Alexis Gordon has really been looking forward to playing Betty Haynes in the stage version of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” at the Shaw Festival all year.
She grew up watching the movie every Christmas Eve with her family: “I don’t think my mom has ever been more excited for me to book a role,” said the London, Ont., native.
She’s been “dangling this joyful piece” in front of herself, she said, as she worked on much darker material earlier this year in “Room,” for which she won a 2022 Dora Award for Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role. She then played the central role of Jennifer Dubedat in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” at the Shaw, where she’s staying on this winter to perform in “White Christmas.”
To top off this busy and varied year, Gordon is co-piloting a new initiative to help theatre artists and production teams improve communication in rehearsal and creative processes.
While she allowed in an interview with the Star that she’s tired, Gordon called this a “champagne problem,” saying that she feels very lucky to have so much great work on her plate, with more to come in 2023. The in-demand performer’s career is continuing to burgeon in both the musical and nonmusical theatre realms.
“Room,” an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s celebrated novel, depicts the profound bond between a mother (called only “Ma”) and her son, Jack, who are imprisoned in a garden shed by Old Nick, the man who raped Ma and fathered Jack. When liberation comes, Ma and Jack navigate the challenges of living outside their torturous but imaginatively rich one-room life. The production was billed as a play with songs, many of which were performed by Gordon as Ma.
In a review, the Star’s Joshua Chong called Gordon’s performance “nothing short of a triumph” and praised her ability to convey both torment and gentleness in the role — a capacity that the Star’s former theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian, noted about her breakout role as Julie Jordan in the Stratford Festival’s 2015 production of “Carousel,” writing that Gordon is “one of those rare performers who can combine sweetness and strength.”
The COVID-19 pandemic knocked “Room” off course: a Grand Theatre/Mirvish co-production, it was cancelled on March 13, 2020, the day it was scheduled to open in London, Ont. By the time it came back in early 2022, the boys originally set to alternate as Jack had aged out of the role and had to be recast. Gordon called the young actors in the original and recast productions “a really wonderful salve of brightness and delicious energy that would, as it does for Ma, pull you out of any darkness.”
Gordon spoke frankly of the challenges of working with the show’s challenging material. “We had someone come in and teach us the fights and teach us the intimacy, which in ‘Room’ is rape, but there was no mental coaching,” she said. “I decided to get a therapist. We were quite isolated because we had such COVID fear. I wasn’t able to go home and see my partner for a long time, and didn’t want to make it all that we talked about.”
Old Nick also strangles Ma. Gordon developed strategies to recover from those harrowing scenes while still lying in the stage bed: “I pulled the blanket over my head and I would talk to myself … I would say, ‘I’m Alexis Gordon. That didn’t happen. I’m fine. I can breathe,’” she said.
Talking about these self-care strategies is important to Gordon and something she thinks doesn’t happen enough: “It should be a really beautiful big discussion in our theatre community. I think we all skirt around it” for fear of not being hired again, said Gordon.
Such experiences inform the work she’s doing around improving communication behind the scenes in theatre. Under the aegis of Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, Gordon is working with fellow actors Amelia Sargisson, Dave Ball, Tahirih Vejdani and Richard Lam to develop ARCS (Authentic and Radically Curious Support), which offers hands-on training for effective communication in rehearsals.
The program, which they have delivered at professional theatres including the Grand in London, and theatre training programs at Queen’s University and Sheridan College, works to create open channels for dialogue and conflict management, so that slights and difficult moments don’t snowball into toxic environments.
“We try and encourage the idea that if your cheeks are flushing, and you’re hot and sweaty and you feel nervous, you’re probably doing the right thing by speaking up. It can only get worse if you don’t try and stop it as soon as you can,” said Gordon.
ARCS is in demand, and its creators are working to take it across the country and make it available to small as well as major theatres. And eventually, to make it obsolete: “Our goal is that we can pass ARCS off or throw ARCS out” because the practices it teaches have become “just routine,” said Gordon.
Even before “Room” started performances, Gordon was preparing for her next role. In February, she started video-calling with Diana Donnelly, director of “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” and hearing about Donnelly’s production concept, which set the play in the present day. Gordon’s character, Jennifer, is the wife of a brilliant, difficult artist who’s dying of tuberculosis. She is trying to get him access to a cure and proves to have considerable sway over the titular doctor who controls the treatments. In a program note, Donnelly called Jennifer “Shaw’s life force in action.”
“Very wonderfully, she didn’t put that crown on me,” said Gordon. “She said, ‘That’s not your job … I don’t want you clenching trying to show us your life force.’” Among the ways Donnelly worked to endow Jennifer with this magnetic quality was through Rachel Forbes’ sumptuous costume design. “Diana asked, ‘How many amazing costumes can you wear onstage that will just immediately give that energy?’”
Some Shaw purists did not take to Donnelly’s production, while other audience members adored it, said Gordon. “Diana’s her own life force … She broke so many rules so casually, and it made it so raw and so weird and so interesting … She will make you remember her shows,” she said.
While “White Christmas” is lighter than the other two productions she worked on this year — “shenanigans and love happen” is how Gordon summed up the plot — she also underlined that it’s rooted in “beautiful themes of loss” as the two male lead characters return from performing for the troops in the Second World War. “I just love that it’s grounded in the longing for home or that thing that we’re missing that everyone can connect to right now.”
And once again, there are lots of beautiful things to wear: “I have at least five massive costume changes with lots of glittery beauty that Judith Bowden has designed,” said Gordon.
Coming up next, Gordon’s working on “Northern Tracks: A Canadian Mixtape,” a new musical series highlighting Canadian songwriters for the Stratford Festival’s digital “Stratfest@Home” program, directed by Thom Allison and Ouzounian.
After travelling to Europe with her partner in January, Gordon is playing Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in February (“because I’m crazy and I need to buy a really long winter coat”); and then spending the summer in Vancouver performing in “As You Like It” for Bard on the Beach, a remount of that company’s 2018 hit directed by Daryl Cloran and featuring two dozen Beatles songs.
2023 will be Gordon’s first sustained time working outside of Ontario. She credits her Dora success for helping her imagine this next step in her career. “The permission to mentally keep dreaming and bigger came from that nomination. And the win again just bowled me over. I think I was shaking the whole time I was up there.”
While an undergraduate at the University of Windsor, Gordon made an original show with her classmate Aisha Bentham called “For Those Who Stand Upon Our Shoulders,” drawing on their experiences as the only two Black women in their bachelor of fine arts program. Honouring lineage is important to Gordon: she mentioned Karen Robinson and Jewelle Blackman as forebears who helped her imagine what’s possible.
“At school, I was told I’d never be an ingenue because that’s just not my type, which I took as a fun challenge to conquer. I was told I’d never do a musical because I didn’t go to Sheridan (College), so people didn’t know I sang. So again, challenge accepted,” said Gordon.
The fact that she and Mary Antonini, who is also Black, are playing Betty and Judy Haynes in “White Christmas” “would not have happened at the Shaw Festival or any major theatre across Canada” 10 years ago, said Gordon. “I recognize that I’m in the right time, in the right place, able to do what I want to do.”
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