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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Once is both a humbling and exciting experience for John Steven Gardner

Winner of eight Tony Awards including best musical in 2012, Once comes to Vancouver for a limited run this November. Based on the 2007 film of the same name, it tells the story of a Dublin street musician who is about to give up on his dream when a young woman takes a sudden interest in him and his music.

In this Q&A with cast member and music captain John Steven Gardner, we find out about his journey to Once, and life as part of the touring company.

Q[/dropcap]Where did your interest in being on stage come from?

It came partially from my mother who was an opera singer for most of my childhood. I grew up going to see her sing all over the place, which I thought was pretty cool. Getting to see her make music with her fellow singers and the orchestra was a really amazing experience but I mostly saw how it affected the people who were in the audience. They seemed so happy when she was performing so I think I took that into performing with me; if what I do makes the audience happy or more content or if it gave them a slightly different world view, I consider the whole thing to be a success.

Q[/dropcap]We understand you were a little obsessed by the movie. What was it about the movie that you found so compelling?

To me, the movie was so different than what I was seeing in the theaters at the time, which was mostly big giant Hollywood blockbusters – explosions, guns, car chases, the whole nine yards – so to walk into a small theatre and see this movie that lived so easily in stillness was such a breath of fresh air.

The joke I always make to people who haven’t seen the movie is that Once the movie is just you as an audience member watching Glen watch Marketa. The on-screen chemistry they have is so compelling and you get to see what happens with two people when words fail them and all that’s left is the electricity in the air. That’s a risk I think most of the big budget movies can’t afford to take, which is ironic in a way. Also, you can’t ignore the music they make together. The songs Glen and Marketa wrote are just some of the best songs out there, even to this day.

John Steven Garnder
John Steven Garnder learned a dozen instruments for his auditions for Once

Q[/dropcap]How closely does the stage musical stay true to the movie’s story?

The stage musical is the exact same story with just a few expansions here and there in terms of the characters of the story. Film is a medium in which entire scenes can be played through people’s eyes because the audience has the close up shots and is right there for it. Theatre requires a slightly bigger scale just because some audience members may be 100 meters away, depending on the size of the venue. So Steven Hoggett brilliantly and tastefully added some movement to the show and Enda Walsh wrote some new characters into the script and expanded the roles of a few existing characters in the movie. And the decision to make every character a musician really enhances the musical aspect. There’s something so visceral about watching the music of the show being made by all the characters of the story. It’s really something special. However, the plot of the story is the exact same as it is in the movie.

Q[/dropcap]Tell us about the audition process that landed you the role of Eamon. We understand you learned to play a dozen or so instruments for your Once auditions?

Yes. I had a bit of a marathon with the auditions for this show, as many of the current company members did. I wasn’t part of the actor’s union before this show, which meant I had to do my first audition at a huge “cattle call,” like you might see on an episode of American Idol.

At the first audition, we all had to sing a song in the style of the show and accompany ourselves on a chosen instrument. After that initial audition, they called me back two more times to read for a few different roles and sing more songs. Then after the third callback, I was called back again to finally meet the head casting director. At that audition I did a similar set of material: I played a song on the guitar, a song on the piano, and read a few scenes for a couple characters.

After that, I was called in for a weekend of callbacks, one music call, a dance call, and a final read through and performance of songs of my choosing. At the music callback, I walked into a studio where I met Martin Lowe, the brilliant music director for the show, and his assistant, Rob Preuss. Also in the room was nearly every instrument in the show. So Martin and Rob basically asked me to play as many of them as I could. So I played some guitar, mandolin, bass guitar, banjo, ukulele, piano, and percussion. This was for them to see if I could possibly fill one of the understudy tracks, which play twelve or thirteen instruments.

The next day was a movement call with Steven Hoggett and then the day after that was a final callback with the entire creative team and the executive producer in which they just had me read for Eamon and play one song on the guitar. It was a stressful process, to say the least. However, it was encouraging to see how thorough they were with casting all of us. They cared and still care very deeply about making this show as good as it possibly can be.

Q[/dropcap]Do you see yourself in your character, Eamon?

I do! I think Eamon is someone who has very high standards for what he considers good music and artistry, which I think is something I share with him. However, I think he’s a bit more beaten down than I am at this point in my life. He is also confronted with what seems to be a completely amateur band of musicians when we first meet him. So he’s more weary and wary than I typically am. But I really connect with his desire to make great music with great musicians. It’s easily relatable for me.

Q[/dropcap]In addition to being cast in the role of Eamon, you are also the company’s music captain. What does that entail?

The music captain’s main responsibility is maintaining the work we did in rehearsal all the way back in August of 2013. As actors in this show, we have a lot of freedom to slightly change things from night to night with the music. So as music captain, I have to balance encouraging a musical sense of play and freedom while making sure nobody gets too far away from the foundation we’ve created.  So I give notes before and after shows and also run rehearsals for the company and the understudies with the dance captain.

I also create the set lists for our pre-show jam session that happens on stage. We play six Irish and Czech folk songs every night as the audience is coming into the theatre, and that set list is put together using a rotation of about twenty-five songs we all know. So it’s really great because the pre-show is different every single night. It keeps it really fresh for all of us and makes for a fun experience for the audience.

Q[/dropcap]This is your first tour, what’s been the biggest surprise for you about being on tour?

It’s been a really eye opening experience, getting to travel the world with this tour. I don’t know if “surprised” is the correct word for it but one of the biggest lessons I will take away from this tour is that everyone around the world is mostly the same. Everyone wants to find success and be happy and find love and have a certain level of comfort. This was true when we were in Chicago, this was true when we were in Florida, this was true when we were in Tokyo, and it’s true from where we are now in Edmonton. People aren’t as different from each other as they come to believe, in a general sense. I think it’s given me a much larger sense of empathy for my fellow humans on this planet.

Q[/dropcap]Do you have a particularly memorable moment from the tour so far?

Oh so many memorable moments. Getting to meet Glen Hansard will always stick out as one of the great memories of my life. I grew up listening to his band, The Frames, and I remember sitting in my bedroom in high school trying to learn “Falling Slowly.” He’s been a role model of mine for a long time, so for him to come visit us in Los Angeles and play an encore with us after the show was a surreal experience. He’s such a generous, kind, and warm person. It was also a bit of a relief finding out that one of my idols was really as good a person as I hoped he would be. On his current tour, he took time to go busk in the train stations in Europe where loads of refugees from Syria were sleeping. It’s things like that that make you go “oh yeah, he’s really that guy.” He just cares so much. So. I’d say that was certainly one of the most memorable moments on tour so far.

I’d also say our very first performance of this tour on October 1, 2013 will always stand out. I’d wanted to be in this show from the first day of its existence, so to find myself on the stage and in the Irish pub of Once was incredibly humbling and exciting.

Once plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver November 17-22. Visit for tickets and information.

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