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“Annie Baker, Creating Theatre for Right Now & Reading People’s Minds” In Conversation with Mitchell Cushman, Director of THE ALIENS

Interview by Megan Robinson

The space at The Coal Mine Theatre has undergone yet another transformation for their upcoming production of The Aliens. Directed by Mitchell Cushman, who is well-known for his creative use of space, the black box theatre is unrecognizable as a Vermont alleyway.

“It takes place outside, which felt like a real fundamental challenge at first,” Cushman let me know from our seats in the audience, where we sat taking in the details of the set, which received some exciting final touches the day before.

Around us, the theatre’s walls were plastered with exposed brick, a handmade picnic table took center stage, and a graffitied image of half of Bernie Sanders’ face was spray painted just above our heads. With a single row of chairs lining the two walls, the length of the playing space called to mind a runway at a fashion show.

“I think it serves the naturalism of what Annie Baker is writing because the audience are really flies on the wall as opposed to feeling like they are being played to in any way.”

For the next thirty minutes, I talk to director Mitchell Cushman about Annie Baker, creating relevant theatre, and reading people’s minds.

MR: You just worked on Treasure Island at Stratford – has this been a breath of fresh air?

MC: They’re both very different. I had a great time with Treasure Island, but they couldn’t be more different. Treasure Island is a huge proscenium, thousand-seat theatre and large budget show, largely for kids.

Annie Baker writes in this kind of hyper-naturalism where everything is sort of sacrificed for the pursuit of trying to get something real on stage. That means it rejects a lot of what we expect about conventional drama. Working on this show makes me realize how much artifice goes into most theatre. Because we expect it. We expect things to be curated into something that is easily recognizable as dramatic whereas there is drama and construction to Annie Baker’s writing but in a way that is so invisible.

MR: What did you think of the play the first time you read it?

MC: I read it like 3 or 4 years ago. Honestly, I don’t know if I knew what to make of it when I first read it. I thought parts of it were interesting. But I’ve had this experience reading a couple of her other plays. They feel very thin. You get to the end, and you’re like – where was the play?

Then I had the chance to see some of her plays. I saw The Flick, and I saw a production of John with The Company Theatre. Both of those were really impactful experiences for me as an audience member, and it was after I saw John that Ted (Dykstra) wrote to me about The Aliens. When I did go back to read it with an understanding of the wavelength that she calibrated on, I found much more in it. Also, I’m now at the exact age of two of the three characters that are at the center of the play, and I think that has had an impact as well.

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: Which character do you think you most relate to? 

MC: (laughs) Probably the guy that is not my age. There are three characters KJ and Jasper and Evan.

KJ and Jasper are 30-31, they haven’t really left their hometown, and they spend their time kind of vegging around and reading poetry or sort of writing music. One of them wants to be a novelist, but they have not really done anything. But even though they haven’t done anything, they’ve had real deep life experiences, and a lot of that is based on living on the margins of society and loss and complicated family life and problems with drugs.

Evan works in the cafe… beyond that “wall”. He’s a seventeen-year-old kid working a summer job and he’s got a comfortable home life but feels at 17 that he hasn’t had a lot of experiences and maybe couldn’t be an artist, a writer, a tortured soul, or musician because he doesn’t have what he perceives to be their pain and suffering. I’m more like him. I think I said that on the first day of rehearsal. I worked in a cafe, I come from a comfortable middle-class background, and I haven’t ever felt fundamentally alone in the way I think the other characters feel in the show.

MR: So you’ve never felt like an alien?

MC: Well I don’t know that… I wouldn’t say I’ve never felt like an alien. But I’ve never really felt that society wasn’t built for me which is the way that KJ and Jasper feel, and maybe Evan feels that in a different way.

MR: Why this show right now? 

MC: The play was written in 2010, and one of the decisions we had to make was, do we set it then or now? The characters have cell phones in the show, and there are lots of stage directions of them flipping them open and closed, and that felt like by doing that we’d immediately be playing something that felt like a period piece. But the phenomenon of disenfranchisement that she writes about is only more pronounced now than it was seven years ago.

The play is set in Vermont, and I was trying to think what do I know about Vermont or what does Vermont mean to me? And you can see right here, we are sitting under a big graffiti thing of half of Bernie Sanders’ face.

Bernie Sanders is a Senator from Vermont who played such a large role in the last American presidential election and epitomizes this part of America. Vermont is very liberal and left-wing in a lot of ways, but it’s also the whitest state… I think it’s like 95 % white. Very little diversity and, among other things, the play looks at what happens when you have a very homogeneous population of people and how do their thoughts develop and how do thoughts about othering occur, and all those things feel very relevant. In its own way, the play has a lot to say about the opioid crisis and things that have only become, you know, more pronounced and tragic.

In some ways, I think she was writing something prophetic. The world around us has grown into the play

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: I did wonder why the cast was three white males…

MC: That’s interesting. As we were casting it we were trying to be conscious of that. I definitely believe theatre should be a place for diverse voices. And we like to create the most eclectic, artistic ensembles as possible. I think this play is specifically about the fact that all three of them are white. So to have cast it more racially diverse would have been to silence the themes of the play. This play was written about specific people in a specific place, and I think in doing it, it’s engaging in the conversation about the need for diversity in our communities. If you just, like, photoshop in diversity into a community where it doesn’t exist I think you’re wallpapering over some of the profound things at the center of her writing. We’ve got quite a diverse artistic team working on the show. It’s not represented in the cast of characters but I think for this piece it was the right choice.

MR: Your big thing is innovative staging, immersive theatre. I read an interview where you said it’s important to do something different because there is so much theatre going on. How do you come up with these new ideas?

MC: I think it can be kind of a trap, despite what I said in other interviews, to think about doing things that are different for the sake of being different. Almost every project I’ve worked on, the script is first and out of the script you try to find a way to tell that story. I think if instead you begin with a desire to do something different then you’re doing something to a play instead of figuring out the best way to tell a story. So I found in my practice, especially running Outside the March, but the other work I’ve done, there’s a broader canvas of ways to tell a story in a live theatre experience than the traditional framework necessarily allows for. So I try to start from a place of zero preconceptions of what the experience will be. So when I think about how to tell a story, I’m not thinking of people sitting in a proscenium space watching. I’m not picturing the experience akin to watching a movie.

MR: This show explores the idea that we can’t ever really know another person and what they are thinking. If you had the opportunity to read another person’s mind would you take it? 

MC: A specific person or telepathy in general?

MR: Let’s go with for a day, you can read everyone’s mind.

MC: I would take it because I’d be very curious but I would go somewhere where I was surrounded by nobody I knew. Because then you’d be able to answer that sort of eternal mystery of what are people thinking and what are they thinking about me as I interact with them, but you wouldn’t fundamentally destroy all of your relationships.

MR: You think it would destroy your relationships if you really knew a person?

MC: Ya.

MR: So you think it’s good that we don’t actually know the truth? Are filters important? 

MC: I think relationships are about striving to get to know someone so if you had the answer manual at the beginning then you would actually feel less close to those people. It’s about the experience of trying to break through those barriers even though, eternally, you’ll never get to the bottom of it.

MR: But isn’t that a sad pursuit? 

MC: I don’t think so. I think that’s what forges history and connection with people. It’s certainly frustrating and disarming and difficult at times, but I think that breathes the need for human connection. If we all knew what everyone thought all the time we’d be robbed of conversation. And art! Theatre comes out of that same impulse of trying to strive to get to know people and things about existence that you can’t just read in someone’s brain, so I think it’s good there are those filters. But I think we should still strive to listen better.

Photo Credit: Tim Leyes

MR: Do you think this is a hopeful story? 

MC: I wouldn’t say that it is entirely hopeful, but within the construction of it, there is something quite life-affirming.

MR: If you could talk to the characters in the show and give them advice what would you say?

MC: Don’t kick the audience.

MR: Is that advice for the actors?

MC: (He laughs) Life advice?

MR: Yes. You’re very ambitious and it seems these characters are lacking that.

MC: Well, I would say that they should try to breathe and take the pressure off themselves. Because I think it’s the pressure to accomplish great things that is kind of stunting them from accomplishing much of anything.

MR: Too scared?

MC: Too scared or because, to me, one of the big themes of the show is they idolize these great writers, but genius is a hard thing to emulate so instead they just emulate their destructive tendencies. I think that hero-worship can be dangerous in that capacity because I think the things that are easiest to copy are not the things connected with hard work and perseverance… they are more the trappings of it.

The Aliens

Who:
Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Starring Maxwell Haynes, Will Greenblatt and Noah Reid
Set and Costume design by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting design by Nick Blais
Sound Design by Sam Sholdice
Production Manager Charissa Wilcox
Produced by Diana Bentley and Sehar Bhojani

What:
Coal Mine Theatre launches the 17/18 season with Pulitzer Prize Award-winning playwright Annie Bakers THE ALIENS. Sharing the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2010 with another Baker script, Circle Mirror Transformation, THE ALIENS, a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, premiered Off-Broadway in April 2009 and the West End in September of the same year.

Jasper (Noah Reid) and KJ (William Greenblatt) are two misfit souls who have made the out-back of a Vermont coffee shop their private sanctuary and refuge from the real world. Here they can indulge in their dreams and delusions of being a brilliant writer and a divine healer. Seventeen-year-old Evan (Maxwell Haynes) is eking out his summer working at the café and is irresistibly drawn to their world of magic mushrooms, philosophical musings and rock bands that never-were. THE ALIENS is both a cruel and compassionate examination of a lost generation and modern-day America.

Where:
Coal Mine Theatre
1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto ON M4J 1N4

When:
Wednesday, September 20 – Sunday, October 8 at 2pm
Tuesday to Saturday 7:30pm (Mondays Dark)
Matinees are Sunday at 2pm.
No intermission. No latecomers.

Tickets:
Regular price $42.50 (plus HST)
Rush tickets $25 (cash only, at the door, 30 minutes before performance starts, subject to availability. No phone reservations).
coalminetheatre.com

Connect:
t: @coalminetheatre
f: /coalminetheatre

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Artist Profile: Rosamund Small, Playwright of Outside The March’s “TomorrowLove”

Interview by Brittany Kay

Rosamund Small has always been the most kind-hearted and generous artist that I know in this city. Her passion and love for her craft is always apparent. She is insanely smart, courageous and incredibly funny, which always shines through in her work. We sat down over nachos to talk about her current show TomorrowLove, which opens tonight with Outside the March. We talk about the magic in site-specific/immersive work, her writing process and the much anticipated experience audiences will have in this fantastical show.

Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about your show?

Rosamund Small: The show is called TomorrowLove. It’s an immersive experience with Outside the March. It’s about love and it’s set in many different versions in the very near future, where one piece of amazing technology exists. Everything else is pretty much the same as our world except for just one thing. It’s about exploring different relationships and how this one thing activates change in the way that two people relate to each other. Sometimes it ends up bringing people closer together and sometimes it pushes them further apart. TomorrowLove touches on a lot of things to do with love and identity and sometimes consent and sometimes loss. The dream is that it will be a varied experience no matter what. There’s a lot of material and the idea is that you’ll wander through this futuristic environment and find yourself in these different stories.

BK: So things are happening…

RS: Simultaneously. There are multiple things happening at the same time. I think sometimes immersive theatre is structured so that you purposefully miss things. You miss whole stories, you miss the beginning, and you miss the end. In TomorrowLove, you grasp an entire story. It’s short but it’s complete, and then there’s another one and another one. It’s quite curated and carefully put together to make sure that you get the entire narrative and then a different entire narrative.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: Can you talk about this lottery system the actors are going to take part in each night? There are so many layers to this experience!

RS: So many layers! It’s got a lot going on underneath in terms of how the show is put together. One really exciting thing that we came across is that I wrote all of the characters to be gender blind, so they are not necessarily man or woman. I just didn’t make that decision when I was writing it.

Typically we have really gendered stories about anything from a break up to sexual violence to anything really to do with how two people relate in a relationship. Those stories can be super valuable, but in this case I wanted to sort of push out of those ideas and explore the idea that if I didn’t know the gender of the person, how would I navigate that in the writing? The characters have genders because whatever actor is playing them inhabits their gender, but that, I think, is part of a larger piece of the feeling of the show. It’s about the self and the individual and what is innate to you and how did you end up in your life?

There is also an aspect of the show where every night there’s a lottery and the actors get assigned their roles.

BK: So the actors have to learn a lot of material?

RS: Yeah.

BK: Shit, that’s fun. Cool!

RS: That is the reaction I’m hoping for: “That’s fun!” I hope they all say that. I think it’s going to be one of those things that ends up being really fun and then really hard and you cry and then it gets really fun again. All of the actors are going to be learning about as much as Hamlet or a little more, in terms of numbers of lines

BK: Wow!

RS: They are also playing different people, so they’ll inhabit very different stories. In one sense, in a lot of theatre, you feel like you want to rehearse and rehearse until you’ve hit something, but in another way that sense of rehearsal can take away from a sort of urgency or hopefully a sense of live-ness that I think we’re finding. It’s a big risk, obviously. They’ll be rehearsed. Their scene partner will be changing. Their goals will be changing. I think the experiences intrinsically will be a little bit out of control. Where you end up is a little bit out of your control. That’s a really big theme of the show.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: How did you start writing this? How did this idea come to be?

RS: I started working on it about two years ago. In a way it started because Mitchell Cushman and I wanted to work on another project together. It took us a really long time to shape what that would be. We had some specific goals. We wanted to make theatre that would appeal to people that often don’t go to the theatre. That’s kind of a tenant of a lot of theatre companies, but definitely of OTM. He’s really generous and I think he really wanted to create something that was my voice. It’s not like it was going to be something that he would come up with and I would execute. He really wanted to do something that we both felt really passionately about.

We started with short stories about sex. The idea to push them into a place that couldn’t quite happen was the next thing, so then you end up in the world of technology. For me, personally, I realized that the idea of a show about technology doesn’t really interest me because I think about technology a lot in a literal way. I can think about my phone and what it means but I think this show is more of a metaphorical access point to that. The pieces of technology are very nearly possible, in fact, I think a few of them have become more possible since I’ve started writing them.

BK: What kind of technology are we talking here?

RS: One is an implant that you can get that prevents you from saying certain things that you really want to make sure you never say… so you don’t let something slip, which obviously has huge implications for relationships. Another one is you can choose to show your partner an extended montage of all of your memories. Another one is an online chatting app that actually finds you your soul mate. Another one is you can get a piece of someone’s DNA put into a little mixture and inject it into yourself so that you can experience their emotions.

BK: Why site-specific and immersive for this show?

RS: I think immersive and site-specific theatre is very magical because you immediately don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s very much how I feel about all relationships. I think how I feel about progress and technology is really surprising and personal. Immersive theatre really lends itself to heightening that experience. Sometimes people have an idea of immersive theatre being scary or that it’s going to put you on the spot or make you uncomfortable and I think, in a lot of ways, it’s the opposite of that. It’s an invitation to this world.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: I know a lot of your plays has been verbatim or immersive in their nature and presentation. What draws you to that kind of work? What makes you keep doing this?

RS: It’s funny because TomorrowLove is such a departure from that. This is heightened and fiction.

The draw to documentary and to interviews and to Vitals (which was fiction but really well researched) is that the world is really interesting. I would always advise writers who were stuck in their writing or were just starting to write, to think about starting there because it grounds you in the way that people actually talk and the way that things actually happen. You put so much of your heart and yourself into your documentary work but a lot of the time people don’t know that because they assume it’s more distant from you. I think, for this piece, it’s scary because it’s going to be really hard to hide that the characters and observations are going to seem like they are from me.

BK: What was your process to write this script?

RS: This is such a boring answer because it’s such a writer answer: I would just start. A lot of it is really just like improvisation except I was writing it down. I would just go. I would always go for a relationship problem or a change in a relationship or a relationship crisis and then ask how would a piece of technology either begin that or change that or heighten that? So I never made up a piece of technology and wrote the play to go with it. I started to write the story and then the necessary technology would merge into the story.

There are definitely pieces that are inspired from things that have happened to me or to people that I’ve loved. I think all writers steal shamelessly. They are much more me, honestly. They are much more from my own questions about people. Fiction is so embarrassing, somehow.

BK: The audience is invited to the Aorta? What is that?

RS:

BK: Ahh, a mystery?

RS: (she smiles.)

BK: Love that. How are your actors rehearsing this show?

RS: There has to be more than one thing rehearsing at once because there is so much material. They are all crazy pros. These artists are really, truly the real deal and really experienced, as well as being really good. They are like a crazy dream. It’s a real ensemble. So we’re reading the pieces, we’re doing the pieces, and we’re trading off because there will be more than one actor playing every part. There’s a bit of a tap in tap out mentality going on. We also have two amazing assistant directors (Llyandra Jones and Griffin McInnes) and Mitchell and myself. We’re all “do-si-do”ing the rehearsal process.

Photo by Neil Silcox

Photo by Neil Silcox

BK: Are there any fears or excitements for this show?

RS: No.

I’m joking. I’m joking so hard.

I think the fears and the excitements are always the same thing. The fear and the excitement is that I think the pieces are very vulnerable. The characters are in really vulnerable places. I feel very vulnerable. They’re really raw, sometimes in a comedic sense and sometimes in a tragic sense with really painful experiences. So the fear and the excitement is about sharing that, but that’s also such a part of theatre and such a part of love.

BK: What’s your working relationship like with Mitchell Cushman? How did you guys meet? What makes you want to continue to collaborate with him?

RS: We met at the Paprika Festival. He was working there and I was one of the oldest participants. He directed a staged reading of mine in the festival and so that’s the first time we worked together really. I think you can tell immediately when you work with someone like him that you can just trust him. You can trust him to be honest. You can trust him with your work. Actors trust him. He’s just a really sort of subtly supportive and reassuring person, you know? You also trust him because it’s so obvious how wicked smart he is.

He saw a little bit of Vitals and he asked to direct it and we turned it into Outside The March doing this huge production of it. It was incredible. It’s a very close working relationship. We’re really in each other’s business. It’s not like I write the script and he directs the show, it’s very collaborative. We argue and we compromise and we work really well together. I’m incredibly lucky to work with someone like that and to work with our whole team, as well.

BK: Why Outside The March for your show?

RS: I think the short answer is because this is the kind of work that Mitchell wants to develop with the company. I remember when I saw their production of Mr. Marmalade and it blew my mind. I was like this is the kind of theatre that I want to do.

BK: What do you want audiences walking away with from this show?

RS: That’s hard because you can’t really control it, no matter how hard you try. I hope they experience some empathy and have been entertained. I think entertainment is really undervalued as a quality. Not thoughtlessly, but entertained. I think it depends what kind of person you are – if you are interested in a mind-bending puzzle, you might be interested in crazy technology and its implications, if you’ve been through a break up, it might stir some things up, might make you think about your own life or it might just be an experience that you leave behind you at the door. I just hope for something.

Rapid Fire Question Round

Favourite Book: What? That isn’t fun, that’s so hard.

Favourite Play: What? What is this? Like which is your favourite parent Brittany?

Favourite Food: Pizza. Is that a boring answer? It’s why I moved to Little Italy.

Favourite Place in Toronto: The Island, Ward’s Island specifically.

What are you listening to: I’m leaning heavily into this Carly Rae Jepsen album “Emotion”. It’s like really good… Love good pop music!

Best advice you’ve ever gotten: Katherine Cullen once told me, “When you feel like you just can’t go on and something terrible has happened, it’s really important to just go to bed and wake up tomorrow.” We can fall asleep and escape and wake up and something will be recharged in us. It’s amazing.

TomorrowLove

by Rosamund Small, Presented by Outside The March

unnamed-2

Who:
Written by Rosamund Small
Directed and Developed by Mitchell Cushman

Ensemble
Damien Atkins
Katherine Cullen
Paul Dunn
Amy Keating
Cyrus Lane
Mayko Nguyen
Oyin Oladejo
Anand Rajaram

Producer – Michelle Yagi
Stage Manager – Kate Sandeson
Production Manager/Technical Director – Alanna McConnell
Scenic Design – Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting Design – Nick Blais
Costume Design – Lindsay Dagger Junkin
Composition and Sound Design – Richard Feren
Choreographer – Robert Binet

Associate Director – Llyandra Jones
Associate Director – Griffin McInnes
Associate Production Manager – David Costello
Apprentice Stage Manager – Kate Hennigar
Assistant Producer – Deanna Galati
Front of House and Group Sales Manager – Sabah Haque
Assistant Choreographer – Cassandra Martin
Production Consultant – Katherine Devlin Rosenfeld
Publicist – Samantha Eng

What:
An intimate immersive encounter that imagines the future of romantic connection.

Navigate your way through a series of simultaneously-unfolding duets, in which innovations in technology grant physical transformation, time and space travel, immortality, the extraction of the human soul, and a fridge that expands to hold infinite groceries—all in the name of love.

If you roll over in bed and reach for your iPhone, if you store more memories on your feed than in your brain, if you’ve ever longed to upgrade yourself or your partner, then welcome to TomorrowLove™.

From the creative team behind Vitals (2014 Dora Awards for Outstanding Production and Outstanding New Play).

Where:
The Aorta (733 Mt Pleasant Rd)

When:
Show runs from From November 19 – December 18 (Mondays excluded)

Tickets:
Tickets: $40 General, $30 for under 30/arts workers http://tomorrowlove.brownpapertickets.com/

Connect:
w: outsidethemarch.ca
fb: /OutsideTheMarch
t: @outsidethemarch
ig: @outside_the_march

 

A SummerWorks Chat with Simon Bloom, Director of “Murderers Confess at Christmastime”

Interview by: Ryan Quinn

We sat down with Simon Bloom to discuss SummerWorks premiers, storytelling, developing new work and the exploration of intimacy and vulnerability in his latest directorial project with Outside the March, Murderers Confess at Christmastime.

RQ: I’m here with Simon Bloom, director of Murderers Confess at Christmastime, premiering at SummerWorks this year.

SB: Yeah, it’s the world premiere. It was workshopped before at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. The playwright, Jason Chinn, is from Alberta, so it has undergone a workshop there, but this is the first full-scale production of the show.

RQ: Do you want to tell me a little bit about it?

SB: Absolutely! Muderers Confess at Christmastime is three interwoven stories that all take place twelve days before Christmas, and they all deal with murder in some capacity. The play is really about people who are fundamentally unhappy with their lives who live in a fantasy, or illusion. But, by the very act of trying to live in that fantasy, both the fantasy and the reality kind of collapse in and upon themselves. I think the reason Jason chose to set the play around Christmas is that it’s such a time that we perceive as being happy, but it really tends to make a lot of people feel melancholy and sad. It’s kind of like Valentine’s Day in that way. For some people, Valentine’s Day is great. For others, it reminds them of how lonely they are. I would say that all the characters in this play are fundamentally lonely, and reaching out to find some sort of a connection.

RQ: So, you’re premiering at SummerWorks. You premiered Terminus at SummerWorks, as well as Mr. Marmalade. What is it about SummerWorks that’s attractive to a company like Outside the March?

SB: I think one of the most impressive things about the SummerWorks festival is that it kind of promotes a sort of communication between early-career artists, mid-career artists, and professional artists. It presents you with the opportunity to approach more professional artists about collaborating on a project. For example, when we did Mr. Marmalade, we asked David Storch if he was willing to do it and he said yes. Also, we’ve had the chance to work with Tony Nappo and Harry Judge, some more established local actors. I just think that this festival offers you a really strong opportunity to showcase work. Those are the two reasons why I think SummerWorks is so valuable. And, just the kinds of audiences that come out to these shows, they’re smart audiences, really critical in a good way. It’s a really exciting festival, and really well-run.

RQ: Do you find that those approaches have changed since you went in with Mr. Marmalade, that you now have people approaching you?

SB: I think that since Mitchell and I started the company as fledgling artists coming out of our undergraduate degrees and we started Outside the March, it really felt like we were on the outside looking in. We really wanted to connect with people. And, because of the success of Marmalade and Terminus, it’s really opened up opportunities for us to work with artists who have said “we really enjoyed some of your previous work”, where we could say “if there’s a place for you in our next show, we’d love to have you”. That’s been really exciting because sometimes an actor will inspire an idea for a project. So, if someone approaches us and is interested in collaborating with us, that may inspire a whole new project for the company. But, at the same time, I think it has always been important for Mitchell and I to keep a core group of people that we work with, like Amy Keating, for example. We really want to continue to foster the growth of our ensemble artists. That’s really important for us, as well.

RQ: What’s exciting to you about this show?

SB: I think one of the things that’s exciting about this show and the trajectory the company is on right now is that Mitchell and I have become very interested in developing new work. After a long period of time of doing established work, we’re starting to branch out. For example, the project we’re doing after Murderers is a new play called Vitals, which Mitchell is directing, and it was written by Rosamund Small, a Toronto-based playwright. So, that’s very exciting for us. The whole process of dramaturging and workshopping a script is very different than working on something that’s already established. It’s opened our eyes to a whole new range of new work we can develop.

RQ: Within the festival atmosphere, there’s an energy that kind of fosters that mutual growth, right?

SB: Absolutely. I think the way Outside the March dovetails with SummerWorks is that idea of ensemble. In SummerWorks, it’s the ensemble of the festival itself, and in Outside the March, it’s the ensemble of artists we want to foster. For example, Jason, who was in Mr. Marmalade, is the playwright for this one. It’s exciting to bring artists back and let them put on different hats.

RQ: So next is Vitals, any other plans?

SB: Well, we’re also touring Terminus, and we’ve been working on The Spoke, which is a live storytelling event that we do at Videofag. We get people to come in and tell stories. We just had a fundraiser for Muderers that was at a Spoke gala event. It’s amazing how intimate it is, it really cuts to the core of what we do as artists, which is tell stories. When they’re deep, personal stories that people are sharing with an audience, it feels like a really genuine shared experience.

RQ: It seems like the theme that keeps coming up is ‘intimacy’, and how to share that isolation that comes with a lack of intimacy.

SB: Oh absolutely. I think in Murderers, there’s definitely a strong sense of people who are desperately searching for intimacy, but feel trapped in their loneliness. I think what makes Jason so unique as a playwright to me is that he has a very bleak but honest and genuine sense of the loneliness in the world. It’s quite raw. It surprises me when I read his work because it reminds me that we don’t see that onstage very often. There’s a sort of authenticity to his writing and a kind of unflinching rigour to represent characters that we so rarely see onstage. It makes watching his plays unbelievably unique, and it makes the voices of his characters also unbelievably unique. It’s safe to say that I’ve never read a play like this in my entire life. For me, it’s been such an amazing, eye-opening experience, to work on something that’s so unabashed. I don’t know how many different kinds of warnings we have on the show, but it’s very raw.

RQ: It seems like we’re in love with taking big shows and putting them in intimate settings, but to take an intimate show and present it in an intimate setting, that can be a tougher pill to swallow.

SB: Definitely. I think that it’s scary in the same way that being intimate with someone is scary. It requires such an extreme amount of vulnerability. I think it gets to the centre of what’s so tough about the actor’s plight. Their vulnerability is what makes them fantastic, but it’s also what can catch them up a little bit because it’s really hard to expose yourself like that to other people. I think that’s what a lot of the characters in this play are doing, both literally and metaphorically. They’re exposing themselves to other people and I think there are consequences to that decision, and not always good ones, unfortunately. I think that, in a way, this play defies narrative structure because it doesn’t fit into the mold of the happy resolution.

RQ: “I was afraid to speak my mind, then I spoke my mind, and now I’m a hero for it.”

SB: Exactly, yeah. If there’s anything that makes the characters in this play heroic, it’s that they’re honest. There’s a kind of “flaws and all” mentality to them. There’s something really beautiful in that, in the kind of loneliness and exposure of someone who’s trying desperately to get something and not being able to get it. I’m speaking vaguely because I don’t want to give away anything that happens in the show. But, I think there’s something really exciting but terrifying about that notion. I think one of the key, key, key things in this project has been the vulnerability that’s been required from everyone involved. The actors, designers, director, just a total exposure.

RQ: How do you approach work that requires that extreme vulnerability?

SB: Professionally. I think the danger you run with a show like this is to take it home with you. While you can always let your personal experiences help support the work you’re doing in the room, you have to be careful to not let that sort of stuff affect you. Without going into specifics, there was an experience that one of our actors had in real life that was very similar to something that happens onstage, and it happened while we were rehearsing the play. The play takes place in three bedrooms, and we were rehearsing one day in her house because we didn’t have a space, and it was this odd “art imitating life” moment. There’s this liminal space between what an actors is doing onstage, and what is happening in their life, and it’s precarious, and it’s the responsibility of the director to make sure the actor always feels safe. I mean, another thing we did for this project, because it’s three different groups for three different scenes, we rehearsed each group individually before coming together as a team. I think it was important for them to reach a comfort level with their partners before we got everybody involved together. It was amazing to watch them all work together for the last time before we dove into performances, it was amazing to see how much they really became an ensemble. That’s such a beautiful moment for me, as a director. Someone once told me that the role of a director is to sit one row further back every day until they’re not in the theatre anymore, and watching them today, I could see them take ownership of the show and come together as an ensemble. I feel like Mary Poppins, like my job is done and I can slide up the bannister and go home.

RQ: You look like a proud father right now!

SB: Yeah! Well, I think the asks on this show are big, but I think everyone went there. That’s all you can really ask. I’m unbelievably proud of them. So, I’m very excited, and very interested to see what the audience’s response is to this show. It will be polarizing. We made one of our venue techs throw up! Well, just a little bit.

RQ: Haha, well, thanks very much, and break legs for your run!

SB: Thanks very much!

murderersplash

Murderers Confess at Christmastime

A co-production from Outside the March and The Serial Collective
** 18 & Over **

When: August 8th-17th, 2013

Wednesday August 14th @ 5pm

Friday August 16th @ 2:30pm

Saturday August 17th @ 12pm

Where: Lower Ossington Theatre (100A Ossington Ave)

Ticketshttp://tickets.ticketwise.ca/event/3767739

For more information on the show & on Outside the March’s upcoming projects, check out their website: http://www.outsidethemarch.ca/

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

Interview by Ryan Quinn

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

JW: Jesse Watts!

APM: Aviva Philip-Muller.

KD: Kasey Dunn.

HD: Howard Davis.

HS: Harsharan Sidhu.

CS: Cheyenne Scott.

LRM: Lillian Ross-Millard.

KDa: Kathryn Davis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KDa: Or the puppeteers from above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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