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“Building on Your Work Over Time, Creating from a Place of Rage & How We Move Forward” In Conversation with Playwright Erin Shields & Director Andrea Donaldson on BEAUTIFUL MAN

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Originally performed as part of the SummerWorks Festival in 2015, Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields, is taking on a new life at Factory Theatre, on stage now until May 26th. This feminist comedy, directed by Shield’s long-time collaborator Andrea Donaldson, promises big laughs, but also, provocation – with a narrative presented through the female gaze.

We spoke with Shields and Donaldson about this new iteration of their show, reworking the original script, creating from a place of rage, and what they find most inspiring these days.


Megan Robinson: The show was originally presented in 2015 at SummerWorks, so what was it that prompted this remount?

Andrea Donaldson: After the SummerWorks show we were really excited to find a partner to give it another life. There were some revisions that we were dreaming of, so we reached out to Nina (Lee Aquino – Artistic Director of Factory Theatre) and she was very enthusiastic. She threw it in her season and was quite generous to say, you know, “we want to be involved in the further development of it.” So they gave us a workshop last May, and now here were are. We have a brand new cast, and half of our design team is new, which is really exciting.

Erin Shields: And from a content point of view – 2015 was a very different time than right now in terms of how we’re talking about gender, gender equity, and about representation in film, television and theatre. 2015 was before #metoo. I don’t know that we’re post #metoo, but it’s been interesting for me revisiting the script in terms of that. In thinking, “okay, where are we now in this conversation?” And trying to address that with the revisions.

Ashley Botting, Jesse LaVercombe, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: Why build on this show, as opposed to tackling these questions with a whole new show? Is this show speaking both to 2015 and now?

ES: Everything I make is feminist, so I’m always engaging in my writing with “where are we now and what’s going on and what’s changed.” I don’t want to give too many spoilers away but I wrote a whole other section that is another movement in terms of this play. Part of it was editing and going back in, and some of it is completely new.

AD: And if I can add on, it feels like the impetus to write more came, yes, from responding to the world that changed in four years but in our SummerWorks production we were learning a lot dramaturgically about the piece. In that brief study with an audience, Erin and I were scrutinizing it and looking where energetically it wanted to shift and asking the question of “what next”.

MR: I guess my question is about knowing when a show is done, if there is always inspiration to go further? Was that a question you asked or was it always clear that there was more to say?

ES: When we did the first show it was very fast and furious. I wrote the show in two or three days, and then it was on stage within five months. I think even going in we knew there would be more. It felt like a workshop in front of an audience. It’s a comedy, so trying to figure that out without an audience is really challenging. We knew it wasn’t a final draft. Often when I write a play, it takes anywhere between three and six years for it to get to the stage so you often have cycles of dramaturgy and cycles of workshops or readings. Even the early days, when Andrea and I worked together on Montparnasse, we did it three times. So I think we’ve always understood that for theatre, because it’s a live art, you need that feedback from other people… certainly I do… before I’m willing to say “this is it”. How do you know it’s ever done? That’s a good question.

AD: I feel like this play is now done. I have no question around that.

Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Jesse LaVercombe, Sofia Rodriguez-byJoseph Michael Photography 107

Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Jesse LaVercombe, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: I read that the show was inspired by a sense of rage. Did working on the show allow you to process that rage, and did it make a difference for you? If so, how?

ES: Totally. Many of my plays start from a place of rage. From going, “that’s not fair” or “why is it like this?” I’ve often talked about how this came out of having a residue left in my body every time I watched popular television. I’d come away being like, “Oh, this Game of Thrones show is so great!” Then I’d be like, “Ew, all those women were sexually assaulted and I just watched it cuddling with my husband on the couch.” There’s something so weird about that. Doing this play has absolutely been cathartic. And I often heard the audience members say that after our SummerWorks production too, because it goes pretty far. There’s something I hope that is illuminating about it. I think we already know a lot of these things, but we don’t think deeply about them. We’re just so used to seeing women being raped on television, so we don’t think, “Oh my God, how many raped women have I seen in the last two months?” It’s ridiculous!

MR: What’s on your mind these days? Anything new that’s inspiring you?

ES: I’m thinking about how we move forward now. Especially with this wonderful moment we all experienced a year and a half ago, where we saw all of these giants being toppled in every industry. It felt like a real moment of triumph. It feels like, now, those massive figures have fallen and there are these gaps everywhere. And we’re looking around and thinking, what work do we still have to do, and what world do we all want to live in together? Those are very big questions. I think personally that’s where I’m at, and that’s what I’m working through with my work. And even on subjects of the play – we talked about Game of Thrones so much, and I remember seeing the first few episodes and it was all raping and fucking all the time, and really gratuitous violence against women. And in watching it now, watching this season, it’s so interesting to see how the women are treated has shifted. Even in this massive show, the female characters are super strong – the hero of the penultimate episode is an eighteen-year-old girl. When has that happened? Probably never, except in some young adult literature. But this is the most popular mainstream thing and that is who the hero is. It made me think. It made me wonder if there is change on the horizon.

Ashley Botting, Jesse LaVercombe, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: What is a traditionally male role you want to see a woman play? Since your whole thing is flipping gender roles.

AD: How do I say this… I’m curious to see what are the capabilities of the female roles that aren’t still in reference to a patriarchal perspective. So not just switcheroos. It makes me think of when I directed Romeo and Juliet and I conflated the roles of the Capulets, the mom and dad, into a single mom, and found in that combination the depth of emotional range that was not afforded to Mama Capulet. And seeing that embodied, seeing her move through that, felt like the most satisfying role, in a way, because we don’t get to see a mom who is violent to her daughter and who has really high standards for her daughter. It’s not only seeing women in particular roles, but seeing unexpected ways of embodying those roles that, especially in TV and film, are rarely afforded to women.

MR: What was a theatrical experience that made you feel really deeply seen as a female-identifying creator?

ES: I think when I see work done by my peers and my contemporaries I get really excited. I haven’t seen these plays, but I’m excited by the ambition in the work Susanna Fournier is creating. It’s imaginative, it’s poetic, it’s destructive. It makes me excited that she has been supported and celebrated for this massive endeavour. I want more of that.

AD: What’s coming for me is Rose Napoli’s Lo or Dear Mr. Wells, which Vivien Endicott-Douglas performed in. I find that there’s this great attention that playwrights are bringing to writing younger characters who are having full and complex experiences and kind of damning the critics around what that singular portrayal might be reduced down to. As a young person coming into my own sexual life, I never felt that experience was represented or understood or handled with any kind of care or imagination or sophistication.

Jesse LaVercombe, Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez-by Joseph Michael Photography 326

Jesse LaVercombe, Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: What’s an experience you have had recently that you could fit into your play Beautiful Man?

ES: Everyday! There are so many. The other day I went to meet a friend in a bar just down the street. And both myself and my friend are in our early 40s and the bartender kept calling us girls. And I just felt my rage. He must have been like 26 or 27. I thought to myself, “Should I say something and be like, we’re women?” He was so insistent on making me into a child. It’s a part of the popular language, but I had to ask myself if I wanted to say something and get something going with this dude or did I just want to ignore it and laugh about it with my friend afterward. Which is what I did.

AD: But it cost something.

ES: Yeah.

AD: A couple nights ago after rehearsal, Ashley (Botting), who’s in the cast, called an Uber. We were going to drop her off first and then me. And when the Uber showed up it was a guy, but there was a guy in the front seat as well. So Ashley was like, “Oh there’s someone in here, we didn’t call Uber pool, what’s up?” And the guy goes, “Yeah, he’s my bodyguard.” And Ashley and I were both doing that quiet awkward decision-making together. But we decided, no, we’re fine, we’re capable. So we get into the car and Ashley tries to make a joke about it, that doesn’t land. And we feel like there’s something sketchy going on. You know, we’re in a car with two dudes we don’t know, based on the trust of an app. So we’re kind of trying to perform normality. And then at a certain point, I was just like, “Ash, I’m going to get out with you.” It was just the whole thing of physical safety and trying to be cool, trying to not be scared, like, “I’m fine, I’m tough, I’m capable… people aren’t bad.” But then ultimately going, actually, what if people are bad, you know? That was my most recent physical safety thing.

MR: Right, but also them not helping you feel safe. There’s a world in which you would feel better if those people were conscious of how you feel and did the work to help you out.

AD: Right. So I either have to swallow that or perform that. There’s a cost to that.


Beautiful Man

Who:
A Factory Theatre Production
Written by Erin Shields
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
Starring Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Sofía Rodríguez, Jesse LaVercombe
Set Design by Gillian Gallow
Costume Design by Ming Wong
Lighting Design by Jason Hand
Music and Sound Design by Richard Feren

What:
A scathing satire about the portrayal of women in film and television, three friends take us on a whirlwind tour of an upside-down world where women are the hunters, not the hunted; the heroes, not the victims; the subjects, not the objects, all while gazing at the semi-nude Beautiful Man. You’ll never watch your favourite binge-worthy shows the same way again.

Where:
Factory Theatre – Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street.
Toronto

When:
May 4-26

Tickets: 
factorytheatre.ca

“Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” A Rapid-Fire Interview with the Women of Shakespeare BASH’d AS YOU LIKE IT

Indie darling Shakespeare BASH’d is gearing-up for their production of As You Like It, just in time for the spring! While the company has always put an emphasis on creating more roles for women in Shakespeare, As You Like It is one of the plays that already has a strong female role at the centre of it (the largest female role in the cannon). The show has, at its core, intelligent, powerful women and deep, important female friendships. The production has taken this a step further by changing a number of additional roles into female characters, adding more female voices to this beautiful story of growth and transformation in the Forest of Arden.

We sat down with the women working to bring this story to life and asked them some rapid fire questions about friendship, Shakespeare, and theatre.

They are from top left to right, then bottom left to right:

Jade Douris (Celia), Olivia Croft (Jacques), Hallie Seline (Rosalind), Hilary Adams (Lord, Wilma, Hymen, Co-Composer), Cara Pantalone (Adam, Corin, Oliver Martext), Lesley Robertson (Touchtone), Aubree Erickson (Oliver), Brittany Kay (Phoebe) & Bailey Green (Associate Director, Not pictured here).


Rapid Fire Questions:

Your female hero:

Aubree, Lesley, Cara, Hilary, Olivia: My Mom

Hallie: Honestly, I am constantly in awe of so many of the hard-working, loving, hilarious, talented, generous, intelligent, boundary-pushing, fierce, boss babes I have around me. So many female heroes. I see you. I am inspired by you. Keep shining.

Jade: AOC!

Brittany: Hallie Seline

Brittany Kay as Phoebe. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell

A role in Shakespeare you’d like to see played by a woman:

Lesley, Bailey, Cara: Falstaff

Aubree: Lear or Titus

Olivia: Tybalt would be fun.

Lesley Robertson as Touchstone. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell

Favourite pop culture/iconic female friendship:

Lesley: Anne and Diana (Anne of Green Gables)

Cara: The Golden Girls

Hallie: I agree with Lesley with Anne & Dianna (Anne of Green Gables), and I add: Cher & Dionne (Clueless), Lorelai & Rory (Gilmore Girls), Carmen, Lena, Tibby Bridget (Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants)… I could really go on…

Jade: Buffy and Willow

Jade Douris as Celia. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell

Go-to pump up song/song that makes you feel powerful:

Bailey: “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga

Hallie: Pretty much anything by Beyonce, The Spice Girls, Laura Marling, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco… I could go on (I’m terrible at these “choose one” answers), but for this show, let’s go with “Run the World (Girls)”

Hilary: “Eye of the Tiger”

Brittany: “Feeling Good as Hell” by Lizzo

Hilary Adams: Lord, Wilma, Hymen, Co-Composer. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell

Best advice you ever received/current mantra:

Lesley: “It’s your Jesus year!” (I’m 33)

Cara: “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love anybody else.” … can I get an amen.

Hilary: Love yourself for your mistakes and forgive yourself often. Try to accept your faults, they are part of you, and always try to be a better person, acceptance is a big part of that.

Olivia: Peace in the mind, harmony in the heart, love in every action. Sow and let grow.

Olivia Croft as Jacques. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell

Favourite Shakespeare quote about women:

Lesley, Bailey, Cara: “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak” (As You Like It 3:2)

Jade, Hilary, Brittany: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3:2)

Hallie: I’m quite fond of both of those but there’s also SO MANY amazing, fierce quotes about women in As You Like It, like: “Make the doors upon a woman’s wit and it will out at the casement; shut that and ’twill out at the key-hole; stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney.”

“You shall never take her without her answer, unless you take her without her tongue.”

Aubree Erickson as Oliver. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell

Favourite Shakespeare actress (film or theatre):

Aubree: Just one?! Emma Thompson in Much Ado. Though technically not a Shakepeare film, Claire Danes in Stage Beauty. Every woman in Julie Taymor’s Titus. Helena Bonham Carter in Twelfth Night.

Cara: Does Dame Maggie Smith count? I adore her.

Hallie: YES CARA! Maggie Smith for sure!

Brittany: Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Cara Pantalone: Adam, Corin, Sir Oliver Martext. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell


Finish these sentences:

“I am most creative when…”

Lesley: I’m happy and relaxed.

Bailey:  I have the pressure of a deadline.

Jade: I’ve had at least one cup of coffee.

Hallie: I’m surrounded by music, art, people, nature, new ideas.

“I feel happiest when…”

Bailey: it’s the summertime in Northern Quebec, and I’m with my family, partner, and a stack of books.

Hilary: I am on the beach, beer in hand.

Brittany: I’m with my nieces. They remind me that life is full of sweet discoveries and we can always be fun and silly! Also my dog Bruce, he’s endless happiness.

Hallie: I’m in the sunshine, and by the water… especially Lake Huron.

“I feel fired up when…”

Jade: I’m at the first read-through of any play. That moment the first time everyone’s in the room together and everyone gets inspired as a group.

Hilary: I see great talent, whether I see a great piece of theatre or live musicians – it gets me ready for anything and really inspired.

Olivia: The pre-show music is bumpin’!

“In the Toronto theatre scene, I want to see…”

Aubree: more interdisciplinary works – visual/sculpture artists, musicians, physical theatre, language, whatever!

Lesley: more avant-garde, risky, unusual forms and styles.

Olivia & Hallie: more arts funding, thus better wages or compensation for time spent.

Hallie Seline as Rosalind. Photo Credit: Kyle Purcell


As You Like It

Who:
Company: Shakespeare BASH’d
Directed by Drew O’Hara
Featuring: Hilary Adams, Daniel Briere, Michael Chiem, Olivia Croft, Jade Douris, Aubree Erickson, Kaleb Horn, Brittany Kay, Justin Mullen, Cara Pantalone, Lesley Robertson, Hallie Seline, Jonny Thompson
With original music composed by Kaleb Horn, and additional music composed by Hilary Adams
Associate Director: Bailey Green
Produced by Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis
Designer: Catherine Rainville
Fight Director: Nate Bitton
Assistant Fight Director: Bailey Green
Graphic Design by Matt Nish-Lapidus

What:
Welcome to the Forest of Arden and Shakespeare’s comedy of joy, wit, and transformation: As You Like It. Relish in the adventure of shepherds and courtiers in love in this energetic barroom staging, full of original music. It is truly Shakespeare’s most exceptional journey through the pastoral world of pleasure and connection.

Where:
Junction City Music Hall (2907 Dundas St W)

When:
April 23-28, 2019
Showtimes:
Tuesday, April 23 – 7pm
Wednesday, April 24 – 7pm
Thursday, April 25 – 7pm
Friday, April 26 – 7pm
Saturday, April 27 – 2pm
Saturday, April 27 – 7pm
Sunday, April 28 – 2pm

Tickets:
Sold Out online. Limited available for $25 at the door (pending availability).

Find out more: 
shakespearebashd.com

 

 

“Shaking Up Your Process, Trusting Your Instincts & Falling in Love with Theatre Again” In Conversation with writer Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman on GUARDED GIRLS at Tarragon

Interview by Megan Robinson.

When I got on the phone with playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman this week to discuss her newest show, Guarded Girls, premiering at Tarragon Theatre in association with Green Light Arts, I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. I first came across her writing when I was in grade eleven and was performing in a student production of the play The End of Pretending, which she wrote alongside her friend Emily Sugerman. It was a show that deeply affected my friends and I at the time because it so accurately depicted the emotional lives of girls our age. Needless to say, I have been a long-time fan of Charlotte’s work, so I was thrilled at this opportunity to chat with her about her writing process.

Charlotte’s newest play, Guarded Girls is a complex four-part story that brings the audience into the world of the women’s prison system in Canada. It’s a subject matter that can be hard to look at because it asks a lot of questions about our society and what we consider to be good vs bad behaviour. But despite the challenging nature of the material, she hopes the audience will keep a level of openness as they engage with it.

That Charlotte started writing a show four years ago focusing on the cycles that are hard to break between mothers and daughters is especially interesting now that she is pregnant with her first child. With opening night coinciding so closely with her due date, she says that she’s relieved to be able to now switch her focus to childbirth.

I spoke with Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman about the real-life inspiration for the show, her intensive research process, and the unique experience she had writing Guarded Girls.


MR: How did the idea come about for the show?

CCC: So Matt White, who is the Artistic Director of Green Light Arts, a Kitchener Company, was very affected by Ashley Smith’s death, a 19-year-old who died at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. She killed herself but it was ruled a homicide because the guards did not intervene. Instead, they watched her as she died. She originally went to a juvenile detention centre because she threw crab apples at a postman, and then she sort of just ended up in the system, unable to get out. It’s a really tragic story and it brought to the news a lot of talk about solitary confinement and segregation and what that does psychologically to inmates. So Matt was interested in that and brought it to me, asking if I wanted to do something with it. I told him that I didn’t know a lot about the prison system but I’d look at it. Then, as I was working on the piece, I learned about a lot more women and so many more things that made me want to branch off more. It was originally supposed to be a one-woman show but, as I kept researching, it made me want to write a fuller piece, instead of just focusing on one particular real person.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: Tell me about the research and interviewing experience. Did you focus mostly on Grand Valley?

CCC: I did a lot of research. I met with some people who had been at Grand Valley, as well as people who had been in the system. It’s really hard to get into the prison. They are sort of starting to open it up again… They’ll go through these phases where they’ll let people in and be like, “Everything is good…” and then there will be ten years where they don’t anyone in. Or at least that certainly happened at Grand Valley. I did a lot of research of women who’d been in prison all over Canada, but Grand Valley was, in a sense, what I was particularly looking at.

MR: Were the people you interviewed surprised to be asked these questions and have someone interested in them? How did they respond?

CCC: I think so. What I got from the people I talked to was a desire to be seen and that they really did want this play to go on. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this story, for sharing what it’s like to be in prison, in Canada, as a woman. There is very little known about it. And people don’t tend to care, you know? They just think, “Well, you did something wrong…” but it’s more complicated. A lot has to do with mental health. A lot has to do with addiction. That’s mostly why people are in jail. There aren’t that many violent crimes. So if you’re looking into all of this, knowing that, it’s very staggering. Like, what are we doing to these very vulnerable people in our society? So I did get a sense that people wanted these messages out.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: It feels like a very timely show.

CCC: These have been issues for a long time but now it’s in the news. I’m hoping people will want to think more about this. One of the problems is you create these rules but there’s no one really enforcing them in the prisons. They can be, for lack of a better term, like the wild west. They can be lawless in a way, which is so crazy because the whole reason anyone is there is because they’ve broken the law.

MR: How did you find the narrative for the show? You decided it wasn’t going to be a one woman show, so how did the story start to come to you as it is now?

CCC: It was a very mysterious writing process. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t plot it out at all. I did a ton ton TON of research and then I kind of put it away and was like, “Now I’m going to go into my imagination”. Of course it was fed by all of the things I had heard and seen and read, but I started to just listen to these two characters I was exploring. Eventually, they sort of just started to reveal themselves. But it’s a very strange structure to a play – there’s four parts and they’re sort of their own segments, so you’re learning the story not necessarily in the right order. Originally I figured I’d have to change it and make it more linear but then I realized that’s just what it wanted to be. Also, I realized that the real thing I was writing about was the cycle between a mother and a daughter and what is passed on, and how hard it is to break these cycles, and how hard it is to change oneself, and then how hard it is for a system to change, or a country to change, or an institution to change. But in the play it really came down to the question: How do we not pass on the bad things that we’ve inherited? I was just really struck by how the women I met were similar to me, and because of the privilege I’ve been afforded in my life and the circumstance I was born into, I was able to avoid a lot of things that would have been pretty much impossible to avoid had it gone another way. The kinds of struggles I’ve had in my life with grief and addiction have just fallen on the right side of the line, where it so easily could have not.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: That’s so interesting because originally I wondered how you managed to not get overwhelmed with getting into the heads of these people and these experiences. I mean research and interviews help, but the other things you’ve written have been really personal, right? So it’s interesting to learn about your process of balancing all of that.

CCC: I wanted to write something really emotionally true, that was really grounded in another person’s lived experience, but very emotionally true to me, as well. Really, I just loved all the characters so much. My job is just to love them, fully, and I really did. I think, for me, this is what’s been so unique about this writing process. My husband teased me because I’d wake up every morning and I’d be so excited to write, because I just wanted to spend time with these girls, these women. And I was like, “I just have to hear more from them…” (laughs) It was really weird, I don’t usually feel like that.

MR: That sounds amazing.

CCC: It’s the only time in my life that has ever happened. It hasn’t happened since. I hope I can bring that into my other writing… just a little more mystery.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: What did a typical day of work look like when you were writing?

CCC: I’d wake up pretty early and then just go write for the whole morning. Then I would stop and edit in the afternoon. Pretty boring, but I liked writing this so much that I was so excited, even with the rewrites. Usually I’d say my writing process is a lot of procrastination until I have to do it. Not that this one wasn’t frustrating and hard and painful and all those things that writing often is. I was very affected by the research, and I was very emotional while writing this play, but I wanted to be in it.

MR: Was the main reason because you loved these characters? What was it that pulled you in?

CCC: Yeah, I really loved them. Also, I felt really free by the structure being so unusual.

At the very beginning, I had nothing written when I met with Virgilia (Griffith) and Vivian (Endicott-Douglas). I just talked to them, then the next week I brought in pages for them. It started as a two-hander, then it grew to a three-hander, then it grew to four people. I was writing for them too, so it was an incredible experience in that way. It was an interesting process of people coming in right when I needed them.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: Do you have any writing rules or strong beliefs that you come back to when you’re struggling or having a hard time?

CCC: I think what’s really hard about writing is making choices. There are just so many choices available and I think something I really try to do when I receive other people’s art is, instead of thinking if I like it or didn’t like it, I ask myself why the writer made the choice that they made. Because when you’re writing you realize you don’t make any choices just on a whim, you really think about why you’re doing something and you spend a lot of time with what you’re creating and the choices you’ve made in it. I’ve been really interested in looking at art more in that way.

And I do this with myself, as well… trusting the choices I make. This can be really hard too when sharing your art with people while you’re in process, because they have so many opinions of what could happen. Something that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that anything could happen but it’s really about looking at what you’ve chosen to happen and sticking to that when you’re instincts are telling you to. I think you have those instincts for a reason so often, so really trying to listen to them.

MR: How do you maintain your relationship with theatre and writing? Do you have to work at it or does it come naturally? Because it’s been a long relationship for you, right?

CCC: When I first started writing I was a teenager and I had grown up watching theatre and being in the theatre. So when my mum died, I was like, “I have to write a play.” Which was kind of an insane thing to do, and not what you have to do. But it was very instinctual, so I wrote a play, and then I did it and that was sort of like, “now I’m a writer”… but it didn’t necessarily feel like this choice that I made. There was a lot of conversation at the time around whether writing was therapy. You know, I don’t believe it is therapeutic to write your story. Therapy is therapy, and it was life-changing for me. But I certainly learned how to write through this traumatic experience. Then when I went to theatre school for writing, that was really great. I learned to write things that were not at all personal to me, and learned how to sharpen my voice. That was really important because it was at that point that I felt like I was actually choosing to be a writer.

But then I did sort of take some time away from theatre, partly because I had come from it at such a young age. What I love when I talk to theatre people is always the story of “why theatre?” and I always felt sort of cheap in my response. I was just sort of like, “that’s what was around me”. It didn’t feel like the beauty of those stories I’ve heard about other people discovering theatre. But I think it was actually through writing a lot and writing for film and tv and kind of moving away from theatre that made me miss it. I was able to discover my own love of it and why I actually want to write for this art form. It was like falling in love again.

Guarded Girls

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

Who:
Company: Tarragon Theatre in association with Green Light Arts
Playwright: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman
Director: Richard Rose
Cast: Columpa Bobb, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Virgilia Griffith & Michaela Washburn

What:
A new play from Governor General’s Literary Award nominee.

The psychological destruction brought on by solitary confinement is at the heart of this wrenching and powerful new play. When 19-year-old Sid is transferred to a new prison, she finds friendship with Britt — but also forms a complicated relationship with the guard who seems to be watching their every move. Soon, it’s the guard who’s being watched, and this playful, theatrical, mysterious work heads toward its shocking conclusion.

Where:
Tarragon Theatre Extraspace
30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto

When:
March 26 – May 5, 2019

Tickets:
tarragontheatre.com

Artist Profile: Susanna Fournier

Interview by Hallie Seline.

Susanna Fournier is one of the most multifaceted artists in Canada right now. She is daring to go big, speak her mind, challenge the status quo, and continue to push to every boundary that comes her way in order to shake the world up with her art. I have been so in awe of her and her work over the past few years, seeing her drive to take on bigger projects, exploring and expanding her process, all while accepting the challenge of wearing ALL OF THE HATS in order to make her art happen. I couldn’t think of a more fierce artist to feature and I was thrilled to be able to speak with her about what motivates and inspires her, what she’s learned by daring to go BIG with THE EMPIRE TRILOGY, and what advice she would give to fellow artists trying to make it happen.


Hallie Seline: Your Empire trilogy is a massive project. Not only are there THREE PLAYS that are being produced in a year, but there’s podcasts, passports, an extensive fundraising project, partner feature drinks and online graphic novels! Tell me a bit about where your inspiration for this trilogy came from and what made you want to go BIG with it?

Susanna Fournier: I don’t know how to tell small stories. I grew up on Star Wars, Mozart’s operas, the Mists of Avalon, and Lord of the Rings. These all seemed like reasonably normal sized stories to me. 

In terms of the content, I think of the Empire as an origin story of Western modernity. I explore conflict on the macro and micro level. I write about systems of power through exploring how these systems appear in our daily lives, in our homes, our bodies, and sense of self. Current culture is stuck on a path towards destruction, I wrote The Empire to try and trace that path back. I’m not sure we can change the path if we don’t look at just how long we’ve been on it. I write in genre because I want to shake people out of their patterns, shake them out of the day-to-day and into a heightened space. When we travel our senses come alive, when we encounter a new place, new language, new culture, we pay attention in a different way. The Empire is set in an imagined world to shake us into looking at this one with more attention. 

Producing The Empire revealed to me that I’m not just interested in theatre, I’m interested in STORIES. I’m a story-teller, and I’m curious about all the ways we can tell stories. In a theatre, in a book, on the radio, in a picture or across a cocktail. The Empire isn’t just three plays, it’s a whole universe. Alison Wong, who is producing it with me, really helped me see that, and has been working closely with me to make these ideas possible. When I say, “What if we did (insert new idea)???” She’d say, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and then ACTUALLY finds a way to do it.

Playwright, Susanna Fournier, on the set of ‘The Scavenger’s Daughter’. Photo Credit: Haley Garnett.

HS: You have worn so many hats already in this project. What are some stand-out lessons you have learned while taking on the roles of: writer, producer, actor, director…

SF: As a producer: my job is to create containers for everybody else (creative team, venue, and audience) to reveal and experience the art. No matter how much you plan for the process and experience to go one way, it will inevitably go many other ways. Problem solving and your community are your biggest assets.

As a playwright, your play doesn’t exist without all the other elements: design, actors, space, audience. You bring a bunch of pages to day one of rehearsal, and then you have to let the process teach you about your play. You haven’t met your play until you all start doing it. You have to let the play speak – which might mean you suddenly feel like you don’t recognize it anymore. Be curious about it. It’s never going to be the version you see in your head. Thank god – what would be the point of doing it if you can just watch it in your head?

As an actor: you know that nightmare about having to go on and perform a show you didn’t rehearse? I just lived it for a 2 week run. You CAN actually learn a whole show 3 days before opening. You don’t need as much time to work as you think you do to make choices and commit to them. Get off book as soon as you possibly can. Imagine how much deeper your work would be if you were off book by day 1. You can do this. I dare you.

Susanna steps in at the 11th hour as the Philosopher in the first play in the EMPIRE trilogy, ‘The Philosopher’s Wife’. Photo Credit: Bernie Fournier.

HS: What has been your biggest challenge you’ve faced in undergoing this project and how have you taken it on?

SF: Raising the money to produce a whole season of theatre as indie artists and being understaffed because we don’t have the money to hire the amount of people it takes to execute a whole season of theatre. Working inside this challenge is ongoing. I’ve had to interrogate my relationship to money, to asking for it, and to keep asking for it. For instance, if you want to check out Empire Trilogy’s “A Name for A Name” campaign here, you can see how close we are to reaching our $15,000 goal and help us get there by donating today 🙂

HS: We love all of the resources Generator is putting out into the world to empower artists to make their art happen. As an artist taking on many roles, can you speak to me about your experience with the Generator Artist Producer Training (APT) program?

SF: I could not produce a project like this without the training I did with APT, and the continued support Generator is giving me as a resident company. Beyond the classes, which covered everything from budgets, to contracts, to timelines, to curation, and marketing, etc. APT and Generator gave me a community of support. Kristina Lemieux is a revolution. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone as committed to empowering artists and creating meaningful sector and social change. Generator is quickly becoming a hub for the indie artists of Toronto, and my hope is that more indie companies will begin to work together and organize around Generator. What would happen if “indie” teams formed a stronger network, what resources could we share, what kind of terms could we set when working inside and outside of more traditional institutions? What’s possible?

Actor, Josh Johnston, as Jack in ‘The Scavenger’s Daughter’. Scenic Design by Michelle Tracey. Photo Credit: Bernie Fournier

HS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

SF: Making art that runs against the mainstream is lonely. You’re going to work with great people, but it’s still going to be lonely. Make friends with your loneliness.

HS: Where do you look for inspiration?

SF: Women who rail against the shitty deal society “offers” them. Women who say no. Women who dance. Women who laugh at power. Women who fuck. Women who ask questions. Women who scream. Women who fail. Women who make mistakes. Women who rage. Women who transform. Women who love. Women who sing.

HS: What do you do to take care of yourself as an artist?

SF: I don’t know, I’ve had less than 25 days off since The Empire trilogy started pre-production in May 2017, but I have amazing friends and family who help me every single day and bring me food a lot.


Rapid Fire Questions:

Morning or Night Person? A lot of both lately (work)

Go-to drink? Double espresso with touch of hot water and some kind of non-cow milk. I love cocktails and vermouth but I’m not drinking much these days (see above re: work)

If you could be reincarnated as an animal what would it be? A human.

Last book you read? Heartbreaker by local powerhouse Claudia Dey

Favourite play? Jill Connell is a fucking genius and everything she writes breaks my heart and brings me back to life at the same time. Read: The Supine Cobbler, The Tall Building, Hroses.

What are you listening to right now? My gut. And early 2000’s sad angsty tunes.

Favourite place in the city? Sunnyside beach life guard tower (when I need to see the lake and remember the immensity of life).

What in your life could you not live without? Women and faith.

Current Mantra: Several mantras these days: Keep going. You can’t control everything. Let go. Trust.

Finish these sentences:

I am most creative when...I am dancing”

I feel happiest when…I am creating (which is a form of dancing)”

I feel fired up when…I am writing (also a form of dancing)”

In the Toronto theatre scene, I want to see…more radical work, more abandon (so dancing), and more leaders re-structuring institutional power (which is also a form of dancing)”


THE EMPIRE Trilogy by Susanna Fournier

Connect: 
Susanna Fournier
t: @SusannaFournier

Paradigm Productions & The Empire Trilogy
t: @paradigmprodxn
fb: /paradigmtheatre
ig: @paradigmprodxn
w: empiretrilogy.com

“The Importance of Champions, Striving for that Spark & The Barriers and Biases Female Playwrights and Directors Continue to Surmount” In Conversation with Ali Joy Richardson on Writing and Directing A BEAR AWAKE IN WINTER at Next Stage 2019

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Ali Joy Richardson, the playwright and director of A Bear Awake in Winter, a new play premiering at the Next Stage Festival from January 10-20, is no stranger to the Toronto Fringe. For many years, the summer festival has provided what she considers a “perfect sandbox” for her personal projects. This year, however, with a show that’s larger in scale (a cast of seven, a runtime of 75 minutes, plenty of instruments) she’s ready to take on a new challenge. Next Stage is a step up in more ways than one; it’s also her first time being both writer and director of a show.

With inspiration drawn from plays like The Wolves and Concord Floral, this funny but dark play follows a high school band class in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 2007, taking a sharp look at bullying and the high stakes of adolescence.

We got to talk with Richardson, who’s only five years out of theatre school, about owning her roles as director and playwright, her creative opportunities thus far, and how the #MeToo movement inspired her new show.


MR: What was it for you that allowed you take yourself seriously as a writer in the last year? Was it a particular moment or a conversation with a friend? What did that look like? 

AJR: Directing aligned very quickly with the part of me that is organized and responsible and I approached the role of director in a very nurturing way. But I have this internalized notion that the role of the writer is kind of wild and dynamic and that there’s a sort of wildly creative side to the person generating the words and the world. It took me a really long time to believe that people would take me seriously in saying that I am both of those things. And all of that can exist in one woman, and especially a young woman.

The internal conflict for me was: am I allowed to be both? Can I be the person with the sticky notes and the highlighter who knows what time everyone needs to be where and be the one writing really good jokes?

MR: So you felt capable of doing both and ready to do both, but it was more of an external thing of how people would receive you?

AJR: Yeah. I thought one would dilute the other in someone else’s eyes. So for me, a really big turning point was getting into Nightwood’s Write From the Hip Unit. That was major. And I did a residency with Canadian Stage, as well. I was in their 2018 RBC Emerging Artists Program and their Director Development Residency. I got into that as a director and then about halfway through I was like, “Hey, can I work on something that is my own play?” And the two women running the programs, Lynanne Sparrow and Taliesin McEnaney, right away were like, “Absolutely. We picked you for you. So whatever you want to do, we are excited about.” So that was huge. To get that green light from Nightwood and from the folks who were supporting me at Canadian Stage, who obviously saw all parts of me and welcomed all parts of me and started to build my courage to do both.

MR: That makes me wonder about people who don’t get that green light from others. How do they generate that sense of validation?

AJR: I mean I totally agree with you, and I think it speaks to the importance of diversity within those leadership roles, within organizations, so there is someone to green light the person that they see themselves in. Because I think it’s human nature that we will always champion people who make us think of ourselves. For better and for worse. And so I was really lucky to cross paths with people who I suppose I had a kind of kinship with in those roles.

MR: I think we can say that things are shifting. Even that opportunity, I wonder if even five years ago you would have had it. Where do you see those shifts happening?

AJR: I mean, this is a well-known example, I was really inspired seeing Kat Sandler directing her own work on some of the major stages this year. Seeing her play Bang Bang at Factory, I sat in the front row and I must have looked wild to the actors on stage. I was grinning so hugely. But with every beat of that show, this little barometer of courage was rising in me. That was huge.

I graduated from theatre school five years ago and during that time, I’ve been working Front of House at Theatre Passe Muraille, where D’bi Young had a show a couple of years ago. She is another person that continuously breaks out of every mould that I find myself internalizing. She is also a constant reminder for me that an artist can be many, many things.

MR: Okay, so some people have opened doors to you, and I’m curious what doors you see that are still closed that you wished were open? 

AJR: I think the myth about directing your own work has got to go. I think we need to trust that artists know when they should be in both of those roles in a room, and to give people that agency to know themselves and know their work. I don’t think every show will be served by this but I think many will be and I think that people sometimes mistake it for a lack of trust in other creators.

MR: Particularly as a female playwright, what sort of limitations have you been working to push past?

AJR: I think comedy. I love comedy and it’s a thing in all of my work. I think we trust men much quicker as someone who understands what is funny in a room – as directors, writers and actors. I watch other women have to fight tooth-and-nail to be trusted in comedy. So, particularly as writers, I think that’s a big one.

I’ve also had some great conversations with Michaela Di Cesare, a celebrated playwright from Montreal who plays the character Flute (the young woman at the centre of the story). We talk a lot about the double-edged sword women have to dodge about whether or not your writing is inspired by your own life. If a man writes something from his own life it is seen as interesting and valid and if he writes fiction it is seen as interesting and valid but we haven’t sorted that out yet when it comes to women writers. For women, I feel like it is still a lose-lose situation, where if it is inspired from life they dismiss it as not really writing, but they also make that constant assumption about the work.

In Photo: Andy Trithardt, Hershel Blatt, Natasha Ramondino, Andrew Di Rosa, Bria McLaughlin, Danny Pagett, Photographer: Neil Silcox

MR: Your show is influenced partly by your life though right? Your experiences in band and in that community? 

AJR: Yes, every puzzle piece of this show absolutely comes from my life, but the finished puzzle is not a true story.

MR: Let’s talk about the writing of it. Did you always know you wanted to write this show? 

AJR: So I was writing a play over the last year called Fool, during my time at Nightwood. Fool is set in medieval times, and this is the play I cheated on Fool with (I think a lot of writers do that). There was one night where I was feeling constrained by the rules of the world I was writing in and I just really wanted to hang out with people I knew.

The first scene of the show, which is a classroom scene, is the first scene I wrote. It was late at night and I just started writing the voices of these kids because they are so familiar to me. They are me and they are my friends from home and they are my sister. The voices came right away. They started talking and they didn’t stop. And I know it’s such a cliché. This is the first time in my life that I actually felt that cliché, which I’ve always kind of rolled my eyes at, but I really felt it on this play. So there’s a violent conflict midway through the play, and I wrote up to that moment of violence. That came in a rush, and then I hung out there for a while, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. It was really interesting because I wrote up to that point about a week before the #MeToo hashtag happened, and then the second half came quite quickly after that dialogue had started. 

MR: What brought you to write that violent act?

AJR: For me, that moment has always been a sort of provocation for the audience. Especially right now, I think we are asked to empathize with men who misread situations and act in a regrettable way and I’m really interested in finding out what happens if a woman reads a situation and reacts a certain way, will the audience feel that her reaction was out of proportion in some way, or will they extend that same empathy to her?

MR: Sometimes we write things to reframe experiences or live out a fantasy or an idea of a situation, and I don’t want to put that on you, but I am curious to know whether there is an element of that in this.

AJR: In this, that moment of violence came from frustration. People in my life responded to my frustration with cat-calling, or men following me at night, by saying I should just punch them or kick them in the balls or tell him to fuck off, as if those are accessible and easy solutions that aren’t going to come with a whole other world of troubles. I started to wonder what would happen if the next time I felt afraid I did just hit back in a big way? I don’t think that would go well for me in this world. It was also around the time I started to take boxing classes, and something about that started to cook in my head. As I learned to hit someone safely, I started to wonder what would happen if someone did fight back, in a moment of feeling a threat. So it’s certainly not a personal fantasy, but it was a kind of obsessive thought experiment.

In Photo: Natasha Ramondino, Bria McLaughlin, Hershel Blatt, Andrew Di Rosa, Andy Trithardt, Danny Pagett. Photographer: Neil Silcox

MR: Can we talk about supporting yourself in the arts in Toronto, and just like, how you do it? How do you do the job of a director and playwright here? Because you seem to be doing a lot! 

AJR: So first, I will say, I’m enormously privileged to come from a family who has means and who is there if I need them. I don’t rely on that support but, as an artist, knowing it’s there and to have that is an enormous privilege in terms of managing my mental health. Just knowing there is a safety net there if you needed it. I think it’s important to be honest about that.

MR: Do you think you’d be a playwright if you didn’t have that safety net? 

AJR: That’s a really good question and it keeps me up at night. I have a little fear in me about that. I don’t know the answer. Of course I want to think I would be but I also hold myself to a really rigorous standard around that. My life would definitely look different, I think.

MR: I do just want to say that the arts are so valuable, you know? And I don’t think there should be any weird guilt or shame around it, you know if you’re like, “I’m doing this just because I can” I just think, “Well thank God somebody can.” I just want to say that. 

AJR: (Laughs) Thank you. And like every artist I’ve worked a million different jobs, and done many strange gigs from standardized patient work to working for a nannying agency. So I’ve had a plethora of different side hustles. And finding ones that didn’t drain the life force I need to make art, that was key for me. It might not give you a mountain of joy but it can’t suck out the thing you need to make your art.

MR: What keeps you motivated? 

AJR: The feeling I have when I see or read something that makes me go “Oh my god, I didn’t know someone else knew that or felt that”. That spark, every time that happens, makes me want to put stuff like that out in the world.

Also, I come from a family of really, really hardworking people, none of whom are in the arts. And honestly, when I hear my sister talking about training to do an Ironman, I’m like, “you know, I can probably get up at six and write a few more pages.”

A Bear Awake in Winter

at the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival

In Photo: Andrew Di Rosa, Michaela Di Cesare
Photographer: Tanja Tiziana

Who:
Playwright & Director: Ali Joy Richardson
Cast: Michaela Di Cesare, Andy Trithardt, Andrew Di Rosa, Bria McLaughlin, Danny Pagett, Natasha Ramondino, Hershel Blatt
Assistant Director: Bryn Kennedy
Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Sound Designer: Neil Silcox
Lighting Designer: Steph Raposo
Producers: Ali Joy Richardson & Bryn Kennedy

What:
2007. Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A high school band class. A new teacher from Toronto wants to be an inspiration to his jaded students but is afraid to come out to them. A boy bullies a girl in insidious ways until she takes matters into her own hands. An act of violence at a school dance fractures the community. This is a dark, funny, and difficult story about the fight to stand up for yourself.

Where: 
FACTORY THEATRE – MAINSPACE, 125 Bathurst St, Toronto

When:
Jan 11 – 9:45pm
Jan 12 – 3:45pm
Jan 13 – 1:30pm
Jan 15 – 8:45pm
Jan 16 – 12pm
Jan 18 – 7:30pm
Jan 19 – 5:45pm
Jan 20 – 7:30pm

Runtime:
75 Minutes

Tickets: 
fringetoronto.com/next-stage/

 

 

 

“Freelancing, Finding Balance in Collaboration & Taking Ownership in Creating Opportunities” In Conversation with Annie Clarke and Emma Westray on Co-Producing CANNIBAL by Thom Nyhuus at Next Stage 2019

Interview by Brittany Kay.

Producers are some of the hardest working people in our business. What they lack in sleep, they gain in the never-ending pursuit of fully realizing a production.

Both Annie Clarke and Emma Westray are two producers who are no strangers to our theatre community. They have been part of such incredible shows and projects in the last year and they’re only gaining momentum. Their next play, Cannibal by Thom Nyhuus, is part of this year’s Next Stage Theatre Festival. We chat about what it’s like to be female producers, the balance and strength they find in collaboration and how they are able to prioritize stories about women. (Thank you for your tireless efforts to make sure the work gets seen. You are truly wonder women) 

Brittany Kay: Women have been at the forefront of today’s theatre scene. What has it been like to be female producers amongst the current theatrical climate? Do you find yourselves wanting to work with certain companies?

Annie Clarke: Most of the producing I’ve done for theatre – beyond just one-night-only events – has happened in the past year, so in a way I feel like my only producing experience is in the context of this climate. I think a big thing that it means is that I don’t need to explain my interest in, and prioritization of, women’s stories. But of course if it’s easier than ever to have that focus, it also means that we are standing on the shoulders of so many women who have fought for space for our voices on the stage (and off it), so I have a lot of gratitude for those who have paved the way for where we are right now. I definitely gravitate towards artists and companies who share those priorities, both in the work that I do and the work that I pay to see.

Emma Westray: I think the conversations that are continuing in our community about women in theatre and representation in theatre have forced me to reflect on my responsibilities as a producer, specifically in the role of hiring artists and putting together a team at the early stages. Sometimes working at the independent level, it can feel like you don’t have the power or resources to change the culture at large, but I’ve realized that every project I work on is an opportunity to set an example for my peers. Every time I work with collaborators to create a safe and respectful work environment, and every time I make a thoughtful effort to hire a diverse, representative team of artists, it shows audiences and peers alike that it is possible and it is necessary. I love being a producer because it gives me the chance to give opportunities, not only to women, but also to BIPOC, LGBTQ+ folx, and other marginalized artists, and now more than ever my priority is to work with companies who are like-minded in this regard.

Photo of Justine Christensen, Michael Ayres by Haley Garnett

BK: Do you find the project or does the project find you? How do you know which projects are the right ones and who/what is worth your energy to invest in? 

AC: I feel very lucky because I have not really “applied” for any of the producing work that I’ve done – it’s come to me through relationships I’ve built. From what I hear from my peers, that’s not uncommon, and I think it just comes from a place of knowing that no one is it in for the money, very often we’re in it for the people, so if we know people who are as passionate as we are and will work as hard as we will, that’s who we end up asking to come on board a project. Every project is a passion project in indie theatre, right? That being said, it took me years to build the network and knowledge of the indie community in Toronto that has enabled me to work as a producer. And I was, and am, very privileged to have been able to devote a lot of time to unpaid work, volunteer work and just general network-building when I first moved to Toronto three years ago.

In terms of deciding which projects to take on, I think I’m still learning about that. I’m definitely still learning what my capacity is. I feel like I say no to things and yet I also constantly feel like I’m too busy to function, so surely there’s a balance to figure out there! The projects I’ve worked on have mainly been motivated by the people involved, but I don’t think you’re going to do a good job producing a play if you don’t genuinely love – let alone like – it. Things I’ve thought about in the past when projects have come up have been: do I love this script? Will I get to work with people I’ve been wanting to work with? Will I be able to learn a lot from a mentor (e.g. Assistant Producing)? Will I be able to stretch my limits and do things I haven’t been able to do before?

EW: I have been fortunate enough to have all of my producing work thus far come to me from the incredible network of people I have met since moving to Toronto nearly 5 years ago. There is something interesting in the way that projects find their way to you when you’re the right fit. Whether it’s something you’ve always wanted to work on, or peers that you’re excited to collaborate with, I’ve learned that trusting my gut when a project feels like it “clicks” is the best way for me to know that I should pursue the opportunity. I am fortunate enough to be a graduate of Generator’s Artist Producer Training program, which has linked me to a group of alumni who are always hearing about and sharing producing opportunities. For this, I am very grateful!

There isn’t really a science to how I choose projects. That buzzing excitement you feel when you sit down with an artist for the first time and hear them explain an idea, or you read a first draft of a script, is how I know that I want to be a part of the team. Conversely, I can say that the few times that I have worked on a project because I thought I should, despite not feeling connected to it, are the times where I found myself not doing my best work and just getting it done because it was a job. Knowing that difference has helped guide me in choosing what I take on as a producer, and it has helped me build a resume of work that I am truly proud of. I choose the passion project that could take years to develop instead of the remount of a classic play everyone has seen before.

Photo of Annie Clarke, Thom Nyhuus & Emma Westray

BK: What has it been like working together? 

AC: I have been fan-girl-ing Emma for the past year, and I have been delighted to find that working with her is even more wonderful than admiring her from afar. We joke that we have been co-parenting Cannibal – I was knee-deep in another show, What I call her, in the fall, so Emma was taking the lead, and then I took over when she went to Europe for three weeks (although she did far more work from Europe than one would have thought possible, probably because she is a real-life superhero), and now we are inching towards the finish line together. It’s been kind of like a months-long game of hot potato. Honestly it’s made me think I should never produce alone again. Just having someone to bounce ideas off of, share panic with, and remind you not to work yourself into the ground, is more valuable than I could have dreamed of.

EW: The amount that we had interacted on social media as a myriad of different theatre companies over the years made it kind of laughable that we weren’t acquaintances in real life. Annie has claimed several times that working together was a way for her to learn more about producing from me, but I am constantly in awe of her leadership and vision for this project. I am a big fan of producing partnerships, and Annie and I fell into a rhythm very early that made it easy to share the role. There is something about a female partnership that feels particularly comfortable in that there has been empathy and compassion built into every stage of this process. Not to say that isn’t possible outside of working with women, but it felt as though it was a given that there would be support and encouragement not because there had to be, but because we cared enough to take care of each other while taking care of the rest of our team. It has been a dreamy process and I would do it again in a heartbeat! 

BK: What has it been like working with an all female creative team? Was the assembly of this creative team a conscious choice?

AC: My personal mandate is to work on stories that put women at the forefront. I also am in love with working with women. Can’t get enough of it. One of the great things about being a producer, depending on what stage in the process you come on board, is the ability to put a team together. Deciding whose voices you’re showcasing, how you’re showcasing them, who’s sitting at the table – that is some kind of power, even when you’re talking about a teeny tiny indie show. I know that at this stage in my career it won’t be possible to be in that level of driver’s seat for every project, but I am so proud of the team we assembled for Cannibal. As Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (our director) puts so eloquently, “I love competent people!”

EW: I don’t think anyone in my life would have a hard time telling you that feminism is a driving force of my personality, and also my work. I prioritize creating opportunities for women, but I also think that we are spoiled in our Toronto theatre community with talented women in all kinds of roles, so it wasn’t difficult hiring women to fill so many of the positions on our team. It had already been decided when I joined the team that the director would be a woman. Beyond that, the priority was, and always is, to build a team that can service the needs of the script and the director’s vision, and in this case our director Courtney was able to communicate her ideas to Cosette [Pin] and Julia [Kim] and they understood and wanted to join in bringing that vision to life. We also had two female stage managers (Lucy McPhee and Julia Vodarek Hunter) who were able to work together, and with Courtney, to create a safe and welcoming rehearsal room for our actors. It’s exciting to hire these women not only to give them the platform to share their skills and talents, but to give them a chance to collaborate with each other.

Left to right: Joella Crichton, Michael Ayres, Justine Christensen, Thom Nyhuus. Photo by Haley Garnett.

BK: What has it been like working with a male playwright on a play that has a predominantly female POV?

AC: Thom Nyhuus, the playwright, is an absolute dream collaborator – he is so open to feedback and perspectives that differ from his own, and yet he has such a clear vision for the play. In addition to the work he did with our dramaturg, Paolo Santalucia, he also spent a lot of time working on the script with Justine Christensen, who plays Bridget, over the spring and summer, before we started rehearsals. The intention was always to have a woman director, and I still can’t believe that Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster said yes, but we are beyond lucky to have her. We wanted her voice not only in the room, but shaping the room, and she has done the most beautiful job throughout the entire process.

EW: I would also add that when talking about #MeToo, and how we move forward in order to give women a platform to speak and share their stories, that there is also a conversation about what role men will play in pursuing equality. In the same way that we talk about men needing to be allies and how they need to work alongside us to make equality a reality. It was refreshing reading Cannibal knowing that it was Thom’s first play and discovering a female-driven plot featuring two complicated, yet very different, female characters. Bridget Walker is in every scene and the story is hers. I think having male playwrights who want to write interesting stories that feature women, women who are recognizable in their intricacies and flaws, is valuable in the pursuit for more female representation. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities that come from artistic collaborations where artists are open to hearing feedback and learning about one another in order to craft the best story.

Photo of Justine Christensen by Haley Garnett.

BK: You are both freelance producers with multiple jobs on the go like so many of us. What are the ways you manage your time and properly prioritize each project so that they equally get the proper attention? 

AC: I would say that I’m still aspiring to properly prioritize each project so that they each get the attention they deserve. Basically for the past year I have felt like I’ve been in triage mode, so it’s been about which deadline is the most pressing, which fire needs putting out today. I do a lot of planning out my time in detail (iCal is my best friend), but then inevitably things come up and some things just end up landing at the bottom of the priority list. One thing I’ve tried to do is to identify when each project gets to be priority number one (I tend to think of this in terms of, what does my number one focus have to be this month? What about next month?) When Thom and I found out we got into Next Stage, I was absolutely thrilled, but then a new contract came my way in August and I knew that I was over-capacity, which is where Emma came in! There is no way we could have done this show without an Associate Producer, and I am unbelievably grateful to her for her patience and her willingness to give us her time because, like so many of us, it is in seriously short supply.

EW: I definitely wouldn’t claim to be an expert in time management! I am fairly new to being able to consistently work as a freelancer, so I’m still learning how best to manage the different projects I’m working on in order to be productive, but also so I can avoid burning out. My best tip would be to take the time for yourself to look at each of your projects at a distance, by which I mean zooming out and creating a plan from start to finish so that you can identify what you’ll need to do, when you’ll need to do it, and when it needs to be your priority. I would say the biggest lesson I’ve learned recently is being honest with myself when I’m in over my head and addressing it before it becomes a major issue. In the arts sector, we’re aware that everyone is making do with the few resources they have, so it can be hard to admit to the people you’re working with that you need more: more time, more funding, more access, more support. The thing is, if you don’t ask for what you need, no one will know that they should be trying to give it to you. It seems simple, but it’s been a huge game changer for me! Any good collaborator will do what they can to make adjustments so that you can be productive instead of feeling overwhelmed.

BK: Any advice for upcoming producers? 

AC: Know what kind of theatre you want to be a part of putting into the world. That doesn’t mean you’ll get it right every time, or that every project will be birthed into the world exhibiting the beautiful intentions with which it was conceived, but you have to know what you care about. Also: talk to other producers and theatre makers. Read programs, and figure out who’s doing work you love. Send your programs to the Toronto Theatre Database so that we can all help make that resource as rich as possible! See theatre. And get training. I work at Generator so this is me disclosing my bias, but they have incredible workshops geared towards producers throughout the year, as well as an annual Artist Producer Training program. When I first moved to Toronto I was pretty sure it was to act and do nothing else, so I am very grateful to programs like Nightwood Theatre’s Young Innovators and Toronto Fringe’s TENT (Theatre Entrepreneurs Networking and Training) program for opening my eyes to what else was out there, and how I could use my other skills to make theatre.

EW: I think the best thing about producing, but also the most frustrating thing when you’re first starting out, is that there is no one way to produce. For the longest time, I felt like if someone would just send me their blueprint for producing, it wouldn’t feel like such a big task every time I started something new. The more experience you get, and the more you interact with different artists and collaborators, the better you’ll be at knowing how to identify and provide what a project needs. This goes for pretty much anything you’re interested in pursuing, reach out to people doing work that you are interested in and ask if you can take them for coffee. Finding mentors can be hard, but it is one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself and your career.

Photo of Emma Westray and Annie Clarke by Haley Garnett.

BK: Why should we come and see your show? 

AC: Cannibal is a very, very good play. It is sharp, surprising, thrilling, and utterly unexpected. Thom says that, with Scrap Paper Theatre, he wants to make plays that his brothers won’t sleep through. As someone whose own brother gave up on theatre after seeing me in a very ill-advised one act in 2006, I can really get behind that. And yet, for all of its watchability, Cannibal does not sacrifice depth. I’m really interested in what it’s exploring about womanhood, intimacy, motherhood, love, debt, and what happens when we make art out of life.

EW: There is something about Cannibal that sneaks up on you. It happened when I first read the script last year, and it has happened every time I’ve seen it since. It is not what it appears to be, or at least, it is much more than it appears to be. I love complicated, unraveling, imperfect women and this play delivers one in Bridget Walker, and another in her best friend Liza. I love Thom’s writing, and my favourite part of the script is the depiction of female friendship. It doesn’t have a pink, frilly ribbon tied around it – it’s messy and raw, and it is the core of the emotional relationships, despite the presence of romantic relationships in Bridget’s life.

Cannibal

At the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival

Photo of Justine Christensen by Tanja Tiziana

Who:
Company: Scrap Paper Theatre
Playwright: Thom Nyhuus
Director: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Producers: Annie Clarke & Emma Westray
Cast: Michael Ayres, Justine Christensen, Joella Crichton, Thom Nyhuus
Dramaturg: Paolo Santalucia
Sound & Lighting Designer: Cosette Pin
Set & Prop & Costume Designer: Julia Kim
Stage Managers: Lucy McPhee (Rehearsal), Julia Vodarek Hunter
Intimacy & Fight Choreographer: Scott Emerson Moyle

What:
When you survive the unsurvivable, who do you become? Bridget Walker has written a play about the abduction of her son and it’s a smash hit. Critics are raving, but those closest to her are sent reeling. ‘Cannibal’ explores grief, the cost of sharing your story, and what it means to be indebted to someone you love.

Where:
Factory Theatre Studio – 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON, M5V 2R2

When:
Thurs. Jan. 10 (9:30pm), Fri. Jan. 11 (5:00pm), Sat. Jan. 12 (6:45pm), Sun. Jan. 13 (8:45pm), Tues. Jan. 15 (8:30pm), Thurs. Jan. 17 (9:15pm), Sat. Jan. 19 (6:00pm), Sun. Jan. 20 (3:00pm).

Runtime:
90 minutes

Content Warnings:
This show contains strong language, sexual content, and discussions of mental illness, grief, and coping with losing a child.

Tickets:
General Admission – $15.00
Buy tickets or passes in advance online: www.fringetoronto.com or by phone: 416-966-1062

“Trauma isolates you. Theatre connects you.” In Conversation with Playwright Ellie Moon on WHAT I CALL HER and Using Art To Heal

Interview by Megan Robinson.

In our discussion regarding her newest play, What I Call Her, premiering November 16-December 8 at Crow’s Theatre, Ellie Moon is careful yet generous and endearingly enthusiastic. From her temporary home in Montreal, where she’s playing the role of Emmy in A Doll’s House, Part 2 at the Segal, Moon speaks fondly of her creative team back in Toronto, who are working hard to bring this comedy (or at least, very funny play) to life.

Her second production, following last year’s Asking For It, this new play offers theatre-goers the chance to see the young playwright’s work in a more traditional form. The show takes a look at two sisters who are struggling with different perspectives of the same story. It’s a complicated exploration of how we heal from trauma in an era in which our identities are worked out online, and so much more. After writing the first draft in one sitting (basically a miracle for a writer), What I Call Her was quickly programmed at Crow’s Theatre by Artistic Director Chris Abraham, who recently tweeted “Read this play last year, and it got right under my skin.”

We spoke with Moon about life after Asking For It, what it’s like being mentored by Chris Abraham and using art to heal.


Megan Robinson: Can you talk a little about the experience you had after Asking For It? Maybe about how you were feeling and where you were at as an artist?

Ellie Moon: Post-Asking For It, I had the biggest vulnerability hangover of my life, which was difficult, because I went right back into auditioning but didn’t really want anyone to look at me (laughs). It was a lot that I asked of myself in that project. You’re just getting to know yourself in your early 20s, and playing myself in a play, asking very vulnerable questions, it was a big deal – and I wasn’t relaxed about it. If I had known that once the show closed, much of the world would be standing up and saying “I had this sexual experience and I’m not sure what it meant, whether it was consensual, what my power was or is”, if I’d know Albert (Schultz) would no longer be running Soulpepper a few months later, I would have slept much better during the rehearsal process, but these things were completely inconceivable to me while I rehearsed this play. So, I was cripplingly terrified. The terror did relieve significantly after #MeToo broke during the run of the show, but the vulnerability, of course, persisted, and I was pretty exhausted by it all when it closed. I felt like spending a lot of time alone after the play closed, which I did, and which allowed me to write this play.

MR: This show is about healing from trauma. I’m curious to know more about what role your art plays in helping you heal or grow as a person?

EM: Theatre has connected me with the most empathetic, accepting people in my life, so that’s a big part of it. It allows me to discuss and test behaviour, to learn about and consider its impact on people, without needing to try it out (that’s not to say that I haven’t tested out some good and bad behaviour in my life anyway, though). Most powerfully, maybe, I’ve written multiple “unlikable” characters that I’ve watched artists embrace and see good in that I couldn’t see when I wrote them – and that is very healing. It’s also enabled me to connect with others with similar life experiences, or different life experiences, because at the end of the day, the experience of all lives is similar enough to unite us. Trauma isolates you, theatre connects you.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: What was the process like of writing What I Call Her? How did it come about?

EM: This is super strange and wild and hasn’t happened for me before and I don’t expect for this to happen again…But I sat down and started writing without a plan, and 7 or 8 hours later I a) moved after all that time b) ate peanut butter toast and c) read it back and went “Woah, I really like this”. It had a few development workshops this year, but the changes have been very delicate – Director Sarah Kitz contributed an important stage direction, and I added and took away some text, but not much. I don’t think the original draft would look too different from the production draft, were you to look at them side-by-side. This is not at all how I work, usually, not even a bit. It was hard to speak about this play at first, because it was so born of my subconscious. I needed to work backwards to learn how to represent it to the community and I did this by sharing it with trusted people, and discussing with them what exactly it is.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: How did Crow’s get involved?

EM: I gave Chris Abraham (Crow’s Artistic Director) the play to read, just as a friend. I was looking for feedback but absolutely not expecting him to program it. He read it and said “I might have space for this at Crow’s in the season” and then, “I have space for this in the season” and suggested Sarah Kitz as director. Sarah and I actually met for coffee a year and a half ago, after we had first “met” in the comments section of your incredibly brave piece about your experiences at George Brown, which brought about meaningful change – bravo! I understood Sarah to be a deeply ethical, smart person and I was like, “yes” this is a great fit.

MR: Chris (Abraham) has acted as a mentor to you, and I’m wondering if you can share some of the vital beliefs about playwriting or theatre in general that you’ve received from him and how they’ve shaped your work?

EM: Really too many things to name – I’m incredibly grateful to Chris. Most of the language I have to speak about plays comes from Chris and that’s pretty major. I wrote Asking For It while assistant directing a production The Watershed and that was the first time I heard the word “dialectic” (and I embarrassed myself by thinking he was saying dialect at first and being like “no I think the accents are good” (laughs)). On that project and others we’ve worked on or discussed, Chris talks a lot about moving a dialectic (or argument) through action, and that idea was at the front of my mind when writing What I Call Her (as well as Asking For It, and my new plays for the Tarragon). Chris is very gifted with taking a complex idea and simplifying or distilling it, it’s partially why he is such a good director and teacher. A practice I learned from him, and that he passed on from someone else, is that I try to name in just one short phrase what my play is about – what the central argument is – as early as possible in the process of writing. Chris is also wonderfully open-minded and accepting (I mean, for example, there was zero judgement when I thought dialectic meant accents…except from me, of myself) and I am working to make that more and more part of my practice as an artist and my life in general.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Tell me about working with director Sarah Kitz!

EM: It has been absurdly wonderful to have Sarah as a collaborator on this play. From the very first conversation I had with her about the show, I was gob-smacked by how completely and fully on the same page we were. I have never had this experience before, and I don’t consider it necessary to always see eye to eye with a collaborator, but it’s just a fact that she has never said one word about the play that hasn’t made me go, “yup, exactly”. Sarah has an enormous heart to balance out her enormous brain. As well as being able to navigate every aspect of the arguments the characters make in this play, and being able to hear the lines exactly as I do, and crack the language like a code, she has always had an understanding of how this play would exist in bodies and in space. Sarah also has a stunning capacity to hold both of the conflicting truths this play presents, side by side, with enormous empathy for and acceptance of both, and an acceptance of the mystery of where these meet. As an actor herself, she is also an incredibly gifted coach and director of other actors. That has been so essential here because these roles demand an absurd amount of these actors, and I know the cast would back me up when I say that Sarah is a gift to them as their guide.

Speaking of, I can’t believe how hard we lucked out with the cast – their qualities are bang on for these parts and they are extremely gifted and can manage this highly wordy, challenging text with ease. This was something I was nervous about – this combination of the inherent qualities I saw the actors and characters as needing to have, coupled with the need for actors who are extremely proficient with text, and especially because the play needs such young actors. Your energy changes a lot year by year between 20 and 30, these are like dog years, and if these roles feel “played down” by older actors, the play is so delicate that it could tip it into satire. A big question in the play is one of responsibility and the entrance into adulthood. At what point in someone’s life do they go from behaving in a way that can be reasonably understood as being in response to their given environment, to them being active in the world, not reactive, and responsible for their conduct? It’s probably not 18, right? You’re still a kid at 18. It’s probably somewhere more between 20 and 25. So the casting, and casting as close to the right ages of these characters as possible, was very important to me. I was fortunate that Sarah agreed wholeheartedly with this, and that she adores and understands actors as she does. And of course, these fine actors (Charlie Gould, Ellie Ellwand and Michael Ayres) deserve a shout out in here, too. They have had to learn a lot of very precise, very, very wordy text and hold all that alongside the massive emotional stakes of the show. And they are also hilarious.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: If you were to liken this show to something else, what would it be?

EM: I realize this is a very ballsy thing to say about my own work, to compare it to one of the great plays of the past century, but I think it’s kind of a funny, female, millennial Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

MR: What is at the heart of this show for you?

EM: How much we need validation to heal, and how difficult that is in a world where other people exist, and not just to be in service to you and your narrative, but have their own experiences of things that need validating, too. How people who are traumatized often behave in ways that destroy their credibility and make that validation very difficult to receive. How responsibility is needed for healing, but is so often arrived at through blame.

MR: What makes you want to write? What sort of things get you inspired?

EM: I’m not sure what makes me want (or more accurately, need) to write and I want to respect the mystery of that and not think too hard about it. I’m very grateful that I can do this and that I’ve had the opportunity to share so much of my writing at this point in my life. Right now, I’m definitely interested in morality and responsibility and power, but I can feel this shifting, and I want to invite it to shift.

MR: Asking For It was documentary theatre, where this one has more of a classic play structure. Do you have a preference of one form over the other?

EM: I don’t have a preference with regards to form. I want to have a diverse writing practice. I definitely notice that people give you a lot more credit as a playwright when it’s a fiction play and not docu-theatre, though, which is too bad and misguided. Docu-theatre requires an incredible amount of work, responsibility and authorship. People have a lot of bias against it as a form. They assume it’s dry, didactic, condescending. It doesn’t need to be and I have been fortunate to see so much docu-theatre that isn’t.

MR: Since being a playwright-in-residence, how has your craft evolved?

MR: I’m the Bulmash-Siegal playwright-in-residence at Tarragon and in this capacity, I’ve worked a lot this past year (and will this coming year) with Richard Rose, Jason Sherman and Joanna Falck – awesome, sharp, wise people and artists. As well as adding significantly to the language I have for speaking about plays, this residency has allowed me the space to develop plays (two of them!) over time, to take in and incorporate very precise feedback (or feedback that’s imprecise, but just as potent and useful). I’m usually one to rush to immediately apply notes, but this arrangement allows me to really hear a note, and maybe not understand immediately exactly how I will apply it, but to not be afraid of that, to sit with it and come back to it. This opportunity to not have to figure it out right away is invaluable, especially because, as I said before, your 20s feel like dog years and I feel like a different person than, like, a week ago.

MR: What’s your favourite line?

EM: ”I’m an adult: I have a reusable water bottle in my bag.”

Photo by Dahlia Katz


What I Call Her

Who:
In Association in partnership with Crow’s Theatre
CAST:
Michael Ayres – Kyle
Ellie Ellwand – Ruby
Charlie Gould – Kate
CREATIVE:
Ellie Moon – Playwright
Sarah Kitz – Director
Annie Clarke – Producer
Suzie Balogh – Production Manager
Ashley Ireland – Stage Manager
Imogen Wilson – Lighting Designer
Ali Berkok – Composer & Sound Designer

What:
Trauma, truth, freedom & the internet age
The estranged mother of 25-year old Kate is on her death-bed. A Facebook post becomes the subject of heated debate. Then, a knock on the door. A play about gaps in how people perceive and understand the world they live in, female generational rage, and the loneliness of holding onto one’s own truth.

Where:
Crow’s Theatre
345 Carlaw Ave.
Toronto

When:
Nov. 16-Dec. 8

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com