In Conversation with Severn Thompson, playwright and performer of ELLE, on stage now at TPM
by Bailey Green
When Severn Thompson read the novel Elle four years ago she had no idea that this story would capture her imagination for years to come. The Governor General’s Award-winning novel written by Douglas Glover is based on the true story of Marguerite de Roberval. Marguerite, along with her lover and nurse, were marooned by her uncle the Sieur de Roberval on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Thompson spent the last three years adapting and workshopping Elle before bringing it to Theatre Passe Muraille. “It struck me as so refreshing to find a female voice from a time I had heard very little about, in the very early days of the explorers in the mid 1500’s,” says Thompson. “I felt very close to her [the character]. The story crossed 500 years very easily for me. It brought the past to the present.”
Adapting a 200 page book into a 24 page script is no easy feat, and Thompson had to set deadlines to make the hard choices. From the beginning, Thompson knew that she wanted simple props and set, and that the staging would be essential in creating the world of the play. “You want to still make it as rich an experience as you can,” Thompson says, “and assume that the audience coming in may not have the same background with the story that you have.”
As the project grew, so did the team involved. Thompson participated in the Banff Playwrights Colony where she worked with dramaturg and Program Director Brian Quirt and then Andy McKim, Artistic Director and dramaturg of Theatre Passe Muraille, who “has been guiding me through from an early stage. He [McKim] brings a lot of experience to the work, so that has been so useful” says Thompson. Two and a half years ago, director Christine Brubaker joined the project and became Thompson’s main partner in developing Elle. “We see things in a very similar way, so it’s been great to have eyes from the outside. She’s been really invaluable in pointing to aspects that need more and areas that need less. It’s been a great discovery, seeing how the audience relates to the play.”
Author Douglas Glover has connected with Thompson throughout the development process, but Thompson notes that he has been very supportive from a distance, recognizing the differences in form between a play and a novel. Glover has seen drafts throughout the process and a short workshop performance at the Lab Cab Festival, but TPM is his first experience of the fully realized production. When asked about the greatest joy Thompson has experienced working on Elle she says:
“To share this story. It’s one that gives a very strong female voice to a point in history where we have heard so little. And she’s not just strong, because bad things happen to her but she doesn’t play the victim and yet she isn’t the perfect hero either. She has faults and quirks and it’s wonderful and exciting to share this character that Douglas has created.”
Thompson also notes that Elle reminds us of the history of our land and how easy it is to forget about the ground we stand on. “Elle reminds us about the power of this land, and the complications that have evolved from colonialism,” Thompson says. “The nature of that history is still in play today, whether we are aware of it or not.”
A Theatre Passe Muraille Production
Adapted by Severn Thompson from the Governor General’s Award-winning novel by Douglas Glover
Directed by Christine Brubaker
Starring Jonathan Fisher & Severn Thompson
Dramaturgy by Christine Brubaker & Andy McKim
Stage Manager: Laura Baxter
Production Design: Jennifer Goodman
Sound Design & Original Music: Lyon Smith
Movement: Viv Moore
“Headstrong. What do you do with a headstrong girl? Maroon her on a deserted island lest she spread the contagion of discontent. Forget her.”
It’s 1542 at the time of France’s ill-fated third attempt to colonize Canada. The Sieur de Roberval abandons his unruly young niece, her lover, and her nurse on the Isle of Demons just off the coast of Labrador. With real bears, spirit bears, and perhaps hallucinated bears, Elle brilliantly reinvents the beginnings of this country’s national narrative.
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, 16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto
When: January 14-31, 2016, Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30pm & Saturday & Sunday at 2pm.
Tickets: $17 Under 30, $20 Artsworker, $33 Seniors, $38 General Admission, Pay-What-You-Can Saturday & Sunday 2pm Matinees. Purchase here.