Photo by Jon Faulknor

EMBARKING ON AN ARTISTIC JOURNEY

As I begin my first week as Artistic and Administrative Associate at Imago Theatre on a sunny late summer day, I find myself reflecting on the journey that I embarked on last fall.  I am an emerging independent Director/Producer and a couple weeks ago we closed Composite Theatre Co.’s production of I’m Not Here at the SummerWorks Performance Festival in Toronto which earned me an Honourable Mention for the Canadian Stage Outstanding Direction Award.

My SummerWorks adventure began when my friend and colleague, Alexis Diamond, sent me her translation of Je n’y suis plus by Marie-Claude Verdier.  I added it to my ever growing pile of scripts to read and made a note not to take too long to get to this one, but it would turn out that I wouldn’t read it until she suggested that we apply to SummerWorks.  With a little over a week until the application was due, there wasn’t any time to spare.

As I read through the script for the first time, I kept imagining a big multimedia production with lots of projections and high-tech production values and I couldn’t figure out why she sent me this script – I’m not that Director, I can’t direct that show.  I was baffled, but kept reading. Then, just as I was nearing the end of the script, I was struck by an image of a woman, the character in this one-woman show: Ariana, stuck in the middle of a table – literally the centerpiece – while audience members sat around the table and were spectators to the play from that vantage point.  I had no idea if this idea would fly and I didn’t have time to re-read the script and analyze this concept, I proposed this crazy idea to Alexis and she loved it.  Not only did she think it would work, she suggested we serve cupcakes to the audience members since cupcakes are a central vehicle of Ariana’s struggle and part Composite Theatre Co.’s mandate is to have the audience partake in a full sensory experience.  So we applied to SummerWorks and a few months later we were informed that we had been selected.

ENLISTING THE CREATIVE TEAM

When we assembled our creative team we approached artists that we had a strong desire to work with for their ability to collaborate without ego; whose skill sets made them able to take on multiple roles and who wouldn’t shy away from an atypical staging.  Without setting out to do so, we ended up with an entirely female team: Sabrina Miller took on Set and Costume Design, Stephanie Moore joined us as Sound Designer/Composer and Isabel Quintero Faia became our Lighting Designer and Stage Manager.

All design conversations took place with the entire team present.  I insisted on this so as to ensure an open and inclusive conversation that allowed for everyone to express their ideas and build upon the ideas of others, with the goal of coming to a cohesive vision for the entire production.   Each design element was influenced by the work of the entire design team. There was a synergy to the conversation which led us to a unity in the design.  Our biggest design challenge came from a lack of resources. How do you create an immersive environment on a shoestring budget?  Thankfully our imaginative, talented and resourceful team didn’t shy away from this creative challenge.

The script translation had been workshopped and received a public reading through Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal with Stefanie Buxton playing the role.  For this production, it was mine and Alexis’ intention to cast Stefanie and she was thrilled to have the opportunity to play the role in a fully realized production.  I continued to re-read the script and contemplate the production with Stefanie in mind over the next couple of months, but she would eventually have to turn down the role due to a scheduling conflict with another production that she was cast in. Since we did not have the means to offer her a comparable contract, she had no choice but to withdraw from our production.

Now, after months of reading the script through a certain lens, I was now open to a world of casting options. It was almost like being handed a new script. With each subsequent reading, I began to feel the need for more than one voice due to the poetic nature of the text and my desire to highlight the universal nature of the situation this character is maneuvering through.  The more I read the script the more I could hear it as a sort of chorus of voices, so as Alexis and I began brainstorming who we wanted to invite to audition for us we wanted to see a diverse range of women: different ages, “types” and ethnic backgrounds.  We went into auditions unsure of how many women we intended on casting, allowing that decision to come from the audition room.  In the end we cast three women: Shiong-En Chan, Alex Petrachuck and Nadia Verrucci.

BRINGING THE SHOW TO FRUITION

We began rehearsals by working through the division of the text together, we quickly developed a shorthand in our conversations, and Shiong-En, Alex and Nadia began finding their individual voices within the embodiment of a single character.  As rehearsals continued, I urged everyone to offer up their ideas and we tried virtually anything that was put forward.  Because we didn’t have a naturalistic staging to fall back on and we were working completely in the round, there was a freedom to explore a choreographic style approach to the staging.

Given the intimacy of this production – one performer as the centerpiece of a table around which 10 audience members are seated, with an outer circle of 20 more audience members and two more performers that inhabit the space between – I felt the need to bring a trial audience into the room before we had finished rehearsals.  We had chosen to have the characters directly address audience members throughout the performance so we really couldn’t finish our work in rehearsals until we had a chance to bounce off an audience.  We had four preview performances which were essentially open rehearsals where audiences were invited to experience our work in progress.  We were completing elements as we went along and each of the previews was different in terms of realization of design and performance elements.   This was a terrifying but incredibly useful exercise; it gave us a really good idea of where we were on the right track, of where we needed to reassess, and of where we needed to push further or pull back.

It was only when we arrived in Toronto that we were able to complete the show. Our design was an immersive installation that could not be fully realized until we were in the venue.  There were elements that we hadn’t seen or heard at all until we were a couple of hours away from opening.  Our lighting consisted of household lamps suspended upside down from the rafters of our intimate venue. The sound was designed as a quadraphonic soundscape but up until this point we had been hearing it directionally from two speakers place on the same side of the space.  We had been rehearsing in a room smaller than our already small venue, so the blocking had been condensed into a tighter playing space.  We arrived in our venue at 9am.  For the majority of the team, this was the first time setting foot into the space.  We had only a few hours to load in and set up before our technical run, which was followed by our opening performance at 8pm that same night.

Through our absolute collaboration, our confidence in the team as a whole, and our collective vision we succeeded in creating a unified production that we were all very proud of.  This truly was an example of the parts adding up to a stronger whole, I was grateful to have a team behind me that trusted me and that I trusted implicitly.  Would I change a thing about the process?  Only in terms of the resources available to us.