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“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

 

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In Conversation with artist Tom McGee on Being a Dramaturge, Collaborating with Kat Sandler and Embracing His Own Style as Playwright & Director with FEATHERWEIGHT at the Fringe

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Tom McGee is a story nerd, with a resume to prove it.

Behind every hit Theatre Brouhaha show has been McGee, working as the diligent dramaturge alongside playwright Kat Sandler. He has been there helping her craft the hilarious, dark and punchy scripts we’ve all come to expect from this ambitious company.

With their newest production, Featherweight, McGee is swapping places with Sandler. While McGee steps into the roles of writer and director, Sandler is working as both producer and dramaturge.

Featherweight is a dark comedy that promises to be as relevant as your Facebook feed and to prompt your most heated post-show debates (did you see Bang Bang?), remaining faithful to the Brouhaha mandate of creating theatre for the Netflix generation.

Brouhaha’s fast-paced shows speak to what is in the zeitgeist; this is a company that understands it is competing not only with other theatre but with all digital content. And the company has a creative process that moves as quick as their dialogue. In this age of content, it’s important to McGee that each show gets put on stage quickly, while the story is still topical. Rather than two years of development, a Brouhaha show gets more like two months (the script will get a little longer). Concerning the longevity of this style of theatre, McGee believes that it’s the memory of the play and the experience of the audience that matters more than it’s potential success in the unlikely event of a remount. Plus, at the rate Sandler and McGee can whip up a script, McGee would sooner come up with a new show that can speak to what is happening in the current moment anyway.

I got to speak with Tom to get his thoughts on the struggles of dramaturgy and learning to embrace his own writing style.


On Working with Brouhaha and Kat Sandler

Tom McGee: I’ve worked in some capacity on all of Kat’s scripts, with the exception of her long-forgotten piece Dirty Girls, which she did in the Fringe. Even Mustard and Bang Bang; I was a consulting dramaturge on both of those. Often Kat will hire me on the side because Factory and Tarragon will have their own dramaturges (who are excellent) but I’ve been working with Kat so long that our short-hand is so good. She can basically call me up and be like, “You know that thing I’m always worried about? This scene.” And I’ll be like, “Oh ya, I see what you’re talking about – how about this, this, this, and this?” And she’ll be like, “Great! Thank you! I needed that.”

As a Dramaturge, If You’re Doing Your Job Right, You’re Invisible

TM: Tom Arthur Davis, one of the guys who runs Pandemic Theatre, wrote a really interesting piece around the Dora Awards about depression and dramaturgy, “Being Nominated For An Award Made Me Suicidal,” and it’s pretty intense, but he touches on something about dramaturgy that I’ve certainly struggled with. It’s the same thing that a good editor will encounter on a film or in a novel which is; the job is to make the writer’s work as good as the writer’s work can be, and there isn’t a ton of credit in that. Aside from the writer’s indulgence at the end of the novel, that everyone usually skips, where the writer will say, “Oh my god, I can’t fucking describe how much I need my editor”, and everyone goes, “I don’t know who that is but I loved your book!”

Dramaturgy can often be that way and I struggled with that for a long time.

Kat and I are very dear friends, and she’s always been very appreciative of what I’ve done, but the first Brouhaha show we did was very, very tough.

I was producing it, and I dramaturged it, and I was a ghost. At the time I was hell-bent on being an actor, and I just helped make this company, and my name was all over the show, but I felt completely invisible. And it was really hard.

For me what ended up really helping was getting an art therapist. What I’ve been working on with her, which has been tremendously helpful, is unpacking those feelings of invisibility and how to accept personal credit when there isn’t necessarily big, flashy, showy credit. It’s definitely a struggle. Every part of the arts comes with a cost and I think this is the big one for dramaturgy.

Tom Arthur Davis summed it up in his piece, something along the lines of, your job is basically to facilitate other people’s brilliance… and that’s cool, and there’s huge satisfaction in that. Like when I can make one of Kat’s pieces click, which is what we call it: the click. It’s that moment where she’ll be like, “Great, got it, thanks,” and then she hangs up and goes and punches out like a billion pages. That feels tremendously satisfying.

Photo Credit: John Gundy. Michael Musi as Jeff in FEATHERWEIGHT

On Swapping Roles With Sandler

TM: Honestly, we’re both nerds for story so this is has always been both a job and a hobby for us. The number of times that we’re like, “Okay, we’re both really stressed. Let’s just go out and get a drink and not talk about this,” and then, of course, we end up talking about it because it’s fun!

Early on the struggle that Kat was having working as my dramaturge was she’d say, “I’m always going to try to make your script more like my scripts.” And in my head, I’m thinking Thats fucking great, your scripts are great. Let’s do that! So we had a few, not necessarily growing pains, but I had to adjust to being a little more assertive about my style and what I actually liked about my script.

I had a reading of what was supposed to be the production Featherweight script, right before we were about to go into rehearsals and it was rough. A lot of the criticisms, all fair, where people were kind of being like, “Is this what you were trying to say?” and, no one had said it outright, but it was a lot of that classic, “It’s very interesting” and I was like, “Oh shit, no one likes this…”

So I’m on the subway on the way home and Megan Miles, my wife, was like, “Do you even like this play anymore”? And I was like, “No, actually… I fucking hate it.”

I was writing some short story at the same time that was just completely bonkers and I was like, “I like this short story! It’s fun. But this play is so weighed down, and I don’t know what to do… blah blah blah.” Just admitting that got me thinking that I needed to re-write it the way I would like it to be, and suddenly it all just clicked into place! What is funny is this draft of Featherweight that’s onstage now is actually closer to the very first draft I wrote. It’s come completely full circle. Even though the characters are different, and their arguments are different, and what’s going on is kind of different, it feels more like the original because that’s when I was expressing the style I actually wanted.

Because I look up to Kat and I like Kat’s style so much I took every note as gospel. You know, my style is strange, and Kat and I have a similar tone but a different style, so I had to kind of grab hold of my own style harder for this show. Which she, again, had been advocating for the whole damn time, but just not necessarily in terms I was understanding.

Photo Credit: John Gundy
L-R: Kat Letwin as Thoth, Michael Musi as Jeff, Amanda Cordner as Anubis in FEATHERWEIGHT

A Very Brouhaha Directing Process

TM: We always work our stuff on its feet and what is on stage is wildly different than what I went in with on the first day of rehearsal. We’ve cut a bunch, we’ve changed some things, we’ve tailored it to the performers, but I’ve never run that process. I’ve always dramaturged that process, Kat’s always been the leader of that. So at first, I wasn’t sure if I could do that myself. But despite how different I am as a director and a writer, ultimately the rehearsal style ended up still being a very Brouhaha process.

That Brouhaha Style 

TM: What’s been really nice is that even just from the reviews no one has been like, “Oh this is really different from a normal Brouhaha show.” Everyone’s just taking it as a Brouhaha show, which means a lot to me. It has been many, many years, and it’s very nice to put my name and style to one of these things and have audiences respond to it in a way that I would hope for. I’ve been thinking about these audiences for a long time.

Making the Job Work for You

For me, the solution was to find ways to keep working on my own style to fill in the gaps. In this case, it was writing short stories and basically just doing things that, even if they don’t really have wide reach, they fill that need for me to be creating and developing my own voice.

I love dramaturgy. I don’t think I could make it my only output, but that’s also just me. I’ve got a really restless brain and on the one hand that’s great for dramaturgy because I always like to be chewing on something, but if I’m only chewing on other people’s stuff I tend to get restless, so it works as long as I have multiple things to sink my teeth into.

Featherweight

Who:
Director – Tom McGee
Cast – Amanda Cordner as ANUBIS
Michael Musi as JEFF
with Kat Letwin as EVERYONE ELSE
and Ammit as THE DEVOURER OF HEARTS
Producers – Kat Sandler, Tom McGee

What:
Upon dying, Jeff awakes in a bar full of ancient gods that will weigh his browser history against a feather to determine if he was a good person… or face damnation. Equal parts ‘American Gods’ and ‘Twelve Angry Men,’ FEATHERWEIGHT asks: what effect does our online life have on others? Will Jeff’s browser history damn him? Would it damn you? From the minds behind BRIGHT LIGHTS (NNNNN) and SHAKEY-SHAKE AND FRIENDS (NNNNN)

Where:
THE PADDOCK TAVERN
178 Bathurst Street
Toronto
Ontario

When:
12th July – 8:00pm
13th July – 8:00pm
14th July – 8:00pm
15th July – 8:00pm

Tickets:
Featherweight is SOLD OUT online but you can always show up early at the venue and try your luck at the door!

 

Photo of Tom McGee by James McKay

Ryan Recommends: Yesterday the Children Were Dancing (Hier Les Enfants Dansaient)

By: Ryan Quinn

Editor’s note: This article marks the first of a weekly series to come from Ryan Quinn. If you are an actor or a theatre lover, keep up to date with what plays you should read before you hit the stage. 

Gélinas, Gratien – Yesterday the Children Were Dancing (Hier Les Enfants Dansaient)

A French-Canadian politician and his separatist son debate the issue of a divided Canada on the eve of a monumental event for them both: one will be becoming a congressman in Ottawa, the other is orchestrating a series of explosions to undermine English influence in Québec. A great microcosm of that way the debate was raging in the late 1960s, which was of course when the FLQ was active. It’s as tense as Pinter and as character-driven as Miller, and it’s still incredibly significant, especially taking into account the student revolt currently going on in Québec. There are some amazing scenes and monologues for young and older actors. I read the translation by Mavor Moore, which was as emotionally resonant as I imagine the original text to be.

1967 – 5 males, 3 females

To buy a copy, click here.