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In Conversation with Joshua Browne & Alec Toller on “The Queen’s Conjuror”

by Bailey Green

In the 16th century, John Dee—alchemist, scientist and magician—met an erratic, emotionally disturbed scryer named Edward Kelley. Dee believed Kelley had the ability to speak to angels and that this could help Dee unlock secrets beyond man’s understanding. A tumultuous partnership was formed between the two men and their wives. These flawed, complex relationships are explored in Circlesnake Productions’ new play, The Queens Conjuror, written by Joshua Browne and Alec Toller.

Director and writer Alec Toller came across John Dee on Wikipedia after he’d used the word ‘thaumaturgy’ on a date. John Dee is often considered the original wizard archetype. Dee is said to perhaps have inspired the characters of Prospero and Faust. Toller was captivated by Dee’s story and reached out to Joshua Browne. Browne, who had worked with Circlesnake Productions on Dark Matter and Angel City, says he was on board from the word ‘wizard.’

“The relationship between John Dee and Edward Kelley is really fascinating,” Browne says. Browne plays the character of Edward Kelley, “Edward Kelley was a scryer, a channel for the voices of angels. John Dee actually turned to the occult for knowledge because he reached a point in his work where he believed the knowledge of man would not get him closer to God.” Shortly after Dee and Kelley began working together, Edward and Joanna Kelley moved in with John and Jane Dee. The two couples lived and travelled together for years before the relationships began to fracture. “It wasn’t satisfying to write Kelley off as crazy or psychotic,” Toller says. “But he was very emotionally disturbed and we look at how that affects all of the relationships there.”


John Dee with the Queen

The initial drafts of The Queens Conjuror by Toller and Browne, provided a historical baseline for improvisation with the company of actors. Feedback was instrumental when it came to writing the characters of Jane Dee and Joanna Kelley. According to Dee’s writings, Jane was integral to his work. Their relationship was quite egalitarian for the time. By contrast, all that is known of Kelly’s wife Joanna is that he despised her. “We have one man’s opinion of her,” Toller says. Browne and Toller emphasize that a central focus of this piece was ensuring that Jane and Johanna’s voices were heard.“We had to invent them,” Toller says of writing Jane and Joanna. “We explored the gender dynamics involved in the world they were living in, but it is a challenge because how do we show what the reality was without reinforcing it? We wanted to write something that is not going to ring as these women being two props for the ‘larger story’ of these men.”


John Dee

Browne speaks of the risk and vulnerability involved in working on this process, “This feels like a risky show to me… I have tons of fear surrounding this show! It’s about the 16th century with very little in the way of budget[…] It’s about these contentious relationships and personal things, and how do you do that without making the play a soap opera or historical drama? And how do you write women and facilitate women writing themselves? How do you represent the patriarchy without reproducing it? As two white, male writers, we had to get our actors’ opinions and involve women in the conversation. We can acknowledge our privilege and ask how can we be better.”

In the rehearsal room Toller and Browne transitioned into their roles as director and performer, respectively. Both Browne and Toller speak of gratitude for their company of actors (Tim Walker, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Sochi Fried, John Fray) whose contributions helped The Queens Conjuror change and grow. The collaborative nature of the rehearsal process is at the core of Circlesnake’s mandate: “It’s really important when we’re engaging artists and actors who are all very talented,” Toller explains, “that they don’t just walk away with the small money you get from a profit share and maybe a fun rehearsal/show process, but that there’s an ownership there. They’ve helped make this together and it’s important that these actors get the most agency and a sense of pride in the show they made with us.”

The Queen’s Conjuror


Directed by Alec Toller
Written by Alec Toller & Joshua Browne

Featuring Tim Walker
Joshua Browne
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Sochi Fried
John Fray

John Dee was a 16th century adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and a scientist and magician when those two professions were indistinguishable. The Queen’s Conjuror follows John Dee as he tries to decipher an enticing but ominous vision which he hopes will provide critical information that will impress the QueenElizabeth enough to gain her patronage. To do this, Dee enlists the help of Edward Kelley, a scryer, medium, and possible charlatan. Kelley proves to be as brilliant as he is disturbed, and Dee must work through the wretchedness of Kelley’s soul and his erratic behaviour to access his revelatory visions and gain the Queen’s support. The show explores the complexity of intimacy, the dangers of vulnerability, and the necessities of both for the alchemical transformation of the soul.

The Attic Arts Hub
1402 Queen St E

Nov 3 – Nov 20
Wed – Sat, 8pm
Sun 2pm

$20 Student/Arts Worker

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t: @Circlesnake

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