Life on stage

Profile: Benton Hartley by Julie Bull

Benton Hartley wears many jackets in the theatre world: he is an actor, playwright, director, producer, dramaturge, and comedian. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved with theatre in some way.”  From being the only elementary school kid with a speaking role to eventually studying at George Brown Theatre School, Benton has had “a lifelong love affair with theatre.”

This life-long relationship to theatre seems to be a common thread among the theatre folks I’ve talked to. “I remember being three or four years old in a cottage in Eastern Kings and I would dictate plays and my mom would write it out for me.”

As he learned to write himself, Benton would write stories about some of his favourite characters, like Batman. “Essentially, I was processing my own emotional struggles through writing things like ‘Batman is scared of… ’”

Perhaps this externalizing and processing of emotions is unsurprising since Benton is the only child of two psychologists. “I have been processing out loud my whole life. I didn’t become a therapist, but there are certainly therapeutic aspects to theatre.”

These therapeutic features are especially prevalent in his solo works which have explorations of the self. His play, Cowardice—which won the 2021 PARC award at the Island Fringe Festival—told the story of “one man’s history with hospitals, panic attacks and the great American sitcom.” Benton’s authenticity, vulnerability, and humour bring audiences on a highly relatable journey. 

Processing and integrating through writing is common among writers, yet many people keep those writings to themselves, despite the profound power in sharing. “We all need a way to share and for me, theatre is a comfortable place to do that.” Benton offered an analogy that theatre is like the whistle on the kettle. “Without the release that comes from that whistle, everything stays deeply under pressure.”

While writing and acting are not everyone’s comfort zone, Benton took his childhood love of storytelling and brought it into his educational journey. He graduated from the University of Prince Edward Island with a BA in English in 2013, an honours English degree in creative writing in 2015, and he went on to graduate from George Brown Theatre School in 2019. With all this training behind him and a whole lot of possibilities in front of him, Benton was ready to take on the world in 2020. As we know, 2020 had different plans for all of us. 

Faced with the isolation of living in Toronto during the start of the pandemic, Benton decided to make a trip home to PEI for a few weeks to be around friends and family. “As soon as I finished my quarantine, I ended up falling and breaking both my arms!” 

As life and time would have it, Benton decided to stay on the Island and has been actively involved in many aspects of Island theatre life. He is the founder and artistic director of Desert Island Theatre Company and is involved with Vagabond Productions at UPEI and is on the Board of Directors for the Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre (PARC). Benton has also acted in productions across PEI, including at the Victoria Playhouse in Victoria by the Sea and the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico. 

Before the pandemic, Benton described himself as an actor first, but he now wears all the theatre jackets and no longer sees them as a means to an end; rather, he is actively engaged and learning in all aspects of the theatre process. In the 2024 iteration of Benton, he is most drawn to directing. “I particularly love the rehearsal process. The lines are like a mystery to be solved and we get to play around with how we bring the words to life on stage.”

In his role as the artistic director of Desert Island Company, Benton is collaborating on a show for the 2024 Island Fringe Festival. “My work is highly dependent on the season. Like most artists on the Island, summer is the busiest season for performance and then during the quiet months, I write and create.”

Benton’s passion and enthusiasm for all aspects of theatre was clear throughout our entire conversation and I left with a newfound respect and perspective on the personal and therapeutic components of theatre.  “Theatre has capacity to change the world.”

Julie Bull, an Inuk (NunatuKavut) researcher and educator, has extensive experience in community-based participatory action research, emphasizing Indigenous perspectives. A champion of social justice, Julie envisions collaborative efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities worldwide. With a focus on research governance and ethics, her work with NunatuKavut has yielded notable publications and presentations.