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Meet the Passion Players – Ensemble, Front-of-House, Crew, Chorus, Musicians, Sound, Puppeteers, Wardrobe… Needless to Say, They’re a Busy Bunch!

Interview by Ryan Quinn

RQ: So I’m here with the Passion Players and Assistant Director Lillian Ross-Millard, part of Passion Play being put up out here on the Danforth. Would you like to introduce yourselves?

JW: Jesse Watts!

APM: Aviva Philip-Muller.

KD: Kasey Dunn.

HD: Howard Davis.

HS: Harsharan Sidhu.

CS: Cheyenne Scott.

LRM: Lillian Ross-Millard.

KDa: Kathryn Davis.

RQ: Can you tell me a little bit about Passion Play, and how the Passion Players fit into it?

HD: I guess you could say, from what we know of it, it’s been a very long process for the creative people on deck. Three companies have created this epic show. It’s the Canadian premiere of a show by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. It’s been created by Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, and Sheep No Wool.

APM: Someone said early on that the Passion Players are like the glue. Alan said that. The glue that fills in the cracks of everything that needs to get done, be that onstage or technical; but also in the sense that we relate the show back to their original purpose of why they wanted to do the show and why now. We link it back to the people seeing the show. We’re a bridge to these different historical time points. We’re always dressed the same way, we’re always contemporary, and we’re guiding them through this journey, helping them make that leap.

LRM: It’s a very historical play, of course. It starts off in Elizabethan England, then Nazi Germany, then South Dakota during the Vietnam war. You’ll notice that it doesn’t land in the present, so it sort of causes us to reflect upon our own historical period. She’s not shoving it down our throats to criticize someone specific in our time period. However, having the Passion Players there makes us very aware that it’s applicable to our historical moment as well.

APM: It’s sort of interesting the points in the play where we show up physically. So in Part 1, there’s a point where we come on with fish puppets and we have a little moment onstage as opposed to doing sound foley in the background. In that moment, we’re wearing shirts that say “Jesus is coming. Look busy”. So, it’s very obvious that we’re not in that Elizabethan period, we’re not trying to pretend to be actors that are a part of a company. We’re something else. We’re something other coming in, and I think it’s very deliberate where Alan, Aaron, and Mitchell have decided that they want people in modern-day dress coming onto the stage and bringing us back to the present.

RQ: So you’re preventing people from forgetting that it’s performative.

KD: I think it’s very hard, while watching this play, to forget that you’re watching a play. There’s constant reminders that these are actors and this is a theatrical setting. Very “meta”.

JW: Title-wise, I’d say that we’re Ensemble, Front-of-House, Crew, Singing, Musicians, Sound, Puppeteers, Wardrobe…

HD: What’s interesting to me is that in moments we bring people back to reality, but in others, we function as a heightened theatricality in the show. Even with the fish puppets in the first act, they’re very symbolic, where in act three, it’s very different. The way these different directors have asked us to embody the fish. They change from something deliberately symbolic to something that’s almost real.

RQ: A lot of shows strive for that conversation on the drive home about what things mean, but it sounds like you’re instigating this conversation during the show itself about the nature of performance.

KD: It feels very Brechtian. We have these symbols and signs coming out. Even reading our shirts the first time we come onstage, it’s almost like subtitles.

LRM: Or the prologues and epilogues. Very Brechtian, sure.

CS: I feel like the Passion Players are also mystical elements in the show. With the fish puppets and the fact that we’re in the balcony creating these sounds physically and not using any recorded elements. They always refer to the stage for us as “coming down to Earth”. It maintains a mysticism when we’re in the balcony like we’re the angels pulling the strings.

KDa: Or the puppeteers from above.

CS: Yeah, just being present and observing the show.

KDa: We also make commentary as well. Certain directors in certain scenes want us to be witnessing what’s happening below. I think that intensifies the overall theme of the section. We’re not just an invisible crew, we’re an ensemble that people can see up on the balcony, commenting on what’s happening.

KD: Like a Greek chorus where the audience feeds their own reactions through seeing us observe it.

KDa: In certain scenes in the end of act two, we’re standing and watching what’s happening. I think it gives it a more sinister feel. The stage is entirely red, and Violet comes on and says “My white ribbon is red” in the dark, and Aaron wanted the Passion Players to be overlooking this entire scene as people who are seeing something nasty but doing nothing to stop it. The people of Oberammergau had a Jew living in their village but still denied the existence of a concentration camp at Dachau for a number of years. We are commenting on the moral aspect at that point in the play. There were a few people who really believed in the ideology of the Nazi regime and everybody else just went along with it because they were so… blinkered, in a way.

APM: So by us standing there, it’s like we’re commenting on the hypocrisy.

KD: And I think Violent comments on that when she says “You’re not in a play even when they give you a costume to wear, even if they’re watching like an audience”. I always feel like she’s speaking about us as an audience.

LRM: The Passion Players don’t feature very much in Part Two, and I think that’s intentional. I feel like Aaron was saving that meta moment for the very end, the audience feels very complicit for what’s occurring onstage. Each director working with each time period used a dramatic acting style of the time, and I think that’s written into the play. So I think there’s a more naturalistic feel to Part Two. So having people with a more contemporary visual takes us out of that. We feel very comfortable seeing the Nazi imagery come into play, like “Oh, well, we know what’s going to happen because it’s history and we’re not implicated” but then at the end we see the Passion Players again and we’re reminded. Even the actors look at the audience as if to say “Is this okay that we’re persecuting this young girl?”. I think it’s very powerful.

APM: One of the moments that we get to be a part of that I think has many layers because of who we are as this modern force is this moment where Hitler has just said “Continue with your holy play”, and we turn around, face the audience, and sing In Perpetuum which, of course, means “forever”. So we get that history always repeats itself, and every time I sing that I’m looking right at Hitler and I can’t help feeling how prophetic that is. And then the play gets repeated, you know, right after break, we’re doing this in perpetuum. And other than in Part One, we’re always the ones singing In Perpetuum, it’s like our anthem. We show up again, the Passion Play happens again, and so do the tortured characters and the ways people treat each other.

LRM: But it’s also a current of passion and of love. It’s what causes it to recur. It’s a cyclical thing. It’s interesting the way the relationships between the characters change and modify in each new time period. It’s kind of a weird reiteration of a classical love story, but I feel like it’s a much more philosophical approach while staying accessible.

The Passion Players - BACK ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Bilal Baig, Kathryn Davis, Howard Davis, Aviva Philipp-Muller, Kasey Dunn, Jesse Watts FRONT ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Cheyenne Scott & Harsharan Sidhu

The Passion Players – BACK ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:
Bilal Baig, Kathryn Davis, Howard Davis, Aviva Philipp-Muller, Kasey Dunn, Jesse Watts
Cheyenne Scott & Harsharan Sidhu

RQ: It sounds like you’re performing a lot of opposites at once. You’re this mystical force but you’re also the most human force. You’re the most anachronistic force but you’re also the least anachronistic because you’re in modern garb. The most passive observers who are also very active. It’s a lot of these back-and-forth at once moments, which is very cool.

CS: It’s the same for the characters. There’s a difference between what they should be and how they feel inside.

RQ: This being a co-production between three different companies, have you found any differences in the way the work is approached.

APM: I was talking to Kathryn the other day about how the directors all have different approaches but they’re all such amazing and beautiful approaches. You can tell when you see the production that each play ends up being very unique. I think that helps the audience feel like it’s a lot shorter because it’s like you’re watching three different plays. It’s like when you watch TV for three hours, it’s different shows, so you don’t realize it’s three hours. So, having these three different directors from three different companies, it does end up being a different experience, both being in it and as an observer.

KD: It was also very powerful when they found ways to steal from each other, in a way. They’d watch what the others were creating and then find ways to thread similar themes through so that there are connections. I think it was Alan that first used the triangle as a sound cue to mean stepping outside the action, whether it’s a tableau or an aside. So, once that was introduced in Part One, the other directors picked it up to bring it through so it becomes a constant for the audience. They always know what that sound means. So, while they’re all different in style, there are all these tiny threads that, when you pick up on them, it’s powerful.

KDa: It’s also interesting how we’re used in each act. For example, we use the fish puppets in completely different ways. Alan doesn’t want us to move the fish puppets whereas Mitchell wants movement to it.

KD: Alan’s style in this show is very symbolic and very simple and honest. He’s interested in the fish as a symbol, a Brechtian “This is a fish”. For Mitchell, it’s something more mystical that’s coming in and it’s alive in its own right.

RQ: So during the process, the show has kind of had a conversation with itself because of these different voices.

KD: It’s amazing how it all came together. At first, it seemed like having too many cooks in the kitchen. All these powers trying to work toward the same goal but each in their own way. It’s been amazing watching them come together and create one big thing.

LRM: I think we also came in late in the process. I mean, I was there on the first day of rehearsal, but they had been thinking about this and planning this for a really long time. Two years. So, I think one of the rules, when they wanted assistant directors and Passion Players was actually just to get out their heads or have some extra eyeballs lying around. I mean, when you’re working with people for a very long time and talking about all the same ideas, it’s good to talk to other people about it. You might have this amazing idea that makes complete sense in a language you’ve been using with one person, but once you bring it to a more public audience, it can be redefined or clarified. So, I think that’s another role we serve.

JW: What’s great about this for me is that I worked on a professional show at Theatre Columbus, and it was very straightforward, everyone knew what they were doing, everyone had a position; but with this one, it’s so big that all of us can help out. I feel comfortable enough to just walk up to one of the directors and say “Hey, can I do this for you? Do you need help with this?”. Everyone is so friendly and collaborative that it’s just an amazing process.

HD: They’re not opposed to new ideas. Because it’s so big, everyone’s opinion is valid.

KD: There’s so much room to slot yourself in somewhere. Even with costuming. Coming into this, I didn’t know too much about it, but someone asked for help, and I kind of became in charge of wardrobe in a weird way. There are a lot of jobs to be done and only so many people to do them.

APM: In my experience, nobody here has had such a big ego that they wouldn’t want help. Even if between where they are in their career and where I am in mine is a huge disparity, if they need help with something, they’ll turn to us.

HD: Some of us went to school together, and the program we have is very multi-disciplinary, so you work closely with production. So, I had an appreciation for production anyway, but it’s…my goodness. I have even more of an appreciation for people who do lighting and props. I’ve done shows where I needed endurance, but in this, it’s a different kind of feeling. We finish a show and we’re exhausted physically, and the actors are exhausted emotionally. I’ve always been used to being on the other side of things.

KDa: We have to be constantly present while remembering our cues and knowing to do our sound effects, lighting, et cetera. So, you’re constantly on edge. I don’t want to mess up a gel. So, constantly present and making that commentary, as I said, like then end of Part Two, for instance. We are the creative ensemble but also the technical crew. So it’s physically draining but also requires a lot of mental focus. It’s been fun. I remember that tech week was quite chaotic because we knew we’d have to make certain sound effects, but when lighting started to come into play as well, it was harder. We needed to have spotlights, and gel changes. At one point, for instance, one of the directors said “Oh, I want to have a spotlight there, who’s up above?”, and we were all onstage. So, I was removed from an ensemble scene and put on the spotlight instead. So, it was chaotic because we were desperately trying to remember cues. The whole thing has been very fluid because I was asked to do a gel change and I’m actually on the other side, so Aviva stepped up. All hands on deck.

LRM: This sort of independent theatre would not happen without people like this. The funding is not feasible. Passion Play has gotten a lot of buzz and part of me is wondering if it means people might be more open to the idea of trying to put on epic theatre done by independent companies. It’s really amazing.

KD: Not only is it really gratifying, but it gives me a sense of invincibility. If I can actually do the lighting and the sounds and be onstage in one show, what could I not do? If I wanted to put on my own show tomorrow, I feel like I’d be that much more capable, and I’d have more confidence.

KDa: This show is setting a precedent in Canadian theatre, I think, for being an epic show, and one that reviews have said will be talked about for years. But, yet, it’s three small, growing companies coming together with thirty-five people working on this. We’re moving locations, we move the audience from Withrow Park to Eastminster Church. Even that is ambitious in one way. Then there’s the acting company, and eight Passion Players, we have the assistant directors, and Evan [Harkai] and Bryn [McLeod] all working to make sure this piece comes together.

KD: It’s a labour of love in the truest sense. These groups were so passionate about making this happen, no matter what they had to do. It’s exciting.

APM: I feel like I have the experience of doing four plays from this one show!

PASSION PLAY by Sarah Ruhl
When: June 6-30th
What: Three of Toronto’s leading indie theatre companies, Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, and Sheep No Wool present the Canadian premiere of Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl. Brought to Toronto’s East End by Crow’s Theatre.
Where: Passion Play is an immersive performance experience in three acts. Act One begins in Toronto’s beautiful Withrow Park, after which the audience and performers will walk together across the Danforth to Eastminster United Church’s magnificent auditorium for Acts Two and Three. 
Tickets: can be purchased online or in person at Withrow Park beginning one hour before showtime.
Book your tickets online here
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