A Play-Within-a-Play-Within-A-Church: We Chat with Rosamund Small, Writer of Genesis & Other Stories at the 2013 Toronto Fringe
Interview by Hallie Seline
I met up with Rosamund Small, writer of Genesis & Other Stories, one of the site-specific productions that you can (and should) check out as part of the 2013 Toronto Fringe Festival July 3rd to the 14th. Contrary to what the promo pictures might suggest, should you have seen them tantalizing your facebook walls and twitter accounts, she was fully clothed in a lovely summer outfit, with no cheekily-playful shrubbery keeping her modest. We talked craft beers, excessive amounts of hummus and the world of theatre school and life after on the patio of Grapefruit Moon in the Annex. And then when our hummus plate finally was left bare, we talked about the play she’s been developing for four years and is still apparently re-writing a week before show-time, Genesis & Other Stories…
HS: Let’s begin. Talk to me about Genesis & Other Stories.
RS: Genesis is a show that I actually started writing when I was really young. I started writing it when I was seventeen. I had just written my first show that I was really proud of, which is hilarious because I was about fifteen/sixteen at the time, but it had like three jokes in it and people really, really laughed and I thought…
HS: “Am I funny?”
RS: Yeah! Exactly. And I mean, you know, it wasn’t some work of genius but that was in high school and I had never really experienced that very specific high of sitting in an audience, and the moment when every body laughed, you could really know, “oh wait, they are really listening”. So I determined that I wanted to write a really balls-to-the-walls comedy. (She laughs.) It was a really long time ago when I wrote the first version of Genesis & Other Stories and did a performance of it in high school. After that, I continued to work on it for the first time through the Paprika Festival with Damien Atkins as my mentor, who, may I say, is just the most wonderful person. He has such a specific sense of humor, which makes me laugh so much all while he’s being incredibly serious. He was such an inspiring person to work with. All of this was, believe it or not, about four years ago. We did a staged reading at Paprika and the improvements I had made on the script and having done the staged reading with a really solid group of actors, meant that I felt like there was something I could clock about that success.
After that I put it away and didn’t really read it, in fact I didn’t read it for about four years. When I finally looked at it again, all I could think was, “Ah, this doesn’t make any sense. This is dreadful!” I had thought it was so funny and cleaver and then four years later you read it and you’re just like “oh god!” But still, we did a table read of it and by just sort of happenstance, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, who was in the table read playing the main character, who is actually supposed to be a man, (she was great, obviously), was really enthusiastic about it. I don’t know, just her response to it… the fact that she, who is so smart and able to analyze scripts in a very thoughtful way, still really loved it… which for someone who thought after four years that this play didn’t make any sense, it was incredibly inspiring.
So I decided that I would ‘fix’ it, and that’s why we brought it back to Paprika. We teamed up together, Vivien and I. It was really her enthusiasm that made this show go back into development. We worked on it last summer and did another staged reading in January and a production with Paprika in March and even now we are still…
RS: Yes! Oh my gosh, the obsessive re-writing of this show is… crazy. Like it’s crazy. It’s crazy!
HS: And the show is going up in the next week?
RS: Well it’s really different now. At first it was like, new scenes and new elements, but now it’s really just about clarifying little tiny moments. I think it’s a testament to the actors and to Vivien and to the fact that we’ve all worked so long on this project together, that usually when the change happens we all think “Oh, good! There it is. That makes more sense” and everyone is on the same page about it.
HS: So the cast you have now, you’ve been working with them throughout your development with the show for the past year?
RS: Yes, since November, so they’ve played a really valuable part of the show’s development of where it is today. I think when you trust your actors, I mean you always have to let them try things out and see what works, but when they ultimately don’t know what they are doing, it’s incredibly helpful for the development of the script.
HS: It gives you a chance to see it fleshed out in front of you and realize when the script really isn’t working.
RS: Yes! Totally.
HS: So, let’s talk about the origin of Genesis & Other Stories. Where did the idea for this play come from?
RS: You mean, why would I write about a Christian play within a play? Well, religion and theatre, I think, are really the two obsessive, kind of crazy, kind of amazing things that I see people really dedicate their whole lives to, so I thought, why not put them together. (She laughs). For example, the idea that when you go on stage, you know, if you fail it’s just terrible and it’s often thought of as being just the worst for an actor. So I thought, well great, let’s talk about that. We have some characters who are all about that, who think “Oh I’ll just look stupid” and that fear underlines everything for them, while we have other characters who are working on this play and thinking “Well if I fail, it’s for the grace of God” and “I care about this play because it’s a part of the other thing that people really dedicate their lives to”. The idea of really having to put yourself on the line and having faith in something is a real unity between a lot of the ways that artists think and the ways that many people who are religious think.
HS: You know, I have never really thought of it like that, but it’s kind of true. It’s funny, we were discussing earlier how theatre can be a little cult-like sometimes and it can almost consume you.
HS: Well and I guess with both that and religion, there can be a fine line.
RS: Yeah, I think there is. And I also think that there is a really great parallel of following a script, you know, following text, which you don’t realize as having that kind of power. Which is so funny, because I’m a writer, and in our rehearsal room, the writer is present, you can ask me about the text. But ultimately, the writer isn’t present for most theatre and you’re just supposed to trust how you think and interpret it for your time, which is very similar to a lot of bible conversations. So for this to be a bible play, and for the characters to be arguing about how they should literally be following this bible play was just a very appealing little dynamic for me.
HS: So in a description of the show, it’s labeled as a “romp to get you thinking”…
RS: Oh my. Sounds exciting!
HS: Very! Specifically it’s described as follows: “Slapstick, satire and meta-theatre frame a surprisingly complex story about lonely people trying to fill roles that do not suit us.” Can you talk to me about the roles that humor and pain play in Genesis & Other Stories and about your thoughts on using humor to get to something a little more poignant in your writing?
RS: For sure. I mean up until very recently, and I really mean like February, I thought that comic relief was important in a dark story or it’s important to have pain and comedy next to each other, like there should be a moment of pain and a moment of comedy. We went through these drafts of Genesis & Other Stories where everything would just sort of stop, all of the ‘funny’ would stop and we would have our moment of ‘pain’, then the comedy would start again, and I’ve just really shifted my thinking on that. I think that a real comedy is pain, like it’s all mixed in together. It’s not like you inject the drama or place it in other scenes. Anything that really makes someone laugh from his or her gut is probably about pain. So I’m not equipped or interested in, at this moment in time, writing something that makes anyone in the audience want to cry. That’s not where I’m at right now, particularly. But at the same time, I don’t think comedy is a real escape, at all. It’s like facing something in a way that you feel you actually can face it. It’s the fun-house mirror version of reality, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not completely real.
So the fact there there’s a lot in the play about being in the wrong place, not being able to live up to expectations, not being able to be who you are, like there’s queer themes and gender themes and a lot of things about people being in the wrong role and then literally, on stage in a role where they don’t fit or can’t do, those situations can be funny, even though they can be awful or poignant at the same time.
HS: So you are performing at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church. Are you rehearsing in the church, as well, or are you just performing there for the duration of the Fringe Festival?
RS: We’ve rehearsed on and off a few times in the church, but we haven’t been able to be there every day.
HS: Being labeled as a site-specific show, how has being in the church with the show affected your actors or the play, itself, as you’ve said you’re still re-writing?
RS: I think it forces you to face exactly what you’re talking about, you know? I mean it makes you think, “What church is it? Where are you? What’s out the window? How old is it?” All of those hyperrealism elements come into play with site-specific and that has been really great. But it’s also meant that we can’t get away with anything cheap. I’m not interested in making fun of all religion and I’m not interested in making fun of Christianity, in particular, even. You really want to make fun of a very specific moment and a very specific character with a specific belief and so performing in an actual church has really heightened that kind of specificity for this story. In terms of the actors, I think to have them doing a play in an environment where plays aren’t really ‘supposed’ to be done, they’ve had to work so hard just to make that work, which they do, I think. It’s going to be totally theatrically valid, especially because of Vivien’s work, but it’s just because they are so used to thinking “Well, the lights will light me in a way that draws attention to me” and now it’s like, no, if you’re not good enough, no one will even know what you’re doing. So, yeah, they’ve really risen to that challenge in a fantastic way.
HS: What do you think someone can hope to get out of seeing Genesis & Other Stories that that they, perhaps, might not be expecting?
RS: I think probably that it will be really inclusive, I hope. I only say this because Performing Occupy Toronto, which was my last play, most of the response that I received from people is how they really expected it to be incredibly preachy or politically, it would be really one-sided, and I didn’t speak to anyone who felt misrepresented or angry or that their perspective was really left out of the show, so I hope that I am able to repeat that. I really hope that this play incorporates respectful perspectives from very religious people, from atheists, from somewhat religious people. I hope that will be what people can walk away with, unexpectedly, maybe… that everyone feels included. I think when you’re satirizing something, especially something like religion, or politics et cetera, it gets people’s backs up quite immediately, and I really like people to be surprised by the fact that you can have a thoughtful conversation in art and it doesn’t have to be anger-inducing. It can be thoughtful and enjoyable. I really think this is the case.
HS: Fantastic. Lastly, what song would you encourage your audience members to listen to before coming to see Genesis & Other Stories?
HS: And with that, we’ll see you at the Fringe in a church!
RS: See you at the Fringe in a church.