Dan Watson is an artist with a long history of collaborating with others to present engaging plays and arts experiences with and for his community. He is best known in Huntsville as one of the co-founders and artistic director of Nuit Blanche North, a highly successful multidisciplinary arts street festival going on hiatus for 2016 and as co-writer and co-star of the Dora Award-winning play Ralph + Lina. I reached him during a break in rehearsals in Toronto to talk about his connection to Huntsville, his achievements, and why it’s important to engage people in art.
PB: You were born in Toronto but moved to Huntsville at age 7. How did growing up here shape you as an actor?
DW: Although I had my first formal foray into community theatre with John McTavish, I didn’t do any drama classes until my OAC year in high school. Then I did one of those questionnaires that tell you what occupations would be a good fit and it said either doctor or actor, and I thought, “I kind of want to be an actor.” I’ve always liked being on stage. But it’s not even necessarily being on stage per se; it’s the act of theatre, of everybody coming together with one goal, one vision, working together toward something. I also like how theatre is a form that brings together a lot of different disciplines: there’s a visual component, there’s sound, there’s acting, there’s writing.
PB: What were your other important influences?
DW: After high school I enrolled at University of Guelph and took a few theatre courses but felt like it wasn’t quite enough hands-on work. So I auditioned and got into Humber College’s three-year conservatory program, which had interesting theatre practitioners and people doing different kinds of work. The emphasis was more on creating work as opposed to interpreting work. One of my teachers, named Dean Gilmour, taught a class where you wear a full mask with a neutral expression. That puts an emphasis on the movement of the body, being calm within it and being strong. He also taught clown and commedia dell’arte. I really connected with the kind of work we were doing with him and found out it was rooted in the pedagogy of a school called Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris (link: http://www.ecole-jacqueslecoq.com/en/school_en-000001.html) . I ended up going there for two years, and that was fantastic. I came out feeling very strong. It gave me a lot of tools and experience I could draw on in making theatre. That’s always been my interest, is making new work, not as much interpreting.
PB: Let’s talk about some of your creations, like the play Ralph + Lina, which you co-wrote and starred in with your wife Christina Serra. It has been such a huge success, with awards and sold-out tours. I know it’s based on Christina’s grandparents’ story. How did you decide to turn that into a show, and what it was like creating it?
DW: It’s a story that’s been banging around Christina’s family forever, one of those family myths. Christina and I actually met at Humber College, and even then we were talking about doing something with that story. We actually tried to make it happen, but it didn’t really go. Then a couple of years ago someone asked me to do something for a fundraiser in Toronto. I remembered one of my final projects at Lecoq was this little two-hander about an elderly couple that would help each other out without really knowing it, and I said, “Okay, Christina, how about if we do that?” Then when we were working on it, we thought, “This is like your grandparents. This is great. We should try to do this.”
So we got together with Michele Smith, who is actually Dean Gilmour’s partner in work and life, and we just started doing improv. We came in with scenes that we thought would be interesting to try, that we really connected with and that came from Christina’s grandparents’ story, and we just got up on our feet. That’s the way we write. We don’t do a lot of writing at the computer. It’s all improv. In fact, it’s a different kind of process, because the play is actually written down after the fact. It’s very much from the body, from being on your feet in the space. What happens is it starts to pare down the words, trying to get to what’s essential, what needs to be said. The play then rests more in the physical body and the situation. That’s a big thing from Lecoq training, is what happens in that silence before words are said. We developed the play over a couple of years, off and on, and then did it last year.
PB: When did you know you had something special?
DW: Well, we really liked it, and that’s always a good sign. I still have these moments where I’ll go offstage for a moment and think, “Oh yeah, I get to do that scene next! That’s awesome! I can’t wait to get out there.” I guess you never know, really, how it’ll be received. It can be a challenge to get audiences out, so as the word of mouth started to build, it started to feel like, “We’re getting something here.” And we started to see the positive reactions from people afterward.
PB: What plans are still ahead for Ralph + Lina?
DW: We’re going to six cities in Ontario this fall: Peterborough, Kingston, Burlington, St. Catharines, Milton and North Bay. Then we have a week in London in April and tentatively a night in Parry Sound April 23.
Theatre… is about giving people a purpose to be together and to experience something together. It builds connections. I think it makes us more empathetic, more thoughtful and more loving.
PB: What other shows or projects are close to your heart?
DW: One of the things that has always been important to me has been an approach called Community Arts or Engaged Arts. There’s a company called Jumblies Theatre I’ve learned a lot from, and that has really shaped a lot of my work with Edge of the Woods Theatre. It’s all about engaging community members alongside professional artists to make work together. For example, Christina and I are working right now with a guy named Tony Diamanti, who’s a writer who has cerebral palsy, and we’re making a show with him drawing on experiences from his life around love, sex and companionship. There are a lot of stereotypes around that with people who have disabilities, and there’s a connection with our son Bruno, who has cerebral palsy. So we’re working always interested in working with different voices or meeting different people. I think Community Arts is something that does that.
It’s the same with events like Nuit Blanche North or even what we were running when we first started in Huntsville, called Edge of the Woods Theatre Festival, which was a travelling festival to different little villages and towns and public spaces. You get to meet different people, people who don’t really go to the theatre often, or at all, and it’s always interesting to see that encounter between the public and the event.
PB: You’re so passionate about bringing theatre and arts experiences into people’s lives. Why is that? What is it exactly that you’re hoping to accomplish?
DB: I think it comes back to what I said about my first love in theatre, which is not really the performing, but the act of people coming together and relating to each other in different ways. It’s a way to bring people together, for them to learn about themselves, to learn about each other, to learn about the place that they live. Live theatre or live art events are the way I do that. It’s about giving people a purpose to be together and to experience something together. It builds connections. I think it makes us more empathetic, more thoughtful and more loving.