Stars of the Screen & Stage

From Gryphon to Klingon

Actor Kenneth Mitchell, BLA ’98, speaks fluent Klingon. He utters a few throaty, unnerving words of the alien language during a telephone conversation from his home in Los Angeles, as a pair of loud kittens vie for attention in the background.

Mitchell plays the fierce and temperamental Klingon commander Kol in the new, highly successful Star Trek: Discovery television series. His job depends on a good command of the language and a certain blood-curdling delivery.

Star Trek Discovery's Kenneth MitchellAs soon as he is fitted with the somewhat reptilian mask with the prominent cranial features, the actor is all Klingon. The “guttural and aggressive” language is spoken exclusively in Klingon scenes.

“It’s three and a half hours of prosthetics and makeup,” he says, speaking of the process of getting into costume. “Once the teeth and contacts are in, I’m head-to-toe unrecognizable. I love it. It’s like hiding behind a mask and really embracing a completely different being.”

Going big, with over-the-top emotion, was the key to bringing the proud and powerful Kol to life, Mitchell said. He describes the character as an alien creature who is dedicated to the preservation of Klingon culture and wary of humans.

“He’s not me at all. I’m a sweet, good-hearted Canadian,” he says. “But I just love embracing these new characters and finding them.”

Originally from Toronto, Mitchell graduated from the University of Guelph’s landscape architecture program in the late ’90s. He worked briefly in the field before diving full-time into acting. He’s been steadily employed as an actor for about 17 years.

Mitchell starred in the 2017 critically acclaimed, made-in-Ontario feature film Blood Honey, and had recurring roles in the television series The Astronaut Wives Club and Frequency.

The six-foot-two-inch Mitchell – who gains more than two inches as Kol – was a striker for the Gryphon soccer team.

“The fact that I was a part of the Star Trek phenomenon really hit home for me at my first Star Trek convention, which was in Las Vegas,” he says. “Being greeted by the nearly 10,000 fans, seeing and feeling their passion, I saw what a big deal this is. It was completely infectious.”

Mitchell lives in the Studio City neighbourhood of LA with his actress wife Susan May Pratt and their two children, Kallum and Lilah. The kittens are Chai and Curry, rescued by the family from an animal shelter.

Canadian actor Ryan Gosling lives in the same neighbourhood, as does the original Captain Kirk himself: Canadian actor William Shatner.

Theatrical Agitation

As the curtain was flung back and the spotlight cast on sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry in 2017, Toronto’s stalwart Nightwood Theatre was there to help the public grapple with the shocking news.

The PenelopiadRun by University of Guelph English and drama graduate Kelly Thornton, BA ’90, the long-standing feminist theatre company established in 1979 crafts stage productions that advocate for women’s rights while confronting gender inequality.

“Artists in general are agitators,” Thornton says. “I have always felt that I want to entertain, but I also want to provoke, to change people’s perspectives.”

She says her U of G training gave her the foundation she needed for success in theatre. The department focused on making theatre politically and socially relevant. “It equipped me with a well-rounded, 360-degree experience of theatre. I worked on the technical side, in costumes, acted and directed, and did a little bit of playwriting. I came out with the ability to get the show on stage.”

In the current climate, Nightwood’s productions have grown in popularity and timeliness, with sell-out audiences for 2017 shows like Asking for It and Unholy.

“At Nightwood, we’ve been fighting the good fight for a very long time,” says Thornton, the company’s artistic director since 2001. “Just to put a woman’s story on stage is an act of political will.”

Shock waves from the revelations of sexual harassment in Hollywood and in Canada’s theatre world have reverberated around the globe, she says. Sexual harassment allegations against Soulpepper Theatre’s Albert Schultz, a prominent figure in Canada’s theatre world, rocked the country’s theatre scene.

“It’s shocking for everyone to see a company that’s had such success suddenly be turned on its head,” she says. “Everyone across Canada is looking at their workplace safety policies and sexual harassment procedures, and how artists can be better protected.”

Theatre is a life-affirming art, and a cathartic experience for audiences, she says. But there is a “toxic cloud” hanging over it, with sexual harassment happening behind the scenes.

“I think the reason this happens is because the power imbalance is systemic. People working in a toxic environment who do not hold the reins of power are very concerned about their immediate livelihood and employment, as well as their professional career and reputation. So they are afraid to tip the balance.”

Much has come out from behind the shadows in recent months, she says, but change will come only as more women and people of colour become an integral part of the industry.

Thornton says recent events have fuelled resistance and resilience.

“Sadly, I think that this abuse of power is going on everywhere, and it’s rampant. But we are in a moment of time where we are redressing the power imbalance. I believe ultimately that we have to share power so that every voice and the needs of all are represented in our theatres.”

DIY Filmmaking, With Love

For her art, Rebeccah Love, MFA ’17, has baked dozens of cookies (not for eating but as props), has gone on urban expeditions for antique typewriters, fake moustaches, vintage aprons and floral summer dresses, and has taken over the porch of an abandoned house.

Rebeccah Love photo“All the while trying to figure out what it means to be human, what it means to love, what it means to be alive,” says Love, a U of G MFA graduate in creative writing who is making a name for herself as an independent filmmaker.

Millennials are a do-it-yourself generation, and Love is totally all right with being called a DIY filmmaker. Hovering between stylized theatrical narratives and bare-bones realism, she says, her films are about creative problem solving, with underlying themes of beauty and love.
Love says we need films about the world’s problems, “about how broken everything is, about the darkness of modern times.” But we also desperately need films about the beauty of lush green spaces and “the delight of being loved.”

She can’t explain why she is compelled to make short films.

“It is a big mystery to me why we all turn out the way we do,” she says. “There is something about the way the world has been presented to me by my family that has produced within me a great appreciation for the beauty of things, for optimism and an understanding of the preciousness of moments.”

Her film work, she says, is an opportunity to wonder and daydream, and she considers that a gift. And working independently, with a small crew, is the most fun, exciting and meaningful thing she has ever done.

“I definitely consider myself to be a DIY filmmaker. I see it as a style of filmmaking where you are not following the rules. You’re not submitting your script to a production company and waiting for them to hire you. You’re taking matters into your own hands, often with limited resources.”

That can mean holding auditions in her kitchen and enlisting the help of her mother to feed the cast and crew.

“Or doing something like sneaking onto the porch of an abandoned house to film a scene without any permits,” she says. “That’s all part of the game.”

With DIY filmmaking, hiring a crew is through word of mouth, raising the money is through crowdfunding sites and marketing is mostly through social media.

“It’s about creative problem solving, identifying resources at your disposal and making the most of them. The best part of filmmaking is engaging with all kinds of people. Our shared experiences on-set furnish friendships with memories of great beauty, laughter and weight.”

During creative writing class at U of G, where Love specialized in screenwriting, she mingled with novelists, poets and playwrights, and gained confidence and practical skills.

“I began my academic career at the University of Guelph as a timid person unsure of my future. As a University of Guelph graduate, I feel confident in my abilities, confident in my network and confident in what lies ahead.”

The Mathematics of Laughter

There are two things Paloma Nuñez, BA ’02,has always been especially good at – making people laugh and doing complex math.
She studied both drama and mathematics at the University of Guelph but says she soon reached the limit of her potential as a mathematician. Her potential as an actor and comedian appears limitless.

Mathmatics of LaughterNuñez has put together a varied career in acting and comedy. She says she can’t get enough of improvisation.

“I’m not a gifted mathematician, but math is a fun thing to learn, and it’s a nice balance to what an art degree can provide,” says Nuñez, who is landing roles in television series like In Contempt, Killjoys, Baroness von Sketch and The Girlfriend Experience.

Nuñez says there are a growing number of opportunities for women, including women of colour, in Toronto theatre and film.

Things have been going well since her small but memorable role as a prickly legal assistant in the 2015 Academy Award-winning film Spotlight. The mother of a young son, Nuñez is also the voice of Sparky, the front-end loader in the kids’ show Terrific Trucks.

“I just always wanted to be an actor,” she says. “When I got the chance to do some theatre at U of G, I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

Nuñez says she’s at her best performing improv. She’s worked hard to excel at the spur-of-the-moment-style of theatre. Post-university, she studied improvisation at Second City and Bad Dog Theatre in Toronto, followed by intensive training in Chicago.

Learning improvisation, whether on a theatrical stage or in the theatre of life, has benefits in different areas of life. She teaches others to shed their fears and let their true character shine through improv.

“We all have to learn to get through the many barriers we put up just to survive being a human in this world,” she says. “The people I teach often get caught up in doing things a certain way. Improvisation is about breaking down walls, trusting and being OK with failing – a lot.”
She works with lawyers, teachers, IT experts and business people who want to be more spontaneous and creative.

“Improv truly gives you the gift of being able to be who you are. You get these little rushes as you face your fears. And it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been at this for 15 years. It’s starting to come together.”