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“The Importance of Champions, Striving for that Spark & The Barriers and Biases Female Playwrights and Directors Continue to Surmount” In Conversation with Ali Joy Richardson on Writing and Directing A BEAR AWAKE IN WINTER at Next Stage 2019

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Ali Joy Richardson, the playwright and director of A Bear Awake in Winter, a new play premiering at the Next Stage Festival from January 10-20, is no stranger to the Toronto Fringe. For many years, the summer festival has provided what she considers a “perfect sandbox” for her personal projects. This year, however, with a show that’s larger in scale (a cast of seven, a runtime of 75 minutes, plenty of instruments) she’s ready to take on a new challenge. Next Stage is a step up in more ways than one; it’s also her first time being both writer and director of a show.

With inspiration drawn from plays like The Wolves and Concord Floral, this funny but dark play follows a high school band class in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 2007, taking a sharp look at bullying and the high stakes of adolescence.

We got to talk with Richardson, who’s only five years out of theatre school, about owning her roles as director and playwright, her creative opportunities thus far, and how the #MeToo movement inspired her new show.


MR: What was it for you that allowed you take yourself seriously as a writer in the last year? Was it a particular moment or a conversation with a friend? What did that look like? 

AJR: Directing aligned very quickly with the part of me that is organized and responsible and I approached the role of director in a very nurturing way. But I have this internalized notion that the role of the writer is kind of wild and dynamic and that there’s a sort of wildly creative side to the person generating the words and the world. It took me a really long time to believe that people would take me seriously in saying that I am both of those things. And all of that can exist in one woman, and especially a young woman.

The internal conflict for me was: am I allowed to be both? Can I be the person with the sticky notes and the highlighter who knows what time everyone needs to be where and be the one writing really good jokes?

MR: So you felt capable of doing both and ready to do both, but it was more of an external thing of how people would receive you?

AJR: Yeah. I thought one would dilute the other in someone else’s eyes. So for me, a really big turning point was getting into Nightwood’s Write From the Hip Unit. That was major. And I did a residency with Canadian Stage, as well. I was in their 2018 RBC Emerging Artists Program and their Director Development Residency. I got into that as a director and then about halfway through I was like, “Hey, can I work on something that is my own play?” And the two women running the programs, Lynanne Sparrow and Taliesin McEnaney, right away were like, “Absolutely. We picked you for you. So whatever you want to do, we are excited about.” So that was huge. To get that green light from Nightwood and from the folks who were supporting me at Canadian Stage, who obviously saw all parts of me and welcomed all parts of me and started to build my courage to do both.

MR: That makes me wonder about people who don’t get that green light from others. How do they generate that sense of validation?

AJR: I mean I totally agree with you, and I think it speaks to the importance of diversity within those leadership roles, within organizations, so there is someone to green light the person that they see themselves in. Because I think it’s human nature that we will always champion people who make us think of ourselves. For better and for worse. And so I was really lucky to cross paths with people who I suppose I had a kind of kinship with in those roles.

MR: I think we can say that things are shifting. Even that opportunity, I wonder if even five years ago you would have had it. Where do you see those shifts happening?

AJR: I mean, this is a well-known example, I was really inspired seeing Kat Sandler directing her own work on some of the major stages this year. Seeing her play Bang Bang at Factory, I sat in the front row and I must have looked wild to the actors on stage. I was grinning so hugely. But with every beat of that show, this little barometer of courage was rising in me. That was huge.

I graduated from theatre school five years ago and during that time, I’ve been working Front of House at Theatre Passe Muraille, where D’bi Young had a show a couple of years ago. She is another person that continuously breaks out of every mould that I find myself internalizing. She is also a constant reminder for me that an artist can be many, many things.

MR: Okay, so some people have opened doors to you, and I’m curious what doors you see that are still closed that you wished were open? 

AJR: I think the myth about directing your own work has got to go. I think we need to trust that artists know when they should be in both of those roles in a room, and to give people that agency to know themselves and know their work. I don’t think every show will be served by this but I think many will be and I think that people sometimes mistake it for a lack of trust in other creators.

MR: Particularly as a female playwright, what sort of limitations have you been working to push past?

AJR: I think comedy. I love comedy and it’s a thing in all of my work. I think we trust men much quicker as someone who understands what is funny in a room – as directors, writers and actors. I watch other women have to fight tooth-and-nail to be trusted in comedy. So, particularly as writers, I think that’s a big one.

I’ve also had some great conversations with Michaela Di Cesare, a celebrated playwright from Montreal who plays the character Flute (the young woman at the centre of the story). We talk a lot about the double-edged sword women have to dodge about whether or not your writing is inspired by your own life. If a man writes something from his own life it is seen as interesting and valid and if he writes fiction it is seen as interesting and valid but we haven’t sorted that out yet when it comes to women writers. For women, I feel like it is still a lose-lose situation, where if it is inspired from life they dismiss it as not really writing, but they also make that constant assumption about the work.

In Photo: Andy Trithardt, Hershel Blatt, Natasha Ramondino, Andrew Di Rosa, Bria McLaughlin, Danny Pagett, Photographer: Neil Silcox

MR: Your show is influenced partly by your life though right? Your experiences in band and in that community? 

AJR: Yes, every puzzle piece of this show absolutely comes from my life, but the finished puzzle is not a true story.

MR: Let’s talk about the writing of it. Did you always know you wanted to write this show? 

AJR: So I was writing a play over the last year called Fool, during my time at Nightwood. Fool is set in medieval times, and this is the play I cheated on Fool with (I think a lot of writers do that). There was one night where I was feeling constrained by the rules of the world I was writing in and I just really wanted to hang out with people I knew.

The first scene of the show, which is a classroom scene, is the first scene I wrote. It was late at night and I just started writing the voices of these kids because they are so familiar to me. They are me and they are my friends from home and they are my sister. The voices came right away. They started talking and they didn’t stop. And I know it’s such a cliché. This is the first time in my life that I actually felt that cliché, which I’ve always kind of rolled my eyes at, but I really felt it on this play. So there’s a violent conflict midway through the play, and I wrote up to that moment of violence. That came in a rush, and then I hung out there for a while, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. It was really interesting because I wrote up to that point about a week before the #MeToo hashtag happened, and then the second half came quite quickly after that dialogue had started. 

MR: What brought you to write that violent act?

AJR: For me, that moment has always been a sort of provocation for the audience. Especially right now, I think we are asked to empathize with men who misread situations and act in a regrettable way and I’m really interested in finding out what happens if a woman reads a situation and reacts a certain way, will the audience feel that her reaction was out of proportion in some way, or will they extend that same empathy to her?

MR: Sometimes we write things to reframe experiences or live out a fantasy or an idea of a situation, and I don’t want to put that on you, but I am curious to know whether there is an element of that in this.

AJR: In this, that moment of violence came from frustration. People in my life responded to my frustration with cat-calling, or men following me at night, by saying I should just punch them or kick them in the balls or tell him to fuck off, as if those are accessible and easy solutions that aren’t going to come with a whole other world of troubles. I started to wonder what would happen if the next time I felt afraid I did just hit back in a big way? I don’t think that would go well for me in this world. It was also around the time I started to take boxing classes, and something about that started to cook in my head. As I learned to hit someone safely, I started to wonder what would happen if someone did fight back, in a moment of feeling a threat. So it’s certainly not a personal fantasy, but it was a kind of obsessive thought experiment.

In Photo: Natasha Ramondino, Bria McLaughlin, Hershel Blatt, Andrew Di Rosa, Andy Trithardt, Danny Pagett. Photographer: Neil Silcox

MR: Can we talk about supporting yourself in the arts in Toronto, and just like, how you do it? How do you do the job of a director and playwright here? Because you seem to be doing a lot! 

AJR: So first, I will say, I’m enormously privileged to come from a family who has means and who is there if I need them. I don’t rely on that support but, as an artist, knowing it’s there and to have that is an enormous privilege in terms of managing my mental health. Just knowing there is a safety net there if you needed it. I think it’s important to be honest about that.

MR: Do you think you’d be a playwright if you didn’t have that safety net? 

AJR: That’s a really good question and it keeps me up at night. I have a little fear in me about that. I don’t know the answer. Of course I want to think I would be but I also hold myself to a really rigorous standard around that. My life would definitely look different, I think.

MR: I do just want to say that the arts are so valuable, you know? And I don’t think there should be any weird guilt or shame around it, you know if you’re like, “I’m doing this just because I can” I just think, “Well thank God somebody can.” I just want to say that. 

AJR: (Laughs) Thank you. And like every artist I’ve worked a million different jobs, and done many strange gigs from standardized patient work to working for a nannying agency. So I’ve had a plethora of different side hustles. And finding ones that didn’t drain the life force I need to make art, that was key for me. It might not give you a mountain of joy but it can’t suck out the thing you need to make your art.

MR: What keeps you motivated? 

AJR: The feeling I have when I see or read something that makes me go “Oh my god, I didn’t know someone else knew that or felt that”. That spark, every time that happens, makes me want to put stuff like that out in the world.

Also, I come from a family of really, really hardworking people, none of whom are in the arts. And honestly, when I hear my sister talking about training to do an Ironman, I’m like, “you know, I can probably get up at six and write a few more pages.”

A Bear Awake in Winter

at the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival

In Photo: Andrew Di Rosa, Michaela Di Cesare
Photographer: Tanja Tiziana

Who:
Playwright & Director: Ali Joy Richardson
Cast: Michaela Di Cesare, Andy Trithardt, Andrew Di Rosa, Bria McLaughlin, Danny Pagett, Natasha Ramondino, Hershel Blatt
Assistant Director: Bryn Kennedy
Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Sound Designer: Neil Silcox
Lighting Designer: Steph Raposo
Producers: Ali Joy Richardson & Bryn Kennedy

What:
2007. Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A high school band class. A new teacher from Toronto wants to be an inspiration to his jaded students but is afraid to come out to them. A boy bullies a girl in insidious ways until she takes matters into her own hands. An act of violence at a school dance fractures the community. This is a dark, funny, and difficult story about the fight to stand up for yourself.

Where: 
FACTORY THEATRE – MAINSPACE, 125 Bathurst St, Toronto

When:
Jan 11 – 9:45pm
Jan 12 – 3:45pm
Jan 13 – 1:30pm
Jan 15 – 8:45pm
Jan 16 – 12pm
Jan 18 – 7:30pm
Jan 19 – 5:45pm
Jan 20 – 7:30pm

Runtime:
75 Minutes

Tickets: 
fringetoronto.com/next-stage/

 

 

 

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“Breaking out of the Ingénue” In Conversation with Eliza Martin: Playwright/Performer of “O”

Interview by Bailey Green.

We spoke with playwright and actor Eliza Martin about her upcoming solo show O, playing for two nights only at the Artscape Wychwood Barns on November 28 and 29. The play tells the story of Leigh, who is donning her flower crown to play Ophelia. During a tech rehearsal the day before opening, Leigh speaks to the audience about her experiences as the ingénue—namely crying and dying. Through Leigh, Martin challenges the notions surrounding these iconic roles for young women. We spoke with Martin about breaking out of the ingénue, her fascination with Ophelia and discovering her voice.

Bailey Green: Tell me about the genesis of the project.

Eliza Martin: So I started working on O in 2014 when I was about to graduate [from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College]. It was an Independent Study Project led by David Matheson, and I was interested in the character of Ophelia, perhaps for the reasons we all are. There’s that image in our head of the woman floating in the water, this history of all those famous paintings and I wanted to do a project exploring her.

BG: What else drew you to the character of Ophelia, what qualities did you want to explore more deeply?

EM: As a young woman in theatre, we think of ‘who I would play in that show’. We look at plays with the lens of the part we might be considered for. So for me, I recognized this frustration in this tiny, tiny role [Ophelia] and these limited situations that we see her in. We get her being a pawn for her dad and brother, her briefly talking to Hamlet and then as Mad Ophelia. Which is beautiful in its own right, but still—in a play that is three hours long, she only has these tiny moments, whereas Hamlet deliberates about one decision for pages. Yet for this one young woman, we get only a few glimpses into what she’s going through and hardly any text at all. At the time of my ISP, a friend of mine mentioned that she took a Shakespeare course in university and the professor spoke about the origin of Ophelia’s name—he said O is a nice emotional sound, and O is also a zero and it means nothing. I was enraged by that notion, so I called it O. I wanted this moment of defence – I just can’t let a female part mean nothing.

BG: How has this draft changed from previous drafts? Do you find your focus has changed?

EM: I think the focus has changed. It’s very much the same spirit. And a lot of the work Ali [Joy Richardson] and I did as co-creators has stayed in tact from when we workshopped O at the Paprika Festival. This time we’re digging a little deeper into the heart of both the character and the actor, Leigh. It’s a longer version and there’s a bit more darkness and ambiguity. We only had 30 minutes at Paprika, so it’s been great to be given more time to dig. I’m working with Rebecca Ballarin, who is new to the project, and our team is just amazing.

BG: How have you broken out of the ingénue role in your own career?

EM: It’s something that has always been kind of assigned to me? And because of that I used to view parts and opportunities through that lens. I’d approach Hamlet and think Ophelia and I would immediately slot myself into those expectations. And now, I have arrived at this crossroads, because if we’re going to play these parts we need to play them differently. Or perhaps they don’t belong anymore, and they need to be adapted. Or how can someone else play them to make them more compelling? Maybe I’m not the right person to play these roles anymore. I think we need to move forward with that knowledge, that these roles need to be changed or played by other people. There need to be new voices.

BG: What challenges you the most about this project?

EM: I think bringing my own self into it has been challenging. It started as a project where I wanted to explore Ophelia and Hamlet as a play and I wanted to do so with distance and from an academic perspective. But when I was working with Ali, she encouraged me to bring my own story which was very challenging and scary to do. That opened the door for the work we’re doing now, and collaborating with Rebecca, has moved the piece further in the direction I was going.

BG: Who or what is currently inspiring you?

EM: I’m very interested in the conversations being had about consent. I don’t think that was a conversation that was in O in the previous versions, but there’s a lot to be said about the power dynamic between a young woman and older man. I’m inspired by the women coming forward and talking about their experiences. It’s not something that goes very far in the show, I wouldn’t say that we really tackle issues of consent, but there’s a lot to be said for decisions we feel we need to make because we’re part of this big system. This is Leigh’s first real Equity gig, and she’s working with a well-known director, and she doesn’t feel that she is able to express herself or ask for changes that should be made.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Go-to cafe: Bloomer’s.

Album on repeat: Christmas music…don’t judge me!

Best time to write: Late at night—so toxic, so tempting.

Current favourite tea: Earl grey, any day.

Late night snack: Popcorn

O

Who:
Written and performed by Eliza Martin
Directed by Rebecca Ballarin
Sound Design by Nick Potter
Lighting Design by Steph Raposo
Production Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Script Advisor: Rachel Blair
Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

With Ben Hayward as Rod
and Lucy McPhee as Carol

What:
Hamlet opens tomorrow night and Leigh is ready to make her debut as Ophelia: wigged, primped, and donning her flower crown. During a brief hold in her tech rehearsal, Leigh takes the audience through basic acting skills for the ingénue and shares candid personal anecdotes, sparking a series of unsettling realizations.

O examines the stage life and death of the ingénue – the stories they tell, and the women behind them. Will we continue to accept that success for an actress means crying and dying through a career? Or can we find a way to keep our heads above water while turning the tide?

Where:
Artscape Wychwood Barns

When:
8pm November 29th & 30th 2017

Tickets:
$15, online & at the door
Tickets: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3166903

Connect:
http://www.elizamartin.ca/

Artist Profile: Ali Joy Richardson, Director

Interview by Hallie Seline

We’re all about hard-working #bossbabes being at the helm of the theatre we see, so it was such a joy to catch up with Ali Joy Richardson to discuss her latest directing project, Liars at a Funeral, why her directing mentors have been instrumental in assembling her own director’s utility belt, and the top three pieces of advice she’s living by right now. 

HS: Tell me a bit about your current directing project, Liars at a Funeral, and what caught your interest when deciding to direct it.

Ali Joy Richardson: Liars at a Funeral is set in a funeral home in Northern Ontario where a grandmother has faked her own death in order to get her family back together for Christmas. It’s a farce: 4 doors, 5 actors playing 9 characters, and a family curse of female twins who hate one another…but without the stale sexism that’s so often sprinkled in the genre. Sophia Fabiilli has revived farce with a refreshing dose of 2017 sexuality and three generations of very funny women. Sophia told me the plot of the play over a pint at Tequila Bookworm back in September and I was hooked. I immediately sent her a batch of imagery that resonated with the play for me (Edward Gorey illustrations, Wes Anderson stills, and some weird ‘70s family Christmas photos). I’m very grateful to have been trusted with this play.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

HS: What is the biggest thing you’ve learned so far in your experience directing?

AJR: It requires rigorous, detailed homework to be able to properly play jazz in the room.

HS: Do you have a directing mentor? If so, who is it and why do you think it’s important to have a mentor?

AJR: Thank heaven for mentors. I learned the fundamentals from assistant directing for Melee Hutton and Estelle Shook and script coordinating from Andrea Donaldson. Richard Rose has been my primary teacher for the last while (his process has totally re-shaped my practice) and Aaron Willis is my go-to emergency phone call for all things theatre. These directors have given me clarity and confidence in my practice. I’ve gratefully thieved tools from each of them to assemble my own utility belt.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

HS: You have a pretty #bosslady production team going on for this show with you (director/dramaturg), Laura Jabalee Johnston (producer) and Sophia Fabiilli (playwright/producer). How has it been working with this team?

AJR: DREAMY. Lots of late night 3-way calls, endless hustle, and masterfully colour-coded email threads. They’ve made me a better artist and collaborator. I’d trust these women with my car, child, or estate (if I had any of those things).

HS: What are you most excited for audiences to experience when they come see the show?

AJR: The rollercoaster – Liars at a Funeral is very funny and bravely truthful.
Also…casket comedy.

HS: Describe the show in 5-10 words.

AJR: Just one: unstoppable.

(For a complete list of the myriad of obstacles we overcame, from the Storefront Theatre closing to our casket hinges busting right before we opened, buy anyone on the team a drink.)

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

Rapid Fire Question Round:

Favourite place in the city:
The Toronto Reference Library.

Where do you look for inspiration?
Conversations, naps, and the Toronto Reference Library.

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?
Harry Potter and the Sacred Text (a deeply nerdy podcast by two Harvard theologians) and re-reading Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”.

Best piece of advice you’ve received or current mantra you’re living by:
“What is the next right move?” (Oprah)
“Follow the campground rule – leave the audience better than you found them.” (Neil Silcox)
“Stand up from your desk every hour, Ali.” (my Mom)

Liars at a Funeral

Who:
Playwright – Sophia Fabiilli
Director & Dramaturg – Ali Joy Richardson
Ensemble – Ruby Joy, Rhea Akler, John Healy, Danny Pagett & Terry Tweed
Producers – Laura Jabalee Johnston & Sophia Fabiilli
Stage Management – Lori Anderson
Set & Wardrobe Design – Lindsay Woods
Sound Design – Nicholas Potter

What:
A black comedy about a grandmother who fakes her own death in order to reunite her family in Northern Ontario.

Grandma Mavis stages her own funeral in order to reunite her estranged family… just in time for an ice storm to trap them all in a funeral home over Christmas. Can this eccentric clan of liars navigate the rocky road to reconciliation? Or will the next 24hrs be the final nail in this dysfunctional family’s coffin?

Featuring five actors playing nine characters, Liars at a Funeral is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s also a teensy bit inspired by Hamlet.

Where:
St. Vladimir Theatre
(620 Spadina Ave, south of Harbord

When:
May 5-14 2017

Tickets:
$25
truthnliestheatre.com

“Surreal and Trashy” – In Conversation with Ali Joy Richardson, director of STILL by Jen Silverman

by Bailey Green

I have read other plays on the subject of a stillborn child…but none with language both surreal and trashy, none as funny, and none as moving.” – Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother)

Ali discovered STILL while searching through the Toronto Reference Library for a play to direct. She knew she wanted to direct a piece written in the last ten years and that preferably the play would be by a female playwright. While scanning through titles on the shelves, she saw the cover of STILL — the shadow of a baby in a stairwell. She read the character list: Morgan, a professor, Dolores, a sometimes dominatrix, Elena, a midwife and Constantinople, a giant dead baby. “I remember being uncomfortable because I kept laughing out loud in the library and then crying in public,” Ali remembers. “I knew I had to pick this script.”

STILL cast

Ali reached out to Annemieke Wade, Alicia Richardson, Julie Tepperman and Christopher Allen. Annemieke Wade’s reply: “I’m in and I’m pregnant,” Ali says. “So I said take a couple weeks, read the script and then she [Annemieke] reached out again and she was in. I was so, so glad.” Annemieke came on board to play Morgan, the professor who we find stuck in the womb of her own basement, wearing the clothes she wore when she delivered her stillborn child.

We find the giant dead baby, Constantinople, hitchhiking after escaping from the morgue. Constantinople is in search of his mother. “Christopher Allen’s physicality is so perfect, he is so tall and playful,” Ali says. “And the minute he speaks in the shows or moves it’s just bubbles of joy […] I asked him if he had any questions or worries about being a manifestation of a stillborn baby on stage and he said, ‘hm, nope.’ So he’s been so open to everything.”

Binocular full group

Alicia Richardson, who plays Dolores, said during table work that there are no heroes in the play. “No one fixes it,” says Ali. But the characters bring the audience into their world and deal with the subject matter with honesty, humour and candor. “Jen [Silverman] never lets you sit for too long. There’s permission to laugh,” Ali says. Dolores, the play’s self-made dominatrix, is kinky, funny, queer and unafraid to reinvent herself. Elena, played by Julie Tepperman, is the midwife who goes between Morgan and Dolores. It is through their dialogue we discover that Elena is under investigation for her practice. The stories intertwine and jump from basement to dilapidated hotel room.

For Ali, one of the greatest joys in directing this piece has been the opportunity to dig into fresh, challenging, unique female characters without the need to reinterpret due to dated or insufficient text. “The female characters are written beautifully and the relationships between women are really high stakes and complicated,” Ali says. “So to not have to fight against writing is so exciting.”

Note: STILL was inspired by a memoir called Ghostbelly, written by writer and professor Lisa Heineman in Iowa. Lisa was 46 when she gave birth to her stillborn son at home with a midwife. She wrote a brilliantly honest and heartbreaking memoir about her experience of grief and healing. If you’d like to read more about the collaboration behind STILL, please visit: http://howlround.com/authors/jen-silverman-elizabeth-heineman

STILL

Still Poster 1

Who:
Directed by Ali Joy Richardson, featuring Julie Tepperman, Annemieke Wade, Alicia Richardson & Christopher Allen

What:
STILL is the story of a professor, her midwife, a dominatrix, and a baby who never got to be. Morgan’s son was born dead, Dolores is pregnant with a child she doesn’t want, and failed midwife Elena seeks either redemption or a career change. All three women confront their fears, desires, and each other, while Morgan’s baby is running out of time to find her.

Where:
Unit 102 (376 Dufferin Street)

When:
March 4 – 13, 2016

More details: http://www.binoculartheatre.com/still

Tickets: http://still.brownpapertickets.com/