A Conversation with Britta Johnson on Life After

It takes a very special person to make a musical come to life. The challenges are apparent even from the writing process — one works to intertwine an original story with lyrics and imagines it into something corporeal. Britta Johnson has mastered this difficult task, and is making waves in the Toronto theatre scene with her new production, Life After

Britta, who’s been compared to the likes of Stephen Sondheim, is quickly making a name for herself and building a respectable brand most writers hope to achieve. Toronto’s Musical Stage Company was so impressed by her work that they have chosen her to develop and produce three new musicals for the next three years — something unprecedented in Canada.

We had the opportunity to chat with Britta just days before the opening of Life After. Learn about her story below and click here to purchase tickets.

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in theatre?

Britta Johnson: I grew up in Stratford. My parents were both pit musicians and I grew up in the theatre seeing all the plays every year. It would often be substitute for babysitting. When they couldn’t find someone to take care of us we’d go see Hamlet again.

It was a really big part of my youth. The culture of Stratford, most of the people you look up to are making a comfortable living in the arts. It felt like a natural progression.

There are three of us in my family and we all went into it not thinking it was strange. Now that I’m an adult I see that it’s a bit strange but I didn’t know it at the time.

I started writing for my high school kind of as an excuse to get out of class and hang out with my friends and it slowly became a big part of what I do.

K: It seems as though you grew up with a great support system within a creative field.

BJ: Absolutely. I was the youngest in my family and both my sisters were really good at piano, and it was partially me being competitive that I wanted to get good at it fast.

K: What facets of musical theatre first drew your interest?

BJ: It wasn’t ever a decision that I really wanted to be a musical theatre writer. I was always really interested in theatre and storytelling and I’m a musician and a pianist. I used to want to become a writer for The Simpsons and it happened through writing for my high school shows that I learned I had a knack for it.

I think storytelling is important and there are all kinds of things that are made possible when you use music that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It’s always the work I’m most curious about. I certainly don’t unconditionally love the form but I do think that when you get it right telling a story with music, there’s some honesty there that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without music.

K: When you’re writing a script, do you find it a tough process to jump from dialogue into a song?

BJ: It’s generally kind of rare that I’ve done all three, writing scripts and then the music and lyrics. I’m usually more of a songwriter, which makes it easier because someone else is making those decisions and it’s an active collaboration. With this piece, it’s not a super traditional musical, it’s mostly music and really plays with time and space. It’s not a super narrative-driven, linear thing. It was really about mining the emotional moments that were important to musicalize and then just making sure that they audience could stay on board and it felt like it had a natural progression and a satisfying arch.

That’s always the hardest part to write: the moment before someone starts to sing. It’s so strange.

K: How did your writing process begin for Life After?

BJ: It started as a series of songs about a loss of the same person. A story started to grow around it, but really music is the central driving feature. It was an organic process because I didn’t walk in knowing what the story was. I walked in knowing what I wanted to explore, which was what grieving feels like when you face it for the first time. Figuring out what story to hang it off of, because I do think you need some kind of foundation to let it live in and then figuring it out what that would be to earn the musical moments and to earn the emotional world that we were trying to set up.

K:How does it feel to be compared to the likes of Stephen Sondheim?

BJ: I mean that’s insane. I can’t really take that on board or I’ll have a nervous breakdown. I think he’s the master and the reason why I write what I do. That’s always exciting to read and I think he manages to do amazing things with his music. I’m honored by that, but if I think about it too hard I’ll need to leave town.

K: Not only is Life After well underway, you will have a busy next couple of years with The Musical Stage Company developing and producing three new musicals for the next three years. This is unprecedented in Canada. How does this process work? How do you feel at achieving such a big accomplishment?

BJ: Well, talk to me when I’ve written them, so who knows?

It’s crazy. It’s totally unprecedented and I’m keenly aware of how lucky I am to get this kind of support and I know I’m lucky to be coming up at this time where in this country it feels like people are starting to get excited about musicals again. I think what happened with Come from Away is part of that and I think that The Musical Stage Company are really unique in their vision and they’re so smart and ambitious. I’m lucky that my aesthetic lines up so much with theirs.

It’s huge and so exciting. Usually, as a freelancer, you have to finish one project and then have a nervous breakdown because you don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. To know where I’m landing after this is so huge. I get to turn the page and work on the next thing and to build my brand along with such an incredible company. I’m so thrilled I hardly know what to say.

K: How do you continue this flow and begin the next process? Do you have ideas in the back of your mind of what this process might entail?

BJ: Both musicals are already kind of on the burner. The next one is well underway and we’re doing a workshop of it in the winter. Life After is the only musical where it’s just me. The other two musicals will be with collaborators.

If I was doing three musicals alone, I wouldn’t have time to be speaking with you right now. (Laughs). I also want to go outside and sleep and stuff. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about them, but we’ve decided what they are and they’re on their way.

K: How do you continue to stay inspired while writing and producing multiple works at a time?

BJ: The lucky thing about my work is that it’s all very different from one another. Nothing else sounds like Life After. When I’m working on something, I try to immerse myself with things that make me feel the way I hope to make the audience feel.

I’ll often make myself playlists of music that gives me the feeling that I want the world of the show to have, and read things about the topic. I always try to immerse myself a bit in the feeling and the world of the show. I’m lucky and think I’d burn out a lot faster if I didn’t get to work on such different stuff. Nothing is like each other, or else I’d totally run out of ideas. I can turn the page and then think about the next thing I need to think about.

K: Do you ever start on one project and find that there are similarities with another? Is it ever difficult to have those moments?

BJ: Absolutely, and I do run into those. That’s when I need to cleanse my palette and try to listen, watch or read new things. I struggle to write more than one thing at once. I usually like to fully immerse in one and then fully immerse myself in another and I haven’t quite figured out how to do the juggling act but I’m working on it. Otherwise, there is a bit of bleeding that happens.

K: Life After has some sadness behind it, but there is a lot of honesty and truth in sad stories. They’re important to tell because a lot of people can relate. Do you find that when you’re writing or going through the process of developing a show you’re looking for something that an audience can grasp onto?

BJ: Absolutely. I think honesty has to be key, especially when you’re working in as heightened a form as this. You start feeling like you’re manipulating or lying to people pretty fast when what your characters are singing isn’t truly rooted in something about the human experience. Even if it is a comedy or a tragedy. I always hope, even if I’m working on something totally outlandish there is something within it that people can find to relate to. Especially when you’re talking about something like loss, or grief, something that literally everyone in the entire world has to walk through. You really want to get it right or else it feels like a disservice to your audience.

K: Do you ever feel as a writer you have a certain amount of power? Do you feel an added pressure?

BJ: Absolutely, and then I have to remind myself that nobody dies if they don’t like my show or if it doesn’t speak to them. Also, it would feel like a wasted opportunity if it didn’t. I want people to feel glad they came. You can only ever try your very best.

K: What’s your favorite part of opening up a show?

BJ: I’ve never got to work on this scale before. These are big companies involved and it’s a very extensive and impressive team. I’ve never got to collaborate on this scale before where everyone in the room is the very best at what they do.

It’s been really thrilling at how quickly things can happen and I trust everyone in the room so much and the collaboration has been so exciting. The piece has grown at such a rapid speed.

Getting into the rehearsal room was something that’s been in my head for so long and has been so great. It really is a team effort and that’s what I love about theatre, even though I get to do all the interviews. It’s good for my ego.

Don’t miss Life After from September 23rd to October 22nd  and continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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

More information and ticker purchases here. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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 Couple of Storytellers: a Conversation with Andrew Shaver and Marie-Ève

A synopsis of Ivan Viripaev’s Illusions on Crow’s Theatre’s website reads, “Passion and death, loyalty and betrayal, truth and fiction, hope and despair, Illusions is a deceitfully dark comedy that playfully unravels the paradoxes of the lives of two couples.” To watch the play, for couples in various stages, seem equal to attending an event where so much self-consciousness and suffering is foreordained; the disparity between rom-coms and life is disheartening, but the similarities, the moments of recognitions in art is a downright catalyst. Perhaps for the better; perhaps for the worse. Imagine the conversation on the ride back home, the late-night not-quite-sleepy thoughts.

Now imagine you were a real life couple delivering the unraveling of ‘paradoxes of the lives of two couples.’

Andrew Shaver and Marie-Ève Perron, who are partners in life, will do just that as partners in storytelling. Andrew, who is also a co-director in the production, plays Man 2 while Marie-Ève plays Woman 2, infusing their voices that carry their personalities and experiences into Viripaev’s text. I called them up the other day to ask about the production and the creative process in talking about a subject in such proximity to their lives.

Due to scheduling conflicts, we could not conduct a three-person interview and instead I spoke to them separately and asked some similar questions; I have conflated portions of the interview where appropriate. 

Hoon: What drew you to Ivan Viripaev’s Illusions

MÈ: I actually saw a production of Illusions and I really liked the text. And I was really excited to come and work in Toronto, in English. It’s my first time playing here, and it’s a big challenge for me as a French Quebecer who spent like 10 years in Paris not speaking English at all. I also really like the space at the Crow’s and it’s exciting to do a production in a new theatre. The group that we are, those who are playing with me, I like them and I thought it’d be fun to play the show together.

A: Marie-Ève introduced the play to me. The initial impulse came first but when I read it, I felt a lot of exciting theatrical potential in it. The text has an interesting and layered storyline. I was drawn to the potential dramatic and comedic possibility of the text. I also knew I wanted to work with Marie-Ève on a piece. She wanted to act in something in English in Toronto and this was an opportunity. So when I was considering texts to do that with, it became obvious that Illusions would be a really interesting fit because it speaks of two women and two men on stage speaking about lives and love and death and betrayal and sadness and illusions. I thought it could be a really good fit for Marie-Ève and I to be actively doing together. Initially, I was thinking of just directing but then I thought, Well, no, it would be nice to act with her, especially on this piece with such a thematic resonance. And it was from there that I thought of Brett Donahue and Laurence Dauphinais who are also a real life couple composed of an Anglophone and a Francophone.

H to Marie-Ève: Describe your character for us. How did you prepare for your role? 

MÈ: It’s interesting because it’s not a usual play — we are playing storytellers who are mostly telling a story about two couples, Danny and Sandra, and Margaret and Albert. I’m Woman 2 and there’s a Woman 1 and there are Man 1 and 2 as well. The author is really funny. At the beginning of the play he wrote, These four people come onto the stage just to tell the story, as if we have no other purpose than to tell the story. But of course we are telling a love story — one couple’s been together for fifty years and the other has been together for fifty four years — so of course what we are telling will be influenced by our perceptions and the way we tell it.

H to Andrew: Were there any difficulties working with a translated text? 

A: I got my hands on the English translation, the one we’re presenting and truth be told I think it’s a fantastic translation. But I also had the French translation that was helpful in cross-referencing ideas. The French translation came second and there are subtle shifts in the text. I think it’s more than just shifts between sensibilities in English and French translations. The French translation happened two or three years after the English one and the play evolved over that time. You know I haven’t spoken to the playwright about this but I can only assume that the shifts that happened in the translations are something he condoned. So his evolution in seeing the play has grown, rightly. So we’re not doing an adaptation by any means, we are presenting the English translation. But it is informed by our access to the French translations and its sensibilities.

H: I know this isn’t your first project together but it seems that Illusions may be the first one that deals so directly with relationships. Could you tell us what it was like working alongside each other on this production? 

MÈ: It was interesting because the first time we worked together he was directing and I was on stage. It’s a different perspective with a different relationship because there’s the director and there’s the actor. But this time, he’s the director but he’s also acting and we’re playing a couple together. It’s a different process with a different way of talking to each other. Usually in life we like the same things; artistically speaking, we have similar tastes. It was easy on that part — we agree on when some thing is working or when some thing is not. It is challenging in the sense that we speak more directly to each other than we would to, say, a coworker. But mostly I would say that it was fun trying to create together. Of course we all share different stories together and some of the things we are telling remind us of what’s happened to us or what could happen to us, which makes it a good reflection of our own lives.

A: That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do the play; the real life resonances in the text. It’s not without its complications, for sure. Any creative process, from my perspective anyways, with your partner involved is potentially — not necessarily, potentially — fraught with frustrations and miscommunications, arguments. Truth be told, we’ve managed to steer clear of most of those. When you wake up with a person, you go to work with that person, and you are creative with the person then you come home with that person… there’s not a whole lot of relief. It can become more agitated than it needs to. The fact that Brett and Laurence go home together — they have their own dynamic, which Marie-Ève and I aren’t a part of. So any pressure that might build up during the rehearsal day or in any process [between us], when everyone leaves, it sort of escapes and the next day you just start again. But when you are working with your partner, you have to be really vigilant about not bringing that tension home because it will become a pressure cooker. We are two people who, when we go home, will continue to talk about the work. For me, for Marie-Ève, for us, we had to learn to leave the work where it is and to be partners again. We had to try not to affect our lives as partners affect our working relationship. But then again, the lines are intentionally blurred in this play. So I think we are just gluttons for punishments, so to speak [laughs].

H: You both work across film, television, and theatre. What would you say, as an actor and a director, makes theatre different from or exciting in ways not found in film and television?

MÈ: It’s the audience. The fact that we play in front of real people and it’s about communication; it’s direct and raw. I think that makes it thrilling and exciting — nobody will edit anything at the end. We’re responsible from the beginning to the end to what we’re bringing to the stage and giving to the audience. I really like that part, which is something film and television don’t have.

A: I love TV and film. I love them but theatre is my first love and when you have your first love, it’s hard to kick that. But what I love about theatre doesn’t exclude my love of tv or film, because they have their own things that make them wonderful. But with theatre, a lot of it for me is the process, the fact that you actually get to dig in for weeks on a text with the artists and the creative team. In film, that’s just often not the case; there’s neither time nor money for that. But the process is sort of part and parcel of what makes theatre theatre; the fact that you spend weeks working on something with people; then you have to bring that night after night after night and bring the work to light over and over again to the audience. The creative process for me and the rehearsal process is for sure about understanding the text and characters and the arc of the piece, but it’s also about living and breathing as an ensemble. Again, I don’t mean to say that this is not necessarily the case in film or television, but it is true of theatre for me. It’s about teamwork and the ensemble. For me I think that came right from playing sports and loving collaboration, being on a team, and doing something as a unit. I love the fact that we get the chance to try again and again, and totry something new: it’s like a baseball or a hockey team, ‘the power play is not working, we gotta do something different tomorrow night.’ That’s what theatre is for me.

Hoon to Andrew: I’ve asked the same question to a few directors and I think you’re the first one to speak less about the audience and more about the process behind the stage and what goes on it.

A: So many of us talk about the audience because we love the audience. But I also think it doesn’t need to be binary like that: theatre is about audience and tv and film are not about the audience. TV and film are also about the audience. It’s on a spectrum. It’s ultimately done to share with an audience and the way we share is different. But in all mediums, the work is shared with the audience.

Hoon to Andrew: How would you describe your style as a director?

A: I think my approach changes every time, given the new material and new stimulus, new teammates. Like a coach — a coach brings in a system and the players execute the system. But I don’t think the system can exist in a vacuum, it can’t just exist in a coach’s head. He or she needs to be able to communicate that to the team for them to execute it. And I think it needs feedbacks need to come back to the coach and there’s going to be a back and forth. I think, for me, that’s what it is: I have a strong idea of what it is that we should be doing, an aesthetic I gravitate toward, and a lens I look through and come back to at moments of confusion. But ultimately it needs to involve the imagination, intellect, and instincts of the entire creative team. And not just the performers but also the designers and stage management; the development of a true creative ensemble voice. It needs to come through, I think, for it to be cohesive, a single lens’s end but I don’t think it needs to begin and end with that single lens. In fact, for my money, that’s limiting. To have the opportunity to have access to many imaginations over one single imagination is a gift.

Hoon to Marie-Ève: What are some roles or ideas you’d like to explore in the future? 

MÈ: I like to sing, so I would like to play with that, something where there’s more singing. I watched really great documentary plays lately that I really enjoyed. I like this kind of theatre and it intrigues me.

Crow’s Theatre production of Ivan Viripave’s Illusions, directed by Andrew Shaver and Paul Flicker and starring Brett Donahue & Laurence Dauphinais and Andrew Shaver & Marie-Ève Perron opens on Friday, April 21st and closes on May 7th. You can purchase your tickets here.

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