Paolo Santalucia, Founding Member of The Howland Company

Looking Ahead

Courtesy of The Howland Company

Joe Szekeres

Actor, director, writer, and founding member of The Howland Company, Paolo Santalucia, was on his way to rehearsal where he is directing ‘Three Sisters’ which will open at Hart House this month. I’m grateful he was able to take a few moments before his upcoming rehearsal began to speak with me.

I’ve admired and respected his work on stage at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre over the years. Recently he appeared in ‘Orphans for the Czar’ at Crow’s Theatre. Most recently, I saw Paolo’s work in Canadian Stage’s whimsically colourful production of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ at High Park.

Santalucia is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Sheridan College’s joint Theatre and Drama Studies program. Upon his graduation, he was accepted into the Soulpepper Academy where he trained for about a year and a half before joining the acting ensemble at this prestigious company.

As a professional artist, how’s he feeling about this gradual return to live performance even though Covid still surrounds all of us? Santalucia believes theatre must reflect our community, including our fears for the future and current moment. He elaborated further:

“Art is an essential and beautiful aspect of community building in times of crisis. The Theatre has a real responsibility to engage with the issues of our time while also providing escapism from them and reminding us that there is a path forward.”

For Paolo, it’s important this community-building happens at everyone’s own pace. He believes it’s vital that art continues to happen, that theatre continues to push through, and that we work within the complications that Covid is providing in order to ensure that we have art on our stages and don’t end up falling behind as a world-class theatre city.

Even after these last two-plus years of changes within the theatre, what is it Paolo still finds fascinating about the craft and art of acting and directing? He laughed and said he still finds everything fascinating about the craft as this pause made him confront the fact that perhaps he might now know how to act, direct, write or even mount a play.

Paolo clarified this point:

“What I love is that it feels like we’ve come back to an industry asking questions of itself in a way that allows me to probe aspects of my own work that I’ve always felt self-conscious about.”

What’s shifted for Paolo is the space he’s been given to question his pre-conceived notions about what a given piece is “supposed to be” – as opposed to undergoing an investigative process whereby one is able to ask what it is the play is trying to do in its own right. Having the confidence, space, and time to feel the industry is pushing past results-based art-making has been an exciting aspect of this pause.

That’s something Santalucia feels much braver about now than he did two, three years ago.

Before the pandemic, he was entering his work with what he knew what the story was about. That sometimes got in the way, so it’s exciting to engage in a process that trusts the work and trusts the people in the room in a different way. “I don’t have all the answers” he says “but I have a lot of questions.”

Paolo adapted and will direct Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus. His cast list is stellar actors who are so in tune with each other to tell the story. He jokingly stated he was waiting for the shoe to drop so that the cast will realize he was a big hack. We both shared a good laugh over that.

But why this 13-member cast of ‘Three Sisters’ now as we return to the theatre?

One of the things Paolo has always loved about this play is the fact it’s a young person’s play. To see many young people populating the stage will be thrilling. Part of Howland Company’s mandate is to investigate the stories of our time and also re-investigate stories that reflect our time. Over the course of the pandemic, Santalucia went back to ‘Three Sisters’ story because he was part of a production in the midst of a Chekhov play. Tech day for that show was the last day in 2020 before everything shut down.

What struck him the most about all of this?

‘The fears that were permeating what was happening in the early moments of the pandemic were being reflected in the work we were doing. During one of those long weeks I thought I should just sit down and re-read Chekhov’s plays. I was languishing around at home not doing too much when things were shut down and it felt like the right time.”

In reading ‘Three Sisters’, Santalucia was struck by the plight of this group of young people trying hard to reacclimate their understanding of how their world has changed and question whether returning to the world they knew from their childhood was possible. This is a story of the inheritors of the world asking big questions.

These questions have never been more relevant for Paolo. He felt it was really fruitful ground to revisit post-Covid. He always found ‘Three Sisters’ to be one of Chekhov’s more elusive plays. This family who wants to return to their home felt too literal for Paolo but, over the course of the pandemic, he began to understand something more about his own circumstances which lends itself to the central metaphors in ‘Three Sisters’.

As we concluded our conversation, I asked Paolo where he hopes to see The Howland Company move in the next five years. First, Howland is a collectively run organization. Covid was a real eye-opener for the fragility of all theatre companies moving forward, and Paolo takes nothing for granted. His dream is for Howland to continue its existence and to move through this time of transition and change – to learn from it, and apply what they’ve learned in meaningful ways to allow movement forward with ambition and understanding.

I like his final comments:

“I look forward to the learning process during these next five years.”

So do I, Paolo, so do I. We all have so much still to learn.

The Howland Company and Hart House Theatre presents Anton Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ (adapted and directed by Paolo Santalucia) which opens October 26 and runs to November 12 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto.

For tickets and for more information, visit howlandcompanytheatre.com or call 416-978-2452.

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