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“Trauma isolates you. Theatre connects you.” In Conversation with Playwright Ellie Moon on WHAT I CALL HER and Using Art To Heal

Interview by Megan Robinson.

In our discussion regarding her newest play, What I Call Her, premiering November 16-December 8 at Crow’s Theatre, Ellie Moon is careful yet generous and endearingly enthusiastic. From her temporary home in Montreal, where she’s playing the role of Emmy in A Doll’s House, Part 2 at the Segal, Moon speaks fondly of her creative team back in Toronto, who are working hard to bring this comedy (or at least, very funny play) to life.

Her second production, following last year’s Asking For It, this new play offers theatre-goers the chance to see the young playwright’s work in a more traditional form. The show takes a look at two sisters who are struggling with different perspectives of the same story. It’s a complicated exploration of how we heal from trauma in an era in which our identities are worked out online, and so much more. After writing the first draft in one sitting (basically a miracle for a writer), What I Call Her was quickly programmed at Crow’s Theatre by Artistic Director Chris Abraham, who recently tweeted “Read this play last year, and it got right under my skin.”

We spoke with Moon about life after Asking For It, what it’s like being mentored by Chris Abraham and using art to heal.


Megan Robinson: Can you talk a little about the experience you had after Asking For It? Maybe about how you were feeling and where you were at as an artist?

Ellie Moon: Post-Asking For It, I had the biggest vulnerability hangover of my life, which was difficult, because I went right back into auditioning but didn’t really want anyone to look at me (laughs). It was a lot that I asked of myself in that project. You’re just getting to know yourself in your early 20s, and playing myself in a play, asking very vulnerable questions, it was a big deal – and I wasn’t relaxed about it. If I had known that once the show closed, much of the world would be standing up and saying “I had this sexual experience and I’m not sure what it meant, whether it was consensual, what my power was or is”, if I’d know Albert (Schultz) would no longer be running Soulpepper a few months later, I would have slept much better during the rehearsal process, but these things were completely inconceivable to me while I rehearsed this play. So, I was cripplingly terrified. The terror did relieve significantly after #MeToo broke during the run of the show, but the vulnerability, of course, persisted, and I was pretty exhausted by it all when it closed. I felt like spending a lot of time alone after the play closed, which I did, and which allowed me to write this play.

MR: This show is about healing from trauma. I’m curious to know more about what role your art plays in helping you heal or grow as a person?

EM: Theatre has connected me with the most empathetic, accepting people in my life, so that’s a big part of it. It allows me to discuss and test behaviour, to learn about and consider its impact on people, without needing to try it out (that’s not to say that I haven’t tested out some good and bad behaviour in my life anyway, though). Most powerfully, maybe, I’ve written multiple “unlikable” characters that I’ve watched artists embrace and see good in that I couldn’t see when I wrote them – and that is very healing. It’s also enabled me to connect with others with similar life experiences, or different life experiences, because at the end of the day, the experience of all lives is similar enough to unite us. Trauma isolates you, theatre connects you.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: What was the process like of writing What I Call Her? How did it come about?

EM: This is super strange and wild and hasn’t happened for me before and I don’t expect for this to happen again…But I sat down and started writing without a plan, and 7 or 8 hours later I a) moved after all that time b) ate peanut butter toast and c) read it back and went “Woah, I really like this”. It had a few development workshops this year, but the changes have been very delicate – Director Sarah Kitz contributed an important stage direction, and I added and took away some text, but not much. I don’t think the original draft would look too different from the production draft, were you to look at them side-by-side. This is not at all how I work, usually, not even a bit. It was hard to speak about this play at first, because it was so born of my subconscious. I needed to work backwards to learn how to represent it to the community and I did this by sharing it with trusted people, and discussing with them what exactly it is.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: How did Crow’s get involved?

EM: I gave Chris Abraham (Crow’s Artistic Director) the play to read, just as a friend. I was looking for feedback but absolutely not expecting him to program it. He read it and said “I might have space for this at Crow’s in the season” and then, “I have space for this in the season” and suggested Sarah Kitz as director. Sarah and I actually met for coffee a year and a half ago, after we had first “met” in the comments section of your incredibly brave piece about your experiences at George Brown, which brought about meaningful change – bravo! I understood Sarah to be a deeply ethical, smart person and I was like, “yes” this is a great fit.

MR: Chris (Abraham) has acted as a mentor to you, and I’m wondering if you can share some of the vital beliefs about playwriting or theatre in general that you’ve received from him and how they’ve shaped your work?

EM: Really too many things to name – I’m incredibly grateful to Chris. Most of the language I have to speak about plays comes from Chris and that’s pretty major. I wrote Asking For It while assistant directing a production The Watershed and that was the first time I heard the word “dialectic” (and I embarrassed myself by thinking he was saying dialect at first and being like “no I think the accents are good” (laughs)). On that project and others we’ve worked on or discussed, Chris talks a lot about moving a dialectic (or argument) through action, and that idea was at the front of my mind when writing What I Call Her (as well as Asking For It, and my new plays for the Tarragon). Chris is very gifted with taking a complex idea and simplifying or distilling it, it’s partially why he is such a good director and teacher. A practice I learned from him, and that he passed on from someone else, is that I try to name in just one short phrase what my play is about – what the central argument is – as early as possible in the process of writing. Chris is also wonderfully open-minded and accepting (I mean, for example, there was zero judgement when I thought dialectic meant accents…except from me, of myself) and I am working to make that more and more part of my practice as an artist and my life in general.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: Tell me about working with director Sarah Kitz!

EM: It has been absurdly wonderful to have Sarah as a collaborator on this play. From the very first conversation I had with her about the show, I was gob-smacked by how completely and fully on the same page we were. I have never had this experience before, and I don’t consider it necessary to always see eye to eye with a collaborator, but it’s just a fact that she has never said one word about the play that hasn’t made me go, “yup, exactly”. Sarah has an enormous heart to balance out her enormous brain. As well as being able to navigate every aspect of the arguments the characters make in this play, and being able to hear the lines exactly as I do, and crack the language like a code, she has always had an understanding of how this play would exist in bodies and in space. Sarah also has a stunning capacity to hold both of the conflicting truths this play presents, side by side, with enormous empathy for and acceptance of both, and an acceptance of the mystery of where these meet. As an actor herself, she is also an incredibly gifted coach and director of other actors. That has been so essential here because these roles demand an absurd amount of these actors, and I know the cast would back me up when I say that Sarah is a gift to them as their guide.

Speaking of, I can’t believe how hard we lucked out with the cast – their qualities are bang on for these parts and they are extremely gifted and can manage this highly wordy, challenging text with ease. This was something I was nervous about – this combination of the inherent qualities I saw the actors and characters as needing to have, coupled with the need for actors who are extremely proficient with text, and especially because the play needs such young actors. Your energy changes a lot year by year between 20 and 30, these are like dog years, and if these roles feel “played down” by older actors, the play is so delicate that it could tip it into satire. A big question in the play is one of responsibility and the entrance into adulthood. At what point in someone’s life do they go from behaving in a way that can be reasonably understood as being in response to their given environment, to them being active in the world, not reactive, and responsible for their conduct? It’s probably not 18, right? You’re still a kid at 18. It’s probably somewhere more between 20 and 25. So the casting, and casting as close to the right ages of these characters as possible, was very important to me. I was fortunate that Sarah agreed wholeheartedly with this, and that she adores and understands actors as she does. And of course, these fine actors (Charlie Gould, Ellie Ellwand and Michael Ayres) deserve a shout out in here, too. They have had to learn a lot of very precise, very, very wordy text and hold all that alongside the massive emotional stakes of the show. And they are also hilarious.

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

MR: If you were to liken this show to something else, what would it be?

EM: I realize this is a very ballsy thing to say about my own work, to compare it to one of the great plays of the past century, but I think it’s kind of a funny, female, millennial Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

MR: What is at the heart of this show for you?

EM: How much we need validation to heal, and how difficult that is in a world where other people exist, and not just to be in service to you and your narrative, but have their own experiences of things that need validating, too. How people who are traumatized often behave in ways that destroy their credibility and make that validation very difficult to receive. How responsibility is needed for healing, but is so often arrived at through blame.

MR: What makes you want to write? What sort of things get you inspired?

EM: I’m not sure what makes me want (or more accurately, need) to write and I want to respect the mystery of that and not think too hard about it. I’m very grateful that I can do this and that I’ve had the opportunity to share so much of my writing at this point in my life. Right now, I’m definitely interested in morality and responsibility and power, but I can feel this shifting, and I want to invite it to shift.

MR: Asking For It was documentary theatre, where this one has more of a classic play structure. Do you have a preference of one form over the other?

EM: I don’t have a preference with regards to form. I want to have a diverse writing practice. I definitely notice that people give you a lot more credit as a playwright when it’s a fiction play and not docu-theatre, though, which is too bad and misguided. Docu-theatre requires an incredible amount of work, responsibility and authorship. People have a lot of bias against it as a form. They assume it’s dry, didactic, condescending. It doesn’t need to be and I have been fortunate to see so much docu-theatre that isn’t.

MR: Since being a playwright-in-residence, how has your craft evolved?

MR: I’m the Bulmash-Siegal playwright-in-residence at Tarragon and in this capacity, I’ve worked a lot this past year (and will this coming year) with Richard Rose, Jason Sherman and Joanna Falck – awesome, sharp, wise people and artists. As well as adding significantly to the language I have for speaking about plays, this residency has allowed me the space to develop plays (two of them!) over time, to take in and incorporate very precise feedback (or feedback that’s imprecise, but just as potent and useful). I’m usually one to rush to immediately apply notes, but this arrangement allows me to really hear a note, and maybe not understand immediately exactly how I will apply it, but to not be afraid of that, to sit with it and come back to it. This opportunity to not have to figure it out right away is invaluable, especially because, as I said before, your 20s feel like dog years and I feel like a different person than, like, a week ago.

MR: What’s your favourite line?

EM: ”I’m an adult: I have a reusable water bottle in my bag.”

Photo by Dahlia Katz


What I Call Her

Who:
In Association in partnership with Crow’s Theatre
CAST:
Michael Ayres – Kyle
Ellie Ellwand – Ruby
Charlie Gould – Kate
CREATIVE:
Ellie Moon – Playwright
Sarah Kitz – Director
Annie Clarke – Producer
Suzie Balogh – Production Manager
Ashley Ireland – Stage Manager
Imogen Wilson – Lighting Designer
Ali Berkok – Composer & Sound Designer

What:
Trauma, truth, freedom & the internet age
The estranged mother of 25-year old Kate is on her death-bed. A Facebook post becomes the subject of heated debate. Then, a knock on the door. A play about gaps in how people perceive and understand the world they live in, female generational rage, and the loneliness of holding onto one’s own truth.

Where:
Crow’s Theatre
345 Carlaw Ave.
Toronto

When:
Nov. 16-Dec. 8

Tickets:
crowstheatre.com

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“Getting Personal, Breaking the Taboo & Being Relentless for What You Love” In Conversation with Playwright Hannah Moscovitch on SECRET LIFE OF A MOTHER at the Theatre Centre

Interview by Megan Robinson.

In her new show, Secret Life of A Mother, on now until November 11th at the Theatre Centre, Hannah Moscovitch has chosen to wrestle with the theme of motherhood by way of the personal.

As a writer whose previous work has always kept her at a critical distance, this confessional form of storytelling is a new challenge for Moscovitch, who is managing the discomfort by trusting in her technical writing skills and her knowledge of how narrative works.

Like her show, Moscovitch is both very funny and surprisingly honest throughout our conversation. And despite her insistence that she does not enjoy exposure, we managed to get her talking about her relentless creative process, the crucible of motherhood and, eventually, what makes her a good writer.

Written by Moscovitch, Maev Beaty, Ann-Marie Kerr and co-created with Marinda De Beer, Secret Life of A Mother is the result of six years of development. It’s a show that peels back the layers on two women who are friends, mothers, and artists, as they reach for empowerment by sharing and shaping their own story.


Megan Robinson: So I read that you’ve always admired auto fiction and confessional writing and I do too, Sheila Heti and her book Motherhood, for example. I’m wondering, if you love that form so much, why did you avoid doing it for so long?

Hannah Moscovitch: There’s tons of it out there that I’m really drawn to, because I think the truth has a light around it. And I don’t know what else to say about that. There’s something about the truth and the willingness to be that vulnerable and to put yourself on stage that I haven’t been willing to do…Because I’m reserved and I don’t like to be exposed. Personality-wise I’m not a good match with auto fiction. So this show hasn’t been easy. You know, there’s real shit going on in the world that’s hard and compared to that it’s fine… I mean, I made the choice to do it and I have a team of people who are doing it with me, who I trust so much and that makes all the difference in the ability to do it.

MR: Do you think it’s because it’s a harder fall from this type of work?

HM: Maybe. You know what, it probably is, but I don’t think that’s even a thing for me. I actually just don’t like the feeling of exposure. I just don’t like it. It’s really simple.

Hilariously enough, someone once said to me about switching from playwriting to TV writing, “You have to know in TV writing the author doesn’t get acclaim like playwrights do.” And I was like, “That’s fine, I’m not worried about that.” I’m just not into exposure. Not because I’m humble or awesome but because I don’t like the feeling of people knowing all this shit about me. Partly because I got so bullied in high school and after that I was like, ‘I just want to be normal and I don’t want anyone to look at me again and I want to be anonymous.’ My whole effort going forward from high school was to just blend in as much as possible.

MR: You’re definitely not doing that.

HM: I fully failed. I think this is definitely pushing me. But I wanted to be pushed, I wanted to do it.

I think it was me, actually, I sent in an email. I wrote everyone on the team a message, I was like, ‘What about if I write my own story and Maev plays me and then I can talk about Maev and her experience in that because we’re such close friends and she’ll have to talk about herself in the third person on stage. What about that as a form for the show?’ And once I said it we were all like, ‘Oh that’s it.’ But at that moment I hadn’t calculated what that would mean.

MR: I know you’re saying it’s scary and you don’t like the feeling of sharing, but was there something you enjoyed or valued from writing about yourself?

(long silence)

HM: Yeah, I think there is a kind of empowerment for sure. There’s definitely empowerment. And there’s perspective you gain from it. It has advantages, I think…

MR: You’re still figuring it out?

HM: Yeah. I think there were moments writing it where I realized that when something is taboo, if you just simply say what happened to you, it can break through the taboo because it’s that way because it’s just something that’s not spoken about. So all you have to do is say, “This is what happened to me over the course of my two miscarriages” and that is not a thing we’ve heard about a lot because there’s a tendency to hide when you’ve had a miscarriage. But the truth is, the number of women who have had miscarriages is extraordinary. Women have them constantly. I think something like 1 in 4 women have them. So it affects huge numbers of people and yet it’s not spoken about. So just to represent that experience does feel empowering. Because you’re like, ‘I’m going to say this shit and that’s going to be crazy. All I have to do is just tell you what I went through.’

MR: Is it weird to you that it is still a taboo?

HM: Yeah, but do you know why? I don’t know why miscarriage in particular is taboo. Other than that it’s ‘gross women stuff’…

MR: I think maybe it’s because it hurts? It’s not being talked about because it’s hard. Even if it is normal it doesn’t make it not hard. Even depression is taboo, because it’s hard to talk about. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt…

HM: Like grief… It’s common for people, if they’ve had a miscarriage and that’s why they stay off work, to not say why. And I want to be clear I did the same. So when I had miscarriages I didn’t tell people why I was not coming to work. But people will often say it’s because they have cancer or a dental surgery or have been in a car accident, but they won’t say miscarriage and I can’t exactly say why. Other than that it is in that zone of gross grief-filled women stuff that people don’t want to hear about.

MR: I think it can also be us not knowing how to support people who’ve been through it, right? So you don’t say it cause no one knows how to hold it for you?

HM: No one knows what to do once you’ve said it…

MR: And now that’s the audience with this piece.

HM: Totally.

MR: I read that you have lots of ideas, more ideas than you have time for. What does it look like when you have an idea? Is it a character? Is it a question you want to answer? Does it always come about the same way?

HM: I think maybe because I’ve worked in a bunch of different mediums I’ve been forced out of my comfort zones pretty intensely. Like, I’ve worked in TV and opera and radio quite a bit as well as playwriting, and every one of those mediums has a different way in and honestly I think it’s just made me technically practiced of having various ways in. I would say before I did all that fucking around with what medium I was going to work in, I would definitely say it was through character. Through character I got everything. I’d hear a voice in my head that was saying words, that was the character, and from that voice I’d find theme. I’d find plot and narrative structure within that character’s voice. And now I think I can go any direction. I can go from theme, I can go from plot, and I can go from character.

But I think mostly people like to pick one. And I think in theatre mostly people pick character because theatre is a great medium for the interpersonal.

MR: Is there something that exists in everything you’ve written, something integral to your work?

HM: Yeah I think there are a few in varying degrees depending on the piece I’m working on… I’d say I really like extremes. I like seeing characters up against extreme circumstances that shortcut them to themselves. So I like war and genocide. I like to put people through crucibles, which they have to transform extremely because everything about who they are is called into question.

MR: Is motherhood that for you? Is it a sort of war?

HM: I’d say it’s a crucible through which everything about you is called into question. That is, I think, why people write about it or care about it. I’d say at the center of the experience of motherhood, for many women, is a crucible. If you’ve ever had any mental or physical problems, whatever thoughts you thought you conquered long ago, when you become a mother it will all come back. So any demons you haven’t faced, they’re all going to come for you, right when you become a mother. And that’s good because you’ll be forced to face things about yourself and you will learn who you are as you question your identity. So yeah, it’s like war in that way, but only in that way. In every other way it’s not.

MR: Oh god.

HM: I’d say I’ve always been interested in womanhood. That’s the other thing I go after pretty consistently in my work. Womanhood and a counter-narrative of womanhood.

MR: What is a counter-narrative of womanhood?

HM: I think anything that is authentically true about being a woman is a counter-narrative because there’s just so little out there.

MR: Do you think the bar is too low?

HM: It’s awfully low right now. Sometimes I really feel like that. I’m like, isn’t it fun for the bar to be this low…

MR: I guess there are some advantages to it…

HM: I mean it’s gross, maybe, but as a writer on the inside, I’m like ‘I can just fucking tell stories about women and it’s like, ‘holy fuck I’ve never heard that! It’s totally unconventional!’’

There’s an entire part of our culture that we’re mashing down that we were not talking about and now people are talking about it and it feels original, but seriously, it’s been happening all along… like nothing’s a surprise. It feels like the whole content of our brains is suddenly media worthy.

MR: Does that make you want to write more confessional and personal stuff?

HM: Um, yeah, I mean, within the right circumstances for sure. I do have one other project. One thing I have learned that you do need within your own material of your own life is for there to be a narrative structure. So I think that’s the limit for me. I mean I wouldn’t write about anything in my own life that didn’t have a narrative structure in it. I really do admire it when people do it, so I have to remember that when I feel all those fucking feelings while I’m doing it.

MR: Do you write things that you like?

HM: If I’m really honest, part of why I wanted to write things was because I didn’t like some of what I saw and I thought I’d like to write something that I would like. In a weird way, those pieces of mine that I feel are failures, it’s because I didn’t like it when I saw it. So I do have those. It really matters to me that I like my work and I really freak out when I don’t like my work.

MR: How do you deal with that?

HM: You know… honestly… I flip out. I drink and don’t sleep. It’s bad news. I don’t do that anymore. Now I have a son and I can’t freak out in quite the same way. But I tend to freak out and go all the way down and be in grief about it because it sucks to put something on stage that you don’t like and that you feel is contributing to the medium not being good, especially if you love the medium right? It does take me going all the way down and then it’s like, ‘Okay good. What did I do wrong? What lead to this experience of me not liking it’ and then I can track back.

MR: What do you think makes you a good writer?

HM: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that in my life…

MR: What would your best friend say?

HM: That’s easier somehow. Well, I think I’m relentless. Like, I’m fucking relentless. And I think for some people working with me, that’s going to be hard because I will not let go. But I like that quality about myself, honestly. I’m rigorous and I’m relentless. I’ll go to the wall for a 5 percent improvement. I’ll do 95 percent of the work for a 5 percent improvement, for sure. I’m in that weird category of relentless insane people who can’t let shit go.

I don’t know why I’m admitting this, maybe I’m in an admitting mood, but I think I will ultimately break everything to make a thing good. I’ll be accommodating and kind and respectful of other people’s processes and then I’ll hit previews and if it’s not communicating the way I want I will say all the things that I think aren’t working. I don’t lose my temper or anything, I don’t want it to sound like I’m a horrible person, but we’ll hit previews and I’ll say it all. And I’ll spend every minute fighting for those things until the last second the piece goes up. I hit a point where I’ll break relationships before I break the play.

MR: Is that something you would give as a piece of advice for someone else to do?

HM: I mean I think in general one of the things I’ve learned from being that way is that it’s much better to work with collaborators who are happy to hear you. One of the things I’ve learned is that, for me, I need to work with collaborators that are relentless like I am and who want to make it better and who don’t have defensiveness around making it better. And at the cost of, say, having brought in a sound designer and then realizing the show has no sound in it, and having to cut the entire sound design of a designer who just spent months working on it. So you know, it just takes a particular set of people who want to work with you. And who are willing to break their own ideas to make it better.

MR: Right.

HM: I can’t believe you asked me why I’m a good writer!

MR: Do you have your own answer, not from a friend?

HM: You know what, it’s probably just hard to answer because it’s hard to answer without talking about myself positively, which I should be able to do but I can’t for some reason.

I am good at writing. I think I’m technically good at it.

MR: Have you always been technically good at it?

HM: No.

MR: Why were you a good writer when you first started?

HM: I think that there were little fragments of observations. I think I was a natural at dialogue. I always was good at dialogue. I couldn’t structure for shit. I didn’t know plot or theme at all. Couldn’t do that. I could do character and dialogue. And if you’re a playwright, dialogue is kind of important. So I got lucky with some ability. And then I had to learn everything else.

And I put up some shows that were really bad. I put up those shows that were bad, and then I fucking waitressed and sulked for a couple of years.

MR: Did you write while you were waitressing and sulking?

HM: Yeah, but nothing good. I wrote a lot of bad things at the beginning of my career. I put some of them up at SummerWorks. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience where the audience is like, ‘This is bad,’ to make you go, either, ‘I have to work to do this better’ or ‘I’m never doing this again’. And then I spent a lot of my time trying to work out how to be a playwright by reading hundreds of plays. And I read some of them like 30 times, trying to take them apart.

MR: Which ones did you read 30 times?

HM: The Little Years by John Mighton. I read Pinter. All the Canadians, honestly: Judith Thompson, Daniel MacIvor, Wajdi Mouawad, David French… I just read them over and over. Caryl Churchill, David Mamet, Chekhov, Wilde. So I think I was relentless. And then I worked out something about how I could do it. And it’s still hard, but I think that’s the answer honestly, why I’m good at it, cause I really worked hard…

MR: Why would one work so hard at something like that? Because you loved it?

HM: I really loved it. That’s true. That’s at least part of it. I remember buying new plays and being like, “Fuck yeah.”

MR: Did you smell them?!

HM: I smelled them for sure. I was like, ‘Fuck, I get to read another Caryl Churchill, that’s the best shit.’ I was a real nerd. I think also failure has a tendency to set me on fire. Maybe not for the best reasons. And once you’ve told me I can’t do a thing, the level of self-loathing is so intense that I have to succeed at it.

Secret Life of a Mother

Who:
Written by Hannah Moscovitch with Maev Beaty and Ann-Marie Kerr
Co-created with Marinda de Beer
Core Creator and Director: Ann-Marie Kerr
Core Creator and Playwright: Hannah Moscovitch
Core Creator and Actor: Maev Beaty
Core Creator, Producer, and Stage Manager: Marinda de Beer
Scenic Design by Camellia Koo
Lighting Design by Leigh Ann Vardy
Associate Lighting Design by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Projection by Cameron Davis
Sound Design by Debashis Sinha
Costume Design by Erika Connor
Props Builder: Haley Reap
Vocal Coach: Fides Krucker
Creative Producer for The Theatre Centre: Aislinn Rose

What:
A playwright writes an exposé of modern motherhood: a confessional piece about her own darkly funny and taboo-breaking truths. One of her oldest friends, an actress, tells this story, and through it, her own motherhood secrets start to surface.

This isn’t mothers as the butts of jokes, or the villains, or the perfect angels of the house. Secret Life of a Mother reveals what two women are actually experiencing: the raw and transcendent and untold secrets of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and mothering. This is motherhood for the 21st century: hallucinatory, gothic, and empowered.

Where:
The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West

When:
October 20-November 11, 2018

Tickets:
theatrecentre.org

Production Photography of Maev Beaty by Kyle Purcell

“Finding Your Process, Comradery On and Off Stage & Working with Planned Parenthood” In Conversation with actor Mattie Driscoll on Cue6’s DRY LAND at The Assembly Theatre

Interview by Jared Bishop.

We sat down with actor Mattie Driscoll to discuss Cue6 Theatre’s Toronto premiere of Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel. Mattie gets into her experience as a new actor tackling a challenging script, the comradery on and off stage and the show’s partnership with Planned Parenthood. Dry Land is a play about abortion, female friendship and resiliency, on stage now at The Assembly Theatre until September 22nd.

Jared Bishop: What was your impression when you first read the script?

Mattie Driscoll: When I first read the scene we were given for the audition, I was so excited. I was a little too excited. I was like ‘fuck, this is so good!’ This is one of the best scripts I have read maybe ever. It’s very much my style – dark humour and gross and weird and hard to watch a lot of the time. And I am coming from just graduating school from Ryerson where I didn’t have the opportunity to be a part of any shows like that. That’s not the work you are doing in school. Obviously there is a focus on classical work, which is great, but that means, as a young woman, you are playing the ingénue or a not particularly strong female character a lot of the time.

When I read the whole script it furthered my thoughts around that scene. I was just like, ‘it’s so good!’ I am astounded the playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel was only 21 when it was published. I was just really excited when I first read it.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: Can you talk about the Planned Parenthood partnership?

MD: Yes, I can speak to it a little. I know for Cue6 that it’s something important for them, that community outreach element. There are talk backs on Thursday nights and what we want the talk backs to be are a conversation around accessibility in Ontario and abortion rights and what that is all looking like. A focus more on that discussion instead of about the play. They are so great, we have had someone from Planned Parenthood come and speak to us because after our very first show we realized the conversations after performances sometimes involve people sharing their own stories. This is great because that’s what we want the play to do but it is a weird position to be in as an actor. To say ‘I hear you’ and to not go to a place of ‘OH, I am so sorry’. That is not how it is handled in the play. It’s coming from a place of ‘It’s ok, she is ok, her life is going to go on’, and not necessarily taking the power away from someone by assuming it was a horrible awful experience for them. We had someone come in from Planned Parenthood to talk about what language to use. They use language like ‘removing a pregnancy’, which I had never heard before. I am learning a lot about something I had thought I was pretty well versed in. I am realizing that there is still a lot to learn in that department. Planned Parenthood Toronto just seems amazing, so we’re excited that those talk backs are happening on Thursdays.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: In rehearsal what did you do to build the intimacy needed for the story?

MD: The thing that is super nice is that I am playing alongside my university classmate Veronica Hortiguela. So we had a lot of that level of comfort already, which was so nice. It’s made this process even better because I am working with someone I am super close with. We already had an intimacy there and a shared vocabulary because of school. We were able to work quickly and easily, and we were able to walk home together and talk about it.

In the rehearsal process, I have just loved Jill Harper (director). I think she is so great and she is so smart. Veronica and I always spoke about how she does this cleaver little thing where you think you came up with the brilliant thought but it was her who gracefully lead you there. She is trusting, which is so nice because I don’t feel like I trust myself yet necessarily. I am just coming out of school and figuring it out.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: How do you reset yourself between shows?

MD: Oh my god, well, I’m still kind of figuring that out. I am going to keep talking about how this show is different from school. Normally the show would have been done four times or maybe five. I have never run something for this long before, which I love. I get to do a play for this long? It is so fun and nice! So far I walk home, I chill out a little. That’s another thing why I feel grateful to be so close with Veronica because her and I get to debrief and it is important to me that she feels safe and comfortable after because it is just a different show for her than it is for me. I end the show and I am kind of okay, whereas she just had to experience what she did and that is totally different. That requires a different type of comedown. She is still navigating that as well and it is hard to make a judgement on the show when you are in that kind of clouded place. But I think we are good at making a quick joke about it, reminding ourselves that it’s fine, and kind of leaving the play there. I think I am good at leaving it there. I will be curious when people ask me this in a week because we will see how that is going. I just walk home. I try to take some deep breaths.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

JB: Who do you think is the intended audience and who do you want to see this show?

MD: I want to just say a general everyone, and I want to say young women. But I feel they are who get it a little more so I want people who don’t get it. We have had conversations and watched interviews with Ruby Rae who say this is often a harder show for men to watch because the blood, for women, isn’t that freaky. It is normal but for men it is a little harder to watch. I do want young women to see this, to see themselves onstage in a way that I haven’t encountered before, but also especially men and people who don’t understand that this is a normal thing, more normal than it ought to be.

Photo Credit: Samantha Hurley

I am so curious to hear and see the rest of the run because we have had people leave, people have had to leave in the very first scene because the punches were too much for someone. Obviously we have had a few people leave during the blood. I am curious about what sets people off. We have a device to reset the energy for people but if I was on the other side watching it, I think I would freak out. I would love it as a young woman, I would see this play and say ‘yes, more of this!’ There is something about presenting woman not as fragile and the female body not portrayed as delicate. And I am so grateful for that. Ruby Rae has a note at the beginning of this play and it’s “Harshness is as true to this play as sweetness”, and that has been so fun to play with.

Dry Land

Who:
Company: Cue6
Cast:
Mattie Driscoll, Veronica Hortiguela, Jonas Trottier, Reanne Spitzer, Tim Walker
Written by: Ruby Rae Spiegel
Directed by: Jill Harper
Producers: Christine Groom, Matt Eger, Joshua Browne
Lighting Designer: Simon Rossiter
Sound Designer: Tim Lindsay
Stage Manager: Hannah MacMillan

What:
Ester is a swimmer trying to stay afloat. Amy is curled up on the locker room floor. Dry Land is a play about abortion, female friendship, and resiliency, and what happens in one high school locker room after everybody’s left.

Dry Land is the first full-length play from American playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel. Spiegel
was only 21 when Dry Land was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and its
premiere production received a five-star review from the New York Times, calling the
play “remarkable… caustic, funny and harrowing.” Dry Land has gone on to receive acclaim across the US, UK and Australia.

Where:
The Assembly Theatre – 1479 Queen Street West

When:
Sept 5th – 22nd
Wednesday – Sunday at 8pm

Tickets:
cue6.ca

“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

 

“Making Improv Magic, The Value of Play & Working with Colin Mochrie” In Conversation with Liz Johnston & Mimi Warshaw on ENTRANCES AND EXITS at the 2018 Fringe

Interview by Megan Robinson.

The concept of Entrances and Exits, a new farce on stage now as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, is a complicated one. To make things more complicated, it’s also entirely improvised!

This impressive and unscripted farce is split into two parts; with the first twenty minutes playing out in the living room with a series of entrances and exits into and out of the bedroom and then restarting a second time with the same scenario, but set in the bedroom. This requires that the cast do an instant replay of sorts; filling in the blanks of the story, hitting all the main plot points, and eventually culminating with a satisfying resolution. And hopefully they can make us laugh along the way.

Somehow, the cast pulls this off without any planning and with very minimal mid-show discussion.

We sat down with actor, improviser, Bad Dog Theatre Company member and Entrances and Exits co-creator Liz Johnston and Howland Company member and E&E production manager Mimi Warshaw to figure out how they make that improv magic happen, some common misconceptions about improv, and, of course, what it’s like working with Colin Mochrie.


Megan Robinson: What does a rehearsal look like for this type of improvised show?

Mimi Warshaw: Paolo (Santalucia, the director) brought a lot of his acting training into it and was really interested in playing with characters, discovering characters and trying on some clown work. So that was the beginning, just to play. That helped to know how everyone worked. That was the focus of the first half.

The last month and a half was about finding the show. And it grew in pieces. There was a lot of, “Let’s play with one room, then the next room, now let’s see what happens if we flip the set.”

A lot of playing and coming back and saying, “How did that feel? What worked? What can we do better?”

MR: Is there anything not improvised? What might be consistent throughout the show? The characters? Anything?

Liz Johnston: You really don’t know what will happen.

MW: I’ve seen maybe a dozen versions, maybe more, and no two shows have been the same.

MR: How much do you play for each other and how much is for the audience?

LJ: The audiences have been really generous, so I think we’ve been playing a lot for the audience. The thing about improv is that you also get the joy of making each other laugh. There are so many fabulous moments where someone will say something, and you just can’t help it. And the audience feels kind of in on it because they know it’s improvised. That’s really joyful. That’s what I love more than any kind of theatre, where you can really have everybody be on the same page, and they can be like, “I know exactly why this is funny. I was here for every part of it.”

MR: What is a myth or misconception about improv?

MW: I firmly believe that people think improv is just people going up and being funny. But I think good improv is funny because it’s recognizable. When I’m at an improv show, there’s always somebody who gives a suggestion like, ‘we’re in a volcano at the end of the earth.’

And I’m like, ‘we’ll never be there so…’ Maybe it would be funny, but I’m more interested in seeing somebody in a bakery having a traumatic moment and seeing the comedy in that.

I don’t know if it’s a misconception, but I like seeing reality on stage, and I think there’s comedy in that. I think that’s funnier than just a bunch of jokes.

I also think people are terrified of doing improv because they think they aren’t funny…

LJ: Another thing is that it’s nice to have people now recognize that there really are different styles of improv, that are all valuable.

So you can go to an improv show and have big laughs and fast scenes and big characters and enjoy that just as much as going to see something like this longer narrative unfold and have unexpected turns, more dramatic moments, and have them both be beautiful and both be improv.

I don’t want to run into a trap here… I love short-form improv. I love games (an easy thing to describe it as is what you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway). There’s so much joy in that, and there’s so much talent in being able to do that well. It’s truly harder than anything else. So I never want to say those aren’t worth as much as a long-form unscripted piece of theatre.

MR: So farce is very slapstick and physical. How do you improvise that sort of thing? Or do you?

MW: It’s not just physical, it leans towards the improbable, leans towards the ridiculous, so it doesn’t need to be grounded to reality. And we definitely do that. As much as there’s still truth, it still has that sense of play.

The other thing I’ve been told about farce is it doesn’t need to have to have a moral. It can just be a really beautifully fun and hilarious time.

LJ: I always forget we have so many different definitions we’ve gone through describing what farce is, but again leaning towards the improbable.

Like: There’s a dead body in the other room, this is true, what else is true? It’s not about calling the cops or trying to figure out what happened. It’s us trying to be like, “Okay, there’s a body in the other room, but we also have to make sure everything’s fine for the party.”

We like the fact that as much as it is ridiculous, it’s all stuff that could happen. It’s all about the foibles of humanity and the relationships between people and it takes those tensions that might already exist, those love affairs that exist, and heightens them to the point of the ridiculous.

MR: Must be fun!

LJ: It is nice to escape a little bit. Which is not to say that we don’t deal with the issues of what’s going on in reality, but because it is so focused on just relationships between individuals and how silly and absurd they can be, it is a bit of an escape to get to go there and just live in that ridiculous and joyful place.

MR: Have you ever showed up to rehearsal and been in the shittiest mood and not been able to find that joy?

LJ: I had one where it was an 11 pm show, and I had just done D&D Live!, which is another show that I LOVE, and it’s so funny and also improvised. I’d done that earlier in the day and I’d done another show, so I came to do the 11pm show, and I was so zonked. I could not find my energy. But it’s the same thing that happens for any performer; the audience starts to come in, you have the cast around you, you put on your costume, and you’re like, “This is the best thing ever! What’s next?”

So it’s a nice medication for tiredness.

MR: Some of the best questions can come from inside the process. Do you have a question you’d like to ask each other about your experience within the show?

MW: Liz, when you’re standing backstage, and you’re like, “I need to figure out what I’m bringing to this scenario”, what’s that process like? How do you feel in that moment?

LJ: I don’t know. I really don’t think about it. I like to just go on stage. That’s the kind of classic improv thing: if you can really get used to just trusting yourself to go onstage.

Just open the door, going, “Here we are! What happens next?”

MW: In the show, how much awareness do you have of the bedroom when you’re in the living room?

LJ: I usually have an idea of what I think is going on. And everybody is so good at having their own ideas.

We talk about this in improv, it’s called “group mind” where everyone sort of ends up on the same page without discussing it at all.

The number of times that will happen with this show… I mean, it’s the magic of it!

MR: So the magic of it is a surprise to the improvisers too? I know as an audience member, that’s how it feels. Those moments feel…

LJ: Totally, you come back, and you’re just like wow! It feels so wild.

MR: What about pushing boundaries?

LJ: You check in. You talk about it, whether it’s physical touching or subjects you can touch on that may be a boundary. Even just one night, with my nose bleeds, and I was like, “Listen, guys, it might happen. I have tissue in my pocket. I’m okay, it’s okay.” And any of those types of conversations, you just need to have them. And we’ve had those. Any good cast will talk about it constantly.

MW: There are moments where people will say things, and we’ve had this in rehearsals, where somebody will take a dive, and be like, “I’m going to propose something…”

But our cast is really supportive and really knows each other and so they’re able to support them. And that’s what I love about improv – you can do something, and guaranteed, five people will say we’ve got your back, we’ve got you, we’ll take care of you.

There have definitely been moments where you need to be risky, but these people handled that with such care, and such responsibility, they made it so safe.

LJ: Anyone who is making a faux pas, it’s coming from a place of fear.

The biggest thing in improv is you need to go on stage making a choice to make everyone else look as good as possible so if you can do that, if everybody is doing that, then everybody is going to look great. You’re setting up everyone else to succeed. You can’t do that if you’re undercutting them or sacrificing them for a laugh or commenting on something for the sake of the audience.

MR: Lastly, tell me about working with Colin Mochrie!

LJ: He’s just the most generous man.

It’s such a generous thing to do; to know your name will lend fame, or excitement to someone’s show. He does that so willingly and generously.

He did this exercise with us, which is really difficult. Everyone was struggling to keep up and we started playing with the format of the game so it got faster and went backwards and forwards, so fast! But Colin was having no trouble, just breezing through it. Everyone know’s how funny he is and how sharp, but good lord the man is fast. And so present. We’re so excited to have him on the show!

Entrances and Exits

Who:
Presented by The Howland Company in association with Bad Dog Comedy Theatre
Created by Liz Johnston & Ruth Goodwin
Director: Paolo Santalucia
Starring: Ghazal Azarbad, Conor Bradbury, Nigel Downer, Dylan Evans, Ruth Goodwin, Liz Johnston, Connor Low
Designed by: Christian Horoszczak
Production Manager: Mimi Warshaw

What:
A completely improvised play based on the structure of traditional farces we love like “The Norman Conquests” and “Noises Off”.

Where:
FACTORY THEATRE – MAINSPACE
125 Bathurst St
Toronto
Ontario
M5V 2R2

When:
13th July – 7:30pm
14th July – 9:15pm
15th July – 12:00pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

“Inspiration, Travel & Getting Personal” In Conversation with performer Clare Blackwood on BIKEFACE at the 2018 Toronto Fringe

Interview by Jared Bishop.

BikeFace is a show ready to inspire adventure. Strange but true tales of writer Natalie Frijia’s solo journey across Canada are brought to life by performer Clare Blackwood, on stage now at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival. We sat down with Clare to talk about inspiration, travel and how personal this show became.

JB: When did you first learn about the story told in BikeFace?

CB: It was about two months ago. I had no Fringe plans. My friend Rebecca Perry (producer) called me out of the blue and was like “Hey, Natalie Frijia (creator) and I have this script, you are one of two people we are considering for it. Is this something you would like to be a part of?” and I was like “Oh God, yes!”

That was a couple months ago. When I read the script, I knew that this was exactly the type of story I was interested in telling. I am a solo traveller as well. Natalie’s writing really resonates with me. We have the same style of dry humour about travelling alone. It’s really nice because it makes her words really easy to speak.

It was such a pleasure to read a script that felt tailor-made for me and she didn’t even know it.

JB: How did you make the story your own?

CB: I have done a lot of travelling by myself. I have had a lot of the experiences explored in the play, I didn’t have to sit there and wonder what’s it like to be alone in the middle of the road, in the middle of the country, in a place I have never been. I have that experience, I have that knowledge and I know what it’s like to be camping in the middle of nowhere and hear noises and think “I am going to die now… glad I had a good life!”

A big theme of the play is how being a woman is different when travelling alone, the adversity it comes with and the attitudes you get from other people. It’s often quite rampant so I know what she is talking about. Men are cat-calling you on your bike or you’re being told you shouldn’t be by yourself. It is something you get all the time when you are by yourself. So this made it very personal for me.

The joy of meeting new people is so prevalent in this play. Some of the best human beings I have ever met in my life are people who I have known for a day or two. They just leave this mark on you and then they leave. You think “I will probably never see this person again but I will remember them for the rest of my life.” I think that is also a really relatable theme in this show with all of these characters. They have all left such a huge mark on her (Natalie) that she wanted to bring them to life. It was my pleasure to try to do that without ever having met them.

JB: What inspires you to travel?

CB: I am a Gryffindor. I like not knowing where I am going and I like missing trains and having to figure out alternative routes and meeting new people and camping in stupid places where I shouldn’t be camping and not planning where I am sleeping. There is just such a thrill in that.

I love seeing new things. I am a giant history nerd and I go where the history is. It’s just fun for me. I know how I travel for some people is horrifying but for me it’s fun, that’s the baseline.

I’m influenced by my family who taught me to love camping. My mom is a person who has gone skydiving and who camps by herself, so this has always been encouraged.

I have always just been a stubbornly independent person so that’s where my inspiration for travel comes from. And it’s also a nice “fuck you” to people who say I can’t.

JB: There are many characters you explore in this show, do you have a specific process for developing them?

CB: It’s funny because I have never played multiple characters on stage before. This show was a huge challenge for me. I had to draw on a whole lot of sources to create these characters. Some came a lot more naturally than others. Normally, when I create a character, I start with the voice and go from there. That’s mostly what I did for these people. If I was having trouble with the character it was because I wasn’t being specific enough in their voice.

JB: How does telling this story compare to your past Fringe experiences?

CB: My fringe experiences have been varied and wonderful. This has definitely been the easiest story to tell. My parents came to see the show Saturday and they were like, “You could have written that. That’s the story we keep waiting for you to write.” Again, Natalie and I are very similar in the way that we write and the way that we travel. So with this show, the process of creating it for me wasn’t easy, but the act of telling it and the act of engaging with the audience has been a breeze.

You don’t have to work to get people on your side with this show. They are already there. You open your mouth and the words come out and they are like, “Oh yes, I like this person.”

This has been the most personal show for me. And the one that is closest to who I am as a human.

JB: What is something important to share with people who haven’t yet seen Bike Face?

CB: I really want people to come see this show, whether you like bikes, whether you go camping, whether you have gone on an adventure. It’s a show that people have been saying really resonates with them. It’s a perfect fringe show in the sense of it will make you laugh and it will make you cry and it will make you want to go on an adventure. I think it’s such a gift as a performer to have a show like this.

And because it’s been created by this badass group of women who are really good at their jobs! It feeds the inner adventurer in everybody, which I think is so lovely.

BikeFace 

Who:
Company: Trailblazing Ladies
Playwright: Natalie Frijia
Director:Mandy Roveda
Cast: Clare Blackwood
Producer: Rebecca Perry

What:
“Like a ride down the road with the wind at your back!” (Edmonton Journal)
During the Victorian cycling craze, doctors warned women riders they would undoubtedly cultivate “bicycle faces”: becoming over-exerted, wild-eyed, un-sexed vulgarities, with nothing before them but the wide, open road. Over a century later, the Journal of Paediatric Psychology still finds that girls are four times more likely to be warned about dangers inherent in exploration and adventure. This is where BikeFace takes off! It will tickle your funny bone and above all else, ignite your thirst for adventure!

Where:
The Annex Theatre
736 Bathurst St
Toronto
Ontario
M5S 1Z5

When:
July 12th   1:45pm
July 13th   9:45pm
July 14th   2:15pm
July 15th   7:30pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

Photo Notes: Photographer: Hayley Andoff Featured in Photo: Clare Blackwood

 

 

 

 

In Conversation with Briana Brown and Rob Kempson on Co-Directing ROBERT at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival

Interview by Hallie Seline.

When finding out about Robert by Briana Brown, running at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival, I was very intrigued to find out that it was being co-directed. In a position that is so traditionally singular and with the current conversations around power dynamics in the rehearsal hall, I was eager to catch up with co-directors Briana Brown and Rob Kempson to discuss what drew them to share this leadership role, the value of artistic respect and trust in your directing partner, and the advice they would pass along to others wanting to explore this alternative directing structure.

Hallie Seline: Where did you get the idea to co-direct this piece? 

Briana Brown: We both adjudicate at the high school NTS Drama Festival (formerly Sears) during the winter, and this year there seemed to be a number of co-directing teams. I was initially skeptical and asked them a lot of tough questions about their process and responsibilities, but in the end was wooed! Their experiences sounded so positive, and the logic made so much sense, I was really interested to experiment myself. Rob is the only person I could ever imagine doing this with, and I’m so happy he was game to try.

Rob Kempson: There are few people on this earth who I would ever consider sharing the role of director with; Bri is one of those people. So when she asked me to work on this piece with her, I knew I had to jump at the opportunity. She has such a brilliant mind and she is such an understanding and compassionate artist.

HS: What discussions need to happen before and during the process to make sure you both are on the same page? 

RK: Luckily, Bri and I tend to share a brain. We actually joke about it often, because it’s scary how regularly we have the same thoughts at the same time. So while we have had a number of meetings throughout the process to make sure that we’re on the same page, we are almost always on that page. During shared rehearsals, we would take moments outside of the rehearsal hall to touch base, and decide who would be doing the primary communication with the actors. However, often during our notes sessions, we would have the same or similar notes, so it was pretty easy to give our notes together.

BB: I concur.

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

HS: What has been the benefit of having two directors on Robert?

BB: Reassurance. Directing can be such an isolating role, and under this model, you always have a partner. When I was feeling something wasn’t working, or I couldn’t figure something out, Rob was able to both validate my experience and often confirm he was finding it challenging too. We were then able to discuss potential solutions frankly, and vulnerably, in a way one wouldn’t do with designers and actors, because you need them to have faith that you have all the answers.

I also loved watching Rob work with the actors. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in an assistant directing role, which is the only time you’re really privy to watching a director work when that is the only thing holding your focus. I also knew exactly what our challenges were, which was not an insight I had when in those AD roles, and so it was fascinating to watch him work. I picked up a lot of things that I know I’ll integrate into my process going forward.

RK: I love watching Bri direct as well. She is so wise, and offers such unique insight in all of her work. Bri speaks to actors fully–meaning the weight of the piece as a whole infects every note she offers. It gives the actors such a great understanding of a moment in the context of the work as a whole. It’s brilliant, and so different than my standard practice.

More broadly, the major benefits of working together on this piece are related to authorship. Bri is not proprietary with her writing, and so she is open to making big directorial choices to compliment the words on the page. This means that when we rehearsed, we were able to play with big open minds. It has led to some inventive choices that highlight her brilliant words, and that I would have never thought of on my own.

Janelle Hanna and Chris Baker in ROBERT

HS: And on that note, have you come across any challenges in having two people leading the process?

BB: I’d love to hear an honest response from the actors about whether we were as in sync from their perspective, as we believe we were.

I also think knowing we were sharing the weight and responsibility sometimes slowed us down a little, mostly before going into rehearsal.

RK: I also think that we almost checked in with each other a little too much… as in, we felt like we needed permission before following an impulse. So it meant that we’d say yes and thank you and okay before even trying something to see if it worked in the first place.

HS: Would you say you each have specific strengths or blind spots that compliment each other in your work? 

BB: In this particular iteration, Rob was great at noticing my blind spots as a playwright. He is more focused on physicality than I am, which was amazing to have in the room. We are, however, both exceptional choreographers.

RK: I think what Bri means is that I am a brilliant choreographer, and she is very limited in her appreciation of truly expressive movement.

HS: Have you learned some key lessons while co-directing that you’d pass on to others wanting to try this? 

BB: We have known one another for over 10 years, and have worked together in a number of capacities, so entering into this we knew that we shared a number of core values when it comes to storytelling. I can’t imagine embarking on this under any other circumstances. You need to appreciate your co-director artistically, and trust them as a human. Ego doesn’t have a place in this process. If you’re directing because you like to be the All Powerful Voice in the room, you will end up in conflict.

RK: Ego cannot have a place in most true collaboration. But when you’re collaborating on the same job, it really cannot enter the space. Bri is so good at that, and I need to work on it. It’s good that I wasn’t able to be bossy all the time. It makes me a better artist, and ultimately, it makes this production better.

HS: Tell me a bit about this show Robert, on assembling your team and what you’re excited to share with Fringe audiences? 

BB: At the core of this team is the group that put on Bad Baby: Rules Control the Fun at last year’s fringe. We’ve switched roles around a little bit, and we have invited some exceptional new artists into our process, including Rob.

RK: I’m excited about so many things: it’s site-specific, it’s funny, it’s a little dramatic, the venue is beautiful, Bri’s play is amazing, I’m co-directing a play that has my name as it’s title… etc. etc. Should I go on?

Robert

Who:
Company: Lark & Whimsy Theatre Collective
Playwright: Briana Brown
Directors: Briana Brown & Rob Kempson
Producer: Erin Vandenberg
Cast: Chris Baker & Janelle Hanna

What:
Kat and James are waiting for their father to die. Not exactly estranged, but certainly not close, the two struggle to make conversation until James reveals the worst secret he possibly could. From the team behind the 2017 Fringe hit “Bad Baby”, Jessie-nominated playwright Briana Brown (Almost, Again) delivers laughs and heart in her new award-winning play about identity and loss. With a set of bagpipes.

Co-directed by Briana Brown & Rob Kempson (Maggie & Pierre, Mockingbird), produced by Erin Vandenberg (Salt), and featuring Janelle Hanna (Prairie Nurse, Bad Baby) and Chris Baker (Deadmouse: The Musical).

Where:
ST. GEORGE THE MARTYR
197 John Street
Toronto
Ontario

When:
5th July – 8:00pm
6th July – 8:00pm
7th July – 5:00pm
7th July – 8:00pm
10th July – 8:00pm
11th July – 8:00pm
12th July – 8:00pm
13th July – 8:00pm
14th July – 5:00pm
14th July – 8:00pm

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com