“Working with Youth, Audience Participation & The Extraordinary Things in Life” Eliza Martin and Neil Silcox on HARVEY & THE EXTRAORDINARY at the 2018 Toronto Fringe
Interview by Bailey Green.
We sat down with theatre creators Eliza Martin and Neil Silcox to discuss the upcoming site-specific Fringe show Harvey & the Extraordinary, written and performed by Eliza and directed by Neil. Harvey and the Extraordinary explores the joy and heartbreak of childhood from the perspective of an 8-year-old girl named Mimi. We spoke about working with youth, audience participation and the extraordinary things in life.
BG: How did you started working together?
Eliza Martin: I saw Neil in a production of King Lear at Hart House Theatre. He played Edgar, but more importantly I was captivated by his performance as Poor Tom.
Neil Silcox: I pretended to be a cat.
EM: I thought the cat was exemplary. Neil was friends with Jeremy Hutton, who was director of Toronto Youth Theatre at the time and then Neil came in as AD on Into the Woods, which I was in. And my first words to him were, “Did you play a cat in King Lear?”
NS: We worked together on that show, and then I directed Rent at TYT. And then I coached Eliza going into theatre school auditions, and then Eliza went to TDS [Theatre and Drama Studies] from whence I am also an alumnus. Thus a friendship was born! A year and a half ago, Eliza reached out to me with a new script she was developing, which became Harvey & the Extraordinary. Last summer we did a workshop of it over two days at the end of July in a garage that had belonged to my friends Jeff and Sarah. We thought this is perfect for the Fringe – it has a lot of give and take with the audience, it’s fun and the garage is about 200 metres from the Fringe patio, which doesn’t hurt.
BG: What did you learn from your workshop last summer?
EM: The piece has so much audience interaction, it’s such an integral part of the show, that we were interested in their experience and perspective on plot and characters. They had really great thoughts on storyline and what they might need clarified
NS: In some ways it’s a mystery piece in that the character of Mimi is an 8-year-old and is something of an unreliable narrator. So part of our job is to pick apart what she says to piece together the more objective reality. And some of the audience in the workshop didn’t do that and we were able to identify some ways to drop some clearer hints and guide the audience. As a director it was interesting to see the context of the show in that specific space because it is a garage in an alleyway in the heart of the city with the back door open. There was a kind of give and take with the city, which is really beautiful. And Mimi is a Torontonian kid so she has a rapport with the city. We had everything from cars driving by to people throwing firecrackers.
BG: What was it like interacting with an audience and where there any surprises that it brought?
EM: I was very surprised at how much I felt like they enjoyed participation and I feel a lot of that was because Mimi is a child. You feel like you get to support her in a lovely way and it makes them feel comfortable. Even though audience participation can sound scary, for myself included, there’s something really special about the relationship between Mimi, a child, and the audience, because you feel as though you are helping her with her performance. It cuts away some of the embarrassment that people sometimes experience in audience participation. That was really gratifying to discover and I look forward to continuing to explore that relationship
NS: It’s that quality that we always look for, that Mimi is always thrilled and excited by what she gets, so it’s accessible audience participation. No one ever gets anything wrong, no one is the butt of the joke. It’s a small show – we seat 19 people. In the workshop we had 2 performances and we filled it full of people quite close to us, professionally and personally. Those audiences had an understanding of who Eliza is and who I am and the work we do, so I’m really excited to have strangers in who will have fewer presumptions about who we are and the work we do.
BG: Eliza, what drew you to create a solo show?
EM: A solo show forces you into creative storytelling. What excited me is that I found I did my most creative work when I didn’t have other actors up there with me. I had to find ways to create for myself what was needed in the story. I began doing it because I wanted a way to control my own work and work on something without sort of waiting for the phone to ring. It seems like a simple answer but that’s what started it — as a way to have a project for myself. I fell in love with it as I did it and I fell in love with other people’s solo projects and being amazed at what they did and how they told their stories until it was a rabbit hole I fell down in an exciting way.
BG: How did working with children and young people influence this show?
NS: I’ve been teaching theatre now for 20 years, and I started with people who are about Mimi’s age, 8 or so, at a YMCA in London when I didn’t know anything. Since then I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of kids […] Randy Pausch wrote a book called The Last Lecture, in it he talks about teaching football as an educational head fake. You tell young people that you’re teaching them to play football but you’re really teaching them a bunch of other things and my philosophy of teaching youth theatre was the same thing. When you first get into theatre, we think of it as a putting on of someone else. But the beauty in theatre is about showing who you are, it is a revelation of self. It’s very personal work that Eliza does in her writing and in her performance. In rehearsal, we talk about our histories and who we were as children and how our current anxieties are similar to those young people and in Mimi.
EM: I had that experience working with you as a youth, so that’s interesting. We think we’re putting something on, when really we’re giving ourselves the freedom to express. We do talk a lot about our own personal stories and one of the reasons I reached out to Neil was not only because he’s a wonderful friend and mentor, but I feel like we share this similar sense of humour that I was interested in writing and working with in the piece. And it’s Mimi’s humour, it’s this lovely humour that I find comes from communicating with children. I love the way they talk about their lives and the discoveries they make and every day is so new and interesting. I had a little boy say to me once, “The inside of my neck is itchy” and he meant his throat but I thought it was clever that he would describe it as that. There are a few Mimis in my life and I bring in their stories and reference them often.
BG: What are three extraordinary things currently giving you life?
- The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer – I’m telling everyone and their mother to read it. It’s about the exchange between audience and performer. Palmer reflects on her time as a street performer and the gift of art and human connection.
- Fresh cut flowers.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – a beautiful way to shift my perspective and extremely compelling writing. It’s a great example of an old axiom about writing where you write for something extremely specific and in that it will be accessible to everyone, and if you try to write something accessible to everyone, no one will care. So Ta-Nehisi, writing for his son, a young teenage Black man in America in 2015, that specificity made it clear where there was room for the reader.
- Parks and Recreation – I’m watching it for the first time and it is really good. There’s a purity to each character, like a bell tone.
- This War of Mine – It’s a video game that is not exactly fun, but extremely compelling. The game asks what you have to do as a civilian to survive war. It’s crushing, because you can’t survive without making some awful choices. I’m interested in how different mediums find emotions that you can’t find in other media, and a video game can find guilt in a way I don’t know if a book or movie can.(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Harvey and The Extraordinary
Written & Performed by Eliza Martin
Direction by Neil Silcox
Harvey & The Extraordinary invites you to follow the trail of painted cardboard signs and join eight-year-old Mimi and her hamster Harvey for their professional and not-so-silent debut!
With big dreams to join the circus, Mimi sets out to put on her very own mime show (in her garage) for a special guest of honour. Harvey & The Extraordinary explores the joy and heartbreak of childhood and what it means to maybe, just maybe, be simply ordinary.
GARAGE ON COLLEGE PLACE
181 Markham Street
4th July – 7:00pm
5th July – 7:00pm
6th July – 7:00pm
7th July – 7:00pm
8th July – 7:00pm*
10th July – 7:00pm
11th July – 7:00pm*
12th July – 7:00pm
13th July – 7:00pm
14th July – 7:00pm