Jonathan Goad on acting, directing and playing with Shakespeare

In advance of the annual Shakespeare Lecture, Jonathan Goad discusses life in the theatre
Jonathan Goad as King Henry VIII and Irene Poole as Queen Katherine in Henry VIII Emily Cooper

The Friends of the McGill Library in collaboration with the Stratford Festival will present the annual Shakespeare Lecture featuring Jonathan Goad on Tuesday, November 19, at 6pm. In the lecture, titled Taking Ownership: Stratford’s Jonathan Goad Talks Acting, Directing, and Playing with Shakespeare, he will focus on approaching the Bard’s work from multiple angles. Get more details and RSVP (required) online

Jonathan Goad is a Dora Mavor Moore and Betty Mitchell Award-nominated actor and director. His recent Stratford acting credits include the roles of Henry VIII, Atticus Finch, Brutus and Hamlet. In the past, he has played such varied characters as Kent in King Lear, Titania/ Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Iago in Othello amongst many others. In the upcoming 2020 Stratford season, he will tackle a decidedly humorous role as King Arthur in the musical comedy, Monty Python’s Spamalot.

In addition to these theatre credits, Goad has graced television screens on shows such as Dark Matter, Murdoch Mysteries, Rookie Blue, Heartland and Republic of Doyle.

Goad had his directorial debut in 2017 with The Company Theatre’s production of John and in 2019, he directed Stratford’s production of The Crucible. Here he is in conversation with the McGill Reporter.

What Stratford moment (in the director’s chair or on stage), has deeply affected you personally, perhaps even changed you?

There have been many moments at Stratford that have affected me deeply and personally, moments that have changed me. These moments are as varied as the plays.

Topping them all is the moment(s) I fell in love with a fellow company member who later married me! In some cases, it’s watching fellow company members wrestle bravely with extraordinary parts. Watching them bring their own truth to the character’s truth. Watching them ‘being alive’ onstage and playing with openness, spontaneity, and vulnerability. Being a witness to artists working – having breakthroughs, falling on their face, rising again, finding joy in the midst of tragic material, facing their fears – this is very moving and inspiring.

I have also often been profoundly affected by the reaction of audiences at Stratford. There are nights in the theatre where the temporary community formed by an audience has a communal experience. The audience synchronizes in breath and feeling while simultaneously having a unique connection to the play individually. Of course this doesn’t happen every time, or even for the entirety of a performance but that’s ok too. If someone, anyone, ‘out there’ is connecting with the events of the play and the people living them, something good is happening. You never know who is watching, how they’re watching or why they’re watching.

A man approached me once no less than seven years after seeing Pericles and said he had found it very moving, particularly in light of having just lost his mother. I thanked him, he smiled and muttered again how moved he was and then he burst into tears (I might have too).

Shakespeare’s plays frequently present and examine the depth, hardships, foibles, triumphs and beauties of being a human.

You have played a wide range of iconic characters, including recently Henry VIII in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and Atticus Finch in the adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Would you say that there’s a difference in how you approach playing a Shakespearean character versus a non-Shakespearean character?

I don’t think the approach to playing one of Shakespeare’s characters versus a non-Shakespearian character is greatly different. All journeys to playing a character, be it one of Shakespeare’s or another playwright’s, are both highly individualized and, at the same time, are (likely) similar to other character building journeys. Meaning that every character has a unique story and function within a play and it’s the actor’s job to particularize, personalize, and take responsibility for the thoughts, words, and actions of the character. The character is unique, the job of the actor (most of the time) is similar with each new play.

One of the unique and defining features of a Shakespeare play is the extraordinary language he assigns to the mouths of his characters. In this regard, one could argue that working on a Shakespeare character is unique because the language in his plays requires somewhat tireless attention and investigation. Owning and personalizing Shakespeare’s words demands depth, care, intelligence, rigour, loads of breath and technical skill, among other things.

Is there anything about Shakespeare that you think people should know before they read or see his work for the first time?

If you are encountering Shakespeare for the first time, I would recommend that you familiarize yourself with a few basics such as plot and basic relationships of characters to one another. You don’t want to feel utterly lost and disempowered the first time you encounter Shakespeare.

That said, don’t judge yourself for being a little lost or not understanding everything. Nobody does! And the more you watch and read Shakespeare, the more you will gain insight into and excitement about the plays. They contain a multitude of meanings. One of the pleasures of working on and watching Shakespeare is their bottomless quality. Multiple viewings of different productions are part of the joy.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring theatre creators?

Two things come immediately to mind as advice to aspiring theatre creators. First, check in regularly with your passion for pursuing a career in the theatre. It’s a genuinely romantic way to live and make a living but it is a hustle. It requires vulnerability and tough resilience. Openness to new ideas and ways of working and a keen idea of your own process.  A willingness to work incredibly hard in the moment and persevere through periods of unemployment.  A life in the theatre requires some sacrifice of things other people take for granted.

Secondly, remember that you are in the most collaborative of art forms, the ultimate artistic team sport. Your ability to work cohesively and generously, boldly, creatively, and with humility inside the group dynamic is your highest responsibility to the work. That doesn’t mean compromising your sense of self or shining less brightly or that you will jive with everyone equally. It means connecting with the group with the aim of creating something greater than the sum of your parts. A rehearsed event that is alive with the intent of mending hearts, breaking hearts, challenging minds, splitting guts. In the end, it’s not about you alone. Theatre is a shared event.