This summer, we (DARTcritics staff writers Caroline Coon and Sarah Bradford) had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Stratford, Ontario taking courses towards our Brock University Dramatic Arts degrees. While there, we thought it would be beneficial to interview a few of the fresh new faces at Stratford this season—beneficial for ourselves as actors in training who aspire to tread the same boards as our interviewees, and beneficial for you, our lovely readers, to hear from Stratford’s young voices.

You probably won’t recognize twenty-somethings Colton Curtis, Ashley Arnett, Saamer Usmani [pictured, at left, in the featured photo above with members of the company of The Aeneid, in a photo by David Hou], and Thomas Mitchell Barnett, because this season marks all of their Stratford debuts! We sat down with them to talk about their training and how they came to be at the Festival. Here first of all is what Colton and Ashley had to say!

Colton and Ashley were gracious enough to allow us a photo with them!

Colton and Ashley were gracious enough to allow us (Sarah, second from right, and Caroline, right) to take a selfie with them!

DARTcritics: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today. We’ll just start off with what you’re doing at the Stratford Festival this season, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from your respective conservatory programs.

Ashley: I am in A Chorus Line as Bebe, and play Hymen’s assistant in As You Like It. It’s been three years since I graduated [from Randolph Academy]. 

Colton: I play Mark in A Chorus Line, and I’m also in The Hypochondriac which is in rehearsals right now; it opens in August. I graduated last year in April [from Sheridan College]. 

DARTcritics:  What were you two doing before you auditioned for Stratford? 

Colton: I was at the Shaw Festival, but I had left school early to do that so I was also finishing up courses online. You audition so early in the season for the next seasonI don’t even know if both my shows had opened there last season before I started auditioning for this one! 

Ashley: I took a year off when I graduated, and then I booked a tour across the USI was in Hair, and then I did four or five Drayton [Entertainment] contracts before I came here. 

DARTcritics: Colton, how was it coming from a small town in New Brunswick to doing a conservatory program in Ontario? 

Colton: My school was in Oakville so it wasn’t exactly downtown Toronto, [but] you go from the experience of being a big fish in a small pond to that. It was good to get out of the NB arts scene and see what else is out there, and everything that was happening in Canada that I didn’t know about. I knew that I wanted to go to a full-blown conservatory musical theatre program, which isn’t offered anywhere in New Brunswick. Tania Breen, the director of the Theatre New Brunswick theatre school, is the one who planted the seed in the first place, and she recommended going to Sheridan. 

DARTcritics: Ashley, where are you from, and how did you get into theatre? 

Ashley: I’m from Yorktown, Saskatchewan, and there’s very little opportunity in Saskatchewan for theatre, but there is something called Saskatchewan Express. It’s a theatre revue show, and you tour around Saskatchewan. I did that when I was eighteen, so I got a taste of musical theatre. One of my choreographers, David Connolly, told me ‘you have to go to Toronto, you have to go to Randolph.’ I didn’t even know there was anything out there like that, where you could take a triple threat program. 

Members of the company in A Chorus Line. Colton Curtis is third from right and Ashley Arnett is ninth from left. Photography by David Hou.

DARTcritics: Something we’re taught is that no matter how many times you play a character you need to keep making new discoveries and you can’t get stuck in a pattern. How do you keep your character work fresh and keep making new discoveries when you’re doing these shows multiple times a week, for months on end? 

Colton: That’s a tough one, because in the rehearsal process we play and make new discoveries all the time, but there’s a certain point after opening night where you have to stop changing things, because your director leaves and you’re left to keep things the same so every audience gets the same experience. As far as show-to-show after that, sometimes it’s tough to keep it fresh. 

Ashley: I mean, you just have to do it from a place of honesty, and then it’s fresh, but if you go out there and ‘shmact’ your way through it… John [Breglio], who owns the rights for [A Chorus Line] came and talked to us and said, ‘just make sure it’s real, just don’t ever go out there and get an easy laugh’, because it is easy to do it with this content. The thing is that we’re basically playing ourselves in this show, so it is extremely real. So it’s not too hard to keep it fresh.

DARTcritics: So this is a bit of a fun question for both of you, if you could play any character, in any other show at Stratford this season, who would it be and whyand you can gender swap! 

Colton: So many choices… 

Ashley: I have mine, it would be the Porter in Macbeth, because really, that is me anyway. 

Colton: I want to play Cassie (in A Chorus Line); I just want to do that dance solo.

DARTcritics: This is the first production of A Chorus Line to be done on a thrust stage, with different choreography from Michael Bennett’s original production. What was it like to be part of the company that did that for the first time, and did that affect the rehearsal or creative process at all? 

Ashley: It was amazing to be part of it, but it didn’t hit me until Donna McKechnie [Cassie in the original production, and one of Bennett’s closest collaborators] came to see the show and she came to talk to us afterwards, and she was like, ‘wow, what you guys did with the choreography and the stage—Michael would have loved it.’

Colton: Donna Feore [director/choreographer] has always wanted to do it in this space, so she came into rehearsal extremely prepared; I don’t even know what it would be like to rehearse it on a regular stage. It would be really weird because we’re so used to this. 

DARTcritics: What was auditioning for your respective conservatory programs like for each of you, and how did you prepare for that? Do you feel like your time there served you well in auditioning for places like Stratford? 

Colton: Yes, I was so clueless. 

Ashley: Oh me too, I was so green. I think I sent in a video of me singing, ‘Part of Your World’, and doing a little dance, and then somehow I got in, and then I was like, ‘whoa, that’s embarrassing that I sent in that video.’ I think that the biggest thing I learned there was how to auditiongoing into the room being prepared and confident. 

Colton: Yeah, my audition for Sheridan was a joke. I thought I was so prepared going into it, and I ended up singing a girl’s song because my music teacher told me that it was a great song. You learn so fast when you’re in those situations what isn’t acceptable; you learn the hard way a little bit. They know that too: when you’re auditioning for conservatory programs, I think they know they’re going to get all kinds. They must be able to see the potential in people.

DARTcritics: After this season at Stratford is over, do you guys have any plans?

Colton: A lot of candy! 

Ashley: Right, I can finally get off my diet… Not really, I’m just trying to live day by day right now and enjoy the rest of my contract. It’s really easy to be like, ‘what am I doing next year?’ but especially in [A Chorus Line] if you’re not focused, people will notice onstage, so I’m just trying to enjoy this contract… Especially this time of year because we’re auditioning for next season. 

Colton: I’m going to go on a long vacation in January.

Ashley: Are you really? Can I come?

DARTcritics: So you’re both auditioning for next season? 

Colton: Yes, we are.

DARTcritics: What’s the process like auditioning for Stratford? 

Colton: It’s different your first time. Our audition experience for A Chorus Line was unlike anything I hope to experience again. 

Ashley: It was amazing, but the hardest process ever. I think I did seven auditions. And I went into an open call because I had the day off; I was super green. I didn’t even have my Equity [card] yet. Then they kept calling me back and back and back. I didn’t even know it was for A Chorus Line. I thought I was auditioning for Pippin.

Colton: Yeah, they don’t announce [the show] in case rights don’t work out, so they taught us a dance combo from another show; our combo was from Pippin. I did a general [audition] in Toronto and then I came to Stratford two or three times to read sides for people. Then my last timethis was the craziest part of the audition experience for meI did three hours of dancing, a hard combo, and Donna kept making it harder and harder. And then after that, since the line is pretty iconic and the same character always stands in the same spot, she slotted us in one by one, and then she’d look at it, and she’d move people. 

Ashley: I didn’t even get the role that I kept slotting in for. But this year [the audition] was totally relaxed. You went in and you knew the whole panel; there was a two hour dance call and that was it. 

DARTcritics: How much dance experience did you have when you went into your conservatories? 

Ashley: I’ve been dancing my whole life; singing was the new part for me. I’ve been dancing since I was five. 

Colton: I started dancing a lot when I made the decision that I wanted to audition for Sheridan, but then the dance call to get into the program wasn’t even that hard.

DARTcritics: As a wrap-up question, what advice can you give to aspiring actors in training who hope to be sitting where you are right now? 

Ashley: Honestly, it takes a lot of hard work, and you’ve got to really love it. You’re going to get so many ‘no’s before you get a yes and you cannot let that get to you. Even people that I’ve worked for maybe 20 times will tell you that you’re not right for this role. If you really want it, you’ll get it; just wait until that perfect role comes along. You’re never going to know what’s right for you.

Colton: Just keep working so hard. I think a lot of people, especially after graduating, get into a lull of not doing anything right away, or they’ll be scared to put themselves out there. You just have to know that you can do it, otherwise it’s not going to happen. Keep going to class after school is over, and just work so so hard all the time. 

Now let’s hear from Saamer and Thomas!

Saamer and Thomas pose for a "selfie" with Sarah and Caroline.

Another selfie with our interviewees!

DARTcritics: Thank you so much  allowing us to interview you! If you could just start by stating your age and what shows you’re in this season, and when and where you graduated from?

Thomas: I am 23. I’m in Shakespeare in Love and The Lion, Witch and The Wardrobe and I graduated from the National Theatre School in May of 2015.

Saamer: I am in Shakespeare in Love and The Aeneid. I am 26 and I graduated in October 2014 from LAMDA [the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art].

DARTcritics: What has it been like for you so far performing at Stratford, and what were you doing before you auditioned?

Saamer: I did the Birmingham Conservatory starting in September 2015. It’s an 18-week training program here with six first year [students] and four second years. That was September to February, then I had two weeks off before I started rehearsals for Shakespeare in Love and Aeneid. Before I did the Conservatory I was in Toronto. I didn’t really get into the theatre world there; it’s more of a TV town. I was doing some of that and I worked a little bit on a TV show.

Thomas: I graduated in May 2015 and I worked on a solo Fringe show that I wrote that June and performed in Montreal. The first day of July I went to sign with an agency in Toronto and I happened to be in town for general auditions for Shakespeare in Love. I auditioned and there were a lot of callbacks—I got called in at one point just to see how low my voice could drop. I moved to Toronto in September and shortly after got the call for Shakespeare in Love. I did a TV gig in October and lived off of nearly no money until starting here.

DARTcritics: Where did you grow up, and what made you decide to pursue acting professionally?

Thomas: I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. Both my parents are theatre teachers, so I did a lot of plays growing up. When I was 17 I saw a production of Our Town in New York—I loved it and I thought ‘yeah, I want to do this.’

Saamer Usmani (right) as Marlowe, and members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Saamer Usmani (right) as Kit Marlowe, and members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Saamer: I grew up all over the place. I’m from Pakistan, but we lived in six different countries. When I was 13 I moved to the States and I went to boarding school in Massachusetts. I didn’t do much theatre then; I played a lot of sports—that was my sort of performance outlet. Being here reminds me of how much this feels like playing sports, not just the endurance of it, but you have to be so present and have access to technique. When I was 18 I went to the U of T[oronto] to study sociology, anthropology, and political science. I played tennis there, then quit after two years—I felt a void I guess, so I ended up performing in a small play and I got hooked. For two years after school I somehow signed with an agent; I had no idea what I was doing. I snuck my way onto TV sets. I realized I needed solid training so I auditioned for LAMDA which is only a 12- month course. Needless to say I fell in love with theatre a while back, but later than most.

DARTcritics: We as actors in training are always taught that it’s important to keep making new character discoveries to keep the work fresh. So in regards to your respective shows and characters, how do you do that? How do you make sure the work keeps on being new and challenging?

Saamer: What jumps to mind is some of the games we play in rehearsal for Shakespeare in Love. The director and movement coach set up the world so beautifully for us… We established physical principles/rules in rehearsal and within those we are allowed to explore, and there is freedom in that.

Thomas: Yeah, it comes down to the rules of the game we are playing, and how far can we take that.

Saamer: The director would always have us touch things on set and touch each other, to keep us in the world of the play and to keep us listening.

Thomas: Yeah, like if you’re near a wall touch it, if you’re near someone touch them. It seems strict, but you can stand there not touching something and you’re not doing anything—when you touch something you’re instantly connected and engaged with the world. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Tim Carroll, the director, played a lot of games with us in rehearsal and would give us a sort of tool box of things to play with, like before saying a line, saying or thinking ‘you don’t understand.’ Stuff like that helps keep the work fresh.

DARTcritics: What has been the most memorable aspect of being part of Stratford’s 2016 season?

Thomas: Those first few performances, and looking back on how incredible it felt. When we come out onstage at the end of the performance [of Shakespeare in Love] and do that jig, I can’t help but think to myself ‘This is the best show I will be in.’ I feel so lucky… I don’t think I will ever experience something like this again.

Saamer: For me, it’s after we’ve just done a performance, and it feels like I’ve just run a marathon or performed a huge, awesome musical. The feeling is exhilarating!

DARTcritics: If you could play any other character in any of the plays this season, male or female, who would it be and why?

Thomas: I’d love to play Lady M or Hal from King Henry IV.

Saamer: Definitely Richard II. What about you two?

Caroline: I really want to play Val in A Chorus Line. The actress who plays her this season [Julia McLellan] is phenomenal!

Sarah: Probably Spot the dog in Shakespeare in Love. But actually, Marlowe [played by Saamer in Shakespeare in Love], he’s such a fun character to watch!

DARTcritics: What are you plans after you complete this season at Stratford?

Saamer: I think I’m going to visit my girlfriend in New York after the season ends. I’m going to Pakistan in December.

Thomas: Well, Lion, Witch keeps getting extended so who knows when I’ll be done? I have no plans, but I’d like to go home, I miss it.

Thomas Mitchell Barnett at far right, and members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Thomas Mitchell Barnett at far right, and members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

DARTcritics: What advice would you give to future theatre graduates who are looking to pursue conservatory programs and professional careers?

Saamer: What I’ve noticed here is that most of the actors I’ve come across are so disciplined… They are so rigorous in their work and how they approach text, voice, and the body. So the advice I could give is to commit to the work and to growing in your craft. Learn what it means to be present and to listen.

Thomas: I was so fortunate to have this experience almost right out of school, I don’t even know if I can give advice. But some advice that I would like to pass on that was given to me is, take risks. Keep working and keep looking for work.

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