When the lights go out

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS -

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

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