A Conversation with Neeraja Ramjee on Broken Images at the Red Sandcastle Theatre

With Broken Imagess Canadian Premiere at the Red Sandcastle Theatre comes a unique, one-woman show starring Neeraja Ramjee, written by the contemporary playwright, Girish Karnad, and directed by Clinton Walker.  This psychological thriller is a commentary with many different layers, focusing on the ways in which we construct ourself in our current world.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Neeraja to discuss the context of the play and the way in which image dictates our self-worth in our current world.

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in theatre? What was your first production? 

Neeraja Ramjee: I went to acting school in New York, I wanted to put what I was learning into practice and auditioned to be a part of theatre companies in New York. I became a part of a couple theatre companies and started auditioning for parts and got more involved in the acting/theatre community. The first production I was part of was very special for me, it was my first time acting in front of a large audience, and it was equally terrifying and thrillingJ. It was a lovely one act play and I portrayed this character who wanted to commit suicide and through the play, she talks herself out of it.

K: Tell us about your experience in presenting a one woman show. What are the difficulties? What are the surprises? 

NR: This is my first time performing in a one woman show and also producing it. I wanted to do something where the story excited me, was different and challenging, and this show presented all of these elements to me. Any solo performance is a challenge, because you are the only flesh and blood actor on stage, with all eyes on you and you have to take the audience through the journey of the character and tell the story. There is a lot of technique, tact and authenticity that goes with it and you cannot afford to sit behind on your heels. When you have another actor on stage, you can play off of them and you get energy from them. In a one woman show, really the audience is the other character. The playwright has written such a masterpiece with such an arc for the character and so many levels of complicatedness – so to hit it, be present in the moment and move the story along, all by yourself is definitely a challenge. There is a technology element to this piece of theatre and a level of precision involved there, which is also very exciting and challenging at the same time. I surprise myself everyday by discovering something new about the character, and her underlying intentions. It’s been quite the journey discovering her, and quite frankly discovering parts of me through this journey.

K: Tell us about Broken Images. How did you stumble onto this play and what can it teach us? 

NR: BROKEN IMAGES is a masterpiece of self-delusion and self-worth, taking a cutting look at the Indian literary establishment, the desire for fame, and the need to win at all costs. When Manjula, a mediocre Indian writer gets international fame for a book she wrote in English, and not her native tongue,  she gets flak from her literary community, and is questioned without warning by her ‘Image’ to unearth the scandal behind her sudden rise to fame.

I had watched Broken Images staged over a decade ago, and it stayed with me because it was a unique storyline that was edgy and I knew people would connect to it.  Fast forward a decade, when the opportunity presented itself to produce a play, I knew I wanted to recreate Broken Images. . The play explores themes such as identify crisis (do we really know who we are), reality vs hyper-reality (do we live in a false reality, do we project ourselves to be different from who we really are?), and the desire for fame, which are all still very relevant in today’s digital/social media world.

K: It is said that with Broken Images, you hope to nudge diversity in the local theatre scene a bit further, as well as make people aware of the negative effects of social media. What does this mean to you? Why do you feel that people are unable to be within their present moment?

NR: As an avid fan of the performing arts, and most certainly theatre, one would be hard pressed to find many diverse actors in lead or one person shows. If this show could open doors, nudge diversity in theatre a bit further, wouldn’t that be great. There is so much talent out there, so many stories to be told from different cultural standpoints, it would be great to walk in and see more diverse actors in prominent roles, telling stories that hit us as human beings, irrespective of race, gender, caste, and creed.

I think social media and digital is great for a lot of things, it makes our life more efficient, makes the world smaller, gets us information way faster, helps us spread important messages, gets people together etc., however I think it’s great as long as it does not affect the emotional well-being of people. We are all performers in some way or the other, and the question really is do we project ourselves to be different than who we really are and is that false reality of ‘perfection’ impacting our emotional well-being, because we tend to evaluate our life based on a ‘false reality’ we see. I think, and I am as much prey to it J, sometimes we are so interested in capturing the moment, vs. actually being present in the moment and soaking it all in.

I was reading an article recently on how social media is harming the mental health of young people. There is a need to constantly feel a sense of ‘self-worth’ with the number of likes you get, and a fear of missing out and not being looped in with your friends. I think we chase ‘perfection’ that we see on social media/television/billboards, which quite frankly does not exist, and can be quite harmful, if it affects the emotional well-being of people.

The play touches on themes such as false reality, self-delusion, self-worth and the impacts of it is relevant to the current digital/social media world we live in.

K: At the same time, as being a successful actor, you are also a very successful business consultant. How do these two worlds collide? How do they intersect?

NR: The two worlds I live in are on either end of the spectrum. As a consultant, your emotions are always in check, controlled, it’s the exact opposite as an actor – emotions are raw, with no inhibitions. At the end of the day – art imitates life, it is about people, human behavior and there are elements from my personal and professional life that I bring to the characters I portray. The discipline, professionalism and analytical side of me helps me as a producer and actor, and my creative side helps me look at solving business problems with a different lens.

K: What is wrong with society’s obsession of image? What are the dangers, and how do we navigate away from this?

NR: As human beings, we are perfectly imperfect, which is beautiful. However, we project ourselves in society to be ‘perfect’ and quite frankly perception is reality J. There is a pressure to be ‘perfect’ . Most of the posts you see online are of people having a ‘perfect’ time, it’s the way we like to project ourselves. You seldom see posts about challenges in people’s lives on social media. I don’t know if our lives can be as perfect as Instagram J. If we chase this perfection which does not exist and it affects  our emotional well being, that’s when it becomes dangerous. What’s real and what’s not? Why does someone look so perfect at 7 am in the morning, when I look pretty crappy with my tousled hair and puffy eyes……if this leads to questioning your self-worth, if you begin to define yourself by a social media post, or a like or comment – then we have a problem.

K: How did your collaboration with Clinton Walker begin? What is it like working with a director in an intimate, smaller rehearsal space that makes up the one woman cast?

NR: When I knew I wanted to move forward and produce Broken Images, I knew I wanted a director who was talented, was on the same page as me in terms of the vision for the show and also someone who was focused and challenged me. My agent (we share the same agent) introduced me to Clinton who had directed a one person show last year at the Fringe and has been in the industry for close to 40 years. When I met Clinton, we had an instant connection, it’s hard to put in words and we bonded because we both don’t have patience for BS :D. I am very fortunate that he jumped on this journey with me. It’s been an incredible journey so far. We entered this maze of what’s real and what’s false, and the different avatars we play. It’s been a frightening and thrilling experience. We’ve shared laughs, tears and discovered things about ourselves and most importantly had fun as we navigated through this brilliant piece.

K: Not only are you starring in this production, but you produced it. What was it like to wear both hats? Were there any difficulties throughout?  

NR: This is my first time producing and it’s been a learning experience for sure. Very exciting and challenging at the same time. As an actor, I had more of myopic view to the entire production of a show. I understood the story, my character, how it fits into the larger storyline and did the best to take the audience through the journey. As producer, your pulse is on every element of the show – getting the right people onboard is one of the most important elements, if you have people you can trust and work well with, half the battle is won. Managing all elements of the production and the minutia of it has been challenging and then switching to actor mode J. But I love it, wouldn’t trade it for anything.

K: What do you hope audiences take away from Broken Images?

NR: I think a good play entertains you and hopefully affects you, impacts you in some way. Hopefully the audience walks away entertained, and also slightly impacted/changed or with questions to ponder on J.

K: What can we expect from you in the future?

NR: Depending on how we do, it would be lovely to take the play to New York. Continue to work on my craft and see what is interesting, challenging and authentic for me to take on J

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Q&A With Mani Eustis

Mani Eustis is a Toronto-based playwright and creator of Fancy Bits TheatreAccording to her website, she started the company “a year out of theatre school on the belief that there were too many tragic plays about women and comedies where the only female roles were the ‘not funny character’. The solution, start a company dispelling the myth of the humorless lady.” We sat down with her to talk about her latest play, Sorry I Can’t Come to Your Show”, which she wrote and directed and is set inside of her own kitchen!

Adina: Could you talk a bit about your writing process? How long did this take you to finish?

Mani: The writing process was very organic, if the play feels like stream of consciousness that’s because it was. I went into it being frustrated that I was not doing anything creative so I told myself — Okay Mani you need to finish a play, that’s it. Usually I go into a project having these big ideas of what I want to create but for this I just wrote a scene and then looked at it and tried to find patterns or themes and then let that inform the next scene. It was a really enjoyable way to write. It was also fast because I wasn’t constantly editing myself, or worrying about a rigid narrative or structure. In some ways, the show is still in its early stages. I am sure I could add to it or edit and improve it but I also think there is something to be said for just doing a project quick and dirty.

A: A lot of this play skewers playwrights who use rape for shock value. How do you think writers can balance telling stories with emotion without exploiting pain to get some cheap tears?

M: I think the first thing to do is to move away from the portrayal of rape and violence against women as leading to hysteria. Not that it is a not-valid way to react to trauma but there are so many ways that people deal with traumatic events, so many surprising and subtle ways that I feel the media and theatre rarely explores. I honestly think sometimes people google search “how does it feel after rape” click the first link and then base their characters’ experience on that. But really, it’s all subjective, some people might be really moved by stories of women enduring hardship. I just feel I know the story so well that I would prefer to see a play about a woman organizing her bookshelf over a woman getting thrown against it.

A: Which works/writers/directors did you use as inspiration, if any?

M: I watch a lot of comedy and TV. I also have been incredibly inspired by the Toronto based absurdist dance theatre company ROCK BOTTOM MOVEMENT.

Still from Sorry I Can’t Come to Your Show. Photo by Justine McCloskey

A: What, if anything, were you hoping for the audience to take with them after the show?

M: I would love for the audience to a) have thought it was funny and enjoyed their night; or b) are angry and didn’t get it (because everyone has a right to their opinion); and c) have different interpretations about the play itself gain insight into things that maybe even I missed.

A: The play makes great use of its kitchen setting. Did you always know it was going to be in your apartment?

M: As soon as my boyfriend and I moved into the apartment I knew I wanted to do a show in it. The high ceilings, hanging lights, and open space were just begging for it. So yes, I wrote the whole show with my kitchen in mind. However, once we started rehearsal I really discovered that the space had way more to offer then I realized, all the cupboards as the back drop lent themselves so well to adding an heir of strange mystery and randomness.

A: Were there any specific playwrights that inspired ‘Jeremy’, or is he just a composite of obnoxious male playwrights?

M: He was definitely a mix of people and ideas.  A lot of the play draws from my experience with theatre school feeling pressure to share intimate details of your life, feeling pressure to emote even if you can’t or don’t want to. I once had a class where we actually had to go around in a circle and say, ‘ I AM LOST’ one by one, moan it. My question is when does all this ‘feeling’ become one big circle jerk? Jeremy is an embodiment of the self-indulgent. An artist who literally masturbates onstage. And we hate him, and love him and are incredibly jealous of him. He is that pretentious guy who is so beautiful but a complete asshole and on top of it all will always be more popular and successful then you. He is the quintessential fuckboy (excuse my language).

A: What are the connections you made between writing and astral projection?

M: I think as a writer and an artist particularly a female artist. To a certain degree you are trying to see your art and yourself from an objective point of view, I want to see what other people see.  There is this constant other gaze and if only you could see what they could see. This is obviously impossible but wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could for a second step outside yourself and look at what you created and really see it. Get rid of all the ego and insecurity. So, Astral Projection was a little bit of a metaphor for that. The playwright tries to leave her body so she can look down on herself and see herself clearly.

Still from Sorry I Can’t Come to Your Show. Photo by Justine McCloskey

A: What was the casting process like?

M: The casting process was great! I am so lucky to have found three women who are so talented and so perfect for their roles. The audition itself was probably more unique then a lot of auditions in that I had them do a comedic interpretive dance to “I’m Crying” By Roy Orbison (which was later a part of the play) And one of the main things I was looking for was people who wouldn’t take it to seriously who were able to be goofy. Because despite some serious themes the whole show is really a goofy show. I remember Marina Gomes who plays the playwright did a funny dance that involved a lot of slo-mo running. I also remember being a little intimidated by Marina Moreira and thinking- bam yep she’s perfect for the Artist.  As well Mallory Palmer doing by far the best old Hollywood voice I have ever heard so I wanted her to play Audrey. Also, she is very tall. This is something I tell her all the time that she is so tall! Short people appreciate tall people. So, long story short I am so happy with my cast. They are so talented and funny.

A: Are you working on anything now?

M: I always have a million ideas for things I want to do, start writing etc. But I am not actively working on anything besides this just yet. I will probably go through the dreaded grant application process soon though because I would really like to be able to pay my actors more then profit share and I haven’t yet been able to pay myself so I would like to maybe have enough money to pay my actors and me.  But whatever it is it will be a comedy in some sense of the word and only have women in it. I think the next show will probably have much more drag in it. I really like girls playing boys. I think its because as an actress I love playing male characters but after university that doesn’t really happen and its a shame because there are so many great male roles out there that could probably be better acted by a women.

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A Conversation with Morro & Jasp on Clowning, Feminism, and Performance

Toronto is no stranger to many great forms of theatre, spanning from the bright lights of Mirvish to the quaint and intimate smaller venues decorating our city. We can easily find a home away from home within these performance spaces. Currently, at the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction graces the stage with an ultimate power-duo, and one of the only female-centered clown duos within the GTA.

Morro & Jasp, otherwise known as Heather Marie Annis (Morro), and Amy Lee (Jasp) have geared up for an entirely new production based off their years of experience and studying circus shows across the U.S. Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction is said to ask questions regarding “the meaning of faith, and will have a series of male chorus members onstage with them (the first time they have ever shared a stage with anyone) challenging them, and making them ask tough questions about the society they live in.”

Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee, together with director Byron Laviolette, have created 10 full-length shows over 12 years, which led them to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015. It is no question that Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction is destined for greatness, creating an immersive theatre experience for all to enjoy.

Kimberley Drapack: When did you begin clowning?

Morro & Jasp: We met in university and started clown training in 2004. Byron Laviolette, our director, had studied clown in high school, approached us to work on a clown show after he saw us do a physical theatre piece together in the student festival.

K: What prep work did you have to partake in for the show?

M&J: We do our hair and makeup together do a physical, voice and clown warm-up. Then put on our noses.  We go through our clown masks and colours (a tradition of Pochinko-style clowning). Then, right before we go on stage, Morro tells Jasp (in the style of Darth Vader) that she is her father. Then we play a game. Then we repeat our mantra about how we are going to have the most fun together and then we dance.

K: What does this form of theatre offer audiences opposed to more traditional forms of theatre?

M&J: The clown nose reminds audiences that we are playing together, so people are allowed to invest in the game of theatre with us. We don’t ask them to pretend there is a fourth wall, which we feel allows them to let their guard down a little more and laugh at themselves. Also, since clowns are not regular humans, they can comment on human behaviour in a way that makes it seem new and things we take for granted as “regular” behaviour doesn’t seem so regular when it is done by a clown.

K: What is a feminist clown and what does it mean to you?

M&J: We can only define that for ourselves, not for all feminist clowns. But for us, because we are women and we make work that is true to ourselves and reflects our experience in the world, we are feminist clowns. We don’t constantly think about feminism when we are creating work, we think about the theme we are exploring and try to put that on stage in the most honest way. That, to most people, reads as feminism, because it is our truth.

K: How have Morro & Jasp evolved since your earlier shows?

M&J: We started making Morro and Jasp shows for kids and the clowns were younger in those shows, to reflect the audience we were playing to. Since then, Morro and Jasp age, mature, and change with every show and mirror our own journeys. They are constantly evolving based on where we are at in our lives, and therefore where they are at in their lives. Right now, they are very confused about the state of the world.

K: Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction is said to be a response to the “state of the world.” What does this mean to you?

M&J: To us, the world feels more confusing than ever right now and it is hard to know where to look for guidance and answers. This show is an exploration of how we develop our own stories of what life is or should be, and how that affects us and the people around us. We were curious about how faith and belief plays a role in the world today and how that guides us or gets in our way.

K: What was it like sharing the stage with additional cast members? Why were they added to this show?

M&J: Sharing the stage with Anand, Elliott, and Sefton has been exciting, challenging, rewarding, and has made us look at what we do and how we do it in entirely new ways. They have been bending over backwards, sideways and upside down to work fast, on the fly, then change everything, to accommodate our style of working. It has definitely reconfirmed that we have an unconventional way of working, and we are so grateful to have found playmates who can role with our punches.

We added additional characters because this play is about Morro and Jasp coming up against a world and feelings that they can’t figure out how to navigate. Their relationship is strained when the play begins and we wanted to challenge Morro and Jasp to have to find a way back to each other with a whole new set of elements coming between them. Also, because our play is about systems of belief, we felt it was necessary to have other characters start to follow the clowns and buy into their beliefs.

K: What does Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction hope to show its audiences? What themes can we find within the show?

M&J: We certainly don’t have answers to the questions we are posing in this show. By creating it, we have just discovered more and more questions. But those questions are about belief through the stories we are told or the stories we tell ourselves. When do these stories go too far? When do they get entwined with the human desire for power and status? When do they start to divide us? When do these stories prevent us from being authentic, open and able to connect with one another? When do they keep us from dancing like no one’s watching?

K: What is the most essential element to clowning?

M&J: Play.

K: What is next for you? Can we expect to see Morro & Jasp in the future?

M&J: You can certainly expect to see lots more of Morro and Jasp in the future! Our video game, Morro and Jasp: Unscripted, will be out later this week, so you can buy that on the App store and you can make us put on plays for you all the time! In the fall, we will be playing Of Mice and Morro and Jasp to high schools with Manitoba Theatre for Young which is going to be a magnificent adventure. We also have some more shows in the works that we can’t talk about yet.

K: Anything else you would like to add?

M&J: We could go on forever, but we have to go back to rehearsal, so we will just say – come see the show! If you’ve never seen a clown show, or you don’t think you like clowns, you should still come. We promise to surprise you.

Don’t miss Morro & Jasp in Stupefaction, which runs through June 24 at Streetcar Crowsnest and continue following our arts and culture coverage on  FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Paul and Niki of Theatre PANIK

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.

Photo from PANIK

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.

Photo by Neil Silcox

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.”

Photo by Neil Silcox

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.

Photo by Neil Silcox

H: I know you guys are couples in real life…

Niki: Yayy!

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 FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Conversation with Emil Sher on The Boy in the Moon at the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre

Sitting at Pearson Airport waiting to hop on a flight to the Yukon for a reading tour through the Canadian Children’s Book Centre is Emil Sher. Sponsored through TD, the “TD Canadian Children’s Book Week” happens each spring and invites authors and illustrators to “foreign lands.” The main rule when applying is that one may not tour within their own province. Emil applied for B.C., Newfoundland and the Yukon and will be giving talks in schools and other communities throughout the course of the week on his books, Away (2017) and Young Man with Camera (2015).

In a thirty-five minute conversation, we bonded over our love of Montréal, theatre, and academia.

Emil was born and raised in Montréal and one of our initial talking points was how we both were in the same undergraduate program with the same major at McGill University. Just recently graduating from McGill, it has provided me with some solace to see a former graduate of the same program as finding a great deal of success within a creative field. This of course is not without years of hard work and nurturing relationships.

After his time at McGill, Sher went to Africa for two years to teach, and later returned to Montreal where he achieved his MA in Creative Writing. Upon graduating, Sher considered his options.

“Do I go the academic route? Which was one path to take, and obviously an honourable one. Or do I freelance and stitch together a living? That’s the choice I made. Despite the odds, and common sense, I’ve managed.” 

Within his choice of becoming a freelance writer, Sher has had considerable success as an author of many genres. As Sher puts it, he “wears many hats” which showcases his endless creative capabilities and success within whatever field he chooses to navigate. Sher has engineered two lives within one lifetime. On one hand, he has had great success with his writing, and at the same time, he continues to teach and hold workshops for young writers. He has successfully fulfilled both prophecies.

We had the opportunity to speak with Emil about The Boy in the Moon, his upcoming projects, and why theatre should not set up an audience member with the expectation to learn something, but rather, provide the spectator with an onslaught of new questions about life and human nature.

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first begin writing?

Emil Sher: God Bless Canada, we have wonderful arts funding. I received a Canada Council Grant for $10,000 in my early twenties. $10,000 now barely covers my daughter’s tuition, but then, it went a long way.

I started down that path and worked on a novel that didn’t get published but was great apprenticeship of sorts. I ended up doing a fair bit of Radio Drama for CBC, some children’s animations, and a screenplay that was shot in Montréal.

It was just a matter of nurturing relationships. Since these projects take so long, you really want to make sure you are working with the right people because it’s always a challenging journey. You can never control the outcome.

You work on a project, whether it’s a book, a play, or a film, and there is absolutely no control over how people will respond to the story. So much of the gratification and the hard work comes from shaping the story, and that goes back to finding fellow travellers who are in for the long haul.

K: What was it about Walker’s story that made you want to adapt The Boy in the Moon into a play?

ES: I’ve long known Ian Brown and I think he’s one of the finest writers in the country. He has a lovely hybrid of humour, self-deprecation and real heartwarming insights. He writes beautifully crafted phrases.

It began as a series on Walker with beautiful photographs and I almost instinctually knew it was going to be a book. Of course, that’s exactly what happened and he nurtured that into The Boy in the Moon.

I read The Boy in the Moon and because I wear different hats and have my toes in different waters – I’ve done children’s fiction, I’ve done non-fiction essays in the Globe, and I do theatre for both children and adults – and I saw a play called A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a beautiful non-fiction book about her husband who keeled over one day from a heart attack when they were having dinner. She writes about that process. As it turns out, that book was turned into a stage play and they lifted whole pages out of the book whole with no effort to dramatize it, but just simply present her thoughts and insights on stage. I thought it worked beautifully. It wasn’t a conventional play, but it was a beautiful narrative.

So then I thought, this has been done before. You can take a non-fiction, first-person voice and transfer it onto the stage. Ian’s book is entirely first-person and told through his eyes but I knew that Ian alone did not raise Walker. Joanna Schneller, his wife, is a film columnist for the Globe and Mail, and I knew it was essential to weave Joanna’s voice into this story as well.

The third act I call “Planet Walker.” It is made up of all the people who have formed and shaped Walker’s life, primarily his sister Hayley, Olga, the family nanny, and all the doctors and social workers who stepped into Ian and Joanna’s life and had an impact.

In some cases, I took words that he had crafted and gave them to Joanna, because I knew that these would have been shared thoughts and shared perspective, and on top of that, I interviewed Joanna on my own. One of the most gratifying moments was seeing Ian at the Ottawa premiere in 2014 learn things about his wife that he heard on stage for the first time.

I also spoke with Hayley, their daughter. I spent a morning with Olga, the nanny, and I wove all those interviews into the fabric of the play. What you see in the play is large chunks of Ian’s book, but also original material that you wouldn’t find in the book. It added layers to the narrative.

K: What were the main surprises or challenges that came up for you through this process?

ES: Chris Abraham, who is directing the Toronto premiere at Crow’s Theatre, has done verbatim theatre before. I thought, why not only approach a great director, but one whose mined this territory before. It takes a certain sensibility.

Verbatim theatre is not necessarily inherently dramatic. It’s not like taking dialogue between two characters where you can take it where you want to. Here, are spoken words that have already been expressed, and you sort of have to shape it. That was probably the biggest challenge; taking something that seems static and making it dramatic.

One thing that Chris has done is he has added a third actor, Kelly McNamee, who plays Hayley and a host of other roles. One beautiful layer to this production is dance. There are some really lovely movement pieces, where it becomes its own character almost.

I knew ultimately that we could harness the tools of theatre in ways that could really underscore of what I think is the power and beauty of the story. There is an intimacy to theatre that you don’t have in other forms of storytelling. It’s so live and so present.

K: Along with The Boy in the Moon, you also translated the story, Hannah’s Suitcase into a play. What are the difficulties in adapting works with such sensitive subject matters? What role or responsibility does a playwright have in this situation?

ES: The book is called Hannah’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, who is a CBC producer. I read that book to my children about ten or eleven years ago. I knew about the book and that it was about the Holocaust. My late mother was a Holocaust survivor, so there was that draw of course, and I thought it was a beautiful story. You rarely hear the words “hope” and “Holocaust” paired together. It’s a hopeful story because its largely driven by this Japanese teacher who was relentless in uncovering Hannah’s story. I found that profoundly moving and inspiring.

I migrate towards the dark because that’s where I think a lot of hard, but important truths are about human nature.

I think ultimately, you have to honour the story. That’s probably the biggest challenge and responsibility. I think it’s so important to preserve the core of the story which could be tricky in the first place. You can add layers, but you have a responsibility to be faithful with that core.

K: Chris Abraham, (the director of The Boy in the Moon) commented that this show “makes a very intangible experience tangible.” What does this comment mean to you? How does it relate to your specific style of writing?

ES: You have on a page, a story in a newspaper or in a book, that visually comes to life. That goes back to the intimacy and power of live theatre. When you hear Ian’s struggle, his quest and his journey, visually given voice to by an actor, that’s very different than reading it off a page.

When you read a book, it’s unmediated, which is part of the power of reading, (which is why I write novels as well) and theatre by its very nature, has to be mediated. There is the actor interpreting the story. When it’s in the right hands, it can be absolutely transcendent and that’s what makes it so tangible, because you literally hear the emotion in someone’s voice.

On the other hand, the power of theatre often comes from what isn’t said. You can have moments of silence on stage that are just so powerful and so weighted. To me, that’s taking the tangible, which is often emotions, what we experience but can’t often express, and what theatre does, is gives it expression. 

K: It seems as if there are a lot of layers to this production.

ES: There is movement, sound, and gorgeous lighting by Kimberley Purtell and Thomas Payne. They are all threads, that when woven together, creates a singular experience.

K: Do you find that theatre is a way to teach people these certain aspects of storytelling?

ES: I’m always reluctant to be any type of teacher on stage. I don’t think a play should provide any lessons or that audiences should arrive expecting to learn something. Rather, I feel a play should challenge us in ways where we don’t leave the theatre with answers so much as a raft of questions.

A stage is not the place for tidy answers. An audience shouldn’t step into a theatre expecting any. Life is layered and complicated, all the more so when it means weaving a boy like Walker into the fabric of our lives. Adapting The Boy in the Moon was more than simply a great privilege linked to a deep responsibility. It was a reminder that theatre is a communal experience, and it is in community where we find the answers to the questions — raw, necessary, urgent — laid bare on stage.

K: You’ve spent a lot of time working with children through various workshops that you hold. What inspired this process? What have you learned through it?

ES: Childhood is so formative. This is PSYCH 101; but I think that to work with children is such a wonderful and marvelous opportunity to help create an environment they can carry with them, long after childhood. I don’t know if they will, but it’s a privilege to till that soil.

I may go and plant some seeds, but what they do with those seeds is up to them. If one or two bear fruit that I may have had a hand in nurturing, then it doesn’t get better than that. There is no question that childhood experiences are formative. They shape who we are.

Childhood is still an opportunity for hope.

K: What can The Boy in the Moon teach us about childhood and growing up?

ES: It’s complex and layered, tangled and beautiful. It can take years to understand. Like all the chapters of our lives, I think there’s much there to unravel. I don’t think we should feel the need to understand everything at a given point. There is something that may have happened to us in childhood that may only make sense to us while we’re adults and that is OK.

K: In stories dealing with tough subject matters, authors will often include moments of comic relief. Do you find this necessary within a story like The Boy in the Moon?

ES: That’s definitely part of it – there is humour in The Boy in the Moon. I think it almost becomes a pressure valve of sorts, but it also is more than that. Humour can reveal some important truths.

I think humour is essential to navigate life. There is a lot of darkness out there and if you look hard and long enough. Humour is one way of coping with the darkness and maybe subvert things when they need to be subverted.

K: Do you find this has been a useful tool within your writing?

ES: Definitely. Humour is really hard to pull off well, and when it fails, it really falls flat. It’s often at one’s own expense, so of course we are going to laugh.

K: What advice do you have for young writers/authors who wish to tackle sensitive subject matters within their work?

ES: The golden rule for anyone who wants to write is: write. We can spend a lot of time thinking about writing, and far less time actually writing. Don’t hold back and don’t censor yourself. Don’t question it, just get it down, because then you have a ball of clay to work with. Otherwise, you are dealing with air.

In terms of sensitivity, I think you have to be sensitive to any stuff that you are tackling. Whether it is a family with a profoundly disabled son, because we are all ultimately human and vulnerable and fallible, I think you should use the same sensitivity no matter what story you are telling.

Don’t get distracted by bells and whistles or prose that can ultimately be more of a detour than the destination.

K: What would you want audiences to take away from The Boy in the Moon?

ES: If they leave with a question they hadn’t considered before they arrived, that would be terrific. That would be gratifying.

After The Boy in the Moon, Sher will continue with his adapted musical version of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater that’s opening this October at the Segal Centre in Montreal. He is writing the book and co-writing the lyrics with composer and lyricist Jonathan Monro. The show is being directed by Donna Feore, whom Sher describes as “one of the country’s finest musical theatre directors.”  

Catch The Boy in the Moon onstage at the Streetcar Crowsnet Guloien Theatre from May 9th-27th and continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.