BWW Interviews: Martin Happer on Studio 180 Theatre's THE NORMAL HEART

BWW Interviews: Martin Happer on Studio 180 Theatre's THE NORMAL HEART

Studio 180 Theatre is kicking off their 10th Season with a remount of their smash-hit success from last year, The Normal Heart.  Written by Larry Kramer and directed by Joel Greenberg, the show tells the story of the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City and a tight knit group of friends who band together to stop politicians and doctors from burying the truth about what was happening to the gay community.

Hailed as one of the top Toronto plays of 2011, The Normal Heart is back at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with much of the original cast intact.  The only new member is Martin Happer in the role of Bruce Niles, and he spoke to BWW about what it’s like being the ‘new kid on the block’, the relevance of the material and why young people should come and see the show:

Congratulations on The Normal Heart! How has it been going so far?

It’s been phenomenal.  It’s a huge challenge, I’m the new cast member and we have a shortened rehearsal period since it’s a remount so I have a lot to learn.  It’s been new and challenging but the whole group has been fantastic and great in terms of helping me come up to speed and it’s gone as smoothly as I could have ever imagined.  Everyone has been really patient with me and my choices.  I tried not have what Paul (Essiambre) had done before, but rather I’ve been trying to make the character my own in a small way that doesn’t change the shape of the original production.

You’re the only new addition to this cast – what has it been like being the ‘new kid on the block’?

I was lucky enough to see the last performance of their first production and I’m so glad that happened because it gave me a sense of what the show was all about.  It helped me in the audition process so that I could have an understanding in my head as to the style, pace, rhythm and spirit of the story.  I think that experience helped tremendously when it came to stepping into this cast which was obviously super tight from the very beginning.  There has been a transition period but I’ve felt like I’ve really had to let go of that feeling of being the ‘outsider’ because I was projecting it entirely onto myself.  Everyone has been very welcoming, and Paul even sent me a great message when I started rehearsal welcoming me and telling me that I will have a really great time exploring this character’s journey.

This is a very difficult play with heavy subject matter – do you have a way of approaching the material so that it doesn’t emotionally drain you night after night?

I haven’t had to deal with that much yet because it’s been such a swift rehearsal process I haven’t really had time to think about it.  I’ve just gone in and tried to be as present as I can.  I don’t want to push anything or direct the emotion in any certain way, I prefer to just allow the story to take me away which is easy to do because the writing is so great.  It’s easy to get swept up in the whole thing.  I just try and say the words and put myself in the character’s headspace before I go on.  It’s an emotional ride and I think everybody takes their own time to come down from that.  I’ve yet to find my particular tradition or method for coping with it.

With a shortened rehearsal period and a script that is challenging, how did you go about learning all the material?

With any play I don’t come in and try and memorize anything on the first day, but with this play I actually found that I tried to do that.  It’s tricky to memorize because you don’t have anything to associate the material with at the beginning, you don’t have the visual cues that you get once you’re in rehearsal.  Plus when I first started I was still performing in ‘Niagara’ so I was doing double-duty.  Because the writing is as good as it is, the thoughts of the characters make sense with what’s written which really helps.  This way, if a character asks a question I generally know the answer and the line is similar if not right on.  It’s actually the pitter patter of the bigger group scenes where there’s a lot of back and forth that is the most challenging.  I just want to make sure the lines are there in my body so I’m not having to think ahead and be prepared to say a line in a certain spot.

Do you think the material is just as relevant as it was when it was written? Do you see this play as a ‘must-see’ just to understand the history of what happened during the Early Stages of the crisis?

I think it’s absolutely a must-see because it is very recent history, and it is important to know the place of ignorance that we all started from and know just how far we’ve come.  We also need to recognize that we haven’t come all the way.  It’s still a taboo subject.  I was talking to a fellow actor in the cast who said that a lot of the attention has switched to HIV/AIDS in Africa which is very important, but it also means there’s less attention on it here at home.  It doesn’t seem to be a topic people like to discuss despite the fact that it is still affecting our neighbours and people we know. 

Do you think a show like this can help overcome bias and ignorance and help people move forward together?

I would absolutely hope so.  I think it’s tough because only so many people will come and see a play.  I think as artists in the show we certainly hope that it brings people’s attention to the this topic and enlightens them.  There’s so much information in this show that gets washed over the audience that they might not have known or that they needed to be reminded of.  I do hope that it would make a difference in people’s outlooks on HIV/AIDS.  Perhaps some people will come just because they’ve heard it’s a great play, and will leave having really learned something.

What would you say to encourage a younger audience to see the show?

I think it’s important for a younger audience to understand this part of history – especially those in the gay community because it’s so recent and such an important part of their history.  In many ways we shouldn’t even call it history because we’re still living with it everyday and there still isn’t a cure, but it is important to understand the beginnings.  For young people I think it’s a play that would be enlightening and hard hitting and entertaining, and if they go into it understanding that it is based on Larry Kramer’s life it makes it all the more intense and rewarding.

When and Where?

Studio 180 Theatre presents The Normal Heart

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Performance Schedule

On now until November 18th 2012

Tickets range from $30 to $49 with student and arts worker tickets for $25.  Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at

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