Thursday, 18 February 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.)

It’s less than two weeks until our next application deadline—and this issue features three reflections on projects as they finish.

Jasmine Chen trained in outreach with Marjorie Chan at Cahoots Theatre

(January 21, 2016)  First, I would like to express my tremendous gratitude to Theatre Ontario for making my mentorship possible. Secondly, I need to thank my tireless mentor Marjorie Chan for sharing her passion for outreach with me and treating me as if I was a co-collaborator. The past year of mentorship has grown out of trust and mutual respect. I would also be remiss if I did not thank Kate Ann Vandermeer (GM of Cahoots Theatre) for offering her support and sharing her knowledge throughout the process.

Over a year ago, Marjorie and I sat down and began planning an outreach program. We discussed the kind of workshops we wanted to offer, the types of facilitators we were looking for, who we wanted to serve and our goals for the program. There were so many considerations that had to be factored in! Once we had worked out all the nuts and bolts of the program, it came time to find our personnel. As I said in my very first report, outreach is personal. It was crucial that we found the right people to facilitate our workshops. Outreach is about empowerment, and we needed to find the kind of people who could connect with our participants and inspire them to take risks. We struck gold with our co-facilitators Gein Wong and Catherine McKinnon, who together were able to create a fun and inclusive environment that enabled our participants to share their stories proudly. Our program became a mini community and we still communicate via Facebook! The greatest satisfaction in pursuing outreach is meeting the participants and seeing them grow through the process. Back in October, a team of us met and spent several hours deliberating and finally selected our six participants. As a small program, we wanted to make sure we selected individuals who we felt could most benefit from the program. After some tough calls, we had our six. Spending time with these individuals and getting to know them was a thrill! It was incredible to be in the room, participating in the workshops that we had spent a year planning. It’s hard for me to adequately describe how fulfilling that was.

Marjorie and I are already planning the next Crossing Gibraltar. I realized after my Theatre Ontario Professional Theatre Training Program was officially over that I had only just scratched the surface when it came to learning about outreach. Outreach is so specific to the community you are serving. To really learn about it, one must be able to plan for different communities and tailor programs to their needs. By comparing experiences, my hope is to gain insight into the greater challenge of connecting and engaging with diverse communities.

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Mary Elizabeth Willcott trained in directing with Kelly Thornton at Nightwood Theatre

(December 28, 2015)  With the curtain now closed on a very successful workshop run of Unholy, I find myself smiling as I reflect on the amazing few months we all had putting the production together. What started for me as a nerve-racking dive into the unknown world of being an assistant director, eventually ended up being a highly fulfilling learning opportunity. I know I have everyone involved to thank for that too. Theatre Ontario, Kelly Thornton’s unbelievable patience and guidance throughout the process was key to this experience’s success. Working with Diane Flacks and the courage she displayed in allowing her work to be re-jigged and looked over and adjusted frequently was a very inspiring process to witness and be a part of. All would be for naught in the end, were it not for our amazing cast and crew. This room of people not only came in ready to play and explore but the support and respect and teamwork I saw throughout the cast reminded me why I love the theatre so much.

Of the many things I learned, the first amongst them was how important it is to have the right people if you are working on a new script. The play is like a wheel and all the people involved are spokes, and if one doesn’t fit the wheel will not turn smoothly. We were so fortunate to have such great people involved that this wasn’t an issue. Putting on a workshop production that was intended, from the start, to be more than just actors in front of some music stands, was an ambitious challenge. With three weeks to put up a full production with lights, sounds, and costumes, plus full cast rehearsals and the added challenge of a constantly changing and growing script, it simply wouldn’t have happened unless everyone was well organized and on board with putting some hard work in.

One of the best lessons I received through working with Kelly was how to manage the room. People were inquisitive and playful thanks to the tone set by Kelly’s energy and openness to suggestion. I think what impressed me the most was the fact that even though she encouraged playfulness and exploration, her poise and confidence kept everyone on track and focused on the work, so things never got out of hand. Her openness was especially helpful during the table read stage. We were encouraged to share stories from our own past that related to the play’s theme of 'should women abandon religion?' In doing so we were not only giving a vast pool of diverse experiences to draw from, but were also drawn closer, right from the get go, through sharing our experiences. It also allowed us to bring up more questions and to dive deeper into Unholy, something that helped improve the play’s development dramatically.

Finding my own voice and language in the room is important and is something I’m still continuing to develop. From day one there was an expectation from Kelly of the language we would use to help create the world we were trying to build. This really helped when it came to having the cast get on their feet and try new things, it was also helpful for me to use this language when relating information back to the cast, in response to their questions about the production.

Another skill I saw in action, and began to develop within myself as a result, is the importance of letting artists make their own choices and discoveries in their own time, and not to simply just give them the answer. I got to see this first hand from Kelly and Diane, both of whom carefully navigated the language they used, in order to let them figure out the answer in their own time. Having only ever seen it from the actor’s perspective before this, it was very eye opening.

Once the cast was up on their feet, I got to see the important relationship between writer and director. Diane and Kelly have a great dynamic, they are focused and work very hard but can lighten the room in a moment by throwing in a joke or doing some strange impression. With the heaviness of the subject matter it was great to have the comedic relief, yet another element I learned the value of. The two of them would constantly consult and ask for each other’s input. This respect and creative rapport was not only beneficial to them, but also extending into the design team.

The value of a strong work ethic is something else I picked up from Kelly. Once we got into tech week and the days leading up to the show, Kelly was constantly in meetings with her tech team. Her steadfast work ethic helped all the technical components come together beautifully. She reminded me of the importance of time management and dogged determination. What I also saw in action was the trust Kelly has in her team. She really loves seeing the different options the artist has come up with when it comes to design. Watching Kelly and Bonnie (our lighting designer) play with the lighting was a particularly great example of collaboration.

Above all, this experience has shown me that I can do this and that I have good instincts when it comes to directing. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. I know I have a long way to go before I get a real shot at directing something, but thanks to PTTP and Kelly I am now so much more confident in my own instincts and experience. The value of the lessons I have learned while working on Unholy are incalculable. This was just a taste of what it takes to succeed, but with time and the guidance of amazing women like Kelly, I know that it is just a matter of time before it will be my turn to lead and guide a room of amazingly talented people and together create something worth watching.

(Unholy Written by: Diane Flack, Directed by: Kelly Thornton. Cast: Pat Hamilton,Melee Hutton, Niki Landau, Bahareh Yaraghi, Blair Williams. Creative: Lindsay C Walker (Set and Costume Design), Richard Feren (Music and Sound Design), Bonnie Beecher (Lighting Designer), Melissa Convery (Stage Manager), Jacqueline Costa (Production Manager), Mary-Elizabeth Willcott (Assistant Director)

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Michela Sisti trained in directing with Ross Manson at Volcano Theatre

(January 29, 2016)  I had wanted to work with Director Ross Manson on Volcano Theatre’s production of Century Song so that I could learn more about creating interdisciplinary theatre. Over the last few months I learned things I hadn’t imagined I would learn when I first applied for my PTTP grant. I discovered how mind-blowingly incredible babies are and began to understand, a little better, the bravery of parents. I learned that excellent stage managers like Emile Aubin are like musicians who use light and projections as their instruments and who breathe with their performers on stage. I somehow found myself collaborating on creating an interactive website for Century Song – I still don’t know how that happened. (And it still excites me – check it out.)

Working on a piece of interdisciplinary theatre can at times seem like reaching your hands into a pool as enormous as life and trying to shape the water. Century Song contained so many ideas, drew on the skills of so many different artists, and had emerged out the complex experiences of Neema Bickersteth, its central performer. With all of these elements swirling about, how do you find clarity in the work?

I wasn’t present for most of Century Song’s creation process, which had started back in 2010, but I took part in the show’s final stages of development leading up its 2016 Toronto premiere. During this last stretch of rehearsals I was able to observe the company’s style of working and draw some conclusions about some of the practices that enabled them to create such a detailed, coherent and moving production.

Finding clarity in a moment of interdisciplinary performance involved multiple approaches to rehearsing. Sometimes this meant giving notes that specifically addressed what Neema was doing with her body (the was generally Kate Alton’s domain). For instance: a particular movement should come from the ribs rather than from the shoulder, or: “the body during this moment should be completely aligned and forward facing, as if you are sandwiched between two sheets of Plexiglas.” Other moments required Neema to work from an intention: you want to break out of the room (generally Ross’s domain.) Witnessing Ross and Kate’s collaboration with Neema showed me that it is absolutely possible for two practioners using completely different techniques to work together towards a shared goal. What needs to be in place in order for this to happen is an openness to each other’s methods, an absence of dogma about what is the correct way to achieve something in performance and the ability to tune into the other person’s rehearsal language. 

Sometimes it was not story or choreography but musical explorations that led to clarity in performance. For example, a few days before preview night, pianist Gregory Oh suggested that Neema play around with some alternatives to using head voice to sing the nonsense words of Aperghis’s Recitation pour voix seule. So Neema tried speaking these sounds instead ... in a baby voice! The original subtext of the Aperghis for Neema had been: I strive to juggle an ever-increasing number of tasks with excellence. Within the larger the narrative of Century Song is the struggle of the 1970s feminist who, in addition to her political activism takes on motherhood, a career, household work, maintaining her appearance, etc. With Neema’s baby voice added into the mix, the section became more of a back and forth interplay between ‘feminist superwoman’ and ‘infantilized sex object.’

Juggling an ever-increasing number of tasks with excellence could equally sum up what Neema had to do as the performer of a one woman show. In addition to music, choreography and story, Neema had to perfect timed costume changes, contend with an injury, run off to last minute interviews and snap into mommy mode when baby Nuala came to rehearsals. This meant that during rehearsal time an extremely important skill for the creative team to have was to be able to tune into Neema’s needs and also to have a sense of what she was able to actually work on at a given moment. Communication was vital. Neema would often tell us if she was feeling saturated with notes, or let us know that she wasn’t able to play an intention fully until she first sorted out what she was doing physically or musically. This practice of open, two-way feedback was illuminating: it gave everyone a shared sense of precisely what aspect of performance Neema was focusing on, which in turn encouraged further specificity in the work. It kept us constantly in touch with each other, so that we could move forward together. To me this is a much more effective way of rehearsing than the top-down models of directing I’ve been exposed to.

Setting parameters for the type of rehearing we were doing was another important way for the team to tackle the multiple challenges of interdisciplinary theatre. The Aperghis piece, which was extremely technical and executed at a fast tempo, was given special priority in every rehearsal. Neema worked on the Aperghis twice a day: once at the beginning of rehearsal – with lots of fine-tuning and reworking based on choreography notes – and then a run-through of the section at the end of the day, without notes, once Neema was absolutely exhausted in body and mind. Athletes will often train in extreme conditions – high altitudes, extreme heat – that are more challenging than their actual performance conditions. Being more than prepared can give you the confidence to elevate a performance to a whole other level. At the same time, I was intrigued to discover that one of the pieces, the Rachmaninoff Vocalise refrain that comes at the end of the show, was hardly practiced at all in rehearsal. The logic behind this choice sounds a bit mystical but is actually grounded in practicality: Century Song is like a tunnel that Neema journeys through until she emerges on the other side to dance the Rachmaninoff refrain. There is no way of practicing an end without all the comes before it. The dance has to happen in real time and it has to come out of the experience of the journey.

Banter was a huge and unexpected part of the team’s rehearsal process – possibly just as important as the work itself. When a team is trying to tackle so many diverse problems in a short space of time, banter breaks are like water breaks in an obstacle course, keeping everyone refreshed and revitalized.  These breaks also kept us clear headed. When you are banging your head against a wall over and over again, there is nothing like walking away for a moment and doing something else. Moreover, banter kept everyone on their toes. Creative work is being playful! It’s a simple idea but it hit me with the full force of a revelation one day in rehearsal. Our breaks were not breaks at all: they were a continuation of our work – quick, playful, lateral thinking – just in a different form. Lightness and a sense of humour free up everything. Seriousness is rigidity. Once I loosened up and gave myself over to the banter in the room I discovered that my ideas during rehearsal were sharper, they came faster, there were more of them, and best of all, I wasn’t attached to any of them. Finally, banter created strong bonds between the people in the room. It got us excited about being around each other and about exchanging ideas. That trust, that collective sense of possibility, was carried into the work that we did.

At the end of rehearsals the team took time to decide what the structure of the following day should be. This came mainly from asking Neema what she felt she needed to work on. I quickly discovered that the more empowered a performer is to make decisions about the creation process, the more empowered this person will be on stage. If you create conditions in which performers feel they should constantly be looking to the director for answers, this tentativeness will translate into their work on stage as well. One of the most beautiful moments of my experience of working on Century Song happened during a notes session at the end preview night. The performance had been solid. All the important marks had been hit. But something hadn’t clicked in that mysterious way things do during an electrifying performance. After a few notes, Kate and Ross said something like this to Neema, Deb and Greg: “You guys have it. You know it. You’ve done the work that you needed to do. Now just enjoy. Shine. Have fun.”

Opening night:


Related Reading

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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