I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Niki Landau and Paul Lampert the Artistic Directors of Toronto’s renowned experimental theatre, Theatre PANIK and their production — as actor and director, respectively — of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies.
When I visited them during rehearsals at Tarragon theatre, Niki was acting out an emotionally fraught scene with actor David Schurm. After Paul’s notes and a jovial conversation between the production teams, we sat down in a corner to discuss Strangers, Babies, and what it’s like for Niki and Paul, who are a couple in real life, to work so together.
Hoon: How did you come across Linda McLean’s play, Strangers, Babies?
Paul: I was looking for an interesting, vibrant script from writers we haven’t heard of before. This may sound slightly strange, but I actually found Linda McLean on the internet. Not the play, but I found the agency that represents McLean in North America. They have the biographies of the playwrights and descriptions of the plays – so I ordered three or four copies and read it.
Niki: What was really exciting about Linda McLean — the reason why we even went down that road — is that she’s been produced all over the world but never in Canada. She even came and gave the keynote address to our Playwrights’ Guild in 2009 but still was never produced here. To find a female playwright who writes the way she does and who’s gaining notoriety is…it’s a real find.
Paul: The writing is wonderful. It’s very crisp and tight and great for actors because there’s a lot to mine. On the first get go, when I read the play, I went, This is such good writing for actors. It’s an interesting role for Niki because she’s in all five of the scene or playettes.
Niki: I think what was interesting about it was the idea of a woman, the central character, and the five men in her life and how they are affecting it. The premise is unusual in that it’s often the other way around.
H: Niki, could you tell us a bit about the character you are playing?
Niki: When we first see May, she seems relatively normal, a bit fragile, maybe a bit quirky. You sort of wonder what’s going on with her. As the play goes on, you discover that she has things in her past that are either secret, disturbing, or horribly violent. She’s desperately trying to move on with her life and to lead a normal life. And it’s really hard. She comes up against each of the men in the scenes — she has to get through them to get to a more independent life.
H: From what I understand, audiences will be able to walk around the theatre space and follow the course of the action that way. Was that your decision or was that part of McLean’s direction?
Paul: Right, it’s not in the play. It’s written open ended and McLean doesn’t give a lot of stage directions. So our idea was to set it up almost like a curated art gallery with different dioramas or exhibits wherein each one of these men lives. May travels from one scene to the next and so does the audience. So they can be actually inside the room or peep through these windows we have — each environment May is in is radically different without having to use moving set changes.
Niki: I think before now, it was done at least somewhat conventionally. What’s really neat about this is that one of the themes in the play is concerned with what it’s like to live in the city. May is always missing the parks, the nature, trees, birds — she really longs for an open space. And in each of these scenes there is an apartment, a hotel room, a hospital…tight spaces. The idea is, What do we do with our huge feelings — our anger, our passions — in these little rooms. We have to be so contained, so under control. I think it lends itself to this feeling of being trapped.
Paul: Ironically, there is one scene that is outside but it’s also the cathartic and climactic scene of the play, in which you figure out, without spoiling, “what went down.”
H: Tell us a bit about Theatre Panik.
Paul: We’re trying to push the boundaries of what theatre is. Two years ago, at Nuit Blanche, we did something called Peep, which was a way of experimenting with the idea of peeping into windows and viewing. So we combined that with the curatorial theatre or gallery theatre idea (we don’t actually really have a name yet) for Panik.
Niki: Curatorial theatre is something we’re working with for now [laughs]. Part of the reason that we are doing this is because theatre can’t just stay static. Now that what theatre used to be able to do — a certain kind of realism — tv and film can do better, theatre needs to keep growing and changing and exciting people. I think what people want now is an experience. They want to go out at night and experience something they will not forget that’s also going to be engaging and exciting to talk about. I know when I’ve seen theatre like that, I talked about it for years. I think that’s what people want now from theatre, not what they already know and expect.
H: Panik has been called the ‘alternative theatre.’ What are your thoughts on the label?
Paul: I don’t have a problem with it. We’re certainly not mainstream. If that’s the label that needs to be applied, that’s fine.
Niki: I think no matter what, we’d always want to be alternative [laughs]. I think we are a bit contrarian in that way.
H: I know you guys are couples in real life…
Paul: Nobody’s asked us that for a time [laughs].
H: Well, here it is: What is it like to work together on a play that deals directly with personal history and relationships?
Niki: We fell in love working on a project. To a certain extent, it’s really great to see each other in our elements. Sort of like, Oh, there you are doing that thing you do best. That’s really great. We have all these different roles we’re playing as director actor producers, parents, and husband and wife.
Paul: I know other couples who have this kind of working relationship, all to a different degree of success. We’re lucky in that we really enjoy working together. After working together for so many years — what, 17 years or something? — there’re a lot of short cuts. I can just turn to Niki and say, You know that moment? And Niki goes, Yes, I know. And no more needs to be said.
Niki: When we go home, usually the last thing I say is, You did great today. So that part is really nice.
Paul: I also compliment her [laughs].
H: Okay, let’s move on before you make people jealous. PANIK’s mandate, first written shortly after 9/11, includes the statement, “Gathering, in today’s world, is becoming a bit of a risk.” What are your thoughts on it today? Do you want to change or revamp the message in any way?
Niki: I wish we would have to change it. That’s been there since the beginning because when we founded it, it was close to 9/11 that there were still a lot of fear mongering about gathering. And there was a time when I thought maybe we should change that. But then unfortunately, it’s even scarier now. It feels as if fear mongering’s been justified. I really do think that gathering and being communal, sharing our stories are all very important. I think that is a huge strength in the face of a lot of fear and divisiveness.
Paul: We make a point of trying to be as inclusive as possible in our gathering. The community is important to us.
For more information on PANIK and to get tickets to Strangers, Babies, visit their website here. Strangers, Babies by Linda McLean runs through May 28th. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.