Slated to lead the Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society’s forthcoming productions of “Our Town” as George Gibbs (which plays at the Harold Greenspon Auditorium from January 24th to the 29th) and “Little Shop of Horrors” as the iconic Seymour (which premieres later this June), we proudly feature Montreal actor, singer, songwriter, pianist and filmmaker Benjamin Warner as the next guest on our 2017 Interview Series.
The Hub’s Camila Fitzgibbon shared a steamed dumpling or two with Ben to discuss the details of his exciting upcoming roles, dig into into his theatre history, and discover what ambitious projects are in the works (hint: a musical in the making?!). Read our full interview below.
If the face or name doesn’t yet come to mind, henceforth it will. Benjamin Warner is one to watch in Montreal theatre, and for anyone who’s ever had the privilege of seeing him do his thing, you’ll know; his all-commanding presence, effortless charisma, and remarkable sense of showmanship are the sort of marvels that one would give a limb for. Here, we wonder and uncover where it all comes from.
A self-described hyper-energetic and enthusiastic kid (has much changed, really?), Ben grew up in the local Lyric Theatre family, being inspired by having attended the likes of Hello, Dolly! and Guys and Dolls in his youth as well as by having seen his own mother Joanne Cutler – who was also president of Lyric back in the day – perform on stage.
“I had always known my mother for doing theatre. In fact, she was actually performing in a show while she was pregnant with me… so I guess you could say it all started pre-birth.”
He credits another unlikely family member, however, for also giving impetus to his passion for the performing arts. “When I was nine years old and in grade three, I saw my older cousin Jesse play the role of the King in a youth production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, and that’s when it occurred to me that ‘hey, maybe I can do this too’. The following year, I joined the same theatre group and I got one of the lead roles – the Devil – in Damn Yankees. The moment I stepped onto that stage, I immediately fell in love with it all.”
Three more years in with the troupe and he soon had Oliver, Guys and Dolls, and The Music Man under his belt. High school then added Bye Bye Birdie, Annie, Noises Off, The Laramie Project, and Fiddler on the Roof to the ever-expanding acting résumé. More relevant, though, perhaps, were the relationships that emanated from his years at St. George’s. “There, Candace Grynol – my drama teacher at the time (and the school’s current Performing Arts Department Head) – along with my close friends J.T. (Jonathan Silver) and the late and great Jaclyn (Jaclyn Linetsky) really helped grow my love for theatre.”
Throughout CEGEP and university, Ben found an outlet for his perennial passion in the form of Anik Matern and Claire Jacques’ Dynamic Theatre Factory, but theatre took a back seat as he opted to instead pursue an education in cinema communications at Dawson College and subsequently complete a bachelor’s degree in film production at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.
“Why the sudden shift?”, we asked.
“Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought filmmaking would be a safer career than acting – which is absolutely not true,” he laughs heartily. “They’re both horribly dangerous careers, financially. But that was my rationale at the time.”
Ben has primarily spent the last five years working professionally in the film industry after having founded the independent video production company Beanduck in 2012 alongside his best friend and creative partner Julian Stamboulieh. They have sinced produced the critically acclaimed, multi award-winning, and highly popular scripted web series LARPs (the first two seasons reside on Legendary Pictures’ digital network Geek & Sundry) and have just announced plans to release a slew of short films of comedy, drama, and everything in between on Beanduck’s newly launched Youtube channel.
While producing was a natural fit for someone with a knack for meticulous organizing, budgeting, and scheduling, nothing still ever quite seemed to match the thrill of being on a live stage. And, after several years of abstinence from scratching the acting itch, he realized “I could probably also direct, write, be a technician, etc. but it’s not really what I was born to do. Performing is and always has been my first love.”
Enter Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society (CSLDS) Director Anisa Cameron.
A family friend – namely Nick Burgess – introduced Ben to Anisa. He auditioned for their then-forthcoming production Grease, landed the role of Danny Zuko, and the relationship took off.
“Something clicked in me when I met Anisa. I have so much respect for her as an artist and as a human being, and she’s the most talented theatre director that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. To know that she, for some incredible reason, has faith in me, has been and continues to be a great reminder of my value.”
Ben now returns to the Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society this season after having last performed in their META award-winning remount of Hairspray at the Centaur Theatre with not one, but two leading roles in the bag: first as George Gibbs in CSLDS’s January production of Our Town and later in June as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors.
“Our Town is going to be brilliant. The biggest selling point: Anisa is directing it. It’s also a particularly interesting show for me because the last time I did a drama was The Laramie Project in high school.
“My character, George, is a sweet, simple young man from small-town America and all he wants to do in life is become a farmer and be with his love interest, Emily (played in our show by Tori Gazin). What I can easily relate to in the material is his emotional intelligence – not that I’ve always been that way personally, but in the more recent years of my being I’ve become very emotionally connected to myself. What’s hard about George, in contrast, is that I still have to play him as this very nervous guy, especially around Emily. The funny thing is, the only time in my own life when I’m not nervous is when I’m performing in front of an audience. In a sense, I’ll be able to draw on aspects of my own personality to develop his characterization, but I’ll only be acting nervous as supposed to actually feeling anxiety on stage,” he muses.
Another far departure from his days as Danny Zuko and his most recent stint as Conrad Birdie in the West Island Theatre Association’s (WISTA) June 2016 production of Bye Bye Birdie is the hapless and nerdy orphan Seymour Krelborn in the cult classic Little Shop of Horrors – a dream role.
“My mom first took me to see Little Shop at the Centaur when I was a kid. I LOVED the movie. Not only is it my favourite musical of all time, but it’s also one of my favourite films of all time. I just love horror and I love musicals and I love silliness; it’s the perfect combination. As soon as I heard CSLDS was producing it, I was like, ‘I don’t care what’s happening in my life, I’m dropping everything and doing it’. And, when Anisa told me I was cast as Seymour, I was ecstatic.
“I’m also extremely excited because it’s going to be such a great, fun acting challenge for me. Danny and Conrad were these super cool, overconfident teen heartthrobs – which were still fun and challenging, of course – but stereotypically these kind of characters are more two-dimensional. Seymour, however, is poor, downtrodden, (more multi-dimensional), I’m really looking forward to that stretch.”
Our Town and Little Shop aside, what’s next?
“My main work right now still is filmmaking and I get so much gratification and joy working as a producer alongside Julian; he’s a brilliant director and filmmaker. He is also simply one of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my entire life and it’s my honour to be his friend and his partner. And, now with the launch of Beanduck’s new Youtube channel, you might even see a familiar face on screen.
“However, it was when I was performing in Bye Bye Birdie that I ultimately decided, ‘you know what – I need to start doing this acting thing professionally’. And not for the praise, the applause, or the money – definitely not for the money,” we nod in agreement. “Not for anyone other than me, simply because it makes me happy.”
And, lo and behold, he’s since been climbing the ranks after booking a professional touring gig this past season. “I’ll go where the work takes me; if I ever got offered a role elsewhere, I’d take it. However, I’d prefer to stay in Montreal and help this community grow. Lisa Rubin at the Segal Centre, for example, is striving hard to constantly improve the local theatre scene and I adore her for that; Anisa is also a key person, in my opinion, in terms of improving the quality of theatre in this city. I love Montreal and I want to effect meaningful change in some way.” As co-chair of the Segal’s upcoming 2017 musical fundraiser taking placing on April 2nd, he’s taking strides in that direction.
Having also played the piano since the age of 4 and written his own music since the age of 15 (samples here on Soundcloud), other highly ambitious creative projects are in the works. “My music is very musical theatre-inspired and I really want to write a musical. I know I’ve been saying that for years now – but now I really mean it. I’m gonna write a musical.”
From his days with St. George’s Candace Grynol to Lyric Theatre’s Bob Bachelor, it’s clear musical theatre has always been the goal. “I don’t think I’m an A+ actor, singer, or dancer. What I’m really good at is blending all three together to give a great performance.
“And, whether I’m acting, singing, dancing, or even playing the piano, it’s performing when I feel the most comfortable, natural, and happiest in life. There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than on a stage.”
RAPID-FIRE QUESTION ROUND
3 words to describe yourself?
Optimist. Nihilist. Romantic.
Favourite place in Montreal?
Travelling northward from the south shore onto the island over the Champlain Bridge, there’s this incredible view of Montreal: you see the oratory, the cross, Mel’s studio on the water, the Big O, the Jacques Cartier bridge to the right and La Ronde right next to it. It gives me chills every time I come home. I love this city… I love this city so much.
Who would you want to reincarnate as?
I would want to have a completely opposite human experience; meaning, I would want to be reborn as a female person of colour with as little privilege as possible. I have way too much privilege in my white male, first-world-country life.
But, if we’re talking about choosing someone who had already existed, I would want to reincarnate as Harrison Ford. Actually, I would want to reincarnate as whoever’s had a threesome with Harrison Ford and the late, great Carrie Fisher. (Is there a question about my dream threesome? Because that right there would be it.)
Song you wished you’d written?
Biting my nails.
Show that you could watch over and over again?
Easily, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.
#1 on your bucket list?
Fresh scallop sashimi in Tokyo with a glass of sake. Chilled and unfiltered, of course.
Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m actually Camila Fitzgibbon. I’m a really good actor, though, so people think I’m Benjamin Warner…
Best advice you’ve ever received?
There’s a lot of money to get in the world, but not a lot of happiness, and it’s more important to strive for the latter.
Interview by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon
The Côte Saint-Luc Dramatic Society’s Our Town runs at the Harold Greenspon Auditorium from January 24th to 29th, 2017 and Little Shop of Horrors is slated to premiere later this June in Montreal.