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“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.

Photo of Justine Christensen, Michael Ayres by Haley Garnett

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.

Photo of Annie Clarke, Thom Nyhuus & Emma Westray

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.

Left to right: Joella Crichton, Michael Ayres, Justine Christensen, Thom Nyhuus. Photo by Haley Garnett.

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.

Photo of Justine Christensen by Haley Garnett.

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.

Photo of Emma Westray and Annie Clarke by Haley Garnett.

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.

Cannibal

At the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival

Photo of Justine Christensen by Tanja Tiziana

Who:
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

What:
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.

Where:
Factory Theatre Studio – 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON, M5V 2R2

When:
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).

Runtime:
90 minutes

Content Warnings:
This show contains strong language, sexual content, and discussions of mental illness, grief, and coping with losing a child.

Tickets:
General Admission – $15.00
Buy tickets or passes in advance online: www.fringetoronto.com or by phone: 416-966-1062

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“Trauma isolates you. Theatre connects you.” In Conversation with Playwright Ellie Moon on WHAT I CALL HER and Using Art To Heal

Interview by Megan Robinson.

In our discussion regarding her newest play, What I Call Her, premiering November 16-December 8 at Crow’s Theatre, Ellie Moon is careful yet generous and endearingly enthusiastic. From her temporary home in Montreal, where she’s playing the role of Emmy in A Doll’s House, Part 2 at the Segal, Moon speaks fondly of her creative team back in Toronto, who are working hard to bring this comedy (or at least, very funny play) to life.

Her second production, following last year’s Asking For It, this new play offers theatre-goers the chance to see the young playwright’s work in a more traditional form. The show takes a look at two sisters who are struggling with different perspectives of the same story. It’s a complicated exploration of how we heal from trauma in an era in which our identities are worked out online, and so much more. After writing the first draft in one sitting (basically a miracle for a writer), What I Call Her was quickly programmed at Crow’s Theatre by Artistic Director Chris Abraham, who recently tweeted “Read this play last year, and it got right under my skin.”

We spoke with Moon about life after Asking For It, what it’s like being mentored by Chris Abraham and using art to heal.


Megan Robinson: Can you talk a little about the experience you had after Asking For It? Maybe about how you were feeling and where you were at as an artist?

Ellie Moon: Post-Asking For It, I had the biggest vulnerability hangover of my life, which was difficult, because I went right back into auditioning but didn’t really want anyone to look at me (laughs). It was a lot that I asked of myself in that project. You’re just getting to know yourself in your early 20s, and playing myself in a play, asking very vulnerable questions, it was a big deal – and I wasn’t relaxed about it. If I had known that once the show closed, much of the world would be standing up and saying “I had this sexual experience and I’m not sure what it meant, whether it was consensual, what my power was or is”, if I’d know Albert (Schultz) would no longer be running Soulpepper a few months later, I would have slept much better during the rehearsal process, but these things were completely inconceivable to me while I rehearsed this play. So, I was cripplingly terrified. The terror did relieve significantly after #MeToo broke during the run of the show, but the vulnerability, of course, persisted, and I was pretty exhausted by it all when it closed. I felt like spending a lot of time alone after the play closed, which I did, and which allowed me to write this play.

MR: This show is about healing from trauma. I’m curious to know more about what role your art plays in helping you heal or grow as a person?

EM: Theatre has connected me with the most empathetic, accepting people in my life, so that’s a big part of it. It allows me to discuss and test behaviour, to learn about and consider its impact on people, without needing to try it out (that’s not to say that I haven’t tested out some good and bad behaviour in my life anyway, though). Most powerfully, maybe, I’ve written multiple “unlikable” characters that I’ve watched artists embrace and see good in that I couldn’t see when I wrote them – and that is very healing. It’s also enabled me to connect with others with similar life experiences, or different life experiences, because at the end of the day, the experience of all lives is similar enough to unite us. Trauma isolates you, theatre connects you.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: What was the process like of writing What I Call Her? How did it come about?

EM: This is super strange and wild and hasn’t happened for me before and I don’t expect for this to happen again…But I sat down and started writing without a plan, and 7 or 8 hours later I a) moved after all that time b) ate peanut butter toast and c) read it back and went “Woah, I really like this”. It had a few development workshops this year, but the changes have been very delicate – Director Sarah Kitz contributed an important stage direction, and I added and took away some text, but not much. I don’t think the original draft would look too different from the production draft, were you to look at them side-by-side. This is not at all how I work, usually, not even a bit. It was hard to speak about this play at first, because it was so born of my subconscious. I needed to work backwards to learn how to represent it to the community and I did this by sharing it with trusted people, and discussing with them what exactly it is.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: How did Crow’s get involved?

EM: I gave Chris Abraham (Crow’s Artistic Director) the play to read, just as a friend. I was looking for feedback but absolutely not expecting him to program it. He read it and said “I might have space for this at Crow’s in the season” and then, “I have space for this in the season” and suggested Sarah Kitz as director. Sarah and I actually met for coffee a year and a half ago, after we had first “met” in the comments section of your incredibly brave piece about your experiences at George Brown, which brought about meaningful change – bravo! I understood Sarah to be a deeply ethical, smart person and I was like, “yes” this is a great fit.

MR: Chris (Abraham) has acted as a mentor to you, and I’m wondering if you can share some of the vital beliefs about playwriting or theatre in general that you’ve received from him and how they’ve shaped your work?

EM: Really too many things to name – I’m incredibly grateful to Chris. Most of the language I have to speak about plays comes from Chris and that’s pretty major. I wrote Asking For It while assistant directing a production The Watershed and that was the first time I heard the word “dialectic” (and I embarrassed myself by thinking he was saying dialect at first and being like “no I think the accents are good” (laughs)). On that project and others we’ve worked on or discussed, Chris talks a lot about moving a dialectic (or argument) through action, and that idea was at the front of my mind when writing What I Call Her (as well as Asking For It, and my new plays for the Tarragon). Chris is very gifted with taking a complex idea and simplifying or distilling it, it’s partially why he is such a good director and teacher. A practice I learned from him, and that he passed on from someone else, is that I try to name in just one short phrase what my play is about – what the central argument is – as early as possible in the process of writing. Chris is also wonderfully open-minded and accepting (I mean, for example, there was zero judgement when I thought dialectic meant accents…except from me, of myself) and I am working to make that more and more part of my practice as an artist and my life in general.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Tell me about working with director Sarah Kitz!

EM: It has been absurdly wonderful to have Sarah as a collaborator on this play. From the very first conversation I had with her about the show, I was gob-smacked by how completely and fully on the same page we were. I have never had this experience before, and I don’t consider it necessary to always see eye to eye with a collaborator, but it’s just a fact that she has never said one word about the play that hasn’t made me go, “yup, exactly”. Sarah has an enormous heart to balance out her enormous brain. As well as being able to navigate every aspect of the arguments the characters make in this play, and being able to hear the lines exactly as I do, and crack the language like a code, she has always had an understanding of how this play would exist in bodies and in space. Sarah also has a stunning capacity to hold both of the conflicting truths this play presents, side by side, with enormous empathy for and acceptance of both, and an acceptance of the mystery of where these meet. As an actor herself, she is also an incredibly gifted coach and director of other actors. That has been so essential here because these roles demand an absurd amount of these actors, and I know the cast would back me up when I say that Sarah is a gift to them as their guide.

Speaking of, I can’t believe how hard we lucked out with the cast – their qualities are bang on for these parts and they are extremely gifted and can manage this highly wordy, challenging text with ease. This was something I was nervous about – this combination of the inherent qualities I saw the actors and characters as needing to have, coupled with the need for actors who are extremely proficient with text, and especially because the play needs such young actors. Your energy changes a lot year by year between 20 and 30, these are like dog years, and if these roles feel “played down” by older actors, the play is so delicate that it could tip it into satire. A big question in the play is one of responsibility and the entrance into adulthood. At what point in someone’s life do they go from behaving in a way that can be reasonably understood as being in response to their given environment, to them being active in the world, not reactive, and responsible for their conduct? It’s probably not 18, right? You’re still a kid at 18. It’s probably somewhere more between 20 and 25. So the casting, and casting as close to the right ages of these characters as possible, was very important to me. I was fortunate that Sarah agreed wholeheartedly with this, and that she adores and understands actors as she does. And of course, these fine actors (Charlie Gould, Ellie Ellwand and Michael Ayres) deserve a shout out in here, too. They have had to learn a lot of very precise, very, very wordy text and hold all that alongside the massive emotional stakes of the show. And they are also hilarious.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: If you were to liken this show to something else, what would it be?

EM: I realize this is a very ballsy thing to say about my own work, to compare it to one of the great plays of the past century, but I think it’s kind of a funny, female, millennial Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

MR: What is at the heart of this show for you?

EM: How much we need validation to heal, and how difficult that is in a world where other people exist, and not just to be in service to you and your narrative, but have their own experiences of things that need validating, too. How people who are traumatized often behave in ways that destroy their credibility and make that validation very difficult to receive. How responsibility is needed for healing, but is so often arrived at through blame.

MR: What makes you want to write? What sort of things get you inspired?

EM: I’m not sure what makes me want (or more accurately, need) to write and I want to respect the mystery of that and not think too hard about it. I’m very grateful that I can do this and that I’ve had the opportunity to share so much of my writing at this point in my life. Right now, I’m definitely interested in morality and responsibility and power, but I can feel this shifting, and I want to invite it to shift.

MR: Asking For It was documentary theatre, where this one has more of a classic play structure. Do you have a preference of one form over the other?

EM: I don’t have a preference with regards to form. I want to have a diverse writing practice. I definitely notice that people give you a lot more credit as a playwright when it’s a fiction play and not docu-theatre, though, which is too bad and misguided. Docu-theatre requires an incredible amount of work, responsibility and authorship. People have a lot of bias against it as a form. They assume it’s dry, didactic, condescending. It doesn’t need to be and I have been fortunate to see so much docu-theatre that isn’t.

MR: Since being a playwright-in-residence, how has your craft evolved?

MR: I’m the Bulmash-Siegal playwright-in-residence at Tarragon and in this capacity, I’ve worked a lot this past year (and will this coming year) with Richard Rose, Jason Sherman and Joanna Falck – awesome, sharp, wise people and artists. As well as adding significantly to the language I have for speaking about plays, this residency has allowed me the space to develop plays (two of them!) over time, to take in and incorporate very precise feedback (or feedback that’s imprecise, but just as potent and useful). I’m usually one to rush to immediately apply notes, but this arrangement allows me to really hear a note, and maybe not understand immediately exactly how I will apply it, but to not be afraid of that, to sit with it and come back to it. This opportunity to not have to figure it out right away is invaluable, especially because, as I said before, your 20s feel like dog years and I feel like a different person than, like, a week ago.

MR: What’s your favourite line?

EM: ”I’m an adult: I have a reusable water bottle in my bag.”

Photo by Dahlia Katz


What I Call Her

Who:
In Association in partnership with Crow’s Theatre
CAST:
Michael Ayres – Kyle
Ellie Ellwand – Ruby
Charlie Gould – Kate
CREATIVE:
Ellie Moon – Playwright
Sarah Kitz – Director
Annie Clarke – Producer
Suzie Balogh – Production Manager
Ashley Ireland – Stage Manager
Imogen Wilson – Lighting Designer
Ali Berkok – Composer & Sound Designer

What:
Trauma, truth, freedom & the internet age
The estranged mother of 25-year old Kate is on her death-bed. A Facebook post becomes the subject of heated debate. Then, a knock on the door. A play about gaps in how people perceive and understand the world they live in, female generational rage, and the loneliness of holding onto one’s own truth.

Where:
Crow’s Theatre
345 Carlaw Ave.
Toronto

When:
Nov. 16-Dec. 8

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com

“Getting Personal, Breaking the Taboo & Being Relentless for What You Love” In Conversation with Playwright Hannah Moscovitch on SECRET LIFE OF A MOTHER at the Theatre Centre

Interview by Megan Robinson.

In her new show, Secret Life of A Mother, on now until November 11th at the Theatre Centre, Hannah Moscovitch has chosen to wrestle with the theme of motherhood by way of the personal.

As a writer whose previous work has always kept her at a critical distance, this confessional form of storytelling is a new challenge for Moscovitch, who is managing the discomfort by trusting in her technical writing skills and her knowledge of how narrative works.

Like her show, Moscovitch is both very funny and surprisingly honest throughout our conversation. And despite her insistence that she does not enjoy exposure, we managed to get her talking about her relentless creative process, the crucible of motherhood and, eventually, what makes her a good writer.

Written by Moscovitch, Maev Beaty, Ann-Marie Kerr and co-created with Marinda De Beer, Secret Life of A Mother is the result of six years of development. It’s a show that peels back the layers on two women who are friends, mothers, and artists, as they reach for empowerment by sharing and shaping their own story.


Megan Robinson: So I read that you’ve always admired auto fiction and confessional writing and I do too, Sheila Heti and her book Motherhood, for example. I’m wondering, if you love that form so much, why did you avoid doing it for so long?

Hannah Moscovitch: There’s tons of it out there that I’m really drawn to, because I think the truth has a light around it. And I don’t know what else to say about that. There’s something about the truth and the willingness to be that vulnerable and to put yourself on stage that I haven’t been willing to do…Because I’m reserved and I don’t like to be exposed. Personality-wise I’m not a good match with auto fiction. So this show hasn’t been easy. You know, there’s real shit going on in the world that’s hard and compared to that it’s fine… I mean, I made the choice to do it and I have a team of people who are doing it with me, who I trust so much and that makes all the difference in the ability to do it.

MR: Do you think it’s because it’s a harder fall from this type of work?

HM: Maybe. You know what, it probably is, but I don’t think that’s even a thing for me. I actually just don’t like the feeling of exposure. I just don’t like it. It’s really simple.

Hilariously enough, someone once said to me about switching from playwriting to TV writing, “You have to know in TV writing the author doesn’t get acclaim like playwrights do.” And I was like, “That’s fine, I’m not worried about that.” I’m just not into exposure. Not because I’m humble or awesome but because I don’t like the feeling of people knowing all this shit about me. Partly because I got so bullied in high school and after that I was like, ‘I just want to be normal and I don’t want anyone to look at me again and I want to be anonymous.’ My whole effort going forward from high school was to just blend in as much as possible.

MR: You’re definitely not doing that.

HM: I fully failed. I think this is definitely pushing me. But I wanted to be pushed, I wanted to do it.

I think it was me, actually, I sent in an email. I wrote everyone on the team a message, I was like, ‘What about if I write my own story and Maev plays me and then I can talk about Maev and her experience in that because we’re such close friends and she’ll have to talk about herself in the third person on stage. What about that as a form for the show?’ And once I said it we were all like, ‘Oh that’s it.’ But at that moment I hadn’t calculated what that would mean.

MR: I know you’re saying it’s scary and you don’t like the feeling of sharing, but was there something you enjoyed or valued from writing about yourself?

(long silence)

HM: Yeah, I think there is a kind of empowerment for sure. There’s definitely empowerment. And there’s perspective you gain from it. It has advantages, I think…

MR: You’re still figuring it out?

HM: Yeah. I think there were moments writing it where I realized that when something is taboo, if you just simply say what happened to you, it can break through the taboo because it’s that way because it’s just something that’s not spoken about. So all you have to do is say, “This is what happened to me over the course of my two miscarriages” and that is not a thing we’ve heard about a lot because there’s a tendency to hide when you’ve had a miscarriage. But the truth is, the number of women who have had miscarriages is extraordinary. Women have them constantly. I think something like 1 in 4 women have them. So it affects huge numbers of people and yet it’s not spoken about. So just to represent that experience does feel empowering. Because you’re like, ‘I’m going to say this shit and that’s going to be crazy. All I have to do is just tell you what I went through.’

MR: Is it weird to you that it is still a taboo?

HM: Yeah, but do you know why? I don’t know why miscarriage in particular is taboo. Other than that it’s ‘gross women stuff’…

MR: I think maybe it’s because it hurts? It’s not being talked about because it’s hard. Even if it is normal it doesn’t make it not hard. Even depression is taboo, because it’s hard to talk about. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt…

HM: Like grief… It’s common for people, if they’ve had a miscarriage and that’s why they stay off work, to not say why. And I want to be clear I did the same. So when I had miscarriages I didn’t tell people why I was not coming to work. But people will often say it’s because they have cancer or a dental surgery or have been in a car accident, but they won’t say miscarriage and I can’t exactly say why. Other than that it is in that zone of gross grief-filled women stuff that people don’t want to hear about.

MR: I think it can also be us not knowing how to support people who’ve been through it, right? So you don’t say it cause no one knows how to hold it for you?

HM: No one knows what to do once you’ve said it…

MR: And now that’s the audience with this piece.

HM: Totally.

MR: I read that you have lots of ideas, more ideas than you have time for. What does it look like when you have an idea? Is it a character? Is it a question you want to answer? Does it always come about the same way?

HM: I think maybe because I’ve worked in a bunch of different mediums I’ve been forced out of my comfort zones pretty intensely. Like, I’ve worked in TV and opera and radio quite a bit as well as playwriting, and every one of those mediums has a different way in and honestly I think it’s just made me technically practiced of having various ways in. I would say before I did all that fucking around with what medium I was going to work in, I would definitely say it was through character. Through character I got everything. I’d hear a voice in my head that was saying words, that was the character, and from that voice I’d find theme. I’d find plot and narrative structure within that character’s voice. And now I think I can go any direction. I can go from theme, I can go from plot, and I can go from character.

But I think mostly people like to pick one. And I think in theatre mostly people pick character because theatre is a great medium for the interpersonal.

MR: Is there something that exists in everything you’ve written, something integral to your work?

HM: Yeah I think there are a few in varying degrees depending on the piece I’m working on… I’d say I really like extremes. I like seeing characters up against extreme circumstances that shortcut them to themselves. So I like war and genocide. I like to put people through crucibles, which they have to transform extremely because everything about who they are is called into question.

MR: Is motherhood that for you? Is it a sort of war?

HM: I’d say it’s a crucible through which everything about you is called into question. That is, I think, why people write about it or care about it. I’d say at the center of the experience of motherhood, for many women, is a crucible. If you’ve ever had any mental or physical problems, whatever thoughts you thought you conquered long ago, when you become a mother it will all come back. So any demons you haven’t faced, they’re all going to come for you, right when you become a mother. And that’s good because you’ll be forced to face things about yourself and you will learn who you are as you question your identity. So yeah, it’s like war in that way, but only in that way. In every other way it’s not.

MR: Oh god.

HM: I’d say I’ve always been interested in womanhood. That’s the other thing I go after pretty consistently in my work. Womanhood and a counter-narrative of womanhood.

MR: What is a counter-narrative of womanhood?

HM: I think anything that is authentically true about being a woman is a counter-narrative because there’s just so little out there.

MR: Do you think the bar is too low?

HM: It’s awfully low right now. Sometimes I really feel like that. I’m like, isn’t it fun for the bar to be this low…

MR: I guess there are some advantages to it…

HM: I mean it’s gross, maybe, but as a writer on the inside, I’m like ‘I can just fucking tell stories about women and it’s like, ‘holy fuck I’ve never heard that! It’s totally unconventional!’’

There’s an entire part of our culture that we’re mashing down that we were not talking about and now people are talking about it and it feels original, but seriously, it’s been happening all along… like nothing’s a surprise. It feels like the whole content of our brains is suddenly media worthy.

MR: Does that make you want to write more confessional and personal stuff?

HM: Um, yeah, I mean, within the right circumstances for sure. I do have one other project. One thing I have learned that you do need within your own material of your own life is for there to be a narrative structure. So I think that’s the limit for me. I mean I wouldn’t write about anything in my own life that didn’t have a narrative structure in it. I really do admire it when people do it, so I have to remember that when I feel all those fucking feelings while I’m doing it.

MR: Do you write things that you like?

HM: If I’m really honest, part of why I wanted to write things was because I didn’t like some of what I saw and I thought I’d like to write something that I would like. In a weird way, those pieces of mine that I feel are failures, it’s because I didn’t like it when I saw it. So I do have those. It really matters to me that I like my work and I really freak out when I don’t like my work.

MR: How do you deal with that?

HM: You know… honestly… I flip out. I drink and don’t sleep. It’s bad news. I don’t do that anymore. Now I have a son and I can’t freak out in quite the same way. But I tend to freak out and go all the way down and be in grief about it because it sucks to put something on stage that you don’t like and that you feel is contributing to the medium not being good, especially if you love the medium right? It does take me going all the way down and then it’s like, ‘Okay good. What did I do wrong? What lead to this experience of me not liking it’ and then I can track back.

MR: What do you think makes you a good writer?

HM: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that in my life…

MR: What would your best friend say?

HM: That’s easier somehow. Well, I think I’m relentless. Like, I’m fucking relentless. And I think for some people working with me, that’s going to be hard because I will not let go. But I like that quality about myself, honestly. I’m rigorous and I’m relentless. I’ll go to the wall for a 5 percent improvement. I’ll do 95 percent of the work for a 5 percent improvement, for sure. I’m in that weird category of relentless insane people who can’t let shit go.

I don’t know why I’m admitting this, maybe I’m in an admitting mood, but I think I will ultimately break everything to make a thing good. I’ll be accommodating and kind and respectful of other people’s processes and then I’ll hit previews and if it’s not communicating the way I want I will say all the things that I think aren’t working. I don’t lose my temper or anything, I don’t want it to sound like I’m a horrible person, but we’ll hit previews and I’ll say it all. And I’ll spend every minute fighting for those things until the last second the piece goes up. I hit a point where I’ll break relationships before I break the play.

MR: Is that something you would give as a piece of advice for someone else to do?

HM: I mean I think in general one of the things I’ve learned from being that way is that it’s much better to work with collaborators who are happy to hear you. One of the things I’ve learned is that, for me, I need to work with collaborators that are relentless like I am and who want to make it better and who don’t have defensiveness around making it better. And at the cost of, say, having brought in a sound designer and then realizing the show has no sound in it, and having to cut the entire sound design of a designer who just spent months working on it. So you know, it just takes a particular set of people who want to work with you. And who are willing to break their own ideas to make it better.

MR: Right.

HM: I can’t believe you asked me why I’m a good writer!

MR: Do you have your own answer, not from a friend?

HM: You know what, it’s probably just hard to answer because it’s hard to answer without talking about myself positively, which I should be able to do but I can’t for some reason.

I am good at writing. I think I’m technically good at it.

MR: Have you always been technically good at it?

HM: No.

MR: Why were you a good writer when you first started?

HM: I think that there were little fragments of observations. I think I was a natural at dialogue. I always was good at dialogue. I couldn’t structure for shit. I didn’t know plot or theme at all. Couldn’t do that. I could do character and dialogue. And if you’re a playwright, dialogue is kind of important. So I got lucky with some ability. And then I had to learn everything else.

And I put up some shows that were really bad. I put up those shows that were bad, and then I fucking waitressed and sulked for a couple of years.

MR: Did you write while you were waitressing and sulking?

HM: Yeah, but nothing good. I wrote a lot of bad things at the beginning of my career. I put some of them up at SummerWorks. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience where the audience is like, ‘This is bad,’ to make you go, either, ‘I have to work to do this better’ or ‘I’m never doing this again’. And then I spent a lot of my time trying to work out how to be a playwright by reading hundreds of plays. And I read some of them like 30 times, trying to take them apart.

MR: Which ones did you read 30 times?

HM: The Little Years by John Mighton. I read Pinter. All the Canadians, honestly: Judith Thompson, Daniel MacIvor, Wajdi Mouawad, David French… I just read them over and over. Caryl Churchill, David Mamet, Chekhov, Wilde. So I think I was relentless. And then I worked out something about how I could do it. And it’s still hard, but I think that’s the answer honestly, why I’m good at it, cause I really worked hard…

MR: Why would one work so hard at something like that? Because you loved it?

HM: I really loved it. That’s true. That’s at least part of it. I remember buying new plays and being like, “Fuck yeah.”

MR: Did you smell them?!

HM: I smelled them for sure. I was like, ‘Fuck, I get to read another Caryl Churchill, that’s the best shit.’ I was a real nerd. I think also failure has a tendency to set me on fire. Maybe not for the best reasons. And once you’ve told me I can’t do a thing, the level of self-loathing is so intense that I have to succeed at it.

Secret Life of a Mother

Who:
Written by Hannah Moscovitch with Maev Beaty and Ann-Marie Kerr
Co-created with Marinda de Beer
Core Creator and Director: Ann-Marie Kerr
Core Creator and Playwright: Hannah Moscovitch
Core Creator and Actor: Maev Beaty
Core Creator, Producer, and Stage Manager: Marinda de Beer
Scenic Design by Camellia Koo
Lighting Design by Leigh Ann Vardy
Associate Lighting Design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Projection by Cameron Davis
Sound Design by Debashis Sinha
Costume Design by Erika Connor
Props Builder: Haley Reap
Vocal Coach: Fides Krucker
Creative Producer for The Theatre Centre: Aislinn Rose

What:
A playwright writes an exposé of modern motherhood: a confessional piece about her own darkly funny and taboo-breaking truths. One of her oldest friends, an actress, tells this story, and through it, her own motherhood secrets start to surface.

This isn’t mothers as the butts of jokes, or the villains, or the perfect angels of the house. Secret Life of a Mother reveals what two women are actually experiencing: the raw and transcendent and untold secrets of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and mothering. This is motherhood for the 21st century: hallucinatory, gothic, and empowered.

Where:
The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West

When:
October 20-November 11, 2018

Tickets:
theatrecentre.org

Production Photography of Maev Beaty by Kyle Purcell

“On Taking Time, Listening & Why We Stretch” In Conversation with Director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster on THE WOLVES by Sarah DeLappe

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, director of The Wolves, onstage now at Crow’s Theatre with The Howland Company, speaks of her process with calm and steady confidence. When it comes to directing, her approach is to give the process lots of time and to listen carefully to all collaborators. Though still a relatively new director, Courtney gives the impression in her thoughtful discussion of already having years of experience under her belt.

This is the Toronto premiere of The Wolves, a show that follows a competitive U-17 girls soccer team throughout six different games. It’s a physically demanding show, that at times required that the cast practice their soccer drills and ball handling in parks and soccer domes rather than the rehearsal hall. When it comes to unraveling the creative process, Courtney has only good things to say about her collaborators, “We have a wonderful cast and a real sense of camaraderie, and I take joy and pride in having played a part in creating that.”

We spoke with Courtney about taking one’s time with the work, and the power of theatre (and specifically The Wolves) in finding relief from the outside world.

Some days you just need a good story to escape into, right?


MR: In the marketing for this show I get the impression of teamwork and I see photos of these strong young female characters, but what is the main theme that you are personally interested in exploring as a director?

CCL: I’ve been thinking a lot about why we stretch. At the beginning of the show, they’re in a stretch circle, warming up before the game. In the show, we meet them every Saturday over six different games, and over the course of those six weeks, a lot of different things happen to these girls. They are at their most certain and confident at the beginning; they know who they are, they know what’s going to happen, they know they are the best team, and they’re all stretching together. And of course, by the end of the show, lots of different things have happened.

So, that we stretch to become flexible is what I’ve been thinking about. It’s a subtle sort of arc but hopefully by the end of the play we understand that they are learning to become yielding without losing. They are dealing with change in a way that empowers them and allows them to keep moving forward. And I just think that’s a lesson that we would all benefit from.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster. Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

MR: I’m curious about telling these stories about groups of women specifically, because I feel like this year in theatre I’ve seen a lot more of that, not to say it’s a trend-

CCL: It’s definitely in the collective consciousness. I see it most predominantly with Shakespeare and how the various Shakespeare producers tend to produce the same plays at the same time.

MR: Are we reaching for some sort of solution or?

CCL: I just think it’s really exciting.

With our cast, the feeling in our room for me has been exceptional because when I graduated theatre school some time ago my experience was always of being one of the only young women in a show. Because there’s only one role for an ingenue, for example. It was so rare to be in a room with a lot of other women and non-binary actors of a similar age. And then adding to that, I always used to joke about just disappearing when I turned thirty-five, because it just seemed like at that time, not that long ago, there would just be no options for me. So it’s very exciting and gratifying to see that shift happening, because it does feel like, ‘Oh wow, I might have work in the future.’

And despite the depressing news cycle we’ve been in recently, it is exciting and reassuring to know that collectively we’re all recognizing that there’s been a real dearth of female stories and we’re doing our best to remedy that.

And in The Wolves you’re seeing young women talk about all kinds of things, in their outside lives they’re all kinds of different people, but the one thing is they’re really good at soccer. So we’re showing them in their position of strength and in their safe place.

I feel like that’s a shift too. We’re depicting different groups of women – they’re not mean, catty, high school stereotypes.

They are there to do one thing and that’s play soccer really well and we get a glimpse of their lives through this lens.

Photo of THE WOLVES by Dahlia Katz

MR: Does this feel like a big deal, like a turning point in your directing career?

CCL: Oh huge. It really exemplifies what The Howland Company is for, which is to give opportunities to our members that they wouldn’t otherwise get. Ruth Goodwin is the lead producer on this project and right from day one she was like, ‘Well you’re directing this’. And at various points I said things like, ‘Well, am I really qualified to direct this?’. But she’s been so encouraging. We have to stretch ourselves and we have to learn. I went into the company very specifically wanting to find opportunities to direct more. Everyone went in with slightly different goals.

It’s hard to get those directing opportunities when you don’t have a lot of experience because people need to see your work to hire you. So yes, it’s absolutely a big deal and a wonderful learning experience for me.

Heath V. Salazar & Ruth Goodwin in THE WOLVES. Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

MR: What made you want to direct? Where does that spark come from?

CCL: In university I had to learn to tone down my desire to act for everyone else, and also when I entered the professional acting world. But that desire to kind of control everything never really went away.

And then just practically speaking I think a career in the Canadian theatre world is all the more fulfilling the more you diversify. There’s no real clear stairway to success in Canadian theatre and so if you have access to a lot of different income paths and a lot of different creative outlets, I think it’s just more satisfying. Directing is just another way to create opportunities for myself and get to be an artist.

MR: What do you like about directing? What does it feel like when it’s going really well?

CCL: I love collaboration. I love being the refiner in collaboration, the person who hears a bunch of ideas from a bunch of different people and is able to say ‘Okay, this part of this idea is great, and this part of this idea is great, and let’s try it all together like this’. I like to be the filter in a way. And I just love creating a room where everybody feels seen and heard and safe and thus, creative.

Which isn’t to say that theatre is always fun. When we were in tech week, and we’re in the theatre for 12 hours, there’s just a point where fun is not a possibility anymore.

Brittany Kay and Heath V. Salazar in THE WOLVES. Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: You said you get a lot of joy in helping them be creative, and finding their own joy. How do you do that? What does that look like?

CCL: A lot of listening. Making sure we take the time, when we can, everyday to go round, check in with everybody and make sure that there isn’t stuff that is slipping through the cracks. Making sure the actors feel that they can speak up. And for me that can be a challenge. Because the challenge as a director is that there is no time, right? It’s always a rush to get it done. So on this process I’ve been really trying to deliberately slow myself down and check in and listen.

MR: I’m interested in how big a part collaboration plays in your process.

CCL: It’s huge! I feel there is a shift from the tradition of the singular director or singular genius-auteur-director, though there is certainly a place for that, into more collaborative processes in the theatre. The “no man is an island” approach to making theatre is something I’m very interested in and tend to enjoy more.

THE WOLVES. Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Outside of theatre, what do you find inspires you? What do you draw from? Maybe from what’s been going on in the news, to keep it specific.

CCL: I don’t know if I can go there. I hide from my own incredible sense of cynicism. I can’t tell you what an escape The Wolves has actually been, with so many things going on politically in the world, that I can spend the week in a room of remarkable women and non-binary creators, with all kinds of experiences and thoughts and voices. A theatre actually sometimes feels like such a relief and escape. I have a lot of pessimism about the future of humanity!! So going and playing in the dark and telling stories to each other just feels like the best and safest thing to do… But what inspires me are brave, change-makers and storytellers. And people who listen.

MR: Can you give me a name of anyone right now that comes to mind?

CCL: Alan Dilworth, the current acting artistic director at Soulpepper. I’ve just watched him over the course of a difficult year do an enormous amount of listening. Not just listening but really receiving. He’s not just show-acting with his listening, he’s really interested. And I find his quiet patience very remarkable and inspiring.

MR: Sounds like a good leader to draw from as you step into doing this more and more..

CCL: Definitely.

THE WOLVES. Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Lastly, who is the best soccer player?

CCL: Oh, you are putting me in such a dangerous position. I don’t know if I can give you names. But I will say that there is a difference between being an excellent soccer player and being an excellent soccer actor. So, when people come and see the show I would say the people who are doing the best soccer acting may not be the best soccer players and vice versa.

MR: That’s a fair answer

CCL: Sometimes the challenge is more about restraining enthusiasm and strength in the show. You know, we’re in a theatre.

(All Photos Featured by Dahlia Katz)

The Wolves

Who:
The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre Production
Written by Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Starring: Rachel Cairns, Aisha Evelyna, Ruth Goodwin, Annelise Hawrylak, Ula Jurecka, Brittany Kay, Heath V. Salazar, Hallie Seline, Amaka Umeh, Robyn Stevan
Set & Lighting Design by Jareth Li
Sound Design & Composition by Deanna H. Choi
Costume Design & Movement Coaching by Sarah Doucet
Stage Manager – Sam Hale
Production Manager – Courtney Pyke
Assistant Director – Rebecca Gibian
Apprentice Stage Manager – Hannah MacMillan
Assistant Lighting Designer – Scarlett Larry
Assistant Sound Designer – Cosette Pin

What:
Left quad. Right quad. Lunge. A girls indoor soccer team warms up. From the safety of their stretch circle, nine girls navigate and question the world around them with the determination of warriors. This provocative play, nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, captures the profound beauty of adolescence and paints a portrait of  nuanced young women navigating the game, their lives and a growing understanding of a complicated world.

Where:
Crow’s Theatre
345 Carlaw Ave.
Toronto

When:
On stage now until October 27th
Monday-Saturday at 8pm
Matinees:
Wednesdays at 1:30
Thursday at 1pm
Saturday at 2pm

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Finding Your Process, Comradery On and Off Stage & Working with Planned Parenthood” In Conversation with actor Mattie Driscoll on Cue6’s DRY LAND at The Assembly Theatre

Interview by Jared Bishop.

We sat down with actor Mattie Driscoll to discuss Cue6 Theatre’s Toronto premiere of Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel. Mattie gets into her experience as a new actor tackling a challenging script, the comradery on and off stage and the show’s partnership with Planned Parenthood. Dry Land is a play about abortion, female friendship and resiliency, on stage now at The Assembly Theatre until September 22nd.

Jared Bishop: What was your impression when you first read the script?

Mattie Driscoll: When I first read the scene we were given for the audition, I was so excited. I was a little too excited. I was like ‘fuck, this is so good!’ This is one of the best scripts I have read maybe ever. It’s very much my style – dark humour and gross and weird and hard to watch a lot of the time. And I am coming from just graduating school from Ryerson where I didn’t have the opportunity to be a part of any shows like that. That’s not the work you are doing in school. Obviously there is a focus on classical work, which is great, but that means, as a young woman, you are playing the ingénue or a not particularly strong female character a lot of the time.

When I read the whole script it furthered my thoughts around that scene. I was just like, ‘it’s so good!’ I am astounded the playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel was only 21 when it was published. I was just really excited when I first read it.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: Can you talk about the Planned Parenthood partnership?

MD: Yes, I can speak to it a little. I know for Cue6 that it’s something important for them, that community outreach element. There are talk backs on Thursday nights and what we want the talk backs to be are a conversation around accessibility in Ontario and abortion rights and what that is all looking like. A focus more on that discussion instead of about the play. They are so great, we have had someone from Planned Parenthood come and speak to us because after our very first show we realized the conversations after performances sometimes involve people sharing their own stories. This is great because that’s what we want the play to do but it is a weird position to be in as an actor. To say ‘I hear you’ and to not go to a place of ‘OH, I am so sorry’. That is not how it is handled in the play. It’s coming from a place of ‘It’s ok, she is ok, her life is going to go on’, and not necessarily taking the power away from someone by assuming it was a horrible awful experience for them. We had someone come in from Planned Parenthood to talk about what language to use. They use language like ‘removing a pregnancy’, which I had never heard before. I am learning a lot about something I had thought I was pretty well versed in. I am realizing that there is still a lot to learn in that department. Planned Parenthood Toronto just seems amazing, so we’re excited that those talk backs are happening on Thursdays.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: In rehearsal what did you do to build the intimacy needed for the story?

MD: The thing that is super nice is that I am playing alongside my university classmate Veronica Hortiguela. So we had a lot of that level of comfort already, which was so nice. It’s made this process even better because I am working with someone I am super close with. We already had an intimacy there and a shared vocabulary because of school. We were able to work quickly and easily, and we were able to walk home together and talk about it.

In the rehearsal process, I have just loved Jill Harper (director). I think she is so great and she is so smart. Veronica and I always spoke about how she does this cleaver little thing where you think you came up with the brilliant thought but it was her who gracefully lead you there. She is trusting, which is so nice because I don’t feel like I trust myself yet necessarily. I am just coming out of school and figuring it out.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: How do you reset yourself between shows?

MD: Oh my god, well, I’m still kind of figuring that out. I am going to keep talking about how this show is different from school. Normally the show would have been done four times or maybe five. I have never run something for this long before, which I love. I get to do a play for this long? It is so fun and nice! So far I walk home, I chill out a little. That’s another thing why I feel grateful to be so close with Veronica because her and I get to debrief and it is important to me that she feels safe and comfortable after because it is just a different show for her than it is for me. I end the show and I am kind of okay, whereas she just had to experience what she did and that is totally different. That requires a different type of comedown. She is still navigating that as well and it is hard to make a judgement on the show when you are in that kind of clouded place. But I think we are good at making a quick joke about it, reminding ourselves that it’s fine, and kind of leaving the play there. I think I am good at leaving it there. I will be curious when people ask me this in a week because we will see how that is going. I just walk home. I try to take some deep breaths.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: Who do you think is the intended audience and who do you want to see this show?

MD: I want to just say a general everyone, and I want to say young women. But I feel they are who get it a little more so I want people who don’t get it. We have had conversations and watched interviews with Ruby Rae who say this is often a harder show for men to watch because the blood, for women, isn’t that freaky. It is normal but for men it is a little harder to watch. I do want young women to see this, to see themselves onstage in a way that I haven’t encountered before, but also especially men and people who don’t understand that this is a normal thing, more normal than it ought to be.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

I am so curious to hear and see the rest of the run because we have had people leave, people have had to leave in the very first scene because the punches were too much for someone. Obviously we have had a few people leave during the blood. I am curious about what sets people off. We have a device to reset the energy for people but if I was on the other side watching it, I think I would freak out. I would love it as a young woman, I would see this play and say ‘yes, more of this!’ There is something about presenting woman not as fragile and the female body not portrayed as delicate. And I am so grateful for that. Ruby Rae has a note at the beginning of this play and it’s “Harshness is as true to this play as sweetness”, and that has been so fun to play with.

Dry Land

Who:
Company: Cue6
Cast:
Mattie Driscoll, Veronica Hortiguela, Jonas Trottier, Reanne Spitzer, Tim Walker
Written by: Ruby Rae Spiegel
Directed by: Jill Harper
Producers: Christine Groom, Matt Eger, Joshua Browne
Lighting Designer: Simon Rossiter
Sound Designer: Tim Lindsay
Stage Manager: Hannah MacMillan

What:
Ester is a swimmer trying to stay afloat. Amy is curled up on the locker room floor. Dry Land is a play about abortion, female friendship, and resiliency, and what happens in one high school locker room after everybody’s left.

Dry Land is the first full-length play from American playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel. Spiegel
was only 21 when Dry Land was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and its
premiere production received a five-star review from the New York Times, calling the
play “remarkable… caustic, funny and harrowing.” Dry Land has gone on to receive acclaim across the US, UK and Australia.

Where:
The Assembly Theatre – 1479 Queen Street West

When:
Sept 5th – 22nd
Wednesday – Sunday at 8pm

Tickets:
cue6.ca

“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.

Sisters

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.

Sisters

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.

Sisters

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.

Sisters

Sisters

Who:
Rosamund Small, Playwright
Cast:
KEVIN BUNDY, Mr. Ramy
LAURA CONDLLN, Ann
NICOLE POWER, Evelina
ELLORA PATNAIK, Puffed Sleeves Lady
RAQUEL DUFFY, Nun
KAREN ROBINSON, Mrs. Mellins

Production:
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

What:
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.

Where:
Soulpepper Theatre
50 Tank House Lane
Toronto

When:
On stage now until September 16th.

Tickets:
soulpeppertheatre.ca

Connect: 
@smallrosamund
@soulpepper

 

“Challenging Canadian Audiences, Touring as a New Mom & Celebrating the Human Body Through Performance” In Conversation with Stephanie Morin-Robert and Ingrid Hansen on THE MERKIN SISTERS

Interview by Megan Robinson.

After being blown away by The Merkin Sisters at the 2018 Toronto Fringe, we had to chat with touring Fringe artists Stephanie Morin-Robert and Ingrid Hansen about this anything-but-average Fringe show that they are bringing across the country. A physical comedy that is a little bit Grey Gardens with a David Lynch twist, and just a dash of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it’s an outrageous piece of theatre intended for anyone that is game.

The plot is vague, but ultimately it follows the relationship of two fallen socialites (also sisters), who are joining together to try to create the ultimate piece of art by using any means necessary. What began as a quick tongue in cheek reflection of how “we” may or may not take art too seriously, has now grown into a full 70-minute show.

This may be a new collaboration between performers and creators, Stephanie Morin-Robert and Ingrid Hansen, but they’re already planning for part two, with brainstorming sessions underway, and the assurance that with The Merkin Sisters, anything is possible.

We spoke with Hansen and Morin-Robert about collaborating on this project, challenging your audience, and celebrating the human body through performance.


MEET CUTE

Ingrid Hansen: We met touring our own projects on the Fringe circuit, and we admired each other and partied together a little bit. Then we decided to create an experiment together. We created a piece that ended up being the ten-minute intro to this show, which we first performed at a “Women in Comedy Night” in a bar in Montreal. And we received such a big response. People were blown away, they were saying, “I dont know what I just saw, but it was incredible!” So we knew we had done something tasty that we wanted to pursue together.

Stephanie Morin-Robert: I don’t think it was intentional, like, “let’s make the craziest thing ever,” it’s just what happened because our chemistry, both onstage and offstage, kind of resulted in that.

IH: And neither of us will censor each other.

SMR: We challenge each other in that way. We keep one-upping one another.

THE COLLABORATION

SMR: Because we are performers coming from very different backgrounds, it’s exciting being able to learn from each other. For me, puppetry was very new, and I’d never done that so it was great for me to take that on.

IH: The most amazing thing with the two of us is there’s just no fear. An idea gets proposed and it’s never rejected out of fear. I trust Steph. I trust her artistic sensibility, and I trust that if we’re on stage together and something is going way wrong that we’ll find our way through it together.

SMR: And it’ll probably be better than what we planned. I think we’re ready to just roll with the punches and go with whatever is offered to us. Whether it’s an audience member heckling, or somebody arriving late, or the lights cutting out too early, or whatever little mistakes happen during a run of a show. And sometimes even deciding, you know, “That was a fuck up, but let’s keep that! That worked better than what we had planned!”

WEIRD WORK, AND POLITE CANADIAN AUDIENCES

IH: I think if we took our work to other places in Europe it wouldn’t necessarily be so wild in comparison to the other shows. I don’t know, every show I’ve made and toured in Canada in the last ten years people have said is very weird. But I think Canadians are game to go there. Just be playful with them and you’ll be really surprised how far your audience will go with you.

And some people won’t, and that’s great. We have people walk out of our show sometimes – the odd person or two. I think it’s great that they feel empowered to walk out of the theatre for whatever reason. I think it’s a sign that you’re striving for something if you do elicit that response from some people. It’s not made for everybody. And if it was made for everybody, it would probably be kind of boring

I think people are on board for The Merkin Sisters especially because it’s super out there. This show is really challenging, but it’s also really fun and playful and absurd and surreal, so there’s the deliciousness of, “I dont know what I’m watching, but I love it.” And, “I can’t believe they went there, but oh they went there… and so much farther.”

TOURING AS A NEW MOM

SMR: It’s wild. I consider myself extremely lucky to have the support system I have because touring full-time is definitely a lot, especially as a new mom.

Last year I got pregnant in Orlando, so I was pregnant for our 4 and a half month tour last summer. I was performing multiple shows in multiple festivals so, any words of advice for that might be to go a little easy if you’re pregnant and a touring artist.

Baby Olive immersed in mother Stephanie Morin-Robert’s wig for show THE MERKIN SISTERS

I was just so thankful to have a performance partner and a dear friend that was so supportive. Ingrid was really helpful after the pregnancy when things got a little rocky, and I was like, “Oh gosh, am I pushing my body too much?”

I feel thankful to be able to tour and artistically stimulate myself and still plan to make new shows. My partner is also a performer. It’s really cool to have the next two years booked and to be touring and doing theatre, and doing it as a family. And when I say “family” that expands beyond just him and I and the baby; it takes a whole community for sure.

JUMPING BACK IN (AND WEARING A BATHING SUIT)

SMR: During my pregnancy, I put on like 80-something pounds. To slowly have that come on while I was performing the show just made me feel so comfortable because I was continually doing a show where I was being comfortable in my body. We did a little BC tour, and I guess I was 7 1/2 or 8 months pregnant when we did that last show.

This is the first festival where I’m back on stage and doing the show in a bathing suit since having a baby. It’s quite helpful because a lot of stuff happens to your body when you have a baby, and I feel proud to rock that, to embrace it. When I dance I feel different; parts of my body are moving differently, so much is an adjustment, but it feels great.

The most challenging part is not necessarily my body image, and being up on stage in a bathing suit, it’s energy. It’s being up at night and still strictly breastfeeding. The time commitment and the lack of sleep are definitely what I consider the hardest things.

PEOPLE LEAVE THE THEATRE WITH AN EXTRA LITTLE SPARKLE

SMR: It’s an extremely empowering show to see as a woman because we are up there, celebrating our bodies, celebrating being weird, quirky, disgusting, and we’re embracing every moment of it. And that is contagious, the same way laughter is. We’re not there spoon-feeding it and talking about it directly, but we’re up there being empowered and embracing what it is we have and celebrating it with the audience.

IH: I think it’s really liberating for people in terms of how it really celebrates everything about the human body. That’s what’s at the heart of the show for me, personally.

The Merkin Sisters

Who:
Company – SNAFU dance theatre
Created and Performed by Ingrid Hansen & Stephanie Morin-Robert

What:
A no-holds-barred physical comedy about a strangely hilarious sibling rivalry: two fallen socialites endeavour to create the Ultimate Piece of Art, using any means necessary. This vivacious romp will charm your pants off, leaving you stunned and hungry for their return. “Visually arresting & immaculately staged, with a tender heart under its hair-raising exterior.”- Winnipeg Free Press. Imagine Bette Midler meets David Lynch and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

Find out more: 
snafudance.com