“Corpses, Neo–Alt Theatre and Community” In conversation with David Ferry, director of BREATHING CORPSES at the Coal Mine Theatre
“It’s really important in this company that everybody has ownership in the room. It’s the way I like to work. My job as a director is to create an empowered room. It’s not ‘director as boss’, it’s ‘director as facilitator’.”
– David Ferry
Interview by Shaina Silver-Baird
Shaina: The title “Breathing Corpses” is quite potent. What does it mean to you?
David: Well, it’s kinda like The Walking Dead isn’t it? In the idea that people are walking around dead already, they just don’t know it. And they don’t know when they’re going die. For instance, with the characters Kate and Ben, she’s already dead in their relationship in an odd kind of way. So she’s a breathing corpse. And then there’s fate at play: she’s already marked for death. And Amy is marked for death. And Richard is marked for death… So there’s a sense that there’s nothing you can do about it. You may be marked for death sooner rather than later. I think the playwright is saying: we’re all walking around dead, we just don’t know when it’s going to happen.
Shaina: But there are actual dead corpses in the play?
David: The one dead body that we see onstage is at the top of the play. And we find out later that it’s one of the characters we meet during the course of the following scenes. So we go back in time as the play progresses. He’s fated to be dead in a month when we meet him on stage. The other dead character – whose body is found offstage – we see her breathing as well. So at the time that the first scene of the play occurs, two people that we meet on stage, are already dead.
It’s so bizarre trying to figure out the timeline of this.
Shaina: So as a person discovers a dead body, does that mark them for death? Or is it more complicated than that?
David: There are a couple of things that seem clear to me. Everybody is marked for death. We’re all going to die. But some people are marked for death early, before their time. One of the things I’m playing with in the play is that each character who dies prematurely appears at some point in their bare feet. Nobody’s going to understand what that’s about! But it will set them apart, because they are already walking towards death. And Charlie, who is death himself, also appears in bare feet – he carries death with him… It’s an odd play.
Shaina: This is the first Canadian production of this British play. Do you find there’s a difference between working on British, Canadian and American repertoire?
David: English theatre is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old. Canadian theatre is not. It’s a baby, relatively speaking. And the tradition of Canadian-written plays is, relatively speaking, new, especially in comparison. The tradition of English playwriting is far more influenced by the editor, literature and form. They have a different rhythm to them. And American plays are completely different, as well. They have a tradition of writing for commercial theatre, which we essentially don’t have in Canada. The idea of a play being written for a marketplace that has to please a lot of people who are willing to pay $130 – $500 doesn’t exist here. Most Canadian plays are done once, which is a tragedy. It’s a completely different crucible of what a play has to go through.
So when you work on an English play, even with a young feminist writer like Laura, you’re dealing with a long tradition of a commercial theatre, a regional arts funded system which has a long gestation period (think a 6 month rehearsal period instead of a 3 week period). You’re dealing with a play that comes from a more literate background. And you’re dealing with structures and forms and rhythms that come from another culture. And deal with different issues. I mean the whole issue of immigration is treated completely different in English plays than in Canadian plays because it’s a different issue. So it’s always interesting to work on plays from other cultures.
For me, English rhythms, especially urban rhythms, are very fast and very quick thinking. Not that we don’t have that in Canadian theatre, especially with our young playwrights like Jordan Tannahill, who deals with highly literate people and quick thinkers. But even his plays are a different rhythm because he’s Canadian. I would argue that Mamet cannot happen in England and Churchill can’t happen in the United States because they come from different traditions all together.
Shaina: So are you using accents in this version?
David: Yes, because it is such a distinctly British play. Ted and Diana – the producers of the Coal Mine – picked the plays. And it was really important to them that in the casting we really find actors that can deliver on the dialogue.
Shaina: How is it different working with Coal Mine, compared with other companies?
David: In an important way, it’s very focused on the actor: good acting, good plays, in an intimate space. There’re no grants, they do everything out of the pockets of the producers and that gets paid back through box office. It’s a big part of their mandate to have a serious footprint in this (Danforth) neighbourhood. This year, their season passes have doubled from last season. We can sell 1700 seats for this show, and they’ve already sold over 500 in advance, which is fantastic for a tiny little theatre like this. It works because of the funding model. You aren’t doing it for the big paycheques. But it also gives you the ability to work on a schedule that is really actor-friendly. For example, I decided to have intense, 5 hour days for the first 2 weeks instead of 8 hours with a break, because the actors have auditions, they have days on set etc. It’s feasible to do all that in this model.
It’s really important in this company that everybody has ownership in the room. It’s the way I like to work. My job as a director is to create an empowered room. It’s not director as boss, it’s director as facilitator.
Shaina: There’s a huge amount on offer in Toronto right now for live performance. What do you think people will get here that they won’t get anywhere else?
David: Well we’re a part of the rise of post-alternate theatre (which is what I call it), “a neo–alt”, like The Storefront Theatre, Red Sand Castle, Coal Mine, site-specific work, which has come to Toronto with a vengeance. What’s interesting to me, is that a lot of the generating forces behind these theatres are female. And for young women like Diana Bentley (producer at Coal Mine Theatre and one of my favourite actors in the world) – there are doors that aren’t open to her that are open to a certain generation of men like myself.
Instead of saying “That’s a drag,” Diana says: “Fuck it, I’m going to start my own space.” These young women are taking ownership of storytelling in a neo-feminist mode. I’m finding it particularly exciting.
I think what these theatres have to offer is access for voices that didn’t have a place to speak before. Access for new faces. Access for types of theatre.
Also, this theatre is an example of theatre owned by a community.
This theatre is not theatre-centric. It is community-centric. So the majority of the people that come live in the Danforth, Leslieville, Riverdale, Beaches area. They come because they can walk to it! And as we see an increasing neighbourhood separation because transit is so bad, people try to live, work and stay in their neighbourhood as much as possible like in New York. I think that’s really important.
Shaina: How would you describe this production in 5 words?
Watch the video to hear David’s answer:
Presented by Coal Mine Theatre
Written by Laura Wade | Directed by David Ferry
Starring Simon Bracken, Erin Humphry, Kim Nelson, Johnathan Sousa,
Benjamin Sutherland, Severn Thompson, Richard Sheridan Willis
Set and Lighting design by Steve Lucas
Costume design by Ming Wong | Sound Design by Verne Good
Fight Director Casey Hudecki | Dialect Coach Rae Ellen Bodie
Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto
October 23–November 13, 2016
Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:30 • Sunday Matinee @ 2pm (new this year!)
All Tickets $35 (previews $25)