Notes from the Field – Tartuffe in Rehearsal – by Erin Brandenburg

Erin Brandenburg
Today we run Act 2. Our quest; to make Moliere’s Tartuffe, “one of the very greats of all the literature,” as master director László Marton calls it, feel alive and contemporary. “The challenge of working on classic verse,” he says, “is it is difficult to be behind every line. But we will. It is the most beautiful thing in our mission to give this to the audience. To mean every word.”Rehearsals with László are a search for freedom and specificity. To find the scene while László, like a grey-haired, mischievous, Hungarian imp sits on your shoulder and yells encouragement and shouts instructions. A hearty “Yes!” is your reward for getting it right. It is a provocation and encouragement to go farther. He’s a task master and an accomplice; “don’t you want to use that line to put the needle into him?” “This hurt is the biggest pain in the whole world. Yours is so little now.” Or notes on seduction; “Go slowly, if you move too fast she goes away.” But always and most important, “get behind the lines, it is your pain, your passion, your desire, your anger. The soul doesn’t allow for more time here.” “It’s about getting to the heart of the situation and being brave enough to show what is most flawed or messy/brave/stupid, or most beautiful and human in the moment.”

Nothing is obvious. This is one of the most important things to remember in directing. But when it is right, you can feel it. “Now we have the right vibration in the brain for the scene – but structurally it is better here if you are sitting.” László says to Gregory Prest who plays Cléante.

After lunch rehearsal continues into Act 4. In one of the most famous scenes in the play, Diego Matamoros improvises a bit and pours water from a wine bottle onto his head then hands the bottle to Raquel Duffy who takes the cue and does the same. It’s a brilliant moment, and László giggles with glee. Later, he turns to Oyin Oladejo who plays Dorine, “I would love it at the very end if you would –” and he makes the sign of a tear down his face. She nods, and the next time through her eyes are moist with tears in a beautifully simple moment of emotion. It’s a testament to László’s belief in the actors and their dedication to him. He asks for more – farther, deeper, more extreme, searching for the heart of the story and his belief gives you the courage to do it.   “Words are not enough – the language of the performance expresses what is happening on stage.” It is more special, more mysterious, more strange and brutal than what the text expresses. “The stage has to express everything that you as a director have in your mind. Our job is to remind the audience what can happen – that it is better to stay human.”

Laszlo and Erin

László Marton & Erin Brandenburg in rehearsal.

While Tartuffe is one of the most famous comedies of all time, it is also a simple story of a family and a man who falls for deception and lies and, as a result, loses everything. This complexity is what makes it so great. “People usually don’t remember the part of the play where the family loses their home. They remember the comedy and the wigs and the costumes. But this could happen to any of us. You could lose everything.” The wonderful thing is that play is not about Tartuffe the hypocrite, but about us, the people who fall for him and believe his lies. This betrayal is at the heart of the play and is what makes it so dangerous. Later, while the scene goes on, László the grey-haired imp turns to me, his eyes sparkling and squeezes my hand. “Yes, that is the problem with us. We need Tartuffes.”

Tartuffe runs from August 7 to September 20.

 

Casting Judgment – Tom Allen

The Judgment of Paris is a cabaret based on the lives of the French turn-of-the-20th century composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. It features music by Debussy and Ravel along with original songs written and performed by the cast: Patricia O’Callaghan, Bryce Kulak, Kevin Fox, Lori Gemmell and your guest blogger and Soulpepper Resident Artist, Tom Allen.

Photo: Max Telzerow

Photo: Max Telzerow

There are true stories and there are stories that contain truths. The former is something that really happened, the latter something that, by telling and retelling, teaches us something true about ourselves.

The lives of the great composers tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Like Hercules or Daedalus or Samson, they seem to have had supernatural powers – using nothing but ideas to build art that has survived where entire empires have failed. But, like the most enduring mythological heroes, they were also flawed. They were drunks or Lotharios or control freaks or syphilitics, driven from genius to avarice to madness and on, to penniless miserable death.

You’d be hard pressed to find two composers who fit more closely to mythical roles than Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. That they lived in the same city, at the same time is miraculous enough. They were also polar opposites and represented, on one hand, the apex of the fading Romantic era, and on the other, the emerging core of a new and radically different time. It’s a tale that would make the ancient Greeks proud.

Second Photo: Max Telzerow

Debussy was the ultimate romantic. His father was a former sailor who married his mistress. They had no money and moved from one squalid flat to another. Mrs. Debussy neglected her five children absolutely. Papa Debussy finally found work as a soldier for the Paris Commune in 1870, but his men deserted him and he was jailed for 18 months. Claude was 9 at the time, and completely on his own, but he was taken in by one Mme Mauté (Paul Verlaine’s harried mother-in-law and, luckily, a student of Chopin) and by the time his father got out of jail Claude had been accepted into the Paris Conservatory.

Soon he was teaching the children of an industrial heiress who lived in a former De Medici palace that spanned the Cher River and had more rooms than all his family’s serial flophouses put together.

Debussy tore through relationships: society ladies, bohemian models… He cleaved to friends while they paid his bills, but abandoned them soon after. He had three fiancés and kept a mistress who outlasted them all, and despite creating an opera (Pelleas and Melissande) that gave France the national voice it had craved for a half-century, he lived most of his life in poverty, debt, or both.

First Photo: Max Telzerow

First Photo: Max Telzerow

Maurice Ravel was a 20th century composer born just a little too early. He was practical, reserved, driven by craft rather than emotion, and by hearing industry and mechanics as music, captured the impulse of his time with what would later be called minimalism.

Ravel’s family was loving and protective. His father was a playful engineer who, for a time, travelled with Barnum and Bailey’s circus. Ravel’s little brother never stopped calling him by his childhood nickname, Rara, and his mother was a barely literate Gaul who kept such a savage grip on him that he lived with her until he was 42, when she died. Ravel may have been gay, or straight, or asexual. There is no way to know. Even now, 77 years after his death, no trace of any intimate relationship has ever been unearthed.

Ravel managed his money and his music scrupulously and in the 6 decades that followed his life his music earned more than any French musician in history.

Photo: Max Telzerow

Photo: Max Telzerow

The Greek myth of the Judgment of Paris tells of a shepherd who becomes judge in a beauty contest between Love (Aphrodite) and Wealth (Athena). Our version of the story simply changes Paris the shepherd into Paris the city at the dawn of the century, and the rest of the casting – Love and Wealth – takes care of itself.

Photo: Max Telzerow

Photo: Max Telzerow

We include music by both great composers (having a wonderful harpist in the band makes Debussy’s ravishing Dances Sacrée et Profane an obvious choice), plus original songs by Kevin Fox, Bryce Kulak, Patricia O’Callaghan and me.

The Judgment of Paris is at turns funny, tragic, horrifying and, like any good story or myth, it’s true, in every sense. For more information and tickets, click here.

Staff Profile – Diane Cook, Development Manager

Diane Cook
How long have you worked at Soulpepper and tell us a little bit about what your job consisted of lately.

I’ve been a member of Soulpepper’s administrative family since February 2012. Golly, where did the last 2.5 years go?!

As a part of the Development Team, I am responsible for establishing and strengthening meaningful relationships amongst our philanthropic community. I endeavor to ensure individual donors, private foundations, and corporate partners feel connected to our work and understand the impact of their generosity. We’re a thriving place because of their support!

Summer is a short, busy season for us fundraisers here at Soulpepper. In addition to the exciting slate of shows on-stage and the various events they entice, we’ve got a number of campaigns on the go and our annual fundraiser, Soulpepper at Play, brewing in the Fall.

I am currently engrossed in Soulpepper’s Top Women, an all-female, theatrically-minded charitable club. We’re rolling out an expanded program this season, featuring unique and enriching experiences for our members. Know any women that might be interested in this initiative? The more the merrier!

When you’re not at work, what are you doing?

If you catch me in the morning before work, I am likely channeling my inner narwhal, plunging into the pool at the YMCA on Grosevnor. I’ve always been a bit of a fish, but only recently learned the Flip Turn!

In the evenings, I split my time between a post-work boogie at the Extension Room, pacing in my kitchen whilst concocting an extensive packed lunch (the daily Tupperware Jenga tower by my desk is a testament to my mania), and strolling around Cabbagetown, playing hide-and-seek with the local cat community (I am the default “it”).

My weekends are an eclectic hodgepodge, but typically include the following: Friday night hors d’oeuvres and work-week debrief with my main fella, a morning hunt for French pastries (kouign-amann or pain aux raisins are my current northern stars), an Ottolenghi or Keller-inspired feast with friends (with aforementioned fella at the helm), sisterly mischief, and daily meditation (so I don’t miss a moment).

What do you love about working at Soulpepper?

Well, my ‘office’ includes an exposed brick-wall and timber beams. And my leaders are kind, personable, and inspire a spirited work force. Every Soulpepper performance is memorable and the artists here, the ones I pass by numerous times a day, are the most talented in the country. What’s more, creativity and big-thinking are given the conditions to blossom. Sounds tops, yeah?!

Perhaps most importantly, we’re a harmonious lot of weirdos – and I say that with the deepest affection! The anthropologist in me is ceaselessly curious, and my colleagues offer ample intrigue to satisfy my wonder. And when you’re in the midst of a long winter and your tasks seem endless, heavy days are made light by spontaneous song, impromptu accents, scene re-enactments, and even kittens hidden in your inbox.

What’s not to love?!

Photo: Nathan Kelly

Designing Twelve Angry Men – Yannik Larivee

On stage at Soulpepper until July 19 is Reginald Rose’s tension-filled jury room drama Twelve Angry Men. Directed by Alan Dilworth, the play is set in 1957 and centres on the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father; a jury of 12 strangers must decide the young man’s fate. The cast includes a wealth of Canadian talent, including Stuart Hughes, Tim Campbell and Joseph Ziegler. To bring the era to life in a unique alley configuration on the Michael Young stage, set and costume designer Yannik Larivee talks about how character informs design, how he created a pressure-cooker atmosphere, and how Rose’s modern classic remains relevant today.

Yannik Larivee

For this show I had references to show the actors – 1957 style, how men dressed in that time – but mostly I talked with each actor about their characters before designing the costumes. As designers we don’t often get to do that – usually designs are decided well in advance of a show, especially in opera or ballet. You can tweak details perhaps but really that’s it. Here, at Soulpepper and with this play, I had a great opportunity to delve deeper into how the characters can inform the designs. The actors at Soulpepper know their characters so well – where they’re from, what they think. Those subtle details can be mirrored in the designs; maybe you have a tie pin on this juror, or maybe you don’t. The play takes place on an oppressively hot summer’s day in New York. I had to think about that setting, about how a character may be hot and take their jacket off. Those details made their way into the costume designs.

Twelve Angry Men

As one example, William Webster plays Juror 10, a man with deep right-wing convictions. He has money, but he’s a bully and very narrow-minded. His outfit was more era-informed than some – a high waist, pale colours, suspenders. It is a design to reflect the character’s views and background, that conservative personality. On the opposite design end is Stuart Hughes, who plays Juror 8 – the Henry Fonda role from the 1957 movie, and he is the opposite of William’s character. A man of more avant-garde thinking, his outfit includes details that break away from the conservative look of the others, such as a knit tie. His look is a little looser, a little more forward thinking.

Twelve Angry Men

In terms of set design, we’re staging this show, which is typically done on a proscenium stage, in a traverse configuration with the audience on both sides of the stage. It’s done this way, as opposed to in-the-round, to allow for the separation of space between the two rooms in the script. It’s also to increase the tension for the audience, to create that voyeuristic sense of looking down into the jury room where these men are thrown into turmoil.

Maquette

In my mind it was important to bring two things to the set design: the feeling that the characters are trapped, and to introduce elements of nature into the space. I was interested in playing with the elements of the room, the environment. The design elements tend to mirror the character’s reality. The design enhances the tension.

The set is an extension of the characters, it’s about the psychology, the world they’re in, and this is not just a straightforward jury room. Traverse is much more psychological. We wanted to draw the audience into the space, so the lighting was expanded over the audience to break down the barriers. Set design is not only about space, it’s about time as well. The characters evolve more in time than space, especially in this play. So my approach was about allowing time to move through and transform the space.

There is also in the play a constant shift between chaos and order. Everyone has a seat by jury number at first, there is order. From there it progresses and alternates between chaos and order. At one point in the play there is a thunderstorm, which reflects the escalating pressure in the room, and a sense of unravelling in the proceedings. There is rain built into the design, and of course the lighting, designed by Kimberly Purtell, will shift to match the weather changes over the time in the jury room.

Twelve Angry Men

There are only a few companies that allow such a creative process, and this kind of approach to design. When we first spoke about this play, Alan said to me: “I want to make a piece of art with you.” That’s how we created a world in which the characters would evolve. Alan gave me a lot of inspiration – the world, the time, the era, what are these characters going through – Alan’s ideas went beyond the anecdote of the jury. And while the world on stage embodies the era – 1957 with its racial clashes, and cold war and atomic era uncertainty – it will still touch the audience of now. It’s still relevant. There are still widely different opinions on social issues. This play will inspire the audience to examine their own prejudices and our country’s own democratic practices.

Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann. Headshot supplied.

Process, Storying and Prejudice – Byron Abalos on Twelve Angry Men

Byron Abalos
I love being an actor. But I kind of forgot how much I really loved it. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of theatre related work – producing, playwriting, fundraising, grant writing, and new play development – but not so much actual acting. Working at Soulpepper has completely re-invigorated the artist in me and reminded me how theatre is constantly making me a better man.

We’re in week five of rehearsals for Twelve Angry Men and we’re about to head onto the stage for the first time after a month of exciting explorations in the rehearsal hall. I’ve been in a creative wonderland for the past few weeks with a group of witty, intelligent and talented artists, working to bring a brilliantly written play to life. We’ve had great discussions about complex concepts like justice, the judicial system, reasonable doubt, democracy, prejudice and human nature. For me, the two ideas that have impacted me the most are process and storying.

The process of deliberation is at the heart of Twelve Angry Men. Here we have twelve strangers, locked in a room, forced to determine a verdict for a first-degree murder charge. These men have a great responsibility thrust upon them. The fate of a boy’s life in their hands and they must have a unanimous verdict. Severed from the outside world, all they have is each other and the rigor of process. During rehearsals I was struck by the fact that in our judicial system, we select a group of strangers to be the conscience and voice of our society. I find that trust and responsibility powerful and humbling. It also struck me that it’s not a judge but ordinary citizens, people like you and me, that ultimately decide the fate of another human life.

Similarly to deliberating, rehearsing a play is also all about process. Here we have a collection of artists gathered to achieve a common goal – to tell a story that a playwright has given us in the clearest and most impactful way possible. There are many different approaches and processes for making theatre and here’s a peek at what ours has looked like: In the first couple weeks of rehearsals, we sought out resources. We researched the American judicial system, New York in the 1950s and learned about the playwright and the history of the play. We read articles, watched documentaries, shared pictures, looked at maps and soaked in as much information as we could to develop a context for our characters and the world of the play (this detective work is one of my favourite parts of the process). Of course, the script was (and continues to be) our biggest resource. We read and re-read the play. We examined the words the playwright carefully chose, broke the script down to find its structure, listened for rhythms, identified character arcs and discovered how each moment necessarily leads to another. Eventually, we got on our feet, brought the words off the page and began a long process of trial and error that continues to this day. Throughout it all, our director Alan Dilworth guides us as we make choices, explore impulses and take risks. Sometimes our choices feel wrong and so, we re-engage with this seemingly messy process. It’s kind of like trying to complete a puzzle with pieces that are constantly changing shape and without knowing what the finished product is supposed to look like. It’s a challenging process but one that will see us through if we trust it.

Byron in Rehearsal

The second concept that has had a profound impact on me is the idea of storying. Early in the rehearsal period, Alan spoke about the importance of stories and introduced us to the simple and powerful idea that we perceive the world around us through our own story – a story shaped by our family upbringing, physical and social environment, our fears, successes, failures, and many other factors. We are complex beings that live multiple stories, which shape our world view – I am simultaneously a brother, husband, artist, Filipino-Canadian, Torontonian, basketball player and many other things. Similarly, our characters in the play see the world in a particular way filtered through their own unique stories and experiences. They have strong convictions about how the world is and how it ought to be. When characters begin to project stories on the defendant on trial and eventually, each other, problems arise. Throughout the show, it becomes apparent that the storying of others often leads to prejudice, which distances another person by labeling him or her as an “other.”

In both the play and in reality, a jury is tasked with the job of determining a verdict without prejudice, based solely on the presentation of facts. That, however, can be difficult as our prejudices are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we aren’t even aware of them. In the pressure cooker of a jury room, these twelve jurors are forced to undergo the vulnerable and difficult process of confronting their prejudices. It’s not an easy process and sometimes it’s an ugly one, but it’s one worth undertaking.

Working on Twelve Angry Men has reminded me to question my own bias and made me reflect on how theatre helps me hold the mirror up to my own nature, confront it and transform it. I’m reminded that when I watch a play or play a character, I experience it through my own story. When I witness stories on stage, I imagine myself within them, and my story is challenged to grow beyond itself. This is where the real alchemy of theatre happens – where meaning is created. By experiencing stories outside of my own story, I realize that there is more to the world than what I know and I connect with the larger story of our collective humanity. As Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye once wrote, “Although we may know in part, we are also a part of what we know.”

I love theatre and as I said off the top, I love being an actor. I can confidently say that working on Twelve Angry Men has led to me becoming one better man.

Headshot supplied. Rehearsal photo: Byron with Tim Campbell and Michael Simpson by Nathan Kelly.

Staff Profile – Laura McLeod, Producer

Laura McLeod

How long have you worked at Soulpepper and tell us a little bit about what you do?

I started in the Producer role at Soulpepper in January of this year but I was also the Patron Services Manager when the Young Centre for the Performing Arts opened in 2006. As the Producer at Soulpepper I have the good fortune of working on many different things all at once. In one day I could have a meeting with the Soulpepper Academy to hear about their trip to Budapest, work on offers for Artists going on the Kim’s Convenience Tour or crunch numbers for our fall programming.

What kinds of shows/productions/events have you been involved in outside of work?

Last year I taught a theatre management course at Ryerson on Commercial Theatre which was a lot of fun and it forced me, as a producer, to seek out my own theatre project to pursue. It’s a fascinating journey and yet it continues to be a very long process. When we the audience sit in the theatre we often fail to realize how much time went into developing a new piece of theatre. For example, the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal took 7 years from the idea to Broadway. I find that amazing considering how fast the rest of our 140 character world is moving.

When you’re not at work, what are you doing?

I have three kids under seven so leisure is the last thing I squeeze in but when I do it comes in the form of playing in a hockey league every winter or having dinner parties with good friends who understand that a cluttered house is a happy house!

What do you love about working at Soulpepper?

The fast pace, the interesting conversations, the constant rigour that is applied to all sides of the production and of course Leslie’s laugh (which is louder than mine!).

 

The Road to Mecca – Interview with Set & Lighting Designer Beth Kates

Beth Kates
Beth Kates is the set and lighting designer for
The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard, on stage now at Soulpepper. The play is based on a true story about an elderly South African artist, Miss Helen in the play, who turned her house and yard into a highly personal and unorthodox work of art. Kates shared with us her approach to the play’s design, and how design informs character and vice versa.

Maquette

My approach to designing The Road to Mecca began with the script which offers clues about glitter and magic and light, but it also was deeply informed by looking at the real place [Helen’s home The Owl House, now a museum, in South Africa]. The Owl House served as an inspiration for the design, but through the lens of how the creative team wanted Helen to be represented,” said Kates. “We wanted to keep Helen at the core of the design, but to also dig a little deeper into the imagery and the symbolism that inspired Helen’s creations. There were a number of artists who influences the design (Kathe Kollwitz, Joseph Cornell), but we focused on some beautiful parallels between Helen and William Blake, who also experienced powerful visions that compelled him to create. Blake’s imagery is mythic and epic, and Helen’s creations are similar.

Paint Shop 1

When designing the show I thought deeply about Helen as Artist, and about how she was compelled beyond her own ability to comprehend (as many artists are) to turn her visions into concrete reality. I used that inspiration when designing. I took the time to sculpt the set model in a way that I hadn’t approached a design before. It connected deeply to my background as a visual artist and became very important to the design. Helen’s sculptures, and her world, are so important to represent with authenticity because they were ultimately her voice.

Paint Shop 2
Duncan [Johnstone, Soulpepper’s Head Scenic Artist] did such a beautiful job creating the figures. It was important to me that he use my designs of the sculptures as the leaping off point, but sculpt the figures himself to make them real, and grounded and present. The owls were especially appealing to make, they became the wise observers. The big owl especially is meant to be a benevolent and not an imposing figure, more of a watcher and protector.

Paint Shop 3

I wanted to create an otherworldly feeling with the set, something close to what Helen’s actual home felt like to visitors. I imagined there being no boundaries between Helen’s work/home/self and her artistic vision. I was given great liberty and support by the director to go as far into this world as my imagination could take me.

Paint Shop 5

The magic of the moment when Helen reveals her Mecca to Marius comes late in the play, and was a major guide post for both the set and lighting design. When her house was fully lit, it needed to needed feel transformative, and to convey the magic of Helen’s vision.

Paint Shop 4

This is a very special show to me. A great deal of thought was put into literally every corner of the stage, and every single item on stage has a part in the story telling.

The Road to Mecca is on stage now until May 28. More info and tickets >>

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