“It’s Mad Max meets The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” Performers Amanda Cordner, Christina Bryson & Director Claire Burns on DIVINE at SummerWorks
Interview by Megan Robinson
When I walked into the rehearsal space for DIVINE, the women of the cast were already in costume. I caught sight of holsters and cow hide wrapped around their waists. Two actors were clasping plastic bottles molded into the shape of guns. It’s a hot room, and the cast was dressed head to toe. The women, a powerful group, sauntered across the stage and stood ready to begin.
DIVINE is a Western set in a post-apocalyptic Ontario where water has disappeared. Playwright Natalie Frijia, who is currently pursuing her PhD in environmental studies and theatre, first conceived of DIVINE during Storefront Theatre’s first playwrights unit.
The play portrays characters finding strength in a desperate situation. I can’t help but reflect on how the themes of the piece mirrored real life for the cast and crew. Days before rehearsals were set to start, Storefront Theatre was evicted from its space last December. DIVINE, and half the season, was cancelled.
After the run, I sat outside with cast members Christina Bryson and Amanda Cordner as well as director Claire Burns, who tried to remember the exact timeline: “We’d booked off work for rehearsals and everything,” Cordner said of the challenges that face artists who work in indie theatre; more often than not the people involved are also navigating their day jobs (or night jobs…Hi bartenders!)
But the show has landed on its feet and has a new home at SummerWorks. The changes that were made to fit festival needs have also opened up new possibilities. With a set that needs to be easily torn down, and a trimmed version of the original two-hour script, the show is perfect for touring and Burns went on to mention plans to share the show beyond the festival.
The idea of an Ontario in drought might be terrifying, but DIVINE is surprisingly playful in its telling of the story. However, keeping it light took some work. Bryson and Cordner explained that once they delved into the reality of their characters’ despairing situation, they had to be reminded one day in rehearsal that it was a comedy. Cordner, who plays Penn, rolled her eyes at herself and laughed, “I was bringing all the drama.”
“The play itself isn’t an issue play. It’s a kind of fantastical adventure story but underneath it is that message of conservation and sustainability. We don’t want to get to a place where we don’t have water,” said director Claire Burns. There’s a sweet spot in this work of marrying activism and theatre, but Burns is clear on her approach, “You catch more bees with honey.” “People never learn when you point fingers at them,” Cordner added. Burns nods, “It’s like subliminal messaging.”
The show itself may not hit you over the head with its message but by forging relationships last fall with the World Wildlife Fund and Wellington Water Watchers, DIVINE is a show supported by those who are actively working towards the preservation of water. “It was important to me that we had partnerships with legitimate environmental organizations,” said Burns.
Originally written with male roles, Claire made the decision to work with an all-female cast. Her reasoning? “The women were legitimately the best people for the roles.” I asked if they ever played around with women playing men, using fake moustaches or other costume devices, but Cordner and Bryson just laughed as Cordner explained, “Claire made it very clear from the beginning that we were not going to do that.”
Burns shook her head, “I hate that shit.” And she’s had plenty of experience with it. “The guys who played women were always making everyone laugh and then I’d get on stage with my fake moustache and it would just be dumb. We didn’t want to do that. We’re not trying to fool anybody that we’re not women.”
The choice to go with a female cast and crew has clearly paid off. When I asked the women to speak to the community they’ve created in DIVINE they didn’t hold back:
Claire Burns: “What I think is special is that I’m given the opportunity to get to know and get to work with so many powerful and smart women. With every show you work on you create these bonds with people and in this show in particular – I think it’s like 17 women working on this show – everyone is pulling their weight and so it’s such an easy process. I’m having such a good time. I’m really enjoying my community right now. I’m also enjoying that my community is being so generous letting me take this role and I’m so grateful that I’m allowed to shape this story in the way that I want. I’m also part of the queer community so I’ve put that into this, very much so…”
Amanda Cordner: (imitating Claire) “There will be a kiss. I don’t know where but there will be a kiss!”
Claire Burns: (laughing) “I’m very grateful it’s so fun.”
Christina Bryson: “It’s fun to get to kick-ass! How often, as women, do you get to do all this stage combat with like ten of you kicking ass at the same time?! That’s my favourite part.”
Presented by Red One Theatre Collective with the generous support of The Storefront Theatre
Written by Natalie Frijia
Directed by Claire Burns
Assistant Director Molison Farmer
Dramaturgy Emma Mackenzie Hillier
Performed by Amanda Cordner, Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Christina Bryson, Sarah Naomi Campbell, Haley Garnett and Rehaset; Ensemble Annie Yao, Sabah Haque, Kathleen O’Reilly, Khadijah
Producer Sedina Fiati
Associate Producer Olivia Marshman
Set Design by Christine Urquhart
Lighting Design by Imogen Wilson
Costume Design by Sage Paul
Sound Design by Suzie Balogh
Fight Director Louisa Zhu
Assistant Fight Director Erin Eldershaw
Stage Managed by Lin-Mei Lay
Ontario is out of water and a pair of bandits search for their last hope – a water diviner by the name of Penn. Stories say she can crack the world like a coconut and make water bubble to the surface with nothing but her hands. But the bandits aren’t the only ones hunting her down. And what if there’s nothing left for Penn to divine?
An all woman cast in Natalie Frijia’s post-apocalyptic wild west asks how we would survive in world without water. Would we turn to community… or to revenge?
Join the creative team of DIVINE for some post-show discussions – August 5 in the Factory Courtyard with Paul Baines from the Great Lakes Common and August 12 at The Paddock with guests from Wellington Water Watchers, the World Wildlife Fund and Surf the Greats.
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON
Tuesday August 8th 9:45pm – 11:00pm
Wednesday August 9th 8:00pm – 9:15pm
Saturday August 12th 7:00pm – 8:15pm
Sunday August 13th 1:30pm – 2:45pm