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An interview with Shaw Festival actor Martin Happer

Photo by David Cooper
Making it look easy
An interview with Shaw Festival actor Martin Happer

With his square jaw and rugged good looks, if Martin Happer hadn’t become a star of the Shaw Festival, he could have been a model for Disney princes and heroes. In fact, his tendency to play entirely deluded men often puts him on a cartoon-like reality plane, particularly this season when he plays “Black Stache,” the evil pirate destined to become Captain Hook in Peter and the Starcatcher.

It’s a delightfully unbridled comic performance, in a playful and precise production directed by festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell. Black Stache is villainous, but there is also poignancy to the role; the guy is such a loser, easily defeated by a crew of children and his own ineptitude.

In Peter and the Starcatcher, the broad comedy indulged by Happer is absolutely shameless.

“I first thought of becoming an actor when I discovered that I could engage my classmates at school by making them laugh,” confides Happer. At home I was the observer. My brothers would act the clown at home; my parents were good at telling a story. I was the one watching and laughing. Like many actors I was painfully shy and in grade seven, surprised myself with this talent to make people laugh.”

Still, the broad comedy of Peter and the Starcatcher comes from a sincere place.

“What you see in the story is absurd to you, but not to them,” Happer insists. “As an actor, you understand that you are in a comedy, but you have to lock into the reality of the situation and the better you do that, the higher you can make the stakes, but funnier it is. For instance, knowing that Black Stache is going to become Captain Hook, you know that at some point he has got to lose his hand. You expect it at the end of a sword, or in the crocodile’s mouth. But it happens in such a stupid way. The audience laughs and laughs. What a loser this guy is!”

Martin Happer as Black Stache and Patrick Galligan as Lord Aster with the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by David Cooper
Jonathan Tan as Smee, Patrick Galligan as Lord Aster and Martin Happer as Black Stache, with the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by David Cooper
Martin Happer as Black Stache and Graeme Somerville as Slank with the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by David Cooper

Over the course of his ten years at the Shaw, Happer has played Sergius Saranoff in Arms and the Man, the epitome of the swashbuckling hero, who turns out to be entirely deluded about both heroism and romance. Early on, he played Bo Decker, the cowboy in William Inge’s Bus Stop, who is convinced that the saloon singer, Cherie is the girl for him, ignoring the fact that she wants nothing to do with him. Needless to say, this actor has a natural talent for comedy.

He also has range. This season he appears in two contrasting roles at the Shaw, both antagonists: Black Stache and a Catholic Brother at a Quebec seminary in The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, which stars Fiona Reid.

“I’ve got a performance of Peter and the Starcatcher tonight and a rehearsal of The Divine this afternoon,” says the baritone actor, sitting in the Shaw Festival library. “The story is centered on this young seminarian who is in love with theater and an aspiring playwright. He is infatuated with Sarah Bernhardt, so when she comes to the city, that’s all he can talk about. He has an opportunity to meet her, but unfortunately, he is the one who delivers a message from the Church that they don’t want her to perform. So that’s how it starts. I play this authority figure, so yes, I guess I do play two villains this season—Black Stache is, certainly. I think the word villain is too strong for my character in The Divine. He is an antagonist, anyway.”

Peter and the Starcatcher has been both a narrative and theatrical adventure for the Shaw company. Roger Reese’s original staging, seen on Broadway, was widely celebrated.

“I had not seen more than preview clips on YouTube, interspersed with interviews,” says Happer. “I got to know the play by working on the script. There was a workshop before we started actual rehearsals. They were able to play with ladders, lighting, some of the scaffolding. Some of it was carefully planned in advance, but for a lot of the show we created the movement on the go in the room. Everybody felt they had an opportunity to offer something and Jackie, of course, had the last say as to what piece of movement told the story in the best way.”

Peter and the Starcatcher was given a luxurious six-week rehearsal period.

“We had a table that the designer had laid out with all kinds of different props,” says Happer. “So if an actor saw something that could help tell the story, we could pick it up and use it. For the scene in the jungle, I picked up a magnifying glass and mirror. I thought , ‘these fun little props might work,’ and of course, now I continue to carry a magnifying glass and little mirror that I use in trying to find the treasure.”

The repertory seasons at the Shaw Festival provides Happer with the opportunity to pursue the acting career of which he had always dreamed.

“This is what I always hoped to do,” he says earnestly. “I went to the University of Alberta, Edmonton. And they have a fantastic three-year conservatory acting program there. Their focus is on voice and text work. Mostly classical texts. They really try to infuse the texts of the classic writers there. And then everything else you learn supports that—all the singing and movement and so forth. I think that really helped me prepare to work at Shaw as a young actor.”

As Happer talks about his years at the Shaw his energy builds and one realizes that the education of an actor continues for an actor who works as part of this, one of the greatest acting ensembles in the English speaking world.

“I was lucky that Jackie took a chance with me and gave me the role of Bo Decker in my second year. That was major for me. But as a young actor, just being in the same room and watching all these actors—Norm Browning, Michael Ball. Watching Dave Schurmann in Man and Superman—that’s the mother of all Shaw plays and you find yourself falling in love with Shaw.

While talking with Martin Happer, it is impossible not to notice the natural resonance of his voice. Still, he speaks in a light and unforced manner.

“I have my father’s voice,” says Happer. “He is a military man. As a Canadian, I tend to pitch my voice at one level, but it is how you use your voice. A low baritone can be difficult to hear. My schooling has helped me. I can play with it for Black Stache. After a performance, I always do a warm down. I take my voice [through some vocal exercises] as if to say, ‘We’re okay buddy. We’re done now.’ Before a show, I warm up as well. I cannot do a show the way I want to do it without a warm voice. And a physical warm up as well.”

Does a season at the Shaw wear out an actor’s voice?

“For something like Peter and the Starcatcher I am always conscious of my voice. After the first run through, I was tired after one act. I had not built the stamina. By the end of the season, it actually becomes easier!”

At least, Martin Happer makes it look easy. You can see him in Peter and the Starcatcher through November 1, and in The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt through October 11.

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