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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Ford's Focus: Chip Chuipka

(Lonely Cowboy)

Chip Chuipka: The Play’s the Thing
by Barbara Ford
(production photos courtesy of Sidemart Theatrical Grocery)

Thirty seconds into my interview with Chip Chuipka, sipping tea in ASM’s bay window overlooking a blustery afternoon on Stanley Street, it was obvious that we weren’t going to spend much time talking about Chip. He dove right into quotation-worthy theories and thoughts, injecting hilarious, touching and deliciously devious episodes to discuss his overwhelming passion: truly inspired theatre. What is that exactly? For Chuipka, it is a well-written story that surprises an audience, disturbs them, provokes them, moves them, and the director, actors and designers are the conduits through which that story is told. 

Chuipka grew up in Capreol, Ontario, a small community that is now part of Greater Sudbury. A mining town, it was also an important railway channel, where the east and west systems converged. Most summers were spent working the rails in some capacity: digging cable, up north with the real toughs, as the manual swing bridge operator or a train order operator communicating, by hand, with both engineer and caboose as the trains roared by. 

The railroad supported Chuipka through to the end of his stint at the University of Toronto where, similar to many artists I’ve interviewed, he studied science- specifically parasites and viruses. Once a month, to take a walk on the right side of his brain, he splurged to see whatever was playing at the Adelaide Court Theatre. That world intrigued him, called out to him, but seemed too distant and remote to penetrate. 


After Chuipka graduated, he travelled to look for work in his field, but the best he could do was washing vials in a lab for less than 10k a year, so he gravitated to more lucrative jobs as he wandered from city to city across the country: truck driver, tree planter, and carpenter. He was the perennial outsider and it was lonely.

Even though Chuipka was disenchanted with science, realizing that most scientists were not the curious or inventive spirits he’d assumed, his nomadic life and seeming lack of alternatives drove him back to the U of T for his Masters in Science. However, as he hitched his way back from Vancouver, he stopped in Saskatoon to house sit for a friend. 

Luckily for us, this fateful pause gave him time to reflect and switch tracks (if you’ll pardon the rail reference), leading him instead to the University of Saskatchewan to study … you guessed it … theatre. Initially, he was disappointed with the program; it wasn’t at all what Chuipka had signed up for, until Henry Woolf arrived. Woolf was a long-time collaborator with Peter Brook, whose major influences were Antonin Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty and Joan Littlewood, ‘the Mother of Modern Theatre’. Woolf’s contention that you could take a nursery rhyme and make a resonant scene with it, instant theatre as it were, was a revelation to Chuipka. 

To support himself while back at school, Chuipka landed a bartending job, working week nights from Happy Hour until the wee hours. In class every morning at 10am, he also built sets (his carpentry background and ability to read plans served him well) in his “spare” time on weekends. In all, Chuipka contributed to 25 shows in two years. “Sometimes, in the middle of a class, I felt like I was going nowhere but then I would say to myself that I was probably just tired and kept plugging away at it.”

By the end of his second year, Chuipka left the program to make a go of it. “Your life is a creation: don’t sit around … create!” He and a couple of recent theatre grads struck out on their own but the larger local theatres in Saskatoon, Persephone Theatre and 25th Street Theatre, weren’t biting. So Chuipka, Jim Guedo (“a really excellent director”), and a handful of colleagues founded the Actor’s Lab, presenting tough, gritty plays such as Sam Shepard’s True West and Curse of the Starving Class or John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God. “We were selling out,” said Chuipka, “and the following season Persephone and 25th Street were giving us parts so we wouldn’t be competing for the same audiences.” 

Chuipka, Del Surjik, David Kerr and others also started an improv company, the Saskatoon Soaps approaching its 30th anniversary, and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan. When I asked him why start a company when that and acting require entirely different skill sets, he answered, “To make work for yourself, and for your fellow actors, sometimes that’s what you have to do. 

“Del thinks way outside the box and I love him for that. He ran Pi Theatre [Vancouver] successfully for 10 years. I like to think he and I are of the same ilk, always trying to come up with fantastic ways to wreck an audience.” Chuipka related one of Surjik’s more outrageous ideas: a complete season of free plays. “He convinced an ad agency to supply free advertising, since there were no admission fees, and for the first time in years, the theatre had consistent full houses.” His prior successes and the boldness of that idea put the spotlight on Surjik and when Tibor Feheregyhazi (Persephone’s Artistic Director) was dying, he told his Board in no uncertain terms, that Surjik was the man for the job. “The guy who couldn’t get work was now at the top of the short list,” said Chuipka with pride. 

I like to work openly, honestly. Levity is a big thing: it opens up the room for comment and progress.

A quick study with a naturally analytical mind, an eye for detail and just plain good instincts, Chuipka had one heck of a learning curve in Saskatchewan. He believes that at all costs one must protect the play. The challenge when working with directors or actors who sometimes veer from that basic tenet, is getting them back on board (sorry ... more railway humour) without alienating them or creating friction within the company. A few dishy anecdotes, (though he is the height of discretion) demonstrated that Chuipka has become somewhat of an expert at this. Though a sensitive and compassionate soul, “it’s important to protect everyone’s ego and be gracious,” he doesn’t suffer fools. If the play is sending out distress signals, there is no way he’s going to let it suffer if there’s a way to save it. “I like to work openly, honestly. Levity is a big thing: it opens up room for comment and progress. Collaboration is the hardest thing in the world but there is nothing better than bringing together great artists and once it’s over, they’ve had an impact on each other. That’s a really great thing.”

Chuipka maintains that a play is like a giant piece of machinery. In rehearsal, everyone agrees how that machine is going to operate to make the viewers feel things however, it does happen that sometimes actors and directors get confused about that. “If I’m inside myself trying to remember when my dog died to get some tears that can’t be seen past the 10th row, I’m slowing down the play to create a feeling for myself and not necessarily achieving any feeling at all for the viewers.”

Chuipka expanded. “Essentially I’m me, bringing to bear my experience and personality to behave in a way that the play wants them [the audience] to feel. In a dramatic role a lot of actors really want to wallow in their fucked-upedness, but that’s really dangerous. Some characters are really toxic […] and they can make you sick. You have to know how to put up a shield so you can go in, do the work but then shed the character and be whole and happy.” 

He used an amusing anecdote from back in the day to illustrate. He and Diana Fajrajsl were having a smoke backstage (remember those days?) during a performance. When it was time for her entrance, she put down the cigarette and went out to perform “a gut-wrenching scene of a suicidal woman that left the audience stupefied.” When she reappeared backstage, she picked up her cigarette and asked where everyone was going after the play. “Those are the people I respect.”

They dragged themselves in and just did the play. They were riveting.

There are those who think that acting is all about what they’re feeling. Chuipka reminisced about working with an actor who asked him what he thought of their performance after what they considered a particularly good night. Chuipka came clean saying that the audience wasn’t feeling what the actor was feeling and it was inhibiting the play. Not surprisingly, his response didn’t go over well however one night the actor arrived to do the show with a bad flu. Chuipka said, “They dragged themselves in and just did the play. They were riveting.”

When I asked about some of his early influences, aside from Woolf, Chuipka quickly named Keith Johnstone (originator of theatresports) and Robert Lepage. “I’ve been really lucky to work with and learn from artists like them. They cultivate spontaneity and that creates exciting and unexpected results for actors and audiences.” Current film heroes are Tom Wilkinson, Cate Blanchette, Merissa Tomei, Diane Weist, David Thewliss, Imelda Staunton and Judi Dench. “They exist so beautifully because of directors like Michael Leigh and Coppola”, though his all-time favourite director is Akira Kurosawa. 

After 35 shows out west, it was time for Chuipka to find new people and challenges. Having spent five years in Toronto while at University, he wasn’t in any rush to revisit, preferring Montreal, which was experiencing an upward trend for actors in the late ‘80s. However, 18 months after relocating, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (the third company Chuipka founded out West) asked him to play Mercutio in a collaboration with Ex Machina … who could resist? East and west faced off, literally, with Robert Lepage bringing the Capulet clan from Quebec City to bite their thumbs at the western Montague’s for the touring production. 

Ottawa was part of the R&J tour and the following summer, Chuipka and a group of fellow artists returned with the intention of mounting another Shakespeare production. After meeting with resident actors and designers, he was able to recruit local artistic directors and arts figures to write letters to funding bodies asking for support of the project. “We raised $200,000 to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream with fantastic, fully-paid actors and technicians and came out with $2000 to the good at the end of the summer.” 

The following year, they did two shows and bought a tent but the dream didn’t last. Chuipka confessed, “there were things we shouldn’t have done, like opening on Canada Day: not a riser or chair to rent and the fireworks started at the peak of the play.” Chuipka did, however, learn a great deal about the business of making theatre, specifically dealing with the media while there. 

The paper tried to get the company’s funding pulled, going so far as to appeal to the city’s mayor, but she was fully behind the company’s efforts. 

A certain Ottawa theatre critic’s reviews were becoming increasingly nasty and personal, using his column, as Chuipka put it, “like a circus of vitriol.” There was lots of grumbling in the community but no action so Chuipka decided to ban the critic from his opening nights and sent a written request to meet with the editors of the newspaper. The two parties met but the paper threatened to shut down the productions, launching a targeted smear campaign … media attention that no amount of money could have bought. “Even the sports guy who wrote up the bowling scores got in on the act,” Chuipka chuckled. Chuipka knew he had to keep a tight lid on the situation, so no matter who in the company was approached by media, all enquires were referred to him, a single voice. The paper tried to get the company’s funding pulled, going so far as to appeal to the city’s mayor, but she was fully behind the company’s efforts. 

Invites were sent out to the media but the publication in question had no intention of sending an alternate critic. Chuipka re-negotiated with them and agreed to compromise by allowing them to send the problematic critic if, and only if, the paper would also print a review by someone the company deemed a fair judge, and that both reviews would have equal exposure. The paper agreed and Michael Springate was brought in from Winnipeg. Not surprisingly, the paper played dirty, putting their critic’s review not on the entertainment section’s front page, but on the front page of the entire journal, and buried Springate’s review. Chuipka said that “Springate’s review pointed out the flaws in the concept but praised the direction and acting while the paper’s critic wrote, ‘This looks like rewrites of Gilligan’s Island’.” The paper didn’t pay their half of the air fare and accommodations as they had agreed either but hey … the ongoing controversy stirred up so much attention for the company, it paid off at the box office, where tickets sales hovered at a steady 86%! 

Chuipka lived and produced in Ottawa, commuting to Montreal for auditions and work, but after three years he decided to return permanently. For about seven years beginning in the mid-‘90s, Chuipka scored pretty much every part he auditioned for and stashed the cash away. Once back in Montreal, he decided to invest the money he’d made into the Actors’ Studio Montreal (ASM), a local acting school run by Dean Fleming and Lisa Kagan at the time. His partners eventually moved on to other things: Fleming is now the Artistic Director of Geordie Productions and Kagan, who had been coordinating actors for McGill’s medical simulation centre, recently opened Shift, a new training and rental enterprise, with actor/teacher/director Liz Valdez. 

Now Chuipka and his life partner, actor Danielle Desormeaux, run the school with the help of two office assistants and approximately four other instructors. With no government support whatsoever, the curriculum, designed to provide students with the skills to work right away, averages 15 to 20 courses. “I’m really proud of the school and of our teachers”, said Chuipka. “They’re also really nice people. You meet enough ‘characters’ in this business, you don’t need to encounter them while learning the craft. We also wanted to recreate what we had at the old Playwrights’ Workshop under Peter Smith: provide a place where theatre people could go, exchange ideas, throw a party, hang out.”

Actors, directors, film people and the curious attend the school: some have been taking classes for as long as 12 years, some are building a career while others take every course and it goes no further than that. Chuipka considers himself lucky. “We have students from Africa, the Middle East- one student escaped from Iran on horseback- and I get to meet all these wonderful people, get to know them, hear what they think. It’s a privilege.” Whatever the circumstances, people studying at ASM learn to act in a safe, respectful environment where there are no stupid ideas or questions. 

The introductory class (Chuipka and Stephanie Buxton each lead one) is a behavioural class where students learn to tune in to their own and others’ behaviour and personality traits. Increasingly disturbed by how little people read nowadays, Chuipka states from the start that, “if you want to act, you have to be prepared to read. Be aware of what you are reading is kindling in you: how is it making you feel and think? What is it making you see? Nurture that skill for when you read scripts because they have to do the same thing to you and YOU have to do the same thing to an audience.” 

Chuipka believes that actors should know their job: they are free to make choices for their character but must understand that ultimately their character supports the story moving forward. “Danielle and I joke about what we like to call the ‘American school of acting’, where everything builds to the climax and then the character breaks down and cries or rages out. I think it’s much more interesting and engaging to use denial, to look like you’re going there and then deny it. It gets the audience to fill the void.” 

[Haber] has the most devilish sarcasm. It’s so quick you walk away saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s wasn’t a compliment at all. That was an insult.’ I love her.

He used a Woody Allen film to drive home his point. “Woody walks into a Hollywood party and spies his ex-girlfriend, Diane Keaton, on the arm of Alan Alda, a cliché Hollywood producer they, as a couple, used to laugh at- the ultimate betrayal- but Woody’s face doesn’t move. It’s the audience that suffers all the hurt and humiliation for him. It’s brilliant.”

In addition to the various acting courses and techniques that ASM offers, students can learn other aspects of the craft such as writing, currently taught by Montreal award-winning playwright, Alexandria Haber. “She has the most devilish sarcasm. It’s so quick you walk away saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s wasn’t a compliment at all. That was an insult.’ I love her.”

Rather than renting the studio during off hours to cover costs, Chuipka prefers to let artists he knows and trusts use the space, free of charge, to work on projects. It means neither he nor Danielle has to rush downtown while juggling their own busy work schedules to open or lock up, or worry about theft and expensive damages. “I’d rather have someone like Deena Aziz [one of his heroes] in there. By giving up the space for nothing, it’s like I’m contributing money to whatever they’re working on.”

For the past nine years, ASM has been hosting a 48-Hour Film Fest, where teams of pros and newbies alike, write, choose locations, shoot and edit 20-minute films on a randomly chosen topic. This past year, Liz Valdez, Harry Standjofski and Joel Miller were the judges at the faux Cannes gala, where all the participants, dressed to the teeth, assemble at the end of the arduous weekend to drink and dine while screening the films. Awards are given out for the usual categories of best direction, acting, etc. but eventually go south with best kiss, corniest line and so on. To top it all off, everyone gets a copy of their film at the awards ceremony.

The Real Chip Chuipka
Chuipka summed it up saying, “Even though it’s incredibly intense, when you’re done you just want to start all over again”. Men gravitate to this kind of a challenge, perhaps due to the technical guys-and-their-gadgets aspect, but Chuipka’s trying to get more women involved. From roughly 120 films that have come out of the initiative to date, he said at least 20 are true gems and intends to post the films for all to see. He’d also like to implement a similar page-to-stage event for theatre. 

Though he’s made a good living in film, his first love is theatre and Chuipka is jazzed about the local scene. “Maurice [Podbrey) and his wife Elsa [Bolam] did a great thing for this city when they started Centaur. Now there’s Paul Flicker [Segal Centre] who reads a play a day and just loves theatre and the people who work in it. Roy Surette, lovely Roy, Dean Fleming, Paul Hopkins, Emma Tibaldo and great teachers like Norberts Muncs, Joel Miller, Harry Standjofski and Diana Fajrajsl … I’m so happy with how Montreal is now with theatre.” I’d venture to say that Montreal is pretty happy with Chuipka too, giving us unforgettable performances in Isadora: Fabulist and Down from Heaven (Imago Theatre), A Line in the Sand (Tableau D’Hôte Theatre), The Dishwashers and Gordon (SideMart Theatrical Grocery), the latter a Morris Panych world premiere for which Chuipka won the MECCA for best actor.

How does he decide whether to audition for a part or not? If he likes the script, his two main concerns are the dates and who else is in it. “If you know you are going to be miserable, don’t do it because there is no amount of money that will make it better.” Consequently, he works across the country with some of the nation’s leading theatre practitioners from both the English and French communities. “I got to work with Beatrice Picard, which was fantastic, and Marthe Turgeon, which was like being in a storm.”

If you haven’t had the good fortune to catch Chuipka live on stage, don’t despair. He’s treading Centaur’s boards in their season opener, August, An Afternoon in the Country from October 2 to 28. For tickets call 514-288-3161. For those who would like more info about ASM, call 514-868-9111 or go to 

1 comment:

  1. Chip's a true artist and a major contributor to Montreal's arts community. Bravo for this wonderful feature, Barbara!


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