Interview by Madryn McCabe
I had a chance to talk to Tyler Seguin, director of The Trial of Judith K., presented by Thought for Food about humour in dark subject matter, women in theatre and the Canadian canon.
MM: Tell me about the Trial of Judith K.
TS: It’s a modern, Canadian take on Franz Kafka’s The Trial, set in 1980s Vancouver, with a female protagonist. It’s fast, funny, sexy, dark and violent.
MM: What made you want to direct this show? What drew you to it?
TS: The first thing that drew me to The Trial of Judith K. is the way it mixes comedy and darkness. As a person, I’m interested in big ideas and strong political statements, but as an artist I’m not really interested in didactic storytelling. Judith K. deals with some serious issues like legal disenfranchisement, the security state, oppressive cultural norms and the objectification/exploitation of women, but it does so with humour, which makes it all the more powerful. Laughter opens people up and disarms them, allowing the “Important Statement” to slip into their minds unnoticed.
We’re all breathing more freely with a new PM in the House, but we chose this play during peak Harper years. And despite the “sunny ways” of Trudeau, Bill C-51 is still on the books, and every single time I open the paper there’s another example of a Kafkaesque justice system at work in Canada, not to mention the rest of the world.
I’m also looking for opportunities for strong visuals with elements of movement and physical theatre. As far as I’m concerned, theatre isn’t a realistic art form and I am frustrated by plays that pretend to be a verbatim representation of the real world. The Trial of Judith K. revels in its theatricality.
Stephanie Belding. Photo by John Gundy
After The Memo, it was important to us that the next project be a play with a stronger female voice. The Trial of Judith K. is written by a woman, with a female lead and more women than men in the cast. It’s also an older Canadian script, which appealed to us. The Trial of Judith K. was nominated for major prizes including the Governor General’s Award and the Dora for Best New Play, but it hasn’t been revisited professionally since 1989. It feels like we’re a community obsessed with creating new work, but are we really developing a Canadian canon if a script is only performed once?
MM: What do you feel is the role of theatre companies when it comes to representing the Canadian canon, even if that company’s mandate isn’t specifically to develop or showcase Canadian playwrights?
TS: There’s room for all kinds of theatre and nobody should feel beholden to anyone else’s idea of what theatre “should be.” But it seems that companies are either “new work” or “classics” and when they say “classics” it’s British, or American classics. People are now starting to explore the European canon, but very rarely do we see previously-produced Canadian plays. We were so happy to see Factory produce a whole season of previous hits, and Passe Muraille is starting a celebration series this year. But generally TPM and Factory produce seasons of entirely new work. Great! We need to develop new work, but that’s 8-10 plays that will probably only be seen once and then forgotten. And that’s just two local theatres – how many more new plays are being produced across the country? And what does that do to playwrights? If you’re not constantly producing something new, you’re yesterday’s news. And they’re being expected to put in years and years of development for a show that’ll run for possibly 5 weeks. That’s no way to create a history. Part of the problem is with our funding models. The major granting bodies are very interested in supporting the development and presentation of new work and we were actually told that since we were choosing to do an older play that we needed to make a stronger case for why we wanted to produce it.
MM: There are themes in Judith K that are similar to your last production, The Memo. Both discuss the absurdity of bureaucracy, and the down-the-rabbit-hole way of navigating it. Is Judith K a deliberate follow up to The Memo?
TS: Yes and no. Yes, there are a lot of similarities to The Memo – both stories essentially deal with one person’s fight against “The System” – but we weren’t deliberately looking for a thematic follow-up to The Memo. We wanted to find a play that would meet certain parameters: female protagonist, more women than men, Canadian, and ideally something that would let us get back in touch with the Czech community who were so incredibly supportive of The Memo. We read several plays and eventually we started looking at Kafka. There are several stage adaptations of The Trial but when we discovered Sally’s play, not only were we able to check off all the boxes, but we were excited by the material itself.
MM: The Trial of Judith K is based on Franz Kafka’s The Trial, making the protagonist a woman and setting it in the 1980s. What do you think that brings to the story?
TS: There’s an added layer of the patriarchal nature of “The System” and its inherent misogyny. In the world of Judith K. anyone can get caught up in the system, but when a woman is the accused, her body becomes part of the negotiation. The men who offer to help her, want something physical/sexual in return. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling and disturbing.
Stephanie Belding, Scott McCulloch. Photo by John Gundy
MM: I hear the design elements are very important to the show as well. Can you tell me about that?
TS: Since the show takes place in several locations, we needed a set that was flexible enough to create multiple looks using the same few pieces. We are also somewhat limited by being in the TPM Backspace – the stage is tiny. However, it has a lot of height, which we’ve also taken into consideration with our set. We wanted to evoke a sense of claustrophobia – that everything towers over Judith. We were also looking at ways of incorporating the 80s (when the play was written) and the 20s (when the novel was originally published). Expressionism blossomed in the 20s and neo-expressionism popped up in the 80s so there’s actually a lot of similarities – geometric shapes, large shoulders, the use of light & shadow are all elements we’re integrating into the design. Many music videos from the 80s owe a lot to German expressionist films. Once we started looking for the connections, they were incredibly obvious.
As well, our sound designer is playing with songs that straddle both eras while also highlighting the distinctions, such as contrasting the synth-sounds of the 80s with scratchy phonograph recordings from the 20s.
MM: Why do you think The Trial of Judith K was written as a comedy instead of a moral-imbuing drama?
TS: The source material is actually quite comedic. Kafka is funny. He’s taken on this aura of “serious writer” but his work is full of humour. We found this with The Memo as well – it’s something about the Czech psyche, they’re able to take awful, depressing situations and find the humour in them. We spoke to Sally Clark and apparently the original commission for Judith K. was a serious drama about a hostage situation and that it was the original director, Morris Panych, who suggested it should be a comedy.
MM: How do you manage the comedy with such dark and, sometimes disturbing, subject matter?
TS: We’re definitely walking a tightrope with this show. Terrible things happen throughout – assault, torture, murder, and execution are all in the story and we don’t want anyone to think that we’re taking it lightly. People should be disturbed. Our ideal tempo is “Funny – Funny – Funny – Disturbing – Funny – Funny – Funny – Is that funny? – Why did I laugh at that?” Laughing at disturbing material doesn’t mean we’re making fun of it. Humour is a powerful tool and a coping mechanism. If we can laugh at something it ceases to have power over us. So while the show has a sheen that is heightened comedy – the characters are based in Commedia, and the style is almost farcical – we are actually using this stylization to comment on some pretty horrible situations.
MM: Is there anything that you want our readers to know about the show?
TS: It feels like we’ve been talking a lot about the show’s big ideas and issues and while those are important, we want your readers to know that The Trial of Judith K. is just as funny as it is smart. Sally Clark says the overriding principle of staging this play should be “louder! faster!” The show feels a little like a sitcom run amok – the situations are wacky, the characters are outlandish and the jokes pile up on top of each other. The material can also edge into the grotesque, and the nihilism runs deep, but first and foremost it’s a comedy. Until it isn’t.
The Trial of Judith K.
Presented by Thought for Food Theatre
Scott McCulloch, Stephanie Belding. Photo by John Gundy
Directer: Tyler Seguin
Assistant Director: Tamara Vuckovic
Fight Director: Siobhan Richardson
Set Design: David Poholko
Costume Design: Miranda VanLogerenberg
Lighting Design: Jareth Li
Sound Design: Alex Eddington
What: A sexy, funny, and thought-provoking adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial returning to Toronto stages.
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)
When: January 28-February 14, 2016