“The Importance of Champions, Striving for that Spark & The Barriers and Biases Female Playwrights and Directors Continue to Surmount” In Conversation with Ali Joy Richardson on Writing and Directing A BEAR AWAKE IN WINTER at Next Stage 2019
Interview by Megan Robinson.
Ali Joy Richardson, the playwright and director of A Bear Awake in Winter, a new play premiering at the Next Stage Festival from January 10-20, is no stranger to the Toronto Fringe. For many years, the summer festival has provided what she considers a “perfect sandbox” for her personal projects. This year, however, with a show that’s larger in scale (a cast of seven, a runtime of 75 minutes, plenty of instruments) she’s ready to take on a new challenge. Next Stage is a step up in more ways than one; it’s also her first time being both writer and director of a show.
With inspiration drawn from plays like The Wolves and Concord Floral, this funny but dark play follows a high school band class in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 2007, taking a sharp look at bullying and the high stakes of adolescence.
We got to talk with Richardson, who’s only five years out of theatre school, about owning her roles as director and playwright, her creative opportunities thus far, and how the #MeToo movement inspired her new show.
MR: What was it for you that allowed you take yourself seriously as a writer in the last year? Was it a particular moment or a conversation with a friend? What did that look like?
AJR: Directing aligned very quickly with the part of me that is organized and responsible and I approached the role of director in a very nurturing way. But I have this internalized notion that the role of the writer is kind of wild and dynamic and that there’s a sort of wildly creative side to the person generating the words and the world. It took me a really long time to believe that people would take me seriously in saying that I am both of those things. And all of that can exist in one woman, and especially a young woman.
The internal conflict for me was: am I allowed to be both? Can I be the person with the sticky notes and the highlighter who knows what time everyone needs to be where and be the one writing really good jokes?
MR: So you felt capable of doing both and ready to do both, but it was more of an external thing of how people would receive you?
AJR: Yeah. I thought one would dilute the other in someone else’s eyes. So for me, a really big turning point was getting into Nightwood’s Write From the Hip Unit. That was major. And I did a residency with Canadian Stage, as well. I was in their 2018 RBC Emerging Artists Program and their Director Development Residency. I got into that as a director and then about halfway through I was like, “Hey, can I work on something that is my own play?” And the two women running the programs, Lynanne Sparrow and Taliesin McEnaney, right away were like, “Absolutely. We picked you for you. So whatever you want to do, we are excited about.” So that was huge. To get that green light from Nightwood and from the folks who were supporting me at Canadian Stage, who obviously saw all parts of me and welcomed all parts of me and started to build my courage to do both.
MR: That makes me wonder about people who don’t get that green light from others. How do they generate that sense of validation?
AJR: I mean I totally agree with you, and I think it speaks to the importance of diversity within those leadership roles, within organizations, so there is someone to green light the person that they see themselves in. Because I think it’s human nature that we will always champion people who make us think of ourselves. For better and for worse. And so I was really lucky to cross paths with people who I suppose I had a kind of kinship with in those roles.
MR: I think we can say that things are shifting. Even that opportunity, I wonder if even five years ago you would have had it. Where do you see those shifts happening?
AJR: I mean, this is a well-known example, I was really inspired seeing Kat Sandler directing her own work on some of the major stages this year. Seeing her play Bang Bang at Factory, I sat in the front row and I must have looked wild to the actors on stage. I was grinning so hugely. But with every beat of that show, this little barometer of courage was rising in me. That was huge.
I graduated from theatre school five years ago and during that time, I’ve been working Front of House at Theatre Passe Muraille, where D’bi Young had a show a couple of years ago. She is another person that continuously breaks out of every mould that I find myself internalizing. She is also a constant reminder for me that an artist can be many, many things.
MR: Okay, so some people have opened doors to you, and I’m curious what doors you see that are still closed that you wished were open?
AJR: I think the myth about directing your own work has got to go. I think we need to trust that artists know when they should be in both of those roles in a room, and to give people that agency to know themselves and know their work. I don’t think every show will be served by this but I think many will be and I think that people sometimes mistake it for a lack of trust in other creators.
MR: Particularly as a female playwright, what sort of limitations have you been working to push past?
AJR: I think comedy. I love comedy and it’s a thing in all of my work. I think we trust men much quicker as someone who understands what is funny in a room – as directors, writers and actors. I watch other women have to fight tooth-and-nail to be trusted in comedy. So, particularly as writers, I think that’s a big one.
I’ve also had some great conversations with Michaela Di Cesare, a celebrated playwright from Montreal who plays the character Flute (the young woman at the centre of the story). We talk a lot about the double-edged sword women have to dodge about whether or not your writing is inspired by your own life. If a man writes something from his own life it is seen as interesting and valid and if he writes fiction it is seen as interesting and valid but we haven’t sorted that out yet when it comes to women writers. For women, I feel like it is still a lose-lose situation, where if it is inspired from life they dismiss it as not really writing, but they also make that constant assumption about the work.
MR: Your show is influenced partly by your life though right? Your experiences in band and in that community?
AJR: Yes, every puzzle piece of this show absolutely comes from my life, but the finished puzzle is not a true story.
MR: Let’s talk about the writing of it. Did you always know you wanted to write this show?
AJR: So I was writing a play over the last year called Fool, during my time at Nightwood. Fool is set in medieval times, and this is the play I cheated on Fool with (I think a lot of writers do that). There was one night where I was feeling constrained by the rules of the world I was writing in and I just really wanted to hang out with people I knew.
The first scene of the show, which is a classroom scene, is the first scene I wrote. It was late at night and I just started writing the voices of these kids because they are so familiar to me. They are me and they are my friends from home and they are my sister. The voices came right away. They started talking and they didn’t stop. And I know it’s such a cliché. This is the first time in my life that I actually felt that cliché, which I’ve always kind of rolled my eyes at, but I really felt it on this play. So there’s a violent conflict midway through the play, and I wrote up to that moment of violence. That came in a rush, and then I hung out there for a while, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. It was really interesting because I wrote up to that point about a week before the #MeToo hashtag happened, and then the second half came quite quickly after that dialogue had started.
MR: What brought you to write that violent act?
AJR: For me, that moment has always been a sort of provocation for the audience. Especially right now, I think we are asked to empathize with men who misread situations and act in a regrettable way and I’m really interested in finding out what happens if a woman reads a situation and reacts a certain way, will the audience feel that her reaction was out of proportion in some way, or will they extend that same empathy to her?
MR: Sometimes we write things to reframe experiences or live out a fantasy or an idea of a situation, and I don’t want to put that on you, but I am curious to know whether there is an element of that in this.
AJR: In this, that moment of violence came from frustration. People in my life responded to my frustration with cat-calling, or men following me at night, by saying I should just punch them or kick them in the balls or tell him to fuck off, as if those are accessible and easy solutions that aren’t going to come with a whole other world of troubles. I started to wonder what would happen if the next time I felt afraid I did just hit back in a big way? I don’t think that would go well for me in this world. It was also around the time I started to take boxing classes, and something about that started to cook in my head. As I learned to hit someone safely, I started to wonder what would happen if someone did fight back, in a moment of feeling a threat. So it’s certainly not a personal fantasy, but it was a kind of obsessive thought experiment.
MR: Can we talk about supporting yourself in the arts in Toronto, and just like, how you do it? How do you do the job of a director and playwright here? Because you seem to be doing a lot!
AJR: So first, I will say, I’m enormously privileged to come from a family who has means and who is there if I need them. I don’t rely on that support but, as an artist, knowing it’s there and to have that is an enormous privilege in terms of managing my mental health. Just knowing there is a safety net there if you needed it. I think it’s important to be honest about that.
MR: Do you think you’d be a playwright if you didn’t have that safety net?
AJR: That’s a really good question and it keeps me up at night. I have a little fear in me about that. I don’t know the answer. Of course I want to think I would be but I also hold myself to a really rigorous standard around that. My life would definitely look different, I think.
MR: I do just want to say that the arts are so valuable, you know? And I don’t think there should be any weird guilt or shame around it, you know if you’re like, “I’m doing this just because I can” I just think, “Well thank God somebody can.” I just want to say that.
AJR: (Laughs) Thank you. And like every artist I’ve worked a million different jobs, and done many strange gigs from standardized patient work to working for a nannying agency. So I’ve had a plethora of different side hustles. And finding ones that didn’t drain the life force I need to make art, that was key for me. It might not give you a mountain of joy but it can’t suck out the thing you need to make your art.
MR: What keeps you motivated?
AJR: The feeling I have when I see or read something that makes me go “Oh my god, I didn’t know someone else knew that or felt that”. That spark, every time that happens, makes me want to put stuff like that out in the world.
Also, I come from a family of really, really hardworking people, none of whom are in the arts. And honestly, when I hear my sister talking about training to do an Ironman, I’m like, “you know, I can probably get up at six and write a few more pages.”
A Bear Awake in Winter
at the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival
Playwright & Director: Ali Joy Richardson
Cast: Michaela Di Cesare, Andy Trithardt, Andrew Di Rosa, Bria McLaughlin, Danny Pagett, Natasha Ramondino, Hershel Blatt
Assistant Director: Bryn Kennedy
Stage Manager: Lucy McPhee
Sound Designer: Neil Silcox
Lighting Designer: Steph Raposo
Producers: Ali Joy Richardson & Bryn Kennedy
2007. Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A high school band class. A new teacher from Toronto wants to be an inspiration to his jaded students but is afraid to come out to them. A boy bullies a girl in insidious ways until she takes matters into her own hands. An act of violence at a school dance fractures the community. This is a dark, funny, and difficult story about the fight to stand up for yourself.
FACTORY THEATRE – MAINSPACE, 125 Bathurst St, Toronto
Jan 11 – 9:45pm
Jan 12 – 3:45pm
Jan 13 – 1:30pm
Jan 15 – 8:45pm
Jan 16 – 12pm
Jan 18 – 7:30pm
Jan 19 – 5:45pm
Jan 20 – 7:30pm