When the lights go out
Jonah McIntosh was a rising theatre star when he suddenly, inexplicably took his own life in July. J. Kelly Nestruck writes about the mark the young actor leaves, both on and off the stage
Actors don’t get weekends. Instead, theatre companies tend to have one day a week when no performances are scheduled, traditionally called the “dark day.”
At the Shaw Festival, the eclectic repertory theatre company now in its 56th season in Niagaraon-the-Lake, Ont., Monday is dark day – and it was on just such a Monday this summer that something dark took a popular, outgoing 22-year-old actor named Jonah McIntosh.
The previous day, Sunday, July 9, Jonah and his partner, Marcus Tuttle, social-media manager at the Shaw, had taken advantage of rare, overlapping time off to go on a hike around the Niagara Escarpment. Then, they saw the new Spider-Man movie – which Jonah, a Marvel fan, pronounced his favourite version to date – had dinner and drove home listening to songs from the Broadway musical Hamilton, singing and dancing along in their seats.
After dropping Jonah off at home, Mr. Tuttle exchanged goodnight texts with him – and that was the last anyone would ever hear from the young performer.
It was only on Tuesday, the day after dark day, that anyone grew seriously concerned about unanswered texts to Jonah’s phone. Members of the Shaw ensemble started trying to contact the actor after he uncharacteristically missed a rehearsal that afternoon. Then, he didn’t show up for the call for his evening performance of the musical on the main stage at the festival: Me and My Girl.
Later that evening, Mr. Tuttle was home with his family when his boss reached him to tell him that his partner had been found. “She had to tell me three times what had happened, because I didn’t believe her. I didn’t want it to be true.”
The disappearing act
Theatre is, in a way, all about disappearance – it’s an ephemeral art form that vanishes in front of your eyes. That makes the theatre critic a kind of a eulogist, trying to find words to describe something that will never be again.
I didn’t realize how literally that would be the case, however, when I began covering the theatre for The Globe and Mail almost a decade ago now.
There are a tremendous number of people who have made a mark in theatre, in this country and elsewhere – and, like everybody else, they die after long careers, or short ones, and often too soon. I’ve become accustomed to snapping into action, working on obituaries or tributes when an actor passes on, and it has become, like anything, a routine of sorts.
But Jonah McIntosh’s death this summer was entirely different from any I had encountered before. For one, it came right in the middle of the Shaw season; the two shows the actor was performing in had opened a little more than a month previously and were scheduled to run well into the fall.
And then there was the guarded release from the Festival – followed by a outpouring of grief marked by disquiet on social media that eventually made it apparent that he had taken his own life.
“Nobody can remember this happening, ever,” Tim Jennings, the executive director at the Shaw Festival, told me later.
The shock of the suicide was intensified by people’s perception of who Jonah was, a musical-theatre performer who had made friends not just with fellow artists in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but the box office workers, ushers and even the staff at the gym where the actors worked out – a “bobby dazzler,” in the words of artistic director Tim Carroll, “who was always smiling and making everyone around him smile.” His Instagram account featured video clips of him singing hymns and show tunes at his piano and photos of sunrises and sunsets. “I’m living in a painting,” he posted alongside one shot where you could glimpse the Toronto skyline in the distance across Lake Ontario.
My first impulse was to not write about Jonah at all – it seemed impossible to do full justice to who he was as a person, and also write about his death and its impact. I feared that one story would overwhelm the other. It’s tempting, natural even, to want to search for answers or a clear single story in a situation such as this, but that would be a futile mission – one of the defining qualities of Jonah’s death was the extent to which it seemed inexplicable.
But that something can be two things at once is the core lesson of theatre – an actor and a character are both there on a stage, and it’s only the person at the centre of it who can really say where one ends and the other begins. It’s only a critic who would be foolish enough to think that he can pull a mystery such as that apart.
“He had that something special”
First and foremost then, let’s remember Jonah McIntosh in life. It’s not an exaggeration to say he was a star in the making – and his path to the Shaw Festival was an exceptional one. Jonah, who grew up just east of Toronto in Courtice and Ajax, had impressive raw talent as a singer, dancer and actor when he applied to Sheridan College’s competitive Music Theatre Performance program in his final year of high school.
But the son of two police officers didn’t have the years of private training of many who get accepted right away, and ended up on the waiting list – and, though his father, Dan McIntosh, feared he was due for a disappointment, Jonah waited and waited with uncanny confidence all through the spring and to the very end of the summer.
He received his acceptance just two days before orientation in the fall of 2012. His mother, Lisa Daugharty, scrambled to help him pack and find him a place to live near the school in Oakville, Ont., at the last minute.
By the time Jonah finished his studies in the spring of 2016, however, he was at the top of his cohort. He landed a series of professional gigs right way. By August, he was at Neptune Theatre in Halifax performing in Beauty and the Beast – and so when it came time to audition for the Shaw Festival for the first season under Mr. Carroll, he had to do so over the Internet.
Ashlie Corcoran, director of the musical Me and Me Girl at the Shaw this summer and incoming artistic director at the Arts Club in Vancouver, told me about the day she and Mr. Carroll watched Jonah’s callback. “He completely exploded out of that Skype screen into the room with us – so spirited and joyful,” recalls Ms. Corcoran, who went on to give him a number of small roles in the thirties musical, featuring his dancing in its show-stopping number, The Lambeth Walk. “We all knew we wanted him as part of the company – he had that something special that’s going to