'He's one of the few people I hang around with who has no limit when it comes to tolerating my [BS]," says Torquil Campbell, referring to Chris Abraham, the artistic director of Toronto's Crow's Theatre. "He's unoffendable. So, he's a friend of mine."
I'm speaking with Campbell during a break in rehearsals for the actor-musician's new one-man show, True Crime, which opens at Crowsnest on Friday. The play takes its inspiration from the astonishing real-life story of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German con man whose many aliases include Clark Rockefeller, a supposed scion of the famously moneyed dynasty. That particular scheme went sour, resulting in a kidnapping charge and the exposing of his extravagant history of deception that included an unsolved murder case.
The Rockefeller ruse was publicized in a 2009 story by Mark Seal in Vanity Fair, which is where Campbell came across it. Getting the play to stage was a "strange journey," says the chatty, preppy 45-year-old singer with the indie-rock group Stars. "I never thought it would get done, and it wouldn't have if Chris hadn't made me do it."
Just as Campbell says that, Abraham walks by. "I made you do it?" he asks. "No, no, no. You made me do it."
Given his reputation as a theatre-world dynamo – we're sitting in a new theatre-dining-condo complex of his envisioning – it's probably best to believe that Abraham had an awful lot to do with making True Crime a reality. But, then, what's reality?
"Good question," Campbell says. "There are two sides to everything. One of them is fake and the other is real."
As for being unoffendable, that quality is almost a requirement when it comes to befriending Campbell, a card-carrying provocateur, arts advocate and Twitter-based lefty rascal.
"Well, I disavow much of what I say almost immediately after having said it," he explains, with a smile. "But I do say pretty much whatever gets into my head."
One should take Campbell's comment about his disavowals with a grain of salt. He believes what he says; his nemesis Stephen Harper, for example, should not expect apologies, birthday wishes or take-backs from him.
Our discussion on truth and lies inevitably makes its way to Donald Trump. When Campbell first began thinking about True Crime almost a decade ago, the fact that the German grifter Gerhartsreiter was able to get away with so many capers was unfathomable to him. But now?
"I wonder how he didn't become president of the United States," Campbell says. "He absolutely has the same kind of strange sociopathy as Donald Trump, and the world seems to be completely in love with these kinds of personalities."
True Crime represents a return to the theatre world for Campbell, whose father was Douglas Campbell, a 50-year veteran of the Stratford Festival. His wife, Moya O'Connell, is a Shaw Festival mainstay. Before forming Stars, Campbell was an actor as well.
Now, in addition to creating (with Abraham) and performing True Crime, Campbell just finished working on the sound and music design of the current Arts Club Theatre production of Angels in America in Vancouver, where he lives part-time. Ongoing is a work-in-progress Hamlet variation with Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer and Stars at Stratford.
Where Hamlet was unsure of whether to be or not to be, the question on Campbell's mind these days is what is real and what is not. "Reality becomes a matter of opinion," he says. "It's frightening, and the uncertainty loosens the ground underneath us."
But, then, art is all about ambiguity, isn't it? There's always been a bit of affectation and drama when it came to Campbell and Stars, a band whose first EP, after all, was titled A Lot of Little Lies for the Sake of One Big Truth.
Sex Pistols singer John Lydon (in his Johnny Rotten persona) famously asked, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Did he ever realize that we did, and that we dug it? Tension between truth and reality drives much great art. "It makes you a better person and it's wonderful," Campbell says, "but art can also be a malignant force in some ways, and it can be something you don't always trust."
The excitement of mistrust is one of the things that drew Campbell and millions to rock 'n' roll. He'd like to see a bit more of that rock 'n' roll swindle in theatre. "I want the audience to feel culpable," he says, leaning forward. "I want them to feel responsible for what's going on."
Campbell advocates for the art of self-deception, then: A small lie for the sake of arriving at a bigger truth. He's an actor, this guy. He never lied to us about that.
True Crime runs April 7 to 15 (currently in previews) at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto (crowstheatre.com).