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Posts tagged ‘Tyler Seguin’

Women in Theatre, The Canadian Canon & Finding Humour in Dark Subject Matter – In Conversation with Tyler Seguin, director of The Trial of Judith K

Interview by Madryn McCabe

I had a chance to talk to Tyler Seguin, director of The Trial of Judith K., presented by Thought for Food about humour in dark subject matter, women in theatre and the Canadian canon.

MM: Tell me about the Trial of Judith K.

TS: It’s a modern, Canadian take on Franz Kafka’s The Trial, set in 1980s Vancouver, with a female protagonist. It’s fast, funny, sexy, dark and violent.

MM: What made you want to direct this show? What drew you to it?

TS: The first thing that drew me to The Trial of Judith K. is the way it mixes comedy and darkness. As a person, I’m interested in big ideas and strong political statements, but as an artist I’m not really interested in didactic storytelling. Judith K. deals with some serious issues like legal disenfranchisement, the security state, oppressive cultural norms and the objectification/exploitation of women, but it does so with humour, which makes it all the more powerful. Laughter opens people up and disarms them, allowing the “Important Statement” to slip into their minds unnoticed.

We’re all breathing more freely with a new PM in the House, but we chose this play during peak Harper years. And despite the “sunny ways” of Trudeau, Bill C-51 is still on the books, and every single time I open the paper there’s another example of a Kafkaesque justice system at work in Canada, not to mention the rest of the world.

I’m also looking for opportunities for strong visuals with elements of movement and physical theatre. As far as I’m concerned, theatre isn’t a realistic art form and I am frustrated by plays that pretend to be a verbatim representation of the real world. The Trial of Judith K. revels in its theatricality.

Stephanie Belding. Photo by John Gundy

Stephanie Belding. Photo by John Gundy

After The Memo, it was important to us that the next project be a play with a stronger female voice. The Trial of Judith K. is written by a woman, with a female lead and more women than men in the cast. It’s also an older Canadian script, which appealed to us. The Trial of Judith K. was nominated for major prizes including the Governor General’s Award and the Dora for Best New Play, but it hasn’t been revisited professionally since 1989. It feels like we’re a community obsessed with creating new work, but are we really developing a Canadian canon if a script is only performed once?

MM: What do you feel is the role of theatre companies when it comes to representing the Canadian canon, even if that company’s mandate isn’t specifically to develop or showcase Canadian playwrights?

TS: There’s room for all kinds of theatre and nobody should feel beholden to anyone else’s idea of what theatre “should be.” But it seems that companies are either “new work” or “classics” and when they say “classics” it’s British, or American classics. People are now starting to explore the European canon, but very rarely do we see previously-produced Canadian plays. We were so happy to see Factory produce a whole season of previous hits, and Passe Muraille is starting a celebration series this year. But generally TPM and Factory produce seasons of entirely new work. Great! We need to develop new work, but that’s 8-10 plays that will probably only be seen once and then forgotten. And that’s just two local theatres – how many more new plays are being produced across the country? And what does that do to playwrights? If you’re not constantly producing something new, you’re yesterday’s news. And they’re being expected to put in years and years of development for a show that’ll run for possibly 5 weeks. That’s no way to create a history. Part of the problem is with our funding models. The major granting bodies are very interested in supporting the development and presentation of new work and we were actually told that since we were choosing to do an older play that we needed to make a stronger case for why we wanted to produce it.

MM: There are themes in Judith K that are similar to your last production, The Memo. Both discuss the absurdity of bureaucracy, and the down-the-rabbit-hole way of navigating it. Is Judith K a deliberate follow up to The Memo?

TS: Yes and no. Yes, there are a lot of similarities to The Memo – both stories essentially deal with one person’s fight against “The System” – but we weren’t deliberately looking for a thematic follow-up to The Memo. We wanted to find a play that would meet certain parameters: female protagonist, more women than men, Canadian, and ideally something that would let us get back in touch with the Czech community who were so incredibly supportive of The Memo. We read several plays and eventually we started looking at Kafka. There are several stage adaptations of The Trial but when we discovered Sally’s play, not only were we able to check off all the boxes, but we were excited by the material itself.

MM: The Trial of Judith K is based on Franz Kafka’s The Trial, making the protagonist a woman and setting it in the 1980s. What do you think that brings to the story?

TS: There’s an added layer of the patriarchal nature of “The System” and its inherent misogyny. In the world of Judith K. anyone can get caught up in the system, but when a woman is the accused, her body becomes part of the negotiation. The men who offer to help her, want something physical/sexual in return. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling and disturbing.

Stephanie Belding, Scott McCulloch. Photo by John Gundy

Stephanie Belding, Scott McCulloch. Photo by John Gundy

MM: I hear the design elements are very important to the show as well. Can you tell me about that?

TS: Since the show takes place in several locations, we needed a set that was flexible enough to create multiple looks using the same few pieces. We are also somewhat limited by being in the TPM Backspace – the stage is tiny. However, it has a lot of height, which we’ve also taken into consideration with our set. We wanted to evoke a sense of claustrophobia – that everything towers over Judith. We were also looking at ways of incorporating the 80s (when the play was written) and the 20s (when the novel was originally published). Expressionism blossomed in the 20s and neo-expressionism popped up in the 80s so there’s actually a lot of similarities – geometric shapes, large shoulders, the use of light & shadow are all elements we’re integrating into the design. Many music videos from the 80s owe a lot to German expressionist films. Once we started looking for the connections, they were incredibly obvious.

As well, our sound designer is playing with songs that straddle both eras while also highlighting the distinctions, such as contrasting the synth-sounds of the 80s with scratchy phonograph recordings from the 20s.

MM: Why do you think The Trial of Judith K was written as a comedy instead of a moral-imbuing drama?

TS: The source material is actually quite comedic. Kafka is funny. He’s taken on this aura of “serious writer” but his work is full of humour. We found this with The Memo as well – it’s something about the Czech psyche, they’re able to take awful, depressing situations and find the humour in them. We spoke to Sally Clark and apparently the original commission for Judith K. was a serious drama about a hostage situation and that it was the original director, Morris Panych, who suggested it should be a comedy.

MM: How do you manage the comedy with such dark and, sometimes disturbing, subject matter?

TS: We’re definitely walking a tightrope with this show. Terrible things happen throughout – assault, torture, murder, and execution are all in the story and we don’t want anyone to think that we’re taking it lightly. People should be disturbed. Our ideal tempo is “Funny – Funny – Funny – Disturbing – Funny – Funny – Funny – Is that funny? – Why did I laugh at that?” Laughing at disturbing material doesn’t mean we’re making fun of it. Humour is a powerful tool and a coping mechanism. If we can laugh at something it ceases to have power over us. So while the show has a sheen that is heightened comedy – the characters are based in Commedia, and the style is almost farcical – we are actually using this stylization to comment on some pretty horrible situations.

MM: Is there anything that you want our readers to know about the show?

TS: It feels like we’ve been talking a lot about the show’s big ideas and issues and while those are important, we want your readers to know that The Trial of Judith K. is just as funny as it is smart. Sally Clark says the overriding principle of staging this play should be “louder! faster!” The show feels a little like a sitcom run amok – the situations are wacky, the characters are outlandish and the jokes pile up on top of each other. The material can also edge into the grotesque, and the nihilism runs deep, but first and foremost it’s a comedy. Until it isn’t.

The Trial of Judith K.

Presented by Thought for Food Theatre

Scott McCulloch, Stephanie Belding. Photo by John Gundy

Scott McCulloch, Stephanie Belding. Photo by John Gundy

Directer: Tyler Seguin
Assistant Director: Tamara Vuckovic
Fight Director: Siobhan Richardson
Set Design: David Poholko
Costume Design: Miranda VanLogerenberg
Lighting Design: Jareth Li
Sound Design: Alex Eddington

Stephanie Belding
Toni Ellwand
Patrick Howarth
Andrew Knowlton
Helen Juvonen
Scott McCulloch
Cara Pantalone

What: A sexy, funny, and thought-provoking adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial returning to Toronto stages. 

Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)

When: January 28-February 14, 2016





The Memo: A Satire of Bureaucracy

Interview by Madryn McCabe

I interviewed Tyler Seguin, director, and Helen Juvonen, producer and actor, of Thought for Food’s “The Memo” to talk about the show and their intriguing Kickstarter campaign.

MM: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Memo?

HJ: The Memo is a play by Vaclav Havel and we are presenting the Canadian premiere of a translation by Paul Wilson, who is also Canadian. I call it a satire of bureaucracy. What do you call it?

TS: A workplace comedy.

HJ: A workplace comedy! Plot wise, it’s in this nameless organization, which is probably a government agency of some kind, but we never actually find out what they do or what their function is. The main character, Andrew Gross, receives this memo, written in Ptydepe, which is an artificial language that has been introduced into the organization to streamline office communication and he spends the rest of the show trying to get it translated because he doesn’t understand it.

MM: And that’s the irony of the situation and he can’t read the memo and it’s supposed to streamline communication. 

TS: Exactly! And very few people in the organization know the language, and those who do know it are under mounds of red tape, so that they can’t actually do any translations for anyone.

MM: What was it about this play that made you want to produce it?

HJ: I produced a previous translation in 1999. Then, when CanStage was doing Rock and Roll, Paul Wilson was consulting on it.

TS: Rock and Roll was partially about a Czech rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe. Paul Wilson was the lead singer and guitarist for this rock band for a number of years during the 70s. Because he’s Canadian, he was deported for being seditious. This rock band became sort of a focal movement, and focal point of the dissident movement of the anti-Communist uprising. And that’s how he met Havel.

HJ: So Paul Wilson was a consultant on the production at CanStage, and in his bio, it said that he was currently working on a translation of this play. And went “Gasp! I have to do this play! I have to get my hands on this play!” And Tyler tracked down an email and said that we’d like to do the translation and he put us in touch with Havel’s literary agent in the Czech Republic and we got a copy of the new translation.

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MM: Do you know if this play has been produced anywhere? I know you said it was the Canadian premiere.

TS: It’s been done once before that we know of, that Paul knows of, and that was as part of a Havel festival in New York.

MM: That’s an exciting thing, that you are one of the first to produce this play. Do you feel like there’s any responsibility to that?

(They pause.)

TS: Yes.

(They laugh.)

HJ: It’s a little nerve wracking. This is the first time we’ve worked on a published play where we’re actually in contact with the translator. I feel like we owe him something. We owe him a good production at the end of the day.

TS: We’ve been in touch with Paul quite a lot. He’s been very supportive. We’ve talked to him about issues in the play, and ways we want to approach it and things like that, and he’s been great, he’s been really on board. But it does put a bit of pressure on us to do justice.

MM: So you’ve been getting some extra insight from the translator then?

HJ: It’s really interesting because he was friends with Havel. So we feel like we have an inside track.

TS: There was one thing we really had to talk to him about. We were like, “Well, we really want to make this little change…”

HJ: Ha! Little change!

TS: And he said, “Hmm. Well, I think Havel would approve!”

HJ: And that was the stamp of approval we needed. And the other reason that we wanted to do this play was a place we were working for… I don’t think we should say where. (She laughs)

TS: Shall we say a branch of the Ontario government?

HJ: Yes, a branch of the Ontario government. And we were going through some rather grotesque bureaucratic nightmares with them and at that time I told Tyler he should read the previous translation. “You’ll love this, this will totally make sense” and he read it and was like, “This is what’s going on in my life right now!” so when we had the opportunity to work on this new translation, we now have an inside track on what it’s trying to say because we’ve gone through something emotionally similar. There’s an emotional resonance in this play that we actually lived through ourselves. And we wanted to do this play several years ago now. As we were trying to get the script and figure out if we had the money to do it, Havel passed away. He passed away in 2011. And all the rights were put on hold. They froze his estate. So we couldn’t perform the play. And it was about a year ago that the agent called and said “You can do it now!”

MM: That’s ironic that just as you’re getting ready to do this play, you end up with bureaucratic red tape in your way.

HJ: Exactly! It’s thematic at least. And now we’ve got the time and we were able to pay the up front costs.

MM: How long ago was the play first written?

HJ: It was first performed in 1965.

MM: Do you think something that isn’t modern or a new play still has a resonance for an audience today?

HJ: It’s kind of creepy that the play was written about Communist Czechoslovakia and it’s like it could have been written today. Part of that is the translation, because Paul is Canadian. But the language doesn’t feel old, and he uses Canadian idioms as well, so it feels modern.

TS: It feels very “of the now”, but what’s fascinating is that the themes of the play, the characters, and bureaucracy hasn’t changed in at least fifty years, probably longer. So, when I read it, I recognized the characters, I’ve worked with these people, and I’ve had to go through these weird situations. Corporate culture is corporate culture. And apparently it’s always been like that. There are arbitrary rules and people who adapt to strange social norms without really thinking about it. Trying to do anything you can to appear busy without actually doing any work is such a running theme in this show, and is very much a theme of the place where I was working at the time. It definitely says something to a modern audience.

HJ: Any time I explain the show to someone, they go “Oh I get that”. I talk about this new language that’s supposed to make things more efficient, and they go “Oh yeah I get that!” I talk to people that were at their place of business when things moved over into computers, and it sounds like the exact same thing. “This is supposed to make your life more efficient” but it ends up causing more problems.

TS: Even the idea of a new language. Havel was in a lot of ways pointing at the Communist party’s corporation of language into propaganda at the time. But you see it today, you see it in corporate culture all the time. I can’t say the word “innovation” anymore without irony to it.

MM: My favourite one is “connectitude”.

TS: And does that mean anything?

MM: It does not!

TS: Exactly! Corporate speak and jargon.

HJ: We’re also seeing it in our government right now with the Fair Elections Act. Is it really about fair elections? And that twist of language.

TS: Or any time a Conservative minister gets up and says, “I’d like to provide some clarity” and you know they’re going to talk about something else. Words don’t mean what they mean anymore. They just use them as noise to confuse everyone and obfuscate and that’s very much in the play. They literally bring in a whole new language that they say is supposed to be more efficient but actually just confuses everyone and causes total chaos.

MemoStillsEditsII-13 web

MM: Why don’t you tell me about your Kickstarter project? 

HJ: We call it the “Give Us an Hour of Your Time” campaign because we’re asking people to donate the equivalent of one hour of their wages. That actually came about as an idea related to a Pay What You Can Performance. People are always confused about how much to pay for PWYC. “I don’t know how much to give you. Is $10 okay?” And now there are signs that state a recommended donation, and I thought, well what is a fair amount to pay? I suppose an hour of my time. I’m going to see a show for an hour or two, so an hour of my time for an hour of entertainment. And then I started joking that it would be great if a CEO came to the show and gave us an hour of his time, because then he’d pay for the whole show. We thought it was an appropriate theme because it’s set in a workplace, so a great thematic tie-in.

TS: Also Havel was a very political author, and there’s a lot of talk right now about the income gap and wage equality and the whole minimum wage debate that went on and is still going on. And we thought, we’re doing a show about workers that is inherently political at a time when that is a resonant thing, so we might as well make a statement with it, in a way that I think Havel would have liked.

MM: I thought your reward levels on your Kickstarter campaign were interesting.

TS: As part of the “Give Us an Hour of Your Time”, we looked at what an hour of different people’s time is worth using some Stats Canada and other publicly available information.

HJ: We had to do some massaging a little bit because there’s no clear hourly wage for say, a lawyer, but it’s all pretty accurate. We started at $10, which is as close to our minimum wage as Kickstarter would let us get (they don’t like decimal points), and then the next step up is average Canadian, who apparently makes $23/hr and then senator at $65, and the 1% threshold, which is shockingly low. Yes, $92/hr is still impressive…

MemoStillsEditsII-10b web

MM: But to think that the people who run our country are making less than $100/hr. makes you think.

HJ: And maybe that’s just in Canada. We don’t have a super wide disparity of wealth and non-wealth.

TS: I think it’s amazing just how big the swath of the 1% is in Canada. ‘Because you do have people who are making like, 30 billion dollars a year, some really obscene figures like that, but you could be one of the top income earners in Canada with less than $100/hr.

HJ: And we have Prime Minister, who makes $154/hr. All these are averaged on a 40 hour work week and a 52 week year, but I know that people work more or less than that.

TS: There’s average lawyer, $301/hr and average CEO who apparently makes $631/hr and the top CEO is something like $7200/hr.

HJ: An hour! AN HOUR! So if just one of those top earner CEOs were to give us an hour of their time, they would give us our Kickstarter goal twice over.

TS: When we were setting our target, we thought, well what do we need to put the show up? And we decided it was about $3500. And when we saw that the top CEO was $7281, we thought, close enough; we’ll just make it half of that, so 30 minutes of a CEOs time will pay for our goal.

HJ: We’re doing this show as an Equity collective, which means that no one is getting paid up front. People only get paid if we cover our expenses and make a profit. And with all the actors and the people behind the scenes, there are 17 people involved. We haven’t done it yet, but I really want to sit down and find out how many hours work hours have gone into this show, so that people can see how much people have already donated of their time to make the show happen. It’s going to be astronomical because we’re looking at over 100 rehearsal hours, multiple people per rehearsal, and then all the time that’s already been put into it. So it’s not unreasonable to ask for an hour of your time considering everything that goes into it.

TS: People seem to be overwhelmed by all the different things that are going on. There are some great projects and ideas on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and GoFundMe and people don’t know what to donate to or don’t know what an appropriate amount is. So we’ve tried to make it simple and maybe fun. If you make $14/hr, then $14 is an appropriate donation.

HJ: It’s funny to see how literally some people are taking it. Some odd dollar amounts are being given to us, and I love it! I love that somebody actually figured out how much they made and decided to contribute. And someone was like, “Well, I’m not a senator, but I like the title, so I’m going to donate at that level”. People are having fun with it, and that’s great.

TS: This is an exciting opportunity to bring to a Toronto stage an author who is so rarely done and in a fresh new translation by a Canadian, so we’re really enthusiastic about the production and hope that people can donate.

The Memo

Written by Václav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson, presented by Thought for Food Productions

The Memo3
When: April 23rd-May 10th
Where: Unit 102 Theatre
Facebook Page
Kickstarter Campaign Reference (Unfortunately the Kickstarter Campaign has is past its end date but fortunately they exceeded their goal in a 24 hour challenge! BUT… Of course you can still contribute to Thought for Food Productions by BUYING YOUR TICKETS to The Memo IN ADVANCE!)