What: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: Opens tonight, continues to May 17
Tickets: $23 to $52 (250 385 6815)
Yes, he just won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement. Yet actor R.H. Thomson isn’t quite ready to rest on his laurels.
Thomson, in his 60s, is co-starring in the Belfry Theatre’s production of Christopher Durang’s comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He plays Vanya, one of two middle-aged, jobless siblings still living in their parents’ home. The pair are financially supported by their movie-star sister, Masha.
One of Canada’s more recognizable actors, Thomson spoke to the Times Colonist April 9, the same day the Governor General’s award announcement was made. Before our interview, the G-G folk had him participate in the event at the Belfry via an Apple tablet — something that seemed to bemuse him.
During the awards broadcast, Thomson was lauded as an “intuitive, versatile artist” and a “passionate advocate for Canadian culture.” Then, via the Apple device, wellwishers at Montreal’s Phi Centre (where the awards announcement was made) lined up to pay the actor compliments.
He responded politely. After a time, perhaps uncomfortable with the adulation, he started goofing around, pretending the connection was cutting out.
“What’s this called?” he said of his faux computer problems. “Stuttering? Or jittering. It’s called jittering.”
Thomson has acted in or directed about 70 productions. He’s best known for playing Jasper Dale in Road to Avonlea, a 1990s TV adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel. Thomson has done scads of theatre, ranging from playing Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn’s Democracy to Glenn Gould in David Young’s Glenn to Atticus Finch in a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
After the G-G announcement, I asked whether he views his lifetime achievement award as a “summing up” of his career. Once gain, Thomson seemed bemused and playful.
“A life-is-over award? That one? I’m almost there,” the bearded, bespectacled actor said, grinning.
So what does one learn over a lifetime of acting? Thomson said he eventually realized the more knowledge one acquires, the more one realizes how complex it is. As a novice, he’d imagined acting would merely be a matter of mastering the craft — and then continuing.
“And then you go, no, you never stop learning. You can’t complete anything. You always have to discover and discover and discover.”
Thomson said experience has taught him to aspire to more than mere nuts-and-bolts acting. Technique is all well and good, however, the true artist transcends that.
Gathering steam, he spoke enthusiastically about the 2014 film Mr. Turner, a biopic about the life of British artist J.M.W. Turner. As his career progressed, Turner’s style became less about creating naturalistic images and more about “painting light.”
Thomson was similarly enthused about participating in a recent Toronto workshop production of Love and Information. The 2012 play by Caryl Churchill is experimental, with more than 40 mini-scenes featuring dozens of characters. Much of the structure is undefined — it’s left up to the creative team who utters which line or how many actors are in each scene.
Thomson said: “It’s like the Turner painting. ... It’s like not being obsessed with the literals of, ‘Oh, you speak, then I speak. This is a funny line, and now we’re going to cry.’ ... It’s how do you reach down in there and pull that stuff out?”
While justifiably proud of his new Governor General’s lifetime achievement award, which he deems an “epic” honour, Thomson said it engenders no desire to wax nostalgic about his long career. He’s much more interested in the future.
“If you’re a hockey player, you want to play hockey. If you’re a writer, you want to write. If you’re a creator, you want to create,” Thomson said.