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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ford's Focus: Paul Van Dyck

(Photo credit: Camille McOuat)

Living Life to the Fullest
There were lots of times I thought about coming home...but I thought ‘where’s the story in that?’
by Barbara Ford
Brockville-born producing, writing, directing and acting sensation Paul Van Dyck has already managed to jam-pack a lifetime into the three and a half decades or so that he’s been around.  Growing up, Van Dyck had many varied interests and dabbled a little with theatre, playing in a couple of high school plays.  His British mom still had family living in London and Van Dyck recalls numerous visits on summer breaks, seeing West End musicals such as the glam roller skating hit, Starlight Express (what was Andie thinking?).  When he was seventeen, he and a girlfriend took a trip to Stratford, camping out and seeing a slew of plays, but he still hadn’t caught the bug just yet.

It wasn’t until Van Dyck journeyed out west after high school, passing through Lake Louise and ending up on Vancouver Island, that he got bitten.  He happened to see Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle by a travelling ensemble called the Caravan Barge Theatre.  Quite the romantic troupe they were too, with Clydesdale horses drawing their wagons through the rural farm districts to perform for meagre audiences.  After the show, Van Dyck caught sight of one of the actors roasting a hotdog over an open fire, reminiscent of a Depression dustbowl hobo, and sat down to chat with the fellow.  Perhaps it was the heady mix of travel and theatre that was so irresistible to Van Dyck, who figured if you don’t mind eating a lot of hotdogs over an open pit, a notion he had no trouble swallowing, the life of a thespian had a certain quixotic allure.  

Raised in Brockville’s homogenous milieu, Montreal’s vibrant energy and diverse cultural scene was undeniably seductive.

Van Dyck enrolled at Kingston’s Queens University in the four-year Specialized Studies in Stage and Screen program with a minor in Art History.  The referendum had driven hordes of Anglos out of Québec, many of them washing up in Brockville, and as a result Van Dyck made frequent treks to Montreal with friends whose relatives had dug their heels firmly into Québécois soil.  Raised in Brockville’s homogenous milieu, Montreal’s vibrant energy and diverse cultural scene was undeniably seductive.  Through his program at Queens, he managed to spend his third year as a visiting student at Concordia, living on the Plateau … (at the time) the latest hip, artistic enclave.   

As you read on you will see that travel is a key component in Van Dyck’s career.  Before completing his honours degree, he took off to explore Asia for a year with elements of that trip subtly present in The Cyclops, one of his first original creations. Van Dyck has traveled extensively, following such intrepid routes as the Ancient Silk Road (1999), the Trans-Siberian Railway (2008), and the Sahara Desert (2002), the latter nearly costing him his life.  While on the road, he attended theatre whenever possible, absorbing divergent cultural aesthetics and story-telling techniques from an eclectic array of traditions. 

Alice in Wonderland
(Photo courtesy of Paul Van Dyck)
Once back from Asia, he returned to Queens to complete his degree, after which he made a beeline for Montreal. He saw an audition notice in the Mirror for the Tricycle Production of Alice in Wonderland and landed a part with him and three fellow actors creating all of the roles themselves or by operating puppets.  The touring show was seen by approximately fourteen thousand children in 2001.   

Van Dyck quickly realized that work wasn’t easy to come by but was equally happy to discover that Montreal, more than most, was a city that enabled artists to live meagrely.  Out of a peculiar desire to eat, Van Dyck wrote and submitted a play to the 2001 Montreal and Ottawa Fringe Festivals.  He hit the ground running, with his dual-city festival dates overlapping for his first self-produced Rabbit in a Hat production: a fairy tale and Greek myth amalgamation for three actors entitled The Adventures of Mouse and Crab.  The two small creatures are stranded in a getaway hot air balloon, flying perilously closer and closer to the Sun.  Every morning the mouse notices that more of him is missing but can’t figure out why.  It ends with a punished crab and a rewarded mouse and attracted decent audiences in both cities.  As a first and very positive experience for him, Van Dyck stated that “the Fringe is great for allowing artists to try things.  It’s a fun atmosphere and a rich training ground.”   

On one occasion, his stage and screen degree came in handy to secure a month-long gig as the camera man for a German documentary film maker.

The urge to see more of the world kicked into high gear again. This time, Van Dyck bit off a bit more then he could chew. Southeast Asia and North Africa were his next destinations, however soon after he arrived, he contracted malaria. He hitched his way around but became seriously ill in Malaysia and had to spend a full nine months there.  When he was able, he picked up odd jobs to generate funds, hooking up with fellow travellers for short spells. On one occasion, his stage and screen degree came in handy to secure a month-long gig as the camera man for a German documentary film maker. 

Photo courtesy Paul Van Dyck
As he got into Chad and Sudan, there was less and less tourist support.  Even hitching became a challenge as there were few, if any, roads and the level of poverty he witnessed was inconceivable.  As he tried to cross the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, his malaria got worse, zapping all of his energy and strength.  He made it as far as Cairo and then flew home.  “There were lots of times I thought about coming home, even at the beginning of the trip, but I thought ‘where’s the story in that?’  By the end it felt like a nightmare.  I learned that the world is a lot shittier than I anticipated.”  It would be a good five years before Van Dyck could revisit his journey to exploit it for dramatic purposes.

Over the years he has worked with Centaur Theatre, Persephone Productions, Geordie Productions, Infinitheatre, Village Theatre West, Elysian River Theatre, Unwashed Grape, Mainline Theatre, Underdog Productions and Repercussion Theatre.

Once he regained his health, Van Dyck continued to audition for theatre companies, topping up the few acting classes that his degree program provided with workshops at ASM Performing Arts Inc.  Over the years he has worked with Centaur Theatre, Persephone Productions, Geordie Productions, Infinitheatre, Village Theatre West, Elysian River Theatre, Unwashed Grape, Mainline Theatre, Underdog Productions and Repercussion Theatre. His foray into outdoor theatre (remember the travelling hobo actor on Vancouver Island?) was with the annual Shakespeare-in-the-Park Festival.  Van Dyck heard about Repercussion Theatre from Tricycle Productions’ Dean Fleming and subsequently worked with them for several summers. Van Dyck laughed at his own naivety as he recounted the moment he learned that the four hundred dollars he thought he would be receiving for an entire season’s work, a sum he was prepared to live with, was actually his weekly pay check … bingo! 

Van Dyck was slowly distinguishing himself as a gifted performer. In Repercussion’s 2002 production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged, directed by Alain Goulem, The Trades Editor-In-Chief, Raul Burriel wrote this about the fast-paced frolic: “Van Dyck, [Tadhg] McMahon and [Jacob] Richmond put on a show that doesn't feel labored at all. They look to be honestly having fun on stage and their performances were so lively and natural as to almost appear improvised.” Through his stage work for Repercussion, Van Dyck secured an agent and started getting small but more lucrative parts in film and television.  

Van Dyck had a friend working in the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital who served as a valuable resource...

The following year, Goulem returned to direct the three in Repercussion’s Shakespeare: The Lost Play. Van Dyck recalled it was a tough gestation, co-writing the spoof with his two strong-willed colleagues, and admitting that Artistic Director Cas Anvar, in order to ensure there was something on the tour’s menu that summer, had to step in to coax everyone back on board. In 2005, the play was up against Rick Miller’s Bigger Than Jesus for a slot in the Just For Laughs line-up, though Miller eventually took the cake.  

The Cyclops was the next original Rabbit in a Hat production. (By the way, Van Dyck coined the name of his production company while still in university, not wanting to be the only one amongst his peers without a groovy name for his student film projects.) An original musical with four actors and three musicians, The Cyclops takes place in a mental institution.  As a means of escaping his wretched reality, the one-eyed main character, takes refuge in the imaginary bawdy world of the travelling circus and freak show, falling in love with the bearded lady. At the time, Van Dyck had a friend working in the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital who served as a valuable resource, with a steady supply of bizarre anecdotes and professional input on Van Dyck’s text.  It opened in 2003 at the Geordie Space (now Espace 4001) and in 2008 reappeared in Centaur’s Wildside Festival.  Sarah Pearson’s review said, “I love seeing live theatre pieces that really could only work as live theatre. The Cyclops does not disappoint: director/playwright Paul Van Dyck brilliantly uses traditional clown and mask-work to portray Ballor’s [male lead] burlesque fantasy world.”  

All Star Cheerleaders (with
Glenda Breganza, l, Shannon Topinka, r,
courtesy Paul Van Dyck)

While working on The Cyclops, Van Dyck got involved with the Montreal All Star Cheerleaders, an all-gals troupe in search of a guy, preferably experienced … as an actor and director. Hour’s Jodi Essery described the 2004 Fringe offering Kabarett: A Cheerical as a show “which purports to take the piss out of everything and anything it touches. Complete! With pom-poms! And dancing! Girls!”  Amy Barratt of Mirror gave it high praise indeed with “… this local show is a gem. … this could well be a runaway hit by the time you read this.”  The show was remounted at the 2005 Wildside Festival, followed in 2006 by The Sum of All Cheers at the Montreal Fringe. If you’re fully resigned to be a starving actor, you look for other rewards, deeper meaning, in your work.  In an interview about The Sum of All Cheers with The Gazette’s Bill Brownstein, Van Dyke was quoted as saying, “Wouldn't you be in constant bliss, too, with five kick-ass chicks in miniskirts, spanky pants and pompoms?" 

He approached Belgrave to discuss the possibility of working together on Van Dyck’s African adventure.

By 2006, enough time has passed that Van Dyck was up to taking a second look at his trip to Africa.  A gruelling, life-altering experience such as that must contain a story, conceal profound truths and wisdom that audiences would find intriguing.  “Every day could have been a play” Van Dyck exclaimed. Bent on excavating one, he unearthed his journals to re-read them with the determination and detachment needed to locate the gem in the rough.  

Van Dyck had seen Owen Belgrave’s Underdog Production of Morris Panych’s Earshot.  He approached Belgrave to discuss the possibility of working together on Van Dyck’s African adventure. With Underdog producing and Robin Henderson directing, Sahara Crossing had its first incarnation at Theatre Ste-Catherine in December 2006.  The following summer, it played in both the Toronto and Montreal Fringe Fests and eighteen months later, was remounted in the Wildside Festival at Centaur.  In an interview with Neil Boyce of Mirror, Roy Surette said, “I’m a fan of Paul …  He [Van Dyck] had quite a harrowing experience and he documented it so well—he’s a great storyteller.”   Van Dyck confided over the phone that with several runs of his fantastic journey now behind him, he sometimes finds it difficult to distinguish between the real memories and the dramatized scenes he created for the play. 

Paradise Lost
(Photo: Andrea Hausmann)
While in a village in Ghana, Van Dyck came across a copy of Paradise Lost...

Van Dyck’s African exploits were the origin of not one but two new works.  The second was in the spring of 2009, also at Theatre Ste-Catherine but this time flying under the Rabbit in a Hat colours. While in a village in Ghana, Van Dyck came across a copy of Paradise Lost, Milton’s 17th Century poem about the battle between heaven and hell and the fall of man. As a way of flirting with a cute Norwegian traveller, he read it to her on the beach. The Norwegian is now a distant memory but the love affair between Van Dyck and the poem persevered. “The fall of man which Milton describes is not unlike the failure of the hippie movement in the ’60s or today’s hyper-driven destruction of the planet.  We seem to repeat the same pivotal mistake in various incarnations throughout our history. I wanted to use the sublime language of the greatest epic poem ever written, dust off its universal message and give it an upgrade.” 

As they say in the bizz, the play had legs.

Adapting the twelve-volume poem featuring a cast of thousands seemed impossible however Sahara Crossing had taught Van Dyck a trick or two about one-man shows.  He and his long-time friend and artist, Jeremy Eliosoff, audited a course on Milton to a find a contemporary key into the antiquated text. With a simple set, using Eliosoff’s ingenious computer graphics to create the demons of hell, papier-mâché puppets as Adam and Eve and selections from the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter as the musical backdrop, Van Dyck, dressed simply in jeans and a T-shirt, drop-kicked a four hundred year old work into the 21st Century, breathing new life into the rich language, making it as current and accessible today as when it was first written. Paradise Lost, written, directed by and starring Van Dyck was a critical and box office success. 

As they say in the bizz, the play had legs. It had a second run a few months later as part of the first Just For Laughs Zoofest, then headed out to Hudson Village Theatre that autumn.  Danielle-Ariel Caddell-Malenfant got the play into New York’s 2011 Frigid Festival where it was named Best of the Fest and extended at a second venue on the lower east side. 

Theatre is Easy’s review by Adrienne Urbanski, said, “Van Dyck turns an arduous English literature class reading into sexy, sinful fun … I found myself surprisingly riveted by Van Dyck's inspired performance that truly brings alive Milton's vision.”  Martin Denton of wrote, “His [Van Dyck’s] skill and strong stage presence belie his disarmingly youthful demeanour. He is absolutely a young artist to watch.” W. Kenton of Cultural Capitol had even higher praise: “I can say without qualification that this is the best theatre – the most relevant to our time, the most uplifting, the most artistic, simultaneously the most esoteric and exoteric, visually, aurally, and intellectually stimulating – that I have seen in a long time.”  High praise indeed.

The production continues to gain momentum: stage manager Caddell-Malenfant obtained a slot for it in the August 2011 Minnesota Fringe and is preparing a grant application to the Jim Henson Foundation in New York City.  In addition, scouts from London, Ontario at the Frigid Fest, scooped it up for a run of solo plays in London this coming September.

While Van Dyck was remounting Paradise Lost in the West Island, he was in rehearsal for his newest play, Haunted. His original script idea was to examine various cultures’ beliefs in the afterlife but while conducting his research, he discovered a Canadian ghost story that captured his fancy and he ran with that instead.  

Haunted (with Catherine Bérubé, photo
by Jeremy Bobrow)
In 1878, Esther Cox, a resident of Amherst, Nova Scotia, was the victim of one of the most terrifying poltergeists ever chronicled in North America.  Van Dyck went to Amherst to comb through the reams of archived documents and news clippings. Working day and night with blood-chilling material is bound to take its toll.  One morning, Van Dyck admitted, as he laboured over the script in the wee hours, he heard breathing in the cellar.  The cursor started to skit crazily across his computer screen while the laser light of his mouse pulsed as if conducted by an invisible hand.  Yup … time to take a breather and go for a walk!

With a stellar cast and him as the narrator/morally bankrupt actor who comes to Amherst to persuade Cox to take her ghostly act on the road, Van Dyck’s polished storytelling and fine-tuned direction transformed St. James Church into a chamber of horrors.  Once again he turned to CGI expert Eliosoff, this time to bring the ghost (rather than hell) to life and asked Jody Burkholder to design the essential creepy lighting.  Live violin and cello, played by actor Daniel Givern and music student Trevor Smith respectively, contributed to the spooky atmosphere.  Using the chapel’s wood paneled walls and upper mezzanine to great effect, audiences jaded by sophisticated film F/X cowered in the pews, jumping involuntarily at every little bump in the dark. Staging the tale just in time for Halloween brought in the crowds, chalking up another success for Van Dyck.  (If you missed it downtown, you’ll have a chance to catch it again at the Hudson Village Theatre this autumn.)

He contacted the Council to ask why and was told that his play was “highly recommended” but that they didn’t have the money.  

As producer, Van Dyck knew going in that there would be very little, if any, profit by the end of the run, even with packed houses. With a new play of irrefutable Canadian content, he had applied to the Canada Council for a grant to relieve the pressure on his credit line and guarantee some measure of remuneration for the actors and designers, only to be boggled and disappointed by the Council’s refusal. He contacted them to ask why and was told that his play was “highly recommended” but that they didn’t have the money. With freezes and cutbacks to the arts and the Council committed to supporting the larger Canadian houses, smaller initiatives and companies are continually passed over.  Undaunted, Van Dyck keeps applying for his various projects in the hopes that one year he’ll crack that nut.    

Van Dyck seems to operate similarly to film director Clint Eastwood, continually teaming up with the same like-minded artists time after time.  Wearing as many hats as he does in a highly collaborative discipline, it facilitates the creative process.  Award-winning lighting designer Jody Burkholder has worked on seven plays with Van Dyck.  Jeremy Eliosoff, whose computer-generated images can be found in sci-fi thrillers like The Watchman as well as in a number of Disney films, is Van Dyck’s go-to guy when it comes to innovative use of new media in live performance.  Stage manager Cadell-Malenfant has also joined the roster after working with Van Dyck on Haunted, a script that benefitted from the professional input of Van Dyck’s writing unit at Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
(with Patricia Sommerset, botttom,
courtesy of Paul Van Dyck)
Taking on a simple acting or directing gig is a welcome respite for Van Dyck, who played the bloodthirsty Count in the 2008 Fallen Angel production of Dracula.  He directed the 2009 Montreal Fringe hit, penumbra (which returned the following winter to Centaur’s Wildside), and romped through the titillating original musical The Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus at MainLine Theatre in February 2010.  Towards the end of that year, he also directed the Rabbit in a Hat production of Ned Cox’ Mission Drive in which he also played the principled yet pragmatic minister who makes a deal with the devil to (ironically) save his church.

Van Dyck teamed up with triple threat Holly Gauthier-Frankel to co-write Miss Sugarpuss Must Die for the 2010 Fringe Festival.  (See the December 2010 CharPo feature on Ms Gauthier-Frankel here.)  He directed Frankel’s burlesque alter-ego in the sell-out solo show that won the Centaur Best English Production Award and was remounted in the 2011 Wildside Festival, attracting even larger crowds the second time around.  Van Dyck has pitched the show to the same people in London, ON who booked Paradise Lost and he and Frankel are hoping to get it into New York and Toronto, though their busy schedules make it difficult to coordinate.

Next up for Van Dyck is the Village Scene Productions’ Equus in the magnificent Rialto Theatre from April 13 to 24. This production is the largest that Van Dyck has directed, boasting a healthy cast of fifteen actors and dancers, (who play horses), with McGill English Literature student and newcomer, Bobby Lamont, in the title role.  Used to the producer role, whipping out his own credit card to achieve the desired result, dealing with the financial fallout later, he misses being able to call all the shots.  Managing such a large cast is also a challenge.  “I don’t think I have the greatest aptitude for directing; I’m more of a ‘stand over there and say it like this’ guy.  What I’ve noticed with really, really good actors, is that it takes time; it’s an organic process and as the director your job is to facilitate the actor’s journey into the character or scene. A good director understands people.  He has a vision and is able to fully realize it on stage.”   

I have saved the best for last.  With every interview I ask the subject if there is a quirky detail, something that readers wouldn’t know or that they might find surprising about them: an unusual hobby, a secret passion for something unrelated to their art, a crucial event … that kind of thing.  Van Dyck wasn’t able to come up with something on the spot so I told him to think it over and get back to me.  I’ll end with his deeply poignant reply.  “The event that may have had the greatest effect on my ambitions in life, whether they be creating a play or traveling the world, was the death of my father when I was fourteen. From that age, I've had an all too keen sense of mortality, which has pushed me, sometimes recklessly, to follow my dreams. It's why I've traveled to over sixty countries. And it's why I create plays at the risk of living in poverty. Life is too short not to spend it doing something you love."

EQUUS (Village Scene Productions) plays at the Rialto Theatre from April 13 to 24.  For tickets call (514) 965-9877 or visit 

Next week, John Abbott drama professor and Artistic Director of Persephone Productions, Gabrielle Soskin.

Se also: Richard Burnett's advance article on Equus.


  1. great article - Paul has done and is doing great things for the community. There is always a personal touch where his work is concerned whether you like his work or not. This was a good post

  2. Glad you liked the article - I hope you come back for more and of course, spread the word.

    Please feel free to make suggestions as to who you would like to read about in this column ...


  3. Paul is a modern-day Renaissance man...if such a thing exists!? Great article Barbara!
    So much talent in this beautiful glad I'm back...
    Paul- you are truly inspiring, hope to work with you soon (-;
    xo Fanny La Croix

  4. Well done Barbara! I have worked with Paul, seen him in performance and enjoy meeting him socially, but reading about his life and career in such depth was a welcome education!
    Thank you both!
    Michael Rudder

  5. Another week, another great article, good work Barb,keep'em coming.


  6. Just saw "Equus" and Paul has done a bang-up job, especially in using the challenging Rialto space to great effect. He seems to find the magic in every venue he uses! Sound scape, special FX, choreography are all wonderful. The acting is solid; very impressed with newcomer Bobby Lamont as the troubled Alan Strang. DO check it out.


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