LESSONS IN TEMPERAMENT: Authenticity, Why Site-Specific & Fine-Tuning – In Conversation with creator/performer James Smith & director Mitchell Cushman
Interview by Brittany Kay
Sitting down over coffee and grilled cheese, my conversation with James Smith and Mitchell Cushman was a true joy. We spoke about the intricacies of putting on a site-specific show, the authenticity you need in storytelling and the very personal world audiences are invited into in Lessons in Temperament.
Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about the show?
James Smith: For years now I’ve wanted to do something with some stories I have from growing up because I have three older brothers, all of whom have some kind of mental disability. Growing up, that was very normal for me because it was just my world. But something I’ve learned in the meantime is that I actually have a pretty unique insight into mental illness because of the way I was raised around it. So I thought it would be interesting to be able to offer that insight to people. I never knew how I wanted to frame that in a theatrical setting and then a couple of years ago I started tuning pianos and I was struck by the kind of imperfections of that process. Tuning is all about compromise and spreading out this dissatisfaction so it’s not noticeable in any particular spot of the piano. I thought that was a good metaphor to life, how minds work, and the way I was growing up trying to facilitate all these different relationships with my brothers and their minds. I thought maybe it would be interesting to do a show where I tune a piano and tell stories.
Outside the March is Mitchell Cushman’s company and they were doing something last year called Forward March, where you could submit show ideas anonymously and get some funding so I submitted this show idea. Then one day I got a call from Mitchell and he said, “Is this your anonymous submission about piano tuning?”
Mitchell Cushman: I mean the application was pretty specifically related to things I knew about James.
JS: I was like, “Yeah, nice guess.” He said, “We’re not going to fund you because I feel like this doesn’t need any money,” but he suggested we apply for SummerWorks.
MC: The nature of Forward March was to fund larger projects that would maybe develop over a couple of years and this felt like something that urgently could and needed to happen sooner. SummerWorks seemed like a really great foray for that. I’ve directed a couple of other shows at SummerWorks and at least one other site-specific show at this festival, so it seemed like a really good home.
BK: What can SummerWorks do for this show? Why this festival right now?
MC: The cool thing about SummerWorks, over the time that Michael Rubenfeld ran it, it’s sort of evolved from a theatre festival to a performance festival and has more connections to performance art or live art and multidisciplinary work. A lot of the unique things about this show, and while not being a musical, owes something to music, it’s very much steeped in storytelling, and it’s presented in a very non-traditional way. I think there’s a lot of audience at SummerWorks hungry for that.
BK: What was the process in creating this show?
JS: Well, I wrote for a while… a lot of different things – a series of short stories that didn’t really feel right for the show. I just spent a lot of time writing, trying to find the voice of the show and then we went into our first day of rehearsal and I had about 45 minutes of kind of written down spoken word. We went through that and we kind of found, through rehearsals, that the best approach seemed to be pretty sincere, honest storytelling as opposed to pre-written short story type snippets. We started honing in, right away at the beginning of rehearsals, a way to keep it really natural. We’ve written down very little since we started. We’ve mostly made cue cards of things and organized the stories into a structure that makes sense to us. It was less about writing and more about creating the flow of the story.
MC: We put tons of post-it notes on walls. James, if he wanted to, could create a four-hour show on the same subject.
JS: Yeah, our main problem is having way too much material.
BK: That is a beautiful problem to have.
MC: There are so many memories and different aspects of James’ family or extended family that could be explored, so it’s been a process of trying to zero in on what fits with the tight focus of the piece.
BK: Why choose site-specific for this show? Why change locations for each performance?
JS: You could feasibly do this show in a theatre with a piano on a stage, but I kind of wanted to keep the authenticity of actually tuning a piano, then leaving it tuned for a family to use, and then moving on to the next one. Throughout the run of the show, I feel like I’m making some tiny impact on the community in terms of leaving it slightly more in balance.
MC: If we did it in a theatre, every night we’d have to un-tune the piano.
JS: This feels more authentic.
MC: Especially now that we’ve been in all of the venues doing practices, I think it’s a very intimate show. I think that these locations will really support that intimacy because we are really in people’s private living spaces for very small groups of audience.
BK: How does the audience find out where they are going?
JS: It’s a secret because working with 8 different venues brings up a lot of logistical issues. People backing out or people wanting to change their capacity or their time or date, so if we had announced all of the locations right away, we would be constantly changing it and updating it.
MC: It also helps protect people’s privacy a little bit and all of their addresses.
JS: So 24 hours before each performance, Summerworks will email everyone who has bought a ticket letting them know where to go.
MC: They’re all in the general vicinity of SummerWorks, between the Queen and Dufferin area.
BK: Building from that, how does being at these unique different locations heighten the experience for your audience coming to see the show? What does it do for them?
JS: I think it sets up just a different experience for them right away in terms of going to theatre. I think it’s stretching the idea of what theatre is and what it can do.
MC: The show is really based in reality. I mean, James is telling a series of stories, all of which happened. I think by walking into someone’s house and having a real piano that actually needs to be tuned just supports the reality of the piece. Early on James was asking me if anyone else could perform this show and I don’t really think so partially because you’d need James’ skill set of being a performer and also being able to tune pianos. Even if someone could, I think it would be strange because it’s based so much on James’ personal experience.
BK: Let’s talk about site-specific and immersive theatre. What do they mean to both of you in terms of this show and more broadly speaking?
MC: I was actually thinking about this last night because I was writing an e-blast for this show. I was thinking about if this is a site-specific piece or immersive. I described it as a site-specific show. To me, I guess, it’s definitely site-specific in the sense that the location we’re performing in is going to radically inform what the piece is and we’re going to do this show 8 different times in 8 different spaces and it’s going to be 8 different shows. It would be a very different show if we did it in a traditional theatre. I think it would be a less activated experience. If we did it in a traditional theatre, I don’t think the space would have as much of a role on this show as it will when we perform it.
I guess when I think about immersive theatre, I think about the audience taking on a little bit more of an active experience, not necessarily physically active. That wouldn’t be the first word I would use for this show, but you could probably make arguments about parts of it being immersive too. I don’t know, what do you think James?
JS: I agree with what you said. The idea of immersive or site-specific theatre didn’t really exist until I met Mitchell. I had only done more standard types of theatre. Mitchell and Julie Tepperman asked me to do Brantwood at Sheridan, which was my first experience with immersive theatre.
MC: James was the musical director for the show, which was a monster task.
JS: After that, Mitchell hired me to do Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play as well, which was site-specific in a way.
MC: That was a show that was probably on the borderline of immersive. I think there we really took over a space and radically transformed it. We did it in an old adult movie theatre in the east end. We really tried to transform what that space was to make it look post-apocalyptic and make the audience really feel like they were taking shelter in that place to weather out the apocalypse. We did that show without using the grid electricity and so that added to what made it immersive.
There’s sort-of set criteria to what people expect a theatrical experience to be and it’s trying to challenge some of those pre-conceptions. One of the cool things on that show, because we didn’t have any electricity, the sound design became really interesting. James held the major part in it – he was like a foley artist. He was popping balloons to signify gunshots. He worked in collaboration with Samuel Sholdice who did the sound design. We needed the sound of crickets in the first act and so, without electric sound, we got real crickets in cages living in the ceiling. We made jokes like “Can we hear that at 50%?”
BK: That is amazing. What are the challenges, not only with Lessons in Temperament but with site-specific as a genre of theatre?
JS: Well, for this show I thought it would be a lot easier but because I’m inexperienced, I quickly learned that…
MC: Everything’s more complicated.
JS: I didn’t plan on having a producer. I thought this would be a small thing that I could handle on my own. Handling the logistics of the spaces was the hardest part because you have to think about audience capacity and whether or not we can hang lights. It became this kind of never-ending and always-expanding list of things that had to be done that a producer would normally do.
BK: Cue Sarite Harris.
JS: Exactly. I was trying to write the show and I found the only thing I was doing was writing emails.
MC: Even if you’re trying to do a piece and take it outside of a theatre, what you’re actually doing is trying to create a theatre inside of a space that isn’t a theatre. There are certain things like tech, seating capacity, audience comfort, and health and safety that are givens in a theatre… you don’t have to deal with that. When you go into a space that isn’t a theatre, your work has to start so much earlier in terms of figuring out things auxiliary to the actual presentation. In this case, when you’re in different locations every night, that’s just doing that work over again, all the time. Site-specific is very time consuming.
BK: Where did these sites come from?
JS: One we got off of Bunz Trading Zone on Facebook. A couple of friends and friends of friends gave us places.
BK: What about your working relationship with each other? How have you collaborated and worked together?
MC: It’s horrible…
JS: I really couldn’t have done this without Mitchell. He’s working, not just as the director, but as the developer of the piece, as well. He’s helped me organize my thoughts and my stories into something that is theatrically effective. I think, without him there with all of this info inside of his head, I would have never gotten past the stage of confused writing. I really needed him to kind-of put this into a world that would actually serve an audience properly. Mitchell is really smart and knows what’s good, so I can know that and trust him.
MC: I do know very little about music and music theory. I’ve been the ground zero test case for the most musically ignorant audience member. I can hear things better than I can two weeks ago! I’ve never had the opportunity to work on a show like this. I’ve been doing more new work development in the last couple of years and worked on a couple of solo shows, which is always interesting. You’re sort of getting a window into their brain. Given the subject matter and how this show is based so much around James’ memories and experiences, I’m just really… I’m thankful to be working on it. James has taken me and the other members of the core creative team into a very personal bubble, where the work has been living. One of the things I love about directing, and I don’t come from a performance background, is that you get to work with people and help them do something that you could never do and that’s tenfold on this experience. James has such a unique range of skills that are so far outside of what I would ever be able to do. It’s so fascinating to collaborate with him.
BK: That was a really nice answer guys.
MC: We practiced outside.
JS: We’re going to hug later.
MC: I think we both came into this with a notion to fly by the seat of our pants. I think the show will continually evolve until our closing night. We have the freedom to do that. SummerWorks is a great place for experimentation. I think if either of us were too stressed about it being perfect right now, it would be less of a productive working relationship.
BK: What about the rest of your team?
JS: Nevada Lindsay Banks, our assistant director, has been so helpful. Just to have someone else in the room, who has this information in their head has been really great. She’s been there since the beginning kind-of helping as we’ve organized this piece. She’s always able and willing to chime in with something I’ve forgotten or Mitchell has overlooked. Just to have that third eye, kind-of taking care of things has been so beneficial.
MC: Nevada was one of the performers in Brantwood. She’s got really great instincts and also comes from a musical background. It’s helpful to have her to work with. Nick Blais is doing the design.
JS: He’s brilliant, I can’t believe he’s doing the show. He’s so good and so committed to it and he’s coming to all of these site visits and putting so much time into it. He’s so excited about it and I respect him so much as an artist. I feel so lucky.
MC: We’ve done a lot of site-specific stuff together and he’s one of the Outside of the March resident designers. He’s just got an amazing balance of a really creative mind and a really practical mind and you need that when doing these kinds of shows. He’s a truly unique talented dude who can kind of do it all. Kate Sandeson is our stage manager and we’ve both worked with her before. She can really work in non-traditional environments. Her calling the show will be moving dimmers connected to her binder while she’s sitting behind the piano with earplugs. She’s going to have a unique experience in every venue.
BK: What do you want audiences to walk away with at the end of this piece?
JS: I want people to feel like they’ve gained some insight into mental illness that is not textbook information or information a psychiatrist would give them. I want to offer a perspective that is very normalized and simple and understanding.
MC: There is a beautiful metaphor that James has created in this show. The show will start with him taking out a screwdriver and opening up these pianos. You get to see the piano exposed and the inner workings of it. Over the course of the show, you learn about what makes a piano work and how to keep it in tune. It’s something that most people don’t know about, but it’s an incredibly intricate process and it’s fascinating how this thing works and what gets in the way of it working. I think that’s a great metaphor for what goes on inside our brains and how many things in the world that we sort of interact with and accept, without really knowing what the underpinnings are. Beyond pianos, it makes me think about that.
Rapid Fire Question Round
MC: The Big Lebowski
MC: King Lear.
JS: The Seagull.
MC: Hamilton but really Into the Woods.
JS: Sweeney Todd.
MC: The grilled cheese I just ate.
JS: Cherry cheesecake my mom makes.
Favourite Spot in Toronto
MC: Trinity Bellwoods Park.
JS: Skyline Diner.
What music are you currently listening to?
MC: The cast recording to Hamilton.
JS: Joel Plaskett Ladida
Advice you live by?
MC: Don’t try to do what everyone else is doing, try to do the thing only you can do.
JS: Don’t ever argue with an idiot, they’ll drag you down to their level and defeat you with experience.
Lessons in Temperament
Written and Performed by James Smith; Directed and Developed by Mitchell Cushman; Sound Design by James Smith; Production Design by Nick Blais; Stage Management by Kate Sandeson; Assistant Directed by Nevada Banks; Produced by Sarite Harris, James Smith, and Mitchell Cushman.
Every piano is unique in its imperfection — in its flawed relationship to the sonic world. It’s impossible to perfectly tune a piano, so the job of a piano tuner is to tame this imperfection into an even balance, an even spread of dissatisfaction. This balance is known as Equal Temperament: a game of constant compromise and a lesson in disappointment.
Every mind is unique in its imperfection. In Lessons In Temperament, James Smith tunes pianos in various public and private spaces throughout Toronto while exploring theories behind Equal Temperament as well as his three older brothers’ mental illnesses: obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, and schizophrenia. Smith attempts to grant balance to the instrument that has, throughout his life, kept him grounded and kept him company, while reflecting on the discord that runs through his family. Each performance takes place in a different venue, gathered around a different piano. Part autobiographical story-telling, part performance art, part tune-up, this site-specific show offers a unique theatrical experience, and a singular glimpse into the lives of those living with troubled, beautiful, distempered minds.
Because our venues are site specific, we want to give you our patrons as much prior knowledge as possible. For allergy purposes, the performances on August 10th, 12th, and 14th have dogs as well as one cat on the 10th. Please note that the pets will not be at the performances.
“‘This working-through of the resistances may in practice turn out to be an arduous task ….’
It’s a lovely performance metaphor: the tuning of pianos, the tuning of our hearts and minds, our lives. It’s might be a Sisyphean task but: ‘the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill one’s heart’. (Camus)” – Guillermo Verdecchia
Wednesday August 10th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Friday August 12th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Sunday August 14th 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM
More Show Info:
Sold out in advance but limited tickets at the door.