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In Conversation with Carly Chamberlain & Susan Bond of Hart House Theatre’s “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)”

Interview by Ryan Quinn

RQ: Hello! So I’m here with Carly Chamberlain, director, and Susan Bond, dramaturge, of Hart House Theatre’s production of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). Tell me a bit about the show? 

CC: Essentially, it centres around a women who is an overlooked, often taken-advatage-of academic who is working on her thesis and she has a theory about some of Shakespeare’s plays that nobody believes in. That’s sort of the setup.

SB: So she’s come to a crisis about her work and her treatment in this academic model that she’s working through.

CC: In a larger sense, it’s her crisis of identity in general. So that’s the crisis, then she falls in a garbage can… as you do. There’s a magical element to the play where a choral moment initiates her falling into a garbage can, and falling into her subconscious, which takes form as a Shakespearean-like world.

SB: Right, she falls into a very specific Shakespearean world, as you could guess from the title. She falls into the worlds of Othello and Romeo and Juliet.

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Photo Credit: Scott Gorman. (LtoR) – Nathan Bitton as Romeo, Lesley Robertson as Constance, Katie Ribout as Juliet

CC: She meets two of her heroines, and it’s a journey set around finding her way out and solving her thesis question, but it’s really about meeting the so-called “real” versions of them and also finding her own identity. It’s really a journey of self-discovery, especially since it’s her subconscious, they’re all elements of her.

SB: At the same time, she’s helping solve their problems of mortality.

CC: She’s searching for her real identity by assisting them.

SB: I think it’s also worth mentioning for people who aren’t already familiar with the play and perhaps not familiar with the fact that Ann-Marie MacDonald is Canadian, and that she is a struggling academic at Queen’s University in Kingston.

CC: That being said, I think it’s important to note that while the play is very clever, and it references a lot of Shakespeare, I don’t think you have to be intimately familiar with the plays to enjoy it. It’s a human story of loving yourself.

SB: You’ll certainly get more out of it if you’re familiar with those two plays and the rest of Shakespeare’s work. You’ll see more of the layers in it if you do, but it’s not essential.

RQ: There’s a few things I want to touch on there. Constance is very much a modern protagonist. She’s an iconic character of Canadian theatre. Is there a calling for more strong, modern female protagonists?

CC: Yes! But I don’t think “strong” is the right word to describe her, necessarily. She has strength and she discovers her strength, but I think what makes her a good example of a female character in Canadian theatre is that she’s complex.

SB: Most of her problems aren’t “woman problems”. She has career problems and self-discovery problems, which are things that everyone has. She’s an important female character in that she’s a great role for female actors because she’s also more complex.

CC: The whole thing is about her finding her strength, but there’s a problem with the writing of female characters in general where if they aren’t someone’s girlfriend or wife or talking about their romances, the other extreme is that they’re superheroes; which is another sexualized, objectified version of a woman, as well.

RQ: So it looks at the concept of strength beyond the male-centric idea of what a strong woman looks like.

CC: Yeah. I think there’s something to it even beyond a male-centric idea. I mean, patriarchy is everywhere, so we’re all viewing through those goggles, but what’s really special to me about this play (and part of it is that you view whatever you’re working on through whatever you’re processing yourself) is that it’s not about male or female but about saying, “Hey, things are complicated, nothing’s black and white, and the mess of life is okay, and I’m still awesome even if I’m a mess”. That’s something we all need to readjust to as far as what strength is.

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Photo Credit: Scott Gorman. (LtoR) – Cydney Penner as Desdemona , Nathan Bitton as Iago, Lesley Robertson as Constance

SB: “You shouldn’t need to be above the mess. Strength is living in the mess and working through it.”

CC: But yes, to come back to the question, I do think there’s a real lack of complex female roles in film and TV, obviously in classical theatre, but also in Canadian theatre. We spoke about finding other Canadian plays with complex women in them and it’s actually a struggle.

RQ: In pop culture in general. In the zeitgeist, there are very few of them.

CC: Yeah, and then, when there is, it’s a big thing. Look at the reaction to HBO’s Girls.

RQ: Because there’s that thing where people look at it and say “But these characters are kind of shitty sometimes. How are they supposed to be female role models?”

CC: I read a really interesting article recently that compared Hannah from Girls to Llewyn Davis from Inside Llewyn Davis, and it was showing that that’s a perfect example of the flaws in innate sexism. We look at Llewyn Davis and we’re like, “Man, he’s fucked up. He’s talented, but he’s fucked up and he makes fucked up decisions. He’s a tragic hero,” but with Hannah we’re like “You’re a brat. Get over yourself”. I would argue that the Coen Brothers do romanticize Llewyn Davis more than Lena Dunham romanticizes her character, but it’s the same thing, she’s a self-indulgent, talented person and so is he, but she is the one who gets ragged on.

SB: Also, I think that because there’s a relative dearth of complex female characters like that, she winds up standing in for not just self-indulgent talented people but also “ladies”, or “girls” in general. That’s just a problem of underrepresentation.

CC: Since there’s a lack in general, every female character has to live up to the standard of not being any stereotype, which is pretty impossible.

RQ: As soon as someone becomes iconic in that sense, they have to be everything to everyone all the time.

CC: Exactly, which is impossible. But, as much as I’m all about more roles for women, I don’t think anyone that champions that wants to watch plays about perfect people, because why would you watch it?

RQ: So what you’re talking about is that female characters are allowed to have conflict. They don’t have to be the side character but they also don’t have to be above all conflict and completely inscrutable.

CC: Essentially.

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Photo Credit: Scott Gorman. (LtoR) – Katie Ribout as Juliet, Lesley Robertson as Constance, Cydney Penner as Desdemona

RQ: So, Susan, as a dramaturge, there are several different worlds in this play. How do you go about investigating the different worlds and how they interconnect?

SB: My speciality as a dramaturge is working with Shakespeare, so the knowledge I bring to the table at a production is going to be actually stronger than the Canadian academic world, despite being a Canadian graduate student, though not in the 80’s. You referred to Constance as a “modern” female character, but she’s not actually that modern, she’s set in the 1980’s and it’s surprising how much that world lives in the play. Because we’re not actually in Verona or Cyprus, we’re in Constance’s imagination, it’s amazing how her world kind of emerges in them in strange ways.

CC: And we’re definitely trying to highlight that. I think sometimes people go for an interpretation where we’re actually there in stereotype-land. Our set doesn’t change, other than through light and sound, and that’s on purpose. The office is onstage the whole time. Something we talked about from the very beginning is the idea that she’s in “Cyprus”, not Cyprus. Because of that, the dramaturgy becomes complex. The first step is saying “this is what it was in the original play”, and making a conscious choice if it’s going to be different.

SB: “This is what the coastline in Cyprus was. These are the places it would be appropriate for Desdemona to be. This is where a historical Desdemona would be. This is where Shakespeare’s Desdemona would be.” But, MacDonald’s Desdemona is in a different place altogether.

CC: The layers of references in the play are astounding. For example, there are a lot of references to alchemy; but there’s a difference between Renaissance alchemy, which is transmuting base metals to gold; but there’s a very intentional layer on top which is Jung’s idea that they were being metaphorical and alchemy is actually about self-actualization. So, all that stuff is layered in.

SB: There’s a lot of dramaturgy in this show.

RQ: And all the layers inform each other, right?

CC: Yup, real easy, super easy.

SB: Yeah, I just know what the words mean.

CC: But that’s something about Shakespearean dramaturgy in general, is that the actors or I might have a question about what some little thing means and we might find out it’s a reference to some obscure thing.

SB: Like the Gustav manuscript. It’s an 18th Century German novel about someone searching for a manuscript that was lost, so in a way, it sets up the premise for Constance’s entire academic career.

CC: Yeah, then you go, “This is all interesting, but to the character, it means nothing”. You don’t know these things, it’s outside of the world.

SB: But then some elements are conscious references, so it all ties into itself.

RQ: And how has it been working with Hart House on this show?

CC: It’s good. We both have histories with them, though Susan’s is longer.

SB: I’m the Resident Dramaturge.

RQ: How did you start there?

SB: I started as a dramaturge for Canopy Theatre, which is associated with Hart House and so I worked with Jeremy [Hutton], when he was acting in a show I was dramaturge for, and he saw what I brought to the table.

CC: When I was an actor, earlier in my career, I was in Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hart House. So I had a bit of a relationship with them, then Jeremy and I worked together at Shakespeare By the Sea as well, and we had a good working relationship. And I assistant-directed there last year for Robin Hood: The Musical, which is another Hart House/Shakespeare by the Sea crossover. It’s been pretty awesome working with them. As far as the management goes, they’re very supportive and trusting.

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Photo Credit: Scott Gorman. (LtoR) Lesley Robertson as Constance, Nicholas Porteous as Professor Claude Knight

RQ: What would you say your goals are this year?

CC: In life?

RQ: In life!

SB: In 2014?

RQ: In 2014!

CC: I think for me, it’s two things. On the one hand, I’m still trying to figure out what directing means and how to be good at it in a thoughtful way. I want to continue to develop because you can only learn it by doing. On the other hand, Susan and I work together separately [with Neoteny theatre] and I think we both want to make a positive and significant contribution to the theatre scene, particularly as it relates to classical-adjacent work and roles for women, so this falls right in line with that. We want to be thoughtful instead of making work for work’s sake. That’s really hard because we all want to be working all the time. When we did Overruled and Romance last year, it went really well and people wanted to know what we were doing next, but we’re trying to resist the urge to just do something for its own sake. You know, “put on a show and put my friends in it”, because that’s tempting.

RQ: Vanity project theatre.

CC: Right, and that’s such a murky area because to some degree, everything you do is a vanity project because even if you’re getting paid, you’re not getting as much as you should, so you have to be getting something else out of it. I think that sums it up nicely.

SB: Yeah! I think we’re trying to reconcile the intersection of classical work with women’s roles in general. A, let’s just say it, feminist model, to some extent.

CC: I think what we’re dancing around is that we’re interested in feminist work that’s not feminist for its own sake, but feminist for that basic definition of equal rights for all people. It’s one of those things that once you start seeing things through that lens, and you’re a creator of any kind, you have a responsibility to make sure that work continues. That being said, we’re not entirely humourless. So that, plus joy in the work. That’s the other thing with me directing is that I’m trying to find that line where everything is falling into place, but that sense of play and joy and ensemble is there too. That’s really important, as an audience member. I want to find that balance where they’re in an environment where they can live in the moment.

SB: If there’s no play in the play, then it’s entirely joyless.

RQ: It’s moral responsibility theatre, which can be pretty boring.

CC: I think about this stuff all the time because I’m kind of a cynical person and when people say things like “Oh, when this show closes, I’m going to miss this cast so much!”, I’m the one that’s like “You’re doing a job”. Navigating the line where there’s a sense of joy in the ensemble and the bond you form with the other members comes from working toward the same goal, that’s huge and important. All the other stuff, drinking together and whatever, that’s cool if you have that social vibe, but the vibe in the room is so much more exciting and important.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)

By Ann-Marie MacDonald, presented by Hart House Theatre

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Where: Hart House Theatre, University of Toronto, 7 Hart House Circle
When: February 28th – March 8th, 2014 8pm, Saturday Matinee 2pm
Tickets: $15-$28 http://uofttix.ca/view.php?id=1000

For more information on the show: http://www.harthousetheatre.ca/

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