Q&A with Darwin Lyons and Michelle Alexander, co-directors of Well Born
Interview by Bailey Green
BG: What about the script stood out to you?
Michelle Alexander: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the obvious answer: a woman haunted by a talking plastic baby. Can’t say I’ve ever come across that in a script before. As a director I’m most drawn to scripts that mess with audience expectation, i.e. scripts that make you think they’re a straight-up comedy and then stab you right in the gut when you least expect it. Celeste has taken subject matter that could easily be written as high drama and made it something special using her unique, twisted sense of humour and unapologetic approach to deep, uncomfortable, human truths.
BG: At the beginning of the play, where do we find the characters? Where are they, what obstacles are they facing?
Darwin Lyons: At the beginning of the play Elizabeth is five months pregnant. She and her husband Chris have just received the results of a test that tell them that their baby has a 50% chance of being born with some sort of incapacity. Elizabeth was adopted and never knew her birth mother and the results of this test make her question if she can handle the struggles of being a mother. Thankfully, she has a talking plastic baby to bounce ideas off of. Oh wait, that’s not so helpful. Elizabeth happens to be someone who likes to control everything, and she wants things to be perfect (I wonder what that’s like? Kidding… I know exactly what that’s like). This play is really the journey of Elizabeth trying to figure out how to accept the real version of life, even if it’s messy.
BG: What has the experience of co-directing been like? How do you navigate shared responsibilities and balancing a common vision of the production?
MA: Co-directing is the woooooorst. Never do it. KIDDING! Co-directing has its challenges, but with the right ‘match of minds’, two heads can truly be better than one.
Working in tandem with another director really forces you to ‘put the art first’ rather than your own ego. When you’re directing solo it can be easy to convince yourself your idea is definitely right and definitely brilliant. The act of bumping that idea up against someone else’s creative vision really forces you to evaluate whether or not it is the best choice for the story of the play.
How do we navigate co-directing? Honestly, I almost think of it like we are co-parenting a play-baby. Yeeeep, I said it! To raise our play-baby as best we can we have to commit to full, open communication, compromise and trust. If we get frustrated with one another we just throw our focus towards what decision will foster the growth and well-being of our play-baby.
*Side bar: I now fear the title of this interview will be ‘Michelle and Darwin made a Play-Baby.’
DL: Like all worthwhile endeavours and relationships co-directing with Michelle is awesome and also hard. The challenges come from the fact that we need to be really keyed into each other and communicate really well. We both work really long hours at many jobs, but we always take 30 seconds at the end of each rehearsal to check in with each other. We have an almost sign language type code—you good? Yes/no? Do we need to have a bigger chat? The joy of co-directing is that two brains are better than one. I believe that the more life experience to bring to the creation of a story the better it will be. Michelle and I have worked together a lot, and we know that our strengths and weaknesses really compliment each other. I don’t know what co-directing with someone else would be like, but I do know that what makes this collaboration work is that I trust her implicitly, I agree with her aesthetic, I think she’s incredibly smart and talented, and I know that we will be able to talk through any challenges.
BG: What has been the most challenging aspect of the process?
DL: This play jumps time, space and logic. Reading Well Born for the first time I loved how I felt like I was right inside of Elizabeth’s brain. It made me so excited because I feel like I get lost in my fantasy world and memories, it’s cool to see that reflected in a story. However staging that can be a bit of a challenge. How would you communicate to an audience that one second your in someone’s fantasy, then memory, then worst case scenario nightmare, then back to reality? Thankfully we have an amazing design team that is willing to really collaborate with us to help the vision of the show come to life.
MA: I’m an actor as well as a director, so I think my greatest strength as a director is working with actors, figuring out their characters, their moments. Staging is a whole other ballgame. Even thinking about staging complicated scene transitions or ‘fancy blocking’ gives me sweaty armpits. Celeste’s play requires a lot of fast scene transitions, many locations and some serious ‘theatre magic’. That has been the biggest challenge: How to fulfill the staging of this play in a fluid way while staying within an indie theatre budget.
BG: What has brought you the most joy in this process?
DL: Last week I ran into a friend and was telling her about the show and she launched into a story about how she struggled with something similar when she was pregnant. After sharing these intimate details from her life she sat back and said, “Sorry, I guess I just really needed to get that out.” It’s great to work on a story that people seem hungry for. I rarely hear women given the platform to talk about the real struggles and fears of being pregnant. I think the most important part of art is that it allows people an opportunity to say, me too! It allows them space to have their experiences shared, or for us to learn about an experience we might not have had. I love being a part of stories that are honest and also rarely told—this story is both. A huge benefit of that is that this story has attracted a wonderful team of actors, designers and production people to work with. Seriously, you would want to hang out with all of them if you got the chance to.
MA: The people! The cast and creative team working on Well Born are not only insanely skilled at what they do, they also work incredibly well as a team. Working on a new play is like following a moving target: the script is constantly changing, the design shifts as the script shifts, actors are given a new scene one day and then have it taken away the next… I know, you’re probably thinking ‘This is your joyful part of the process Michelle?!’ It is! Because when the whole team leaves their ego at the door, rolls up their sleeves and comes in with an attitude of ‘let’s find the guts of this thing!’ it’s not just ‘rehearsing a play’ it’s creating something new together.
BG: What excites you the most about emerging female playwrights in Toronto?
MA: That more and more are emerging every day! At Nightwood I get to read a lot of scripts by emerging female writers, and I must say, there are a lot of badass plays by women coming down the pipe! I’ve seen a lot of great scripts in the past few months that aren’t afraid to stand behind a strong point-of-view; that aren’t afraid to be messy and uncomfortable and that aren’t afraid to be funny! Celeste’s play is an example of the incredible, fierce and funny female writers in this city!
(Note: this Q&A has been edited for length and clarity)
Mother-to-be Elizabeth is haunted by her inconclusive prenatal test results, the fact that she never knew her biological mother… and a talking plastic baby. Deeply personal and darkly comic, Well Born is a twisted dramedy about otherness, acceptance, and facing your fears by emerging playwright Celeste Percy-Beauregard.
Artscape Youngplace, Studio 109 (180 Shaw St.)
Thursday March 3, 8pm
Friday, March 4, 8pm
Saturday March 5, 2pm
Saturday, March 5, 8pm
Sunday March 6, 8pm (Closing)
$25 general admission | $20 arts worker | PWYC on Sat Jan 27 at 2pm