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A Chat with Alisa Palmer, Director of Body Politic by Nick Green

by Ryan Quinn

We sat down with Alisa Palmer, multiple award winner and current Artistic Director of the National Theatre School, to discuss her latest director project, Body Politic, a lemonTree creations workshop.
Body Politic re-imagines the story of The Body Politic, Canada’s most important queer publications, exploring its unique beginning, its community successes, its legal challenges and its eventual demise. This project is a commission of lemonTree creations and is currently in residency at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.

Ryan Quinn: So, I’m here with Alisa Palmer, director of Body Politic, which will be doing its workshop presentation this Thursday May 30th, Friday May 31st and Saturday June 1st at 8pm. Would you like to tell me a little bit about the show?

Alisa Palmer: Yeah, certainly. This is a workshop exploration of a script by Nick Green. It takes place in one evening, and it’s an encounter between a young gay man and an older gay man. It is a significant night for one of the characters, and because of the nature of their conversation, and what they talk about, this man’s past comes to the fore. He was an activist and writer on The Body Politic, and his history and experiences with the magazine are fully brought to life throughout the evening. He has to do a lot of self-examination, a lot of self-exploration. In it, we, the audience, experience the trajectory of that incredible magazine, and that collective, and the fervor of a certain time in Toronto history.

RQ: It sounds like a conversation between the past and the present, bridging that gap.

AP: Yes, and then it launches straight into the future, I think. It definitely puts some questions out there.

RQ: I’m not sure if you were involved with the show at this point, but there was a reading of it…

AP: There was, yes, and I directed that reading. We had just a couple of days to get the actors together and work on it. It was much more modest. It was so invaluable, though, because since that meeting, Nick has gone away and really dug into how to bring the past more into contact with the present so that the play isn’t exclusively dedicated to only telling the story of the Body Politic, but rather about looking into what is still alive and what is missing in our communities and our psyches in terms of all this kind of discussion and the freedom of expression, and the challenges to our own assumptions about what is right and wrong in the world.

RQ: And this isn’t only a workshop for the script at this point, but I hear that you’re workshopping the design as well, with the two going hand-in-hand.

AP: Yes. This week we’ve been focusing on the actors and the script, and next week we move into the theatre, and there will be a sort of prototype of the set. A slice of what the set might be, some ingredients that may be in the design, projections, lighting… just a tasting menu of it all. That way, we can explore how the past and the present are interacting with each other through these design elements that support the story.

RQ: And this is going up…

AP: At the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse at U of T. What we’re going to do, then, is we’re going to spend a lot of time exploring the production elements and how the play works with all of these lights and sounds and so on. We’re going to read the script for the audience, so they’ll hear the whole story, and then we’ll show them a few highlights of things that are exciting to us as to how the story is going to be told three-dimensionally.

RQ: It also must be a look at where the show can go from here.

AP: It’s a really great opportunity for all of the artists involved to get to know the world of the play and Nick’s imagination; and for Nick to also experience how things can be communicated to the audience and captured in the human body, with the presence of the actors, and the design elements. There are so many opportunities, so nobody has to do all of the heavy lifting alone. It’s kind of a reflection of how The Body Politic was created, you know? We are that much more effective at communicating if we share the wealth of our talents.

RQ: So you have the history of the real Body Politic resonating in the show, going back and forth into a conversation with the entire genderqueer community.

AP: Yep, it’s all on the go. This is the end of week one, so if there’s smoke coming out of my ears, it’s because we’ve been dealing with all of these interacting and intersecting themes and ways of working.

RQ: And you’re having a two-week rehearsal process?

AP: It’s about eight days of being able to work with actors and design elements, in total. Then we’re presenting it for three nights, but every evening will be slightly different because we’ll learn from the night before and maybe adjust our goals, or what we’re playing with.

RQ: Even though it’s every bit as stressful to mount a workshop production, there must be more of a freedom to explore the material and process that’s sometimes not there.

AP: What I love about readings is that there’s no pretence that it’s finished. So actors are listening to the audience in a way that is much freer than when they have to do the marathon of a whole show. I think there’s a kind of spontaneity and a really live communication that is quite unique when you have your script in hand. It doesn’t even have to pretend to be perfect. It’s just alive. Very, very alive.

RQ: Any kind of pretence that it’s not a conversation is gone.

AP: Right, so I’m relishing the audience coming and seeing what it’s like each night and hearing what their responses are because it’s informing what aspects are hitting home with people, and what things are questions and ambiguities that are valuable to maintain. Provocation. In the true spirit of The Body Politic, provocation and moral ambiguity; which are really good ingredients of any project.

RQ: What are you hoping people take home from this? Conversation and debate?

AP: I think that the most challenging questions that The Body Politic brought forth into the world are “how do we work together, and listen to each other, and care for each other even through our differences?” That doesn’t mean, to me, “how do we let anything happen without moral grounding?” Not everything is okay, not everything is equally acceptable or valuable. Certain behaviours are more threatening than others, but how do we negotiate our lives together and maintain and appreciate the differences amongst us? Loving each other, knowing that we’re not going to agree. The goal is to come away having encouraged awareness of that in people. That is my question about how to live well. So if the project engenders some of that discussion or debate or awareness in people, that’s great.

RQ: It sounds like you’re wanting people to make the effort to go out and help instead of assuming that not making the effort to hurt is the same as helping.

AP: Oh yeah, engagement.

RQ: Engagement.

AP: Exactly. There are things in The Body Politic that are contentious and disagreeable and fabulous, as in human behaviour. But I think you’re hitting onto something that’s incredibly important, to remember how valuable engagement is, to really get in there and participate and express yourself, and listen as much as expressing yourself, which is a two way street. This play is a dialogue between two people but that is infused with many, many more voices.

RQ: And there is a talkback after all three performances?

AP: Yes, lemonTree creations is so great. They are organizing some discussions that are focused around certain topics and certain activists that are with us today, as well as certain aspects dealing with the themes of the play. There will be a discussion about more than the art.

RQ: Getting the discussion started so that once people leave, they have that grounding.

AP: Yes! I really want people to know about this. We all know that in the arts now, it’s extremely important to remember how much people want these stories and want art. That notion of engagement you were taking about is how we are living in the arts. We all know it to be true that people want to engage in the arts. Some people in the higher echelons of the government may have their doubts, but we know. We just have to tell ourselves that.

RQ: I do find that recently we’ve started getting rid of this notion that passivity is implicit support, and I think that our arts are what are creating that drive, so shows like this are incredibly important.

AP: It’s really exciting. I feel like the opportunity to work with lemonTree creations reminds me about how much growth there is in the arts. It’s really incredible because up in the upper echelons of the economic circles, they see that the audiences are dwindling, but, in fact, in this environment, working with lemonTree, there is so much going on that is so powerful. There is real direct contact with audiences that is really alive, culturally. It’s fantastic. It’s so inspiring to me. I’m at the head of the National Theatre School now, I just started, so for me to be on the ground with these indie companies with young artists, I know exactly what I’m training people for. There’s a huge set of opportunities for young artists that we are all creating together.

RQ: A lot of times, this is the really gutsy, painful stuff.

AP: Yeah, it’s really fun! (laughs)

RQ: Yeah, there’s nothing more fun than emotional pain!

AP: Oh exactly! In a safe environment, when we’re all sharing it together, it’s fantastic. Distribute the load.

Body Politic workshop poster

RQ: Catharsis!

AP: Right!

RQ: Well, thank you very much for talking!

AP: No problem, it’s been a pleasure!

Who: lemonTree creations
When: MAY 30, MAY 31, JUNE 1, 2013 @ 8 pm
Where:  Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, 79 St George St #302  Toronto, ON (Just south of Harbord St, on the east side of St. George Street)
Tickets: $15 (Youth Group Discounts Available – $5 each for groups of 10 or more!)
Buy tickets online at or call 1-800-838-3006
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