Romeo and (her) Juliet – An interview with Leslie McBay
Interview by Brittany Kay
I chat with the lovely Leslie McBay about the necessity in creating your own work, the need for fascinating female characters, and of course the fresh take on a classic in the show Romeo and (her) Juliet.
Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about Romeo and (her) Juliet?
Leslie: Romeo and (her) Juliet is a queer take on the classic love story, featuring women in the title roles. The characters have been reimagined for contemporary Toronto, which allows us to open up opportunities for female-identified, LGBTQ and culturally diverse performers and audiences. We edited the play down to a 90 minute running time, and staged it throughout the sanctuary of Bloor Street United Church, creating an immersive experience for the audience.
BK: Where did the inspiration for the interpretation of the show come from?
LMB: Out of frustration, largely, and a longing to have more opportunities for interesting female characters, particularly in classical theatre. Melanie Hrymak (my wonderful co-adaptor, co-producer and Tybalt) and I decided to create the work that we wished we were auditioning for, in this case, classical theatre that centres women and a queer story. Which is pretty hard to come by, even in contemporary theatre. Repurposing some of the traditional male roles as female allows the women to be much more active in the story, and telling queer stories has personal importance. What better love story to tell (and to queer) than the quintessential Western love story?
BK: Talk to me about the Bloor United Church as a space. I know Urban Bard likes to do site specific classical work, so how is the church used in conjunction with the play?
LMB: The church is a big part of our story. It is Friar Laurence’s church, and the play is framed as part of a service after the kids (Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet) have died. The audience arrives to find memorial tables for Tybalt and Mercutio, before heading into the sanctuary. Part-way through the prologue spoken by the Friar (played by the incredible Lisa Karen Cox), her memories come barging in and play out the action.
BK: As this show is being co-produced, how did these two groups come together?
LMB: Melanie had worked with Urban Bard and director Scott Moyle before, and Urban Bard frequently casts women in very active, traditionally male roles. Scott has feminist sensibilities, a ridiculous knowledge of Shakespeare and a lot of experience staging site-specific work. It made a lot of sense to team up and pool our resources and skills to make this production happen.
BK: I see that composer, Stephen Joffe, is on your production team. How is music used as an element in the show?
LMB: Stevie composed a lot of cool music inspired by the show, and we hope to have a music night at some point where we can feature the music, because we weren’t able to incorporate all of it into the show. He wrote an awesome song for Juliet (the lovely Krystina Bojanowski) which she performs at the Capulet’s party, instead of the traditional group choreographed dance. It’s a song gives us a glimpse into Juliet and how stifled she feels by the roles she’s forced into by her family.
BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?
LMB: I want people who have never seen themselves onstage in classical theatre to see themselves represented, particularly queer women. I want the audience to feel personally involved in the community that failed these kids and consider why the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth is still so high. And I want the audience to look at the classics in a new way, with an eye for subverting the traditional.
BK: You are clearly not a one trick pony, how do you divide your time between creating, acting, and producing?
LMB: Well, producing has sort of become one of my jobs out of necessity. Performing is where my heart is, and to do the work I want to be doing, that often means creating it. The last 18 months have mostly been focused on creating, producing and performing a couple of projects, and trying to compartmentalize acting and producing roles, so they don’t interfere with each other. I am super lucky to be collaborating with Melanie on R&J, because she took over most of the producer duties during the rehearsal process, which allowed me to focus on acting.
BK: Where does your inspiration come from when you create/write?
LMB: Lately, I’ve been working on reimagining classics with Romeo and (her) Juliet, and Honest Aesop’s Fables, which was a collective creation adapting Aesop’s Fables for a young, modern audience. I love subverting expectations about what a classic story should be. (Hint: It shouldn’t be limited to stories about/for straight, old, white men.) Mostly, my inspiration comes from a place of frustration about being told what I can and should do as a woman and an actor, and saying, “Screw that!”
BK: Do you have a favourite place to write?
LMB: Anywhere I can wear giant, fuzzy socks, drink tea and wrap myself up in a blanket. So, my apartment. Preferably not in the sweltering summer months.
BK: Where did you grow up? How did you get to where you are now?
LMB: I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, in Northern Ontario. I co-founded a youth theatre company as a teenager, under the well-established Sault Theatre Workshop, and was able to access free rehearsal and performance space. To say our group was prolific is an understatement. We were constantly rehearsing original and classical works, hosting classes and experimenting. That group of people had a huge impact on who I am and where I am today.
BK: Any advice for emerging artists?
LMB: If you aren’t doing the work you want to be doing, create it!
And take time to invest in yourself, outside of all those acting class. Take care of your body, go to therapy, build fulfilling relationships, and be kind to yourself.
Presented by: Headstrong Collective, in association with Urban Bard
Where: Bloor Street United Church
Wednesday September 17th at 7:30pm
Friday September 19th at 1:00pm and 7:30pm
Saturday September 20th at 7:30pm
Romeo and (her) Juliet: www.RandJTO.com
ITGR Writer – Brittany Kay: