Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
We first encountered Nathan Carroll in a delightful turn as Toto – yes, Toto! – a part of the Young People’s Theatre’s 2016 Dora-Award-winning ensemble of The Wizard of Oz. Little did we know then that, just a few short months later, his name would dominate theatre news across the country.
Last August, after a nationwide talent search, Carroll landed the coveted role of Canadian athlete and activist Terry Fox in Drayton Entertainment’s highly-anticipated production of Marathon of Hope: The Musical. It received its world premiere at the St. Jacob’s Country Playhouse last October, and has begun a new 3-week run at Dunfield Theatre Cambridge.
How does one prepare to play one of the most revered and recognizable figures in Canadian history? Carroll began by consulting the wealth of information available: “I’ve had multiple books, photos, videos, journals, transcripts, articles, and discussions with people who knew Terry to work with.” Yet despite this meticulous research to familiarize himself with Fox’s personality, Carroll specifies that his intent is not “mimicry” (and not the least because he deems himself “a terrible mimic”). His goal is to share Terry’s story through the filter of who Carroll is as a person: “If I am open, vulnerable, clear, and committed when speaking words that Terry said or wrote, then I am doing my job.”
Most Canadians can immediately conjure an image of Fox, as the iconic lone runner with the prosthetic leg, running ahead of a Ford Econoline van trailing behind. The musical’s story focuses on the historic 1980 Marathon of Hope, and the tension-filled events and relationships surrounding it. Fox’s cross-country run to raise funds for cancer research ended abruptly in Thunder Bay after 5,373 kilometres and 143 days, when his cancer had spread to his lungs. After undergoing chemotherapy and interferon treatments, he died in a BC hospital 9 months later, a month before his 23rd birthday. Today, Fox’s legacy extends far beyond fundraising, though his quest has inspired an annual fall run that has raised over $700 million for cancer research in his honour. Fox remains fixed in Canada’s heart as the quintessential “everyday hero.” He is celebrated for being an ordinary person who accomplished the extraordinary, and by doing so, galvanized the country, proved the power of determination, and forever transformed attitudes towards persons with disabilities.
Far from feeling intimidation in portraying Fox, Carroll views Fox’s recognizability as an “extra bonus,” which he discovered during the musical’s initial run last fall. “The audience puts their own memories onto my performance,” he observes. “Terry was so real to them, whether they saw him in real life, on TV, or through pictures and videos. We often underestimate the power of an audience’s imagination, and I have found that as long as I am open and don’t get in the way, the audience sees me as Terry through their own memories or ideas of who he was.”
In a similar way, Fox’s story has become acutely personal for Carroll. First, because, sadly, “every year, someone I know faces a battle against cancer.” Second, because of his creative investment in the show. Participating in the development of new works is Carroll’s most favourite thing as an actor, and he notes, “I’ve been privileged to be a part of two workshops and two productions of this show, with changes happening during both rehearsal processes. I love when audiences get a sense of the time, energy, and process that goes into making a new musical or play, and I love talking about who contributes and in what way.” As such, he sees his return to the production as a “gift”. He expects to be more confident, more relaxed and braver with his choices this run, noting with conviction that “with the group that has been assembled, I am feeling very supported.”
This camaraderie with his fellow actors must come as an immense relief, given the poignant subject matter and the role’s physical and vocal demands, which are, well, marathon-like: “I am on stage for nearly the entire show,” Carroll explains, “I sing and speak a lot. I have to make sure that I am rooted in my training in all of those disciplines.” Practically speaking, this also means ensuring that he gets adequate rest and food. “I ate so much during the run last year!” he smiles.
Beyond the physical demands, Carroll acknowledges that the show is “emotionally intense,” especially “confronting the tragic circumstances of this story and the millions of stories that float around it.” Meeting all of those challenges “head on and with an open heart” is immensely rewarding to him, though perhaps the most rewarding is the passionate response from the audience. “People are so inspired by Terry and his family that most audience members walk out of the show feeling moved.” Following each performance, he greets them in the lobby to collect donations for The Terry Fox Foundation. This simple yet significant gesture permits him to participate in the continuing power of Fox’s story, as well as “receive the stories and feelings from the audience who has just experienced us tell it.”
Despite a strong premiere last October, many aspects of the show have changed for this run. There are new vocal and instrumental arrangements and several new cast members. Of those who are returning, his sensitive observation is that they themselves are “different from who we were when we first did the show.” Last year’s production was an effort to show the cultures of different provinces along the way, whereas this production fleshes out his relationships with the people around him, in order to focus more on Terry’s own conflicts and obstacles: “Two of the things I’m most excited about are that we have added scenes and songs for Leslie Scrivener, the reporter who broke the story, and Terry’s mom and dad, so that those relationships have more opportunity to grow and resonate.”
Alongside these performances, audiences of all ages will enjoy Carroll’s performance, which is inevitably informed by qualities inseparable from Fox’s, such as dedication, discipline and compassion. Drayton Entertainment has scheduled 12 performances exclusively for school groups, enabling young people and their teachers to see a beloved Canadian personality through an artistic interpretation that is creative and experiential. And given the current climate, it feels important to stage a work rooted in optimism, “miracles” and the need to think beyond oneself. “With what I see happening around the world, it’s a scary time to be alive,” Carroll gently posits. He feels a tangible trend towards self-centredness, and has a growing sense of people looking out for themselves, instead of caring about the people around them (and) around the world, and earth itself. “Certainly, this has always been there,” he acknowledges, “but it is showing up prominently in world leaders, and kids are getting the stamp of approval that this is an appropriate way to interact with the world.”
For Carroll, Terry Fox is the welcome and wonderful counter-argument, representing “empathy…., self-sacrifice…, the idea that sometimes what is best for others is actually not necessarily what makes you feel good or satisfied or rested.” In the end, Carroll sees this musical as a healing and humanitarian legacy of everything good that the Marathon of Hope has come to symbolize: “I think that showing the journey of such an empathic hero through a musical has to resonate with a younger generation seeing so much of the opposite.”
News You Can Use
What: Marathon of Hope: The Musical; music and lyrics by John Connolly; book by Peter Colley
Who: Audiences of all ages
When and Where:
Information and Tickets: DraytonEntertainment.com
Explore and Learn: TerryFox.org
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya