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culture

Going Solo on the Factory Line

Rick Miller has spent years touring the world in shows both big and small, but now he's back in Toronto with a three-peat of solo shows at Factory Theatre.

Anyone who pursues a professional career in the arts usually has a few personal quirks. Many could be described as eccentric, others may tend to ramble or speak their minds without processing, some might even have superstitions like not washing their socks during the run of a show. Rick Miller, an actor and theatre-maker known for his solo performances, is a control freak.

“I’ve always been a bit of a control freak in a world that is always out of control. I need to know that I can control certain things. So I make these little islands, these little shows, that I can then take in a way, as surrogate children. They become my little babies, and I have them face the world,” he tells us at Factory Theatre, where three of these little babies, MacHomer (which we reviewed last week), Bigger Than Jesus, and HARDSELL, are running in back-to-back two-week runs to kick off the company’s 2011-2012 season. Certainly, they’ve faced the world: MacHomer is about to celebrate its 16th year on tour, reaching 160 cities around the world; and BTJ has been performed since 2004, now in four languages. But now these shows are returning to a stage they’ve faced before.

For Miller, a Montreal native, these three solo shows represent a decade he spent in Toronto, between 2000 and 2010, starting with a very successful run of MacHomer at Soulpepper Theatre that sparked both more shows and forged a longstanding creative partnership between Miller, Daniel Brooks, Artistic Director of Necessary Angel Theatre Company and co-creator of BTJ and HARDSELL, and designers Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson. But that was more of a serendipitous realization than a deliberate choice.

“I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a retrospective… At this point I was interested in looking back at that point in my career, and placing them in an order where people will get a chance to catch them all together, in what has become my hometown.”

And for those Torontonians who missed these shows the first time around, seeing the promotional images for the three-peat might seem a bit confusing. There’s Miller as a spiky-haired Scot from the Middle Ages, there’s Miller as Jesus, there’s Miller in full-on clown makeup that, frankly, would make Tim Curry cringe. Even Miller admits the link between the three is tenuous. But, it all leads back to his control freak tendencies, and the urge to examine the forces in the world that somewhat govern our actions. In these cases, it’s television in MacHomer, religion in BTJ, and marketing and advertising in HARDSELL.

“Pop culture is certainly a force out there that has, for better or worse, filled my head with, well, crap. Some good, some bad. Religion I grew up with, and I can still repeat the entire Catholic Liturgy by heart… We wanted to turn this into theatre because religion still shapes our geopolitical world, so that’s a force. And even more so with marketing, we’re not only seduced by it but we’re implicit in it. I’m a shameless promoter of myself all the time, what we’re doing now is partly a sell, and that’s just the reality of it,” he says.

At the point in his career where he can basically create a show around the social implications of bellybutton lint and theatres around the world will come crawling to host it, Miller does have quite a few projects lined up for after his run at Factory (none involving bellybutton lint), but for now he’s excited to revisit some of his past children, and help one in particular develop into a more mature play.

“HARDSELL is turning into something completely different. The clutch of the sell has to shift and change to survive, basically. HARDSELL, in order to sell, had to evolve as well because in it’s current form that played at Canadian Stage in 2009, it was an interesting show that was quite dark, twisted, and quite satirical, but it wasn’t selling. And I wanted more people to see the work that I spent three years making. It’s not worth dropping, I think these are really good ideas, so I needed to find a new form,” he says. “I think is just taking a little more time to discover what it is because it’s digging right into the heart of some big topics. It’s not just marketing and advertising, but how we live our lives.”

Rick Miller in Bigger Than Jesus. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

So now Miller is spending his days working with Brooks to turn HARDSELL into a show that better reflects him as a person and optimist, rather than as a cynical clown (though there will still be plenty of that, coulrophobics beware). As the youngest play out of the three, it’s still trying to find its feet whereas MacHomer and BTJ have changed very little over the last few years. Yet, the demand doesn’t seem to be wavering, even after 16 years with MacHomer. And though he’s sometimes criticized for it, Miller doesn’t have a problem with that.

“There’s still a great deal of people that love the show. And I have a great time doing this show. Personally, it doesn’t feel like a tired old remount. I think it survives as long as someone enjoys doing it and someone enjoys watching it. If one of those two things dies, then the show should die,” he says.

In many way, Miller’s shows are team efforts. The creative collaboration between him, Brooks, Kates, Chaisson, and Sean Lynch (director of MacHomer) is more like a family now, he says. And yet, there is still an appeal of having the stage to himself for an hour and a half. And yes, it does relate back to his control freak quirks.

“I know not everyone can do it, so it’s a great freedom to be able to take people on a ride on your own. It’s very pleasurable to know that the show is riding on your shoulders. It succeeds or fails based on, you know, me,” he says. Ah, the joys of parenting.

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