Reigning the World in Closer
By Rose Marie Bresolin
Christopher Morris is an actor, playwright, director and artistic director of Human Cargo. He had just come off some work in Montreal when we spoke. He talked about that piece, saying that he had a meeting there with a director and actress from Quebec. The piece he’s in the process of writing has a connection with Doctors Without Borders. The play documents the experience of a female nurse over a year and half, and it has a female director and actor. He was sounding pretty excited as spoke of it, particularly because it’s still in the fresh stages of development.
Rose Marie Bresolin: When Lidia Pulla, the Drama Teacher at Brother Andre Catholic High School in York Region, suggested that I interview you for Spencer Magazine, she added that you were away working up in Canada’s Northern Territory at the time. Can you tell us a little about that?
Christopher: Ah, yes, that’s another project I’m doing with my theatre company. There was an artist in Cape Dorset, in Nunavut, who was called Annie Pootoogook. She was a very prominent artist who passed away 3 years ago. Presently, I’m working with an Inuk musician and an Inuk actress to create a piece about Annie’s life. Getting to learn more about a character as I develop the piece is one of the things I love about my work.
Two weeks ago, I met Annie’s family members and her two bothers in Cape Dorset in Nunavut, and we were interviewing them to find out more about Annie. I’ll be spending a week in Ottawa because Annie spent a lot of time living there. And, I’m eager to speak to people who knew her during the last years of her life and document that experience.
Rose Marie: Wow! It’s got to give you an incredible feeling to retrace her tracks and try to see the world through her eyes. But, with all the work for actors right here in Toronto, Canada and many actors happy for it, what’s the motivation behind your wanting to stretch and reach so much further?
Christopher: Well, it’s like this piece that I’m writing about Annie; I won’t be acting in it, nor will I be acting in the one I’m co-creating about the nurse. So, I’m doing other things besides acting. What I find with acting is that you’re given a script that’s ready, and I do like that. But you know when I write, it’s a very powerful form; I’m the one who gets to decide what questions I want to ask the audience. As an actor with a great script you get to live it and that’s super. But I also find it very empowering to write and do the other projects. There is a lot of job insecurity in this industry. If I’m just acting, it can be hard; you audition and do things and sometimes it can feel disempowering in some ways but I find when I pursue making the other work, I’m in control of it. I find it very empowering. It just helps to balance things.
I’m interested in the world and what’s going on in it. And interested in Canada’s impact on the world and how we interact with other people. I’m fascinated by that. Yeah, the world is big and beautiful and interesting, and I want to be a part of it as much as I can.
Rose Marie: It sounds like it’s beyond just wanting to be a part of it. I’m getting the sense that your excitement comes in creating some of those parts for others as well. That’s kind of what intrigued me about your work as Lidia described it. As a former Teacher and a Principal, it made me happy to hear that you had been back to the high school of your youth to speak to her drama class. Let’s go into that experience and get deeper into the breadth of what you do; that impact forms a great part of what I want to share with Spencer’s readers.
Christopher: Ah, yes. I do a one-day audition workshop. The students prepare a monologue they are going to do, and I have them do it for me in front of the class. My interaction is in talking them through it. I give them some feedback and a chance to do it again. I just kind of help them approach the content of the script in a different way and give them some tips on how they can strengthen what they’re doing. It’s just kind of a nice day where we all get together and think about these scripts differently and have a conversation… about life basically, because all these pieces are about interesting situations that characters find themselves in.
Rose Marie: It sounds like it could be pretty empowering for students. I’m wondering back to your own experience at school. Were there teachers who had a significant impact, who may have made a difference in your career choice?
The tempo of Christopher’s voice picked up.
Christopher: Oh yeah, absolutely, no doubt about it! I don’t miss the correlation between what I’m doing, and the teachers I had here in this high school. A phenomenal teacher, Dan Baird, and another incredible drama teacher that I had in grade 9 and 10, Brother Stephen Fatum, a Dominican Brother, both made an incredible difference. Brother Stephen had studied outside of Montreal and he died of AIDS when I was in grade 12. I was 17. I felt blessed to have had him in my life for those two years; an extraordinary individual. And then of course there was Dori Elliott who also came in my grade 10 year and she was amazing. I took classes from Dan Baird in grade 9, and my first play ever, was a collective play; there’s no script and when you begin, you improvise. You create the script, the scene. That’s what I now do with my work. I pursue an idea and keep it very loose, so it remains organic.
Rose Marie: So, I think that we can safely say that school played a major role in fostering your creativity?
Christopher: Yes, of course, certainly in my time. We had after school plays directed by Dan Baird, or Brother Steve. We would do a play in the Fall, like a studio play, and we would do a big play on the main stage in early Spring and a third around May. So there was constant extracurricular theatre, and Dori just continued on with these experiences. The constant extra curricular theatre happening throughout my high school years is definitely what did it. The classes were helpful, of course, but I barely remember the content of those classes. What I remember is those shows that we did that the teachers directed. Like, that was incredible and had a very, very big impact on me, and not just me. A peer at that time, a year younger than me, Chris Abraham also went on to a career in theatre. He’s quite a force in theatre; again, another beneficiary of all this activity going on. It really had a big impact on us and it was extraordinary.
Rose Marie: And you just answered another question I had. In listening to others, sometimes we’re taken back into our own experience, and I was drawn to mine: Kids who were creative were sometimes not as well received by the wider student body back then, and the system wasn’t set up to necessarily encourage them. So, it was really at the mercy of the individual staff. Your experience came after that and it’s proof that headway was made. I imagine that those reading this article may be surprised at the extraordinary results from what might be perceived as an ordinary school day.
Christopher: Well yeah, it takes extraordinary teachers to commit their time to doing things like this. Basically, kids need to have a platform to test and hone their talents. As long as there are teachers who can help them do that, then students stand a chance to make it in the field.
Rose Marie: I’ve worked with a lot of dedicated teachers in my career, and I can say that for many, dedication just comes naturally. However, there have been some significant changes in the interim; five years of curriculum compressed to four, and courses now semestered, to list a few. That impact to staffing and scheduling would represent a real challenge for teachers trying to run a drama program as you experienced it. And, did you sense the impact you were having on the students as they sat where you once did when you were there?
Christopher: I hope the talk was helpful. I’m not quite sure what they think. You’d have to ask their teacher that. I think it’s interesting to them that I went to school there, but I didn’t have that conversation with them.
Rose Marie: I can see that. I also see how you went in behind my question, to show again the impact that a teacher can have. I like that. I have some great memories of my own teachers as well. Did you feel drawn into the arts prior to your high school years?
Christopher: No, not really, there’s nothing in my childhood that did that. I took figure skating. There was a figure skating show that left me with a special memory though. It was the impact of the brightly coloured lights and I get those memories when I’m acting under lights. But that’s just lights, so not really sure about the effect it had on my choice of theatre.
Rose Marie: A loose association, perhaps, but one that’s obviously made a lasting impression. I’m wondering about your parents. When you looked at acting as a career, were they immediately supportive or even a little concerned, for your future, your security?
Christopher: Well, my dad encouraged university and then to do whatever I wanted. He was a construction worker and hated his job. He always said how great it is that I could have something I like doing and have a good paying job. My mom’s a mom, and I’m a parent too, so I get why she was concerned. She articulated it a lot over the years, but she’s seen nearly every play I’ve had a part in and was always supportive. I know she’s happy to see that I’m doing well in my work and not suffering.
I have a daughter now and I want her to be happy and secure. But really, there is no security anywhere anymore, and what used to be more unique to artists now applies to other jobs. Most fields are becoming precarious and the notion of doing one job your whole life has become less of a reality. But, with the unpredictability comes opportunity as well; suddenly I’m going to Ottawa and then to Montreal, where if I had a teaching job for example, I couldn’t just go off for a week or a year. Your job is there. There is great security and comfort in that, and satisfaction. But equally, there is this trade off, where with the insecurity comes the extraordinary opportunity that continues to emerge. And I’m generally proactive in making some of these opportunities. Big things do happen. It involves being forward, forward thinking and proactive. I help create opportunities, but granted, there are days where I think back to the concerns my parents voiced. There are times when I think it would be easier to have a secure job. But I’m very happy with what I’m doing and if I ever want to change jobs or careers, then I’ll do something else.
Rose Marie: Many people have a picture of an artist as someone who either makes it big or is starving. And even those who make it big can end up impoverished. Do you want to tell us how you keep from the shaky end of that spectrum?
Christopher: Well, I have a house that my family and I live in. And as, with any other line of work, you have to be financially responsible. And I am that.
Rose Marie: How does your being away as much impact family life?
Christopher: My partner, Gillian, is a set and costume designer and we both travel in our work. When our daughter, Eileen, was younger, we took her with us everywhere, so now she is comfortable with travel. My partner and I take turns traveling. Eileen is used to one of us being away at times. We’re a family who enjoys adventure and we’re also fortunate to have a home base.
Rose Marie: Care to share a funny story from one of your travels?
Christopher: Well, there is a memory that comes that’s funny, in a dark sort of way. I was acting in a collective play in the Republic of Georgia directed by Paul Thompson and while we were rehearsing, he sent us out onto the streets of Tbilisi to bring back a prop we could use in rehearsal. I noticed that a lot of people there carried handguns, and within 25 minutes I returned with one in hand. Kind of wild really, and I have a few other experiences that are crazy like that.
Rose Marie: Wow! I’m not going to ask you how you got the gun. I know you’re also doing some work in China. Is that a piece you’re directing?
Christopher: Yes, I’m directing that project and we’re in the midst of developing it. I’ve been to China 4 times now. The play is written by Beijing playwright Zhuang Yi and is based on a Chinese farmer in Northern China who is of Russian ancestry. I’m pretty excited about it. We’ll be premiering in Toronto in the next year and a half and hopefully we’ll tour it to China.
Rose Marie: Does sound interesting. We’ll certainly look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.
And, talk to us about the Runner, another project with a unique approach. What’s at its core and where will it be playing?
Christopher: Ah yes, The Runner. It’s a one-person play I wrote in Israel and Toronto. It’s about a member of Z.A.K.A, a volunteer organization in Israel that collects the remains of Jews killed in accidents/terror so they can be given a proper religious burial. We premiered it last year in Toronto to great success, winning lots of awards, and it will be running at the Tarragon Theatre from Feb 25 to March 29th, 2020.
Rose Marie: I’ll certainly look to being there. Christopher, in wrapping up, some words for students struggling with the choice between their creative side or the path well traveled?
Christopher: My suggestion is to face the fear that comes in following your creative voice and test yourself. You can always choose the other road later if that’s where you end up going. If you’re practical and smart, and you work hard, it can help your creative side to come through.
And, of course I went back to ask the teacher about the impact Christopher left the students with. “We really enjoyed having him; that’s what made me suggest you contact him in the first place. He definitely made a difference. The kids all get to vote on who they want to see again. Christopher was here last year and was asked back. This year’s group is even more keen to have him return next year.”
To learn more about Christopher and the uniqueness of his craft, visit him at humancargo.ca
“That’s all that matters. Kindness. An act of kindness.”
Z.A.K.A is an Orthodox Jewish volunteer force in Israel. They collect the remains of Jews killed in accidents. When Jacob, a Z.A.K.A volunteer, makes the split-second decision to treat a young woman, instead of the soldier she may have killed, his world is changed forever.
A powerful thriller from Toronto’s Human Cargo and winner of the 2019 Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction and Outstanding New Play.
Cast and Crew
- Christopher Morris
- Daniel Brooks
- Gord Rand
- Gillian Gallow
- Bonnie Beecher
- Alexander MacSween
- Andrea Baggs
- Taryn Dougall
- Jeff Pybus
- Victoria Wang