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Posts tagged ‘Circlesnake Productions’

In Conversation with Joshua Browne & Alec Toller on “The Queen’s Conjuror”

by Bailey Green

In the 16th century, John Dee—alchemist, scientist and magician—met an erratic, emotionally disturbed scryer named Edward Kelley. Dee believed Kelley had the ability to speak to angels and that this could help Dee unlock secrets beyond man’s understanding. A tumultuous partnership was formed between the two men and their wives. These flawed, complex relationships are explored in Circlesnake Productions’ new play, The Queens Conjuror, written by Joshua Browne and Alec Toller.

Director and writer Alec Toller came across John Dee on Wikipedia after he’d used the word ‘thaumaturgy’ on a date. John Dee is often considered the original wizard archetype. Dee is said to perhaps have inspired the characters of Prospero and Faust. Toller was captivated by Dee’s story and reached out to Joshua Browne. Browne, who had worked with Circlesnake Productions on Dark Matter and Angel City, says he was on board from the word ‘wizard.’

“The relationship between John Dee and Edward Kelley is really fascinating,” Browne says. Browne plays the character of Edward Kelley, “Edward Kelley was a scryer, a channel for the voices of angels. John Dee actually turned to the occult for knowledge because he reached a point in his work where he believed the knowledge of man would not get him closer to God.” Shortly after Dee and Kelley began working together, Edward and Joanna Kelley moved in with John and Jane Dee. The two couples lived and travelled together for years before the relationships began to fracture. “It wasn’t satisfying to write Kelley off as crazy or psychotic,” Toller says. “But he was very emotionally disturbed and we look at how that affects all of the relationships there.”


John Dee with the Queen

The initial drafts of The Queens Conjuror by Toller and Browne, provided a historical baseline for improvisation with the company of actors. Feedback was instrumental when it came to writing the characters of Jane Dee and Joanna Kelley. According to Dee’s writings, Jane was integral to his work. Their relationship was quite egalitarian for the time. By contrast, all that is known of Kelly’s wife Joanna is that he despised her. “We have one man’s opinion of her,” Toller says. Browne and Toller emphasize that a central focus of this piece was ensuring that Jane and Johanna’s voices were heard.“We had to invent them,” Toller says of writing Jane and Joanna. “We explored the gender dynamics involved in the world they were living in, but it is a challenge because how do we show what the reality was without reinforcing it? We wanted to write something that is not going to ring as these women being two props for the ‘larger story’ of these men.”


John Dee

Browne speaks of the risk and vulnerability involved in working on this process, “This feels like a risky show to me… I have tons of fear surrounding this show! It’s about the 16th century with very little in the way of budget[…] It’s about these contentious relationships and personal things, and how do you do that without making the play a soap opera or historical drama? And how do you write women and facilitate women writing themselves? How do you represent the patriarchy without reproducing it? As two white, male writers, we had to get our actors’ opinions and involve women in the conversation. We can acknowledge our privilege and ask how can we be better.”

In the rehearsal room Toller and Browne transitioned into their roles as director and performer, respectively. Both Browne and Toller speak of gratitude for their company of actors (Tim Walker, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Sochi Fried, John Fray) whose contributions helped The Queens Conjuror change and grow. The collaborative nature of the rehearsal process is at the core of Circlesnake’s mandate: “It’s really important when we’re engaging artists and actors who are all very talented,” Toller explains, “that they don’t just walk away with the small money you get from a profit share and maybe a fun rehearsal/show process, but that there’s an ownership there. They’ve helped make this together and it’s important that these actors get the most agency and a sense of pride in the show they made with us.”

The Queen’s Conjuror


Directed by Alec Toller
Written by Alec Toller & Joshua Browne

Featuring Tim Walker
Joshua Browne
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Sochi Fried
John Fray

John Dee was a 16th century adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and a scientist and magician when those two professions were indistinguishable. The Queen’s Conjuror follows John Dee as he tries to decipher an enticing but ominous vision which he hopes will provide critical information that will impress the QueenElizabeth enough to gain her patronage. To do this, Dee enlists the help of Edward Kelley, a scryer, medium, and possible charlatan. Kelley proves to be as brilliant as he is disturbed, and Dee must work through the wretchedness of Kelley’s soul and his erratic behaviour to access his revelatory visions and gain the Queen’s support. The show explores the complexity of intimacy, the dangers of vulnerability, and the necessities of both for the alchemical transformation of the soul.

The Attic Arts Hub
1402 Queen St E

Nov 3 – Nov 20
Wed – Sat, 8pm
Sun 2pm

$20 Student/Arts Worker

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t: @Circlesnake

A Few Words with Alec Toller, Director of Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? – 2014 Playwright Project

Interview by Ryan Quinn

RQ: So, Alec Toller, you’re putting up Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? with Circlesnake Productions for the Playwright Project.

AT: So I’ve heard!

RQ: As have I! Can you tell me a bit about the show?

AT: It is telling the story of Guy and Sam, and Sam is basically a country. Sam is the US So it’s sort of examining the world and people’s love/hate relationship with the United States through the lens of a homosexual relationship. Because of course, how else would you look at it?

Alec Toller, Director of Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?

Alec Toller, Director of Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?


RQ: What drew you to this show, out of all of Caryl Churchill’s writing?

AT: It was the only one I read. No, no, I’m kidding. I read a bunch and with Churchill (as with many other playwrights), when they do short work, they lean more toward the experimental, and that’s not something that I usually know how to do. With this play, although it’s still experimental, there’s a clear through-line with story and plot and characters who have wants and needs. A lot of the dialogue is very fragmented, so instead of saying something like “Hey, let’s go to the store”, they’ll say “let’s store go”. So, it’s quite weird. On top of that, the majority of it is historical or political references to things the US has done in the past seventy years in its interaction with the rest of the world. So, it’s very complex and very dense but you get these little pockets or windows of them speaking to each other and it’s just as people. That really provides this arc and through-line that allows you to hear what the political stuff is from a different perspective or a different angle that’s maybe a bit more digestible or it may be just a very confusing buffet.

RQ: Do you think there’s anything in this show that’s relevant to the current political climate?

AT: Totally! Yup! This play was actually written in 2006, so it has references to twin towers, and Guantanamo, and Iraq, so there’s very recent political stuff along with Truman doctrine stuff. Fighting communism is a very strong through-line. Also, when I did research for the show, it was very illuminating to see just how much the States (and many other countries, I’m sure) involve themselves in other countries’ affairs in very deliberate and often nefarious ways. Like the US really enjoys overthrowing governments, democratically elected or not. As long as they are communist or left-leaning, they’ll just get rid of them. They would even fund drug dealers to fight communists because communism was scarier than drug-dealing. This is well-known, the Contra affair.

Playwright of 2014 The Playwright Project- Caryl Churchill

Playwright of 2014 The Playwright Project- Caryl Churchill


RQ: One of the major themes in Churchill’s work is the exploitation of the downtrodden or the underprivileged, do you see that in this work, or is it more of a representation of these national and socio-economic powers?

AT: I would say that it shows in the relationship between Sam, who is the United States, and Guy, who is a person. Their relationship is definitely unequal in power. One of the main themes of the show is that whether you like what the States has done or not, they are still the biggest superpower. They are enormously influential. You just sort of have to accept that and then deal with it. Guy is definitely secondary to Sam.

RQ: So it sounds like there’s a sense of inevitability, or an unstoppable force.

AT: It certainly doesn’t celebrate or even defend some of America’s less pleasant actions but what I’ve found that it does is not even look at what they’ve done from a moral position, but just as a country that has power trying to maintain that power. When you re-contextualize that into a relationship, it gives you that perspective of “Oh, when a country overthrows another country’s government because they’re afraid of them, that’s like someone in a relationship deleting their ex-girlfriends’ numbers from their phone”, you know? It’s a way of maintaining power and control, and the ways we do that socially and politically are way more similar than we think.



RQ: Where do you think these smaller festivals like Playwright Project fit into the Toronto theatre community? What can you get out of them that you can’t get out of the smaller ones?

AT: I’m in it for the ladies, mostly. One thing I really like about the Playwright Project in comparison to other festivals is that it does give you the opportunity to work on modern classic work, which you can’t do at Fringe or Summerworks. It’s pretty unique. Generally my interest is in doing new work, but there’s a slew of plays that we’ve all read or playwrights we’re excited by, and there’s not much opportunity to mount their work. There’s not much room in the Canadian landscape at all to do any kind of established text. Generally, the way grant funding and all of that works is really geared toward new work, which can be actually destabilizing. There was that big push from the 1960s onward to make Canadian culture a “thing”. And that push is still going on now. And it’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it is useful to drop in and look at older work. It seems like a kind of hamster wheel thing to keep focusing on new work and never revisiting work that’s even ten years old. Really great narratives drop you into pre-existing stories or unknown worlds. When you see a show about something that’s happened that year, it can be very exciting, and you feel like a part of something, but when you see work that’s twenty years old, or fifty years old, there can be a deeper sense of connection or of reducing alienation. You can realize that the things you’re experiencing are things that people have experienced forever. That is something that storytelling aims to do, and sometimes, when it succeeds, it can be more powerful with older work.

Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?

By Caryl Churchill presented by Circlesnake Productions as part of the 2014 Playwright Project


Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? places the world’s love-hate relationship with the United States in the form of a romantic relationship. When Guy is seduced by Sam, who represents the U.S., she feels intoxicated by her but shocked by her ruthlessness. Guy must determine whether the love she feels for Sam is worth staying with her, and if she can ever leave.

Directed by: Alec Toller
Starring: Claire Armstrong, Caitlin B. Driscoll
WhereThe Downstage (798 Danforth Avenue)
Tickets: Available  HERE
Single Tickets: Weeknight Single Ticket: $10.00, Weekend Single Ticket: $15.00
Project Passes: Weeknight 2-Show Pass: $15.00 (see both shows playing on a weeknight), Weekend 4 Show-Pass: $45.00 (see all four shows playing on a Saturday or Sunday)

About the Director:

Alec is the artistic director of Circlesnake Productions and director of Dark Matter,  Special Constables (The Storefront Theatre Season), Angel City, (Playwrights Projectthe feature film Play. Alec was the assistant director on the triple Dora-nominated Laws of Motion (Small Elephant Co-op, dir. Christopher Stanton).


Circlesnake Productions creates film and theatre work for modern audiences who have adapted to a cinematic language. Circlesnake’s plays blaze by like an action film, and its films pop with dialogue found in the theatre. We match works to their appropriate medium to best tell their story while breaking down artistic divisions. Older works return in new forms and new works borrow from the old because at Circlesnake, good stories come back.