Mani Eustis is a Toronto-based playwright and creator of Fancy Bits Theatre. According 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.
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.
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.