I’ve seen Duff MacDonald’s name over the last few years in theatre programmes and through some of the social media websites. His name sounded familiar to me, and I soon figured out where I recognized it. I saw him play in the first Canadian company of ‘Les Misérables’ at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra. Duff was also part of the first National Touring production of ‘Les Mis’ in 1989-1990. Duff also played "Eamon" in the recent Grand Theatre (London ON) and RMTC (Winnipeg) productions of ONCE.
According to his bio, Duff proudly hails from the Saskatchewan prairie land. He has recorded albums and sang in many venues across Canada and the United States ranging from coffee houses to large auditorium venues. He is proud of the training he has received. He obtained a full scholarship to go to North Dakota State University to study opera. He also studied at Vancouver’s Gastown Actor’s Studio and private studies in Acting with June Whittaker, Linda Darlow and Uta Hagen.
Duff has also completed voice-over work in commercials. He has been seen in film and television roles like the recent LOCKE AND KEY (Netflix), CARTER (CTV Drama Channel), GOOD WITCH, TITANS (Netflix), CLAWS OF THE RED DRAGON, Incorporated (SyFy), Tru Love (Winner of 35 Worldwide Film Fest Awards), Cinderella Man, Foolproof, The Music Man and most recently in the nation-wide spot for AMERICAN EXPRESS/AEROPLAN and BOSTON PIZZA as the gold Professional Sports Trophy Model.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom as Duff lives in St. John’s Newfoundland, at this moment. Thank you so much for the great conversation and laughter, Duff:
Since we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving, tell me about one teacher or mentor in your life for whom you are thankful and who brought you to this point in your life as a performing artist.
I am very grateful for a number of people in my life who brought me to this point in my life as an artist.
In the beginning, in my small town of Watson Saskatchewan, there was this lady named Jean, and she played the piano. She took me on. She was best friends with my mother and father for years. Both my mother and Jean were teachers.
I just remember going over to Jean’s house and her teaching me a lot about music and singing and singing some old classic tunes. She was always the woman who was coaching me through all of that early stuff.
Later on, I became part of ‘Saskatchewan Express’, a teen talent competition and I won and became part of this group of performers similar to “Up with People’. We toured all over Saskatchewan and I learned so much in the early 80s when I was 16 from all of those musicians. We had a 12-piece band behind us, and we had dancers; it was a big production sponsored by the lotteries. The woman who ran that, Carol Gay Belle, who worked for the CBC, she was also a huge influence on me as a kid in my teen years.
I’m trying to think positively that we have, fingers crossed, moved forward in dealing with Covid. How have you been able to move forward from these last 18 eighteen months on a personal level? How have you been changed or transformed on a personal level?
Oh boy, that’s a big one. Initially, it was a shock as it was with everyone. I was just about to go away and do a show.
Personally, I did a full pivot turn. We performers spend a lot of time on our own, and as a writer and painter, I have a lot of different creative outlets. So, right away, the first thing I did was turn to my creative side and that really saved me during most of Covid until I ran out of projects. I produced a web series with a friend (check it out on Duff’s personal web page), two of them actually, a comedy series and another web series where I was interviewing people from all over the world. That brought me a lot of joy and peace in checking in with people around the globe and gaining a global perspective on what was exactly happening in our country and other countries.
This really helped me to check in because the media was going crazy, but when you talk with other people in other countries, one on one, it really changed my whole view of everything and cut out all the crap the media was feeding us.
I became grateful personally. I had my own apartment; I was in seclusion. I didn’t have a family; I wasn’t attending school. Everything just stopped for me, and I turned into a creative monster (and Duff says this with a good laugh).
How have these last eighteen months of the pandemic changed or transformed you as an artist professionally?
Well, they’re synonymous for me as an artist because I’m self-employed so everything is melded together.
As an artist, it encompassed so many things for a lot of us. The rug was pulled out from all of us, but as artists, we’re very dependent on the community, the audience. That’s our living. When that disappeared, it really affected me but I used that artistic talent as a way of survival and it changed everything and started to focus on that.
Also, my technical skills and my game went up about ten notches because artists were all forced to audition in our own homes, with our own lighting and our own camera. Luckily, I had done my comedy web series called ‘The Duff Show’ and learned so much about filming myself with green screen.
So when auditions were coming up where they were doing live one on one Zoom calls, it didn’t shock me as much as some. My technical and voice-over side that all went up. My agent didn’t worry about me technically because he knew that I had seemed to have everything in order.
Tell me further about ‘No Change in the Weather’ opening in St. John’s shortly. Are you hoping to bring it to Toronto after St. John’s?
‘No Change in the Weather’ …(and then Duff stopped for a moment to catch his breath and continued). I’m almost going to cry because it has been such a gift.
The past couple of months were really, really hard even with the creative projects I had. After a while for me I kept wondering when I was going to get a job. I’d be so close to getting national commercials. I was starting to really doubt myself.
I was away camping and got a call to audition for ‘No Change in the Weather’. I started looking into it and reading the script and doing some research as the play had been done previously. I saw there were some Ron Hynes music in the production. Ron is a Canadian institution on the East Coast, especially in Newfoundland.
‘No Change’ just came along out of nowhere and I got the job. Again, I put together a self tape, had all my equipment together. I had clips that I professionally recorded at the time. Everything just lined up and I had sung ‘Sonny’s Dream’ which is a Ron Hynes song in another show before, and I was auditioning for the character of Sonny. So it was a really sympatico moment where it all happened really fast as they were only looking for a few people. I’m part Irish, and Newfoundland has deep Irish roots here.
‘No Change in the Weather’ is the story of a family that comes home for their mother’s wake and to celebrate her loss and her life. They all come together on an island called God’s Pocket. The family doesn’t want the wake to be a downer so they’re trying to celebrate their mother.
And then I show up as Sonny, and I haven’t seen anyone in 20 years as Sonny works for the government. There is a connection to the Churchill Falls political incident and blunder. I represent the political side of the show, and everyone has a lot of disdain for my character.
It’s a beautiful story of this family coming together and finding a place of peace amongst all the craziness. It’s funny, it has some great Newfoundland tunes, some Alan Doyle and Ron Hynes music, some really classic Irish music. It’s full of heart and laughter.
It really has been a gift for me and for the company. There are beautiful voices, and the talent in the production. The production is different from ‘Come from Away’ as this is Newfoundland people. It’s quite a bit different from ‘Come from Away’ as ‘No Change’ deals with the political slant, and it’s got some real Newfoundland heart.
Bob Hallett, one of the members of Great Big Sea is Executive Producer of the show. Our director is Brad Hodder who is going to be in the Mirvish production of Harry Potter when it opens next year in Toronto. Steve Ross, who has completed 18 seasons at Stratford, is in the show with me. (Note: a profile of Steve Ross can be found through OnStage).
These are only a few heavy hitter artists in the show as there’s more in the cast and it’s going to be a good show. It runs at the CAA Theatre in Toronto on Yonge Street and blow everyone away.
We’re just performing ‘No Change in the Weather’ in St. John’s Newfoundland from November 12-14 as a tester and we come to Toronto November 19-27, 2021.
In your opinion, do you see the global landscape of the professional Canadian live theatre scene changing at all as a result of these last 18 months?
I really do.
There were some theatres that took the proverbial ‘bull by the horns’ and embraced this challenge and clicked in right away to continue connection to audiences. Some went virtual right away.
I have a friend who lives in Texas who filmed a whole play virtually. The actors were not all in the same place. They were filmed separately and edited together to look like they were all in the same room. $20 was charged for the link to see the show, and they made some cash. That theatre wasn’t waiting around waiting for things to start up.
The theatre scene has changed and I hope it doesn’t stay this way at half capacity.
Ontario just went full capacity so fingers crossed, but what has happened is that theatres realized they can make money virtually: ‘Diana: The Musical’, ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Come from Away’ are the first three examples that come to mind. I think theatres are realizing that some want theatres to be live for them and as you and I know, Joe, there is nothing like that in the world. Nothing beats live.
But, there’s also that clientele who can’t attend live theatre and can afford $200.00 tickets. Filmed productions of live musicals are getting pretty good, and there are those who would like to see it as well but can’t afford to go live.
I hope it doesn’t go back to zero capacity but theatres are thinking things through. Look at Stratford with the outdoor tents.
I think theatres will be a little more prepared for things now that we are slowly emerging from Covid.
What excites/intrigues/fascinates/interests Duff MacDonald post Covid?
Oh, wow! (and Duff and I have a good laugh at his initial response) Well, I’m fascinated by the human condition and how people operate under the conditions we’ve been under and how we’ve adjusted and not adjusted. I’m also fascinated by the strength of the human spirit. So many things happened during the pandemic – Black Lives Matter, Juneteenth, attack on the U.S. Capitol, but we persevered through it all and learned some important lessons.
Things won’t be the same ever again, but I’m fascinated by how things have to be taken to the extreme in order for humans to learn. It’s incredible how hard we have to fight to get what we want and get to where we want – and we’re still doing this, really Saskatchewan? really, Alberta (Duff is making reference to the Covid numbers in both provinces)
What excites me are the possibilities of what we can do.
What disappoints/unnerves/upsets Duff MacDonald post Covid?
Stupidity (and Duff and I share a good laugh again) and no lack of logic.
Where does Duff MacDonald, the artist, see himself going next?
Like I said, I’ve been really trying to up my game. I see myself being better. I want to be as good as I can possibly be.
As every audition come through, I want to do my best. If I don’t get the job, at least I know I did my best. Everything else is out of my control. I believe that’s the mantra of my industry.
Where does Duff MacDonald, the person, see himself going next?
Uh….(and Duff starts to laugh again) it’s so hard to separate the Duff artist and the Duff person.
It’s so hard…as a person I’d love to care less MORE. (and Duff laughs again.)
I’m in my 50s (almost 55), so when you hit your 50s, it’s I don’t give a shit, I don’t give a fuck.
I wanna care less about what people think MORE.
Try to answer these in a single sentence. If you need more than one sentence, that’s not a problem. I give credit to the late James Lipton and The Actors’ Studio for this idea:
If you could say one thing to one of your mentors or favourite teachers who encouraged you to get to this point as an artist, what would it be?
Well, that’s kinda obvious. “Thank you.”
If you could say something to any of the naysayers in your career who didn’t think you would make it as an artist, what would that be?
(Duff laughs) “Fuck you.” It’s part of my performing artist mantra in not giving a shit.
What’s your favourite swear word?
(And another good laugh from Duff) Actually, I like, and it’s a bad one…by the way, Joe, are you able to print these words? Okay, here it is. It’s a strange thing, but I always say, “Cock!”
I ended up on a tv show and that was a line we had to say. The other character had to say, “Cock and balls!”
But for me, for some reason, it’s “Cock!”
What is a word you love to hear yourself say?
It’s actually an Italian word, and when Italians pick up the phone and say (And Duff, in his best Italian on the spot, says): “Pronto!”
I don’t know why, I just love saying the word: “Pronto”.
What is a word you don’t like to hear yourself say?
Well, it’s two words: “I can’t”
What would you tell your younger personal self with the knowledge and wisdom life experience has now given you?
“Hang on, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride” (and Duff says it again this time in an on-the-spot Bette Davis with an imaginary cigarette between his fingers). And then make sure your readers know they can watch my comedy show live, “The Duff Show” and see me do it live.
With the professional life experience you’ve gained over the years as an artist, what would you now tell the upcoming Duff MacDonald from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning a career?
Oh… take more dance classes and study more. Study music more extensively.
What is one thing you still wish to accomplish both personally and professionally?
Professionally, I’m also a writer and would love to have one of my scripts produced. Personally, I would like to be independently wealthy. (and another laugh from Duff)
Name one moment in your professional career as an artist that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while.
Hmmm…one moment…I would have probably stayed in ‘Les Misérables’ another year. The show was on its way back to Toronto after touring. I was offered another year and I said, “No”. Because I was a cocky 22-year-old. Can you imagine I said that? Who says “No” to another year of full-time work in “Les Mis”?
Little idiot, me.
What will Duff MacDonald not take for granted ever again?
Oh, boy, it just hit me (and I could tell Duff was tearing up). My parents. Yep.
Would Duff MacDonald do it all again if given the same opportunities?
No. Completely, I call it divine order. Everything that happened, happened for a reason and put me where I am.
I totally believe good and bad it all brought me to this place, and I’m talking to you, Joe.
To follow Duff at Facebook: @duffmacdonaldmusic, Twitter: @DuffMacDonald and Instagram: @duffmacdonald
To learn more about Duff, visit his webpage: duffmacdonald.com