It's a cool, overcast autumn day, when I meet Cliff Cardinal in the lobby of the Daniel Spectrum Theatre, home of Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA).
We head out the door of the theatre and stroll through Cabbagetown to the Jet Fuel for a coffee. We look at the Victorian mansions, and the remaining town homes from the original Regent Park development in the '70s. I say they remind me of London tenements. " I like those houses." says Cardinal. "They're where the stories are."
Cardinal is back living in Toronto after a three year stint training at The National Theatre School of Canada as a playwright. It's the most prestigious
theatre school in the country, and the most difficult to get into. The
playwriting program takes two students a year. Last spring, after completing the three
year program, he graduated.
As we enter the cafe, he takes a picture of the exterior, and texts it to a friend who is meeting him after we're done. She's here from Montreal, and he wants to be sure she can find it. This guy is on it.
When I first met Cardinal, almost four years ago, HUFF was in development. He was being pushed to make it a multi-actor show. He wanted to write and perform a multiple character monologue. Even in its earliest iteration, the play was a wild ride: heart-breaking, terrifying and blackly hilarious.
Cardinal sagely ignored the dramaturgical advice, and wrote a monologue, which he performs alone. It was a good call. Cardinal has performed HUFF over 70 times and is opening NEPA's 15/16 season with the show. As usual, HUFF has opened in Toronto to praise from both audiences and critics for the script and the performance.
"Huff is about risk-taking. Wind (the protagonist) lives for dangerous joys." A pause. "I write about outsiders: the freaks, the people who defy social convention, the ones who don't fit in. They are the ones who will do anything to be accepted and loved. That's what gets them in trouble."
What did Cardinal learn in Montreal? "To meet the work." Cardinal's been working hard. "Every morning, I get up and write between 6:00 and 9:00 am."
In addition to writing, performing, and touring HUFF, his play STITCH closed NEPA's last season. The play he wrote during his sophomore year at NTS, ROMANCESHIP is "coming to a theatre near you next season." He grins. What's it about? "Oh a couple in a dysfunctional relationship. I also wrote a vicious social satire in year three. It's a frontal attack on Canadian values. It needs a big cast. We did it as a graduating project. I'd love to do it here in a big theatre."
Another grin. I ask him about his earlier education. "My mom (actress Tantoo Cardinal) and my family moved around a lot. I've lived in Pine Ridge, L.A., Vermont. I've been in Toronto off and on since I was 15. I attended 7 different high schools. I dropped out. My mom said, "OK, you're going to work as an apprentice with Video Cabaret. Billy (Merasty) will keep an eye on you." Michael Hollingwoth (the artistic director) said, "Sit at the back and watch and if someone asks you do something, do it." Another grin. Michael eventually gave me my first professional acting job. Watching the rehearsals of NEW FRANCE taught me a lot - about, history, about theatre, about acting, about how plays get made and developed."
This year, Cardinal is is the writer-in-residence at Video Cabaret. "In rez-indence?" I pun?
Cardinal has had an excellent education. The outsider is inside the theatre now, sharing the dangerous joys of his work with admiring audiences.
This winter, HUFF goes on tour to Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Edmonton, Calgary, Peterborough and Quebec City.
I saw the show last night. The play, the performance and the production are all excellent. Cardinal is more than ready to bring his edgy, challenging work to audiences in Toronto and across Canada.
HUFF continues until October 25th at the AKI STUDIO THEATRE , 585 Dundas Street East as part of NATIVE EARTH PERFORMING ARTS 15/16 season. Tuesday- Saturday 8:00 PM. SUNDAY at 2:00 pm. .Tickets are $15-$30 and may be obtained online at www.nativeearth.ca or by calling 416 531 1402.