Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

These are three of the current participants' experiences - all are training in directing.

Viktor Lukawski of Milton is training in directing with Andrea Donaldson and Joel Greenberg at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto

(December 6, 2015) For the next few months, I will be doing my PTTP training at the Tarragon Theatre, as an assistant director of two productions in their 2015/2016 season.

The first production is Anna Chatterton’s Within the Glass, directed by Andrea Donaldson.

My recent work as an actor and director has been in ‘devised theatre’—meaning, the work is made from scratch, usually in the rehearsal space. Depending on the project, one might start off with some written source material, or even a book that one wants to adapt, but usually, the script is developed in the room, on our feet. There is a misconception that ‘devised theatre’ does not work with text, but it’s exactly the opposite: we are working with text all the time, developing it through the action in the room, letting the scene create the impulse to speak. After rehearsals, we look back on what was invented in the room, and we attempt to arrange it into a script that we edit as we go along. Of course, there are many variables to devised theatre and no two processes are alike, but like anything else, it’s incredibly hard work, and when you devise collectively, you are all adding to the writing.

This is very different from a production like Within the Glass. In this process, the playwright develops a script, which is then passed onto a director and actors who bring that script to life. Sometimes, as is the case for Within the Glass, the director and actors are a part of the script development from its early stages, going through various phases of development and public readings together. With a script in hand, the director and actors already have the end result of ‘the speech,’ but they must work to develop the action and physical impulses that lead one to say these words and make them ring ‘true.’ This is hard work in its own way, and a process that I’ve been very interested in for a very long time.

I am looking forward to working with Andrea Donaldson on this project. During my training, I hope to develop my skills as a director, to be able to clarify my vision, and to be able to better portray my ideas to the artists around me, from the tech crew (such as, lighting and set designers) to the actors. A director portrays ideas to different people throughout a rehearsal process, but must always adjust the information—what is important to discuss with a lighting designer is not always the same as with an actor. I want to be able to find efficiency and clarity, and that can only be done through training and experience. I spent the better part of my life in school training as an actor and have developed specific skills and exercises that allow me to work efficiently in that position. Now, as I transition into directing projects of my own, it is important that I develop the required set of skills for this position.

Currently, I am interested in how Andrea prepares for a project—what kind of prep work is needed for her to feel secure and ready for the first day of rehearsals? How does she formulate her vision? How does she adjust her vision as she goes along? How much is improvised in the room and how much is firmly set beforehand?

My meetings with Andrea have already started to answer some of these questions, and once the first day of rehearsals rolls around, we will begin a new phase of the process. I am also interested in having Anna Chatterton in the room, and how the process between director and playwright continues in the rehearsal room.

In terms of what I can contribute to the process: my experience in devised theatre will allow me to aid in key moments of structuring on stage: from working with the actors as they begin to find the impulse in the text, to responding to the work as an outside eye (taking notes on what I see to share with Andrea). My training with the physical body and movement on stage will allow me to propose ideas on the rhythm, moments of tension, and the physicality that can make the text live and move the story forward.

Already in the preparation, Andrea has taught me an incredible lesson: “As an assistant director, you must approach the work as if you were directing it.” It seems like an obvious idea, but it is easy to think of oneself as someone on the side, as ‘an assistant,’ always in reaction to someone else. But, in fact, one has to be just as prepared, just as immersed, and just as decisive as the director in the process. This can be a lesson for all positions in a theatrical production — we cannot be complacent, on the side, expecting someone else to push forward; we have to take charge and we must immerse ourselves completely.

Sehar Bhojani of Hamilton is training in directing with Robert Ross Parker at Hope and Hell Theatre in Toronto

(December 21, 2015) I am so grateful to receive the generous support from Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program to train in directing with Robert Ross Parker.

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar is a controversial play that dives into the theme of Islam in a Western Society -- a theme that I myself am exploring through my own writing. As a Muslim artist, I feel the dialogue sparked by this play to be necessary and feel fortunate to be a part of its Toronto debut. A large part of why I have been brought on board is to act as a sort of consultant during the rehearsal process. As the play deals with many Islamic themes, I have been charged with the duty of authenticity in the room. I am only now realizing how daunting a duty like this truly is. I am in no way an authority on Islam. I, to this day, continue to struggle with aspects of my faith. When I think of beginning rehearsals, my excitement turns into fear; what if I fail in being able to represent my faith to its best authentic self?

However, I look to my fear for guidance. For it is this fear that will drive me deeper into my research as I prepare for rehearsals. And although the question of being able to represent my faith authentically in the room looms, I know that I will be cared for and supported through the Hope and Hell Theatre team. In just the preliminary email exchanges alone, I have found such comfort and support from Robert Ross Parker (director) and Raoul Bhaneja (producer and actor). They are interested in my experience and expect me to bring nothing more than that to the process. I will be approaching this mentorship from an actor’s perspective but what I find most exciting about this mentorship in directing is the opportunity to see what life is like on the other side of the table, and how the two disciplines – as different as they are – can overlap. I have always been fascinated by this overlap. What I am most eager to witness is the transition from conception to production. I believe this experience will illuminate the many different efforts necessary in creating a production. Additionally, I will be able to observe how to create the best conditions for all the many different efforts necessary in creating a production. Robert has such a vast experience in directing, from solo shows to large scale productions, to workshopping new work. He is a well of knowledge that will inform my exploration into the craft of directing greatly.

The added benefit of this mentorship will be the opportunity to learn from Raoul Bhaneja, producer and actor of Disgraced. I have already learned so much from his generosity and patience, and look forward to learning from his experience of producing this show with his own company. In today’s Canadian ecology, I find it necessary for artist to learn the ins and outs of producing and I look to Raoul for inspiration.

Michela Sisti of Kleinburg is training in directing with Ross Manson at Volcano Theatre in Toronto

(December 21, 2015) Halfway through my mentorship in directing with Ross Manson and Volcano Theatre I am feeling very happy and alive.

Century Song’s Final Development Week has finally happened. The company reinterpreted a movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and began the job of working it into the existing content of the show.

Messiaen’s quartet was originally written for piano, violin, cello and clarinet. The challenge was to reinterpret the piece for piano, soprano voice and whatever else the combined musical genius of pianist Gregory Oh, percussionist Debashis Sinha and soprano Neema Bickersteth could come up with.

(Did you know that you can create soul-piercing sounds by drawing bicycle inner tubes along the strings of a grand piano?!)

Also present was choreographer, Kate Alton, who, along with Ross, carefully watched the musical development with an eye for staging.

It has been terrific having an entire week’s time to work on some very fine details. Together, the company took time thinking, sharing, discussing, trying things out. Absent from the process was the pressure to ‘get it right’. We made and found our way as we went along.

There were always several balls in the air: the music, the staging, the costume changes, the projections, the timing – all gauges that were meticulously fiddled with. One tiny decision would always come with a cascade of consequences that would cause everything else to shift. We never ran out of experiments to try because we were constantly readjusting our work to the new landscapes we were creating.

I want to live my whole life this way.

Vocalise for the Angel who announces the end of Time” begins with a ribbon of notes from the clarinet that sounds like a nightingale’s call (I like to picture a big garish songbird out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting), or some distant enigmatic flutter of fanfare. In Volcano’s version, Neema sings this line on a stream of changing vowels. The sound erupts out of her like a howl, or like a volatile substance that is transforming her from the inside out.

(Kate gave Neema a really delightful image to work with: You vomit up something deep inside of you. And now it’s all over you, all over the stage, it’s rising quickly, you’re trying not to drown in it.)

This eruption works as an actual transformation in the spine of the show. It brings Neema’s character, and all of us, out of the warm interiors of Jazz Age Montreal and into the stark open air of an imminent World War.

During the first four days of work Neema always began the ‘howl’ against the darkening backdrop of a quiet forest. As the Messiaen continues, the forest dissolves into a series of black and white etchings by the expressionist artist, Kathe Kollwitz. Then, on the fifth day of the Development Week, something very strange happened. In the wonderfully detached way Ross and his company tend to share their ideas, Kate offered up this suggestion: This might be a really bad idea, but what if we began the howl back in the Montreal room?

It was like Einstein grabbing a hold of Newton’s model of the universe, shifting everything around and then throwing it back in your face with a card saying, “Mass and energy are now interchangeable… so are space and time. Enjoy your day.”

An explosion had taken place beneath the landscape we had been fastidiously shaping over the past few days. Kate’s question had provoked us to reconsider the story that we were telling.

In our original version, Neema’s character sings a sensuous, romantic, pre-war Messiaen vocalise from an elegant art-deco room in Montreal. Through a window, snow is falling through trees. Neema is wearing a golden dress and she is gorgeous. We get the sense she is performing for an adoring audience. Although, except for Neema, the room is empty, and there is something cold about it. (Is this place somewhere she that wants to be?) Slowly, the view through the window begins to swell. It overwhelms the room. Now Neema is standing in a forest, singing. The vocalise draws to an end. Then comes the howl.

Now imagine, instead, the romantic vocalise beginning, peaking, and ending in a cold, static room.  Imagine a silence. Then imagine this singer rupturing with a howl and forest overtaking the walls, ceiling, floor.

What is each version saying about this woman? About freedom? About war?

Or, should we relax a bit with the questions? Ross reminded us that Century Song is not the kind of show in which meaning is created through one-to-one correspondences. To try it force these scenes to fit a narrative in our heads could be deadly.

Still, there was something so tantalizing about the alternative reality Kate had offered up. Do we go for it and test out the idea on day five of our development week? Do we carve days out of our January rehearsal period to keep on working?

In the end reality spoke.

We have limited time. What we have is good. Let keep it as it is.

The ability to let go! It’s something I’ve struggled with in my past work, and it was liberating to be witness a team of intrepid explorers firmly say, “Nope, we’re not going to go there today!”

Our next round of work starts up in early January. There will be a first week of rehearsals focused on music and dance reclamation, and then our second week will be all about putting the show back together as a whole.

In the meantime, I’ve been set the task of creating a gallery display for the Century Song’s opening at the Progress Festival. I’m super-excited! We’re putting on a SHOW!

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2016.

Learn more about Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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