By: Deborah Forde
It was a warm winter afternoon as I made my way through the maze of hallways at Dawson College in search of A wing and the Theatre Department. Thankfully, the students seem used to playing tour guide for the lost, and I find my way there with little trouble. I am waiting by the office door, when Mr. Sutton arrives, and greets me with warmth and invitation. He welcomes me into his office, an intimate space, shared with three other instructors. Knowing that time is limited, I immediately riddle him with many questions, which he answers openly and with great humor.
Like many, Mr. Sutton’s path to this present moment has been more journey than stroll. When asked about why he chose theatre, Mr. Sutton traces his decision to a series of events in his tween years, when he was so shy that, “if the phone rang and someone else was home, I would never answer it.” He saw himself as socially inept, but thanks to his father, who was an educator, he found refuge in the collected works of William Shakespeare; the only plays to be found in their home. “When no one was around, I would shut myself in my room and play all the parts; I went into this world.” He was also touched by Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, “He had such an impact on me that I thought ‘wow, I would love to have that effect on people.’” Then, Paul Mann, who had previously trained Poitier, came to visit his school in St. Kitts, resulting in Sutton realising that you did not have to be rich to become an actor, so he, “made the decision at age 13 that this is what I wanted to do. It had more to do with a desire to express myself than any need to be artistic or famous.”
Mr. Sutton credits much of his early journey many community angels, who met him along the path and who, “had more confidence in me than I had in myself.” After his family immigrated from St. Kitts to Scarborough, Ontario when he was 16, Mr. Sutton met Howard Shaughnessy, his English teacher, who was teaching Othello at the time. As the only Black student, he was to read the title role. “Little did they not know, that I read for Othello so often,” he continues with a smile, and I see the lad in his room turned theatre. He tells me that his reading was more of a performance, and this led to him being cast in a play for Simpson’s Drama Festival. Though he was working and going to school, he used his weekends to prepare. “We entered it, won an award, and [Shaughnessy] said, ‘Well you better come in next year’. Then I got two awards the following year, and a lady by the name of Jennifer Brown had auditioned for the National Theatre School, and she said, ‘You have to audition to this school.’”
For the young Mr. Sutton, Montreal and the stage seemed very far away. Ms. Brown all but roped him in, insisting and assisting with his application form, bringing him to the mall to get head shots. “She sort of did everything for me, and to get her off my back, I decided to audition, and I got in. Also, Brian Kennington was another classmate who had more faith in me than I had in myself, and he pushed me. He directed a student production of Count Dracula with me in the title role. He introduced me to Stanislavski and Utta Hagen and the great actors like John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith and especially Laurence Olivier – all these people who were foreign to me and when I got into NTS, I started reading about them. I was invited to Stratford at the end of three years, without an audition, and everything progressed rapidly from there.”
His tenure came to an end at Stratford due to a matter of principle, when he and Artistic Director, Robin Phillips, “came to an impasse.” Having produced Othello and Titus Andronicus, in which Phillips cast White actors to play in blackface, proved too much. “Particularly with Titus, where he was just in loin cloth, and they put this stuff on (Arron). I was humiliated, because I had to understudy him, and at one point, when he was away I had to fill in. The reception was so incredible, that when they remounted, I thought they would give me the shot, and I did not get the shot. I felt that even if I did not get it, a Black guy should have, so I decided to leave Stratford.”
He then went on to freelance for a while until he decided to return to school at Boston University, in a Directing program. “Actually what happened was, I went to audition for the acting program at Concordia, and Ralph Allison, Jerry Gross and Philip Spensley said, “Look, we are not going to audition you. We have seen your work and think you could teach.” They recommended he return to school, and suggested an American school, feeling that this would bring more weight to his employability. One of his mentors, Bert Henry, who is also the originator of the theatre program at Dawson, studied at Boston, so Mr. Sutton decided to follow in his steps.
I ask about why he made the leap to directing, to which he replies, “When I was at Stratford, I was heavily influenced by Robin Phillips. He was the first director who directed from a common sense point of view.” Mr. Sutton found that this approach echoed his own beliefs as an actor, and felt validated in finding a director who felt the same. This added to advice from his brother, which urged that, “whatever you do, be as qualified as you can in that field, because you’re going to have to be four times good to be respected a quarter as much. So going into Directing diversified my potential, allowing me to teach and act and direct.” This potential bore fruit during his time as Artistic Director of Black Theatre Workshop, where limited resources meant he had to jump in and act or direct.
His time at Black Theatre Workshop started as an actor. While at Stratford, he was contacted by Terry Donald, who was asked to direct a play that had been based on Mr. Sutton. “It was written by a woman I had had a relationship with, and the character was so idealised – she only saw the good in me – that it scared me; I didn’t think I could live up to it.” Copyright issues led to that show not being produced, but Donald subsequently invited Mr. Sutton to see a play he had directed for Black Theatre Workshop; A Raisin in the Sun. “I went ready to blow it apart, and I was just blown away by his ability to just get into the soul of people, and I learnt from him, that when you search for the humanity in a person, the soul reveals itself.” They went on to do six other plays together.
Eventually he “got to the point that I had nothing left to say as an actor. Better to leave when you are at the top of your game than to have people say ‘why doesn’t he retire’. We did a coproduction with the Centaur, of Playboy of the West Indies, (with Oliver Samuels), and I played the Playboy. It was a good time to exit, and now I teach kids.”
Having had such a journey, I had to ask why he chose to make Montreal his hometown. “Honestly, I fell in love with this city. I was young and looking for ladies,” He gets a twinkle to his eyes and a bit of a wolfish smile, and I get a hint of the lad he was. “What I found was that the ladies in Toronto dressed on the fashion of the day, Montreal ladies dress based on what looked good on them. The French influence was interesting.” Having heard this from the men in my own family, I can’t help but laugh. He goes on to tell me that living at Park and St. Joseph “had a European- West Indian kind of feel, with open markets and you could hear the noise and people cursing – it was the closest I got to the West Indian feel. Then I met someone here and,” he chuckles, “I found excuses to come back.”
Given that Mr. Sutton says that his continued shyness makes him feel almost allergic to culture of the theatre community, I asked him what drove him to take on a leadership role at BTW. He confides that what drove him was a sense of responsibility. Given the underrepresentation of Blacks in the field, he felt a need to help train and give opportunities to the artists of the future. “Honestly, when I left Stratford I felt that what I was accorded was such a privilege, my job was to share it.” He left quite a mark at BTW including commissioning its dynamic logo. “What I am most proud of however, is that Black Theatre Workshop has hired more non-Blacks than other theatres have hired non-Whites, thus contributing to the development of professional theatre and the theatre community.”
We went on to talk about education and his approach to training. “What I impart on my students is that you cannot become a character, you can only relate to the character through either a direct or a vicarious experience. Once you have connected, then can you make the adjustments – would that character demonstrate a gesture that way? And if the answer is no, then you make the adjustment, but what is coming from you is always real. Audiences can only relate to you in human terms, and when they sit and watch you and don’t believe you, it is because they do not connect to that in life. If you are believable as an actor, you suck me in, and I forget that you are acting.”
When it comes to directing a play as a part of pedagogy, Mr. Sutton chooses to allow students maximum impact on the process, “Normally, I read a play, and if I want to do it, I submit it for approval.” If approved, I read it once more to make technical decisions (the period of the play, type of set etc.) and from there, he does not touch it again until rehearsals begin. “I want my students to be included in the process from the very beginning, so they can be a part of shaping the work and I want to discover the play with them.”
His next production at Dawson College, The Hands of Its Enemy, by Mark Medoff, is a play about mounting a play. I ask him what is about this script that made it right for students. “First I have the privilege in [producing] in an environment that is not reliant on a box office. I chose the play because it allows real challenge for students, because in some cases we have [ASL] signing and one of the characters doesn’t speak, but also you have actors playing characters in the play, so you have a student is playing an actor who is sometimes playing a character.”
While I will not give away the plot of the show, I must say that Mr. Sutton’s excitement about it is infectious, and knowing his ability to pass on his enthusiasm to his students, I anticipate an engaging performance. The Hands of Its Enemy opens March 8th and runs until March 11th with nightly shows at the Dawson Theatre.
As for Mr. Sutton himself, this year saw him garner the much coveted Martin Luther King Jr. Award from Black Theatre Workshop. His reaction at being told the news is typical of the modest and unassuming man I have come to know during this interview. He stated that it took him a month and a half to accept the award because he did not see himself the way we see him; a man who has had a large impact on current theatre practice and, who through his work, has fostered a generation of theatre professionals.