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“Community, Hedonism & a Reminder of Why We Do What We Do” In Conversation with Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Director of GRAY

Interview by Bailey Green

It was a pleasure to sit down with director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster to chat about Theatre Inamorata’s upcoming production of Gray. Gray, set in modern-day Toronto, was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Playwright Kristofer Van Soelen re-imagines Dorian’s world, altering the genders and relationships of the characters. The cast and crew are predominantly female-identified. Gray begins when Jane sculpts Dorian and creates a work of pure beauty. But when a gallery owner named Opal introduces Dorian to the hedonism and chaos of the arts world, everything changes. As time passes, the sculpture incurs the damage that Dorian inflicts on herself and others. Gray explores art, beauty, sexuality and female identity.

Bailey Green: When were you brought on board with Gray?

Courtney Chng Lancaster: Well, I helped Theatre Inamorata looking at a different script more than a year ago and spent a little bit of time with them to see if that was a project they wanted to move forward with. Though that specific project didn’t end up working out, when they were ready to produce Gray, Michelle Langille called and asked if I wanted to direct and I said yes. 

BG: What were your initial reactions reading the script?

CCL: I thought it was fantastic and very brave. It’s a really wild adaptation. Set in the present day, the fundamental themes remain the same but a lot has been changed. Kris has really taken a wide open approach and it was really brave and made me completely terrified when I read it. [The play has] a large amount of people and spans a lot of years, so it made me nervous.

BG: Were you part of the development process, as well, and is the script still growing in rehearsal?

CCL: Kris is such a wonderfully open playwright. There was a process before I came on board, with a number of drafts before. I came into a reading six months ago and suggested some changes and a new draft came from the input from everyone in the room. And then [we had] a two-day workshop at the beginning of the summer. We’re still tweaking things as we go, seeing where we need more information and where can we trim back. Kris is wonderful. 

BG: What was your relationship to Dorian Gray (if any) before this project?

CCL: Very little. I barely remembered it, actually. I’d read it in high school. It’s quite fun, and so gothic. It’s a very dark verging on melodramatic story, which is quite pleasurable to play with on stage!

BG: How do you think a modern setting in Toronto enhances some of the themes of the play?

CCL: I think we can all relate in the theatre world to the wonderful strength of our community. In the original, the big temptation and the ultimate downfall comes from hedonism that overwhelms Dorian and becomes his drug. Kris has translated that into the dangers of getting pulled into the hedonistic part of the art world. [In the play] Dorian is not an artist but spends all her time going to these parties and is part of the scene. It explores how great the community can be, but also when does it become detrimental to the work? When is it all too much?

BG: Would you say that themes of addiction and alcoholism come up as well?

CCL: It goes hand-in-hand. Graham Isador recently wrote an article in Vice about addiction and how artists are so prone to that. When we were rehearsing and starting to link scenes together, we realized how much they drink in every scene. We need so many wine glasses in this show. A drink is a lure, an avoidance, a temptation, a polite offering. So I would say [addiction] is an unspoken theme, for sure. It’s not overt, but the audience can assume there are drugs. They’re the last ones at the party and as my grandma used to say, nothing good happens after 2am. [They have] that fixation on being at the centre of things and never taking time for yourself, always being out and socializing.

BG: And how social media really enhances the performative nature of living like that, because there’s the drive to show it to everyone else.

CCL: I’m glad you mentioned social media, because now we’re performing online how we’re out, keeping up appearances. At one point during the play Dorian celebrates having broken a threshold of followers. And it becomes the work, she has to display her hedonism, as well, lest she lose interest.

Rehearsal Photo of Tennille Read and Mamito Kukwikila taken by producer/performer Michelle Langille.

BG: What has been the most challenging aspect of working on this show?

CCL: Purely practically, I have never directed something with this number of people before. It’s a lot of bodies, and it’s been a wonderful challenge. I’m learning a lot about blocking and the physical positioning of people on stage. And how to tell what is a massive complex gothic story on an indie theatre budget with really compelling storytelling without slashing props. We don’t want to distract but it is a big tale to be telling with a minimal aesthetic onstage 

BG: What has brought you the most joy?

CCL: When it works. We’ve just finished the 3rd week of rehearsal now, and they are all wonderful team players. You have your exciting discoveries of the first two weeks, then the shiny-ness starts to wear, and then you think “Do I really know what is happening?”, “Do I really know what I’m doing here?”, the mud and the mire… it’s a hard slog, but it has been a great journey figuring out when it works.

BG: What has Gray made you reflect on in your own life?

CCL: Remembering what is important, reminding yourself why you’re doing it. I forget that on a regular basis. What you’re actually interested in as an artist. It can be very easy to be distracted by accolades and excitements, press and parties, and then to feel empty when that stuff isn’t coming anymore. So to remember why you’re an artist and what it’s about.

Rapid Fire Question Round: 

Favourite coffee shop: We’re rehearsing near Dupont and Ossignton, so right now I would say Contra Cafe, they make a really great latte. 

Current neighbourhood: We moved from the west side to Riverdale, and it’s been lovely.

What are you reading: This is so embarrassing but gardening books – Let it Rot! It’s about compost.

What are you listening to: Jason Isbell, despite how SOME people don’t appreciate him, aka my husband.

Next show on your calendar: Soulpepper’s Waiting for Godot and then Picture This. Oh and Michael Ross Albert’s Miss at the Assembly Theatre space, I’m a big Michael Ross Albert fan.

Gray

Who:
Company: Theatre Inamorata
Written by Kristofer Van Soelen
Directed by: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
CAST: Tennille Read, Michelle Langille, Ximena Huizi, Mamito Kukwikila, Edward Charette and introducing Sydney Violet-Bristow
Set and Costume Design: Lindsay Woods
Lighting Design: Steph Raposo
Sound Design: Andy Trithardt
Stage Manager: Hannah MacMillan
Producer: Michelle Langille
Associate Producer: Emma Westray

What:
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

When Jane meets and sculpts Dorian, a naive and exquisitely beautiful woman, it is perfection – until Dorian is swept into the hedonistic and morally ambiguous world of contemporary art. As Dorian becomes more and more self-involved and destructive, the sculpture begins to absorb her acts of cruelty, while Dorian’s youth and beauty are intact. An examination of beauty, aging and self-indulgence, Gray contrasts the themes of the classic novel with our modern world. Featuring a predominantly female-identified cast and creative team, Gray takes a hard look at female identity and the implications of our society’s obsession with beauty.

Where:
The Commons | 587a College Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Wed. Sept. 20 – 8pm (PREVIEW)
Thurs. Sept 21 – 8pm (OPENING)
**Fri. Sept. 22 – NO SHOW**
Sat. Sept. 23 – 8pm
Sun. Sept. 24 – 2pm & 8pm
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Wed. Sept. 27 – 8pm
Thurs. Sept 28 – 8pm
Fri. Sept. 29 – 8pm
Sat. Sept. 30 – 8pm
Sun. Oct. 1 – 2pm & 8pm

Tickets:
$25 General | $20 Seniors/Students/Arts-Worker | $15 Preview
theatreinamorata.com

Connect:
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster: @courtneyvl
#Gray17
t: @TheaInamorata
i: @TheatreInamorata

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