A Life's Story
June 30, 2023
The Pundance Kid
Local actor was a master of taking small parts and becoming an audience favourite
By: Ben Waldman
Whenever Dan Augusta strutted onto the stage, he wasn’t afraid to bare his soul.
He also wasn’t too shy to reveal his shirtless, pantsless body, both of which he did six years ago in front of a paying audience.
To reduce nerves, actors are sometimes told to imagine their viewers in the nude. Augusta flipped that adage on its head, putting the audience at ease by giving a literally stripped-down performance during Sick + Twisted Theatre’s first-ever disability cabaret.
Over the gentle pop melodies of John Mayer, Augusta removed all his clothing, save for his underwear, pivoting slowly to make sure everyone had a good view of his body. He then pulled out his cellphone, set a timer for seven minutes, and patiently fielded every query the audience had for him — no holds barred.
In daily life, strangers often asked Augusta, who dealt with various conditions that compromised his immunity and affected his growth, unsolicited questions about his body and health. With Full Disclosure, Augusta boldly, and baldly, took control of the conversation. “How are you?” one man asked. “I’m well thanks,” he replied. “I’m a little cold right now, but that will pass.”
Then the questions got more personal. He told the audience how much he weighed — 105 pounds. He explained why his lower left leg was swollen — congenital lymphedema. “You probably haven’t seen it before … because usually I wear pants,” he said.
“What’s your passion in life?” one woman asked. Augusta smiled. “I’ll let you know when I figure that out.”
Augusta, who died in May at the age of 34, used performance as a vehicle for self-exploration, self-reflection and community building. He is remembered by colleagues, family and friends for his off-the-wall wit, joie de vivre and insatiable affinity for puns. He was sometimes affectionately referred to as the Pundance Kid, and through humour, he managed to put a positive spin on even the darkest situations.
“Went to play a common junkie on a friend’s film shoot,” he once wrote on a piece of paper, left as a note for his parents Kevin and Brenda. “Home for dinner.”
Born in Winnipeg, Augusta found his place at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People when he was eight years old. His fine comic timing and stage presence were obvious from the start, his parents say. In an early role, he played a talking tree. “I heard the man in the row in front of me say, ‘That kid playing the tree’s gonna go places,’” recalls Brenda Augusta.
Soon, Augusta, who retained through adulthood what he described as childlike wonder, was treading the boards as a member of MTYP’s Young Shakespeare Company. For a company-wide Secret Santa, the Pundance Kid grabbed his acoustic guitar and wrote a ballad for a girl named Erin, coming up with every rhyme he could, including Chrysler LeBaron.
When he finished with the Shakespeare Company, he wasn’t ready to leave the stage, going on to earn a theatre degree at the University of Winnipeg.
“He was incredibly smart, well-read, and had a deep love of Shakespeare,” recalled Christopher Brauer, an associate professor in the department of theatre and film who taught Augusta during his undergrad studies. “It’s always nice to meet a student who is an autodidact. He came to school not just to passively absorb information, he brought with him an extremely wide range of knowledge,” added Brauer, who will remember Augusta as a truly decent human being.
After graduation, Augusta continued to create a space for himself within the local theatre scene. With his close friends Jessy Ardern and Ariel Levine, Augusta co-founded the Struts and Frets Players, a company that took classic myths and gave them an original spin. On three occasions, the company won the high honour of “best of fest,” at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, earning both critical and audience acclaim.
In Cupid and Psyche, Augusta played an underworld demon named Dave looking for love. He also played the brick wall of a sentient house, recalls Ardern. “He had this way of taking a small part and becoming an audience favourite,” Ardern says.
When Augusta was acting, it was always clear how much he enjoyed it, and that was absolutely infectious.“If they ever make a biopic about Dan, it had better be a comedy, or I’ll be mad.”
“No one brings mythology to life quite like local merry pranksters the Struts and Frets players,” the Free Press wrote in its review of Cupid and Psyche.
“Merry” is a good word to describe Augusta, who always saw reason to express joy and spunk. When he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his early twenties, he dyed his hair pink on the same day he began chemotherapy treatment. In photographs taken that day, he is smiling from ear to ear. His parents were amazed, but not surprised by, his positive spirit.
Augusta had a simple way of putting others at ease, which seemed to give him strength and comfort. Just as he did on stage, in real life, he made others feel understood and supported, says Debbie Patterson, the founder of Sick + Twisted.
That company — dedicated to creating work exploring the experience of living with a disability — wouldn’t exist without Augusta, Patterson says.
After Augusta graduated university, he approached Patterson to ask her what the odds were that someone like him, who deals with often unpredictable health concerns, could “make it” as an actor.
Patterson, who now uses a wheelchair but was then using a cane as a mobility aid, said it would be a constant challenge to be treated as an equal when it came to performance opportunities, even for a skilled performer like Augusta.
That frank conversation sparked Sick + Twisted, for which Augusta, using his training as a legal assistant, drafted the bylaws as a founding artistic associate on the company’s board of directors.
“Without Dan, Sick + Twisted wouldn’t exist,” says Patterson, who says Augusta set an example of courageousness, playfulness and out-of-the-box thinking. She called him a bold and generous performer and individual.
“I remember Dan always as fearless, hairless and shirtless,” says Lara Rae, a local comedy mainstay who was an ardent supporter of Struts and Frets. “With puckish ferocity, he demanded we see him fully, his health challenges exposed as if to say, ‘I’m coming, too. And what are you going to do about it?’”
Offstage, Augusta was obsessed with fantasy fiction, video games such as Pokémon, and most of all, cooking. After spending a considerable amount of time eating through a feeding tube or through an IV, Augusta made sure to savour every bite he took. He favoured stir-fries and all manner of Asian cuisine, and made his own kombucha from scratch. Augusta shared his love of food with friends through a self-published cookbook, which contains extensive footnotes and precise instructions for proper prep.
He guided friends and family to try new things, recalls Ardern, who was pleasantly surprised by how tasty Augusta’s pickled watermelon rinds were.
“Dan was fiercely intelligent, dedicated to facts and logic,” says Ardern. “I think he would want to be remembered for his artistry, his intelligence, his humour, and his kindness.
“In 2012, I was moving out of my apartment. It was a third-floor walk-up on a blistering hot summer’s day — totally awful conditions to be moving in. All of my other friends bailed, but Dan, who was at the time walking with a cane and, I believe, recovering from cancer, showed up. He couldn’t stay on his feet long and a gust of wind could have blown him over, but he showed up to shlep boxes up and down three flights of stairs.
“And that was Dan all over.”
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