As a teenager, Aaron Craven didn't seem like the ideal candidate for a future in acting. As he tells it on the phone from his home in False Creek, he was a jock who just wanted to play hockey and basketball and run track.
"I was a million miles away from anything to do with the arts," he says.
But then one day Craven's high-school drama teacher, thinking he had talent, plucked him out of a class and he put him in the school play. That was like the first spark to ignite his journey towards the life of an actor and an artist, a trek that picked up speed once he got into university.
"I was taking pre-law at UBC and I discovered that the world of the law was not anywhere as fun and exciting and as visceral as I thought it was gonna be," he recalls. "It was gonna be mostly paperwork and technicalities. So I started taking theatre classes at UBC—this was in the mid- to late-'90s—and as soon as I started acting in plays in university I fell in love with it. And I realized, 'Okay, I'm gonna have to tell my mom and dad that I'm gonna be an actor.'"
Craven's creative endeavours have included the establishment of Mitch and Murray Productions, which he is artistic director of. The company took its name from two characters that are referred to but never seen in Glengarry Glen Ross, a 1984 play by one of Craven's favourite playwrights, David Mamet. It was made into a movie, with screenplay by Mamet, in 1992.
"The theatre company was something I formed about 10 years ago out of a desire to see plays that I loved that I had read or seen in New York or London or other big cities in the world but I didn't see playing in Vancouver," he relates. "The type of play that we do is very contemporary, mostly urban-based and about topics of the day; really relevant, timely ideas. And so the play that we're opening next month, Snowflake, it's the North American premiere, it's from a British playwright named Mike Bartlett, who's very well known, and it's about political division—which, you know, you couldn't get a more timely topic than that.
"I read the script and I was just so taken," he adds. "On the one hand it's a really simple story: it's about a father who's estranged from his daughter. He's a widow, the mother has died, and at the beginning of the play you don't know why he and the daughter are estranged from each other. You come to realize that they have a political rift more than anything. He voted for Brexit, and she didn't. And it's kind of what's happened to families in Trump's America, right. It's like one person is on one side of the political line and one person is on the other, and the chasm that it creates within families. So it's a play about grief, but it's also a play about what political divisiveness has done to us just at a core level, even down to the structure of the family."
Craven stars in the Jennifer Copping-directed Snowflake with Natasha Burnett and Anni Ramsay. As well as being a busy actor for both stage and screen--his film credits include the features Big Eyes and The Predator and the TV series Legends of Tomorrow, NCIS, and iZombie—he's a playwright. He just finishing writing a semi-autobiographical play called Instantaneous Blues, which is about his family's experiences with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
"That's a labour of love and a personal little piece that I wrote," he says. "Our company may produce it one day, we'll see, but right now it's kind of in the development stage."
Craven isn't content with just acting, playwriting, and artistic-directing, though. He also writes and directs for film, and teaches professional actors at The Working Actors Gym, the training wing of Mitch and Murray. He lays out what he thinks are the most important attributes of an acting coach.
"An ability to read people," he stresses, "an ability to push people artistically but also make them feel safe. That's a fine line, because acting's something where you really have to break down people's blocks, but you also can't cross that line of doing in it in any kind of a way which pries into their personal life, or makes them feel any degree of self-awareness. You really want to foster them in that journey to becoming a really confident artist, and that takes a certain type of psychology. So it's a very privileged position to be in, and I've been fortunate to have a base of students kind of studying with me over the years."
When it comes to famous thespians who don't need any training, the first person that jumps into Craven's head when asked to pick a favourite actor is Gary Oldman.
"He's a chameleon, right; that's what I admire so much about him. I think of him as a consummate actor because when I think of him I think of 12 different roles all at once, all so different. I've always loved those kinds of actors, the shapeshifters, people that can play different things and aren't necessarily locked into one persona."
Craven's appreciation of quality acting, coupled with his desire to nurture and promote it, has led to his establishment of the Trevor Craven Memorial Scholarship for Young Actors. The award—which consists of an eight-week block of TWAG classes and is open to actors between the ages of 18-25 who have had previous acting training and/or professional acting experience—was created in memory of his older brother, who died tragically at the age of 15 in 1986.
"It was a car accident that rocked the community back then when it happened in the '80s," explains Craven, "and I wanted to give out a scholarship in my classes for young actors that are trying to emerge. I know that acting classes are expensive and that everybody needs somebody to kind of have them take them under their wing in terms of mentorships, so I do it once a year for a young actor under 25. I named it after my brother 'cause it's kind of a way of keeping his name alive, and a good reason to tell his story a little bit to people who get the scholarship, which is wonderful."
Mitch and Murray Productions presents the Canadian premiere of Snowflake December 10-23 at the Red Gate Revue Stage on Granville Island.