As the final week of the Classic Theatre Festival production of An Inspector Calls comes to a close (the last show is on Sept. 11 at 54 Beckwith Street East in Perth), among those
who have won critical kudos from the country’s top theatre reviewers are Anna Burkholder and Fraser Elsdon, who play a young couple about to be engaged as the gripping mystery thriller begins.
Burkholder and Elsdon are part of a new generation of Canadian talent who made their debuts at the Classic Theatre Festival this season in an edge-of-your-seat thriller in which a body has been found and everyone is a suspect.
Burkholder got her start on stage by auditioning for a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She recalls being too scared and nervous to perform a monologue, so she tried out for a non-speaking forest creature with a movement-based audition. She was cast as Cobweb, “and I created a crazy spider walk for her. It was special because I realized I was able to create Cobweb however I wanted and I don’t think I’d experienced that type of freedom before.”
She trained in physical theatre at East 15 Acting School in England. “The first several months we didn’t speak in our training. Silent play and listening to each other was a huge foundation of the training. It was a powerful experience.”
Her first professional stage gig was a coming together of connections in British theatre’s royalty: the National Theatre production of Timon of Athens on the Olivier Stage, where she recalls she “learned a lot, especially from watching the work of such gifted actors. It was a great eye opener for me to see how a performance has the potential to be new each night. Unspoken games were played on stage between actors and this kept things unbelievably free and spontaneous. I began to see how a sense of play was so important. I was also very fortunate to witness what it was to be truly open and vulnerable and have these moments reach even the furthest of seats. It felt magical.”
Physical theatre has always held an attraction for Burkholder, who says, “I think that when I’m truly following my impulses, it’s my body leading the way. My thoughts can’t be in the way – nor my words – for me to sincerely follow my impulses. These impulses (or gut feelings) come from somewhere within, somewhere physical. That’s what interests me! As an audience member, I think the actors’ bodies on stage are so fascinating. Watching an ensemble and seeing how bodies move together, or not together at all, says so much for me.”
Elsdon was bit by the theatre bug with a Grade 5 performance of the Green Day song Basket Case, played on a recorder, that truly rocked his school’s talent show He also won the speech competition with a story about living on the moon. As a teenager, he found himself singing, playing guitar, and performing, and was then cast in his Windsor high school production of Grease, followed by the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
“Before one of the performances I remember standing onstage behind the curtain, and the orchestra playing the first few notes. I looked around me at the other actors, all focused, all in costume, and I thought about what I was about to do: become a 19th-century French criminal, and sing songs, and tell a sweeping, moving, epic story. It’s there that I decided that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.”
Elsdon did most of his training at George Brown Theatre School, but the first acting class he ever took taught him that “acting is not pretending to have an experience, acting is having the experience, the interior experience.”
The musically-inclined Elsdon has also appeared in Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, a role he truly loved both because he played the title role and because “I got to be in a band, playing rock music, night after night for thousands of people. It’s so awesome!”
Another favourite role was playing opposite his wife, Kate Ross, in Mary’s Wedding, which they performed in a rural barn. “It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking, poetic show about love and loss and war. It was a gorgeous production, with live sound and music; it was very moving, especially to be acting opposite my wife.”
Elsdon also works as a writer with the Storefront Theatre Playwright’s Unit, a major hub of Toronto’s independent theatre scene. “I love writing. I think acting has informed my ear for dialogue, as well as my understanding of stage business. As a writer you need to see the whole picture, see the plot and how different personalities interact. When you’re acting, you need to know your character inside and out, and then react to the events as they unfold. You live in the moment, whereas when I’m writing I need to write the moments and then take a bird’s eye view.
His newest play, Superheroes, was developed as part of their Playwright’s Unit, and received a public reading in May.
Burkholder and Elsdon both like playing characters in a mystery where audiences might at first have difficulty relating to individuals who are suspects in a criminal case. “Sheila Birling is very sensitive and has an innate ability to detect things,” Burkholder says. “She’s passionate and I think she feels things very deeply. I believe that it’s her empathy and her desire to want to change (and change the environment around her) that is redeeming. I love playing a character who is so invested in making a huge change.”
Elsdon likes Croft because “he’s someone with a good heart who has made a big mistake and is struggling to understand what it means and what to do about it. Who among us can’t relate to that? The prospect of having to shift our entire worldview is a terrifying one, and that’s what is being asked of him by the Inspector and Sheila.”
To see these characters as they make their way to the last line of the play, before which no one is quite sure who is responsible for the death of a young woman, tickets can be purchased at www.classictheatre.ca or 1-877-283-1283. An Inspector Calls closes on September 11, the final show of the Festival’s expanded 7th summer season.