Jonathan Seinen never wanted to be an actor. A gangly kid from Slave Lake, Alberta, he enrolled in university under the auspices of studying English. But in reality, he had an ulterior motive.
“As a young closeted gay person, Morrissey was very important to me,” he says with a laugh. “My dream was to sing in a rock-and-roll band. I didn’t really go to university for a degree in English. I was hoping to meet people and start a band.”
Seinen felt his first yearnings for theatre during a year on exchange at London’s Royal Holloway University. It was his first time away from home and his first exposure to performance on an international scale.
“As an artist, I realized the importance of what I could do because of the quality of the work I was seeing,” he says. “I started getting away from the Protestant work ethic I grew up around and realized being a theatre artist had a real value. It was an awakening.”
He returned to Edmonton to finish university with his eye on attending theatre school after. But the passion his overseas voyage ignited had nothing to do with being onstage. What Seinen really wanted was to direct. Perhaps his Protestant work ethic got mixed up with a little Catholic self-flagellation when he decided to head to Montreal’s National Theatre School to study not directing, but acting.
“It was the thing that scared me the most,” he says. “The emotional and personal demands of getting onstage and being seen in that way kind of makes me neurotic. As a highly sensitive introvert, acting scared me because of the places I’d have to go and how I would have to expose myself. It asked me to really be in my body, which is irrational and passionate and sexual, all of those things I was afraid of exploring.”
After leaving the National Theatre School, Seinen landed in Toronto and began working to establish himself as a director, notably in 2009’s Deathwatch and 2011’s Still Life. But despite his best intentions, acting work has sucked up much of his time. He was part of the hugely successful Highway 63 (based on the lives of Fort MacMurray residents) that played coast-to-coast more than 50 times. He also did two turns in Studio 180’s hit production of Larry Kramer’s seminal AIDS drama The Normal Heart.
Now Seinen finds himself onstage again in Sean Dixon’s A God in Need of Help. Based on true events, the play follows a group of men charged with transporting a religious painting across the Alps in 1606. Seinen plays Rafal, a scrawny, awkward outsider with an unusual ability to read his compatriots’ desires.
“The story is sort of a mystery, so I don’t know how much I can say without giving it away,” he says. “My character certainly has a queer sensibility about him, though whether he’s actually gay isn’t totally clear. There’s some actual gay sex in the show, but we don’t really take our clothes off. We just go through the motions.”