Paul Constable and Steve Ross
“Something as light as a panto takes away the darkness of this time” – Paul Constable
Selfie provided by Messrs. Constable and Ross
These two personable guys kept me smiling during the Zoom call.
I had the opportunity to profile Steve Ross at the height of the pandemic almost three years ago. A National Theatre School graduate, I’ve seen Steve’s work on the Stratford Festival stage. He’s been a member of the company for fifteen-plus years now. Go here for Steve’s first profile:
Paul Constable appeared as Gary in the Canadian Tire commercials for ten years. He attended the University of Windsor and attained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from the School of Dramatic Art. His comedic training came from Second City classes, just doing improv shows in Toronto. With a smile, he stated he’s done other things, and his work as Gary was only one job.
What draws these two affable guys together?
They’ve recently opened in Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre’s annual panto during the Christmas/holiday season. This year’s production is ‘Jack: A Beanstalk Panto’ written and directed by Rebecca Northan. There’s singing and dancing. The story is a very loose presentation of the fairy tale with loose meaning many liberties can and will be taken. The Capitol’s panto has two versions: the Family and the Naughty. Naturally, I chose the latter. Audiences can decide which one they would like to attend.
I will attend the show this week. Look for my review to follow.
From seeing Paul’s limited work in commercials, he had a wry sense of humour as Gary. I’ve seen more of Steve’s comedic work at Stratford – Amos Hart in their production of ‘Chicago,’ Mr. Mushnik in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and as the Narrator in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ Who can forget those fishnet stockings, Steve?
What perfect timing for writer/director Northan to put these two together in a panto. This is Constable’s first time performing on the Capitol stage. Ross did a reading of Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art’ years ago but never an entire show.
Rehearsals went well. According to both, everyone was in a really good space before opening. Paul said it’s amazing what can be accomplished in two weeks and comically mentioned how the first day lifting a rock in front of him might not have been possible. Two weeks later, the rock is over his head, and he’s doing okay.
He added further:
“We’ve run the show many times. Now we got to tech week, and everything became stop and start, that’s wrong, take two steps, and now take three steps back. It didn't push us back because we were in such a great place for tech week. There’s always the excitement of the preview crowds coming to the show, hearing the laughs, and figuring out where the pacing is and timing issues, it put us in a really good place for opening.”
Compliments galore from both Paul and Steve about their cast members. Steve called Rebecca a great ship captain; he took this gig because he’s been a fan of hers. Every day, she knew what she wanted to get done, and it was completed. For him, an exciting part of working with Northan was noticing she was in the cleaning process of the show on the second day. Cleaning is something usually not done until a tad closer to show dates.
Steve also commented on how quickly the rehearsal process went for the show. It’s a three-month process at Stratford, but there’s been a brain shift in thinking about how to tackle the panto. It was an intensive two-week process, but it went well for him.
The talent of the cast still amazes Paul. He jokingly said he is becoming a two-and-a-quarter threat. Steve said that Paul can get the t-shirt because it’s true.
Both agreed Rebecca wanted clean comedy. That’s what she’s getting, and that’s what audiences will be getting. Everyone is having fun; it’s a good time, which has made this show a good opportunity for everyone involved.
The two coyly said chickens weighed into the show and would leave it there. If you’re a chicken fan, you will like the show.
Was there any distinction about the chickens between the Family and the Naughty version? Ross said the show is universal chicken and will be played as such. The two versions are fun, but Constable prefers the Naughty. Steve has never been involved in a show with two versions, so he doesn’t have a preference. For him, it’s virtually the same show with the dial turned up for the Naughty.
Along with Rebecca, the guys clarified an essential item for the audiences on how the actors will approach the show's subject material.
The Naughty version will not push into a place of blue and dirty for the sake of being blue and dirty. Paul is thankful the naughty version didn’t go there because his parents, wife, son, and friends are coming. He didn’t want them to feel embarrassed, and he didn’t want to cringe at any blue material. Steve also felt the same way as Paul. Instead of being blue:
“It’s fun. It’s smart. Rebecca knows a line to walk. You’re laughing because it’s a joke, not harmful or hurtful. Sometimes stuff happens in life, and it’s silly. It’s the kind of show you’ll talk about with your friends and say: “Maybe we shouldn’t say this.”
Sounds like double entendres and second glances are on the menu for the Naughty version. Nothing’s hurtful, except ‘anti-chicken people’ might consider it bothersome. I’m sensing the show might just make a few comments on how our woke world has become extremely sensitive to the point where no one feels comfortable laughing anymore.
Oh, by the way, now I’m curious how these barnyard animals will figure into the show.
The two are excited to gauge the audience's responses from both versions. There’s improvisation involved from everyone. Sometimes, a joking improv on a Tuesday audience might kill, and the actor might consider bringing it back on Wednesday. However, that audience might not respond in the same way. For Paul, that’s the beauty of improv.
Are there messages in the show that the cast hopes audiences will take away with them when they exit the theatre?
When Rob Kempson (Artistic Director of the Capitol) and Rebecca first approached Steve with the offer, the term ‘forward thinking panto’ was coined. He’d never heard of it. Body shaming gets addressed, and fluidity of sexuality gets addressed (not directly). These are only two messages. None of the messages is ever hammered over the audience’s heads. Doors are open; if people want to see that stuff, it’s there.
Steve also shared Rebecca had seen pantos in the UK and even in the GTA, where the dame, always in drag, also gets booed. Rebecca is not interested in someone getting booed. The panto is crafted in such a way that no one will feel the need to boo. Steve admires Kempson and Northan for trying to do something different within the genre. Paul concurred and added that the show will have its own message subconsciously. There are mixed characters and situations, but no one will ever feel as if they are being preached to or told how to feel:
“At the end, you’ll probably be exhausted from laughter. Something as light as a panto takes away the darkness of this time, and you’ll forget about whatever you were thinking about when you came to the theatre.”
As we neared the end of our conversation, it turned to some changes in the industry that hit the live artists hard. Steve referred to the Writer’s Strike. Since returning to work, he has noticed gratitude at Stratford. He set himself that goal of gratitude for the two years he sat inside his house, not working. If he is lucky enough to be back, he will not complain about anything, whether it’s a 12-hour day or why something might be missing. Steve has also noticed there’s an understanding that artists do work hard and that it’s okay to say one must take care of him/her/themselves for the day.
Steve is also quick to add it’s not just him. He sees so much gratitude for the profession because Covid was the reminder it was taken away for two years. Gratitude is easy to forget in the theatre/performing arts industry, and Steve doesn’t want it to happen again. Paul agreed Steve nailed it. The former returned to a different rehearsal process, and Covid permitted people to acknowledge what was bothering them.
Paul mentioned a joke I hadn’t heard before – how do you make an actor complain? Give him a job.
That joke couldn't be any further from the truth.
Since the return, Paul has noticed a check-in at the beginning of each rehearsal. Rebecca and Rob set that tone right from the start. That was something new, but it was welcomed because Paul just saw so much of the attitude of learning lines, showing up, doing what is asked of you, saying nothing, and going home before Covid changed the world we know.
Once the panto concludes its run at the Capitol, what’s next for Paul and Steve?
A piece of advice was shared I had never heard either – as actors, you just get used to not knowing, and somehow you will land on the ground.
Paul was Gary for ten years with Canadian Tire. The actors are in a strange place, and there’s some hope union actors can return to work in commercials. If that happens, Paul hopes to be a part of it. Paul is pleased he took the panto job because it allowed him to step back into theatre. He hopes artistic directors are listening and looking for his talents (hint, hint, call his agent).
Steve will put his writing hat back on before returning to Stratford for the upcoming 2024 season. He has two drafts he’s working on. He’s excited to sit at his laptop and write for the month. There will be some free days during the panto run, so he’ll continue writing. (Rob Kempson, are you listening? Steve will send you the drafts).
‘Jack: A Beanstalk Panto’ runs to December 23 at the Port Hope Capitol Theatre, 20 Queen Street, Port Hope. For tickets, call the Box Office (905-885-1071) or visit capitoltheatre.com.