t want to look too far. The troubling factor remains that Oscar fell in love, which destroyed him. He went to jail for being gay, a wrong reason for imprisonment.
Prest, Wilson, and Ross delved further throughout the rehearsal process to uncover the extra nuances of understanding Wilde. The creative team had always wanted to write a show for Damien when he received a call to see if he would be interested. Initially, he had no idea the story would be about the author.
Atkins quickly adds that he has great confidence in the creative team and calls them brilliant. Audiences must come to see the production because it’s fierce, it’s wild, and it’s unlike anything they have ever seen:
“[Gregory, Sarah and Mike] bring mischief and a sense of impishness. It’s a perfect blend of reverence and irreverence. A terrific blend of seriousness and frivolity has been balanced during this time. Their intuition, patience, and sensitivity to the culling of Oscar’s letter have been both fearless and kind…Prest has been unassuming and kind but also mischievous and fearless in his direction and staging.”
There’s sensuality, sexuality, pleasure, and wit for audiences to witness. Atkins states the production is a theatrical endeavour unlike anything ever seen. Philosophically, it will lead us to ask if we all really know what happened to Oscar Wilde. The man was a genius, a revolutionary and a hero, but he was also a terrible person at times and, in Atkins’ words, could also be an ‘asshole.’
Nevertheless, ‘De Profundis’ will allow audiences to see Wilde’s tremendous humility in taking responsibility. Wilde does not apologize for his sexuality and renounces it. Instead, he takes responsibility for a bad lot and vows to do better by holding those in charge accountable for the wrong reasons for his imprisonment.
When I asked him how he felt about rehearsals and previews, Atkins didn’t say too much except that things were going okay. During that time, his basic tenet was that everyone works as hard as possible. Damien keeps his head down and does not want to evaluate so much.
How does he feel about the Canadian theatre landscape and industry changes?
“Change is constant and necessary. It’s not always fun, but there has been some worthwhile movement forward that has been worth the hard work. The industry must continue to work on equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI). Yes, the pandemic made us aware, but we must continue to do more.”
Atkins spoke about the troubling audience reluctance to return to some theatres nationwide. Encouraging people to return remains challenging, which has been a tremendous loss to the industry.
Realistically, it’s all a question of money. That money (whether from the provincial, federal, or municipal governments) will also help other sectors. The help from the government is crucial moving forward as theatres continue to deal with changes and adaptations. Damien continues to hope audiences and governments will recognize that dollars are well spent promoting the arts.
Once ‘De Profundis’ concludes its run, what’s next for Damien Atkins?
At first, he jokingly stated: “A break,” and we laughed briefly.
He’s not one to sit around, though. Atkins returns to the Shaw Festival this summer to play Sherlock Holmes for the third time in a new play entitled ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Human Heart. He will also appear in Bernard Shaw’s ‘Candida’.
Damien would also like to continue to appear in his solo show “We Are Not Alone.’ I saw the production at Crow’s a couple of years ago. At first glance, the solo piece becomes a look at “mysterious sightings, videos of shapes moving in shadows and inexplicable crop circles. Are these occurrences a sign of otherworldly visitors, or are we being deceived?” Atkins stated the show becomes a comment on how we live together. Can we live peaceably with crazy ideas and notions?
Hmmm…’ If “We Are Not Alone’ returns, it might just be worth another look.
‘De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail’ is now in previews. It opens on February 8 and runs to February 18, 2024, in The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in Toronto’s Distillery District. For tickets, youngcentre.ca or call 1-416-866-8666. To learn more about Soulpepper Theatre, visit soulpepper.ca.