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Posts tagged ‘Michael Chekhov technique’

In Conversation with Will King on Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”

Interview by Ryan Quinn

Ryan Quinn: So, you are directing Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros for Seven Siblings Theatre Company. It’s an adaptation by Derek Prowse. Is it a new adaptation?

Will King: No. So what we’re trying to do is find as many contemporary hooks into the play as possible. A lot of that has been in the staging of it, making it very minimalist instead of its traditional setting. We were rather looking for locations we might find ourselves in in Toronto. The first quarter takes place in a beer garden, something you might see as a semi-interior in one of the breweries in the city. It has a local and very communal feel. So, for a show like Rhinoceros about the spread of populism and sensationalism, it has to start in a very public location. We thought it would be nice if people felt very comfortable and immersed in the setting. It feels very similar to the actual location the performers are in.

From there, it gets more private and the characters get more distant from the audience. So we see it go from public, to a semi-private office, to two different houses, one of which is a terrarium.

RQ: Why this show, right now?

WK: I think we are in an era that deals with sensationalism possibly more strongly than ever on an individual level. We know that this play was written in response to fascism and Naziism in the Second World War, but now we live in an age of facebook, and buzzfeed, a sense of self-propaganda. It’s important that we look at ourselves, and our own sense of what otherness is, and how we deal with constant sensationalism and populism.

I think there are many reasons the last Canadian election went the way it did, but one of the biggest pulls for Trudeau and the liberals was that he was the one with traditionally Canadian values. He was the everyman that we thought shared our same moral compass. So there’s definitely a sense of how politics and new ideas are sold, for better or worse.

But it’s important to me that this play doesn’t become just about the politics. I think it would be easy to slap on something about the Trump campaign and make it about that. I mean, I think people will still make connections to that extraordinary and horrifying bout of sensationalism happening in the States. But I didn’t want that to be what it was about. It’s about intersection in any kind of area, in belief, race, gender, sexuality, politics. Whatever that otherness is for the audience, it’s that otherness for the characters in the play.

RQ: This show deals with the allure of mob mentality…

WK: For sure! We’re trying to play with that theme in our physicality a lot.

RQ: So how do we reconcile that idea with the current idea that the “outsider” is more morally genuine than everyone else? Trudeau, Trump, and Sanders are all sold as outsiders. Not to say that their politics are in any way similar, but that seems to be the campaign that works.

WK: I think in this play we can eventually sympathize with the outsider, while at the same time we see them as (literally in this case, since it’s a rhinoceros) tools of chaos and destruction. I mean, for the people who join the rhinoceros, suddenly their way of living is beautiful and wonderful. I want the audience to question, you know, “why not join the rhinoceros?”. You get to roll around in the grass and be comfortable. We totally understand why it’s so easy for people to want to join them, and I think that happens politically, as well.

RQ: Tell me a bit about the rehearsal process.

WK: This was done as a ten-day intensive. That was inherently challenging and difficult. We go through a lot of work with the Michael Chekhov technique, getting on our feet and finding centers, archetypes, character bodies. We’re trying to break through the text analysis in a physical way, so we’re not banging our heads against the wall. It’s helped us find a really visceral and accessible clarity. Our next step is going to be to really focus on creating an atmosphere in a set that’s constantly being created and destroyed by the actors. We’re using chalkboard paint and different color schemes for individual worlds to really highlight that this is a world that’s constantly changing and shifting.

We also have ten challenges that were assigned to the actors, things like creating a physical rhinoceros from two or more people, or an immediate breaking into tears, things that we’ve used as tools to tell the story. I’m there to make sure the story is clear and everything fits together, but those goalposts, as it were, are there to help the actors work toward a kind of structure on their own as well.

RQ: What can you tell me about Seven Siblings and your mandate?

WK: The company was founded by Madryn McCabe, Erika Downie, and myself. The three of us started the company through the teaching certification program at the Michael Chekhov consortium in Ohio. As a company, we like to do work that sits in the realm of fantastical realism, things that are larger than life. I’d say it’s playful and visceral, and grand, but also very true to life. There’s a lot of work that can still be truthful while really going to strange and conceptual places. For us, the most important thing is joy, that’s the focus even in times of exhaustion and duress. We find that frees performers up to stop worrying about a final performance, to focus instead on the playfulness and discovery.

We want people to be able to look outside themselves and see their lives through metaphor for a while. To take something very personal from an idea that’s absurd or strange. I think we’re lucky that we can do that in the theatre.

We’ve also been trying to extend that sense of play to our promotional campaign as well, doing street-level things that lend themselves to word-of-mouth promotion.

RQ: What do you want people to talk about on the way home from this show?

WK: I hope it elicits a conversation about positive political discourse. Often when we see someone with different political views from our own, we dismiss them, but it’s valuable to have an honest debate about their views. I think that would benefit our society.

I mean, I hope they have fun, too! Without all the allegory, if you saw this show as a farce, it’s very entertaining! There’s something important at the heart of it, but something really fun and alive on the surface.

RQ: Congratulations on the show!

WK: Thanks, Ryan!


Seven Siblings Theatre presents:


Smoke Rhinoceros

A play by Eugene Ionesco
Adapted by Derek Prouse
Directed by Will King
Featuring Veronica Baron, Jim Armstrong, John Lovett, Andrew Gaunce, Erika Downie, Liz Bragg, Margaret Hild, Amrit Kaur, Mardi O’Conner
Assistant Directed by: Erika Downie
Produced by: Madryn McCabe
Production Manager: Kate McArthur
Stage Manager: Jocelyn Levadoux
Lighting Design: Parker Nowlan
Front of House: Gwendolyn Hodgson

Run Time: 90 minutes

When: June 2-5, 8pm, doors open at 7:30

Where: The Rhino Bar & Grille (1249 Queen St W).Our performance venue is on the 2nd floor.

Tickets: Artsworkers $15, General $19, At the door $20 cash


Twitter: @SevenSiblingsCo

Facebook: sevensiblingstheatreco

Instagram: @sevensiblingstheatre

Performed with Permission by Samuel French Inc.

A Few Words with Rena Polley on The Chekhov Collective’s “The Seagull”

Interview by Madryn McCabe

We sat down with Rena Polley, producer and actor of The Chekhov Collective’s The Seagull, to discuss the Michael Chekhov technique, theatre in Toronto and what makes The Seagull so special.

MM: The production part of The Seagull is incredible. 

RP: The support team was made up of brilliant people, they’re all award winning, but they had never done theatre before. I got them involved because they’re friends of mine. Rob Gray has won Genies and Geminis. He literally finished filming two weeks ago, came home, pulled in every favour to get the set built, even painted it himself (and it’s been years since he’s done that) and he leaves tomorrow to go to Bucharest for six months, so he very kindly did all this. And it was a learning curve for him. The first time he built the set, it was flat. And Peggy [the director] said, “oh no, it has to be like a W, and this way” so they all learned something because it’s different in film. So, he built this beautiful set. He had it go from something very formal, until it moves across the stage and eventually it disintegrates. Kind of like the play. And the music! Rob [Bertola, Music and Sound Design] is an Emmy and multi award winning sound designer for film, he just finished David Cronenberg’s film, and he’d never really done theatre before either. He came up with the song that’s the theme song. It’s based on an old Russian theme song, but it was rerecorded in the 60’s by The Seekers, and it became this huge popular hit. It’s called “The Carnival is Over”. So he did the reverse; it starts deconstructed and then moves the opposite, so that by the curtain call, the song is sung with full song and lyrics. And Oh Susanna did the music. So it starts deconstructed and ends up full, and the set does the opposite, it starts full and ends up deconstructed as you go across. The lighting designer is Blue Rodeo’s lighting designer. He’d never done theatre before. He finished the Blue Rodeo tour Monday night and was in the theatre Tuesday morning. He’d only seen a run through once. But he’s so brilliant! And Comrags were friends of mine too.


MM: Your costumes are works of art!

RP: Comrags had an army of people building all this! Judy [Cornish, Comrags] said, “do you mind if I do the costumes?” I said, “Of course!” and then Joyce [Gunhouse] her partner in the company got involved, and then Joyce’s sister Judy and sewers and interns, and when we all saw the level of the costumes we thought “Uh oh. We’d better up our game!” Everybody felt that. Everybody came with an extraordinary level of work. And it made us up our game as well. And then Peggy came so prepared. She dreamt two ideas. And that was 1) The play within the play. Using the frame, using this kind of deconstructed way of telling a story. Peggy and I did teacher training in New York and our flight got canceled. So we ended up sin Manhattan for two days, and we went to the Museum of Modern Art. There was a show on all these artists that used deconstruction, and we kept seeing references to the frame. Peggy said, “that’s what I want to do at the beginning”. We tried it at a weekend workshop, and she knew it was going to work. We brought in Ellie Hyman from New York, who is a Chekhov person, but also a Viewpoints person, so she did this stuff with us, and we transferred the actors over from Ellie to Peggy. It’s hard as a director to come in to an ensemble that has been working together for a year. She only had three weeks to shape this play. It’s a big play, an epic play. The final image that she came with is when Konstantin rips the papers. Everybody always has him throw the pieces in the air, and she had him stuff them into his clothes, so that he leaves nothing behind. He takes all his writings with him. And it’s such a beautiful, poetic image. So she came with these two very strong ideas that bookend the piece. And she kept hearing rhythms. She could tell when vocally we’d drop the beat and then come up again. She’d say, “Push it. Keep driving it. There’s a pause coming, and you have to earn it.” And you can see these quiet moments in the production. She could really hear the rhythm of the piece, and wanted to honour that. She used Viewpoints from Ellie. She didn’t call it blocking, she called it composition. There are ten actors. There’s a lot to do!


MM: When you said it was an epic play it really made me think of the number of actors in the play. The nature of the way theatre in Toronto gets produced these days means that ten actors are unheard of. 

RP: Ten big personality characters, and ten big personality actors, that I had empowered, for better or for worse, so everybody had an opinion. Peggy had to really set up a very strong structure for the rehearsal process. We had done all of this Chekhov work and it was all sort of loose and game playing and improv and playing with text, but not making choices about text because that’s directorial. Creating the world of the characters and then when we got to the rehearsal space, it was very traditional. I thought we could continue this process more, but I realized Peggy was right. There’s a three week rehearsal process, there’s a story to tell, and you have to get through each act. We got through each act quite quickly in a big sweep because of the work we had done, and then Peggy went in a worked smaller sections. There was more of a traditional work space. We looked at beats, we looked at text, and objectives. But she would bring in Chekhov vocabulary of “what’s the Atmosphere of this act?” We could get to it quickly because we had been training in that philosophy.


MM: How did this group of people all come together?

RP: I keep saying that we all worked for a year together, but we really didn’t. Every two or three months we did a three day intensive workshop. So that allowed us to do a lot of stuff, but then let things simmer during that time. And people have lives and shows and lots of stuff going on. So we maybe met three or four times for three or four days each time. In the last month we met every Monday. I knew I wanted to look at this play, and I wanted to see how far I could take the Michael Chekhov technique. Having studied it, I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is”. What this process allowed us to do was to keep expanding and asking questions, instead of contracting and making choices quickly. That was the gift of this process. And even if you look at the program, Peggy talks about how it starts in expansion and ends in contraction. We can use the words of Chekhov. It’s been a really extraordinary process. The question I posed to myself at the beginning was “how far can I take this?” and what I learned is that you can use it all the way through to the end, but you’d better bring along other things as well. There’s a reason the Stanislavski technique is still surviving. It needs to be expanded, and other things looked at, but the ideas of beats, objectives, text analysis is really important, and you need to combine it with the Chekhov work. At some point in the process, you’ve got to throw out the head and let the body speak because it has a bigger vocabulary, but then bring the head back in.

MM: What I found really interesting is that they play is over 150 years old, but it’s still so relevant. 

RP: Every time someone reads this play, they say to me, “It reminds me of Facebook” or we had an athlete in the audience, and she said that Trigoren’s speech about loving the writing process but hating it when it’s published is how every athlete feels when they train. So it speaks to everyone. What we’ve discovered about this play is that there’s no bottom. We could explore this for five more years. For a nanosecond, I thought about modernizing it, but I thought, no, let’s make the audience do a bit of the work. Let them make the leap, put the dots together. Because it’s all there. It’s a story about desire, art, the heart, human nature, relationships, and family. All these things are universal. They’re timeless. We agreed it was best to tell this story simply, and through the heart. Let the play speak for itself. We tried not to add things or colour it.


MM: I see the program that you have adapted the play.

RP: I knew I wanted to cut the play, so I looked at about seven different translations. I wanted to make the language accessible, but not too modern. Some of the formality of the language is from the play, but I didn’t want it to be archaic either. I wanted to keep the names simple so that we’re not calling each other by three different names. I trimmed.

MM: There’s also a very strong feeling of the ensemble.

RP: We did that over time, but I also think the Chekhov work can speed that up in a rehearsal. I really want to put this process into the rehearsal process. I’d like to offer myself to directors and say “give me an hour of your day, every day, and I can really help you move this process along. I can help the ensemble, I can help the atmosphere, I can help actors drop into characters”. But rehearsals are short, directors don’t know what it is. I’ve offered a few times and heard no. I understand that, but I think the Chekhov technique can make that happen faster. We had the luxury of time, and I had them do all kinds of things. In the first intensive weekend, I had them read the play and write down images of the play. I collected them, we played with them. We came up with themes, we came up with the set design, I had them come up with one line describing the play, because I wanted them to think about more than their character. I wanted them to take ownership of the play. Sometimes as actors, we just highlight our lines and look at our part in reference to the play. It’s safer. We want to protect ourselves. So I wanted to blow that away, and give responsibility for the play to the actors. We did build the ensemble over time, but I think it could have happened much faster if all we had was the three week rehearsal process. I really want to encourage people to look to the Michael Chekhov technique because I think there’s something in it that every actor, director, designer can use.


For more information about the Michael Chekhov Technique, visit

For tickets to The Seagull, visit