The fast-rising Toronto actor-playwright dishes on The Seagull and her Stratford and New York debuts.
Oh, for the life of an actor! One month you’re at New York’s Public Theater, knocking ’em dead as a talking (and singing) vagina. The next, you’re at Toronto’s Canadian Stage, performing with the likes of Yanna McIntosh and Eric Peterson in a hotly anticipated all-star revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull. But such is the life of Bahia Watson, co-creator of Pomme Is French for Apple—a saucy cabaret about “girly bits” that makes The Vagina Monologues seem prudish—and now a budding classical actor. Not only is she doing The Seagull, but it was recently announced that she’ll be joining the Stratford Festival company for its 2015 season.
Watson is getting a foretaste of that experience with the Chekhov production, which features Stratford leading lights McIntosh, Tom Rooney, and Tom McCamus, and is directed by Chris Abraham, fresh from a string of festival triumphs (The Little Years, Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The show is produced by the Abraham-run Crow’s Theatre, the Toronto company that has nurtured Watson’s talent in recent years. Most memorably, she played a self-mutilating teenager opposite Rooney in the 2013 Crow’s play Someone Else—a bleak role that was a far cry from her work in Pomme, which was one of the top-ranked shows at the Toronto Fringe the previous summer.
In that hilarious revue, Watson and her co-writer/co-star, Liza Paul, don labia-pink scarves to impersonate “pum” (West Indian patois for the vagina) as they serve up a feminist, Caribbean-flavoured look at female sexuality. Watson’s biggest self-penned success to date, it drew on her experience as the daughter of a Guyanese mother. Watson’s father, however, is an ex-Ontarian of Scottish stock, and she spent her formative years far from any tropical paradise, in rural East Selkirk, Manitoba. “In a tiny shack, with a pump and an outhouse,” she boasts. But that didn’t stop her parents, part-time artists (dad’s a folk singer, mom’s a writer), from infecting her with a love of musicals. Later moving to the city, she studied dance with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and sang in the Winnipeg Girls’ Choir.
Seven years ago, Watson headed east to Toronto, where she first got noticed as a protege of dub poet-playwright d’bi.young. Mainstream audiences caught up with her shortly afterwards in Soulpepper’s A Raisin in the Sun and Nightwood’s The Penelopiad—in the latter, she played Telemachus, the restless son of Megan Follows’ Penelope. At the same time, Watson launched her sideline as a singer-songwriter, releasing a trio of mixtapes under the handle Bahia Bahia.
Sitting backstage at the Berkeley Street Theatre, where The Seagull opens this Thursday, Watson was wearing a cap emblazoned with the words “You Can’t Sit With Us.” But despite such mean-girl implications, she turned out to be bubbly and even a bit bashful as she discussed her latest career move.
Torontoist: Congratulations on landing the Stratford gig. We see you have roles in The Last Wife, She Stoops to Conquer, and The Diary of Anne Frank. So will you be hanging with some of your Seagull co-stars, like Yanna McIntosh?
Bahia Watson: Yes, she’s suggested that we can play tennis together. So I’ll be playing tennis with Yanna McIntosh at Stratford, darling. [laughs] I’m a whole new person!
The Seagull deals with artists, both young, aspiring ones—the playwright Konstantin and the wannabe actress Nina—and older, established ones—the famous actress Arkadina, the author Trigorin—who are critical of the young people or take advantage of them. And this production also throws together young artists such as yourself and Philip Riccio [who plays Konstantin] with some real heavy-hitters. One hopes they haven’t behaved the same way?
[Laughs] No, it’s been great. Everyone has been kind. There are no big egos. It feels like we’re all peers exploring the work together. I had a similar experience doing The Penelopiad. I feel like I’ve been very lucky across the board, being able to work with these very seasoned actors. It’s great to watch how they work in rehearsal, how they approach a character and a story, and to learn from them.
The young woman you play, Masha, has one of the great Chekhov opening lines. The teacher Medvedenko asks her why she’s dressed in black, and she says, “I’m in mourning for my life.” It turns out she has this unrequited love for Konstantin. How did you approach her character?
I understand that feeling of unrequited love, and how love can be so frustrating and complicated and unsatisfying at times. So it was easy to tap into that. But every day I’ve been discovering new layers and nuances to Masha; she’s very deep and interesting. I normally wear very bright colours, so part of getting into her character was deciding to wear all-black and seeing how that felt.
It’s amusing that she makes that clothing choice, since on the one hand she’s authentically sad, but at the same time, she’s got this self-dramatizing streak: “I’m going to let everyone know that I’m sad.”
That kind of choice, to me, shows the fighter in her. She won’t surrender 100 per cent to the feeling of not being loved back by the object of her affection; she also has to make a statement. She has to find a way to express her feelings and have them understood by others. In that way I identify with her: she’s discovering her artistic expression.
The young people in The Seagull all have their hopes thwarted over the course of the play. You’ve had a very successful career so far. Are you able to identify with the kind of disappointments experienced by Masha, Konstantin, and Nina?
Not really. Maybe I’m not paying attention to the haters, but I feel like even with some of the stuff I do that is provocative or different, people seem to be open to it and support it. I do know that the judgmental bunch exists out there somewhere, but I don’t pay too much attention to them. But I do understand the arguments Konstantin makes about the need for new art forms. Like him, I get excited by new things, breaking the barriers, and shaking things up, so I get what he’s saying. Part of me going to Stratford is: am I going to be this weird creature among all these traditional people? I’m not one of those people who put the classics on a pedestal. But I have heard they’re trying to shake things up, too.
Yes, in recent years the festival has done more “colour-blind” casting and more non-traditional approaches to the classics.
And I think it’s completely necessary, to make those stories relevant to the people living here now. It has to reflect the audience today.
Yanna is one of the actors who has really broken that colour barrier. She was one of the first black women to play leading roles at Stratford.
Her breaking those barriers has made it easier for me. I’m interested in getting to know her more and what her experience was like in paving the way. Did she have to deal with any prejudices, or awkward situations? It’s not easy being the first person to do something like that, and I do appreciate it.
In Toronto, you seem to have found a home at Crow’s Theatre. You acted in Someone Else, and you performed your music in its East End Performance Crawl. We hear you’re developing something for the company as well?
Yes, I have a solo show that’s in the works. It’s a project I’ve been working on for a while. I play many characters. It’s personal, but it also looks at broader subject matter, such as issues around identity. Right now it’s called PHANTASM NEGRESS—all caps! [Laughs]
At the same time you’re still doing Pomme Is French for Apple. Word is that you’ll be taking it to New York this year.
Yes, we already did one show there last November, at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, which was the perfect theatre cabaret space. That show was amazing—it was all my dreams come true: Full house! Standing ovation! So we’d like to take it back there. But with my Stratford schedule now, it will probably be at the end of 2015.
Any other works-in-progress?
Liza and I also produce and co-produce our own shows and we’re developing a new one with more actors in it. We’ve done one workshop for that and I believe we’ll be working with Why Not Theatre [of A Brimful of Asha fame]. It’s a new, untitled piece. Not exactly a follow-up to Pomme…
So you won’t be playing a vagina again?
Well, I don’t want to say “Never again.” [Laughs] After all, those pink scarves were a big hit!