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Posts tagged ‘Megan Robinson’

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

Interview by Megan Robinson.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Photo by Dahlia Katz

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

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

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: How did Crow’s get involved?

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

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

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

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Tell me about working with director Sarah Kitz!

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

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

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MR: What’s your favourite line?

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

Photo by Dahlia Katz


What I Call Her

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

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

Where:
Crow’s Theatre
345 Carlaw Ave.
Toronto

When:
Nov. 16-Dec. 8

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com

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“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

“On Taking Time, Listening & Why We Stretch” In Conversation with Director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster on THE WOLVES by Sarah DeLappe

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, director of The Wolves, onstage now at Crow’s Theatre with The Howland Company, speaks of her process with calm and steady confidence. When it comes to directing, her approach is to give the process lots of time and to listen carefully to all collaborators. Though still a relatively new director, Courtney gives the impression in her thoughtful discussion of already having years of experience under her belt.

This is the Toronto premiere of The Wolves, a show that follows a competitive U-17 girls soccer team throughout six different games. It’s a physically demanding show, that at times required that the cast practice their soccer drills and ball handling in parks and soccer domes rather than the rehearsal hall. When it comes to unraveling the creative process, Courtney has only good things to say about her collaborators, “We have a wonderful cast and a real sense of camaraderie, and I take joy and pride in having played a part in creating that.”

We spoke with Courtney about taking one’s time with the work, and the power of theatre (and specifically The Wolves) in finding relief from the outside world.

Some days you just need a good story to escape into, right?


MR: In the marketing for this show I get the impression of teamwork and I see photos of these strong young female characters, but what is the main theme that you are personally interested in exploring as a director?

CCL: I’ve been thinking a lot about why we stretch. At the beginning of the show, they’re in a stretch circle, warming up before the game. In the show, we meet them every Saturday over six different games, and over the course of those six weeks, a lot of different things happen to these girls. They are at their most certain and confident at the beginning; they know who they are, they know what’s going to happen, they know they are the best team, and they’re all stretching together. And of course, by the end of the show, lots of different things have happened.

So, that we stretch to become flexible is what I’ve been thinking about. It’s a subtle sort of arc but hopefully by the end of the play we understand that they are learning to become yielding without losing. They are dealing with change in a way that empowers them and allows them to keep moving forward. And I just think that’s a lesson that we would all benefit from.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster. Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

MR: I’m curious about telling these stories about groups of women specifically, because I feel like this year in theatre I’ve seen a lot more of that, not to say it’s a trend-

CCL: It’s definitely in the collective consciousness. I see it most predominantly with Shakespeare and how the various Shakespeare producers tend to produce the same plays at the same time.

MR: Are we reaching for some sort of solution or?

CCL: I just think it’s really exciting.

With our cast, the feeling in our room for me has been exceptional because when I graduated theatre school some time ago my experience was always of being one of the only young women in a show. Because there’s only one role for an ingenue, for example. It was so rare to be in a room with a lot of other women and non-binary actors of a similar age. And then adding to that, I always used to joke about just disappearing when I turned thirty-five, because it just seemed like at that time, not that long ago, there would just be no options for me. So it’s very exciting and gratifying to see that shift happening, because it does feel like, ‘Oh wow, I might have work in the future.’

And despite the depressing news cycle we’ve been in recently, it is exciting and reassuring to know that collectively we’re all recognizing that there’s been a real dearth of female stories and we’re doing our best to remedy that.

And in The Wolves you’re seeing young women talk about all kinds of things, in their outside lives they’re all kinds of different people, but the one thing is they’re really good at soccer. So we’re showing them in their position of strength and in their safe place.

I feel like that’s a shift too. We’re depicting different groups of women – they’re not mean, catty, high school stereotypes.

They are there to do one thing and that’s play soccer really well and we get a glimpse of their lives through this lens.

Photo of THE WOLVES by Dahlia Katz

MR: Does this feel like a big deal, like a turning point in your directing career?

CCL: Oh huge. It really exemplifies what The Howland Company is for, which is to give opportunities to our members that they wouldn’t otherwise get. Ruth Goodwin is the lead producer on this project and right from day one she was like, ‘Well you’re directing this’. And at various points I said things like, ‘Well, am I really qualified to direct this?’. But she’s been so encouraging. We have to stretch ourselves and we have to learn. I went into the company very specifically wanting to find opportunities to direct more. Everyone went in with slightly different goals.

It’s hard to get those directing opportunities when you don’t have a lot of experience because people need to see your work to hire you. So yes, it’s absolutely a big deal and a wonderful learning experience for me.

Heath V. Salazar & Ruth Goodwin in THE WOLVES. Photo Credit: Dahlia Katz

MR: What made you want to direct? Where does that spark come from?

CCL: In university I had to learn to tone down my desire to act for everyone else, and also when I entered the professional acting world. But that desire to kind of control everything never really went away.

And then just practically speaking I think a career in the Canadian theatre world is all the more fulfilling the more you diversify. There’s no real clear stairway to success in Canadian theatre and so if you have access to a lot of different income paths and a lot of different creative outlets, I think it’s just more satisfying. Directing is just another way to create opportunities for myself and get to be an artist.

MR: What do you like about directing? What does it feel like when it’s going really well?

CCL: I love collaboration. I love being the refiner in collaboration, the person who hears a bunch of ideas from a bunch of different people and is able to say ‘Okay, this part of this idea is great, and this part of this idea is great, and let’s try it all together like this’. I like to be the filter in a way. And I just love creating a room where everybody feels seen and heard and safe and thus, creative.

Which isn’t to say that theatre is always fun. When we were in tech week, and we’re in the theatre for 12 hours, there’s just a point where fun is not a possibility anymore.

Brittany Kay and Heath V. Salazar in THE WOLVES. Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: You said you get a lot of joy in helping them be creative, and finding their own joy. How do you do that? What does that look like?

CCL: A lot of listening. Making sure we take the time, when we can, everyday to go round, check in with everybody and make sure that there isn’t stuff that is slipping through the cracks. Making sure the actors feel that they can speak up. And for me that can be a challenge. Because the challenge as a director is that there is no time, right? It’s always a rush to get it done. So on this process I’ve been really trying to deliberately slow myself down and check in and listen.

MR: I’m interested in how big a part collaboration plays in your process.

CCL: It’s huge! I feel there is a shift from the tradition of the singular director or singular genius-auteur-director, though there is certainly a place for that, into more collaborative processes in the theatre. The “no man is an island” approach to making theatre is something I’m very interested in and tend to enjoy more.

THE WOLVES. Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Outside of theatre, what do you find inspires you? What do you draw from? Maybe from what’s been going on in the news, to keep it specific.

CCL: I don’t know if I can go there. I hide from my own incredible sense of cynicism. I can’t tell you what an escape The Wolves has actually been, with so many things going on politically in the world, that I can spend the week in a room of remarkable women and non-binary creators, with all kinds of experiences and thoughts and voices. A theatre actually sometimes feels like such a relief and escape. I have a lot of pessimism about the future of humanity!! So going and playing in the dark and telling stories to each other just feels like the best and safest thing to do… But what inspires me are brave, change-makers and storytellers. And people who listen.

MR: Can you give me a name of anyone right now that comes to mind?

CCL: Alan Dilworth, the current acting artistic director at Soulpepper. I’ve just watched him over the course of a difficult year do an enormous amount of listening. Not just listening but really receiving. He’s not just show-acting with his listening, he’s really interested. And I find his quiet patience very remarkable and inspiring.

MR: Sounds like a good leader to draw from as you step into doing this more and more..

CCL: Definitely.

THE WOLVES. Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Lastly, who is the best soccer player?

CCL: Oh, you are putting me in such a dangerous position. I don’t know if I can give you names. But I will say that there is a difference between being an excellent soccer player and being an excellent soccer actor. So, when people come and see the show I would say the people who are doing the best soccer acting may not be the best soccer players and vice versa.

MR: That’s a fair answer

CCL: Sometimes the challenge is more about restraining enthusiasm and strength in the show. You know, we’re in a theatre.

(All Photos Featured by Dahlia Katz)

The Wolves

Who:
The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre Production
Written by Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Starring: Rachel Cairns, Aisha Evelyna, Ruth Goodwin, Annelise Hawrylak, Ula Jurecka, Brittany Kay, Heath V. Salazar, Hallie Seline, Amaka Umeh, Robyn Stevan
Set & Lighting Design by Jareth Li
Sound Design & Composition by Deanna H. Choi
Costume Design & Movement Coaching by Sarah Doucet
Stage Manager – Sam Hale
Production Manager – Courtney Pyke
Assistant Director – Rebecca Gibian
Apprentice Stage Manager – Hannah MacMillan
Assistant Lighting Designer – Scarlett Larry
Assistant Sound Designer – Cosette Pin

What:
Left quad. Right quad. Lunge. A girls indoor soccer team warms up. From the safety of their stretch circle, nine girls navigate and question the world around them with the determination of warriors. This provocative play, nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, captures the profound beauty of adolescence and paints a portrait of  nuanced young women navigating the game, their lives and a growing understanding of a complicated world.

Where:
Crow’s Theatre
345 Carlaw Ave.
Toronto

When:
On stage now until October 27th
Monday-Saturday at 8pm
Matinees:
Wednesdays at 1:30
Thursday at 1pm
Saturday at 2pm

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

“On Creative Process, Being Infatuated with All Things Theatre & Appreciating Being Brave in Different Ways” In Conversation with playwright Rosamund Small on the World Premiere of SISTERS at Soulpepper

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Playwright Rosamund Small spent much of her 2017 reading novels. One of her tasks as part of the Soulpepper Academy, under the guidance of Guillermo Verdecchia, was to find a story to adapt for the stage but it wasn’t until she read Edith Wharton’s novella, Bunner Sisters, that she knew she had the right project.

The long short story follows two sisters that run a shop together in 19th century New York City. They work together selling pieces at the front of the shop while sharing a living space in the confined quarters in the back of the shop. And when one sister is given a clock for her birthday, the story begins.

We spoke with Rosamund Small, covering everything from her creative process to her present infatuation with all things theatre-related, in light of the world premiere of her play Sisters at Soulpepper Theatre, on stage now until September 16th.


MR: What was it that you were most curious about with this story? What made you think definitely this one?

RS: It has twists and turns that were shocking to read. I mean really shocking. It’s a cliché to say things about it being a page-turner, but it really is. I think what grabbed me from the moment I opened it, is that the very first thing that happens is the older sister buys a birthday present for the younger sister, and it’s a clock. And their lives are made so beautiful by this clock. It’s the biggest deal to have a clock and to be able to know what time it is.

It brought me into it in the sense that, that’s a world; you have one counter and one bed and one clock, and that’s all you have. The stakes of that world are very high, right? The closeness to having nothing. And on the flip side, there is the joy when anything shifts for the better. It’s very extreme.

Sisters

MR: Adaptation seems like a natural fit for you, because you seem to have a history of working with things that already exist. Would you say that it felt natural?

RS: I would, and I think for some people an adaptation is ‘how do I put this book on stage’ and sometimes it’s more like an abbreviation. I thought of this as a collaboration with the material. I’d also say it’s a radical rewrite. It’s an interpretation. So I get to bring what I find curious about the story, what I find curious to add to the story, my own sense of rhythm and humour, and kind of blatantly transform things about it into what I think they should be, and what I think makes it the most dramatic. I don’t feel like I adhere to the limits of the material if I don’t want to.

MR: All of your projects seem very specific, what draws you in to a project?

RS: I was just thinking how I have the world’s weirdest resume. My resume has that I worked for the show Workin’ Moms on CBC, and worked with a ballet company. It’s just very all over the place. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way at all, I think in some ways it means I don’t know myself. But I get attracted to the most random things, and I’m very fortunate also to have support and collaboration to commit to a project for a long period of time. This play has taken a year, and it’s the shortest timeline I’ve ever worked on for a play. Vitals took two years, Tomorrowlove took over two years, so I have that time to look at source material or ideas and collaborate with people. But I need something to bounce off of. Whether I’m bouncing off realities, interviews, a novel, whatever it is, I need something to hit up against, that I can add to. That can be very helpful. Limitations are very useful.

MR: If every work you do is so different, how would you define your voice? There’s got to be something about you that makes it yours, and I’m curious if you have a definition or something you always come back to?

RS: I think it’s the search for companionship. A search for connection. Even Occupy [Performing Occupy Toronto], back in the day, I thought I was doing something about politics, and of course inherently I was, but actually, I was interested in people gathering and the impossibility and the hope that everyone will be able to connect and move forward and get along with each other. I think that brings me through all of my work.

This work is about two people who are in a way living their lives right next to each other and yet there’s a gap between them, there’s a distance between them, even though they’re physically close and they’re siblings. I find the complexities of human relationships pretty consistently compelling.

Sisters

MR: Now that you are seeing the project on its feet, how does it feel? Is it what you imagined, have they done things with it you could never have pictured?

RS: There are always things you can’t picture. I’d be really disappointed if it was exactly as I imagined it. That’s the theatre, right?

MR: What did you learn about yourself as a writer through this adaptation, something you uncovered or learned through the process?

RS: I think that less is more. I’m learning over and over again that the moments I’m going to script should not leap off the page in their completion because the actors are their completion. A play is not meant to be the full experience. Leaving those gaps and leaving those spaces for where an inhale, or a tilt of the head, or a self-conscious tug of a shirt that the actor will do without planning, is going to say more than a monologue, you know? Just reminding myself over and over that this is not for a reader, this is for someone to inhabit and observe and participate in. I mean this is Drama 101, I’m saying things that everyone learns in their first anything, but then you learn it again and again.

MR: What are you excited about with this production of Sisters?

RS: I’m excited about everything. One: that it will be beautiful. It sounds beautiful, looks beautiful. It’s also a celebration of beauty in lots of ways. These characters are interested in finding a more beautiful life and in a deeper sense of that word, in finding something glorious and celebratory and delicate about life, when they don’t have a lot of things in life that they can feel that way about. One of them goes to an orchestra and experiences that, and it’s such a profound moment for that character. I think theatre is beautiful, so there’s sort of a meta-theatrical element of seeing people engage with art on stage because the sisters are experiencing art, so we are watching them experience that.

I’m honestly really excited by the performances. It’s not a paint by numbers script, it’s a very challenging piece of work with a lot of complicated subtext, and the depth of the performances is amazing to watch. I feel like I learned so much just watching them.

While being nervous, there’s nothing I’m not excited for.

Sisters

MR: How do you feel when you look back on your work at this point in your career?

RS: I’ve obviously learned a lot, and there’s a lot of eye-rolling about bad writing habits, or self-indulgent writing habits. But there was also a time in my life where I was a certain kind of brave that I’m not now, and now I’m a certain kind of brave I didn’t use to be. I think you have to appreciate the fact that you change.

MR: What inspires you today?

RS: I’m always inspired by Anika and Britta (Johnson). They’ve got a show coming up, Dr. Silver. The word ‘immersive’ gets around a lot, but they’ve really pushed it so that it’s really a communal experience, it’s like a spiritual experience that I think speaks to their relationship with music, and I think the spiritual connection they have with music.

I’m inspired right now by a lot of books – I’m reading Miranda July’s book, The First Bad Man.

MR: Very, very crazy.

RS: It’s insane!

MR: It’s so brave

RS: It’s so brave, it’s so nice because you write something and you think ‘that’s bad, that’s insanity,’ but then you read someone else’s insanity and you think ‘that’s so great!’

I’m also in a really lovey-dove phase with art and with theatre. A friend of mine said I was a theatre mom. I’m like, ‘look at them up there just risking it all! Look at this volunteer handing out programs! The world is so beautiful, can you believe this?’

I’ve just been off the charts positive and excited for everyone and all of it, all of the time. So it’s a bit much, to be honest. I’ll probably crash soon.

MR: I love that you love theatre so much. I sometimes wonder if everyone is just going to leave for TV.

RS: I think it’s important to take breaks. I was working elsewhere, right? I was working on a television show, and while I loved that as well, and the break from that is going to bring me back to television, the grass is always greener. It was the same when I went traveling for six months. I came back and stuff I’ve been complaining about for years, I was now like, ‘this is an amazing theatre! I love this theatre. I love how cute and broken the seats are.’

But it’s nice. I’m hoping to cling to the feeling because it won’t last forever. You can’t love something that much every hour of the day. It’s just not possible and that’s all part of it.

Sisters

Sisters

Who:
Rosamund Small, Playwright
Cast:
KEVIN BUNDY, Mr. Ramy
LAURA CONDLLN, Ann
NICOLE POWER, Evelina
ELLORA PATNAIK, Puffed Sleeves Lady
RAQUEL DUFFY, Nun
KAREN ROBINSON, Mrs. Mellins

Production:
PETER PASYK, Director
MICHELLE TRACEY, Set Designer
ERIKA CONNOR, Costume Designer
KIMBERLY PURTELL, Lighting Designer
RICHARD FEREN, Composer & Sound Designer
MONICA DOTTOR, Choreographer
GUILLERMO VERDECCHIA, Dramaturg
DIANE PITBLADO, Dialect Coach
KELLY MCEVENUE, Alexander Coach
SARAH MILLER, Stage Manager
ANDREA BAGGS, Assistant Stage Manager
DAVID BEN, Magic Consultant
KATHLEEN JONES, Apprentice Stage Manager

What:
Ann and Evelina have created a little corner for themselves in New York at the turn of the century. When a handsome clockmaker comes to call, the powerful bonds of sisterhood are put to the test. Inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edith Wharton’s pioneering novella, Sisters shows us hidden heroism in everyday life.

Where:
Soulpepper Theatre
50 Tank House Lane
Toronto

When:
On stage now until September 16th.

Tickets:
soulpeppertheatre.ca

Connect: 
@smallrosamund
@soulpepper

 

“Challenging Canadian Audiences, Touring as a New Mom & Celebrating the Human Body Through Performance” In Conversation with Stephanie Morin-Robert and Ingrid Hansen on THE MERKIN SISTERS

Interview by Megan Robinson.

After being blown away by The Merkin Sisters at the 2018 Toronto Fringe, we had to chat with touring Fringe artists Stephanie Morin-Robert and Ingrid Hansen about this anything-but-average Fringe show that they are bringing across the country. A physical comedy that is a little bit Grey Gardens with a David Lynch twist, and just a dash of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it’s an outrageous piece of theatre intended for anyone that is game.

The plot is vague, but ultimately it follows the relationship of two fallen socialites (also sisters), who are joining together to try to create the ultimate piece of art by using any means necessary. What began as a quick tongue in cheek reflection of how “we” may or may not take art too seriously, has now grown into a full 70-minute show.

This may be a new collaboration between performers and creators, Stephanie Morin-Robert and Ingrid Hansen, but they’re already planning for part two, with brainstorming sessions underway, and the assurance that with The Merkin Sisters, anything is possible.

We spoke with Hansen and Morin-Robert about collaborating on this project, challenging your audience, and celebrating the human body through performance.


MEET CUTE

Ingrid Hansen: We met touring our own projects on the Fringe circuit, and we admired each other and partied together a little bit. Then we decided to create an experiment together. We created a piece that ended up being the ten-minute intro to this show, which we first performed at a “Women in Comedy Night” in a bar in Montreal. And we received such a big response. People were blown away, they were saying, “I dont know what I just saw, but it was incredible!” So we knew we had done something tasty that we wanted to pursue together.

Stephanie Morin-Robert: I don’t think it was intentional, like, “let’s make the craziest thing ever,” it’s just what happened because our chemistry, both onstage and offstage, kind of resulted in that.

IH: And neither of us will censor each other.

SMR: We challenge each other in that way. We keep one-upping one another.

THE COLLABORATION

SMR: Because we are performers coming from very different backgrounds, it’s exciting being able to learn from each other. For me, puppetry was very new, and I’d never done that so it was great for me to take that on.

IH: The most amazing thing with the two of us is there’s just no fear. An idea gets proposed and it’s never rejected out of fear. I trust Steph. I trust her artistic sensibility, and I trust that if we’re on stage together and something is going way wrong that we’ll find our way through it together.

SMR: And it’ll probably be better than what we planned. I think we’re ready to just roll with the punches and go with whatever is offered to us. Whether it’s an audience member heckling, or somebody arriving late, or the lights cutting out too early, or whatever little mistakes happen during a run of a show. And sometimes even deciding, you know, “That was a fuck up, but let’s keep that! That worked better than what we had planned!”

WEIRD WORK, AND POLITE CANADIAN AUDIENCES

IH: I think if we took our work to other places in Europe it wouldn’t necessarily be so wild in comparison to the other shows. I don’t know, every show I’ve made and toured in Canada in the last ten years people have said is very weird. But I think Canadians are game to go there. Just be playful with them and you’ll be really surprised how far your audience will go with you.

And some people won’t, and that’s great. We have people walk out of our show sometimes – the odd person or two. I think it’s great that they feel empowered to walk out of the theatre for whatever reason. I think it’s a sign that you’re striving for something if you do elicit that response from some people. It’s not made for everybody. And if it was made for everybody, it would probably be kind of boring

I think people are on board for The Merkin Sisters especially because it’s super out there. This show is really challenging, but it’s also really fun and playful and absurd and surreal, so there’s the deliciousness of, “I dont know what I’m watching, but I love it.” And, “I can’t believe they went there, but oh they went there… and so much farther.”

TOURING AS A NEW MOM

SMR: It’s wild. I consider myself extremely lucky to have the support system I have because touring full-time is definitely a lot, especially as a new mom.

Last year I got pregnant in Orlando, so I was pregnant for our 4 and a half month tour last summer. I was performing multiple shows in multiple festivals so, any words of advice for that might be to go a little easy if you’re pregnant and a touring artist.

Baby Olive immersed in mother Stephanie Morin-Robert’s wig for show THE MERKIN SISTERS

I was just so thankful to have a performance partner and a dear friend that was so supportive. Ingrid was really helpful after the pregnancy when things got a little rocky, and I was like, “Oh gosh, am I pushing my body too much?”

I feel thankful to be able to tour and artistically stimulate myself and still plan to make new shows. My partner is also a performer. It’s really cool to have the next two years booked and to be touring and doing theatre, and doing it as a family. And when I say “family” that expands beyond just him and I and the baby; it takes a whole community for sure.

JUMPING BACK IN (AND WEARING A BATHING SUIT)

SMR: During my pregnancy, I put on like 80-something pounds. To slowly have that come on while I was performing the show just made me feel so comfortable because I was continually doing a show where I was being comfortable in my body. We did a little BC tour, and I guess I was 7 1/2 or 8 months pregnant when we did that last show.

This is the first festival where I’m back on stage and doing the show in a bathing suit since having a baby. It’s quite helpful because a lot of stuff happens to your body when you have a baby, and I feel proud to rock that, to embrace it. When I dance I feel different; parts of my body are moving differently, so much is an adjustment, but it feels great.

The most challenging part is not necessarily my body image, and being up on stage in a bathing suit, it’s energy. It’s being up at night and still strictly breastfeeding. The time commitment and the lack of sleep are definitely what I consider the hardest things.

PEOPLE LEAVE THE THEATRE WITH AN EXTRA LITTLE SPARKLE

SMR: It’s an extremely empowering show to see as a woman because we are up there, celebrating our bodies, celebrating being weird, quirky, disgusting, and we’re embracing every moment of it. And that is contagious, the same way laughter is. We’re not there spoon-feeding it and talking about it directly, but we’re up there being empowered and embracing what it is we have and celebrating it with the audience.

IH: I think it’s really liberating for people in terms of how it really celebrates everything about the human body. That’s what’s at the heart of the show for me, personally.

The Merkin Sisters

Who:
Company – SNAFU dance theatre
Created and Performed by Ingrid Hansen & Stephanie Morin-Robert

What:
A no-holds-barred physical comedy about a strangely hilarious sibling rivalry: two fallen socialites endeavour to create the Ultimate Piece of Art, using any means necessary. This vivacious romp will charm your pants off, leaving you stunned and hungry for their return. “Visually arresting & immaculately staged, with a tender heart under its hair-raising exterior.”- Winnipeg Free Press. Imagine Bette Midler meets David Lynch and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

Find out more: 
snafudance.com

“Working With Your Ex, The Genius of Jason Robert Brown & On Dating Another Artist” In Conversation with Tess Benger & Daniel Greenberg on reconnecting for THE LAST FIVE YEARS

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Performers Tess Benger and Daniel Greenberg have quite the history.

The stars of the upcoming two-person musical, The Last Five Years at Wychwood Theatre, both studied musical theatre performance together at Sheridan College, and, perhaps more interestingly, also dated for almost five years. So, when it comes to performing this relatable love story about two passionate artists, Benger and Greenberg are in the unique position of drawing from their own relationship. After all, they know intimately what each other was like as a twenty-something-year old dealing with the ups and downs of first love.

Seeing this particular story performed by artists who share a romantic past is what Benger considers one of the biggest reasons to come out and see it.

“We’re putting this show up in ten days and four years!” she tells me during our interview.

This highly popular musical by lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown is loosely based off one of the writer’s romantic fallouts and is told following two timelines, switching between each character’s point of view. We meet the character Jamie at the beginning of the relationship, whereas we meet Cathy at the end. While his story moves forward, hers goes backward. Only briefly, in the middle of the show, do their stories intersect.

In this candid interview with Benger and Greenberg, we talked working with your ex, the genius of JRB’s work, and what they’ve discovered about themselves through their work on the show.


MR: Can we talk about how you approached working together? Did you talk about boundaries, or did you just dive in?

DG: Back in the kind of genesis of this whole thing, I was chatting one day with Stephanie Graham, our director, and she asked me if there were any girls who I had imagined doing the show opposite and I kind of looked through my Facebook friends. One of the names that stuck out for a multitude of reasons, most so the fact that we dated for four years so many years ago, was Tess! This is a show about a relationship, similar to the length of our own, about two 20-something-year-olds, which we were at the time we dated. So I said to Steph, “Tess could really do this,” and Steph said that she was on her list too, so I reached out the next day.

TB: My side of that was I was doing a show out in Edmonton and I got this Facebook message and to be honest, since breaking up, we tried to keep in touch but that’s complicated to do. I didn’t know what he was up to in his life. I wish I had video recorded some of my friends reactions to telling them about this because Daniel and I were in the same year at Sheridan so we have a tribe of friends that were a huge part of our relationship and know all about our history. So I was like, “Could I do this? Do I want to re-live this?” But luckily, Daniel’s in a really happy relationship. I’m in a really happy relationship. So there was never really a risk of this messing with our lives and I said yes right away. There was nothing else that was going to get in the way.

MR: Daniel, why is this a show that you’ve always wanted to do?

DG: I’ll be honest, at the beginning I just wanted to sing the crap out of the score. I’ve heard it sung numerous times by certain singers who I idolize and I just wanted to do it, I wanted to be able to say that I’ve done it.

MR: So it’s a bit of a dream role?

DG: Yes, it absolutely was.

MR: I find Cathy a perplexing character. She is an actor, she is struggling with her career, struggling to be happy for Jamie (her partner). Tess, as an actor yourself, what has it been like to portray the challenges of this character?

TB: There’s not one thing that happens in this show that I can’t understand. Where I’m at right now in my career, there’s not one moment in the show where I go, “How could that have happened?” And I might see another production and be like, “Jesus Christ Cathy, get your shit together!” or “Jamie stop being such an asshole!” but maybe it’s because it’s Daniel, and maybe because it’s me, I see how human it is. Because for so long there was so much love with Daniel and I. And as two people who were so good together but didn’t work out, because of little reasons… I just see the truth in it.

MR: Do you think it is hard for two artists to date?

TB: Yeah, I do. Actually my partner is an actor and he’s transitioning into a director. And it was only two nights ago that we had the “we thought this was going to be easier” conversation.

We met at the Shaw Festival as actors, and in our first season we fell in love and we thought “Oh my gosh, we’re going to work here forever.” And it’s just hard.

And there’s always going to be dark moments and we will push through it and there is a lot of hope and there’s a lot of positivity surrounding that fear, but the fear is real.

DG: I think there are wonderful benefits to both people in the relationship being artists. Our lifestyle is a really nomadic lifestyle and it takes you all over the place for a couple weeks at a time, or a couple months at a time, and everything is new to the individual so often that having an artist as a partner, they understand what that lifestyle is. You understand the kind of ebbs and flows that this lifestyle brings you as a person.

TB: Even this! Saying to your partner, “I’m going to do a show with my ex-girlfriend where we unpack all our baggage in ten days. We have to kiss and get married, okay? See you in ten days! And please buy a ticket cause I can’t get you a comp!”

DG: And artists have to be understanding because they have done that too. They know where you are coming from. But say someone who works in an office tower somewhere might not feel great about that.

MR: But even someone who understands it might still have their reservations about it, right?

TB: And even someone who works in an office tower might be very cool about it.

DG: Sure, of course.

MR: If you could give your characters any advice what advice would you give them?

DG: For Jamie I think he needs to ask for time and space from his partner and just trust that it’s going to be okay.

TB: This is a hard one. The thing that comes to mind is trust. Trust the universe, I guess? The thing is I think Cathy is talented, and I don’t know if being a broadway actor would be the result if she trusts, but I think happiness would be.

Cathy really thinks through all the thoughts in her songs so I understand her brain and I wish I knew what she needed because Jamie’s success shouldn’t ruin her. But I think it’s just trust and self-love.

MR: If you could rewrite the ending would you change the fate of their relationship?

DG: No. I don’t think I’d change it. Their story is so their own. It’s so perfect and tragic. It’s a very real story about two working artists, who just unfortunately go off in different directions.

MR: Have you guys discovered anything new about yourself through portraying these characters and this particular struggle of being a working artist trying to make love work?

DG: For me, keep communicating. Be honest with yourself. Be honest and forthright with your loved one. You’ve got to trust your love. You’ve got to trust that they will be okay.

TB: I think as a partner giving space. I think knowing who I am coming to a partnership as a complete version of myself. I think there are a lot of holes in Cathy that she keeps trying to get Jamie to fill. And the more time I take with myself doing what I need to do to feel really wonderful just makes me a better partner, so I think that’s a nice reminder.

The whole thing has also been a reminder of a really important time in my life; which was our relationship. I think to protect yourself in a breakup there comes a point where you kind of pretend it never happened and that’s been a really interesting thing… I wouldn’t say difficult… but I’ve learned that I did bury this. And how lucky am I as an artist to get to unpack it through some of the best music ever?

MR: What is a lyric that particularly speaks to you and why?

DG: There are a lot of lyrics…

TB: Oh, you know what I like? It’s at the wedding, in “The Next Ten Minutes”, when we sing “I’m gonna love you ‘till the world explodes”. I heard that for the first time today. I don’t know if you saw that, my reaction, I was like, “THAT’S GREAT!” It’s so good. It feels very good to say these words. I’ve never felt so human on stage.

DG: Also in “The Next Ten Minutes” for me, Jamie says, “There are so many lives I want to share with you.” And “There are so many dreams I need to share with you”. It’s so true. The person who is your person, the person who you love, you just want to do absolutely everything with.

MR: We’ve talked a lot about love, are there any other themes in this show that stick out to you, or that you’ve enjoyed exploring?

DG: It’s hard to talk about the show ignoring the relationship because the show is about the relationship. I think the show takes a look largely at the balance of work life and love life in both these characters. They find personal success in their industries very differently. He becomes very successful way faster than he thought he was ever going to. Whereas she tries and tries and tries and she’s super talented and she does get success but maybe not success that is as reassuring. But when one partner is super successful and the other partner isn’t, how to balance that?

TB: Time! I guess, because “The Schmule Song” wasn’t my song so I never listened to it and now that I’ve heard it a bunch in the runs and Daniel sings it to my face, I’ve recently really felt that time is something, especially I think as an artist… Give yourself time. Take time to pay attention.

MR: Can you each ask each other one question?

TB: What’s it like doing this show with me!?

DG: Honestly, I get flashes of our relationship ages ago. There are moments where I’m like, “She’s pretty cool. She’s pretty great. I got a lot of feelings for her.” But on the flip side, I’m like, “Oh my god, Tess, relax please.”

(Tess laughs)

DG: I think that probably goes both ways though, I think Tess probably thinks the same about me.

My question: Was your initial reaction to me asking you to do the show, and be honest, was it immediate or did you have to…

TB: …It was immediate! I checked with my boyfriend to make sure he was comfortable with it and then I said yes right away. That’s your question!?

(they laugh)

MR: Final question, how do you feel that each other has changed and grown since school, now that you’re working with each other as professionals?

TB: Daniel’s gotten more confident, more self-deprecating. His neck has gotten bigger, which I noticed in a scene. And his voice has grown a lot. As a performer he’s grown so much. You know there’s only so much people can do in school. You really learn by doing in this business.

DG: Tess has always been a fantastic actress, fantastic performer. One of the big things I’ve seen spending these last 9 days with her is she’s really become more comfortable, more confident with who she is and she’s able to bring that into her work and it’s a really lovely thing to see. She’s so open-hearted and talented and caring and ridiculous but all in the best ways. It’s.. it’s really been quite an experience to have her agree to do this with me. Just cause we both have grown so much in very different ways.

TB: Mostly his neck though…

DG: Apparently!

(they laugh)

The Last Five Years

Who:
Directed by Stephanie Graham
Music Direction by Chris Tsujiuchi
Starring: Tess Benger & Daniel Greenberg
Lighting Designer: Jareth Li
Stage Manager: Thalia Kane

What:
The Last Five Years is an emotionally powerful and intimate musical about two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show’s unconventional structure consists of Cathy Hiatt, the woman, telling her story backwards while Jamie Wellerstein, the man, tells his story chronologically.

Where:
Wychwood Theatre, Artscape Wychwood Barns
601 Christie Street, Studio 176
Toronto, Ontario
M6G 4C7

When:
Five performances only!
July 27th: 7:30pm
July 28th: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
July 29th: 1:00pm & 7:30pm

Tickets:
$30 – General Admission
$25 – Arts Worker
TheLastFiveYearsYRG.brownpapertickets.com

“Making Improv Magic, The Value of Play & Working with Colin Mochrie” In Conversation with Liz Johnston & Mimi Warshaw on ENTRANCES AND EXITS at the 2018 Fringe

Interview by Megan Robinson.

The concept of Entrances and Exits, a new farce on stage now as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, is a complicated one. To make things more complicated, it’s also entirely improvised!

This impressive and unscripted farce is split into two parts; with the first twenty minutes playing out in the living room with a series of entrances and exits into and out of the bedroom and then restarting a second time with the same scenario, but set in the bedroom. This requires that the cast do an instant replay of sorts; filling in the blanks of the story, hitting all the main plot points, and eventually culminating with a satisfying resolution. And hopefully they can make us laugh along the way.

Somehow, the cast pulls this off without any planning and with very minimal mid-show discussion.

We sat down with actor, improviser, Bad Dog Theatre Company member and Entrances and Exits co-creator Liz Johnston and Howland Company member and E&E production manager Mimi Warshaw to figure out how they make that improv magic happen, some common misconceptions about improv, and, of course, what it’s like working with Colin Mochrie.


Megan Robinson: What does a rehearsal look like for this type of improvised show?

Mimi Warshaw: Paolo (Santalucia, the director) brought a lot of his acting training into it and was really interested in playing with characters, discovering characters and trying on some clown work. So that was the beginning, just to play. That helped to know how everyone worked. That was the focus of the first half.

The last month and a half was about finding the show. And it grew in pieces. There was a lot of, “Let’s play with one room, then the next room, now let’s see what happens if we flip the set.”

A lot of playing and coming back and saying, “How did that feel? What worked? What can we do better?”

MR: Is there anything not improvised? What might be consistent throughout the show? The characters? Anything?

Liz Johnston: You really don’t know what will happen.

MW: I’ve seen maybe a dozen versions, maybe more, and no two shows have been the same.

MR: How much do you play for each other and how much is for the audience?

LJ: The audiences have been really generous, so I think we’ve been playing a lot for the audience. The thing about improv is that you also get the joy of making each other laugh. There are so many fabulous moments where someone will say something, and you just can’t help it. And the audience feels kind of in on it because they know it’s improvised. That’s really joyful. That’s what I love more than any kind of theatre, where you can really have everybody be on the same page, and they can be like, “I know exactly why this is funny. I was here for every part of it.”

MR: What is a myth or misconception about improv?

MW: I firmly believe that people think improv is just people going up and being funny. But I think good improv is funny because it’s recognizable. When I’m at an improv show, there’s always somebody who gives a suggestion like, ‘we’re in a volcano at the end of the earth.’

And I’m like, ‘we’ll never be there so…’ Maybe it would be funny, but I’m more interested in seeing somebody in a bakery having a traumatic moment and seeing the comedy in that.

I don’t know if it’s a misconception, but I like seeing reality on stage, and I think there’s comedy in that. I think that’s funnier than just a bunch of jokes.

I also think people are terrified of doing improv because they think they aren’t funny…

LJ: Another thing is that it’s nice to have people now recognize that there really are different styles of improv, that are all valuable.

So you can go to an improv show and have big laughs and fast scenes and big characters and enjoy that just as much as going to see something like this longer narrative unfold and have unexpected turns, more dramatic moments, and have them both be beautiful and both be improv.

I don’t want to run into a trap here… I love short-form improv. I love games (an easy thing to describe it as is what you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway). There’s so much joy in that, and there’s so much talent in being able to do that well. It’s truly harder than anything else. So I never want to say those aren’t worth as much as a long-form unscripted piece of theatre.

MR: So farce is very slapstick and physical. How do you improvise that sort of thing? Or do you?

MW: It’s not just physical, it leans towards the improbable, leans towards the ridiculous, so it doesn’t need to be grounded to reality. And we definitely do that. As much as there’s still truth, it still has that sense of play.

The other thing I’ve been told about farce is it doesn’t need to have to have a moral. It can just be a really beautifully fun and hilarious time.

LJ: I always forget we have so many different definitions we’ve gone through describing what farce is, but again leaning towards the improbable.

Like: There’s a dead body in the other room, this is true, what else is true? It’s not about calling the cops or trying to figure out what happened. It’s us trying to be like, “Okay, there’s a body in the other room, but we also have to make sure everything’s fine for the party.”

We like the fact that as much as it is ridiculous, it’s all stuff that could happen. It’s all about the foibles of humanity and the relationships between people and it takes those tensions that might already exist, those love affairs that exist, and heightens them to the point of the ridiculous.

MR: Must be fun!

LJ: It is nice to escape a little bit. Which is not to say that we don’t deal with the issues of what’s going on in reality, but because it is so focused on just relationships between individuals and how silly and absurd they can be, it is a bit of an escape to get to go there and just live in that ridiculous and joyful place.

MR: Have you ever showed up to rehearsal and been in the shittiest mood and not been able to find that joy?

LJ: I had one where it was an 11 pm show, and I had just done D&D Live!, which is another show that I LOVE, and it’s so funny and also improvised. I’d done that earlier in the day and I’d done another show, so I came to do the 11pm show, and I was so zonked. I could not find my energy. But it’s the same thing that happens for any performer; the audience starts to come in, you have the cast around you, you put on your costume, and you’re like, “This is the best thing ever! What’s next?”

So it’s a nice medication for tiredness.

MR: Some of the best questions can come from inside the process. Do you have a question you’d like to ask each other about your experience within the show?

MW: Liz, when you’re standing backstage, and you’re like, “I need to figure out what I’m bringing to this scenario”, what’s that process like? How do you feel in that moment?

LJ: I don’t know. I really don’t think about it. I like to just go on stage. That’s the kind of classic improv thing: if you can really get used to just trusting yourself to go onstage.

Just open the door, going, “Here we are! What happens next?”

MW: In the show, how much awareness do you have of the bedroom when you’re in the living room?

LJ: I usually have an idea of what I think is going on. And everybody is so good at having their own ideas.

We talk about this in improv, it’s called “group mind” where everyone sort of ends up on the same page without discussing it at all.

The number of times that will happen with this show… I mean, it’s the magic of it!

MR: So the magic of it is a surprise to the improvisers too? I know as an audience member, that’s how it feels. Those moments feel…

LJ: Totally, you come back, and you’re just like wow! It feels so wild.

MR: What about pushing boundaries?

LJ: You check in. You talk about it, whether it’s physical touching or subjects you can touch on that may be a boundary. Even just one night, with my nose bleeds, and I was like, “Listen, guys, it might happen. I have tissue in my pocket. I’m okay, it’s okay.” And any of those types of conversations, you just need to have them. And we’ve had those. Any good cast will talk about it constantly.

MW: There are moments where people will say things, and we’ve had this in rehearsals, where somebody will take a dive, and be like, “I’m going to propose something…”

But our cast is really supportive and really knows each other and so they’re able to support them. And that’s what I love about improv – you can do something, and guaranteed, five people will say we’ve got your back, we’ve got you, we’ll take care of you.

There have definitely been moments where you need to be risky, but these people handled that with such care, and such responsibility, they made it so safe.

LJ: Anyone who is making a faux pas, it’s coming from a place of fear.

The biggest thing in improv is you need to go on stage making a choice to make everyone else look as good as possible so if you can do that, if everybody is doing that, then everybody is going to look great. You’re setting up everyone else to succeed. You can’t do that if you’re undercutting them or sacrificing them for a laugh or commenting on something for the sake of the audience.

MR: Lastly, tell me about working with Colin Mochrie!

LJ: He’s just the most generous man.

It’s such a generous thing to do; to know your name will lend fame, or excitement to someone’s show. He does that so willingly and generously.

He did this exercise with us, which is really difficult. Everyone was struggling to keep up and we started playing with the format of the game so it got faster and went backwards and forwards, so fast! But Colin was having no trouble, just breezing through it. Everyone know’s how funny he is and how sharp, but good lord the man is fast. And so present. We’re so excited to have him on the show!

Entrances and Exits

Who:
Presented by The Howland Company in association with Bad Dog Comedy Theatre
Created by Liz Johnston & Ruth Goodwin
Director: Paolo Santalucia
Starring: Ghazal Azarbad, Conor Bradbury, Nigel Downer, Dylan Evans, Ruth Goodwin, Liz Johnston, Connor Low
Designed by: Christian Horoszczak
Production Manager: Mimi Warshaw

What:
A completely improvised play based on the structure of traditional farces we love like “The Norman Conquests” and “Noises Off”.

Where:
FACTORY THEATRE – MAINSPACE
125 Bathurst St
Toronto
Ontario
M5V 2R2

When:
13th July – 7:30pm
14th July – 9:15pm
15th July – 12:00pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com