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