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.
Donor history: I donated to Soulpepper at the end of 2016, and it was my first donation to the company. However, I have been donating to various charities since I was a child. Philanthropy, although it was never referred to as such, was encouraged and supported by my parents for as long as I can remember.
How did you first learn about Soulpepper/What is you first memory of Soulpepper?
I have a memory of an acting company formed by Canadian actors in Toronto; I had never seen a production by Soulpepper until we went with our nephew from France to see The Sunshine Boys in 2012.
My sister who lives in the Maritimes was actually a catalyst to sparking my interest in Soulpepper. She mentioned to me that there are so many opportunities in Toronto to see live theatre and other cultural events. She used to travel here once or twice a year to see a play.
What inspired you to support Soulpepper?
My wife and I became season subscribers last year and enjoyed the plays very much. I have a true sense of an acting company at Soulpepper with actors appearing in different productions. I am also impressed by the encouragement offered by Soulpepper to other companies such as the Storefront Theatre’s production of Chasse Galerie and Why Not Theatre’s A Brimful of Asha. Above all else, we have seen some amazing productions: Jitters, Happy Place, The 39 Steps, Spoon River, and Of Human Bondage just to name a few.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about giving to Soulpepper? And, why do you think the arts should be a priority for philanthropy?
Please donate now, don’t wait. The arts in Canada are underfunded so every little bit helps. Artists need a space and a place to express their creativity. Soulpepper nourishes that creativity through their many youth programs, the Soulpepper Academy, and their artist residencies. Plus Soulpepper is a not-for-profit theatre company.
How do you imagine Soulpepper in 10 years?
Extended footprint but still in the Distillery District.
More Canada-wide touring initiatives.
Well received in-house developed productions.
Albert continuing to sing and tour Frankly, Sinatra (as he does without the use of Old Blue Eyes’ teleprompter).
It’s always new. With theatre, with great writing, it’s always new. Old choices have to be reconsidered, new choices have to be made. Every moment has to be navigated through; feelings found again. This is a good thing.
It’s been over a year since we premiered and closed The Last Wife at the Stratford Festival and a lot of evolution (or devolution) can happen in a trip around the sun. While we are blessed to be reunited with almost the entire star-filled company, the truth doesn’t stay put, that’s what I’m learning. Truth moves as context widens with time, for those who pay attention. The world is different today than it was when we first dove into the court of the Tudors and the life and often neglected contributions of Katherine Parr. For myself, I can say that my relationship to, and understanding of, power structures have broadened (for one, I’ve been introduced to Noam Chomsky). The fact that a man named Donald Trump has become president-elect of “the most powerful nation in the world”, winning against the most qualified presidential candidate in US history – who also happens to be a woman – changes the exploration of oligarchy and monarchy and patriarchy. I continue to be awakened to the diverse and persistent forces that seek to suppress the female half of our species, and alienate them from power.
And then there’s Bess, the princess I have become very acquainted with and will continue to grow within this summer in the subsequent piece to this play: ‘The Virgin Trial’. Elizabeth I, future Queen of England, who ruled well and long and, ignoring precedent and resounding advice, chose not to marry because she knew that a man at her side would only serve to undermine her power and destiny. What a fascinating amount of self-confidence and self-assuredness she must’ve held to defy those expectations – especially considering this was five hundred years ago. At the same time, I can’t help but see how little has changed since then. She is still, in many minds, an exception to the rule of women, which is, according to patriarchy: being less capable and deserving than men at holding and wielding power.
It’s so funny though – in the perplexing (and vexing) and not haha way – because all I see around me are women who seriously rule. And then I find myself back where I was when I first read this play: in a refreshing imagining of history according to Kate Hennig, the playwright. Alongside her we continue onwards, lit with a determination to break through, to make change, to rule, and to resist any assumptions to the contrary.
The Last Wife is on stage January 20 – February 11. Learn more here.
Bahia Watson, photo supplied. The Last Wife illustration: Gracia Lam.
How long have you worked at the Young Centre and tell us a little bit about what your job has consisted of lately.
I joined the Young Centre this past June. It’s been a quick seven months! Located in the beautiful atrium, my team (who I couldn’t do this without, they are amazing) and myself serve the staff, artists and students that work and learn within the Young Centre. We make a bit of a transition from cafeteria during the day to a theatre bar for our evening shows.
Over the past few months, I’ve really worked on bringing a new energy to the café. Whether it’s our new wines, menu items or approach to customer service, if you haven’t been to the Young Centre Cafe in a while, you might be pleasantly surprised!
What kinds of activities are you involved in outside of work?
Since moving to Toronto a year ago, I’ve done a lot of hiking from the Don Valley to trails near Orangeville. I’m always on the hunt for a new type of coffee, drink or dish that can inspire me. Another reason I love this city is the culture: the concerts, shows and events that happen all over the place. I try to get out and support them as much as I can. I’m also a pretty avid Toastmaster, which is a group where you get to hear some great speeches and interesting ideas.
What else occupies your time?
On weekends, you can usually find me reading a good book (currently J.D. Salinger’s biography) at my favourite coffee shop around the corner from my home. I’ll typically read 2-3 books a month (most of them on my commute to and from work.) In my spare time, I try to get to the gym to counterbalance being surrounded by desserts all day long. I think that’s the secret to not being 300 pounds when working at a café! Most recently, I’ve also starting taking a Spanish language course with a friend of mine, which is a lot of fun.
What is a hidden talent of yours?
I’m pretty good with recalling people’s names. There’s some people I meet just once and can still remember their name years later. To be honest, I don’t have any tricks, people’s names are just something I remember.
What do you love about working at the Young Centre?
My favourite part of the day is being able to bring a smile to our patrons’ faces. I love having the opportunity to talk with people and get to know them, whether it’s their first time to the Young Centre or they have been coming to shows since we first opened our doors. Our patrons are some of the best in the city, and beyond, with how supportive they have been. They are the reason we do what we do!
Photo: Daniel Malavasi
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!