“Collaboration, Mentorship and Intertwining Art & Activism” In Conversation with Melissa-Jane Shaw, director of LELA & CO.
Interview by Hallie Seline
It was a complete honour and pleasure to chat with my ever-inspiring friend and mentor Melissa-Jane Shaw about her latest project directing Lela & Co. We spoke about collaboration, intertwining art and activism, and the necessity and power of mentorship in this community, both as a woman and an artist. Lela & Co. is on stage now at the Theatre Centre until October 8th.
HS: Tell me a little bit about the show and what it has been like directing this piece.
MJS: Lela & Co. gives space for a woman to tell her story of being sex trafficked by her husband, during a time of war. Beginning with memories of her childhood, Lela dives headfirst into her haunting and harrowing story with bravery, tenacity and even humour. I hope it will be a satisfying 100-minute theatrical experience, as well as a moving and motivating piece of activist art. Directing Lela & Co. has been both rewarding and hard. It’s a tricky piece and requires careful handling. It has really tested my directorial chops. While I don’t want to let the audience off the hook with the play’s challenging content, I also want to avoid gratuitous voyeurism. I hope I’ve kept that balance.
HS: What has it been like collaborating with Discord and Din Theatre?
MJS: Well, just as Seventh Stage is really MJ Shaw, Discord and Din is really Jenna Harris, and collaborating with Jenna has been wonderful. As a co-producer, she’s incredibly hard-working, professional and level-headed. As an artist, she’s very smart and conscientious, open to taking risks and is always thinking beyond the rehearsal walls. It’s been a great collaboration, especially considering we didn’t even know each other before we started working on this show together.
HS: Can you speak to me more about the local charitable organizations that you have aligned the show with and about the link you are making between art and activism?
MJS: Our hope is that Lela & Co. leaves the audience with a sense of “so what can I do?” We would like to capitalize on that feeling by having a local related charity present after each show for a talk-back and provide the opportunity to get involved and/or donate. We are partnering with freethem.ca, onechild.ca, ConvenantHouseToronto.ca and WhiteRibbon.ca. We are also having several school groups in for educational workshops and talk-backs. Our larger mission is to get the subject-matter of Lela & Co. beyond the walls of the theatre.
HS: That’s incredible to hear! What’s next for yourself and for Seventh Stage Productions?
MJS: Seventh Stage will continue to develop its musical production Wendy, Darling, which is a contemporary feminist look at Wendy’s (of Peter Pan) life once they grow up. I will move onto a couple of choreography gigs and launch my dance fitness program FITPOP, a class designed to bring out everyone’s inner dancer. On a personal front, my husband and I will continue the next steps of our fertility journey. Hopefully this time next year I’ll either have a big belly or a babe in arms.
HS: What shows are you most looking forward to seeing this season?
MJS: Oh jeez… well, I’m excited to see my friend Rosa Laborde’s show Marine Life at The Tarragon. Looking forward to Nightwood’s Asking for It, which is a very compelling subject-matter to me. I’ll also see Musical Stage Company’s Life After. Otherwise, I’m a pretty terrible theatre-going planner.
HS: What is the best piece of advice you have ever gotten/What is your current mantra that you’re living by?
MJS: Stop bullying the universe! If something is too hard or you are putting more in than you’re getting out, then it’s time to let go. I have a tendency to muscle through things and work harder than I need to. This is my approach at working ‘smarter’ and letting the right things come to me, rather than me always reaching out.
HS: I would love to hear you speak a bit about Mentorship. You have been such an amazing mentor to myself and to some of my colleagues, as well. Did you have a mentor who made an impact on your life and why do you think mentorship is important in this community?
MJS: Thank you. I have been blessed to have several incredible young women come into my life. The mentorship really is mutual: the mentor gets mentored as well. Debra Goldblatt (founder of rock-it promo) was an amazing mentor and still continues to be an excellent resource. Derrick Chua (you all know him!) has been a long-standing theatre mentor and supporter of mine. Larissa Mair (casting director) provided me professional opportunities and support that gave me a leg up. My goal is to empower women via whatever opportunities and guidance I can provide. We are stronger working together to gain our rightful half of the pie.
HS: 100%! Thank you. Where do you look for inspiration?
MJS: I am inspired by great theatre, film and TV. I’m a news junkie, which also gets me riled up and can be a good source to fuel my fire. While I’m creating work, however, I find these sources can also stimulate my critical mind, which is not always helpful. Ideas seem to flourish best for me though music, yoga, art, reading and nature. These things still my restless mind and give me space to create.
HS: I love that balance. What is your favourite place in the city and why?
MJS: Parkdale. The mix of hipsters and refugees and fancy families and Tibetan monks, encompasses the diversity that is the life source of Toronto. There are also tons of good hang-out spots and it’s close to the lake.
HS: Please describe the show in 5-10 words.
MJS: Harrowing reveal of one woman’s escape from sex-slavery
Lela & Co
Written by Cordelia Lynn
Produced by Discord and Din Theatre in association with Seventh Stage Productions
Director: Melissa-Jane Shaw
Performed by: Jenna Harris & Graham Cuthbertson
Scenographer: Claire Hill
Lighting Designer: Jazz Kamal
Sound Designer: Verne Good
Associate Producer and Educational Coordinator: Brittany Kay
First produced in 2015 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Lela & Co. is a timely and gut-wrenching play about women’s worth in a capitalist world.
Based on a true story, Lela & Co. gives space for a woman to be able to tell her story of being brought into sex trafficking by her husband during a time of war. Starting off as a seemingly innocuous telling by Lela of her childhood, Lela & Co. dives headfirst into this while also exploring “truth” in storytelling, who gets to tell whose story, and the resiliency of the human spirit.
The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator
1115 Queen Street West
September 21st-October 8th, 2017
$15-$30, PWYC Sundays (additional high school student and group pricing)
http://theatrecentre.org or by calling 416.538.0988