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Gregory Prest

“I feel my job right now is to continue making work.”

Dahlia Katz

Joe Szekeres

I’ve begun a check-in on some artists. In 2020, I held my first conversation with artist Gregory Prest. You can find the link to his earlier profile here: www.onstageblog.com/profiles/gregory-prest.

Last time I saw Gregory on stage was as Ron Weasley in the now-closed Toronto production of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.’

For the last several weeks, he has been the adaptor and the director of the world premiere of Soulpepper’s ‘De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail’, now in previews. The production opens on February 8.

Before we even talked about the opening of ‘De Profundis’ this week, I wanted to check in on him to see how he’s feeling professionally and personally about the theatre industry:

“It’s not NOT alarming…I don’t know what to think about it. I’m unsure about it. I really don’t know what to do other than to continue doing the work. I don’t have the responsibility of running an institution and trying to figure out how to make it all work in this new world. I feel my job right now is to continue making work.”

That reminded me of the motivational UK poster in preparation for World War 2: “Keep Calm and Carry On’. Now, I’m not saying there will be a war of any kind; however, when challenging times continue, we all need to continue what we do daily and keep busy.

Prest sees this as an opportunity for the theatre community to continue supporting each other, showing up, and buying tickets to see the work.

His latest venture, ‘De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, ’ opens on February 8. According to the Soulpepper website, [it]is a musical fantasy based on the letter Oscar Wilde wrote while incarcerated for two years at Reading Gaol to his love, Lord Alfred Douglas. The letter was written a page a day over a period of three months, collected at the end of each day, and handed over to Wilde on his release from prison.”

Prest is the adaptor and director for this world-premiere production. Rehearsals have gone well, as did the technical rehearsals. Part of the exercise was to come in every night of the preview and watch as if he had never seen the show. There was so much historical context that had to be taken into consideration. The text of ‘De Profundis’ would have probably created fifteen shows, so the entire letter is not in this production. Selections had to be made, and audience experience was essential at this time.

Gregory doesn’t call the week before opening Hell Week but rather the ‘wildly unstable snipping section of time.’ ‘De Profundis’ is an experiment in a lot of ways. The creative team is trying something exciting and moving, challenging, interesting, and engaging. Part of the preview period is seeing what the show does and responding as a creative team to how the audience reacts. Prest sees the show changing significantly during previews as the time right now is seeing what is clear for audiences and what is not clear:

“A show like [De Profundis] that is abstract in nature is not really linear or narratively driven but emotionally and narratively driven. There’s so much space in it; sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s a confusing thing and a puzzle to figure out.”

Gregory does not want to leave anyone out in the cold. He jokingly said he doesn’t want audiences coming in and wondering, ‘Who’s Oscar Wilde?’ We shared a quick laugh over that, but again, that’s a fear a creative team must keep in mind.

For Prest, Wilde is an incredible artist. ‘De Profundis’ is not meant to be a piece of theatre; it’s a letter.
Yet something is fascinating about this letter. It feels like this letter has become the first celebrity trial. Wilde was someone at the top of his game with significant influence, power and reputation who publicly fell, failed, and was the target of scorn and humiliation. The experience of this process for Prest himself is being on the inside. One of the things that became clear at the end of the letter was how to move forward when everything has fallen around you. How does one deconstruct an ego when you’re alone? How do you move forward with sorrow and disappointment?

What is so moving about ‘De Profundis’ for Gregory?

It’s the piece's dynamic, along with Wilde’s slow movement toward walking with the disappointing facts of his life hand in hand with acceptance. The transformation in the piece is one of moving with a former self as opposed to becoming something new. Prest finds this really interesting right now.

The process for the generation of ‘De Profundis’ started with Prest and Original Music and Lyrics by Sarah Wilson and Mike Ross in a room. They spent three days reading the letter, going through it and then realizing the need to break it. Prest calls himself conservative and said if it were up to him, he’d like to stage the entire letter. He had a good laugh, knowing that wouldn’t be possible. The task of bringing ‘De Profundis’ to the stage has been humbling.

The team had to: “pull things out and explode things as an act of love.” Out of love, they’ve had to destroy the letter and try to re-build it again. ‘De Profundis’ is not a natural idea for a musical, but it’s challenging and worth pursuing. Mike and Sarah then went to work, and the three came back together, worked again, and then went away to work. Eventually, Damien Atkins (who plays Oscar Wilde) was then brought in. It was continuously creating material, putting it side by side and seeing how everything spoke to each other.

The music in ‘De Profundis’ reflects something underneath the plot, a bird’s eye view, perhaps of a moment with Oscar and then coming back down.

Jonathan Corkal-Astorga and Colton Curtis appear with Damien in the production.

What has each of them brought to the story according to Prest?

Jonathan has brought professionalism, skill and heart with care, interest, and sensitivity. Colton brings incredible skill as a dancer and is the most generous person in the room you can find. With sensitivity and skill, Colton brings an enigma to the character of Lord Alfred Douglas (Wilde’s lover). To play him is not an easy task.

Damien is all humanity, humour, rage, camp, and talent. This is why it’s so beautiful to have him play Oscar Wilde. Prest calls Damien a ‘great’ friend. When you’re in his presence, and he is ‘on,’ Prest calls it as if you are sitting next to the sun. For him, this is what it must have felt like to be around Oscar Wilde.

Just to be clear: Damien is not making an impression of Oscar Wilde; there’s no dialect as we’re not in that world for ‘De Profundis.’ The story is set in a different kind of dreamlike place but with that sense of celebrity.

As we begin to close our conversation, Prest recommends reading the entirety of ‘De Profundis’ because it is a beautiful experience. The letter is such a coded document. Wilde could say things and couldn’t say certain things. Even though the letter was very private, it was also public.

Prest smiled and said they were being reckless about some things. Without being weird about it, Prest believes some people will really dig ‘De Profundis’ while others are really going not to do so. The flip side to this thinking is if you really like Oscar Wilde, you may really loathe this ‘De Profundis.’ Prest also quickly adds that the production is not meant to be definitive, as there have been many stories, plays, and films about Wilde.

What’s next for Gregory once ‘De Profundis’ completes its run?

He begins rehearsals as an actor for Canadian Stage’s ‘The Inheritance.’ For these last few days, he has been doing double duty of rehearsals at CanStage in the morning and heading back to Soulpepper in the afternoon for final tweaking and juggling. A remount of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ will be performed at Soulpepper, and he’s involved in that production:

“It’ll be very good and healthy after this process [of De Profundis] to land in someone else’s room with a big ensemble and have a change of pace as an actor.”

Is there time for Gregory Prest to be just Gregory: son, partner, brother, and friend amidst all this rehearsal?

“Never!!!!!!!!!, but we’ll see, we’ll see.”

‘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.

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