Want to see how I die on stage? I’ve had lots of practice dying prettily… pro-tip: die facing up-stage so they can’t see you breathing and rolling your eyes.
O offers 30 minutes of ingénue-dominated stage time as you’ve never seen before: clothes stay on, talk is frank, tears are fake and any death is purely educational. By unearthing Shakespeare’s doomed Ophelia, O critiques the ingénue character type and the way we train and direct young female actors.
Advisory Board member Sukaina Ibraheem interviews Ali Joy Richardson, one of two members the Director’s Lab, mentored by Clare Preuss, about her experience with O, a play originally written by her undergrad classmate Eliza Martin. Ali shares details about the growth of her work in the first incarnation of the Director’s Lab program.
Sukaina What inspired you to create and direct O?
Ali This show sprang initially from my friend, Eliza Martin, who wrote and first produced O in theatre school. We both went to the University of Toronto in Mississauga’s joint theatre program with Sheridan College. I love the character of Ophelia. It was originally very academic around the scholarship of Ophelia. Eliza is super brave and political. I wanted to bring out something more personal in the story, so I met with her a few months ago. She had put it away, wasn’t satisfied with it. It came out of her love of ingénues. So I wanted to redevelop it, with a more personal approach.
Sukaina What brought your company together?
Ali Lucy McPhee, is finishing her undergrad in neuroscience at UT, but is also on the path to becoming a stage manager. I was keen to have a female stage manager. Eliza is the writer, and is also the only performer in the show. My lighting designer is Neil Silcox, and the sound designer is Nick Potter. Well, we are all from the UTM Sheridan theatre program! There’s also my Paprika Festival Director’s Lab mentor, Clare Preuss.
Sukaina How would you describe your show in three words?
Ali Candid, vulnerable, current.
Sukaina How did your rehearsal process begin?
Ali It started with interviews of Eliza as herself. Then it became more in character. She would improvise as I talked her through scenarios or gave her prompts to tell her story. We did this both as herself at times, and as the character. I would record everything, and then we would come back and select what we liked. It was very collaborative, building off the encounters of the audience and herself. She would then go back home and script it, and then we would meet again, examine it, and make more edits. It was intense, sifting through so much material and trying to rework it all.
Sukaina What is your most memorable rehearsal moment so far?
Ali The day that we found what the ending sequence of the piece is, which came from a prompt that I gave Eliza and she then ran with. It’s where we find this character backstage. By the end of this play she has an epiphany about how unsatisfied she is with the injustice and myth we have spun for young women. We hear things like “just be this role, and be easy going- easy to work with, and be this dead girlfriend in this show”. After discussing for weeks and wondering “how do we leave it? Where does she end? Does she leave, does she quit?” We keep calling it the “I hate this fucking cookie” moment, which is from this spectacular moment in Bridesmaids (2011) where she attacks this giant cookie.
Sukaina What has been a challenge of working on this show?
Ali since the play is talking about the way we teach and direct young female actors, there’s just a ton to say about that. So worrying about whether we are simplifying it or generalizing, saying too much or too little? It can be overwhelming. We are giving one perspective on this story that has so many perspectives and is so big. I feel like as women, we get taught that unless we can say something perfectly, don’t say it at all. So we kept running into this fear of “what if I’m not saying this perfectly.” We overcame this by being very specific, and sticking to this one woman’s perspective. We aren’t trying to, or pretending to be trying to show multiple perspectives on this issue. It’s a single, intimate, and personal perspective.
Sukaina Why does Toronto need O?
Ali I guess the big, overarching discussion that we are stepping into, is thankfully one that is already happening in terms of casting and stereotyping. And I think what is important about this show is that it’s one very personal encounter with these issues. Hearing a personal story, does something different than a panel. What’s important is it’s personal, and from an actor’s perspective, rather than the people casting, or directors, or what not. This comes from an actor, who’s been out of school for so long- she just reached a point of “how long am I going to play the dead hooker role in a short film?”
Sukaina Who should see this piece?
Ali Well, I know that most of the audience will consist of Paprika Festival participants, so people already involved in the theatre world. But I’ve worked hard to make sure it wouldn’t be a big in-joke piece where you don’t get it if you aren’t in theatre. I want to have people who aren’t in theatre watching it. I want them to think about the rehearsal room, to analyze what they see on TV, and in theatre and think, who wrote this? Who directed it? What do we know about it otherwise? It’s too simple to think “oh, this story has bad female characters.” Characters are what you want them to be. We write the characters; so why are they being written this way?
It may also be important to mention that although the subject is very weighty and heavy, this piece is filled with lightness and delight. It depicts this vulnerable young person who, isn’t quite there yet, but is just approaching this realization and disillusionment. Which is what an ingénue is! It’s very delightful!
Sukaina How has Paprika Festival’s involvement helped your development and directing of O?
Ali Well first of all, having them produce, and organize, and advertise this is a huge gift! Things like finding a performance space, and advertising, and printing programs, are really difficult on your own, so having that taken care of by the festival is a huge gift. Also, working with Clare Preuss, who is my mentor, has been awesome. It is so comforting to have this outside mentor to go to when I have questions. I can call, and email, and meet to touch base, and she has all this knowledge. Directing can become a lonely job, so it’s really comforting to know that I have this wonderful professional that I can go to, bounce ideas off of, and speak with when I’m unsure about something.
Catch the performance of O at the 15th annual Paprika Festival as apart of the 15th Annual Paprika Festival, in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts.
Where: Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum Building, 585 Dundas St E
Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Advisory Board’s Paprika Festival 2016 Interview Series!