1. What the fuck is going on?
In 2012 when I was doing War Horse, this company from Scotland called Poorboy came to Toronto to do something called a Blast Shakespeare. They take over a space (in this case a small U of T theatre building), spend a day with some actors creatively ‘installing’ a Shakespeare play into the space, and then the next day invite some people to come see it. It was Toby Malone‘s fresh edit of Hamlet – their connect with him was why they were in Toronto – and it was, in fact, a blast, with some great other actors – Christopher Stanton, Karen Glave, Lauren Brotman among them.
Then, a couple years later when Poorboy’s Artistic Director Sandy Thomson had written a piece that included a Canadian character she called and asked if I would be interested in coming to Scotland and workshopping it with them. (Except in Scotland they call it R&D, which is both more scientific and more fun, I think. I like the idea that what we’re doing isn’t just working the shit out of something until it changes – workshopping – but there is actual RESEARCH and DEVELOPMENT involved in making a play better. Anyway.)
So in July 2014, I came over to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides where Poorboy was working with the Mull Theatre to develop Sandy’s play: Damned Rebel Bitches, about two sisters journeying from the Second World War through to Hurricane Sandy striking New York in 2012.
And now, finally, in 2017 – it’s getting its first production and tour, and I was fortunate to be invited back to pick up where we left off.
2. After the next three weeks of rehearsal, what do you hope to know about the new play D*mned Rebel B*tches that you don’t know now?
How the fuck it works.
Sandy has written an epic romance/action thriller/family drama that spans 70 years and two continents, following three different timelines, and the plan is to stage it with four actors on an 8m x 8m set using stuff you would find stashed in somebody’s attic.
Basically it’s storytelling theatre that feels devised (even though we’re beginning with a pretty polished script) but there is A LOT going on in the story, and the question (I think) is how we keep the audience on that journey with us without the story becoming so hurricane-like that everyone is just sitting in their seats holding on for dear life. (Except now that I write that, maybe that’s a show that I want to go see.)
3. As far as Canadian theatre goes, how often do you see “elderly characters representing metaphors for time and death onstage”?
Hm. Well, if we excuse the PR double-hit of ‘representing metaphors’ (ouch)…. It happens a lot, I think. So much of our theatre is new, and therefore often written from a quite young perspective. And it’s just hard as a young writer, writing from the point-of-view of young characters, to give the older characters the same amount of agency (if you even HAVE them in your play – go ahead, try to list ten ‘elderly’ characters from recent Canadian plays off the top of your head – I’ll go make a pot of tea while you do). It’s not a new thing, though. I mean, Chekhov had Firs toddling around in The Cherry Orchard basically to remind everybody that you can’t get good help these days and death is ever-present, so the older character as a metaphor for death, yeah, it’s a thing.
On the plus side, we have fantastic performers like David Fox and Joan Gregson – both of whom I’ve been lucky enough to act opposite – who simply refuse to let the characters they play be anything but living, needing, doing humans. That said, there is only so much actors can do about the character’s function in the larger story. That’s a composition issue, for sure.
4. How did the audition process work for a production that’s happening overseas?
Poorboy works with a standing company, so two of the four actors in this show – Jeremiah Reynolds and Eilidh McCormick – were drawn from that company. Based on our positive experience together, Sandy just called and asked if I’d be interested in being a Canadian in a play in Scotland, and I said yes before she’d finished asking the question. The hunt for an actor to play Ella – the 80-year old central character – was a bit tougher, I think. The play covers a lot of years, and the idea for the casting was that the company should represent that, so the sisters, Irene and Ella, would be played by actors from different generations. Eilidh is in her 30s and playing Irene, so they were looking for a senior Scottish actor to play Ella. The challenge being that Poorboy works VERY physically, and this is a massive role including singing and dancing and the performer doesn’t leave the stage for two hours, SO… Sandy saw Tina Gray in a show at the Lyceum in Edinburgh and Jeremiah called her up and they had a chat, and so Poorboy managed (through equal parts luck and diligence) to find the most amazing, energetic, positive force to play Ella. Tina is incredible.
5. How have your thoughts on Stephen King’s It changed now that you’ve become part of it in Andy Muschietti‘s new film?
That’s an interesting and tricky question. I tried to read the book when it came out and frankly, couldn’t make it through. It seemed to cover a lot of ground that King had already trod in a way that was more interesting to me, and it was just MASSIVE. I did finally read the whole thing before shooting the movie, but when you’re reading it with a character in mind it’s slightly different. My reaction didn’t change that much (I didn’t and don’t find it his scariest work) but I was more taken in the second time around by the relationships that develop among The Losers. And that was really Andy’s creative jumping-off place for the film, and thus it’s real strength, I think. The young actors he cast are amazing, and Andy was determined on set to build strong relationships on- and off-camera. I think it shows.
6. Any thoughts on Stephen King as a writer?
I love him. I devoured his books when I was growing up and I still think The Stand is one of the great American novels. Salem’s Lot is the scariest vampire story I’ve ever encountered. He writes a TON, of course, and that means not everything is going to be gold (I just read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon on this trip because it was floating around the theatre… yikes), but he continues to risk and challenge himself and his imagination is immense. He’s great.
7. What’s it going to take for the world to start loving clowns again?
If the Juggalos take down Trump that would go a long way, I think.
8. Have you noticed any big differences in the way creativity works in looser settings (such as fringe theatre), versus more restrictive and commercial settings (such as advertising or big budget film)?
Well, there are time crunches in both places, and big egos in both places, too, and both can negatively impact the work. The difference is usually that the arc to the development of character and scene is just WAY shorter on a screen project. That said, IT was the closest I’ve come to the theatre experience while in front of a camera. Because it was a truly big-budget piece, and Andy was determined to give the characters full and grounded relationships, we got to spend quite a bit of time working the scenes, and we got to shoot them several times. You could feel the growth, which often isn’t the case – particularly in television. And my scene with Jaeden Lieberher in the garage – which I think is the one that survived the cut – was shot over the course of a whole day. An amazing luxury for me on camera. It was great.
9. Is there a central struggle at the heart of your creative practice?
There are several.
(Wait – can there be several central struggles?) But the one that always rears its two-faced head is the struggle between craft and abandon. By nature, I lean toward craft; I really do think story is queen and all hands need to be on deck to serve her, as she is what is really going to carry an audience through a piece and (maybe) move them and (if we’re really fortunate) change them. That said, a living actor onstage is most compelling when they are out there really LIVING; the electricity that creates is palpable and powerful, and there is a certain level of abandon that must exist before that electricity manifests. So, as a director can I craft something allows for abandon? As an actor, can I craft a performance that serves the play and my castmates and also allows for the unexpected and the sublime and the barely-in-control? I’m not sure I’m very good at that yet, but it’s something I’m working on.
10. What qualities do you look for in a collaborator?
And the ability to scrap ferociously for the best idea and then forget who thought of it to begin with.