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Posts tagged ‘Megan Robinson’

“WHITE HEAT, Online Trolls & The Hustle of Writing” In Conversation with Graham Isador

Interview by Megan Robinson.

This year will be the fifth time that accomplished storyteller, Graham Isador, is presenting his work as part of the SummerWorks Performance Festival. Isador is well-known for his successful one-person shows, but, with White Heat, he’s written a traditional play that he hopes will succeed in having a life beyond the festival.

Based on real events, Isador’s new play draws on his insights from working as a culture writer and journalist (most notably for Vice, GQ, and CBC), as well as the challenges and dangers that many of his co-workers and friends have faced in their careers as journalists. In our interview, Isador continues to grapple with the seriousness of online harassment, wondering how we can determine the severity of a threat, and the problem of assuming it’s all just talk. It’s this curiosity that drove him to write the show, which is about a journalist who becomes targeted by an alt-right podcaster. The story of White Heat is relevant and thought-provoking, exploring what can happen when online threats become a reality.

We spoke with Graham about his ambitions for White Heat, dealing with online trolls, and the hustle of writing.


MR: Why SummerWorks?

GI: Laura (Nanni) has been pretty pivotal to my career in a lot of ways. It’s funny, I don’t really know her that well but I have immense respect for what she does and the dramaturgical questions she’s always asked about my work has elevated it in a way that has been super beneficial for how I think about my work and the way I want it to move forward. I think I owe SummerWorks a lot for anybody recognizing my work in theatre. So there’s that. And it’s a very conscious choice, to be completely transparent about it. This is the first time in the last couple years that I’ve put on a show that hasn’t been a one-person thing. This is me sort of shooting my shot. I understand why maybe my stuff hasn’t been programmed in the past, because it didn’t really fit within the context of theatre seasons or what not, but it’s sort of a chance to be like, ‘this is the crew I’ve assembled who are very talented, the script is good and relevant, and I want to get it seen by artistic directors’. I’m extremely proud of the crew we’ve put together to elevate this story and SummerWorks is a showcase, at this point, to be able to hopefully get it programmed somewhere else.

MR: When you wrote those other shows, did you think a theatre might pick them up? So is this you sort of like, acquiescing and saying, ‘okay no one wanted that so I’m going to play your game’ a little bit?

GI: I think that the stories I’m wanting to tell, on a personal level, is why I wrote those one-man shows. And because every once in a while I’ll get an ache and I’ll think I want to be an actor, but that’s not true. I don’t really want to say other people’s words or remember other people’s lines and be accountable in that way. But I do have a need to be on stage once in a while, so the one-man show is sort of a way to get that out of my system so I don’t embarrass myself in front of our community trying to be a different character than myself.

White Heat is built out of the fact that, in the past year, there’s a handful of colleagues, mutuals on twitter, and friends who are journalists who have been put on neo-Nazi kill lists. If I have an article that’s a hit, for a week someone will tell me to get hit by a bus, or that they’re going to beat me up, or that I’m a fag. So I started thinking about the relationship between those two things, and the people behind those comments. The extreme examples of all this is not stuff that has happened to me. The stuff I deal with in terms of harassment on a daily basis is peanuts compared to what a lot of my colleagues who are writing hard news deal with. But I wanted to be able to talk about what the reality is for me in those situations, as well as what the reality is when I’m having beers with friends and we’re talking about this stuff – that harassment part of our daily lives. And it’s all a joke and it’s all online until somebody gets shot.

The offices at Vice Montreal last year were occupied (for a lack of a better word) by bikers from the alt-right who came to the office because of an article that was written and offered threats to the Vice Montreal writers. A couple weeks after that, there was a shooting in Maryland at the Capital Gazette where five journalists were shot and a handful of others were injured because of things they wrote.

I mean I write about bars and buffets and abs and dumb culture shit and I get some of this as a blowback but the reality is that it’s feeling, even for me, a little more dangerous and a little more real lately. So it was like, ‘this is the story that I need to tell’, and I didn’t feel like doing it as a one-man show because it couldn’t really do justice to all the stories. It allowed me to dig into the themes and dig into the realities of what that is for friends, without having the burden of it all being 100% factually accurate.

Photo of Tim Walker in WHITE HEAT by Graham Isador

MR: So your play is about the most extreme case, the really violent and the more political version of it, but what you experience is mostly the bullying and the trolls?

GI: Yeah and I’m not a victim in this situation. I choose to put myself out there in a lot of these ways but it’s just interesting to me that it’s a reality of these things. And as the temperament of society changes, this becomes politicized regardless of what I do.

MR: What do you mean?

GI: Well, by writing for the CBC, by writing for Vice, people have narratives about what those institutions are. So it doesn’t really matter what I’m writing, I become an enemy to them based on this thing. I’m very fascinated with the idea that anything that gets written or anything that reaches a certain level of critical mass just becomes fodder for countless vile comments towards you. And what is it that we’re doing that it’s now just a by-product of doing work like this and what does it say for the larger societal context?

MR: Has it ever made you want to stop writing? Have you ever had an article go up and felt like you needed to take a break from it or take a pause?

GI: The only time that it’s kind of given me pause, at this point, is when it’s starting to affect people who aren’t me. I chose this, right? No one is telling me to write stuff.

MR: But you can choose it without knowing what it’s going to feel like.

GI: I think that’s true but I’ve also been doing this for seventeen years. I started writing about bands when I was thirteen. I kind of know what’s what at this point. One of the things I’ve been trying actively to do when I’m writing true personal stuff is get other people out of it as much as I can. Then it only becomes about me and not my friends or partners or whatever else, because they didn’t ask for this in the same way that I did. So that’s when I think about stopping. And then there’s times when you’re having a day that’s particularly hard for whatever reason, and then an article pops up that calls you names. And I engage with that stuff. I read the comments. I know you’re not supposed to.

MR: Why do you read the comments? What do you get out of it?

GI: Well if someone was saying something about you, wouldn’t you want to know?

MR: Personally, not always, no. Because it can still get under your skin even if you know they don’t have anything worthwhile to say, right? I guess you probably have thick skin, but I definitely have thin skin.

GI: I don’t know if I do. I go back and forth with it. I think part of anything with performance, with writing, with whatever, is a certain desire to make sure that your opinion is relevant. There’s a certain arrogance that goes along with it. To be like, ‘look, what I’m telling you is important and you should pay attention to me.’ I don’t think I would do this work in theatre, in journalism, if I didn’t feel that way. I think that’s the manifestation of why I do this stuff in the first place: I want my ideas to be important to other people, and I have something to say. Which also means that I am curious how people respond to that. It’s part of my temperament that I engage with those types of things. And sometimes I take them more seriously than others.

MR: How long has it taken you to write the play?

GI: Three months? I pitched this with an idea, and probably about two monologues and SummerWorks was interested in the themes and interested in some of the people that I’ve been working with. Jill Harper, who is directing it, is pretty incredible – she won a Dora for Pool (No Water). Tim Walker is mostly known as a comedic actor but this gives him a chance to show off his drama chops. And there’s Makambe Simamba – I think if this were a year from now I would not be able to work with her because she’d be booked for something huge. She’s going to be a really big deal.

MR: I’m curious what your end goal is. You do so many different things – is there one thing you’re reaching for more than anything else?

GI: No, I just kinda want attention… No, all this is the same thing to me. It’s all storytelling. Producing, writing, photography, all of it. It’s just the way to communicate ideas that are important to me. I look at who my heroes are, people like Jon Ronson or Anthony Bourdain, who are able to dabble in all this different stuff. All of it is facilitating this one idea that their life is also their art. There isn’t this big barrier between what I am and what I do and what I’m trying to bring to the world. Bourdain was a huge hero of mine. There was like eighteen different things that guy did and it was all playing to this bigger idea of using food to be able to talk about human experience and culture. For me, it’s how do we use all these different mediums to say, ‘these things are important’. More recently, I’ve been trying to figure out how I can use those same avenues that I have to be able to tell stories of people who may not be able to have their own voices. So that responsibility is something I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m exhausted all the time but I also don’t do anything I don’t want to do.

MR: I see your name popping up online all the time, and every time I see another article come up, I’m so curious about how you’re so productive… you seem overwhelmingly productive! How many articles did you write last year?

GI: Sixty. Maybe more. This year I’ve done fifty-four.

MR: That feels like a lot. Does it feel like a lot to you?

GI: Yeah. I think at some point in the next couple years I’ll be able to calm down and focus myself to do less. But right now the reason I get to do stuff is because I keep doing stuff. It’s a hustle, right? And like, if you want these things for real, that’s what you do. But there’s something to be said, definitely, for taking your time and thinking about these things, but I’m not talented in the same way. I’m a worker, and I have a little bit of talent, I’m decently smart, but the difference between me and a lot of other people is that I will continue to keep doing things until I get better at them. There’s a handful of other writers in this city who I know are better writers than me but the difference is that I try to do it absolutely every day and by doing that you just gain enough experience to keep growing and growing and growing. Between all these things I can make an okay living for myself, just barely. I don’t want to do anything else except write. So I just write all the time.


White Heat

Who:
SummerWorks Performance Festival with Pressgang Theatre
Written by Graham Isador
Directed by Jill Harper
Performed by Makambe Simamba and Tim Walker
Sound Design by Christopher Ross-Ewart

What:
A revealed identity leads to an impossible decision.

Journalist Alice Kennings grapples with how to act after uncovering the identity of an alt-right podcast host calling for violence against the media. Based on real events, White Heat is a play about all the things we justify to ourselves. Written by Graham Isador (VICE, GQ) and directed by Dora Award winner Jill Harper (Pool No Water).

Where:
Longboat Hall at The Great Hall
103 Dovercourt Road, Toronto, Ontario

When:
Sunday August 11th8:30pm – 9:45pm
Monday August 12th9:30pm – 10:45pm
Wednesday August 14th6:00pm – 7:30pm

Tickets:
$15/$25/$35
summerworks.ca

Connect:
@presgang 

“Overcoming Creative Road Blocks, Cultivating Your Practice & The Power of The Movies” In Conversation with Vanessa Smythe, Co-Creator of THE TAPE ESCAPE

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Vanessa Smythe is in the middle of doing her laundry when she answers the phone. I can hear the beep of the laundry machine when she tells me that recently all her dreams have been about puzzle-solving. This definitely makes sense since The Tape Escape, which she co-created with Mitchell Cushman, is an immersive theatre experience that is a blend of puzzles and storytelling. Though it opened in July with Outside the March, Vanessa says they are still in the process of making tweaks here and there, adding pieces of content, and allowing ideas to evolve. The bones of the show have been solidified for a long time, but Vanessa is still so inspired by it and excited for all its possibilities that she says it can be hard to know when to stop working.

Even without the new tweaks and additions, The Tape Escape is an already complex show. For their track, “Love Without Late Fees”, they wrote sixty-five different scenes. I imagine it would be hard knowing some sections may never get seen, but Vanessa says part of the fun is letting the audience have agency over the ending. For her, it’s a bit of a lesson in letting go. Though she does admit to having favourite outcomes.

Vanessa and I spoke for an hour over the phone about collaborating with Mitchell Cushman, how this project has affected her as an artist, and what her advice is for getting through creative blocks.


MR: Let’s go back to the beginning of the project. So you and Mitchell walked into Queen Video, and you wanted to do something together. How long had you been having the discussion of wanting to do something? What was the first idea you had?

VS: I do a lot of solo shows and I had an idea to do a one-person show inside an old video store. I think what excited me was the idea of what these tapes had witnessed and someone taking you into their personal connections and the little moments of significance that are tangled into all these objects. I love collaborating with Mitchell, and he had worked at video stores before (he’s an enormous film buff) and has also always wanted to pay respect somehow to what video stores meant to him. We both had this emotional pull to the space. We began with the question, “what have these tapes witnessed?” and what could they tell us about the people who once held them, and cared about them, and shared them and exchanged them.

When we did our initial Kick And Push workshop the question was, “how can we tell the story of one couple’s relationship in six video rentals?” And that kind of lead into this almost-treasure hunt. I don’t know if when you were a kid you ever did treasure hunts with your friends but I always loved the idea of searching for something, so that was also a thematic interest.

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

MR: Is this the sort of thing you want to keep doing more of or are you inspired to go back to something simpler?

VS: I love storytelling so it’s been a really exciting experiment to see how puzzles and stories speak to each other. I’m hoping it’s made my writing stronger. I’m excited to remove that puzzle component and see what influence that has had on my impulses creatively. [laughs] What a vague answer… I don’t know!

MR: That’s fine. You’re in the middle of it!

VS: It’s funny, I’ve been acting in a couple of film and TV projects this summer and I was always so nervous to do those things (and I still am sometimes). But I would depart from being this puzzle-creator, where I felt like I was doing seven different tasks, and then I would show up to set and say lines and I’d be like, “This is a single task. I have nothing to complain about”, so I don’t know it probably has been good.

MR: It’s definitely a testament to stepping out of your comfort zone and the perspective you gain afterwards.

VS: Mhm. I think Mitchell Cushman is such a talented person and he really doesn’t hesitate to do something. I really admire that. Some people are like, “I’m not sure, let’s not do it.” And he’s like, “Well let’s find out if it’ll work and let’s do it.” And I really hope that that’s rubbed off on me a little bit. It really is the only way to do something, I think. Because there’s always going to be doubt and uncertainty.

MR: I’d love to know how you get through creative blocks. I’m asking this a bit from a personal place, as well, since I feel like I’ve been stuck for like three months, and I find it so helpful to hear from other people what they do in that case. What do you do?

VS: Sure! I think it depends on the nature of “the stuck”. I mean, I can answer your question, but I’m also just interested in why you feel stuck?

I’m realizing I’m a really sensitive person. I feel like it’s actually a good thing a lot of the time. I feel that people like me, we can be very perceptive and can detect impulses in ourselves and sometimes follow those but I think the flip side is that it’s easy for our voices to feel muted when we’re around a lot of noise. So I find a lot of the times when I’ve been stuck I feel the part of me that is really certain and honest is a little bit obstructed and usually I think it’s because (whether I’m realizing it or not) I’m paying a lot of attention to the voices and impulses and noises and ideas surrounding me and it’s cutting me off from that genuine current that is open and flowing.

I find (and I don’t know if there’s a solution for it) that I really have to get on my own side again. Sometimes it’s not gonna happen the way that I think. I might need to stay up really late until four in the morning and watch old episodes of a bad show and then, like, go for a walk and eat a weird candy that reminds me of someone I had a crush on when I was eight and maybe that will make me feel more like myself and sort of collapse those obstructions that get in the way. I feel like connecting to joy is important. And more and more just really embracing how you do things. Because everybody does things differently and sometimes while working closely with other creative people, it can be tempting to try and mimic or participate in their rhythms when really your rhythms might be a little different.

It takes an effort to cultivate a habit of checking in with myself and trying to make sure that those pathways of creativity are as unobstructed as possible, but whenever I do I’m always so glad, you know? You really feel this relief. I really think one of the best feelings in the world is when you feel like yourself. When I’m talking to somebody and I’m like, “this is how we talk!” and it’s so good and easy, you know? Versus when you’re having a conversation and it’s taut and your cheeks hurt and you’re hearing yourself and you’re like, “what am I even saying?” And the gift or luxury or whatever you want to call it, of being creators is that we’re asked to return to our own voice – can you just believe in it and love it and spend time on it and see where it takes you? That’s my bread and butter. That’s the biggest joy to me. And it’s hard but if I continue to cultivate a practice that supports it then I feel like I’ll be okay.

MR: Oh yeah, that really hit me. That’s definitely it.

VS: I don’t know… It’s so funny how the things we tell other people are often the things we need to hear. Or the things we make are often the things we need to witness.

MR: My other question for you was going to be how do you tap into your honesty, but the other question I asked you brought us right into that.

VS: I’m so glad!

Photo Credit: Neil Silcox

MR: The last question I have is based off how you said earlier that you write to heal something in yourself or tap into something in yourself- was there something with The Tape Escape that you were healing or tapping into?

VS: Yes. When I was twenty-two I used to go to this acting class and there was this boy who would drive me home from acting class and we both were these like frightened human beings who loved stories and believed that movies were your guides in your life and he had seen every movie. He was a very nervous, cripplingly shy person. But it was almost like he had every movie in his coat pocket, and when he talked about them, they were his strength. I just have this memory of this time when we’re these two friends, driving home from our class together, and we were afraid of the world and we felt uncertain and lost and confused and like we didn’t belong anywhere but then we would talk about our favourite movies and we would imitate our favourite scenes from stupid comedies and we would laugh and it would be this really special time, and that’s gone now. He actually had a license plate, MOVIE MAN, and in initial phases of this project I wanted to call it that. I wanted this to almost be like a love letter to a friend. We found each other when we were both very lost and kind of used movies to feel okay. I feel like that is at the seed of the project for me.

MR: Has he seen it?

VS: We’re not really in touch anymore. But it feels like an extension of moments in your past that were special and you didn’t even maybe realize they were special at the time. And now they’re gone, kind of like how video stores are gone. I don’t know, I feel like just being in the store and letting yourself be drawn to certain tapes draws me closer to the people that I miss. I feel like for me that has been an emotional centre for what’s inspired this.

MR: Do you have any tips for audiences to maximize their experience at The Tape Escape?

VS: I think it’s really fun to come with another person or a group of people that you know. It’s really exciting to see people that know each other tackling these puzzles together. And do it with someone that you like (you also see tensions run high when people can’t solve puzzles). It’s also really fun to do two back to back. And to make an evening of it. We’ve had people come and they’ve rented out an hour and it becomes more of an evening, and a fun social event.


The Tape Escape

Who:
An Outside the March Experience
In Association with David Versus Goliath
Creative Team
Co-creators: Vanessa Smythe, Mitchell Cushman and Nick Bottomley
Production Designers: Anahita Dehbonehie and Nick Blais
Dramaturg: Griffin McInnes*
Assistant Video and Puzzle Designer: Allie Marshall**
Assistant Production Designers: Hans Krause, Julia Howman and Edith Nataprawira
Creative Technologist: Daniel Oulton
Sounds Designer: Bram Gielen
Interstitial Sound Designers: Christo Graham and Tucker Bottomley
Head painter: Edith Nataprawira
Head Carpenter: Andrew Chute
Escape Artists: Kayla Chaterji, Daniel Halpern, Madeleine Jung-Grennan and Bryanna Blackwell
Model Builder – Bryanna Blackwell

What:
Most video stores let you take the movies home. But at THE TAPE ESCAPE, the rentals happen to you, pulling you deep inside its collection of thousands of VHS Tapes. Disappear back into 1999 with this love-letter to the lost art of browsing. See if you can escape into (and out of) some of your favourite movies by selecting from our collection of “in store rentals”.

Where:
480 Bloor Street West
(former home of Queen Video)

When:
On now and extended until August 11th.

Tickets:
outsidethemarch.ca

Connect:
Vanessa Smythe – @vsmythe
Outside the March – @OutsideTheMarch

“Building on Your Work Over Time, Creating from a Place of Rage & How We Move Forward” In Conversation with Playwright Erin Shields & Director Andrea Donaldson on BEAUTIFUL MAN

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Originally performed as part of the SummerWorks Festival in 2015, Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields, is taking on a new life at Factory Theatre, on stage now until May 26th. This feminist comedy, directed by Shield’s long-time collaborator Andrea Donaldson, promises big laughs, but also, provocation – with a narrative presented through the female gaze.

We spoke with Shields and Donaldson about this new iteration of their show, reworking the original script, creating from a place of rage, and what they find most inspiring these days.


Megan Robinson: The show was originally presented in 2015 at SummerWorks, so what was it that prompted this remount?

Andrea Donaldson: After the SummerWorks show we were really excited to find a partner to give it another life. There were some revisions that we were dreaming of, so we reached out to Nina (Lee Aquino – Artistic Director of Factory Theatre) and she was very enthusiastic. She threw it in her season and was quite generous to say, you know, “we want to be involved in the further development of it.” So they gave us a workshop last May, and now here were are. We have a brand new cast, and half of our design team is new, which is really exciting.

Erin Shields: And from a content point of view – 2015 was a very different time than right now in terms of how we’re talking about gender, gender equity, and about representation in film, television and theatre. 2015 was before #metoo. I don’t know that we’re post #metoo, but it’s been interesting for me revisiting the script in terms of that. In thinking, “okay, where are we now in this conversation?” And trying to address that with the revisions.

Ashley Botting, Jesse LaVercombe, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: Why build on this show, as opposed to tackling these questions with a whole new show? Is this show speaking both to 2015 and now?

ES: Everything I make is feminist, so I’m always engaging in my writing with “where are we now and what’s going on and what’s changed.” I don’t want to give too many spoilers away but I wrote a whole other section that is another movement in terms of this play. Part of it was editing and going back in, and some of it is completely new.

AD: And if I can add on, it feels like the impetus to write more came, yes, from responding to the world that changed in four years but in our SummerWorks production we were learning a lot dramaturgically about the piece. In that brief study with an audience, Erin and I were scrutinizing it and looking where energetically it wanted to shift and asking the question of “what next”.

MR: I guess my question is about knowing when a show is done, if there is always inspiration to go further? Was that a question you asked or was it always clear that there was more to say?

ES: When we did the first show it was very fast and furious. I wrote the show in two or three days, and then it was on stage within five months. I think even going in we knew there would be more. It felt like a workshop in front of an audience. It’s a comedy, so trying to figure that out without an audience is really challenging. We knew it wasn’t a final draft. Often when I write a play, it takes anywhere between three and six years for it to get to the stage so you often have cycles of dramaturgy and cycles of workshops or readings. Even the early days, when Andrea and I worked together on Montparnasse, we did it three times. So I think we’ve always understood that for theatre, because it’s a live art, you need that feedback from other people… certainly I do… before I’m willing to say “this is it”. How do you know it’s ever done? That’s a good question.

AD: I feel like this play is now done. I have no question around that.

Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Jesse LaVercombe, Sofia Rodriguez-byJoseph Michael Photography 107

Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Jesse LaVercombe, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: I read that the show was inspired by a sense of rage. Did working on the show allow you to process that rage, and did it make a difference for you? If so, how?

ES: Totally. Many of my plays start from a place of rage. From going, “that’s not fair” or “why is it like this?” I’ve often talked about how this came out of having a residue left in my body every time I watched popular television. I’d come away being like, “Oh, this Game of Thrones show is so great!” Then I’d be like, “Ew, all those women were sexually assaulted and I just watched it cuddling with my husband on the couch.” There’s something so weird about that. Doing this play has absolutely been cathartic. And I often heard the audience members say that after our SummerWorks production too, because it goes pretty far. There’s something I hope that is illuminating about it. I think we already know a lot of these things, but we don’t think deeply about them. We’re just so used to seeing women being raped on television, so we don’t think, “Oh my God, how many raped women have I seen in the last two months?” It’s ridiculous!

MR: What’s on your mind these days? Anything new that’s inspiring you?

ES: I’m thinking about how we move forward now. Especially with this wonderful moment we all experienced a year and a half ago, where we saw all of these giants being toppled in every industry. It felt like a real moment of triumph. It feels like, now, those massive figures have fallen and there are these gaps everywhere. And we’re looking around and thinking, what work do we still have to do, and what world do we all want to live in together? Those are very big questions. I think personally that’s where I’m at, and that’s what I’m working through with my work. And even on subjects of the play – we talked about Game of Thrones so much, and I remember seeing the first few episodes and it was all raping and fucking all the time, and really gratuitous violence against women. And in watching it now, watching this season, it’s so interesting to see how the women are treated has shifted. Even in this massive show, the female characters are super strong – the hero of the penultimate episode is an eighteen-year-old girl. When has that happened? Probably never, except in some young adult literature. But this is the most popular mainstream thing and that is who the hero is. It made me think. It made me wonder if there is change on the horizon.

Ashley Botting, Jesse LaVercombe, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: What is a traditionally male role you want to see a woman play? Since your whole thing is flipping gender roles.

AD: How do I say this… I’m curious to see what are the capabilities of the female roles that aren’t still in reference to a patriarchal perspective. So not just switcheroos. It makes me think of when I directed Romeo and Juliet and I conflated the roles of the Capulets, the mom and dad, into a single mom, and found in that combination the depth of emotional range that was not afforded to Mama Capulet. And seeing that embodied, seeing her move through that, felt like the most satisfying role, in a way, because we don’t get to see a mom who is violent to her daughter and who has really high standards for her daughter. It’s not only seeing women in particular roles, but seeing unexpected ways of embodying those roles that, especially in TV and film, are rarely afforded to women.

MR: What was a theatrical experience that made you feel really deeply seen as a female-identifying creator?

ES: I think when I see work done by my peers and my contemporaries I get really excited. I haven’t seen these plays, but I’m excited by the ambition in the work Susanna Fournier is creating. It’s imaginative, it’s poetic, it’s destructive. It makes me excited that she has been supported and celebrated for this massive endeavour. I want more of that.

AD: What’s coming for me is Rose Napoli’s Lo or Dear Mr. Wells, which Vivien Endicott-Douglas performed in. I find that there’s this great attention that playwrights are bringing to writing younger characters who are having full and complex experiences and kind of damning the critics around what that singular portrayal might be reduced down to. As a young person coming into my own sexual life, I never felt that experience was represented or understood or handled with any kind of care or imagination or sophistication.

Jesse LaVercombe, Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez-by Joseph Michael Photography 326

Jesse LaVercombe, Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Sofia Rodriguez. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

MR: What’s an experience you have had recently that you could fit into your play Beautiful Man?

ES: Everyday! There are so many. The other day I went to meet a friend in a bar just down the street. And both myself and my friend are in our early 40s and the bartender kept calling us girls. And I just felt my rage. He must have been like 26 or 27. I thought to myself, “Should I say something and be like, we’re women?” He was so insistent on making me into a child. It’s a part of the popular language, but I had to ask myself if I wanted to say something and get something going with this dude or did I just want to ignore it and laugh about it with my friend afterward. Which is what I did.

AD: But it cost something.

ES: Yeah.

AD: A couple nights ago after rehearsal, Ashley (Botting), who’s in the cast, called an Uber. We were going to drop her off first and then me. And when the Uber showed up it was a guy, but there was a guy in the front seat as well. So Ashley was like, “Oh there’s someone in here, we didn’t call Uber pool, what’s up?” And the guy goes, “Yeah, he’s my bodyguard.” And Ashley and I were both doing that quiet awkward decision-making together. But we decided, no, we’re fine, we’re capable. So we get into the car and Ashley tries to make a joke about it, that doesn’t land. And we feel like there’s something sketchy going on. You know, we’re in a car with two dudes we don’t know, based on the trust of an app. So we’re kind of trying to perform normality. And then at a certain point, I was just like, “Ash, I’m going to get out with you.” It was just the whole thing of physical safety and trying to be cool, trying to not be scared, like, “I’m fine, I’m tough, I’m capable… people aren’t bad.” But then ultimately going, actually, what if people are bad, you know? That was my most recent physical safety thing.

MR: Right, but also them not helping you feel safe. There’s a world in which you would feel better if those people were conscious of how you feel and did the work to help you out.

AD: Right. So I either have to swallow that or perform that. There’s a cost to that.


Beautiful Man

Who:
A Factory Theatre Production
Written by Erin Shields
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
Starring Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Sofía Rodríguez, Jesse LaVercombe
Set Design by Gillian Gallow
Costume Design by Ming Wong
Lighting Design by Jason Hand
Music and Sound Design by Richard Feren

What:
A scathing satire about the portrayal of women in film and television, three friends take us on a whirlwind tour of an upside-down world where women are the hunters, not the hunted; the heroes, not the victims; the subjects, not the objects, all while gazing at the semi-nude Beautiful Man. You’ll never watch your favourite binge-worthy shows the same way again.

Where:
Factory Theatre – Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street.
Toronto

When:
May 4-26

Tickets: 
factorytheatre.ca

“Shaking Up Your Process, Trusting Your Instincts & Falling in Love with Theatre Again” In Conversation with writer Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman on GUARDED GIRLS at Tarragon

Interview by Megan Robinson.

When I got on the phone with playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman this week to discuss her newest show, Guarded Girls, premiering at Tarragon Theatre in association with Green Light Arts, I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. I first came across her writing when I was in grade eleven and was performing in a student production of the play The End of Pretending, which she wrote alongside her friend Emily Sugerman. It was a show that deeply affected my friends and I at the time because it so accurately depicted the emotional lives of girls our age. Needless to say, I have been a long-time fan of Charlotte’s work, so I was thrilled at this opportunity to chat with her about her writing process.

Charlotte’s newest play, Guarded Girls is a complex four-part story that brings the audience into the world of the women’s prison system in Canada. It’s a subject matter that can be hard to look at because it asks a lot of questions about our society and what we consider to be good vs bad behaviour. But despite the challenging nature of the material, she hopes the audience will keep a level of openness as they engage with it.

That Charlotte started writing a show four years ago focusing on the cycles that are hard to break between mothers and daughters is especially interesting now that she is pregnant with her first child. With opening night coinciding so closely with her due date, she says that she’s relieved to be able to now switch her focus to childbirth.

I spoke with Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman about the real-life inspiration for the show, her intensive research process, and the unique experience she had writing Guarded Girls.


MR: How did the idea come about for the show?

CCC: So Matt White, who is the Artistic Director of Green Light Arts, a Kitchener Company, was very affected by Ashley Smith’s death, a 19-year-old who died at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. She killed herself but it was ruled a homicide because the guards did not intervene. Instead, they watched her as she died. She originally went to a juvenile detention centre because she threw crab apples at a postman, and then she sort of just ended up in the system, unable to get out. It’s a really tragic story and it brought to the news a lot of talk about solitary confinement and segregation and what that does psychologically to inmates. So Matt was interested in that and brought it to me, asking if I wanted to do something with it. I told him that I didn’t know a lot about the prison system but I’d look at it. Then, as I was working on the piece, I learned about a lot more women and so many more things that made me want to branch off more. It was originally supposed to be a one-woman show but, as I kept researching, it made me want to write a fuller piece, instead of just focusing on one particular real person.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: Tell me about the research and interviewing experience. Did you focus mostly on Grand Valley?

CCC: I did a lot of research. I met with some people who had been at Grand Valley, as well as people who had been in the system. It’s really hard to get into the prison. They are sort of starting to open it up again… They’ll go through these phases where they’ll let people in and be like, “Everything is good…” and then there will be ten years where they don’t anyone in. Or at least that certainly happened at Grand Valley. I did a lot of research of women who’d been in prison all over Canada, but Grand Valley was, in a sense, what I was particularly looking at.

MR: Were the people you interviewed surprised to be asked these questions and have someone interested in them? How did they respond?

CCC: I think so. What I got from the people I talked to was a desire to be seen and that they really did want this play to go on. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this story, for sharing what it’s like to be in prison, in Canada, as a woman. There is very little known about it. And people don’t tend to care, you know? They just think, “Well, you did something wrong…” but it’s more complicated. A lot has to do with mental health. A lot has to do with addiction. That’s mostly why people are in jail. There aren’t that many violent crimes. So if you’re looking into all of this, knowing that, it’s very staggering. Like, what are we doing to these very vulnerable people in our society? So I did get a sense that people wanted these messages out.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: It feels like a very timely show.

CCC: These have been issues for a long time but now it’s in the news. I’m hoping people will want to think more about this. One of the problems is you create these rules but there’s no one really enforcing them in the prisons. They can be, for lack of a better term, like the wild west. They can be lawless in a way, which is so crazy because the whole reason anyone is there is because they’ve broken the law.

MR: How did you find the narrative for the show? You decided it wasn’t going to be a one woman show, so how did the story start to come to you as it is now?

CCC: It was a very mysterious writing process. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t plot it out at all. I did a ton ton TON of research and then I kind of put it away and was like, “Now I’m going to go into my imagination”. Of course it was fed by all of the things I had heard and seen and read, but I started to just listen to these two characters I was exploring. Eventually, they sort of just started to reveal themselves. But it’s a very strange structure to a play – there’s four parts and they’re sort of their own segments, so you’re learning the story not necessarily in the right order. Originally I figured I’d have to change it and make it more linear but then I realized that’s just what it wanted to be. Also, I realized that the real thing I was writing about was the cycle between a mother and a daughter and what is passed on, and how hard it is to break these cycles, and how hard it is to change oneself, and then how hard it is for a system to change, or a country to change, or an institution to change. But in the play it really came down to the question: How do we not pass on the bad things that we’ve inherited? I was just really struck by how the women I met were similar to me, and because of the privilege I’ve been afforded in my life and the circumstance I was born into, I was able to avoid a lot of things that would have been pretty much impossible to avoid had it gone another way. The kinds of struggles I’ve had in my life with grief and addiction have just fallen on the right side of the line, where it so easily could have not.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: That’s so interesting because originally I wondered how you managed to not get overwhelmed with getting into the heads of these people and these experiences. I mean research and interviews help, but the other things you’ve written have been really personal, right? So it’s interesting to learn about your process of balancing all of that.

CCC: I wanted to write something really emotionally true, that was really grounded in another person’s lived experience, but very emotionally true to me, as well. Really, I just loved all the characters so much. My job is just to love them, fully, and I really did. I think, for me, this is what’s been so unique about this writing process. My husband teased me because I’d wake up every morning and I’d be so excited to write, because I just wanted to spend time with these girls, these women. And I was like, “I just have to hear more from them…” (laughs) It was really weird, I don’t usually feel like that.

MR: That sounds amazing.

CCC: It’s the only time in my life that has ever happened. It hasn’t happened since. I hope I can bring that into my other writing… just a little more mystery.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: What did a typical day of work look like when you were writing?

CCC: I’d wake up pretty early and then just go write for the whole morning. Then I would stop and edit in the afternoon. Pretty boring, but I liked writing this so much that I was so excited, even with the rewrites. Usually I’d say my writing process is a lot of procrastination until I have to do it. Not that this one wasn’t frustrating and hard and painful and all those things that writing often is. I was very affected by the research, and I was very emotional while writing this play, but I wanted to be in it.

MR: Was the main reason because you loved these characters? What was it that pulled you in?

CCC: Yeah, I really loved them. Also, I felt really free by the structure being so unusual.

At the very beginning, I had nothing written when I met with Virgilia (Griffith) and Vivian (Endicott-Douglas). I just talked to them, then the next week I brought in pages for them. It started as a two-hander, then it grew to a three-hander, then it grew to four people. I was writing for them too, so it was an incredible experience in that way. It was an interesting process of people coming in right when I needed them.

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

MR: Do you have any writing rules or strong beliefs that you come back to when you’re struggling or having a hard time?

CCC: I think what’s really hard about writing is making choices. There are just so many choices available and I think something I really try to do when I receive other people’s art is, instead of thinking if I like it or didn’t like it, I ask myself why the writer made the choice that they made. Because when you’re writing you realize you don’t make any choices just on a whim, you really think about why you’re doing something and you spend a lot of time with what you’re creating and the choices you’ve made in it. I’ve been really interested in looking at art more in that way.

And I do this with myself, as well… trusting the choices I make. This can be really hard too when sharing your art with people while you’re in process, because they have so many opinions of what could happen. Something that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that anything could happen but it’s really about looking at what you’ve chosen to happen and sticking to that when you’re instincts are telling you to. I think you have those instincts for a reason so often, so really trying to listen to them.

MR: How do you maintain your relationship with theatre and writing? Do you have to work at it or does it come naturally? Because it’s been a long relationship for you, right?

CCC: When I first started writing I was a teenager and I had grown up watching theatre and being in the theatre. So when my mum died, I was like, “I have to write a play.” Which was kind of an insane thing to do, and not what you have to do. But it was very instinctual, so I wrote a play, and then I did it and that was sort of like, “now I’m a writer”… but it didn’t necessarily feel like this choice that I made. There was a lot of conversation at the time around whether writing was therapy. You know, I don’t believe it is therapeutic to write your story. Therapy is therapy, and it was life-changing for me. But I certainly learned how to write through this traumatic experience. Then when I went to theatre school for writing, that was really great. I learned to write things that were not at all personal to me, and learned how to sharpen my voice. That was really important because it was at that point that I felt like I was actually choosing to be a writer.

But then I did sort of take some time away from theatre, partly because I had come from it at such a young age. What I love when I talk to theatre people is always the story of “why theatre?” and I always felt sort of cheap in my response. I was just sort of like, “that’s what was around me”. It didn’t feel like the beauty of those stories I’ve heard about other people discovering theatre. But I think it was actually through writing a lot and writing for film and tv and kind of moving away from theatre that made me miss it. I was able to discover my own love of it and why I actually want to write for this art form. It was like falling in love again.

Guarded Girls

Guarded Girls, Tarragon Theatre

Who:
Company: Tarragon Theatre in association with Green Light Arts
Playwright: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman
Director: Richard Rose
Cast: Columpa Bobb, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Virgilia Griffith & Michaela Washburn

What:
A new play from Governor General’s Literary Award nominee.

The psychological destruction brought on by solitary confinement is at the heart of this wrenching and powerful new play. When 19-year-old Sid is transferred to a new prison, she finds friendship with Britt — but also forms a complicated relationship with the guard who seems to be watching their every move. Soon, it’s the guard who’s being watched, and this playful, theatrical, mysterious work heads toward its shocking conclusion.

Where:
Tarragon Theatre Extraspace
30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto

When:
March 26 – May 5, 2019

Tickets:
tarragontheatre.com

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

Interview by Megan Robinson.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MR: What brought you to write that violent act?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MR: What keeps you motivated? 

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

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

A Bear Awake in Winter

at the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival

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

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

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

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

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

Runtime:
75 Minutes

Tickets: 
fringetoronto.com/next-stage/

 

 

 

“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.

46457828_2488752777831566_8177811069536829440_o

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

“Getting Personal, Breaking the Taboo & Being Relentless for What You Love” In Conversation with Playwright Hannah Moscovitch on SECRET LIFE OF A MOTHER at the Theatre Centre

Interview by Megan Robinson.

In her new show, Secret Life of A Mother, on now until November 11th at the Theatre Centre, Hannah Moscovitch has chosen to wrestle with the theme of motherhood by way of the personal.

As a writer whose previous work has always kept her at a critical distance, this confessional form of storytelling is a new challenge for Moscovitch, who is managing the discomfort by trusting in her technical writing skills and her knowledge of how narrative works.

Like her show, Moscovitch is both very funny and surprisingly honest throughout our conversation. And despite her insistence that she does not enjoy exposure, we managed to get her talking about her relentless creative process, the crucible of motherhood and, eventually, what makes her a good writer.

Written by Moscovitch, Maev Beaty, Ann-Marie Kerr and co-created with Marinda De Beer, Secret Life of A Mother is the result of six years of development. It’s a show that peels back the layers on two women who are friends, mothers, and artists, as they reach for empowerment by sharing and shaping their own story.


Megan Robinson: So I read that you’ve always admired auto fiction and confessional writing and I do too, Sheila Heti and her book Motherhood, for example. I’m wondering, if you love that form so much, why did you avoid doing it for so long?

Hannah Moscovitch: There’s tons of it out there that I’m really drawn to, because I think the truth has a light around it. And I don’t know what else to say about that. There’s something about the truth and the willingness to be that vulnerable and to put yourself on stage that I haven’t been willing to do…Because I’m reserved and I don’t like to be exposed. Personality-wise I’m not a good match with auto fiction. So this show hasn’t been easy. You know, there’s real shit going on in the world that’s hard and compared to that it’s fine… I mean, I made the choice to do it and I have a team of people who are doing it with me, who I trust so much and that makes all the difference in the ability to do it.

MR: Do you think it’s because it’s a harder fall from this type of work?

HM: Maybe. You know what, it probably is, but I don’t think that’s even a thing for me. I actually just don’t like the feeling of exposure. I just don’t like it. It’s really simple.

Hilariously enough, someone once said to me about switching from playwriting to TV writing, “You have to know in TV writing the author doesn’t get acclaim like playwrights do.” And I was like, “That’s fine, I’m not worried about that.” I’m just not into exposure. Not because I’m humble or awesome but because I don’t like the feeling of people knowing all this shit about me. Partly because I got so bullied in high school and after that I was like, ‘I just want to be normal and I don’t want anyone to look at me again and I want to be anonymous.’ My whole effort going forward from high school was to just blend in as much as possible.

MR: You’re definitely not doing that.

HM: I fully failed. I think this is definitely pushing me. But I wanted to be pushed, I wanted to do it.

I think it was me, actually, I sent in an email. I wrote everyone on the team a message, I was like, ‘What about if I write my own story and Maev plays me and then I can talk about Maev and her experience in that because we’re such close friends and she’ll have to talk about herself in the third person on stage. What about that as a form for the show?’ And once I said it we were all like, ‘Oh that’s it.’ But at that moment I hadn’t calculated what that would mean.

MR: I know you’re saying it’s scary and you don’t like the feeling of sharing, but was there something you enjoyed or valued from writing about yourself?

(long silence)

HM: Yeah, I think there is a kind of empowerment for sure. There’s definitely empowerment. And there’s perspective you gain from it. It has advantages, I think…

MR: You’re still figuring it out?

HM: Yeah. I think there were moments writing it where I realized that when something is taboo, if you just simply say what happened to you, it can break through the taboo because it’s that way because it’s just something that’s not spoken about. So all you have to do is say, “This is what happened to me over the course of my two miscarriages” and that is not a thing we’ve heard about a lot because there’s a tendency to hide when you’ve had a miscarriage. But the truth is, the number of women who have had miscarriages is extraordinary. Women have them constantly. I think something like 1 in 4 women have them. So it affects huge numbers of people and yet it’s not spoken about. So just to represent that experience does feel empowering. Because you’re like, ‘I’m going to say this shit and that’s going to be crazy. All I have to do is just tell you what I went through.’

MR: Is it weird to you that it is still a taboo?

HM: Yeah, but do you know why? I don’t know why miscarriage in particular is taboo. Other than that it’s ‘gross women stuff’…

MR: I think maybe it’s because it hurts? It’s not being talked about because it’s hard. Even if it is normal it doesn’t make it not hard. Even depression is taboo, because it’s hard to talk about. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt…

HM: Like grief… It’s common for people, if they’ve had a miscarriage and that’s why they stay off work, to not say why. And I want to be clear I did the same. So when I had miscarriages I didn’t tell people why I was not coming to work. But people will often say it’s because they have cancer or a dental surgery or have been in a car accident, but they won’t say miscarriage and I can’t exactly say why. Other than that it is in that zone of gross grief-filled women stuff that people don’t want to hear about.

MR: I think it can also be us not knowing how to support people who’ve been through it, right? So you don’t say it cause no one knows how to hold it for you?

HM: No one knows what to do once you’ve said it…

MR: And now that’s the audience with this piece.

HM: Totally.

MR: I read that you have lots of ideas, more ideas than you have time for. What does it look like when you have an idea? Is it a character? Is it a question you want to answer? Does it always come about the same way?

HM: I think maybe because I’ve worked in a bunch of different mediums I’ve been forced out of my comfort zones pretty intensely. Like, I’ve worked in TV and opera and radio quite a bit as well as playwriting, and every one of those mediums has a different way in and honestly I think it’s just made me technically practiced of having various ways in. I would say before I did all that fucking around with what medium I was going to work in, I would definitely say it was through character. Through character I got everything. I’d hear a voice in my head that was saying words, that was the character, and from that voice I’d find theme. I’d find plot and narrative structure within that character’s voice. And now I think I can go any direction. I can go from theme, I can go from plot, and I can go from character.

But I think mostly people like to pick one. And I think in theatre mostly people pick character because theatre is a great medium for the interpersonal.

MR: Is there something that exists in everything you’ve written, something integral to your work?

HM: Yeah I think there are a few in varying degrees depending on the piece I’m working on… I’d say I really like extremes. I like seeing characters up against extreme circumstances that shortcut them to themselves. So I like war and genocide. I like to put people through crucibles, which they have to transform extremely because everything about who they are is called into question.

MR: Is motherhood that for you? Is it a sort of war?

HM: I’d say it’s a crucible through which everything about you is called into question. That is, I think, why people write about it or care about it. I’d say at the center of the experience of motherhood, for many women, is a crucible. If you’ve ever had any mental or physical problems, whatever thoughts you thought you conquered long ago, when you become a mother it will all come back. So any demons you haven’t faced, they’re all going to come for you, right when you become a mother. And that’s good because you’ll be forced to face things about yourself and you will learn who you are as you question your identity. So yeah, it’s like war in that way, but only in that way. In every other way it’s not.

MR: Oh god.

HM: I’d say I’ve always been interested in womanhood. That’s the other thing I go after pretty consistently in my work. Womanhood and a counter-narrative of womanhood.

MR: What is a counter-narrative of womanhood?

HM: I think anything that is authentically true about being a woman is a counter-narrative because there’s just so little out there.

MR: Do you think the bar is too low?

HM: It’s awfully low right now. Sometimes I really feel like that. I’m like, isn’t it fun for the bar to be this low…

MR: I guess there are some advantages to it…

HM: I mean it’s gross, maybe, but as a writer on the inside, I’m like ‘I can just fucking tell stories about women and it’s like, ‘holy fuck I’ve never heard that! It’s totally unconventional!’’

There’s an entire part of our culture that we’re mashing down that we were not talking about and now people are talking about it and it feels original, but seriously, it’s been happening all along… like nothing’s a surprise. It feels like the whole content of our brains is suddenly media worthy.

MR: Does that make you want to write more confessional and personal stuff?

HM: Um, yeah, I mean, within the right circumstances for sure. I do have one other project. One thing I have learned that you do need within your own material of your own life is for there to be a narrative structure. So I think that’s the limit for me. I mean I wouldn’t write about anything in my own life that didn’t have a narrative structure in it. I really do admire it when people do it, so I have to remember that when I feel all those fucking feelings while I’m doing it.

MR: Do you write things that you like?

HM: If I’m really honest, part of why I wanted to write things was because I didn’t like some of what I saw and I thought I’d like to write something that I would like. In a weird way, those pieces of mine that I feel are failures, it’s because I didn’t like it when I saw it. So I do have those. It really matters to me that I like my work and I really freak out when I don’t like my work.

MR: How do you deal with that?

HM: You know… honestly… I flip out. I drink and don’t sleep. It’s bad news. I don’t do that anymore. Now I have a son and I can’t freak out in quite the same way. But I tend to freak out and go all the way down and be in grief about it because it sucks to put something on stage that you don’t like and that you feel is contributing to the medium not being good, especially if you love the medium right? It does take me going all the way down and then it’s like, ‘Okay good. What did I do wrong? What lead to this experience of me not liking it’ and then I can track back.

MR: What do you think makes you a good writer?

HM: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that in my life…

MR: What would your best friend say?

HM: That’s easier somehow. Well, I think I’m relentless. Like, I’m fucking relentless. And I think for some people working with me, that’s going to be hard because I will not let go. But I like that quality about myself, honestly. I’m rigorous and I’m relentless. I’ll go to the wall for a 5 percent improvement. I’ll do 95 percent of the work for a 5 percent improvement, for sure. I’m in that weird category of relentless insane people who can’t let shit go.

I don’t know why I’m admitting this, maybe I’m in an admitting mood, but I think I will ultimately break everything to make a thing good. I’ll be accommodating and kind and respectful of other people’s processes and then I’ll hit previews and if it’s not communicating the way I want I will say all the things that I think aren’t working. I don’t lose my temper or anything, I don’t want it to sound like I’m a horrible person, but we’ll hit previews and I’ll say it all. And I’ll spend every minute fighting for those things until the last second the piece goes up. I hit a point where I’ll break relationships before I break the play.

MR: Is that something you would give as a piece of advice for someone else to do?

HM: I mean I think in general one of the things I’ve learned from being that way is that it’s much better to work with collaborators who are happy to hear you. One of the things I’ve learned is that, for me, I need to work with collaborators that are relentless like I am and who want to make it better and who don’t have defensiveness around making it better. And at the cost of, say, having brought in a sound designer and then realizing the show has no sound in it, and having to cut the entire sound design of a designer who just spent months working on it. So you know, it just takes a particular set of people who want to work with you. And who are willing to break their own ideas to make it better.

MR: Right.

HM: I can’t believe you asked me why I’m a good writer!

MR: Do you have your own answer, not from a friend?

HM: You know what, it’s probably just hard to answer because it’s hard to answer without talking about myself positively, which I should be able to do but I can’t for some reason.

I am good at writing. I think I’m technically good at it.

MR: Have you always been technically good at it?

HM: No.

MR: Why were you a good writer when you first started?

HM: I think that there were little fragments of observations. I think I was a natural at dialogue. I always was good at dialogue. I couldn’t structure for shit. I didn’t know plot or theme at all. Couldn’t do that. I could do character and dialogue. And if you’re a playwright, dialogue is kind of important. So I got lucky with some ability. And then I had to learn everything else.

And I put up some shows that were really bad. I put up those shows that were bad, and then I fucking waitressed and sulked for a couple of years.

MR: Did you write while you were waitressing and sulking?

HM: Yeah, but nothing good. I wrote a lot of bad things at the beginning of my career. I put some of them up at SummerWorks. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience where the audience is like, ‘This is bad,’ to make you go, either, ‘I have to work to do this better’ or ‘I’m never doing this again’. And then I spent a lot of my time trying to work out how to be a playwright by reading hundreds of plays. And I read some of them like 30 times, trying to take them apart.

MR: Which ones did you read 30 times?

HM: The Little Years by John Mighton. I read Pinter. All the Canadians, honestly: Judith Thompson, Daniel MacIvor, Wajdi Mouawad, David French… I just read them over and over. Caryl Churchill, David Mamet, Chekhov, Wilde. So I think I was relentless. And then I worked out something about how I could do it. And it’s still hard, but I think that’s the answer honestly, why I’m good at it, cause I really worked hard…

MR: Why would one work so hard at something like that? Because you loved it?

HM: I really loved it. That’s true. That’s at least part of it. I remember buying new plays and being like, “Fuck yeah.”

MR: Did you smell them?!

HM: I smelled them for sure. I was like, ‘Fuck, I get to read another Caryl Churchill, that’s the best shit.’ I was a real nerd. I think also failure has a tendency to set me on fire. Maybe not for the best reasons. And once you’ve told me I can’t do a thing, the level of self-loathing is so intense that I have to succeed at it.

Secret Life of a Mother

Who:
Written by Hannah Moscovitch with Maev Beaty and Ann-Marie Kerr
Co-created with Marinda de Beer
Core Creator and Director: Ann-Marie Kerr
Core Creator and Playwright: Hannah Moscovitch
Core Creator and Actor: Maev Beaty
Core Creator, Producer, and Stage Manager: Marinda de Beer
Scenic Design by Camellia Koo
Lighting Design by Leigh Ann Vardy
Associate Lighting Design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Projection by Cameron Davis
Sound Design by Debashis Sinha
Costume Design by Erika Connor
Props Builder: Haley Reap
Vocal Coach: Fides Krucker
Creative Producer for The Theatre Centre: Aislinn Rose

What:
A playwright writes an exposé of modern motherhood: a confessional piece about her own darkly funny and taboo-breaking truths. One of her oldest friends, an actress, tells this story, and through it, her own motherhood secrets start to surface.

This isn’t mothers as the butts of jokes, or the villains, or the perfect angels of the house. Secret Life of a Mother reveals what two women are actually experiencing: the raw and transcendent and untold secrets of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and mothering. This is motherhood for the 21st century: hallucinatory, gothic, and empowered.

Where:
The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West

When:
October 20-November 11, 2018

Tickets:
theatrecentre.org

Production Photography of Maev Beaty by Kyle Purcell