Steinbeck meets Clown in “Of Mice and Morro and Jasp” – A Chat over Tea with Co-Creators & Performers Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee
Interview by Madryn McCabe
I had tea on a frigid evening with the talented and wonderful Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee of Morro and Jasp as they finished each others’ sentences and laughed about their upcoming show, “Of Mice and Morro and Jasp” playing now at the Factory Studio Theatre, January 28th to February 8th.
MM: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Morro and Jasp?
HMA: Morro and Jasp are clown sisters. Jasp is older.
AL: Yes, she certainly is.
HML: And more bossy. And more particular. And they have been sisters…
AL: And Morro is younger. And more unruly. And flies by the seat of her pants. But loving and free spirited. (Indicates Annis) She plays Morro. We both said a nice thing and a not so nice thing about each others’ character.
HMA: They can’t live with each other or without each other.
AL: Absolutely. They have been growing up over the years. This is our… I can’t really keep track anymore. This is show… maybe eight, nine?
HMA: They’ve gone on a series of adventures. We started out with them performing. Morro and Jasp are the ones writing the plays and putting on the plays.
AL: We help sometimes.
HML: And they’ve grown up through the series of shows that we’ve done since we started. We had three…?
AL: Three shows for young audiences and then they went through puberty, which was awkward and exciting and then they went on different vacations, then they did a cooking show and now they’re tackling a tragedy with Of Mice and Morro and Jasp.
MM: So in doing Of Mice and Morro and Jasp, do we see their growing maturity through the progression of them growing up?
HMA: Yes. And they’re at a stage in their lives where they’re struggling financially, and they’re trying to find their place in the world with jobs and how they’re accepted by society, or not accepted by society.
AL: Figuring out how to make life work. (Looks at Annis) I guess you said that.
HMA: You said it in a different way.
MM: It sounds incredibly relatable. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t say, “What’s my place in the world? How do I figure this out? I need a job!”
AL: And similarly, just how George and Lenny are figuring out where to go and how to make their dream work. The first thing that jumped out for us was that it was such a great pairing. Their relationship is so similar to our relationship and then just figuring out their similarities. George and Lenny’s journey and Morro and Jasp’s journey and how they fit.
HMA: And also to explore the sadness in their lives. The tragic elements, beyond comedy, what else there is.
AL: There are always elements of tragedy in our shows, of course, there has to be both, but we wanted to try and adapt a full on tragedy to see what would happen.
MM: Is this because the two of you sit down and say “This is what we’re going to do”? What is your process of developing your shows? I’ve heard of some performers who say “There is me, and then there is my clown” and others who say “It’s all me”.
HMA: (laughs) That is an interesting question!
AL: We are IN our clowns, but our clowns…because we’ve been doing them for so long, they really have minds of their own. And a lot of the time, we’ll think something will be a good idea, and when we rehearse as Morro and Jasp, they will let us know. A lot of the time, we’ll try to solve the problem, and we’ll say “Let’s let Morro and Jasp solve it” and they do.
HMA: At the end of the day, your clown character is coming from you and your own individual personality, which is why clown is so specific. With some characters, you can try to replicate them and perform this other person as an actor. I find it’s a little more challenging with clown because it is so specific to your person. So, we are our clowns, but once we get into character and start exploring ideas, we have totally different ideas that will come out in different ways.
AL: It’s about impulses!
HMA: Right. We might not have those as Heather and Amy sitting at a computer coming up with ideas. Theirs will be more! Theirs will be bigger and more exciting and more extreme.
AL: We write our shows in combination with them. We do it, and then we do it in clown, and we go back and forth to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
MM: I want to hear about your cookbook. How did that come to be?
AL: We were doing a show called Morro and Jasp: Go Bake Yourself and it’s our show about cooking. Someone came to see it, and he worked in publishing and said, “Make a book, and we’ll publish it”. Those were our guidelines! We didn’t really have any!
HMA: He totally came to us with the idea. We had said, “Maybe we should make a book, that would be so much fun”. Maybe we just put it out into the universe! He gave us so much freedom. The idea was to make a cookbook combined with other things, because it came out of our cooking show.
AL: We had never planned to make a cookbook, but it was a fun match. And we both love cooking and making food, and food in general and it felt like a good fit. It was a lot of work! We had no idea how much work a cookbook would be!
HMA: The fact that he gave us so much freedom is why it worked for us. We got to discover what form and what content, and everything it would be based on our process and how we went along with it and what discoveries we made along the way. Which isn’t always what you set out to do when you make a book, because I would assume the publisher would dictate it, especially when he came to us with the idea. We didn’t know how long it was going to be either.
AL: Initially, it was supposed to be 60-80 pages, and it ended up being about 235! We just kept getting excited about all the different recipes we could put in!
MM: Are they all your own recipes?
HMA: It’s a combination of some recipes we made up, recipes that we have that we’ve used and loved, a lot of recipes from our families and friends, and some fans.
AL: Some fans wrote in and submitted recipes, which is fun.
HMA: Each of the recipes says who it’s from.
AL: It was exciting to see what we would get. And we tested everything.
HMA: Morro and Jasp tested them! (laughs)
AL: Well, we were there to guide the process.
HMA: There are also some recipes from our show, Go Bake Yourself. So it’s connected back to the show.
MM: It’s an extension of the show? A new medium?
AL: Yeah! It doesn’t run the same storyline as the show, but it’s connected.
HMA: There are similar themes about emotion and eating and those are connected. And love, and how food is a way of expressing love.
MM: Now I want to see a Morro and Jasp cooking show on TV.
HMA: So do we! That would be great!
AL: A few people have mentioned that. So we’ll see. We’d be up for it. And I think Morro and Jasp would be too. Jasp would feel like all her dreams came true.
MM: Of Mice and Morro and Jasp is a remount. Has it developed at all since the last time you performed it?
HMA: We’re developing it now! (laughs)
AL: We’re still developing it.
HMA: That’s where we just came from. It’s not that the story of it is changing, there aren’t dramatic rewrites, but we’re fine tuning it. We have more space to play now. At the Toronto Fringe you have a timeline. So now we have more room to breathe, and give the moments more detail. We can infuse a little more energy or breath into them.
AL: We’re coming back and going, “I think we can make this moment better. How can we do that?” “This monologue can be better”. So it’s really nice to be able to fix all the things that we wanted to fix and didn’t have time to. There are a few new elements as well, production elements that we can have.
MM: Like pyrotechnics?
AL: That would be fun!
HMA: The idea of the show is that times are tough. They’re on a strict budget and they’ve spent their last dollars on their set. No pyrotechnics, unfortunately. Not this time around anyway.
AL: But that is a good idea.
MM: Do you have anything else in the works? What’s next for Morro and Jasp?
AL: Morro and Jasp are in residence at Factory Theatre this season, developing their newest show, Morro and Jasp: 9 to 5, which is about them actually getting jobs. This show [Of Mice and Morro and Jasp] is about them not being able to, and the next show is about them figuring out how to actually make that happen.
HMA: Hold down a job.
AL: So that’s in process. We’re writing that right now. And also right after this show closes, we have a few days, and then we go to Ottawa to the GCTC for the Undercurrents Festival, and we’re performing Morro and Jasp Do Puberty there. Which is exciting because that’s the first in our series of adult shows, so it’s nice to give Ottawa audiences an introduction to us with that one.
MM: In going back to these other shows, are you finding out more and more about Morro and Jasp? Are Morro and Jasp discovering more about themselves?
AL: We always discover more. Every time we do a show, we change things about it. Because we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, we’ve learned a lot about Morro and Jasp, we learn so much more about who they are every time we do a show. That does inform us. We can add more detail and new things.
HMA: And also sometimes we have references or comments about things that are very timely. They’re happening now. So we’ll change them when we go back to a show. And always we’re interacting so much with the audience and the space that we’re in. Storytelling has to be alive and based on that audience and that thing and what they’re saying to you.
MM: Do you prefer that freedom of development of character and story versus an established play and character written by a playwright? Do you need both?
AL: It’s nice to have both.
HMA: They’re so different.
AL: It’s a totally different challenge. It’s nice to be able to practice both. Doing a play with a script written by someone else, whether it be a famous great playwright or someone new, always teaches us as artists a lot. So it’s nice to have the two inform each other constantly. How to bring what you know about making new work into a script that’s written and how to bridge that other kind of work into what we’re making.
HMA: And it’s a completely different exercise in that, with someone else’s script, you’re trying to interpret it and learn what’s already there and what’s hiding underneath and between the lines. With our stuff, it feels like such a rare opportunity to have a character that you enjoy and play with for so long. For, what? Ten years?
AL: Almost ten years, yeah.
HMA: And they’re so close to us because we created them. It’s a very special thing to be able to play with.
AL: We get to keep coming back to the same character and get to see what they will do in new circumstances, a new adventure, but keeping them, them. The nice thing is that there are no limits in terms of what we want to explore, but there are limits in terms of who those characters are and their relationship. That informs everything that happens.
MM: Are there certain things that Morro and Jasp would never do or say?
HMA: Never say never! (laughs) But there are certain things that they aren’t likely to do. They have their boundaries too. And those change and evolve just like anyone else. They’ve become these very dynamic people because they’ve existed for so long.
AL: I really hate it when actors say, “My character would never do that”. A lot of the time I think, “Just make it work”, but with this, Jasp, say, wouldn’t be happy wearing a pair of baggy pants. But it might be fun to see what happens when you put her in a pair of baggy pants.
HMA: So with those boundaries, it helps us put them into situations that they hate, which is funny. That’s what good theatre is, dynamics. So the more that we found out what they hate or love, the more we can play with the dynamic.
MM: To wrap up, in three words, why should people come to see Of Mice and Morro and Jasp?
AL: Steinbeck meets clown. You’ve got to find out what that means!
Of Mice and Morro and Jasp
Created and performed by Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee
Directed by Byron Laviolette
Presented by Up your Nose and In your Toes (U.N.I.T.) Productions & Factory Theatre
When: January 28th – February 8th, Tues-Sat 8pm, Thurs 1pm, Sat 2pm
Where: Factory Studio Theatre
Tickets: $25 Regular Price, $20 Student, Senior, Arts Worker