In chatting with artist Evan Buliung (graduate of George Brown Theatre School and the first Stratford Festival Conservatory Program), I felt like I was having a cup of coffee with an old college buddy whom I hadn’t seen in years, but I knew what he was doing up to that point. We laughed so much during our conversation that, yes, sometimes the language did turn a tad ‘colourful’ on both our parts; that was okay because Evan made me feel quite comfortable around him.
We also played a game of six degrees of separation when we discovered that Evan had chummed around in his younger years with the son of my first cousin who lives in Brantford. Another point of interest, he and artist, Lisa Horner (who appears in the Toronto production of ‘Come from Away’) are the only actors in history who have played all of the Mirvish theatres.
I had seen Evan in a tremendously moving production of ‘Fun Home’ with the Mirvish Series at the Panasonic Theatre several years ago. Evan also appeared in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at the Princess of Wales. I was so sorry to have missed that production because I heard it was extraordinary. Evan has also appeared at the Stratford Festival for 12 seasons.
Evan believes the world of live theatre will come back. It’ll just be different and that’s probably a good thing because theatre was getting, in Evan’s words, “fucking stale”.
I also went off script and asked Evan what he would be doing if he wasn’t an actor and artist. He told me he probably would have been a soldier. He was in army cadets when he was younger and was fascinated with war, even though he was a sensitive kid and probably would have quit the war. As he looked back on that time, Evan now believes he was looking for some kind of discipline.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom.
Thank you so much for your time, Evan:
It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.
It’s been, I hate to say it, actually been one of the best times of my life – allowing for introspection and some more work that needed to be done for myself personally.
I don’t mind isolation, so it doesn’t really bear into my soul. I know a lot of people struggle with it, and I get that. I’ve been preparing for it my whole life.
I say that from a very privileged standpoint that I’m not in a financial hole.
I find it quite profound and quite a time to be alive. Things could always be worse, and that’s the Sagittarius in me, the eternal optimist.
My parents are okay, they’re in Brantford. The numbers aren’t really high there. My brother and his wife and their kids, they have a lot and it’s a struggle for them, they’re busy. I don’t have kids so I’m not in that arena.
Thanks for asking. They seem to be doing alright. Knock on wood.
With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?
I’ve always been one that I like to vary my craft and learn new things. Years ago, I stepped into film and tv pretty heavily and I’ve been doing that ever since and more dabble in theatre now.
Someone once said to me, “Theatre is a young man’s game.” And I get it.
Some of those seasons doing three shows…The last season I was there I performed in ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Romeo & Juliet’ thinking “Yah, I can do this” and forgetting I was 40. By the end of the season, I was exhausted. It’s a lot of work. “Guys and Dolls” is massive.
So, I’ve been doing other things to be honest. A wise man said to me years ago, “What’s going to happen if you walk out the door, get hit by a bus, and can’t act anymore?” Because I was.
I was identifying myself with my job which is a bit tricky, but we have that ingrained in us as actors.
I hope Stratford is able to pull off their outdoor projects this summer. They’ve selected good works and they’ve got great people on board. Those people deserve to work, and I hope things go well for Antoni [Cimolino] (Artistic Director) because he’s put so much fucking work into that place with blood, sweat and tears and the new Tom Patterson Theatre that should have been open for all of us. What a feeling of being kicked in the nuts that so much work has gone in especially to open that brand new theatre along with the work and nothing came of it.
(I then asked Evan about the appropriateness of some titles of Stratford productions in a patriarchal world)… It’s funny, well, it’s not funny, when we were performing ‘Guys and Dolls’ in the middle of the summer is when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. I remember walking out the stage and feeling, “Ugh”. It just hit me…“Why do we do it?”
I even thought that before. I asked Donne [Feore, director of the production] in the audition why are you doing this show? Now, mind you, it’s a fantastic show. The stuff with the other two is some of the funniest writing in musical theatre, and the music, obviously, is gorgeous.
It’s tough to answer this question. I’ve felt this coming on for about ten years. In all of classical theatre, I can’t see this being sustainable in the direction that we’re going in terms of equality. Unless we figure out a way to do it that we have to address the patriarchal nature of the classics. It’s just the way it is and clearly white favoured…yah, it was just a matter of time before it happened.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m not an Artistic Director so they will have a lot to consider. After Antoni’s term is completed, hopefully, it will be a woman who will assume the role of Artistic Director. The Festival needs female energy behind the lens, especially in light of some of the patriarchal nature of some of these plays, and I think it would really help.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
God, I miss the people more than anything, they’re really good people. Opening nights are fun. (Evan laughs and then says) I don’t know if theatre misses me, so I don’t really miss it.
There’s new voices and new stories to be told, and that’s great. I’ll be part of it, but I don’t need to be centralized in it.
I’m really enjoying doing film. I’m taking a lot of classes and working on that skill. I’m taking classes with a great teacher in Los Angeles. If I’m taking film and tv classes, I thought GO TO THE SOURCE. And I’m learning shit here that I wouldn’t learn in Canada. That’s their game, so why not go right to the source…at times, it’s terrifying and fucked, but really good and really exciting.
If you don’t keep learning, what’s the point?
I don’t miss ‘The Crucible’. I don’t need to see ‘The Crucible’ ever again (he says with a laugh). I don’t need to see ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ ever again. I get it, I get what it’s for, and I’ve performed in it.
As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
That’s a really good question. I won’t take the people, the experience, for granted.
I don’t know if I ever did. As we all know times moves very quickly and it tends to double as each day goes by.
I certainly won’t take for granted the responsibility I have to the next generation to mentor or teach or be of service to them, to be the person that I wanted when I was that age. It’s hard because the younger people can do it themselves.
It’s finding that balance.
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
Well, so much has changed, I don’t think it needs my help. (Evan says with laughter. And then I re-phrase the question with one element Evan is glad that has changed concerning live theatre)…
I’m glad that first and foremost, behaviour in rehearsal halls. And the treatment of other artists.
I was never really a whipping boy but there were, sometimes I was but I was able to laugh it off and deflect it, but some people weren’t as lucky. So I’m grateful that’s being addressed, and I don’t think people can get away with that behaviour as much as well as like teaching in theatre schools.
In theatre schools there’s no need to tear someone apart in order to make them a good actor. That’s just bad teaching because you don’t need to rip the person apart and rebuild them in some sort of structure that makes them an actor. There are other and better ways to get around and not do that destructive behaviour in teaching.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.
Well, in the past number of years, I’ve really enjoyed teaching Shakespeare. I teach it with Cathy MacKinnon who’s the head of Voice at Stratford and we teach at colleges, and we also taught at Etobicoke School of the Arts, and the Conservatory at Stratford.
I love teaching that. I love giving back what was given to me, and I love seeing people go, “Oooohhhh!” because once you get the keys to Shakespeare it’s like (and Evan makes a kaboom sound), “Holy Fuck!” and you get inside the language and come in underneath it and make it a part of me. Then you can actually sound like [Stratford veterans] Tom Rooney or Tom McCamus or Stephen Ouimette speaking Shakespeare as opposed to someone who doesn’t sound like these fucking guys.
There’s a way in for everyone and I keep saying to Cathy this is our tagline: “Give me an afternoon and I’ll make you a Shakespearean actor guaranteed.”
Now, that being said, it takes about ten years to become a good Shakespearean actor.
Teaching is my next foray. I still would love to play MacBeth some day, and Lear and those old fuddy duddies….
I tell you, this pandemic is giving me a whole new perspective on King Lear.
Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.
I’d rather shoot myself (with a good laugh) than go to a Covid themed play. God, we’ve all been here. What the fuck do I need that for?
This is the last thing I want.
Maybe, but who’s gonna go see it? What the fuck are you gonna tell?
I don’t know. I can think of a fresher hell than go to a Covid play. Let’s move on.
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
Oh, wow! Jesus. Well, I mean I think what I’ve discovered is that my work has been a journey in actualizing my emotions. Coming from generations of alcoholism and different forms of dysfunction within the family unit, I haven’t had a drink in 15 years, but it’s always gone parallel with my profession is mental health and discovering these feelings that I wasn’t able to discover as a child through no one’s fault.
I would hope that, for instance, when I was in Mirvish’s ‘Fun Home’ I had some people say you’re not homosexual so how could you play that. That’s not what it’s about. To me, the play is about shame and living with deep rooted shame regardless of its shame-based living.
I’m hoping when audiences see this that this is somebody working through the states of being in their work that mirrors life. Our responsibility is to hold the mirror up to nature, no more no less. If an audience can resonate with that, which a lot of people did especially in ‘Fun Home’, if we can have an effect on an audience as those three girls did at the end of ‘Fun Home’, then that’s successful.
Otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?
I remember Peter Hutt said that to me years ago when I was younger. He said, “I don’t know why that guy doing it in this business; I know why that guy is in this business.”
And he looked at me and said, “I have no idea why you’re doing this.”
And it made so much sense to me. Because truly I was never in it for anything other than trying to figure out my life. And it just seemed like a really good way to do it.