I am writing this on the train from Stratford to Toronto, whizzing past farmland. Three months ago I came to Stratford with my mentor and Soulpepper Associate Artistic Director Alan Dilworth to work on The Virgin Trial, premiering in few weeks. It is a sequel to Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, which premiered at Stratford two years ago and at Soulpepper this winter.
I’ve spent most of my time as a director in new play territory. Working to give life to worlds that have yet to come to the stage. While these processes have similarities, there is a constant presence of the unknown. How do you embrace it? Dance with it? Make it a part of the piece? Working as an assistant director on a new show is fascinating as I am privy to a team in ‘reveal’ mode. Every choice in terms of action, design, or new text, reveals more of the inherent nature of the play.
Something inherent in developing new work is that you must be open to the element of surprise. Even after workshops, and readings, the life of a new play isn’t revealed until weeks into rehearsal. Just as everyone starts to think they know what it is, it wants to be something else. New plays are delicate. The creative team shares their genesis in a very intricate way. There is no original to look back on; there is no precedent to compare to.
Years ago, a colleague said, “You can only polish dead things”. As with many quotes in theatre, the author is lost but it is wisdom I hold dear. What is most thrilling for me about new work is its infancy; it’s innate life that is trying to find its way into the light. Not to be polished, but be offered for the first time.
Katrina Darychuk – Directing Student in the Soulpepper Academy
Katrina Darychuk, photo: Bronwen Sharp. Maev Beaty & Joseph Ziegler, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann. Cast & Creative team of Stratford’s The Virgin Trial, photo supplied. Katrina Darychuk & Academy members, photo: Daniel Malavasi.
April 15th marked one year since the final audition stage for the 2016-2018 Soulpepper Academy. There were 30 of us, from across the country, selected from 1400 applications and 400 auditions! Most of us barely knew each other at the time. We were genuinely interested in getting to know each other, oh so polite, and annoyingly courteous. After 9 challenging, exhaustive months (working together) those sentiments have pretty much all gone. We know far too much about each other, and are constantly challenging and teasing one another. Recently, a Soulpepper company member referred to us as a “family” because of how boisterous our energy is when we’re around each other!
As I mentioned, the past 9 months have been CRAZY BUSY! Here’s a rundown of some highlights:
- We explored speaking Shakespearean text, specifically Romeo and Juliet, with Albert Schultz
- We sung O Canada, from a boat, while people watched and instagrammed us on Toronto Island
- We explored Greek Tragedy, specifically The Bacchae by Euripides, with Alan Dilworth
- We participated in one of Soulpepper’s most successful fundraising events ever
- We explored Vocal Masque with Dean Gilmour, one of the founders of Theatre Smith-Gilmour
- We contributed skits, songs, and story time to the 2016 Winter Waves festival, the highest attended WWF ever
- We explored Chekhov, particularly Three Sisters and The Seagull, with Daniel Brooks and Diego Matamoros
- We collectively devised a number of pieces, using Chekhov as the launch pad
- We currently are exploring Commedia dell’arte with Marcello Magni, one of the founders of Complicite
With our first year quickly coming to an end I wanted to share some photos, to give insight into how we manage as a group.
To learn more about the Soulpepper Academy visit soulpepper.ca.
Michelle Tracy, Hunter Cardinal, Danel Mousseau , Ellie Moon & Rosamund Small, photo: Marcel Stewart. Christef Desir, Marcel Stewart, Daniel Mousseau & Hunter Cardinal, photo: Marcel Steward. 2016/2018 Soulpepper Academy, photo: Ryan Emberley. Ghazal Azarbad, Marcel Stewart & Hunter Cardinal, photo supplied. Daniel Mousseau, Ghazel Azarbad, Nicole Power, Christef Desir & Hunter Cardinal, photo: Marcel Stewart. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Daniel Mousseau, Hunter Cardinal & Rose Tuong, photo: Marcel Stewart. James Smith, Marcel Stewart & Michelle Tracy, photo: Daniel Malavasi.
Here are a few highlights of where you’ll find Soulpepper Academy members and alumni making news.
Alexandra Lord (2018) is assisting Astrid Jansen with her design for Soulpepper’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange, directed by Djanet Sears.
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (2012) is working with the Paprika Festival as a training day facilitator and as an Associate Producer on Paprika’s Intersection Conference. She is involved in ongoing projects with The Howland Company, and in May will be in Public Recordings’ Other Jesus, a new play by Evan Webber directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell.
Frank Cox-O’Connell (2015) is performing in the Millennial Malcontent at the Tarragon Theatre, running March – April, and will be directing Other Jesus for Public Recordings.
Hailey Gillis (2015) and Peter Fernandes (2015) will be in The Musical Stage Company’s Onegin this May.
Ins Choi (2011) is head writer and co-show runner for CBC’s Kim’s Convenience TV show. Season two premieres September 2017.
Jennifer Villaverde (2008) is in YPT’s James and the Giant Peach, and will be at Soulpepper as Lead Instructor for the Soulpepper City Youth Academy, July 24 – Aug. 25.
Ken MacKenzie‘s (2011) set design can be seen on stage currently in Kim’s Convenience, and recently George Brown’s As You Like It and Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Katherine Gauthier (2015) has been working on the web series Running With Violet.
Marcel Stewart (2018) will be performing this March in Brock University’s re-enactment of the August Wilson vs Robert Burstein debate as August Wilson.
Michelle Tracey (2018) is set designing for Crawlspace a Soulpepper Solo Series production, and assisting Academy graduace Lorenzo Savoini (2008) with the upcoming Cage. She is also designing the set and costumes for University of Toronto’s opera Imeneo, by Handel in the Macmillan Theatre, directed by Tim Albery.
Mikaela Davies (2015) is one of Canadian Stage’s 2017 RBC Emerging Artist in their Director Development Residency, developing her solo show Facebook Anonymous. She is also creating and directing Mars Interviews with Polly Phokeev, and will be at the Stratford Festival in The Changeling, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Timon of Athens.
Nicolas Billon‘s (2008) X-Company is in its third season on CBC. His adaptation of Treasure Island will be premiering at Stratford this season and the award-winning Butcher, directed by Weyni Mengesha (2008), returns to Toronto as part of the Mirvish season.
Qasim Khan (2012) has been workshopping new work with Theatre Passe Muraille, Studio 180, Common Boots and Soulpepper. Upcoming, Qasim will be at Stratford Festival in Timon of Athens, The Changeling, The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Producer and performer Sascha Cole‘s (2018) HROSES: Outrage à la raison is in Toronto at the Waterworks running February 22 – March 4.
Shannon Lea Doyle (2015) has designs up with The Company Theatre (John), upcoming design with Crow’s Theatre for Breath in Between, and both I’m Doing This for You and Vimy at Soulpepper.
Thomas McKechnie‘s (2015) 4 1/2 (ig)noble truths will be touring to Victoria this May for UNO Fest.
Weyni Mengesha‘s (2008) direction can be seen on stage now in remounts including Kim’s Convenience at Soulpepper, and Butcher at Mirvish. This spring she will be directing Martín Zimmerman’s Seven Spots from the Sun at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York.
We caught up with Soulpepper Academy designer Michelle Tracey, fresh from working on It’s a Wonderful Life, to tell us about upcoming projects she is engaged with:
I am very excited that the Soulpepper Academy has led to my involvement in the development & production of new work. I’ve had the opportunity to assist my mentor, Lorenzo Savoini with his design work for Cage, a new devised piece he is creating alongside Soulpepper resident artists Diego Matamoros, Richard Feren, and Shannon Litzenberger. It’s inspiring to see Soulpepper’s contribution to Canadian theatre move beyond re-envisionings of the classics into new work and new theatrical forms. I’m excited for a non-traditional, non-narrative piece like Cage to be shared with the theatre community in Toronto and in New York this coming summer.
Watching Lorenzo’s process of creation, development & realization has been a huge learning experience. Cage encourages audience members to re-experience space, sounds, feelings instead of filtering out things that are often a given: Engaging with so called ‘silence’ for instance, or paying attention to otherwise innocuous objects through Lorenzo’s design that essentially creates a laboratory… of sorts…for the creators to experiment in. For this project: I have built a detailed scale model of Lorenzo’s design… which by the way, was exhibited at Artscape Youngplace in the exhibit Toronto Design Offsite Festival: Performance Design (curated by Shannon Lea Doyle) … it’s new, it’s odd, it’s crazy!
Meanwhile, I’m designing two other pieces as part of my Academy curriculum. I’m designing the set and costumes for Imeneo, an opera by Handel that is being put on by U of T Opera Division. I am stoked that Soulpepper allowed and encouraged me to bring this contract into my Academy experience. For Imeneo, I am collaborating with director Tim Albery to create an intimate theatrical experience. We’ve taken a site-specific approach to the design by placing the audience onstage at the Macmillan Theatre to bring them as close as possible to the performers.
In addition, I’m designing the set for Crawlspace by Karen Hines, a Soulpepper Presents production in the Tank House Theatre (another new work!). Crawlspace is a one woman show about Karen Hine’s real experience buying a house in Toronto, and the grave impact it has had on her life. It was first produced at Videofag and has since been performed in peoples’ homes. I am collaborating with Karen on a design that will maintain a similar sense of immersion and intimacy. Stay tuned for more details to come!
By Sina Gilani
*Michelle is a Graduate of York University 2013 (Toronto), Design Intern with Tarragon Theatre 2013-2014 (Toronto), and a Member of the 2016-2018 Soulpepper Academy.
Award-winning director Daniel Brooks [A Doll’s House, 2016] is spending six weeks teaching the artists of the Soulpepper Academy. He sat down in the Young Centre atrium with Academy playwright Rosamund Small to answer a few questions about art, process and learning.
DANIEL: I always wanted to be one of those people who were really witty when asked questions. I always wanted to have the perfect quip, and sound really smart. But I’m just not.
ROSAMUND: I’ll edit it so you sound like Oscar Wilde.
DANIEL: Thank you.
ROSAMUND: So, to start, what have you been doing with the Academy?
DANIEL: I’m working on Chekhov’s Three Sisters with [the Academy]. I’m analysing the play, and asking them to choose scene partners, cook up a scene, then I send them away and they rehearse more and bring it back again for us to work on together. We’ll be doing some new scenes today and I’m very curious to see if they start them way ahead in quality of the original scenes they brought me, on the second day of our classes together.
R: If you could pick one idea that you hope the Academy grasp from your teaching, what would it be?
D: I hope they will shed the idea that there is a final product that is to be repeated night after night in performance. You may get to the point, after opening night, where the director has left and there is set blocking, even maybe set gesture. But you [the actor] need be open to the moment, and to your breath, and discover the scene every night. The ‘liveness’ of performance.
R: You’ve already worked with my fellow Academy Playwright Sina Gilani, who assistant-directed your production of A Doll’s House here at Soulpepper. Can you tell me about what brings you and Sina together artistically?
D: I love working with Sina. He has such an authentic and untainted experience of art. Sophisticated, [and] schooled, but also untainted by any ideologies. He is so unbelievably open hearted in the way that he receives work…theatre….and people.
R: What do you love most about Chekhov?
D: The way Chekhov is able to write with wisdom, about human relations, language, the individual and society, the way he battles with the idea of the time, and the way he orchestrates a play, it’s like a symphony. Are you learning from him?
R: From Chekhov? Of course!
D: He’s really amazing.
R: What Chekhov would you choose to direct?
D: This really is an interesting time right now to think about what kind of play to do. There are some things happening in the world that are very, very, serious, obviously. So I would have to think very, very carefully about whether it’s the time for Three Sisters. But if I were to approach a theatre company about a Chekhov, I think I would propose Three Sisters.
R: Can you share a pivotal educational experience you had in your early career?
D: Working with Philippe Gaulier was very important to me. I attended his two-month workshop in Paris. I studied clown and jeu, and learned a lot. And at the same time in Paris I saw Pina Bausch for the first time. Wow.
R: Who is a Soulpepper artist who inspires you?
D: Diego Matamoros. His commitment, dedication, focus, wisdom around his craft and work, has inspired me. And of course, his talent. I’ve learned a lot about acting with him, and from him.
R: Anything else you would like to say?
D: We’re in the throws of a very serious historical movement [in the world]. And I think – for the patrons of the arts specifically – it’s an opportunity to insist that the theatre turn away from box office accounts, and ask some really serious questions about how theatre can engage with the world.
By Rosamund Small
I’ve been thinking about why I’m inside of a theatre working on Chekhov’s plays and it probably has something to do with the epochal shift in dramatic writing that his work embodies. Goodbye to models of “artificiality”; hello to realist plays that observe and reflect the realness of life in all its stagnancy, humdrum, desperation, humour. Cue Stanislavski with his halo and pioneering acting method (I’d like to have him lowered in by harness to mid-air, centre stage with “Epic” by Faith No More playing in the background. Actually, can he climb out of a giant bundt cake iced with writhing Restoration wigs?).
Dot the i’s of your magic ‘ifs’ and ‘inner objects’, children, for this is bona fide, grounded no-frills acting and it will blow your mind. A hundred-plus years later much of the values of this aesthetic remain prevalent in our theatres and on our screens… so I guess it’s good to know your roots/hunker down with these seminal influences?
In my opinion, canonization isn’t merit enough to stage stuff again and again. But it turns out I didn’t have to look too far for a different reason that Chekhov’s work might matter to me.
The world is kind of nuts right now, no? The word “Trump” summons a maelstrom you hardly need catching up on. The number of ongoing armed conflicts and terrorist incidents in the present and in recent years, months, weeks is hard to grasp when you look at the figures. Brexit and the inauguration of Trump signal a serious shift in global politics. I don’t know why it’s happening or how it’ll affect me or you or them but I have an instinctual sense that things are messed up – not that they weren’t before, but that there’s a veritable paradigm shift happening right now in the world, a grand portentous tipping of the scales. And it feels like it’s going to get messier.
Three Sisters, the play we’re tackling right now, is pregnant with a sense of existential foreboding. Chekhov illustrates this eloquently in his typical miserable/lonely/misunderstood/lovelorn characters – some of them feel it more acutely than others but nonetheless, these Russian aristocrats happen to be social casualties of a confused interim. One of tremendous political change. A failed system. A hasty reform that’s failing to correct their discombobulated society. To me, their anxiety and hopelessness about the future isn’t so far off from what some of us are feeling today.
So the debate between Tuzenbach and Vershinin feels surprisingly familiar and pressing for something written in 1900. Tuzenbach is dispassionately realist, likening humans to birds: “they just fly, fly, fly, and whatever thoughts – big or small – may be going through their minds, they will continue flapping their wings … on and on they will fly, even if some develop a sudden affinity for philosophizing. Let them philosophize all they want, so long as they keep flying.” Life is routine and inevitable and the basic lot of people, wanting as it is and in spite of whatever they achieve, won’t change. History unfolds nothing new! All your excitement and agitation is tantamount to frivolity! Vershinin’s optimism is a cause I’m more willing to champion: “We must work and work … happiness – that will be our gift to our heirs. If not for me, then for my children’s children.”
It’s a dichotomy that’s revealing itself more and more inside my social circles in relation to anti-Trump outpourings and protests. My natural instincts force me to think critically about these times and to define my values and the measures I’ll take to stand by them. So acting in Three Sisters is a strangely complementary outlet to the profound convictions I’m being forced to confront as a young adult in North America right now – especially considering the characters’ largely complacent attitude towards their fortunes and their disappointments. I’d like to think I’m not like them.
It has been so interesting to work with Lorenzo as he designs a recording studio from the 1940s as the set for the radio-drama version of It’s A Wonderful Life. We are working on a functional yet nostalgic space where this timeless Christmas story can come alive in the mind’s eye of every audience member. Each prop that you will see on the stage will be used by the actors to create live sound affects along with some incredible voice acting which will transport you to the Bedford Falls of your imagination.
I have been building the model for Lorenzo and assisting him with sourcing practical lights and choosing paint colours for the set. We have started collaborating with the sound designer on the show, John Gzowski, making sure we have all the specialized props we need for the actors to start making radio magic as soon as rehearsals start. The incredible fun of this show will be witnessing the wacky ways certain familiar sounds are made. My favourite so far is a pillow case full of corn starch being used for footsteps on snow.
One of the best things about my time in the Soulpepper Academy so far is the chance to work with specialists such as John and Lorenzo. This is my first time working on a show with such detailed foley and it is my first time building a box set model. I am really enjoying learning Lorenzo’s tricks of the trade.
Here is a sneak peak of the preliminary model. The final one will be presented on the first day of rehearsals, in just over a week. Bring on the holiday production season!