“Freelancing, Finding Balance in Collaboration & Taking Ownership in Creating Opportunities” In Conversation with Annie Clarke and Emma Westray on Co-Producing CANNIBAL by Thom Nyhuus at Next Stage 2019
Interview by Brittany Kay.
Producers are some of the hardest working people in our business. What they lack in sleep, they gain in the never-ending pursuit of fully realizing a production.
Both Annie Clarke and Emma Westray are two producers who are no strangers to our theatre community. They have been part of such incredible shows and projects in the last year and they’re only gaining momentum. Their next play, Cannibal by Thom Nyhuus, is part of this year’s Next Stage Theatre Festival. We chat about what it’s like to be female producers, the balance and strength they find in collaboration and how they are able to prioritize stories about women. (Thank you for your tireless efforts to make sure the work gets seen. You are truly wonder women)
Brittany Kay: Women have been at the forefront of today’s theatre scene. What has it been like to be female producers amongst the current theatrical climate? Do you find yourselves wanting to work with certain companies?
Annie Clarke: Most of the producing I’ve done for theatre – beyond just one-night-only events – has happened in the past year, so in a way I feel like my only producing experience is in the context of this climate. I think a big thing that it means is that I don’t need to explain my interest in, and prioritization of, women’s stories. But of course if it’s easier than ever to have that focus, it also means that we are standing on the shoulders of so many women who have fought for space for our voices on the stage (and off it), so I have a lot of gratitude for those who have paved the way for where we are right now. I definitely gravitate towards artists and companies who share those priorities, both in the work that I do and the work that I pay to see.
Emma Westray: I think the conversations that are continuing in our community about women in theatre and representation in theatre have forced me to reflect on my responsibilities as a producer, specifically in the role of hiring artists and putting together a team at the early stages. Sometimes working at the independent level, it can feel like you don’t have the power or resources to change the culture at large, but I’ve realized that every project I work on is an opportunity to set an example for my peers. Every time I work with collaborators to create a safe and respectful work environment, and every time I make a thoughtful effort to hire a diverse, representative team of artists, it shows audiences and peers alike that it is possible and it is necessary. I love being a producer because it gives me the chance to give opportunities, not only to women, but also to BIPOC, LGBTQ+ folx, and other marginalized artists, and now more than ever my priority is to work with companies who are like-minded in this regard.
BK: Do you find the project or does the project find you? How do you know which projects are the right ones and who/what is worth your energy to invest in?
AC: I feel very lucky because I have not really “applied” for any of the producing work that I’ve done – it’s come to me through relationships I’ve built. From what I hear from my peers, that’s not uncommon, and I think it just comes from a place of knowing that no one is it in for the money, very often we’re in it for the people, so if we know people who are as passionate as we are and will work as hard as we will, that’s who we end up asking to come on board a project. Every project is a passion project in indie theatre, right? That being said, it took me years to build the network and knowledge of the indie community in Toronto that has enabled me to work as a producer. And I was, and am, very privileged to have been able to devote a lot of time to unpaid work, volunteer work and just general network-building when I first moved to Toronto three years ago.
In terms of deciding which projects to take on, I think I’m still learning about that. I’m definitely still learning what my capacity is. I feel like I say no to things and yet I also constantly feel like I’m too busy to function, so surely there’s a balance to figure out there! The projects I’ve worked on have mainly been motivated by the people involved, but I don’t think you’re going to do a good job producing a play if you don’t genuinely love – let alone like – it. Things I’ve thought about in the past when projects have come up have been: do I love this script? Will I get to work with people I’ve been wanting to work with? Will I be able to learn a lot from a mentor (e.g. Assistant Producing)? Will I be able to stretch my limits and do things I haven’t been able to do before?
EW: I have been fortunate enough to have all of my producing work thus far come to me from the incredible network of people I have met since moving to Toronto nearly 5 years ago. There is something interesting in the way that projects find their way to you when you’re the right fit. Whether it’s something you’ve always wanted to work on, or peers that you’re excited to collaborate with, I’ve learned that trusting my gut when a project feels like it “clicks” is the best way for me to know that I should pursue the opportunity. I am fortunate enough to be a graduate of Generator’s Artist Producer Training program, which has linked me to a group of alumni who are always hearing about and sharing producing opportunities. For this, I am very grateful!
There isn’t really a science to how I choose projects. That buzzing excitement you feel when you sit down with an artist for the first time and hear them explain an idea, or you read a first draft of a script, is how I know that I want to be a part of the team. Conversely, I can say that the few times that I have worked on a project because I thought I should, despite not feeling connected to it, are the times where I found myself not doing my best work and just getting it done because it was a job. Knowing that difference has helped guide me in choosing what I take on as a producer, and it has helped me build a resume of work that I am truly proud of. I choose the passion project that could take years to develop instead of the remount of a classic play everyone has seen before.
BK: What has it been like working together?
AC: I have been fan-girl-ing Emma for the past year, and I have been delighted to find that working with her is even more wonderful than admiring her from afar. We joke that we have been co-parenting Cannibal – I was knee-deep in another show, What I call her, in the fall, so Emma was taking the lead, and then I took over when she went to Europe for three weeks (although she did far more work from Europe than one would have thought possible, probably because she is a real-life superhero), and now we are inching towards the finish line together. It’s been kind of like a months-long game of hot potato. Honestly it’s made me think I should never produce alone again. Just having someone to bounce ideas off of, share panic with, and remind you not to work yourself into the ground, is more valuable than I could have dreamed of.
EW: The amount that we had interacted on social media as a myriad of different theatre companies over the years made it kind of laughable that we weren’t acquaintances in real life. Annie has claimed several times that working together was a way for her to learn more about producing from me, but I am constantly in awe of her leadership and vision for this project. I am a big fan of producing partnerships, and Annie and I fell into a rhythm very early that made it easy to share the role. There is something about a female partnership that feels particularly comfortable in that there has been empathy and compassion built into every stage of this process. Not to say that isn’t possible outside of working with women, but it felt as though it was a given that there would be support and encouragement not because there had to be, but because we cared enough to take care of each other while taking care of the rest of our team. It has been a dreamy process and I would do it again in a heartbeat!
BK: What has it been like working with an all female creative team? Was the assembly of this creative team a conscious choice?
AC: My personal mandate is to work on stories that put women at the forefront. I also am in love with working with women. Can’t get enough of it. One of the great things about being a producer, depending on what stage in the process you come on board, is the ability to put a team together. Deciding whose voices you’re showcasing, how you’re showcasing them, who’s sitting at the table – that is some kind of power, even when you’re talking about a teeny tiny indie show. I know that at this stage in my career it won’t be possible to be in that level of driver’s seat for every project, but I am so proud of the team we assembled for Cannibal. As Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (our director) puts so eloquently, “I love competent people!”
EW: I don’t think anyone in my life would have a hard time telling you that feminism is a driving force of my personality, and also my work. I prioritize creating opportunities for women, but I also think that we are spoiled in our Toronto theatre community with talented women in all kinds of roles, so it wasn’t difficult hiring women to fill so many of the positions on our team. It had already been decided when I joined the team that the director would be a woman. Beyond that, the priority was, and always is, to build a team that can service the needs of the script and the director’s vision, and in this case our director Courtney was able to communicate her ideas to Cosette [Pin] and Julia [Kim] and they understood and wanted to join in bringing that vision to life. We also had two female stage managers (Lucy McPhee and Julia Vodarek Hunter) who were able to work together, and with Courtney, to create a safe and welcoming rehearsal room for our actors. It’s exciting to hire these women not only to give them the platform to share their skills and talents, but to give them a chance to collaborate with each other.
BK: What has it been like working with a male playwright on a play that has a predominantly female POV?
AC: Thom Nyhuus, the playwright, is an absolute dream collaborator – he is so open to feedback and perspectives that differ from his own, and yet he has such a clear vision for the play. In addition to the work he did with our dramaturg, Paolo Santalucia, he also spent a lot of time working on the script with Justine Christensen, who plays Bridget, over the spring and summer, before we started rehearsals. The intention was always to have a woman director, and I still can’t believe that Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster said yes, but we are beyond lucky to have her. We wanted her voice not only in the room, but shaping the room, and she has done the most beautiful job throughout the entire process.
EW: I would also add that when talking about #MeToo, and how we move forward in order to give women a platform to speak and share their stories, that there is also a conversation about what role men will play in pursuing equality. In the same way that we talk about men needing to be allies and how they need to work alongside us to make equality a reality. It was refreshing reading Cannibal knowing that it was Thom’s first play and discovering a female-driven plot featuring two complicated, yet very different, female characters. Bridget Walker is in every scene and the story is hers. I think having male playwrights who want to write interesting stories that feature women, women who are recognizable in their intricacies and flaws, is valuable in the pursuit for more female representation. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities that come from artistic collaborations where artists are open to hearing feedback and learning about one another in order to craft the best story.
BK: You are both freelance producers with multiple jobs on the go like so many of us. What are the ways you manage your time and properly prioritize each project so that they equally get the proper attention?
AC: I would say that I’m still aspiring to properly prioritize each project so that they each get the attention they deserve. Basically for the past year I have felt like I’ve been in triage mode, so it’s been about which deadline is the most pressing, which fire needs putting out today. I do a lot of planning out my time in detail (iCal is my best friend), but then inevitably things come up and some things just end up landing at the bottom of the priority list. One thing I’ve tried to do is to identify when each project gets to be priority number one (I tend to think of this in terms of, what does my number one focus have to be this month? What about next month?) When Thom and I found out we got into Next Stage, I was absolutely thrilled, but then a new contract came my way in August and I knew that I was over-capacity, which is where Emma came in! There is no way we could have done this show without an Associate Producer, and I am unbelievably grateful to her for her patience and her willingness to give us her time because, like so many of us, it is in seriously short supply.
EW: I definitely wouldn’t claim to be an expert in time management! I am fairly new to being able to consistently work as a freelancer, so I’m still learning how best to manage the different projects I’m working on in order to be productive, but also so I can avoid burning out. My best tip would be to take the time for yourself to look at each of your projects at a distance, by which I mean zooming out and creating a plan from start to finish so that you can identify what you’ll need to do, when you’ll need to do it, and when it needs to be your priority. I would say the biggest lesson I’ve learned recently is being honest with myself when I’m in over my head and addressing it before it becomes a major issue. In the arts sector, we’re aware that everyone is making do with the few resources they have, so it can be hard to admit to the people you’re working with that you need more: more time, more funding, more access, more support. The thing is, if you don’t ask for what you need, no one will know that they should be trying to give it to you. It seems simple, but it’s been a huge game changer for me! Any good collaborator will do what they can to make adjustments so that you can be productive instead of feeling overwhelmed.
BK: Any advice for upcoming producers?
AC: Know what kind of theatre you want to be a part of putting into the world. That doesn’t mean you’ll get it right every time, or that every project will be birthed into the world exhibiting the beautiful intentions with which it was conceived, but you have to know what you care about. Also: talk to other producers and theatre makers. Read programs, and figure out who’s doing work you love. Send your programs to the Toronto Theatre Database so that we can all help make that resource as rich as possible! See theatre. And get training. I work at Generator so this is me disclosing my bias, but they have incredible workshops geared towards producers throughout the year, as well as an annual Artist Producer Training program. When I first moved to Toronto I was pretty sure it was to act and do nothing else, so I am very grateful to programs like Nightwood Theatre’s Young Innovators and Toronto Fringe’s TENT (Theatre Entrepreneurs Networking and Training) program for opening my eyes to what else was out there, and how I could use my other skills to make theatre.
EW: I think the best thing about producing, but also the most frustrating thing when you’re first starting out, is that there is no one way to produce. For the longest time, I felt like if someone would just send me their blueprint for producing, it wouldn’t feel like such a big task every time I started something new. The more experience you get, and the more you interact with different artists and collaborators, the better you’ll be at knowing how to identify and provide what a project needs. This goes for pretty much anything you’re interested in pursuing, reach out to people doing work that you are interested in and ask if you can take them for coffee. Finding mentors can be hard, but it is one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself and your career.
BK: Why should we come and see your show?
AC: Cannibal is a very, very good play. It is sharp, surprising, thrilling, and utterly unexpected. Thom says that, with Scrap Paper Theatre, he wants to make plays that his brothers won’t sleep through. As someone whose own brother gave up on theatre after seeing me in a very ill-advised one act in 2006, I can really get behind that. And yet, for all of its watchability, Cannibal does not sacrifice depth. I’m really interested in what it’s exploring about womanhood, intimacy, motherhood, love, debt, and what happens when we make art out of life.
EW: There is something about Cannibal that sneaks up on you. It happened when I first read the script last year, and it has happened every time I’ve seen it since. It is not what it appears to be, or at least, it is much more than it appears to be. I love complicated, unraveling, imperfect women and this play delivers one in Bridget Walker, and another in her best friend Liza. I love Thom’s writing, and my favourite part of the script is the depiction of female friendship. It doesn’t have a pink, frilly ribbon tied around it – it’s messy and raw, and it is the core of the emotional relationships, despite the presence of romantic relationships in Bridget’s life.
At the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival
Company: Scrap Paper Theatre
Playwright: Thom Nyhuus
Director: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Producers: Annie Clarke & Emma Westray
Cast: Michael Ayres, Justine Christensen, Joella Crichton, Thom Nyhuus
Dramaturg: Paolo Santalucia
Sound & Lighting Designer: Cosette Pin
Set & Prop & Costume Designer: Julia Kim
Stage Managers: Lucy McPhee (Rehearsal), Julia Vodarek Hunter
Intimacy & Fight Choreographer: Scott Emerson Moyle
When you survive the unsurvivable, who do you become? Bridget Walker has written a play about the abduction of her son and it’s a smash hit. Critics are raving, but those closest to her are sent reeling. ‘Cannibal’ explores grief, the cost of sharing your story, and what it means to be indebted to someone you love.
Factory Theatre Studio – 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON, M5V 2R2
Thurs. Jan. 10 (9:30pm), Fri. Jan. 11 (5:00pm), Sat. Jan. 12 (6:45pm), Sun. Jan. 13 (8:45pm), Tues. Jan. 15 (8:30pm), Thurs. Jan. 17 (9:15pm), Sat. Jan. 19 (6:00pm), Sun. Jan. 20 (3:00pm).
This show contains strong language, sexual content, and discussions of mental illness, grief, and coping with losing a child.
General Admission – $15.00
Buy tickets or passes in advance online: www.fringetoronto.com or by phone: 416-966-1062