“On Creative Process, Being Infatuated with All Things Theatre & Appreciating Being Brave in Different Ways” In Conversation with playwright Rosamund Small on the World Premiere of SISTERS at Soulpepper
Interview by Megan Robinson.
Playwright Rosamund Small spent much of her 2017 reading novels. One of her tasks as part of the Soulpepper Academy, under the guidance of Guillermo Verdecchia, was to find a story to adapt for the stage but it wasn’t until she read Edith Wharton’s novella, Bunner Sisters, that she knew she had the right project.
The long short story follows two sisters that run a shop together in 19th century New York City. They work together selling pieces at the front of the shop while sharing a living space in the confined quarters in the back of the shop. And when one sister is given a clock for her birthday, the story begins.
We spoke with Rosamund Small, covering everything from her creative process to her present infatuation with all things theatre-related, in light of the world premiere of her play Sisters at Soulpepper Theatre, on stage now until September 16th.
MR: What was it that you were most curious about with this story? What made you think definitely this one?
RS: It has twists and turns that were shocking to read. I mean really shocking. It’s a cliché to say things about it being a page-turner, but it really is. I think what grabbed me from the moment I opened it, is that the very first thing that happens is the older sister buys a birthday present for the younger sister, and it’s a clock. And their lives are made so beautiful by this clock. It’s the biggest deal to have a clock and to be able to know what time it is.
It brought me into it in the sense that, that’s a world; you have one counter and one bed and one clock, and that’s all you have. The stakes of that world are very high, right? The closeness to having nothing. And on the flip side, there is the joy when anything shifts for the better. It’s very extreme.
MR: Adaptation seems like a natural fit for you, because you seem to have a history of working with things that already exist. Would you say that it felt natural?
RS: I would, and I think for some people an adaptation is ‘how do I put this book on stage’ and sometimes it’s more like an abbreviation. I thought of this as a collaboration with the material. I’d also say it’s a radical rewrite. It’s an interpretation. So I get to bring what I find curious about the story, what I find curious to add to the story, my own sense of rhythm and humour, and kind of blatantly transform things about it into what I think they should be, and what I think makes it the most dramatic. I don’t feel like I adhere to the limits of the material if I don’t want to.
MR: All of your projects seem very specific, what draws you in to a project?
RS: I was just thinking how I have the world’s weirdest resume. My resume has that I worked for the show Workin’ Moms on CBC, and worked with a ballet company. It’s just very all over the place. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way at all, I think in some ways it means I don’t know myself. But I get attracted to the most random things, and I’m very fortunate also to have support and collaboration to commit to a project for a long period of time. This play has taken a year, and it’s the shortest timeline I’ve ever worked on for a play. Vitals took two years, Tomorrowlove took over two years, so I have that time to look at source material or ideas and collaborate with people. But I need something to bounce off of. Whether I’m bouncing off realities, interviews, a novel, whatever it is, I need something to hit up against, that I can add to. That can be very helpful. Limitations are very useful.
MR: If every work you do is so different, how would you define your voice? There’s got to be something about you that makes it yours, and I’m curious if you have a definition or something you always come back to?
RS: I think it’s the search for companionship. A search for connection. Even Occupy [Performing Occupy Toronto], back in the day, I thought I was doing something about politics, and of course inherently I was, but actually, I was interested in people gathering and the impossibility and the hope that everyone will be able to connect and move forward and get along with each other. I think that brings me through all of my work.
This work is about two people who are in a way living their lives right next to each other and yet there’s a gap between them, there’s a distance between them, even though they’re physically close and they’re siblings. I find the complexities of human relationships pretty consistently compelling.
MR: Now that you are seeing the project on its feet, how does it feel? Is it what you imagined, have they done things with it you could never have pictured?
RS: There are always things you can’t picture. I’d be really disappointed if it was exactly as I imagined it. That’s the theatre, right?
MR: What did you learn about yourself as a writer through this adaptation, something you uncovered or learned through the process?
RS: I think that less is more. I’m learning over and over again that the moments I’m going to script should not leap off the page in their completion because the actors are their completion. A play is not meant to be the full experience. Leaving those gaps and leaving those spaces for where an inhale, or a tilt of the head, or a self-conscious tug of a shirt that the actor will do without planning, is going to say more than a monologue, you know? Just reminding myself over and over that this is not for a reader, this is for someone to inhabit and observe and participate in. I mean this is Drama 101, I’m saying things that everyone learns in their first anything, but then you learn it again and again.
MR: What are you excited about with this production of Sisters?
RS: I’m excited about everything. One: that it will be beautiful. It sounds beautiful, looks beautiful. It’s also a celebration of beauty in lots of ways. These characters are interested in finding a more beautiful life and in a deeper sense of that word, in finding something glorious and celebratory and delicate about life, when they don’t have a lot of things in life that they can feel that way about. One of them goes to an orchestra and experiences that, and it’s such a profound moment for that character. I think theatre is beautiful, so there’s sort of a meta-theatrical element of seeing people engage with art on stage because the sisters are experiencing art, so we are watching them experience that.
I’m honestly really excited by the performances. It’s not a paint by numbers script, it’s a very challenging piece of work with a lot of complicated subtext, and the depth of the performances is amazing to watch. I feel like I learned so much just watching them.
While being nervous, there’s nothing I’m not excited for.
MR: How do you feel when you look back on your work at this point in your career?
RS: I’ve obviously learned a lot, and there’s a lot of eye-rolling about bad writing habits, or self-indulgent writing habits. But there was also a time in my life where I was a certain kind of brave that I’m not now, and now I’m a certain kind of brave I didn’t use to be. I think you have to appreciate the fact that you change.
MR: What inspires you today?
RS: I’m always inspired by Anika and Britta (Johnson). They’ve got a show coming up, Dr. Silver. The word ‘immersive’ gets around a lot, but they’ve really pushed it so that it’s really a communal experience, it’s like a spiritual experience that I think speaks to their relationship with music, and I think the spiritual connection they have with music.
I’m inspired right now by a lot of books – I’m reading Miranda July’s book, The First Bad Man.
MR: Very, very crazy.
RS: It’s insane!
MR: It’s so brave
RS: It’s so brave, it’s so nice because you write something and you think ‘that’s bad, that’s insanity,’ but then you read someone else’s insanity and you think ‘that’s so great!’
I’m also in a really lovey-dove phase with art and with theatre. A friend of mine said I was a theatre mom. I’m like, ‘look at them up there just risking it all! Look at this volunteer handing out programs! The world is so beautiful, can you believe this?’
I’ve just been off the charts positive and excited for everyone and all of it, all of the time. So it’s a bit much, to be honest. I’ll probably crash soon.
MR: I love that you love theatre so much. I sometimes wonder if everyone is just going to leave for TV.
RS: I think it’s important to take breaks. I was working elsewhere, right? I was working on a television show, and while I loved that as well, and the break from that is going to bring me back to television, the grass is always greener. It was the same when I went traveling for six months. I came back and stuff I’ve been complaining about for years, I was now like, ‘this is an amazing theatre! I love this theatre. I love how cute and broken the seats are.’
But it’s nice. I’m hoping to cling to the feeling because it won’t last forever. You can’t love something that much every hour of the day. It’s just not possible and that’s all part of it.
Rosamund Small, Playwright
KEVIN BUNDY, Mr. Ramy
LAURA CONDLLN, Ann
NICOLE POWER, Evelina
ELLORA PATNAIK, Puffed Sleeves Lady
RAQUEL DUFFY, Nun
KAREN ROBINSON, Mrs. Mellins
PETER PASYK, Director
MICHELLE TRACEY, Set Designer
ERIKA CONNOR, Costume Designer
KIMBERLY PURTELL, Lighting Designer
RICHARD FEREN, Composer & Sound Designer
MONICA DOTTOR, Choreographer
GUILLERMO VERDECCHIA, Dramaturg
DIANE PITBLADO, Dialect Coach
KELLY MCEVENUE, Alexander Coach
SARAH MILLER, Stage Manager
ANDREA BAGGS, Assistant Stage Manager
DAVID BEN, Magic Consultant
KATHLEEN JONES, Apprentice Stage Manager
Ann and Evelina have created a little corner for themselves in New York at the turn of the century. When a handsome clockmaker comes to call, the powerful bonds of sisterhood are put to the test. Inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edith Wharton’s pioneering novella, Sisters shows us hidden heroism in everyday life.
50 Tank House Lane
On stage now until September 16th.