Susanna Fournier – Playwright/Producer/Director/Actor+++ on building THE EMPIRE TRILOGY
Interview by Hallie Seline.
Susanna Fournier is one of the most multifaceted artists in Canada right now. She is daring to go big, speak her mind, challenge the status quo, and continue to push to every boundary that comes her way in order to shake the world up with her art. I have been so in awe of her and her work over the past few years, seeing her drive to take on bigger projects, exploring and expanding her process, all while accepting the challenge of wearing ALL OF THE HATS in order to make her art happen. I couldn’t think of a more fierce artist to feature and I was thrilled to be able to speak with her about what motivates and inspires her, what she’s learned by daring to go BIG with THE EMPIRE TRILOGY, and what advice she would give to fellow artists trying to make it happen.
Hallie Seline: Your Empire trilogy is a massive project. Not only are there THREE PLAYS that are being produced in a year, but there’s podcasts, passports, an extensive fundraising project, partner feature drinks and online graphic novels! Tell me a bit about where your inspiration for this trilogy came from and what made you want to go BIG with it?
Susanna Fournier: I don’t know how to tell small stories. I grew up on Star Wars, Mozart’s operas, the Mists of Avalon, and Lord of the Rings. These all seemed like reasonably normal sized stories to me.
In terms of the content, I think of the Empire as an origin story of Western modernity. I explore conflict on the macro and micro level. I write about systems of power through exploring how these systems appear in our daily lives, in our homes, our bodies, and sense of self. Current culture is stuck on a path towards destruction, I wrote The Empire to try and trace that path back. I’m not sure we can change the path if we don’t look at just how long we’ve been on it. I write in genre because I want to shake people out of their patterns, shake them out of the day-to-day and into a heightened space. When we travel our senses come alive, when we encounter a new place, new language, new culture, we pay attention in a different way. The Empire is set in an imagined world to shake us into looking at this one with more attention.
Producing The Empire revealed to me that I’m not just interested in theatre, I’m interested in STORIES. I’m a story-teller, and I’m curious about all the ways we can tell stories. In a theatre, in a book, on the radio, in a picture or across a cocktail. The Empire isn’t just three plays, it’s a whole universe. Alison Wong, who is producing it with me, really helped me see that, and has been working closely with me to make these ideas possible. When I say, “What if we did (insert new idea)???” She’d say, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and then ACTUALLY finds a way to do it.
HS: You have worn so many hats already in this project. What are some stand-out lessons you have learned while taking on the roles of: writer, producer, actor, director…
SF: As a producer: my job is to create containers for everybody else (creative team, venue, and audience) to reveal and experience the art. No matter how much you plan for the process and experience to go one way, it will inevitably go many other ways. Problem solving and your community are your biggest assets.
As a playwright, your play doesn’t exist without all the other elements: design, actors, space, audience. You bring a bunch of pages to day one of rehearsal, and then you have to let the process teach you about your play. You haven’t met your play until you all start doing it. You have to let the play speak – which might mean you suddenly feel like you don’t recognize it anymore. Be curious about it. It’s never going to be the version you see in your head. Thank god – what would be the point of doing it if you can just watch it in your head?
As an actor: you know that nightmare about having to go on and perform a show you didn’t rehearse? I just lived it for a 2 week run. You CAN actually learn a whole show 3 days before opening. You don’t need as much time to work as you think you do to make choices and commit to them. Get off book as soon as you possibly can. Imagine how much deeper your work would be if you were off book by day 1. You can do this. I dare you.
HS: What has been your biggest challenge you’ve faced in undergoing this project and how have you taken it on?
SF: Raising the money to produce a whole season of theatre as indie artists and being understaffed because we don’t have the money to hire the amount of people it takes to execute a whole season of theatre. Working inside this challenge is ongoing. I’ve had to interrogate my relationship to money, to asking for it, and to keep asking for it. For instance, if you want to check out Empire Trilogy’s “A Name for A Name” campaign here, you can see how close we are to reaching our $15,000 goal and help us get there by donating today 🙂
HS: We love all of the resources Generator is putting out into the world to empower artists to make their art happen. As an artist taking on many roles, can you speak to me about your experience with the Generator Artist Producer Training (APT) program?
SF: I could not produce a project like this without the training I did with APT, and the continued support Generator is giving me as a resident company. Beyond the classes, which covered everything from budgets, to contracts, to timelines, to curation, and marketing, etc. APT and Generator gave me a community of support. Kristina Lemieux is a revolution. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone as committed to empowering artists and creating meaningful sector and social change. Generator is quickly becoming a hub for the indie artists of Toronto, and my hope is that more indie companies will begin to work together and organize around Generator. What would happen if “indie” teams formed a stronger network, what resources could we share, what kind of terms could we set when working inside and outside of more traditional institutions? What’s possible?
HS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
SF: Making art that runs against the mainstream is lonely. You’re going to work with great people, but it’s still going to be lonely. Make friends with your loneliness.
HS: Where do you look for inspiration?
SF: Women who rail against the shitty deal society “offers” them. Women who say no. Women who dance. Women who laugh at power. Women who fuck. Women who ask questions. Women who scream. Women who fail. Women who make mistakes. Women who rage. Women who transform. Women who love. Women who sing.
HS: What do you do to take care of yourself as an artist?
SF: I don’t know, I’ve had less than 25 days off since The Empire trilogy started pre-production in May 2017, but I have amazing friends and family who help me every single day and bring me food a lot.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Morning or Night Person? A lot of both lately (work)
Go-to drink? Double espresso with touch of hot water and some kind of non-cow milk. I love cocktails and vermouth but I’m not drinking much these days (see above re: work)
If you could be reincarnated as an animal what would it be? A human.
Last book you read? Heartbreaker by local powerhouse Claudia Dey
What are you listening to right now? My gut. And early 2000’s sad angsty tunes.
Favourite place in the city? Sunnyside beach life guard tower (when I need to see the lake and remember the immensity of life).
What in your life could you not live without? Women and faith.
Current Mantra: Several mantras these days: Keep going. You can’t control everything. Let go. Trust.
Finish these sentences:
“I am most creative when...I am dancing”
“I feel happiest when…I am creating (which is a form of dancing)”
“I feel fired up when…I am writing (also a form of dancing)”
“In the Toronto theatre scene, I want to see…more radical work, more abandon (so dancing), and more leaders re-structuring institutional power (which is also a form of dancing)”
THE EMPIRE Trilogy by Susanna Fournier
Bilal Baig – Playwright of ACHA BACHA
Interview by Hallie Seline.
It is an absolute pleasure to feature playwright Bilal Baig, chatting about what inspires him as an artist, the development of his current piece Acha Bacha, on stage this month with Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and on writing “the story you need to tell”.
HS: What inspired Acha Bacha and how did the piece develop?
Bilal Baig: I was sexually assaulted when I was seventeen. One of the first things that was irrevocably changed after my assault was my relationship with my mother. I began to think: I’m queer, I’m not very religious, I like to fuck with gender sometimes and now I’m a survivor of sexual assault – will my mother EVER think I’m good?
I sat on this thought for about a year before I took a playwriting class with Judith Thompson at the University of Guelph and under her guidance, the first draft of the play exploded out of me in a few weeks in April 2013. That summer, I was connected to Damien Atkins, who worked as a dramaturge on the play (and is still a current mentor in my life). Through the Paprika Festival‘s playwright residency program, I met, worked with and fell in love with Djanet Sears, which resulted in an excerpt sharing of the play at the festival in April 2014, where Andy McKim was present. From that point on in the play’s developmental journey, I worked predominantly with Andy, Jiv Parasram and Brendan Healy as dramaturges.
HS: I am very excited about the team working on the show. What has it been like working with these artists bringing your show to life?
BB: I am very excited about this group of artists coming together as well! There has been so much love in the room and a fiercely deep commitment to understanding the story and honoring it with such care, curiosity and empathy. I am in sincere awe of all the artists I get to work and play with every day throughout this process! So much love.
HS: What are you most looking forward to about sharing this show with audiences now?
BB: I’m really curious about what the conversations around power, sex and shame will be surrounding this play.
HS: I know that you’ve both developed work with the Paprika Festival and worked with them. What has been the impact of this outlet on your growth as an artist?
BB: Paprika has been instrumental in my growth as an artist. It was a playground for me (for five years!) to explore my artistic obsessions and learn from what it feels like to put your work out there when it’s not ‘ready’. Artists who I met through Paprika five years ago have become friends I collaborate with today.
HS: What is best piece of advice you’ve received either in life or in art?
BB: “Write the story you need to tell”. That was actually the prompt given by Judith, which lead to the first draft of Acha Bacha. I think I use this advice in my life as well!
HS: What inspires you?
BB: I’m inspired by genderqueer Indigenous, black, people of colour living their truth. I feel like my art is probably inspired by shitty events happening in the world that devastate/confuse/terrify/arouse me to the point where I can’t talk about it anymore and I must write it.
Rapid Fire Questions:
What are you watching right now? America’s Next Top Model.
If you could travel anywhere, where would it be? Fiji or New Zealand. Or Vancouver.
Favourite food: Mom’s chicken fried rice or biryani. Or pizza.
Current mantra or goal for yourself as an artist this year: You’re allowed to feel ambivalent about your work and this career you are pursuing. That is okay.
Co-Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Written by: Bilal Baig
Directed by: Brendan Healy
Featuring: Shelly Antony, Qasim Khan, Omar Alex Khan, Matt Nethersole,
and Ellora Patnaik
Set and Costume Design by: Joanna Yu
Lighting by: C.J Astronomo
Sound Design and Music by Richard Feren
Stage managed by Kat Chin
For years Zaya has balanced his relationships with his religion and his queer identity. But as secrets from the past reveal themselves, and crisis strikes his family, he is torn between loyalties, culture, and time. Written by Bilal Baig, and directed by Brendan Healy, Acha Bacha boldly explores the intersections between queerness, gender identity and Islamic culture in the Pakistani diaspora. The show uses both English and Urdu to tell a story about the way we love, the way we are loved, and how sometimes love is not enough.
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto
February 1-18, 2018