EVAN BULIUNG: We gather together as a group of performers with generally low self-esteem and work out the kinks in a windowless room. We channel all that human nature has to offer from the darkest depravity to the freest joys… then spring it on people sitting in somewhat expensive and uncomfortable seats so they don’t feel alone.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
EB: Most of the time I express the writer’s beliefs, but I guess through character I can find different shades to express. I love finding a little nugget of character through interpretation of the words. For Mercutio to say to Benvolio for instance: “t’would anger him to raise a spirit in his mistress circle of some strange nature, there letting it stand till she hath laid it and conjured it down. That were some spite.” One could say that with a slight wink to the sexual context of the line, OR, as I found later in the run, Mercutio can say it mockingly and bitter about Romeo’s infatuation because of Mercutio’s innate struggle himself. There’s a million choices, and they can change, be open. If ANY of that makes any sense. I like to think through character examination that there’s a bit of good in all of us and a bit of bad…. though the scale slides from time to time.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
EB: Brent Carver-There isn’t a performer alive that I’ve seen who is completely open to inspiration, the dove always drops with him. (Bernie Hopkins used to drop this expression, I always pretended to know what it meant)
Bernie Sanders-Tenacity, compassion, truth, integrity, humility.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
EB: I guess I’ve always done this. I wanted to be an actor from a very young age so I’ve known nothing else. I never had any desire to be a lawyer or banker or fireman, all very honourable work of course. So my change has been within the work I suppose. I never desired to attain anything other than work in this craft. I have the utmost respect for writers and feel our only job as actors is to mine their work for all its depths and work together as actors to achieve that goal.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
EB: Moodiness, addiction, self-righteousness, abject liberalism, distrust of anything artless, memorizing, soaking up energies.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
EB: I received the Richard Monette travel grant 7 years back and travelled Europe by myself for a number of months, it’s something I should’ve done much sooner in my life but you’re ready when you’re ready to be on your own in a strange place with only meager English to get you by. I had just got sober recently too for, a day at a time, the final time after many years of trying. I remember standing on a rock in Greece a few months into the trip staring out into the ocean for a couple hours and I felt completely fine with myself, I was able to be by myself without distraction or something to quiet my mind. Serenity. Of course these things are fleeting, but I finally felt at home in my skin.
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
EB: I’m not sure. I’m not an outsider. They’d have to tell you that one.
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
EB: I was five when I realized what I wanted to do. I imagine my folks, who have always been extremely supportive, for which I’m very lucky and very grateful, They most likely took me to too many plays and performances when I was a child. My deep insecurity as a child, as well as, no doubt, seasonal depression and a constant aloneness fit the bill to want to pretend to be someone else. It saved me for a time by boosting my confidence and giving me direction. I was lucky to grow up in a time when theatre and arts were far more ingrained in the school system than perhaps they are now with budget cuts and eradication of arts programs entirely.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
EB: Abs. Cause they look impressive. Artistically though, I’m satiated, I’ve learned so much about myself and others around me so now I’d like to pass that on to younger folks trying it out. Not that I don’t have more to learn, there’s always more to learn if you’re open to it, but I was graced with wonderful teachers, I’d like to help newcomers to find their own freedom on the stage. Whether a student continues in the arts or not, the skills learned and confidence gained by a healthy exploration of artistic goals is invaluable in any workplace. Most jobs could be considered an art form.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
EB: Surviving Lord of the Rings the Musical (barely). Besides that, getting sober. On the stage I’d say figuring out Edgar in King Lear after doing it twice, delving into Stanhope in Journey’s End at Shaw, Stanhope’s alcohol-fuelled survival I was able to tap into, allowing myself to dig into my own experience with addiction.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
EB: I always had an image in my head growing up and through my adolescence of a pilot light inside of me, through the fear and misery and damage and pain. That light was my ability, talent, desire and will to do this work, my confidence in my own abilities and nothing would extinguish it…I’m lucky I didn’t overdose though, cause imagery wouldn’t help that. I’m lucky, I’ve lost amazing friends to it and it is a reminder to myself and others to stay on the beam. Truly drugs don’t add to your work, they simply stall your growth both artistically and spiritually…at least in my experience.
JS: Of what value are critics?
EB: I wrestle with this, definitely. I grew up in a theatre world where we didn’t talk about and certainly didn’t bring reviews into the theatre. The world now, and producers specifically, somewhat rely on reviews to sell tickets. But they have an effect on performers to varying degrees. So I kinda see it as an interesting sidebar to what we do. The difficulty is that theatre is not mounted on a wall, it is a living breathing organism that changes from show to show, so to base critiques on one show is moot. I would hope most good reviewers would know and appreciate this and perhaps just note the form and structure of the piece. But then I’m not a reviewer, except an amateur one on Facebook from time to time.
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
EB: It’s interesting this, sometimes theatres in their pre-announcements tell the audience to sit back and enjoy the show, I like to think their job is more engaging than that. I say sit forward and listen, of course this depends on the comfortability of the chairs. I like to think that I don’t shy away from the dark side of character on stage but I love a good transformative storyline “start out bad and learn something and bingo” kinda guy. I love comedy, I did a lot of it at Shaw. I grew up on Monty Python and dry English wit is by far my favourite thing to do. Shaping and moulding timing on stage and using the audience as metronome to this practice. I remember playing Jack in Earnest at Shaw years ago and we did something like 138 of them. It was utter insanity. It is a perfect comedy if not THE perfect comedy and it drove me mental trying to perfect its quick barbs and slow turns and grand entrances and muffin fights. I loved it, but for my perfectionist mind (much more so when I was younger) it drove me and most likely those around me mental.
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
EB: I think that’s happening without my wishes. There seems to be an action/reaction thing happening in the world right now as it tries to right itself. The Trump effect has brought so much out into the light, a lot of it is really ugly. But the light heals or so I’d like to think. Oh, and the world is melting, let’s not forget that. In the arts I would ask our government to invest in more arts space, arts education, arts cultivation and a reverse artistic brain drain from the states. Instead it seems like we are slowly allowing these things to fall to the wayside for more tech- based growth and fostering the financial sector. There are great artists in this country that fight constantly to keep things “Canadian” to keep crews Canadian and more artists on set Canadian but it seems to be a huge struggle to convince our unions and government otherwise. We have great stories to tell in this country and one of the great things I’ve seen is there are more and more diverse stories that cover a wide range of Canadian stories from Indigenous stories to Korean to East Indian. That’s exciting and vital for not only entertainment and a good story to tell, but also vital for audiences to be challenged and new audiences to be found and cultivated.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
EB: To me this sounds like either an enlightening experience to relive or something I’d like to change through regret. I will start with regret - I would relive parts of The Lord of the Rings musical. I was younger of course and hindsight is 20/20 but I would choose to come at that differently, I would’ve put my foot down and refused some of what was asked. I would’ve practiced much more self-care and taken care of those around me better. I took too much on and it damaged me, I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered from that experience. I shudder when I think of what I became on that show and for some time afterwards. Perhaps playing Aragorn and investing in the character, I tried to fight the battle but it was a losing fight and it cost me. I would sometimes have panic attacks right before the show and have to call out when I played through my head the dangers that lay ahead on the stage, from a purely technical standpoint. I was overjoyed to get to be in the show at the beginning and then it turned into a very difficult time. There were stretches of time for weeks when we didn’t have a day off. We worked gruelling almost Olympic hours with projectiles being flung at us on the darkly lit stage. As a cast we stood up for each other, we helped each other. But I was overwrought and beaten down by its size and scope. We begged Equity at one point to help us, but little was done. It was a joke. And so for me personally, I fell apart. I wasn’t able to recharge and I took out my frustration on myself and others. When the show closed I didn’t leave my apartment for a long time. I could write for days on this experience, but maybe I’ll save it for my one man show “Smolkin the Tolkien”… it’s still in rewrites. Including the title. The experience, though, did teach me to give my heart to a show but not my soul. To re-live – cause it was a great experience - Art with Peter Donaldson and Colin Mochrie. It was just pure joy and laughs from beginning to end. I was very honoured to work with both of those giants and I’m pretty sure they realized how much they had to learn from me. About comedy. Especially Colin. His career really took off after that.
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
EB: I am uneasy with it for the most part but thankfully I live in Canada and nobody knows who I am because we are Borg. The Mr. Hyde in me can relish in a good notice or well-timed photo like anyone else, but truly I’m just doing it because it’s all I’ve known (without sounding too precious).
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why.
EB: Japan -cause it looks just insane and beyond beautiful at the same time Firenze (Florence) -cause I don’t know if there’s a more invigorating and inspiring place on earth…plus, food.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
EB: Upcoming in the new year I’m playing Bruce Bechdel in FUN HOME for The Musical Stage Company/Mirvish at the newly minted CAA Theatre on Yonge street (I’m calling it the Canadian Arts Arena). It’s an amazing musical that won 5 Tonys a few years back. Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, it’s a beautiful and heartbreaking show written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. It’s about families and the secrets that can be kept and that can ultimately destroy us and perhaps recreate us at the same time. With an incredible score and amazing cast I’m fortunate enough to work with, I couldn’t be more excited/terrified.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
EB: What gives me hope is that we are telling new stories as well as infusing old stories with new voices. Voices that haven’t been given as much chance to be used in these tellings. When I came into this business, there were still many British expats running things and telling British tales, even on Lord of the Rings we were told many times that England was its spiritual homeland. Canada is exploring its own voice and it’s a hugely diverse voice. It is thrilling to see women playing men’s parts and I think once the ball gets rolling with this type of casting, it can’t be rolled back nor should it. What I find depressing is that there seems to be no delineation between artists and any other sector in terms of funding or taxation. In Ireland the first 50,000 of income gained by artists in all fields is exempt from tax. They cultivate and nurture their artists and the work shows. Actors in this country can’t even claim unemployment insurance where they can in the USA. I’m not saying that there aren’t many grants to apply for and they ARE applied for but self-employed artists should be treated as who they are, channels to the truth. Com
Comedians are, once again the truth speakers, artists are the balancers and the awareness makers, the enlighteners. We don’t make enough money to require us saving the government coffers from ruin. I do understand though that we have a smaller population than some countries so we must all pull our weight, I’m just curious whether there’s a better way to keep artists from starving or ultimately flying the coop.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
EB: Most intriguing thing about me? I think I’m rather unspectacular actually, fairly simple and a small town boy living in the city. I was born with a love for acting and some skills and an innate ability to tear myself apart and put it back together again. Surprising thing? Maybe not so surprising, but I’m actually very shy and have terribly low self-esteem sometimes, and that combined with a healthy ego makes for a busy time upstairs.