It was nearly 4:00 pm on Thursday the 13th of February, only three hours before the public reading of The Peace Maker was due to start, we had lost our venue. ‘Joy, you need to go,’ I heard as I dashed out of the rehearsal hall and fled back to the office to contact everyone on our invite list and alert them of the change. I hadn’t seen it coming.
Fast forward a couple of chaotic hours and we were settled in at Playwright’s Workshop Montreal, a space we were well acquainted with since The Peace Maker crew had been rehearsing there all week. Though, now it had been transformed. It was a venue ready to receive a public. The public arrived, the reading commenced, and actually, it went really well. In true Imago style, we followed the reading with a talk-back, and for your reading pleasure, I’ve transcribed some highlights below. Leave us your comments and questions – Let’s keep this dialogue going!
The Peace Maker is the story of Sophie, a young Canadian Jewish woman, who travels to Israel and Palestine. We watch her struggle to understand this complex conflict through her friendships with both an Israeli soldier and a young Palestinian girl, as well as her attempts to heal the rift between the two people through the power of music.
Playwright: Natasha Greenblatt
Director: Micheline Chevrier
Musical Director: Samuel Sholdice
Dramaturg: Emma Thibaldo
Q: Why did you write this play?
Natasha: I started writing this play in 2009 after my birth-right trip and after volunteering in Palestine for 2 ½ months. It was kind of an amalgamation of my experiences as well as a story I read in the news about an Arab-Israeli woman who had done what Sophie does. That specific story really troubled me and it was among many other things that really stuck with me as something that had happened that I didn’t know what the right answer was. And it kept sticking with me and I kept saying it should have been a good idea but it really wasn’t and so because I was wrestling with that story and wrestling with my own experience I put them together.
Q: Micheline, is there anything you want to talk about in terms for the process?
Micheline: I think that I had questions about the play. I loved it. I had an immediate response to it. I liked it, but that never means that you like it just the way it is. I thought that Natasha had found a beautiful voice in it, a really honest one, and I thought there was room to go further with it and that’s what we did this week, and actually Natasha did a lot of work on the play this week along with the cast and the musicians. It was an exciting process so we thought oh we’ll just put it on and then of course in the end we work and worked and worked. So it was a very exciting process and of course you can tell by the subject matter and our wonderful diverse musicians and cast that the conversations were quite rich. Lots to talk about, lots to discuss, and that’s certainly what we like to do.
Q: As I’m famous for saying, if you have a good text and great actors, you don’t need all that fancy stuff, but having said that, if this were fully mounted, would you picture this with digital scenes in the background?
Micheline: Natasha and I started to talk about where we were and what the experience was for Sophie and the thing we discovered this week is that it’s less in the visual and more in the sensorial. So because she is a musician, she experiences the world in an oral way. So if we were to do it, there would be very little on stage in fact, but you would hear the world, she would hear the world. The different music, the different sounds, and also the colours and things you experience. And I think for me the thing I keep thinking about were the sounds and smells. That’s what I keep thinking about, but that’s what we discovered. It’s not a travel log. It’s about a young woman, it’s about identity, and therefore it’s about her search for that and keeping that focus with the human beings. We’d keep it to the sound and the experience.
Q: Can I ask about Natasha and Sam (the musical director) and the relationship and how the music came to be part of the play?
Natasha: Well for me when I first started writing I just had the image of my Birth Right teacher as like a cabaret, you know something like an MC from a cabaret. That was just how I experienced Birth Right and that is how I thought it would be theatrically. So because music was in there and because it was the story of the music teacher, music was always a big part. I’m not a musician myself, sadly, but I really love music so I worked with musicians for a long time just by myself. Ex. I think it would be good a little bit louder there, something a bit more jazzy, or something. And then when we did a production last winter, I brought Sam on as the musical director and he kind of just exploded the world and the vocabulary, and so that was great. And we knew we only had four days, and that we really wanted to keep that relationship and that vocabulary going, so I came with Sam from Toronto.
Q: Congratulations Natasha, it’s a beautiful story. I must congratulate you for the cast. It brought life to this story and it’s rare in Montreal to see a diverse cast like that. So congratulations, I loved it.
Q: I’m curious about the nitty gritty of the process. You guys spent four days together and were working all day, and I spoke to someone down the hall who said that you were splitting up the days. How did you do it?
Natasha: It was brutal.
Q: Well, how did you start the day?
Micheline: Just really briefly we worked for a full day, then two half days and then this whole long day since this morning with the cast and then the musicians came in a joined us Monday afternoon, and then worked with Sam pretty much on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon, and they are, as you can tell, incredibly gifted, and in a couple of hours we were basically done. And we invented a brand new cue this afternoon, so it’s a tribute to them. Part of the idea was to take the time through the script, so we did a reading, we discussed it, and then we did go through scene by scene and stopped and made comments, and then Natasha would leave. She left Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons to go write. And then would come in and we’d have a brand new script the next day. I mean, not like completely different, but there were a lot of changes. And that was the goal of the workshop. And the reason you are invited into the process is because I always find I hear the play completely differently with an audience, so then you hear, ‘oh this is really bad,’ or ‘this is too long,’ or ‘this is not working,’ or whatever. But it’s also good for the playwright to hear the play with that energy in a room and feel if it’s moving forward or lagging or how it’s shifting, so that was definitely part of the process.
Q: And what did you learn from watching us watch?
Natasha: We added a lot these past four days, so I can feel where it’s kind of, Frankenstein, like I’ve kind of pasted stuff on, and they haven’t been integrated. I think everything I discovered this week was really amazing and there’s really a lot of very good information, but it is still very quick to write a lot and integrate it. So that was basically the pinching moment, where it was like, ‘that’s not really working yet.’
Micheline: For me one of the questions I had for Natasha was why we go from this scene to this scene to this scene, and what is triggering [Sophie’s] memory or her recall. What is it? So watching as I director, I’m watching for ‘oh that seems like a nice transition.’ Or ‘that one seems arbitrary.’ It’s funny, even though I knew that, with an audience you really start to feel the quality of the story telling and is the audience following you. But audiences are always game, that’s the thing that’s really amazing about audiences. I think you have to try really hard to piss us off as an audience, but for me what I’m looking at is how the story is told.
Q: Have you always worked with this play as playwright only? You’ve never acted in it?
Natasha: I’ve never acted in it. Well because, for many reasons, but one is, I’m not a musician, and the other is, I’m kind of neurotic and a control freak, and on the inside and be like, Miche. It’s an interesting question. It’s also really nice to have a bit of distance when you write a character that is so clearly inspired by yourself, but then you can also let it go. I really like the collaboration between writing a character that has a lot of elements of yourself and then giving it to an actor and having them bring elements of themselves and that becoming a whole different union that is more interesting.
Emma Thibaldo: I think the thing I learned was watching an emerging playwright be really brave in a room in front of a bunch of actors, a director and dramaturg, and most of whom she hadn’t met before or hadn’t really worked with before and just take it all in, and process it. And putting it down on the page in her own way. You’re a brave, wonderful soul. And that idea of asking questions – the scenes and your questions really worked. Listening to them today and being in the room with them. I think it’s a really good idea to keep exploring.