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

Interview by Megan Robinson.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Photo by Dahlia Katz

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

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

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: How did Crow’s get involved?

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

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

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

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Tell me about working with director Sarah Kitz!

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

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

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MR: What’s your favourite line?

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

Photo by Dahlia Katz


What I Call Her

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

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

Where:
Crow’s Theatre
345 Carlaw Ave.
Toronto

When:
Nov. 16-Dec. 8

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Consent, Growing Up & Telling Difficult Stories” In Conversation with Rose Napoli, playwright of LO (OR DEAR MR. WELLS)

Interview by Bailey Green

Nightwood Theatre continues their Consent Series with Rose Napoli’s play Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells). The play tells the story of Laura (nicknamed Lo) and her teacher Mr. Wells, and is a feminist retelling of an affair between a student and teacher. Napoli began writing Lo three years ago in Nightwood’s Write from the Hip program. Andrea Donaldson, the facilitator of the program, oversaw the play from the ground up and directed the show, on stage now at Crow’s Theatre.

Napoli’s own experiences and her work with young women in schools and a juvenile detention centre inspired the work. She got to know girls who heard society tell them that their bodies were the most valuable assets they had, and how those beliefs existed in her own lived experiences as well. We spoke with Napoli about consent, vulnerability, growing up and what it takes to tell a difficult story.

(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.) 

Bailey Green: Youve been writing Lo (or Dear Mr Wells) for three years. What initially provoked you to write this piece and what was the development process like?

Rose Napoli: The play started years before I started writing it, 8 or 9 years ago. I was teaching in Windsor and working afternoons as a child and youth worker for at risk/in need youth and a juvenile detention centre. It’s now shut down. There wasn’t enough funding to keep it going, which is unfortunate. At the time I met a number of young women who had really complicated relationships to sexuality and consent. A lot of young women between ages 13-16, I don’t even know if they were in a position to know what they wanted and didn’t. Their bodies became currency instead of something that could give them pleasure, pride and beauty. They traded that in a lot of cases for safety. Those profound experiences, coupled with my own, made me obsessed with this issue.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Sam Kalilieh. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The breaking point for me came when a guidance counsellor in my school was arrested because he had been having an affair with a student who was 16-17, and [the affair had been going on] since she was in the 7th grade. Her confession was triggered by him becoming engaged to another teacher at the school. It was a horrifying time which lead me to quit teaching. I had a really hard time with how the administration handled the situation. The girl was seen as dramatizing the story, but she thought they would be together, so for her the engagement was a huge betrayal. The two teachers remained together. All of that has added to a whole lot of fire in me for a long time.

Sam Kalilieh & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

BG: This piece contains personal subject matter, both from your own life and from the lives of young girls you have met. What was that like for you as a playwright?

RN: The play is hard for me to hear. I’ve never actually been able to listen to it without weeping. There are moments where I don’t realize that I’m the one who wrote that. Laura, played by Vivien Endicott-Douglas, thinks that now that she knows Mr. Wells in this way, maybe he’ll be the one that stays. It’s hard to listen to that as it still continues to be the reality for me. I’m 34 and I think about what I’m going to do that is wrong, sexually or not, that will confirm my deepest fear that I’m not worth sticking around for. And that’s pretty common in terms of people I have spoken with.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Sam Kalilieh. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I also wasn’t interested in telling a story that vilified Mr. Wells, and Sam Kalilieh, who plays him, has had a really interesting journey and a challenging time championing a predator. I don’t want to speak for him, but any time you take subject matter like this on, separating your own beliefs from the beliefs of the character is a daily struggle. But both of us and Andrea have felt that this is a deeply confused man. And therein lies the complication—it is not as simple, and yet it is absolutely black and white.

Sam Kalilieh & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

BG: The quote written on your arm in the photo for the show (even if it costs you, you still have to share it), tell me about it and the social media campaign. 

RN: People were so creative with the #shareit campaign and I think people have craved it and wanted to talk but sometimes words are…challenging. And people came to express themselves through a photo and with a want to be a part of the conversation. The quote is in the play, something Mr. Wells says to Laura. The play is part of what Laura has written to him. He tells her as they are taking part in a creative writing club (she has an aversion to public sharing), he tells her that she has an obligation to the world to share her experience. And as she grows, she realizes that in a different way. And that’s a meta-theatrical personal line for myself, because this is not an easy thing for me to share. I feel nervous for people to see this because I don’t think it’s an easy thing to watch or even admit.

Photo of Rose Napoli by Dahlia Katz

BG: How do you feel with the run starting? 

RN: It’s wanting to shit your pants and feeling really excited and proud… there’s a lot going on. It’s a complicated time and I haven’t been that active in tech or rehearsal. I’ve been present for script evolutions but we’re talking specifics, like arguing over a comma. It’s their show now.

BG: What has it been like to be a part of the Consent Event with Ellie Moons play Asking for It and the Consent symposium?

RN: The conversations that the two plays inspire are different ones under the same heading, the consent topic we have to rewind back even further, way before the moment of no or yes. We have to think about it in how there is taking advantage of someone sexually and “no means no” and all of that. Empowering young women, not forcing them to kiss or hug family members. We send messages to children that their bodies or what they want doesn’t matter. We have to evaluate early on the message we send to young woman in particular. At the symposium we spoke about the importance of speaking about pleasure to young women. We don’t associate that as appropriate and we reinforce shame, which leads to people not being comfortable to say yes or no. I didn’t know what I wanted or what I didn’t want [when I was young], I was so confused.

BG: What would you say to your teenage self now?

RN: Oh gosh…I would tell her that she’s beautiful and she’s loved and that one day it will all make for some pretty interesting drama. I wrote a whole play for her.

Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells)

Who:
Written by Rose Napoli
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
A Nightwood Theatre production in association with Crow’s Theatre
Presented as part of The Consent Event, a play series and symposium navigating the minefield of modern sexuality.

What:
It was ten years ago that Laura was Alan Wells’ student at Northwood Catholic School. She was uncharacteristically intelligent for fifteen years old—perceptive and vulnerable—a dream student for an uninspired English teacher. Now, at twenty-five years old, Laura has written her first book. She calls it ‘Dear Mr. Wells’ and Alan is the first person she wants to read it.

A feminist retake on a student / teacher relationship, wrestling with burgeoning sexuality and consent, literature and passion, right and wrong, Lo (Or Dear Mr. Wells) was developed through Nightwood Theatre’s Write from the Hip playwright’s unit.

Where:
Crow’s Theatre: 345 Carlaw Avenue

When:
October 25 – November 11, 2017

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com

Connect:
@RoseNapoli1
@nightwoodtheat
@crowstheatre

#nwLo

 

Meet the Passion Players – Ensemble, Front-of-House, Crew, Chorus, Musicians, Sound, Puppeteers, Wardrobe… Needless to Say, They’re a Busy Bunch!

Interview by Ryan Quinn

RQ: So I’m here with the Passion Players and Assistant Director Lillian Ross-Millard, part of Passion Play being put up out here on the Danforth. Would you like to introduce yourselves?

JW: Jesse Watts!

APM: Aviva Philip-Muller.

KD: Kasey Dunn.

HD: Howard Davis.

HS: Harsharan Sidhu.

CS: Cheyenne Scott.

LRM: Lillian Ross-Millard.

KDa: Kathryn Davis.

RQ: Can you tell me a little bit about Passion Play, and how the Passion Players fit into it?

HD: I guess you could say, from what we know of it, it’s been a very long process for the creative people on deck. Three companies have created this epic show. It’s the Canadian premiere of a show by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. It’s been created by Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, and Sheep No Wool.

APM: Someone said early on that the Passion Players are like the glue. Alan said that. The glue that fills in the cracks of everything that needs to get done, be that onstage or technical; but also in the sense that we relate the show back to their original purpose of why they wanted to do the show and why now. We link it back to the people seeing the show. We’re a bridge to these different historical time points. We’re always dressed the same way, we’re always contemporary, and we’re guiding them through this journey, helping them make that leap.

LRM: It’s a very historical play, of course. It starts off in Elizabethan England, then Nazi Germany, then South Dakota during the Vietnam war. You’ll notice that it doesn’t land in the present, so it sort of causes us to reflect upon our own historical period. She’s not shoving it down our throats to criticize someone specific in our time period. However, having the Passion Players there makes us very aware that it’s applicable to our historical moment as well.

APM: It’s sort of interesting the points in the play where we show up physically. So in Part 1, there’s a point where we come on with fish puppets and we have a little moment onstage as opposed to doing sound foley in the background. In that moment, we’re wearing shirts that say “Jesus is coming. Look busy”. So, it’s very obvious that we’re not in that Elizabethan period, we’re not trying to pretend to be actors that are a part of a company. We’re something else. We’re something other coming in, and I think it’s very deliberate where Alan, Aaron, and Mitchell have decided that they want people in modern-day dress coming onto the stage and bringing us back to the present.

RQ: So you’re preventing people from forgetting that it’s performative.

KD: I think it’s very hard, while watching this play, to forget that you’re watching a play. There’s constant reminders that these are actors and this is a theatrical setting. Very “meta”.

JW: Title-wise, I’d say that we’re Ensemble, Front-of-House, Crew, Singing, Musicians, Sound, Puppeteers, Wardrobe…

HD: What’s interesting to me is that in moments we bring people back to reality, but in others, we function as a heightened theatricality in the show. Even with the fish puppets in the first act, they’re very symbolic, where in act three, it’s very different. The way these different directors have asked us to embody the fish. They change from something deliberately symbolic to something that’s almost real.

RQ: A lot of shows strive for that conversation on the drive home about what things mean, but it sounds like you’re instigating this conversation during the show itself about the nature of performance.

KD: It feels very Brechtian. We have these symbols and signs coming out. Even reading our shirts the first time we come onstage, it’s almost like subtitles.

LRM: Or the prologues and epilogues. Very Brechtian, sure.

CS: I feel like the Passion Players are also mystical elements in the show. With the fish puppets and the fact that we’re in the balcony creating these sounds physically and not using any recorded elements. They always refer to the stage for us as “coming down to Earth”. It maintains a mysticism when we’re in the balcony like we’re the angels pulling the strings.

KDa: Or the puppeteers from above.

CS: Yeah, just being present and observing the show.

KDa: We also make commentary as well. Certain directors in certain scenes want us to be witnessing what’s happening below. I think that intensifies the overall theme of the section. We’re not just an invisible crew, we’re an ensemble that people can see up on the balcony, commenting on what’s happening.

KD: Like a Greek chorus where the audience feeds their own reactions through seeing us observe it.

KDa: In certain scenes in the end of act two, we’re standing and watching what’s happening. I think it gives it a more sinister feel. The stage is entirely red, and Violet comes on and says “My white ribbon is red” in the dark, and Aaron wanted the Passion Players to be overlooking this entire scene as people who are seeing something nasty but doing nothing to stop it. The people of Oberammergau had a Jew living in their village but still denied the existence of a concentration camp at Dachau for a number of years. We are commenting on the moral aspect at that point in the play. There were a few people who really believed in the ideology of the Nazi regime and everybody else just went along with it because they were so… blinkered, in a way.

APM: So by us standing there, it’s like we’re commenting on the hypocrisy.

KD: And I think Violent comments on that when she says “You’re not in a play even when they give you a costume to wear, even if they’re watching like an audience”. I always feel like she’s speaking about us as an audience.

LRM: The Passion Players don’t feature very much in Part Two, and I think that’s intentional. I feel like Aaron was saving that meta moment for the very end, the audience feels very complicit for what’s occurring onstage. Each director working with each time period used a dramatic acting style of the time, and I think that’s written into the play. So I think there’s a more naturalistic feel to Part Two. So having people with a more contemporary visual takes us out of that. We feel very comfortable seeing the Nazi imagery come into play, like “Oh, well, we know what’s going to happen because it’s history and we’re not implicated” but then at the end we see the Passion Players again and we’re reminded. Even the actors look at the audience as if to say “Is this okay that we’re persecuting this young girl?”. I think it’s very powerful.

APM: One of the moments that we get to be a part of that I think has many layers because of who we are as this modern force is this moment where Hitler has just said “Continue with your holy play”, and we turn around, face the audience, and sing In Perpetuum which, of course, means “forever”. So we get that history always repeats itself, and every time I sing that I’m looking right at Hitler and I can’t help feeling how prophetic that is. And then the play gets repeated, you know, right after break, we’re doing this in perpetuum. And other than in Part One, we’re always the ones singing In Perpetuum, it’s like our anthem. We show up again, the Passion Play happens again, and so do the tortured characters and the ways people treat each other.

LRM: But it’s also a current of passion and of love. It’s what causes it to recur. It’s a cyclical thing. It’s interesting the way the relationships between the characters change and modify in each new time period. It’s kind of a weird reiteration of a classical love story, but I feel like it’s a much more philosophical approach while staying accessible.

The Passion Players - BACK ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Bilal Baig, Kathryn Davis, Howard Davis, Aviva Philipp-Muller, Kasey Dunn, Jesse Watts FRONT ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Cheyenne Scott & Harsharan Sidhu

The Passion Players – BACK ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:
Bilal Baig, Kathryn Davis, Howard Davis, Aviva Philipp-Muller, Kasey Dunn, Jesse Watts
FRONT ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:
Cheyenne Scott & Harsharan Sidhu

RQ: It sounds like you’re performing a lot of opposites at once. You’re this mystical force but you’re also the most human force. You’re the most anachronistic force but you’re also the least anachronistic because you’re in modern garb. The most passive observers who are also very active. It’s a lot of these back-and-forth at once moments, which is very cool.

CS: It’s the same for the characters. There’s a difference between what they should be and how they feel inside.

RQ: This being a co-production between three different companies, have you found any differences in the way the work is approached.

APM: I was talking to Kathryn the other day about how the directors all have different approaches but they’re all such amazing and beautiful approaches. You can tell when you see the production that each play ends up being very unique. I think that helps the audience feel like it’s a lot shorter because it’s like you’re watching three different plays. It’s like when you watch TV for three hours, it’s different shows, so you don’t realize it’s three hours. So, having these three different directors from three different companies, it does end up being a different experience, both being in it and as an observer.

KD: It was also very powerful when they found ways to steal from each other, in a way. They’d watch what the others were creating and then find ways to thread similar themes through so that there are connections. I think it was Alan that first used the triangle as a sound cue to mean stepping outside the action, whether it’s a tableau or an aside. So, once that was introduced in Part One, the other directors picked it up to bring it through so it becomes a constant for the audience. They always know what that sound means. So, while they’re all different in style, there are all these tiny threads that, when you pick up on them, it’s powerful.

KDa: It’s also interesting how we’re used in each act. For example, we use the fish puppets in completely different ways. Alan doesn’t want us to move the fish puppets whereas Mitchell wants movement to it.

KD: Alan’s style in this show is very symbolic and very simple and honest. He’s interested in the fish as a symbol, a Brechtian “This is a fish”. For Mitchell, it’s something more mystical that’s coming in and it’s alive in its own right.

RQ: So during the process, the show has kind of had a conversation with itself because of these different voices.

KD: It’s amazing how it all came together. At first, it seemed like having too many cooks in the kitchen. All these powers trying to work toward the same goal but each in their own way. It’s been amazing watching them come together and create one big thing.

LRM: I think we also came in late in the process. I mean, I was there on the first day of rehearsal, but they had been thinking about this and planning this for a really long time. Two years. So, I think one of the rules, when they wanted assistant directors and Passion Players was actually just to get out their heads or have some extra eyeballs lying around. I mean, when you’re working with people for a very long time and talking about all the same ideas, it’s good to talk to other people about it. You might have this amazing idea that makes complete sense in a language you’ve been using with one person, but once you bring it to a more public audience, it can be redefined or clarified. So, I think that’s another role we serve.

JW: What’s great about this for me is that I worked on a professional show at Theatre Columbus, and it was very straightforward, everyone knew what they were doing, everyone had a position; but with this one, it’s so big that all of us can help out. I feel comfortable enough to just walk up to one of the directors and say “Hey, can I do this for you? Do you need help with this?”. Everyone is so friendly and collaborative that it’s just an amazing process.

HD: They’re not opposed to new ideas. Because it’s so big, everyone’s opinion is valid.

KD: There’s so much room to slot yourself in somewhere. Even with costuming. Coming into this, I didn’t know too much about it, but someone asked for help, and I kind of became in charge of wardrobe in a weird way. There are a lot of jobs to be done and only so many people to do them.

APM: In my experience, nobody here has had such a big ego that they wouldn’t want help. Even if between where they are in their career and where I am in mine is a huge disparity, if they need help with something, they’ll turn to us.

HD: Some of us went to school together, and the program we have is very multi-disciplinary, so you work closely with production. So, I had an appreciation for production anyway, but it’s…my goodness. I have even more of an appreciation for people who do lighting and props. I’ve done shows where I needed endurance, but in this, it’s a different kind of feeling. We finish a show and we’re exhausted physically, and the actors are exhausted emotionally. I’ve always been used to being on the other side of things.

KDa: We have to be constantly present while remembering our cues and knowing to do our sound effects, lighting, et cetera. So, you’re constantly on edge. I don’t want to mess up a gel. So, constantly present and making that commentary, as I said, like then end of Part Two, for instance. We are the creative ensemble but also the technical crew. So it’s physically draining but also requires a lot of mental focus. It’s been fun. I remember that tech week was quite chaotic because we knew we’d have to make certain sound effects, but when lighting started to come into play as well, it was harder. We needed to have spotlights, and gel changes. At one point, for instance, one of the directors said “Oh, I want to have a spotlight there, who’s up above?”, and we were all onstage. So, I was removed from an ensemble scene and put on the spotlight instead. So, it was chaotic because we were desperately trying to remember cues. The whole thing has been very fluid because I was asked to do a gel change and I’m actually on the other side, so Aviva stepped up. All hands on deck.

LRM: This sort of independent theatre would not happen without people like this. The funding is not feasible. Passion Play has gotten a lot of buzz and part of me is wondering if it means people might be more open to the idea of trying to put on epic theatre done by independent companies. It’s really amazing.

KD: Not only is it really gratifying, but it gives me a sense of invincibility. If I can actually do the lighting and the sounds and be onstage in one show, what could I not do? If I wanted to put on my own show tomorrow, I feel like I’d be that much more capable, and I’d have more confidence.

KDa: This show is setting a precedent in Canadian theatre, I think, for being an epic show, and one that reviews have said will be talked about for years. But, yet, it’s three small, growing companies coming together with thirty-five people working on this. We’re moving locations, we move the audience from Withrow Park to Eastminster Church. Even that is ambitious in one way. Then there’s the acting company, and eight Passion Players, we have the assistant directors, and Evan [Harkai] and Bryn [McLeod] all working to make sure this piece comes together.

KD: It’s a labour of love in the truest sense. These groups were so passionate about making this happen, no matter what they had to do. It’s exciting.

APM: I feel like I have the experience of doing four plays from this one show!

PASSION PLAY by Sarah Ruhl
When: June 6-30th
What: Three of Toronto’s leading indie theatre companies, Outside the March, Convergence Theatre, and Sheep No Wool present the Canadian premiere of Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl. Brought to Toronto’s East End by Crow’s Theatre.
Where: Passion Play is an immersive performance experience in three acts. Act One begins in Toronto’s beautiful Withrow Park, after which the audience and performers will walk together across the Danforth to Eastminster United Church’s magnificent auditorium for Acts Two and Three. 
Tickets: can be purchased online or in person at Withrow Park beginning one hour before showtime.
Book your tickets online herehttp://passionplaytoronto.eventbrite.ca/