In a vast workshop in Dundas, Ont., amid large, brightly painted panels and risers, actor Jim Mezon targets a canvas with a broad brush. There's already a trail of red dots spattered like blood across the top of his shaved head as he fires off a round of black. This time, the paint flies through the air safely clear of his face and hits the canvas with a splat. He immediately attacks with his brush, spreading it up and down.
Mezon, who loves art but has never previously attempted to paint, is learning how the great American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko created his huge, luminescent and mystically hovering rectangles of colour. The veteran Shaw Festival actor is playing the artist in Red, John Logan's hit play about Rothko, which opens at Toronto's Canadian Stage Thursday before moving to Vancouver and Edmonton in 2012.
The play depicts Rothko and a fictionalized studio assistant in 1958 as the artist debates the merits of a commission he has accepted to create panels for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Onstage every night, Mezon not only has to talk about art, he also needs to prime a large canvas with dark red paint in the space of about a minute.
"I fake most things up there," Mezon laughs in an interview. "I really don't know anything. I just grab the mantle really hard and say, sure, I'm a physicist. Sure, I'm a pope. Sure, I'm a king."
Pretending you are Rothko, however, takes some very particular training, just as decorating a stage with reproductions of Rothko's work takes some very particular set building.
In Dundas, Mezon is getting pointers on how to hold his brush from head scenic artist Paul Ropel-Morski, who is also creating duplicates of Rothko's canvases. In the workshop, Mezon is surrounded by what look like real Rothkos: Ropel-Morski has spent weeks making these full-scale recreations of eight paintings to decorate the stage.
Audiences, however, will not have a full view of Ropel-Morski's work. Productions of the Broadway play, which is now being mounted in cities across the English-speaking world after winning six Tony Awards last year, are asked by Rothko's trustees to partly hide whatever paintings they create. The artist was 66 and in poor health when he killed himself in his studio in 1970. His estate, which was the subject of an ugly lawsuit as his children fought to regain control from an unscrupulous art dealer, now jealously protects the integrity of his famed images.
Besides worrying about how to position the reproductions onstage, director Kim Collier has had to figure out the right consistency of paint for Mezon and co-star David Coomber to use. Rothko primed his canvases with a mix of rabbit-skin glue and pigment and then continued with oil paints, but onstage the goal is not historical accuracy but colour that will look good, not splatter and dry fast.
"You have to have the right mix," Collier said. "You don't want to have it pouring down the actors' arms but if it's too thick it's too slow … We would never paint in time in the show without boring the audience."
To ensure the audience is not, literally, watching paint dry, Collier, the actors and the prop department worked on a latex mix with Toronto artist Katharine Harvey, who also gave Mezon advice about how far to stand back when looking at a painting. Meanwhile, Andrew Rucklidge, a Toronto artist who uses similar techniques to Rothko's, explained how paint would have been mixed in his studio.
Mezon discovered that painting a large canvas is intensely physical, while Collier can attest that it turned out to be highly dramatic too as the audience will see a large white square suddenly transformed into a deep maroon, creating a bold visual metaphor for Rothko's tortured state.
The hard part, Mezon says, is not learning to paint, it is living the psychology of a large, deep and unhappy character.
"It's trying to peel the onion, layer after layer. It's exhausting," Mezon said. "I have no time for pretending to be in pain or conflict. You have go through it. That's why they pay me."
Red runs at Toronto's Canadian Stage from Nov. 19 to Dec. 17.