It’s always a treat to witness the millennial generation tackle the legendary works for George Bernard Shaw. For second season Shaw Festival performer Stephen Jackman Torkoff, it’s a ‘trekking along’ process getting to know the inner workings of the master playwright’s dialogue method.
His character, Philip, comes as a ‘packaged deal’ with his twin sister, Dolly in this summer’s bliss maker You Never Can Tell in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Royal George Theatre until October 25, 2014. Each of the two roles pushes the theme of and when it comes time for Philip to let out ‘On with the dance, let joy be unconfined,’ you get the strong impression the budding actor harbours all the natural born qualities of a true freedom fighter from deep within.
Stephen Jackman Torkoff isn’t just proof if that stage heroes come in all shapes and sizes, he almost rebrands the notion in a no holds barred 20 Questions With… exclusive.
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What did you want to be growing up?
I think since I was about 4 I said I wanted to be an actor.
The only time that dream was seriously threatened was when I considered getting into animal conservation. I became a vegetarian when I was 16 and I was sure my vocation was to save the elephants.
Hopefully I can do both. Those elephants do need saving.
Who were your childhood heroes?
My parents, definitely.
Before I was born and throughout part of my childhood my parents were always fostering kids and I find that so admirable. I think they fostered about 180 kids in total and they were really good at it. They helped a lot of children stay on their feet and they taught compassion.
I didn’t realize it then, but looking back I see how their compassion to me when I was young is so ingrained in my personality now.
Were your parents strict?
I always thought my parents were strict, but then I met other people’s parents.
Maybe I’m just remembering the good, but looking back I feel like I was able to do whatever I wanted… within reason, of course.
I had chores to do and sometimes my Dad gave me extra homework sheets, but besides that I was free to live my life and become myself. I was a nice polite kid with really nice parents.
Did you play sports as a kid?
I played soccer for four years and never scored. Did Karate which I was great at but then I lost interest.
In elementary school I did a lot of running and tried to continue it into high school, but after a single 9th Grade track meet I never returned.
Now I play catch with dogs, I play cricket, and I long board. Longboarding in Niagara-on-the-Lake is idyllic. I highly recommend it.
What posters did you have on your bedroom wall growing up?
All my posters growing up were pretty boring.
I have a great poster in my room right now though. It’s the movie schedule of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. I went there this past winter and I saw Blade Runner for the first time.
It’s a beautiful old theatre with an organ and everything. I loved the movie and I dream of a theatrical version where I get to play Rachael or Pris. That’d be fun.
What was your nickname in high school?
I didn’t really have a nickname in high school but I do have a nickname now: Stella.
I gave it to myself during my first week working at Shaw. I realized a few years ago that one can be called whatever they want to be called. I like it because it’s not too far off from Stephen and I like the idea of a sexy man yelling “STELLLLAAA” outside my window.
What was the first concert you attended?
The first concert was probably an Elvis Presley impersonation show in Coldwater, Ontario, but my favourite one has got to be Patrick Watson. I had no idea who he was, but I remember being absolutely enthralled by the music.
At one point members of the band started walking around the theatre while playing and the sound was so full and magical I wanted to cry. His recorded music is good, but hearing it live is truly something else.
What was the first job you ever had?
I had a paper route on my childhood street in Richmond Hill. I earned a significant amount of money from it and bought myself a spanking new orange stereo which I listened to NOW 6 on.
The best days of work were when a group of my friends would help me pack the flyers and deliver the papers so I would have more time to go bike riding or play video games.
I wasn’t the greatest worker all the time and if I wasn’t feeling it, I would just throw all the flyers and papers into the field across from my house.
In retrospect, I feel kind of bad. Not because my neighbours didn’t find out what was on sale at No Frills or that Richmond Hill won the Communities in Bloom contest, but because I didn’t even recycle.
Have you ever been fired?
Fortunately, I have never been fired. I’ve always been good at doing my job well and breaking the rules at the same time.
For example when I worked at Panera Bread for a few years in high school and I liked to have fun with my uniform so I would wear a sexy button up and really cute short shorts, even though there was a past the knee rule. I also opted for wearing a different person’s nametag, preferably Heathers, and I made a second tag for my shirt that said ‘Maneater.’ They made me a trainer.
Then there was a time I should have been fired. One summer I worked for my brother at a precast concrete place. I reached a point where I hated the job so much that I faked sick for four days. Because it was a family job and my Mom would be able to tell my brother I wasn’t sick, I decided to be a trickster.
Each night I would set an alarm for 4 am, go to the bathroom and make a bunch of barfing noises then go back to sleep. Then in the morning it would be my mom who would insist I stay home because she heard me in the middle of the night barfing. Those were a four fabulous days of watching That’s So Raven.
Who was the first person you were sexually attracted to?
I have no idea. Who remembers these things?
For the record I’ve always been attracted to outsiders and people with that special spark.
How old were you when you had your first kiss?
I have no idea when my first kiss was. I kissed a number of girls in elementary school from so early an age that it’s hard to remember.
I do remember my first kiss with a boy though. I was 16. It was enchanting, and after that, kissing only got better.
What do you remember about the first time getting drunk?
I don’t remember it at all. Not because I was wasted or something but because it’s not really a milestone in my growing up.
What is the hardest thing about being a man?
It’s hard to disassociate being a man from the rest of me.
But I guess the hardest thing about being a mixed race queer man is being harassed and threatened in public because of my apparent gayness or ’unmanliness.’
I don’t like feeling like I might get beat up. Thankfully this happens less and less these days to me. But not everyone is so lucky, sadly.
What did you believe in at 18 that you wish that you’d believe in now?
I still believe in all the good things that an 18 year old believes in, thank god for that.
Ask me again when I’m 150 and I might have a more interesting answer.
What is the best advice your parents ever gave you?
My parents have recently been giving me a lot of tax advice. They’re both in accounting. It’s the BEST!!!! LOL OMG YASS.
But seriously that sh*t helps.
What have you done that you will never do again?
I will never refrain from going to the doctor and getting tested because of fear again.
I spent about 4 years after high school becoming a serious hypochondriac and refusing to go to the doctor. I invented stories and made myself delusional about my health. I went to some really dark places in my mind. It negatively affected my self-confidence, my mood and relationships and I’m still trying to put all that dark energy behind me.
I’m easy on myself now because I know the fear just stemmed from a lack of education, but by indulging that fear so heavily I added to the stigma around HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, which is something I really don’t want to do.
What is the scariest thing that ever happened to you?
When I was in Grade 7 I was taken away from my family for a week and lived with another foster family.
There was some misunderstanding or mishap of some sort, and I was called to the office one day at the end of school and they told me I couldn’t go home.
I’ve never cried so much in my entire life. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen to me and the worst part was that when I was at school, I was just blocks from my house but I couldn’t even go home.
A result from this is that I can no longer use Aquafresh toothpaste because the foster home I stayed at had some and I remember it tasting so awful in my mouth that it gives me shivers just thinking about, just like the whole experience.
But going back home was one of the happiest days of my life.
You’ve been exiled to an isolated island with no other inhabitants but permitted to bring one book, once CD and one DVD. What will this list include?
I’d probably bring White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I’m only on page 100 and I’d like to finish it. Or maybe the Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.
I would bring Calypso by Harry Belafonte and Before Night Falls—the movie version of the Reinaldo Arenas book.
If somebody made a movie about your life, whom would you want to play you?
Shaw Festival ensembler Jennifer Dzialoszynski.