The Penelopiad on stage at Hart House this November

Director and cast member discuss feminism in theatre, Kavanaugh, and the #MeToo movement

<i>The Penelopiad</i> on stage at Hart House this November

From November 9–24, Hart House will host a production of The Penelopiad, based on the novella and theatrical adaption of the same name by Canadian storyteller Margaret Atwood. The story uses a female perspective to deal with themes such as class, feminism, and violence.

The Varsity sat down with Michelle Langille, the show’s director, and Jeanne-Arlette Marie Parson, who plays Anticleia and one of the maids, ahead of their Hart House debuts. They discussed the premise of The Penelopiad, its adaptation, and the relevance of staging an all-female play in today’s political climate.

The Varsity: Could you give us a quick summary of the play?

Michelle Langille: The Penelopiad is essentially a reimagining or re-exploration of Homer’s myth, The Odyssey, so the story of Odysseus. Odysseus had a wife named Penelope, who very, very lightly appears in the story and is sort of seen as this faithful woman who sat around for 20 years while [Odysseus] went off and fought in the Trojan War. He then had all these crazy adventures on the way back to her, and she’s sort of viewed as the most faithful, the most patient woman in that mythological world. So, Margaret Atwood has written a story that basically gives us her side of the events and what happened to her while she was waiting for Odysseus.

TV: Why did you want to be a part of The Penelopiad?

Jeanne-Arlette Parson: I was definitely drawn to [her] imagining of The Odyssey — kind of flipping history and letting our voices be heard, especially in this time and with the theme of sexual violence and rape claims and accusations. I think it’s really important, especially having a full-female cast, to really have our voices be heard and shed light on what’s going on and reflect reality in order to hopefully inspire people to take action and be a part of her story and… what’s going on in today’s society.
ML
: I’m really interested in the idea of how we silence women and how women silence other women. It’s coming more and more to the front and forefront, the idea of intersectional feminism, which is that idea that I, as a white woman, can talk about my experience, but there’s always going to be another woman whose experienced not just what I’ve experienced because she’s of her gender, but because of her race, because of her status, because of all of the things that have factored into who she is, which is really a thing that kind of gets pushed to the side sometimes.

TV: The play deals with a lot of mature issues. What message do you want the audience to take away from it?

ML: Action. We’ve talked a lot about how Atwood’s play was written. It continues to gain in relevance, which is exciting for theatre-makers, but it’s sad for the world. We’ve gained more vocabulary around this kind of stuff, around feminism and around equality and around what the dangers are of not listening and not being heard, and then the way that we treat women’s voices.

If we’d done the play six months ago, we wouldn’t have the Kavanaugh experience, but there were other things that were shifting and so, every time this play gets revisited, I think sadly [that] it’s still relevant to the world. Like Penelope says in the script, “I can see that your world is still as dangerous as mine was, way back then. Through eons we still continue to suppress the voices of women.”

JP: I think it also gives light to the women who are complicit in what is going on. Kavanaugh’s wife and people who have that privilege, who can stay silent because they may have had some experiences but because of their status, they don’t have to deal with it if they don’t want to and I think Penelope is kind of a perfect example of that.

When we’re all gone from this earth, [what matters is] what guilt are you left with, what did you do to make this world a better place, what did you do to help someone who was in need, kind of thing.

TV: Was it important to you to do the play right now during the #MeToo era, with Kavanaugh and everything that’s going on?

ML: The pitch had been accepted before the Kavanaugh thing even started. Back in the spring, I knew I was doing the play and I knew why I was intrigued by it, but that’s actually just continued to deepen based on world events changing. I rewrote my director’s notes like six times because every week it was like, ‘Well, I can’t say that now because now it’s moved onto this; this other horrific thing has happened.’ It’s just crazy, depending on where your optimism levels live. It’s wonderful that the play can continue to be relevant and gain in relevance, but the fact of what it stays relevant to is a little depressing.

JP: It’s definitely very taxing on actors and directors because we know these things are still happening — and kind of getting worse, to be honest — in the world. It’s also a collective — almost bravery to be like, ‘Hey guys, we’re putting our emotional selves into this piece of work to show you the reality in maybe a different way, in a way that you might understand’ and hopefully that can inspire people to continue to do the work that needs to be done to help change it.

TV: Can you tell us about the character who you’re playing?

JP: Anticleia is the mother of Odysseus, wife of Laertes, and the mother-in-law of Penelope. She’s also the granddaughter of Hermes, [who] is the trickster god and messenger god, and she’s very cold, especially towards Penelope in the beginning, but I still think she has a caring undertone because she knows the responsibilities [that Penelope is about to have]…she didn’t really have the closest relationship with her son, although she still obviously had the mother’s love for him, and she knows that this will be most likely the same thing that’s going to happen to Penelope. She has very curt little remarks, which are really fun.

All in all, I think her role in the story is to just give the pillars of Odysseus’s life, to show his upbringing, and why he is the way he is, as well as sympathize with Penelope and her story.

TV: How did Margaret Atwood adapt or change her novella for the stage?

ML: The novella is obviously more in-depth and more structured as a trial, [and] I think we’re still holding onto those aspects [in] the play. It’s obviously shorter, but a lot of what’s in the novella is actually in the play. [Atwood] just sort of took the novella and stripped things away to highlight the most dramatic or the most important elements and things that can be staged.

There’s a lot of costume changes and assuming of different characters, so she offers us a lot in terms of the idea of clown satire. I know she [touched] a little on the satire plays of Greek theatre. In terms of it being different, it’s the same but it’s different. I think Atwood tried to pick and choose what she thought could translate the most, from the image world [created her novella] in your mind to what you can physically put on the stage.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Scenes from the shadows

Four stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from members of U of T campus theatre

Scenes from the shadows

Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship abuse.

“The theatre community… helped me get through a lot of difficult things in my life. There’s a lot of people there I will love forever,” Janet* says. “But there’s also people there who, if I never see them again, I’ll be happy. That’s not just because they did anything to me [or to someone else]… but because they stood by and let things happen.”

Janet was involved in campus theatre during her time at U of T, and her ambivalence about the experience resonates with others. While many students consider theatre a wonderfully welcoming place, the stories of others reveal a darker side of the picture.

It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement skyrocketed to fame, and it’s well worth considering what lessons it has to bear for theatre at U of T. With that goal in mind, I spoke to students within campus theatre at the university who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse from fellow cast or crew members.

Women in power, men in control

A unifying thread in #MeToo cases was that men in powerful positions within the industry exploited their ranks to dominate women. On a smaller scale, gendered attitudes still play a role in many university interactions, and campus theatre is no exception.

Sabrina* held an executive leadership role in campus theatre in 2017–2018. An interesting thing about the U of T theatre community, Sabrina explains, is that unlike in Hollywood or other male-dominated environments, many of those in positions of power are women. But sexism doesn’t disappear when women have power; it just takes on a different form. As Sabrina puts it, “It’s almost like [men] are trying to get power in a female-driven community.”

Sabrina and fellow female executives have had numerous negative experiences working with men who didn’t respect their authority. Male directors would often scrutinize their leadership decisions or devalue their opinions in ways that Sabrina felt were unfair; some of this was accompanied by sexist remarks. Other men mocked the capabilities of female set designers, reflecting the common stereotype that women somehow aren’t suited for technical work.

During Janet’s time in theatre, while some theatre executives enforced “zero tolerance” policies for harassment, in many cases she saw men push boundaries and then get off the hook. Sometimes this would happen during productions scripted to include romantic scenes. In one audition Janet witnessed, one actor suddenly pulled their scene partner into a kiss without consulting them first. Incidents like these, Janet tells me, are often brushed off as “trying to make the scene better,” though she feels that some actors use intimacy scenes as excuses to be inappropriately physical.

Female representation in U of T theatre may also come with unintended consequences. Janet was frustrated to see men whom executives and cast knew as harassers continually get cast in plays, simply because there were too few men available for the part. Gender-blind casting could have avoided that problem altogether: her response was always, “Cast a girl.”

There’s no real way to quantify sexism, let alone to determine how pervasive it is within certain campus environments. But testimonies like these are significant, particularly coming from women in relatively senior positions. Repeated microaggressions, disrespect for women’s authority, and lack of accountability can lay the groundwork.

A similar toxic cocktail underlies the allegations against the now over 200 powerful people engulfed by #MeToo, most of them powerful men — from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching to full-fledged sexual assault.

Even when nefarious motives aren’t in the picture, theatre is an environment of intense closeness. The enormous amount of time cast and crew spend together can blur personal and professional boundaries, particularly in the campus context, where students are mostly young and often friends as well as colleagues.

Sabrina recounts multiple instances of male colleagues who seemed to get the wrong idea about the nature of their relationships with the women they worked with. One female crew member was repeatedly badgered by a male colleague until Sabrina and the executive delivered a pointed reminder about professionalism to the entire cast.

In another case, Sabrina and a female friend went to a cast party. Both of them held management roles and presumably deserved to celebrate their work on the production. An intoxicated male colleague’s aggressive advances made them so uncomfortable that they decided to just leave.

PEARL CAO/THE VARSITY

No typical abuser

#MeToo shone a light mainly on powerful men within the industry. But an inclusive perspective on the movement demands accountability for all perpetrators, even if they aren’t who we might expect.

When Melanie*, an assistant stage manager, became intoxicated at a cast party, a female theatre executive insisted on accompanying her home to her residence. Exhausted and ill, Melanie got into bed, but the woman refused to leave her alone. Taking advantage of Melanie’s condition, she forced herself on her and then stayed the night.

“The next thing I know, she’s in my bed and kissing me, and then she just didn’t stop,” Melanie says. “It took me a while to figure out that it was rape.”

In previous weeks, Melanie had noticed executives making inappropriate sexual comments and being overly touchy with the cast. She considered this inappropriate, but it wasn’t until her sexual assault that the significance of those incidents started to resonate. Melanie confided in a female cast member, and she found common ground — her friend confessed that a female director had also pestered her with uncomfortable comments like, “I only cast you so I could stare at you all day,” or “I only cast you because I wanted to fuck you at the cast party.”

But until it happened, Melanie didn’t feel unsafe around the woman who assaulted her. The theatre executive was a queer woman who advocated for equity and sex positivity, widely respected by her peers. The woman’s gender and the position she occupied within the community made it all the more difficult to process that she was capable of what she had done. It was only afterward, when Melanie was already traumatized and wracked with anxiety and guilt, that she found out the woman who sexually assaulted her had also raped two others.

While marginalized people have benefited from generally ‘safe spaces’ like theatre, Melanie is now concerned that myopic approaches to progressivism can isolate certain people from scrutiny. “They’re women and they’re gay and they promote female empowerment and self-love and hate the straight white male,” Melanie says. “They couldn’t possibly be dangerous — right?”

People who occupy powerful or privileged positions can be guilty of misusing them for their own gain. In big industry or professional entertainment circles, it’s often men who occupy those positions. Given the survivors I spoke with, that’s not necessarily true.

During their involvement in various campus productions, Lake* was thrust into an abusive relationship with Nate*. Nate leveraged their management position to exercise increasing control over Lake’s life, creating intense anxiety and splintering Lake’s existing relationship in the process. Though Lake has now broken off the relationship and reunited with their former partner, it still haunts them that Nate was able to abuse their position and get away unscathed.

Nate’s responsibilities included scheduling the cast, which, given the intensive hours associated with theatre, effectively allowed them to control Lake’s whereabouts. “It became very clear that they enjoyed being a stage manager not because, you know, theatre is fun, but because they enjoy power and they enjoy control,” Lake says.

On top of this, Nate was an experienced sex educator; offering to answer Lake’s questions about sex, Nate adopted a twisted sort of ‘mentorship’ role and thereby pulled Lake into a toxic sexual dynamic. In public, Nate brought elements of their sexual relationship onto the set without Lake’s consent, in one instance pulling their hair during a rehearsal. In private, Nate disregarded Lake’s boundaries and pressured them to use kinks as a method of conflict resolution, resulting in repeated physical and sexual abuse.

It’s difficult to come forward as a survivor in the first place, and it’s even harder when the person who hurt you is someone in power. Underlying both Melanie’s and Lake’s testimonies is a common dilemma. Keep quiet about your trauma, and you have to live with it alone. Come forward, and you may be judged, and you may not be believed.

Certainly, in an industry environment, it’s a bad thing to get a reputation, but that extends to smaller semi-professional and extracurricular spaces, too. “You’re so unsure about your position in the community, you don’t want to be known as difficult or causing a problem,” Janet says.

Then there’s the concern that even if you talk, no one will listen. When Lake told others about the abuse, a few were shocked, despite Lake feeling that the signs were obvious. Disturbingly, others revealed they were aware of Lake’s situation but were unsure whether to interfere — and ultimately decided it was none of their business.

“[Nate] not facing consequences is one thing,” Lake explains. “But the fact that there is this community that I feel in a lot of ways enabled this to happen, through not paying attention to what was going on, [that] says a lot.”

Change through conversation

Janet, Sabrina, Melanie, and Lake tell four different but related stories. Their stories don’t represent everyone’s experiences with campus theatre — but they’re also likely not the only ones.

We have to encourage survivors to come forward, and one approach is through policy. Many student-led theatre groups don’t have specific anti-harassment policies, but complainants can seek redress through standard U of T reporting procedures, through the policies of student society offices that oversee certain campus groups, or alternatively, through informal practices.

According to co-executive producers Marie Song and Sonny Nightingale, the Victoria College Drama Society requires its executives members to attend equity training, and it consults with the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Equity Commissioner when they put on shows with sensitive content. The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production manager, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, says that the group seeks to ensure members’ safety by holding actors and crew accountable to the university’s general anti-harassment policies. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) and the University College (UC) Follies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Brownrigg, Senior Director of Co-Curricular Education and Chief Program Officer at Hart House, oversees Hart House Theatre. Brownrigg’s team is cognizant that its productions involve a mix of student volunteers, recent graduates, and professional and semi-professional designers, which cuts across age and experience. Hart House requires all of its members to conform to guidelines within an “artists’ handbook,” which provides clear expectations for cast and crew no matter who they are. The handbook also contains information about the university’s anti-harassment policies and procedures for filing complaints.

Hart House has also supported the U of T Drama Coalition by funding the launch of  “intimacy direction” workshops in 2017. Originating with Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis, and Siobhan Richardson, co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, intimacy direction focuses on challenging power dynamics that could give rise to harassment. Inspired, Coco Lee, then the coalition’s alumni advisor, brought the practice to U of T.

“A lot of what intimacy directors do is be proactive about building a culture of consent in the rehearsal room,” Lee explains. As trained professionals, intimacy directors guide cast through choreography of intimacy scenes, from romance to physical fights; they also facilitate exercises that safely build emotional chemistry between cast members.

A challenge with programs like intimacy direction, however, lies in showing theatre groups the merit they have to offer. Although Lee received positive feedback from those who participated, uptake was limited, and Lee hopes that this will change. She acknowledges that it can be challenging to fit additional sessions within already-packed rehearsal schedules, but she is also disappointed that “people often don’t think they can spare the time to create that safety.”

It’s also important to convince directors that they can adopt these measures without losing control. “It wasn’t until the end of the year when we clued into the feedback from people that there was a fear that their agency in the process would be taken away,” Lee says. She notes a bit of irony in that: the purpose of intimacy direction is to give actors agency, and presumably, that will result in better productions and working environments.

Beyond institutionalized changes, a more positive environment will come with small, proactive steps from members of theatre groups themselves. Janet tells me that she made it her mission throughout her time at U of T to raise concerns whenever she saw something going wrong. She looked out for younger students at cast parties and made seemingly small gestures, like asking audition partners if they were comfortable with physical touch. Over time, a number of her colleagues had started to do the same, so Janet tried to keep people talking. Sometimes they listened, and sometimes they didn’t.

The beautiful thing about theatre, though, is that it can force people to pay attention. The medium itself is a vessel for conversation, and campus productions like What She Said by the UC Follies in 2016 or TCDS’ How I Learned to Drive in 2018 have critically engaged with stories of sexism and harassment and elevated the stories of survivors.

Like a hashtag, pieces like these can spark dialogue. And coupled with policies and proactive moves, the ideas behind them can help ensure that theatre remains the safe space that it’s meant to be.

“Bad behaviour like sexual harassment lives in the shadows where we feel we can’t talk about it,” Lee says.

It’s time to switch on the spotlight.

*Names have been changed.

Heathers: The Musical: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

The cult classic tackles themes of rape culture, eating disorders, teen suicide, and gun violence

<i>Heathers: The Musical</i>: the first production of Hart House’s 2018–2019 season

From September 21 to October 6, the dark teen comedy Heathers: The Musical will be performed in Hart House. Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; when it was first released in 1988, it was groundbreaking with its discourse surrounding contemporary topics.

The Varsity sat down with Justan Myers and Emma Sangalli to discuss character development, gun violence, and performing in the historic Hart House.

The Varsity: For both of you, this is your first time working at Hart House Theatre ­­— what is that like? It’s a historic space; how has the process been?

Justan Myers: Working in this space is incredible. I’ve been mostly in Toronto working in smaller blackbox­-esque theatres, so it’s great to have this wide open space. There’s so many different ways to use it, and with our incredible set, just finding so many cool ways to bring the audience into the world has been really fun.

Emma Sangalli: It feels like a real established theatre. It’s old, you can feel the history, and that’s beautiful ­­ just knowing there have been so many passionate artists in this building doing what we’re doing. And our director has been using it very creatively.

Justan Myers: It’s really cool to have that juxtaposition of how old and how experienced the space is versus how many emerging artists are in this production —­­ kind of that combination of youth and freshness, but then also this foundation.

TV: Can you tell us a little bit about the characters you’re playing?

JM: So, I play Jason “JD” Dean. He’s the typical social outcast —­­ he’s moved schools a lot and he doesn’t have any friends, so Veronica sort of captures his attention. Little does she know that he has a lot of unresolved problems from both his childhood and the way he’s grown up that leads him to influence her into some bad decisions later on in the show.

ES: Yeah, Veronica is not popular at the start of the show —­­ she’s kind of dorky, very smart, a little bit of an old soul. She ends up becoming popular and her whole story is kind of discovering the cost of popularity, I would say, and realizing it’s not worth it.

Emma Sangalli. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This play is based on a film, the 1988 cult classic, Heathers, which many people say played a role in defining its generation. Are you looking to the movie, or past productions, to inform your rehearsal process?

JM: Yes and no. The characters are so much more fleshed out in the musical that it’s really its own work in a sense. I know my character changed a lot, because in the movie he’s a little 2D. ­They don’t give him a lot of super relatable moments. In the musical, they gave him more backstory, something for the audience to grab onto. So, in a sense, yes, because there’s so many of those iconic lines they took from the movie that you want to nail because the audience just knows them, but the character work itself had to come more from our own basis.

ES: At the end of the day, the part of you that’s an actor and the part of the character that you find through research just sort of come together, and you’re able to find the thread. It’s a little difficult, because the movie was quite a bit different from the musical in terms of, I would say, undertone. In the movie, there’s a little bit of ambiguity on whether [Veronica] is a good guy or a bad guy until closer to the end. Whereas in the musical, she’s kind of the belle of the show, as our director likes to say. ­­It’s pretty clear that she’s got a strong moral compass from the beginning. So definitely we had to look at as much source material as we could find, but you also have to dive into the text that the writers of the musical give you and flesh out the characters on the page, because it really is quite a bit different from the movie.

TV: Was there any moment during rehearsals when you had to really step out of your comfort zone or do something you’d never done?

ES: One of the most famous songs in the show is “Dead Girl Walking.” For me in terms of comfort it was definitely a step, because I have never played a romantic role and it’s basically a full, simulated sex scene onstage. So, it’s very much like, we had to come into rehearsal with all our guards down ­­— throw those fears out the window, be a professional actor, and just do it. But it’s so nice working with Justan, because I’m so comfortable with him.

Justan Myers. PHOTO COURTESY OF HART HOUSE THEATRE

TV: This show deals with a lot of really pressing contemporary issues like bullying and suicide —­­ who do you hope sees this show? What would you want them to take away from it?

JM: I think it is very important for teens to see this show, especially with increasing gun violence and hate crimes and things like that. It’s so easy to become desensitized to that because of media and everything, so to just get a real —­­ I mean, ‘real,’ it’s a musical —­­ but [it’s] a more grounded perspective of what these issues are.

ES: It’s funny because when you think about Heathers, you wouldn’t think of words like ‘solution’ and ‘hope,’ but that was something I really took from the writers’ notes of the musical ­­— that’s really what it’s about, solutions and hope, and it really tries to answer all of the problems that it brings up. I think it’s important for anyone to see this show. There are people that maybe shouldn’t see this show, because there’s a lot of heavy stuff in it, but it is cushioned by humour and by good-­heartedness. I think it’s an important story for this day and age, and for this city specifically. For Toronto in the last year, a lot of stuff has happened and because of social media we all know about it right away. It’s hard when you go on social media and all you see is another shooting, another truck driver. We all care, and want to do something, but sometimes we don’t know what to do ­.­

JM: It feels bigger than us.

ES: I think the beauty of this show is that it boils it down to a very simple solution:­­ be kind to the person next to you, offer them a hand, and include them. That’s a big one in this show. Be a friend, you know? That’s something very tangible, that we can all do every day, that will hopefully help change the amount of bad things we see happening. So, in that case, I do think it’s really important for anyone who can handle this type of subject matter to come see it, because it really does give you some inspiration, and also some tools to go out into the world and make it beautiful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Theatre review: TCDS’ Sunday in the Park with George

A visually stunning production following the life of George Seurat

Theatre review: TCDS’ <i>Sunday in the Park with George</i>

The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) opened its last show of the 2017–2018 season with a visually stunning production of the musical Sunday in the Park with George on Wednesday, March 21.

Directed by Shannon Dunbar, the play examines the creation of real-life artist Georges Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which features Parisians promenading at a park on the riverbank. It is a theatrical look at the artistic process, told with honest and humorous truths about life and love, and set in both the past and present.

The story loosely follows the artistic endeavors of George (Winston Sullivan) as he struggles to create meaningful art and maintain a relationship with his partner Dot (Jocelyn Kraynyk). George is obsessed with achieving perfection in his artwork and strives for the approval of the artistic community; in the process, his art thrives while his love fades.

Sullivan and Kraynyk are talented in the lead roles, giving strong performances in their acting and singing abilities. Kraynyk in particular carries the show with compelling vocals that clearly convey Dot’s frustration with George’s preoccupations.

The supporting cast, whose characters are included in the painting, is also skillful in bringing comic relief to the show in song and dialogue. Ethan Raymond as Jules, a successful artist, Olivia Thornton-Nickerson as George’s forgetful mother, and Cole Currie as the rowdy boatman provide contrast to the visceral portrayals of George and Dot.

While seemingly ordinary at first, the set includes a large projector screen that serves as the backdrop. The screen comes to life in brilliant animations of George’s famous painting in its various stages, from a simple pencil sketch to the final coloured product. These animations are powerful in visualizing George’s artistic development, and they add depth to the actors’ performances in the foreground as well.

Another highlight was the show’s accompaniment by a live band onstage, with music from the original production by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Musical director Michael Henley’s score complements the vibrancy of the scenes as they occur, as well as the pointillism style of George’s painting.

Sunday in the Park with George has a striking juxtaposition of musical and visual art aspects, especially in its animated set design. It’s an enjoyable theatre-going experience, one that gives a poignant examination of the lives of the people in the painting.

Disclosure: Ethan Raymond is one of The Varsity’s Lead Copy Editors; Cole Currie is The Varsity’s Deputy News Editor.

Titus Andronicus set to open at Hart House in March

Director James Wallis discusses diversity in theatre and Shakespeare's continuing relevance

<i>Titus Andronicus</i> set to open at Hart House in March

From March 2–10, Shakespeare’s most gruesome tragedy will play out on the Hart House stage. Set in Rome, Titus Andronicus deals with themes of sexual violence, justice, and, ultimately, revenge.

The Varsity sat down with James Wallis, the director of the production, to discuss diversity in theatre, the relevance of Shakespeare in 2018, and the crux of what makes an effective director.

The Varsity: Do you have a set structure or idea that you tend to implement when directing a Shakespeare play?

James Wallis: I’m interested in how the text tells the story, characters, and the situation. You get that through three things: clarity, intention, and pace. If you have clarity, you will know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. To me, acting is action — so you have to have intention. What am I doing to the other person on the stage? What are they doing to me? How does that affect the situation?

And then, because Shakespeare’s plays are mostly written in verse or in stilted prose, there is a rhythm to them, and you have to keep the pace moving forward. Shakespeare’s plays always move forward; they never go back. So those three things — clarity, intention, and pace — are my number one priorities whenever I do any work of Shakespeare or his contemporaries.

TV: Why Titus Andronicus?

JW: I’m always investigating Shakespeare. As I always say comically, it’s gone beyond obsession at this point! To me, it’s the fact that these plays exist in a realm of questions, which is what I find so fascinating. That is what I am constantly after — being able to ask those questions through my work. So, with Titus Andronicus: what does violence do to us? Why does it horrify and entice us? What do we do when we want to revenge ourselves on a person? Should we? Do we have the right to?

TVTitus Andronicus is another tragedy about revenge, but it is slightly more removed from reality. How have you been able to link this back to our current political climate?

JW: I think at times, taking relevant topics and putting them right in front of an audience can almost destroy the ambiguity of the piece. So my goal is always to allow the play to ask questions and not to give answers. With that being said, Titus Andronicus is a play that is about revenge, about a society at its peril, and a society at the height of its former history that is at a breaking point.

It’s about the violation of a young woman and how that affects the people around her — the play is about the consummation of taking vengeance on a person. My interest was, ‘How do we view revenge now? Is vengeance something we believe in? Is it an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?’ I don’t know. I think it’s different for everybody. In a society that is as divided as ours, I think vengeance acts as a catalyst for how that divide is brought forward.

TV: Diversity in theatre is so important, especially in Shakespeare — were you conscious of this when casting?

JW: My goal is always to bring more diversity into Shakespeare from the ground up, especially with the actors. There are a lot of great actors out there. [Titus Andronicus] was relatively successful. This play has a racial dynamic — it is about an individual who is an outsider, not only because of his race, but also because he is an individualist, an atheist, and a person who believes he can take this opportunity and roll with it.

He is the smartest person in the play, and he knows how to manipulate information and power over people. It’s an interesting dynamic that sits in the play, this idea of the outsider because of their race and ideas. How do you cast within that? You cast them on what they look like, but you are also bringing in more diversity because that is what you should be doing.

I try to do that, I don’t know if I succeed. To be frank, colour consciousness is something we have to be very aware of — how the idea of casting is affected by who the person identifies as, not just racially, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. We have to be very conscious and considerate of what people are trying to bring humanly to themselves, because it is effective and it is telling when it’s on stage and people are watching.

TV: Shakespeare’s been done to death, but I noticed that there are carnival elements to the production — what else is different about your version of Titus Andronicus compared to others?

JW: The play lives in the grotesque, it lives in the horrible and the comic, and I really wanted to use this idea of a broken being — something that reflects back but is also distorted. One thing that came to my head was a hall of mirrors at a carnival. The carnival aspect is a thematic and design idea that brings the play closer to that comic and horrible place. Titus Andronicus is like a distorted satire of the revenge trope. The tragedy is taking the genre of horror and subverting it a little bit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Campus theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ Hairspray

A fantastic cast and catchy music make for a worthy, politically charged rendition

Campus theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ <i>Hairspray</i>

The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production of Hairspray: The Broadway Musical is a radiant mix of feel-good drama and revolution. 

Hairspray gives its audience the rare experience of being moved by a gripping dramatization of racial struggle while also enjoying a night of lighthearted musical comedy, making it a must-see. It boasts witty, politically charged one-liners and love stories that defy expectation.

Many of the actors’ voices wowed; Hannah Lazare’s Tracy Turnblad is reminiscent of the original Broadway actress’, both in her stunning vibrato and charm. Sasha L Henry’s Motormouth Maybelle immediately evokes Effie from Dreamgirls — unsurprising, as she has played this role before. Her powerhouse solo “I Know Where I’ve Been” is breathtaking, and her final belting note was met with whooping cheers on opening night.

Robert Bazzocchi’s Link Larkin rivals Zac Efron’s in dreaminess. Between his crooning voice, smooth dance moves, and winning smile, the audience can understand why Tracy crawls after him, practically drooling, as he serenades her in “It Takes Two.” Zoi Samonas steals every scene she’s in as Velma Von Tussle, oozing stage presence as she showcases dazzling vocal range and perfect comedic timing.

Alexandra Palma is vibrant and talented as Amber Von Tussle, making it hard to hate this notoriously dislikable character, and Jamie Fiuza’s over-the-top Penny Pingleton is delightful and fun as she expertly walks the line between frenetic dork and loveable comic relief.

The production quality is mostly sound, bar the odd microphone malfunction. A live band provides the music, costumes are era-appropriate and enviably bedazzled, staging and choreography is smooth, and not a hair is out of place.

The audience is bound to be laughing throughout, entertained both by pithy one-offs — “Save your personal lives for the camera!” — and the ongoing antics of Tracy’s quirky yet loveable parents, played by Brendan Rush and Kody McCann.

Under the direction of Armon Ghaeinizadeh, the Troubadours’ production of Hairspray emerges as a theatrical success, hooking the audience from the very first note. Tracy lies in bed, which is set vertically on the stage to create the effect of an aerial view, and wakes up with a comically wide smile that proves to be contagious. By the end of “Good Morning Baltimore,” you’ll find yourself grinning along with her, and only at intermission will you realize you haven’t stopped. 

Hairspray: The Broadway Musical runs at Hart House Theatre until February 17.

Theatre review: VCDS’ lady in the red dress

The show explores discrimination against Chinese-Canadians, both past and present

Theatre review: VCDS’ <i>lady in the red dress</i>

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) began 2018 with its production of lady in the red dress on Thursday, January 25 at The Cat’s Eye Student Pub & Lounge. The show examines the anti-Asian racism surrounding the Chinese head tax imposed by the Canadian government, as well as issues of sexism, violence, and death.

The play takes place in Toronto, and loosely follows the timeline of the Chinese head tax, alternating between present day and the early 1900s.

A talented young cast was on hand for this adaptation of David Yee’s play, portraying their characters in dramatic, yet realistic and comical ways. Max (James Hyett), a lawyer negotiating the head tax redress, encounters Sylvia (Kenzie Tsang), an enigmatic woman in a red dress looking for vengeance.

Sylvia drags him into the history of the Chinese-Canadian struggle, and her search for the elusive Tommy Jade (Nam Nguyen). Along the way, Max is shot, stabbed, suffers a heart attack, and discovers that his son Danny (Cy Macikunas) has been taken hostage. As the show progresses, Max experiences the discrimination against Chinese-Canadians and the effects of the head tax firsthand.

While the show is at first insensitive to these disparities, he comes to the realization that everyone has a collective responsibility to do the right thing and draw attention to the harsh history endured by past generations.

Gianni Sallese gives brilliant performances in the roles of Hatch and Coogan, and Alice Guo and Victoria Ngai’s non-speaking roles in the chorus also added to the dramatics.

Overall, lady in the red dress is an extraordinary play that portrays the diversity of a predominantly Chinese-Canadian story well with mostly Chinese and mixed actors. It reverberates the significance of Canada’s diversity today, especially in Toronto, and helps us to shift our perspectives on critical issues of injustice.

lady in the red dress runs at The Cat’s Eye until Saturday, January 27.

Theatre review: TCDS’ Rumors

The Neil Simon production is a farcical descent into chaos

Theatre review: TCDS’ <i>Rumors</i>

The best way to sum up the plot of Neil Simon’s Rumors is this: the dinner party’s host shoots himself, and hilarity ensues. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) presented a rendition of the 1988 play from November 22–25, directed by Vanessa Perruzza.

The setting of the play is the 10th anniversary party of Mira and Charles, although neither character actually appears in the show. Charles is unconscious and wounded from a shot to the ear and Mira is missing.

Rumors is a farce that combines slapstick humour and witty commentary on upper-class life, as well as the dinner party/murder mystery trope. It is full of big personalities and big misunderstandings. At times, neither the audience nor the characters know exactly what is going on, a recurring theme throughout the show.

The play opens immediately after an accident has occurred, although what exactly happened remains unclear. Through a conversation between two of the characters, Chris and her husband Ken, we find out that the host has suffered a minor bullet wound, perhaps attempted suicide.

As guests begin to arrive, the characters try to piece together exactly what has happened. Where are the hosts? Where is the help? Is a scandalous affair involved? Why were there gunshots?

Those who know try to keep the secret from those who don’t, and the miscommunications and rumours become increasingly elaborate and far-fetched. The characters spend the party trying to save their reputations, marriages, and the dinner itself, while their level of intoxication increases.

Gianni Salese gave an excellent performance in the role of Len, as did Kenzie Tsang as Chris. Perruzza did an outstanding job as director. The set and staging made the audience feel as if they were sitting in the dining room with the guests, experiencing the commotion firsthand.

Simon originally wrote Rumors to cheer himself up during a period of depression, and the dark comedy definitely lived up to this goal. Although it carries an undertone of sadness, Rumors was funny, smart, and featured some great talent.