Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Kris Joseph’s Life Up On the Wicked Stage

Director and actor traded engineering for theatre

Credit: (Alex Eady)

Modern musicals have changed radically since the early days. Hell, nowadays lyrics such as “If you were gay / I’d shout hurray!” are sung with the modern meaning of the word “gay.”

This holiday season Ottawa’s Zucchini Grotto theatre celebrates showtunes past and present in their newest cabaret production, Life Up On the Wicked Stage. Created in 2003, this musical theatre company is the brain child of queer artist Kris Joseph, a rising star in the local arts scene.

“The cabaret style is perfect for the queer community — there are so few cabarets in Ottawa!” says Joseph.

Zucchini performers are accustomed to singing songs about racism and eating pussy, and this year it’s a mixed bag of raunchy and pure.

“We may have kept the word ‘blowjob’ in one of the songs…” remembers Joseph.

“You’ll hear songs that reflect everyday life: proposing, breaking up, getting rid of leftovers. There’s a holiday theme as well: family togetherness. But no Christmas carols, none of that shlock,” assures Joseph.

But wait — why isn’t Joseph listed among the performers? Turns out this clever actor snagged himself a gig in the National Arts Centre English Theatre’s upcoming production of Macbeth, directed by Peter Hinton.

“It was like getting a call from the president: I was in the fetal position on the floor in the kitchen. I feel like I just started acting last week. Now I’m acting with [Stratford actor] Diane D’Aquila. I wonder, do [these actors] know all the plays? Do they have a different system for learning the text? Do I have anything to possibly contribute? And I’ve found that we all do.”

To capture the nightmarish quality of the play, Hinton sets his production in the Second World War as murderous nazis perform Macbeth’s every whim. Referencing the thousands of ‘kindertransport’ children killed in the war, the three witches are playing by young girls — perhaps lost children, or perhaps manifestations of Macbeth’s imagination.

“[Hinton] has a wonderfully poetic way of looking at things… He wants the play to be a true tragedy, like a nightmare that we’re still trying to understand,” explains Joseph.

While this is Joseph’s first professional production with the NAC, his growing reputation in the Ottawa theatre scene has been nothing to sneeze at. His musical talents have scored him several roles with Orpheus Theatre. For “straight” theatre (ah, too easy!), Joseph — with his newly acquired equity status — performed in New Theatre of Ottawa’s production of The Domino Heart and 7:30 Productions’ The Good Father. The versatile actor has quite a knack for playing straight characters — in fact, when a couple of queer theatre students from Algonquin College saw Joseph in Domino last year.

“They couldn’t tell I was gay. One of them said, ‘I could never play a part like that because I’m a homo.’ They had no idea,” remembers Joseph.

Joseph also makes his own work during the summer with Brown Bag Bards — political Shakespeare performed on Sparks St — and by touring the Canadian Fringe circuit last summer with The Churchill Protocol. Amazingly, Joseph had not always been immersed in the theatre scene: he got himself a degree in engineering and worked as an engineer for eight years at a handsome salary. But, alas, the theatre beckoned.

“I would be listening to the original Broadway cast recording of AIDA while doing engineering work. Then I realized, it’s just fucking money. The world’s not going to end. I have lots of nice things.”

“Now I’m officially making most of my income through theatre!” boasts Joseph. “But my mum [single parent, raised three kids] doesn’t understand why that’s important to me.”

“I don’t know if it was worse telling her I was gay, or telling her I wanted to be an actor. I think being an actor was worse!”