Next up in our jPod special series of interviews is Mr. Benjamin Ayres, a fixture on Vancouver’s indie stages in between his burgeoning TV/film career (and, I should mention in respect of full disclosure, a regular collaborator with yours truly). The hardest working man is show business, Ben’s theatre hyphenate list stretches the gamut from actor to playwright to director to, I don’t know…set builder – you get the picture. Benny is a testament to making your own career happen, and that there’s no substitute for hard work paired with talent, or that success = preparation + opportunity, or that…well, what can I say, I love the guy, he’s not only a great inspiration for me, but a constant reminder that I don’t work hard enough. And, as you’re about to discover, can opine with the best of ‘em…
1.) In one word, describe your present condition.
2.) In however many words you’d like, describe the current state of Vancouver theatre?
In the past eight years I have performed, written, directed, produced and supported many independent theatre productions in Vancouver. I do it because I love it. That said, it is always a struggle, here’s why:
Rant 1: Put your hands up if you want to make a lot of money acting in film or TV, or even be a stand-in for a big name actor in a movie or television series where you can watch and learn and prepare for when you get the opportunity to be the star and someone is standing in for you? Wow. Pretty much everyone. Okay. Now, put your hand up if you would rather perform in a play that means a lot to you but there is no money, it’s a two month commitment, not many people will see it, and you can’t audition to be the film or TV star you want to be. Come on! Where are the hands? That is the state of Vancouver theatre. It’s not always a priority. Actors move to Vancouver from all over the country to become screen actors. Once they arrive in the Big City they take classes with acting teachers who supplement their own screen careers by teaching out of their bachelor pads on Tuesday nights for $350 a month. This is where the spark to do independent theatre is ignited. They are taught that theatre is a launching pad for the film industry. That if you mount the show from the scene that you “rocked in class”, then there is a great chance casting directors and agents will come and scout you and put you in their movies. And it works! I have actually landed film roles this way. Therefore, the actor is guilty of participating in theatre only to further his or her film/TV career. The problem is that so many of Vancouver’s most talented actors waste their abilities working on sub-par television series, and miss the chance to tell real stories on Vancouver’s stages.
Rant 2: The amount of time and work that goes into producing a show compared to the amount of people attending the show is absolutely ridiculous. The main supporters of indie theatre are other actors and artists. We want the young, movie watching, night-life hungry crowds – but we can’t seem to reach them. Why not? We need gritty, guerrilla theatre advertising. Ineffective marketing by theatre companies is the reason indie theatre often plays to empty houses. Many companies produce one show and never repeat, because it’s extremely frustrating having no one in the seats. We must work together, as an artistic community, to reinvent the experience and make theatre sexy to a wider audience.
3.) What is the recipe for your success as an actor?
The word success is a label that seems to only apply to other people. It’s an awkward term to use to describe myself. Everything that I’ve done has contributed to my success, but I have difficulty seeing those accomplishments as “successes” when they occur. It’s in hindsight that I realize what my recipe for success has been:
The moment I finish a project, I dive into something new.
I continually create new goals.
I aspire to be successful, but not for success in everything I do.
I studied at Lyric School of Acting with M.L.S. for two years and still try to hone my craft there whenever I can.
It is integral that we remain committed to the work. Laziness is artistic suicide.
4.) Which 3 actors would you like to be marooned on a desert island with, and why?
How horrible to be trapped on an island with three actors!
Marlon Brando – He has the best attitude towards life. He’d make me laugh, and he’d bring booze, drugs, smokes and stories. He’d probably be the first to go…and he’d feed us for months.
Charlie Chaplin – His ability to express feelings without saying a word will be greatly appreciated.
Veronica Lake – Because……
5.) Compare and contrast your TV/film work with your theatre work, in terms of artistic satisfaction.
I originally thought the worlds were very similar, until I started working a little more consistently in the TV/film industry. I’m sure when you have the luxury of working for four to eight months on a major motion picture with a director like Lynch, Cronnenberg or Tarantino there is time to rehearse and create together. However, some of the local production companies will shoot an entire feature film in two weeks. This leaves no time for rehearsals and little time for dialogue between director and actor. With independent theatre you sit in a dark room for a month with your peers and search for meaning and truth and humanity within the context of the written work. I find the rehearsal process more rewarding than the performance of the play itself. I have yet to experience this shared exploration in the film/TV industry. I always thought television acting would be much easier than stage acting. Initially there was great disappointment in knowing that once a decision is made to play a scene a certain way you will never get the chance to do it again. When I’m driving home after wrapping for the day on a film or TV set I often second guess the choices I made. However, I have learned to rely on my instincts and trust that what was done in the moment was good.
6.) Given a time machine, what would you tell the young Ben Ayres as he arrives in Vancouver to pursue his career?
I know for a fact he wouldn’t listen to me. I’d probably punch him…then get drunk with him. I am lucky to have a great support group, and my years in Vancouver have been productive and fulfilling. The one thing I’d tell him, knowing what I know now, is to buy some fucking real estate!
7.) What is our responsibility as theatre artists to the city of Vancouver?
Our responsibility is to get people together in a room watching real stories on a small stage that reflect our own lives, where we can learn from our flaws and grow as a community. We have a false sense of community in Vancouver, and we need to strengthen that bond by expressing our commonalities instead of distancing ourselves through a false sense of individualism. Artists have an unbelievable power: to bring strangers together; to change their perception, to make long-lasting impressions, and to impact their lives.
8.) What is your proudest career moment to date?
I have formed bands and done stand-up comedy, written and directed plays and short films, started one of the funniest sketch groups in town, promoted gala fundraisers, performed in critically acclaimed theatre productions, starred on TV and on the big screen. It’s only in answering this question that I realize how proud I am because at the time, I just wanted to do the work, keep busy and create art. It’s much more rewarding being the one that chooses then waiting to be chosen.
I am currently playing the Cancer Cowboy in Douglas Coupland‘s new television series jPod. It is a project that I am very proud to be a part of and, as far as my career goes, it’s the best experience I’ve had.
9.) What do you know about theatre now that you didn’t before writing and directing your own play?
There were no mysteries in theatre that were unearthed by me writing and directing a show. However, controlling the overall look and tone of the story was the most artistically satisfying moment I’ve had. Collaborating with brilliant, committed actors on a personal story was a beautiful experience, and I look forward to doing it again.
10.) What are your top 3 must-reads for the aspiring actor?
As an aspiring actor myself I believe that it is essential training to always be reading.
Zen Physics by David Darling – I’m infatuated with what happens to us when we die and what the point of our existence is. I think this book is essential for anyone who contemplates this ultimate question. It is a great study in human consciousness, and it inspects our persistent need to create individualism.
Intent to Live by Larry Moss- A perfect reminder that we are all lazy. Larry is always kicking artists in the ass to do more and dig deeper, and I find his approach to the craft is similar to my way of thinking.
[...] by Michele Lonsdale Smith – She hasn’t put the words to paper yet, but I know that when she does we will all be better and thankful for it.
11.) What’s next?
I’m heading to Churchill, Manitoba for three weeks to film a movie with Judy Davis and Derek Jacobi called Diamonds. Thankfully I’ll be back in time to spend Christmas with my family. As I said above I just finished co-starring in jPod which is a new TV series airing Tuesdays at 9pm, premiering January 8th, 2008 on the CBC. We will wait to see how the audience reacts and prepare to film season two in the new year.
So please tune in and sit back, relax, and enjoy our feature presentation.