Spotlight on Alumni: Jeff Giles
Actor Jeff Giles (BFA Acting 2006) talks about his experience as a performer in musical theatre—having starred in 7 productions of Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story all over Canada—and shares some intimate details about his struggles during his time at York.
Start by telling us what you've been up to since you graduated.
Well, as far as theatre goes, I've been working mainly in regional theatre since graduating York in 2006. I've largely been back in the world of music theatre for the past few years, especially shows that require the actors to play instruments. Case in point: I seem to have become one of Canada's most in-demand Buddy Hollys. I'm actually writing this from Winnipeg, where I'm working with Rainbow Stage for my 7th production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. It's been a great gift to have a role that I sit completely comfortably in, but not so I can sit back and relax, mind you: I like it because there's no energy wasted in nerves or self-doubt, and every time the curtain goes up, I can commit all of my focus to being more present, relaxed and free than I was the night before. Of course, I welcome opportunities for other work and other shows, but I think there's also merit in approaching the same script time and again, and focusing more and more on the subtlety of each moment: body language, nuances of relationship between actors, the subtle shifts of intention and execution that alter each moment in a show, however slightly. I've started to find a great sense of freedom and excitement in exploring those subtle variations of a scene that exists within the framework that was constructed during rehearsals. There are infinite, tiny variables that shape the way an actor tosses a line, or the way an actor receives a line from a scene partner, so really, it's impossible to give the exact same performance every night, provided you're “staying on the bus”, as professor Paul Lampert might say.
What did you do for the first summer out of the program?
I booked my first summer theatre gig during my last semester at York, so after a little bit of ushering/house managing work at Burton Auditorium after exams ended, I was off to Muskoka to work on a production of Pump Boys and Dinettes, a show about 4 guys that run a gas station and 2 gals who run a diner across the street (it was nominated for a Tony in 1982, apparently). Though my very first introduction to acting was a Meisner-style class when I was 14, I ended up doing a lot of musical theatre around Hamilton before going to York, which was how I ended up getting approached by the agency I signed with, and subsequently, how I started going back out for music theatre auditions as my time at York was coming to a close. Also, one of the charming things about doing Pump Boys and Dinettes was that, like The Buddy Holly Story, the actors are doubling as the band for the show. I've been singing and playing guitar, bass, and harmonica almost as long as I've been acting, so it was great to be able to combine all of that into a gig that not only gave me a paycheque, but allowed me to to spend six weeks in cottage country to boot!
If you had the chance to go back and visit your younger self as you were beginning at York, what advice would you give yourself?
I would tell myself not to focus so much on getting good marks, but to focus on stretching my idea of performance and creativity and expression as far outside of my comfort zone as possible, even if that meant crashing and burning sometimes.
In high school, I was very focused on getting good marks, and I that focus remained at York, to the extent that I don't think I took enough risks in the classroom, which is what fine arts school is all about, isn't it? I've always been someone who wants to “get it right” the very first time, but in the years since graduation, I have learned that one often gains the most knowledge when one has failed miserably. Thus, I would tell my first-year self: “For your own sake, fail. Throw yourself off perilous creative cliffs with full force, and take spectacular nosedives into alien waters. It may be uncomfortable, and there's a chance your letter grades may suffer, but they mean nothing once the mortar board comes off, and you will end up a better artist in the end.”
What was the most challenging aspect or experience of training/studying at York?
There are two that share equal weight for me. The first is that my mother died completely suddenly during the November of my second year, right at the start of the acting conservatory stream. The semester was nearly over, and I wanted to finish, so I only took a couple days off, then threw myself into the assignments/exams/performances before winter break. I didn't take any additional time off besides the standard winer break, because I liked my classmates and I liked the work I was doing, but in hindsight I may have been trying to escape the grief by focusing on school. Unfortunately for me at the time, an actor's training demands being able to access the full spectrum of your emotions, and for the rest of my time at York (and even afterward), I had a hard time exploring emotions that related to despair, grief or loss. Perhaps if I had taken some more time off to relax and grieve I wouldn't have experienced that emotional blockage in the same way. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees, especially when you go straight from high school to post-secondary, but in the larger scheme of things, you're not “losing time” taking a hiatus from studies to deal with personal issues. If it'll benefit you more in the long run, do it.
The second challenge was staying awake in class, and I'm being completely serious when I say that. The problem started eighth grade, and persisted through my time at York. No matter how much I wanted to stay awake during lectures or studio classes, I often couldn't, and caffeine or more sleep the night before didn't make any difference. It was incredibly rare to go an entire day without dropping off. Studying for exams was nearly impossible, as I would spend hours at a time re-reading the same page and nodding off, no matter how keen I was, no matter how purposefully uncomfortable my chair. And of course, so much time in the acting conservatory is spent lying on your back with your eyes closed, so it was a losing battle much of the time, and was incredibly frustrating for me. After a sleep study and a diagnosis of “idiopathic hypersomnia”, I was taking some medication that kept me awake a little more of the time, and changing my diet around also helped, but I was still struggling, I still had no definitive answers, and my training definitely suffered because of it. Recently, in starting to seek out answers for some other health issues, I think I may be on the right track to finally understanding why this is such a problem for me, but during my time at York I was feeling pretty helpless.
If any incoming students are reading this and have the same problem, where falling asleep is an issue despite being well rested and interested in the subject matter, then do yourself a favour and seriously look into it. Don't stop searching until you find answers and solutions that help in the long term.
What was one thing you enjoyed about York that was outside of the Theatre?
Winters Frosh Week! I lived in Winters Residence my first year, and I cannot even begin to express the joy and excitement I felt when I arrived to move in and was so warmly welcomed by all the orientation leaders and fellow incoming first year students. I was exhausted and had nearly lost my voice by the end of the week from yelling, but I had the time of my life, and I'd formed a sense of community that still persists today. For the next four years I returned as an orientation leader (Frosh Boss), and those weeks both as a Frosh and as a Boss remain some of my most cherished memories. So for you incoming students: don't miss out on Frosh Week. Whether you're commuting or living in res, go have some fun and make some friends!
Do you have any advice or tips for York students just entering the dept.?
Perhaps this: put some thought and effort into objectively understanding HOW you learn skills and retain information most effectively. Are you a primarily visual learner? Auditory? Kinaesthetic? Spend some time reading up on the different learning styles, try to find yourself somewhere in that spectrum, and think of ways you might be able to use it to your advantage. You can also experiment with different note-taking and study techniques to get the most out of the way your brain naturally works: try typing lecture notes, hand-writing lecture notes, using symbols, colour coding with highlighters, using an audio or video recorder if permitted. Play around with your process, throw away what doesn't work, keep what does, and take charge of becoming the best information sponge you can be. Ask questions. Ask many, many questions. Something I wish I'd done more of is to simply and genuinely ask, whether to myself or to a professor: “Why are we learning this? What purpose does this serve? How can I use this skill or technique or piece of information to make myself a better performer, writer, director, designer, technician, etc.?” If you don't understand the relevance of a piece of information to your art or your craft, you'll probably forget it fairly quickly.To paraphrase the great bass player Victor Wooten: no one can teach you anything, not even teachers. They can show you things, but you've got to teach yourself, no one can do it for you. So take an active role in your own education; you're the only real teacher you've got.
Also, take advantage of the opportunities to make theatre outside of the classroom. Get involved with the playGround Festival, or Vanier College Players, or any other opportunity you come across. For you actors, there's also students in the film department who will need actors for films. As much as you can, learn by doing.