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Posts tagged ‘Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’

“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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“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Community, Hedonism & a Reminder of Why We Do What We Do” In Conversation with Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Director of GRAY

Interview by Bailey Green

It was a pleasure to sit down with director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster to chat about Theatre Inamorata’s upcoming production of Gray. Gray, set in modern-day Toronto, was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Playwright Kristofer Van Soelen re-imagines Dorian’s world, altering the genders and relationships of the characters. The cast and crew are predominantly female-identified. Gray begins when Jane sculpts Dorian and creates a work of pure beauty. But when a gallery owner named Opal introduces Dorian to the hedonism and chaos of the arts world, everything changes. As time passes, the sculpture incurs the damage that Dorian inflicts on herself and others. Gray explores art, beauty, sexuality and female identity.

Bailey Green: When were you brought on board with Gray?

Courtney Chng Lancaster: Well, I helped Theatre Inamorata looking at a different script more than a year ago and spent a little bit of time with them to see if that was a project they wanted to move forward with. Though that specific project didn’t end up working out, when they were ready to produce Gray, Michelle Langille called and asked if I wanted to direct and I said yes. 

BG: What were your initial reactions reading the script?

CCL: I thought it was fantastic and very brave. It’s a really wild adaptation. Set in the present day, the fundamental themes remain the same but a lot has been changed. Kris has really taken a wide open approach and it was really brave and made me completely terrified when I read it. [The play has] a large amount of people and spans a lot of years, so it made me nervous.

BG: Were you part of the development process, as well, and is the script still growing in rehearsal?

CCL: Kris is such a wonderfully open playwright. There was a process before I came on board, with a number of drafts before. I came into a reading six months ago and suggested some changes and a new draft came from the input from everyone in the room. And then [we had] a two-day workshop at the beginning of the summer. We’re still tweaking things as we go, seeing where we need more information and where can we trim back. Kris is wonderful. 

BG: What was your relationship to Dorian Gray (if any) before this project?

CCL: Very little. I barely remembered it, actually. I’d read it in high school. It’s quite fun, and so gothic. It’s a very dark verging on melodramatic story, which is quite pleasurable to play with on stage!

BG: How do you think a modern setting in Toronto enhances some of the themes of the play?

CCL: I think we can all relate in the theatre world to the wonderful strength of our community. In the original, the big temptation and the ultimate downfall comes from hedonism that overwhelms Dorian and becomes his drug. Kris has translated that into the dangers of getting pulled into the hedonistic part of the art world. [In the play] Dorian is not an artist but spends all her time going to these parties and is part of the scene. It explores how great the community can be, but also when does it become detrimental to the work? When is it all too much?

BG: Would you say that themes of addiction and alcoholism come up as well?

CCL: It goes hand-in-hand. Graham Isador recently wrote an article in Vice about addiction and how artists are so prone to that. When we were rehearsing and starting to link scenes together, we realized how much they drink in every scene. We need so many wine glasses in this show. A drink is a lure, an avoidance, a temptation, a polite offering. So I would say [addiction] is an unspoken theme, for sure. It’s not overt, but the audience can assume there are drugs. They’re the last ones at the party and as my grandma used to say, nothing good happens after 2am. [They have] that fixation on being at the centre of things and never taking time for yourself, always being out and socializing.

BG: And how social media really enhances the performative nature of living like that, because there’s the drive to show it to everyone else.

CCL: I’m glad you mentioned social media, because now we’re performing online how we’re out, keeping up appearances. At one point during the play Dorian celebrates having broken a threshold of followers. And it becomes the work, she has to display her hedonism, as well, lest she lose interest.

Rehearsal Photo of Tennille Read and Mamito Kukwikila taken by producer/performer Michelle Langille.

BG: What has been the most challenging aspect of working on this show?

CCL: Purely practically, I have never directed something with this number of people before. It’s a lot of bodies, and it’s been a wonderful challenge. I’m learning a lot about blocking and the physical positioning of people on stage. And how to tell what is a massive complex gothic story on an indie theatre budget with really compelling storytelling without slashing props. We don’t want to distract but it is a big tale to be telling with a minimal aesthetic onstage 

BG: What has brought you the most joy?

CCL: When it works. We’ve just finished the 3rd week of rehearsal now, and they are all wonderful team players. You have your exciting discoveries of the first two weeks, then the shiny-ness starts to wear, and then you think “Do I really know what is happening?”, “Do I really know what I’m doing here?”, the mud and the mire… it’s a hard slog, but it has been a great journey figuring out when it works.

BG: What has Gray made you reflect on in your own life?

CCL: Remembering what is important, reminding yourself why you’re doing it. I forget that on a regular basis. What you’re actually interested in as an artist. It can be very easy to be distracted by accolades and excitements, press and parties, and then to feel empty when that stuff isn’t coming anymore. So to remember why you’re an artist and what it’s about.

Rapid Fire Question Round: 

Favourite coffee shop: We’re rehearsing near Dupont and Ossignton, so right now I would say Contra Cafe, they make a really great latte. 

Current neighbourhood: We moved from the west side to Riverdale, and it’s been lovely.

What are you reading: This is so embarrassing but gardening books – Let it Rot! It’s about compost.

What are you listening to: Jason Isbell, despite how SOME people don’t appreciate him, aka my husband.

Next show on your calendar: Soulpepper’s Waiting for Godot and then Picture This. Oh and Michael Ross Albert’s Miss at the Assembly Theatre space, I’m a big Michael Ross Albert fan.

Gray

Who:
Company: Theatre Inamorata
Written by Kristofer Van Soelen
Directed by: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
CAST: Tennille Read, Michelle Langille, Ximena Huizi, Mamito Kukwikila, Edward Charette and introducing Sydney Violet-Bristow
Set and Costume Design: Lindsay Woods
Lighting Design: Steph Raposo
Sound Design: Andy Trithardt
Stage Manager: Hannah MacMillan
Producer: Michelle Langille
Associate Producer: Emma Westray

What:
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

When Jane meets and sculpts Dorian, a naive and exquisitely beautiful woman, it is perfection – until Dorian is swept into the hedonistic and morally ambiguous world of contemporary art. As Dorian becomes more and more self-involved and destructive, the sculpture begins to absorb her acts of cruelty, while Dorian’s youth and beauty are intact. An examination of beauty, aging and self-indulgence, Gray contrasts the themes of the classic novel with our modern world. Featuring a predominantly female-identified cast and creative team, Gray takes a hard look at female identity and the implications of our society’s obsession with beauty.

Where:
The Commons | 587a College Street, Toronto, ON

When:
Wed. Sept. 20 – 8pm (PREVIEW)
Thurs. Sept 21 – 8pm (OPENING)
**Fri. Sept. 22 – NO SHOW**
Sat. Sept. 23 – 8pm
Sun. Sept. 24 – 2pm & 8pm
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Wed. Sept. 27 – 8pm
Thurs. Sept 28 – 8pm
Fri. Sept. 29 – 8pm
Sat. Sept. 30 – 8pm
Sun. Oct. 1 – 2pm & 8pm

Tickets:
$25 General | $20 Seniors/Students/Arts-Worker | $15 Preview
theatreinamorata.com

Connect:
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster: @courtneyvl
#Gray17
t: @TheaInamorata
i: @TheatreInamorata

Artist Profile: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Paolo Santalucia – From Academy to Company in Soulpepper Theatre’s “Idiot’s Delight”

Interview by Hallie Seline

I sat down with Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia to discuss their journey from the Soulpepper Academy, to graduation, their ongoing involvement in the Soulpepper Company and their current show Idiot’s Delight on now at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

HS: Tell me a bit about yourself and your relationship with Soulpepper and the Academy.

PS: My name is Paolo Santalucia and I’m a 2012 graduate of the Soulpepper Academy. Before that I trained at the University of Toronto Mississauga and Sheridan College’s joint Theatre and Drama Studies program and after training at the Academy for a year and a half, I started working with the Soulpepper company.

CCL: I’m Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster. I’m originally from Nova Scotia, did my undergraduate at UBC in Vancouver and after that I did the Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre program and then the Soulpepper Academy with Paolo. We are also both part of the founding members of The Howland Company.

HS: So tell me a bit about your experience in the Soulpepper Academy and your relationship with Soulpepper since graduating. 

PS: Well, the Academy was amazing for so many reasons. I think, for me, in retrospect, what it promoted in me and what took me by surprise the most is the fact that at the end of the day what the Academy was doing was… of course it was focused on theatre and of course it was really rigorous, but at the end of the day it felt like what they wanted was to instil sort of a larger sense of what it meant to be an artist. It showed me the potential responsibility of artistry and the ways to contribute as an artist beyond my work on stage, that there is a bigger picture. This company was founded to contribute to the arts in Canada and at the end of the day it is something that I, as a Canadian Artist, can also continue to contribute to. They did things like take us to the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), the movies, seeing plays elsewhere as a group. They weren’t afraid to take us out of the Soulpepper context. What it did was allow me to realize the larger things at work and the amazing arts community there is in this city. In retrospect, for me, that was the most significant part of the training – learning about just how much goes into becoming a ‘good actor’ and how much being a good artist is about being someone who appreciates, understands and has love for so many different art forms even beyond the theatre in the city and Canada.

HS: So that was part of the Academy training? Taking you outside of Soulpepper to art galleries, films, different plays…

CCL: Yeah, to expose you to as many different artistic stimulants, including people too, bringing in fantastic Canadian artists to spend some time with us.

PS: I am so thankful for the encouragement that we got in the Academy to explore other aspects of our artistic selves. I’ve never been in a situation where that’s been as encouraged and not only encouraged but it’s been necessary. It’s what will make myself as an artist, and what will make our contribution that much more sustainable… if they come from a place of appreciation for the millions of aspects that go into the arts in this country.

CCL: Well from a practical point of view, there’s no place else in the country, I think I can say, where you would have the opportunity to be in rehearsal and practice the same way that dancers and musicians are in practice all of the time. I mean you don’t meet a professional pianist who doesn’t practice for hours a day to keep himself in shape. But when you’re an actor, you’ll have periods of time where you’ll be working on a contract, working on that one show, which is one kind of practice, one kind of rehearsal, but the rest of the time you’re very often stumbling to try to pay your rent and working your ‘joe’ job while still trying to read plays and stimulate yourself. While we were in the Academy, we had a living wage for the whole time we were here and we were told to focus on art and your craft and develop yourself. It’s a very rare thing, that kind of opportunity.

HS: Idiot’s Delight marks the professional debut of this year’s Soulpepper Academy actors. Can you talk of the benefits of being both taught and working along side Soulpepper Company members?

CCL: It’s great to be in the rehearsal hall with the current Academy actors because this is also being treated as a learning experience for them and they are also, brave souls that they are, they are also still taking Academy classes in the mornings, rehearsing the show in the afternoon… so they are resilient! But because it’s a learning experience for them, I find Albert [Schultz] who is directing, is taking his time with things. We have a slightly more extended rehearsal process so he can take his time and explain the mechanics as we go. Therefore with his decisions as a director, he’s taking the time to explain them, allowing everyone more of an opportunity to learn. So we get to take advantage of this learning opportunity just as much as the Academy does!

Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster, Hailey Gillis, Gregory Prest & Dan Chameroy. Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

PS: It’s amazing to watch people in process. I love that. When the process is, as Courtney was saying, this exposed and part of the rehearsal is actually part of exposing that process as a learning exercise, everyone in the room benefits. I feel like that’s really exciting. There’s such a strong sense of company here. Albert said on the first day of rehearsal, “This marks the first show where the number of Academy involvement (post-graduate and current Academy members) actually outnumbers the other members of the company.”

CCL: Not just in the acting department but in the design, the assistant stage management etc.

PS: It’s the first time that that’s happened and I can only imagine what that means for him but for us what’s incredible is that it just sort of promotes that stronger sense of company. It makes you feel like you’re supported and a part of something that is just a little bit bigger than just the play. It’s really exciting because, again, it doesn’t really happen that much. To continue to support these kinds of programs and to continue to bring these generations of programs back in contact with one another, we’re very lucky here to get to be a part of, learn from and see that kind of evolution. It’s a really cool place to rehearse from.

HS: It seems like there is a lot of multi-generational collaboration and support within the company, the Academy grads and current Academy members.

CCL: And there’s a common working language that has been developed through the shared training. Part of the Academy is that you have founding members of the company coming in to teach you, so already they have a shared language, which they then impart on the students as well as the different artists who are coming in and out. When you get into the rehearsal hall, you already have a level of understanding and intimacy that usually takes weeks to develop when you’re starting a new project.

PS: That common language is actually a huge benefit. It’s amazing listening to when you see senior members of the company trying to piece through something, the specificity of how they work together, you can connect it to the broader common language that you’ve been taught in the academy and watch it work in such intricate, specific ways. You feel like you can engage with these actors who have so much more experience, which can seem sometimes quite intimidating I can imagine coming in fresh, not knowing them and not having worked with them before, but in this situation it’s really cool because you feel like you can go up to someone like Albert [Schultz] or Diego [Matamoros] and tell them about a part in the work you’re having an issue with and they can either teach you or speak to you through an established common language. That’s really exciting to have that multi-generational connection through your working relationship I think.

Raquel Duffy, Paolo Santalucia & Diego Matamoros. Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

HS: What is the best advice you have ever gotten?

CCL: Albert will always say, “Listen” and he’ll say “Big thoughts. Bigger thoughts” and it’s almost too simplistic but that’s kind of what it boils down to. And “It’s not about you. It’s always about the other person”. And those are the kind of things that you always forget, the simplest things. It’s not about me, it’s about the other person…

PS: “Think on the line”…

CCL: Yes! Exactly. And then when you’re having a moment where you think “I’m terrible today” you stop and think, “Why am I terrible today? Oh it’s because I’m obsessed with myself today”. (laughs) It’s not about me. Instead I need to be listening to the other person because it’s about them.

PS: I think it was the first huge thing that I remember hearing in the Academy, in our first week, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. We were doing scene study and our teacher at the time said, “My favourite actors, and what I think are really good actors… a good actor never lies on stage.” And I don’t think that I had ever really heard that said in that way before. I had never heard of acting being spoken of with that much truth before. And the amount of work that goes into communicating that much truth. It really struck a chord with me at that moment in this place.

CCL: I think for a long time, when I first started, I had a perhaps romantic idea that being an artist and being an actor required a certain amount of constant self-flagellation and it took people, in the Academy, saying “You’re really hard on yourself. That’s not very useful,” to learn to let that go and just focus on the work and the other person and listen and keep going. I think as actors we think that there is very little in our control and sometimes that turns inward and we think “What am I doing wrong? I need to be better. I look silly when I stand like this. Etc” But all of that just gets in the way. That was a big lesson for me. Learning to let go of always trying to fix yourself and just focus on the work.

PS: Again, to add on to that, I learned to go through a checklist. When I’m stuck I’m either not having big thoughts, I’m either not thinking on my line, I’m either not listening or I’m not trying to affect my scene partner. I go through that checklist and usually I’ll find out where my problem is.

CCL: And it’s like a muscle, to build it you have to practice and that’s what the Academy offered to us. A place to practice and practice and practice.

HS: What’s your favourite place in Toronto?

PS: Just by Lakeshore, out past what’s called Mystic Point, there is a lighthouse. You can only get there by biking west of the Humber river. You bike over this path that curves around the island and right at the tip of the island is the lighthouse. I found it one day by accident when I was trying out a new bike path and it was stormy and the wind was blowing over lake Ontario. And it’s the only place that I’ve found where the lake looks as big as it is to me. It’s one of my favourite spots in Toronto.

CCL: When I moved here from Vancouver, I guess two and a half years ago now, gosh, I struggled with the lack of the obvious natural beauty in Toronto because Vancouver is like, ostentatiously beautiful in places, so it took me a little while to discover that Toronto has some really beautiful pockets and they are all the more charming for being a little harder to find. So there’s a new park I’m loathed to tell people about, but it will be overrun soon enough anyway, just by the DVP called Corktown Commons, which is just south of King by the DVP, south of Eastern I guess, and it’s a beautiful new little park. They’ve tried to include the indigenous plants and swamps, incorporate them into this beautiful park that also has paths, trails and playground equipment that I totally play on. So I’d say that place and the Riverdale Farm are my two current favourites. Beautiful, hidden spots.

HS: If you could entice someone to come see Idiot’s Delight in five to ten words, what would they be?

CCL: I’ll go first. Showgirls in sequins, singing, sexy-sex-sex, poignant, funny, sad and beautiful.

PS: It’s a sexy, beautiful, topical, war-play you’ve never heard of.

CCL: And it has a cast of twenty-four which you rarely see! We look forward to seeing you there.

Idiot’s Delight

Dan Chameroy & Raquel Duffy. Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

By Robert E. Sherwood
Presented by Soulpepper Theatre

What: A cast of wonderfully eccentric and international guests – countesses, arms dealers, showgirls, revolutionaries, charlatans and lovers – spend a fateful weekend in a resort hotel in the Italian Alps. While songs are sung and dances danced and loves rekindled, the dark clouds of war come rolling in.
Sherwood’s mad-cap romance won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1936.
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
When: January 29th – March 1st
Ticketshttp://soulpepper.ca/performances/14_season/Idiot’s_Delight.aspx

For more on the Soulpepper Academy, check out their website: http://www.soulpepper.ca/artist_training.aspx