Thursday, 1 June 2017

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Valerie Hawkins

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

Valerie Hawkins training in direction with Jillian Keiley at the Stratford Festival

The Value of a Good Question 

(April 24, 2017)  It's amazing to me that a play written two thousand five hundred years ago can be so relevant to modern times. From day one the subject matter of Bakkhai got up close and personal.  Jillian Keiley is a question making machine! The number of relevant questions that are asked of our modern sensibilities borders on miraculous. Inquiry, the constant diving deeper into the material of the play through probing our present realities, is genius. And I am realizing one of the most important tools any director can hone is this ability to ask the right questions.

Before any actor got on their feet we were stimulated with trying to assess gender roles and familial roles in today's world. Also deep philosophical discussions came out of questions such as: if you were to create a religion, what would your three major tenets be?

Well churches are empty in the west. The role of religion in our lives no longer has the impact it had all of those years ago. But the question of what is God and what is spirituality is still a question in people's lives. Spiritual ritual has been replaced with other things. The same can be said of roles within the family, they're being redefined as we redefine ourselves. Well things are different now from Euripides time but when you pull it apart...not a whole lot is different either!

It is such a luxury to have time in the rehearsal room to debate these long standing questions. It's a luxury that working in an institution like the Stratford Festival affords. So much talk has triggered deeper discussion and revelations of personal integrity and shame. I have been honoured to witness the bonding of this cast around the rehearsal table as they share laughter, tears, quiet reflection and open hearts.

On March 24 we had a feminist scholar, Kim Solga, speak to the cast. She fielded questions as to whether the Bakkhai could be considered a feminist play. The ensuing discussion made me realize that it doesn't matter if a play is feminist or misogynistic, what matters are the questions provoked during performance. There is so much importance in the questions in the audience’s heart whether in their own reality or a fabricated reality. I am learning the important mission in this work is keeping discussion in the air; keeping the questioning alive.

Watching the actors get to their feet and work their way through the scenes word-by-word step-by-step gesture-by-gesture remind me of something I already know, just how brave artists have to be to create the little moments that will become the play. And watching those collected moments take shape humble me daily.

Last week we had an intimacy choreographer, Tonia Sina, conduct workshops with actors and help mold difficult moments in the show. In many regards this is new territory. It's what fight directors were facing twenty years ago. When you think of that comparison, you see the importance of staging a kiss with the same care as a fencing move. Safety, precision, a controlled situation are so necessary for the artists to work freely and feel safe within the structure of the play. It's all illusion here, the theatre's greatest tool. No one is struck in a fight, no one is making love on the stage, it's a magic trick, it is a grand illusion. The audience is deceived into thinking they've seen more than what has actually been presented to them.

This particular production of Bakkhai is richly enhanced by the original music composition by Veda Hille. It evokes a primitive urge to move and I believe will enrich this production beyond words. Music and beautiful poetry can do this so well—reach parts of us on a very intimate level. Because much of my background is as a vocalist the development of this thread in rehearsals has been near and dear to my heart. So exciting to watch well-seasoned and brilliant Shelley Hanson teaching these actors this music and seeing and hearing it come alive! Not to mention sound designer Don Ellis taking it to the stage and enhancing its impact through technology and expertise.

I suppose I always knew "it takes a village" to put on a great piece of theatre but I cannot thank Theatre Ontario enough for providing a way for me to witness the process from the other side of the table. It is only a very accomplished cool headed director like Jillian Keiley who can take all the varied and beautiful threads from the actors, designers and all assisting contributors and weave a magical tapestry. We are now more than halfway to its completion - otherwise known as opening night which is really just another beginning. But what is being created is beyond exciting for me and I am sure for the audiences to come.

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The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 2, 2017.

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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