One of my fave things about theatre is the up-close-and-personal immediacy of the characters and the story, and the give and take between audience and actors – and this becomes even more the case when the audience gets a chance to interact with the actors and creative team in a post-performance Q&A (aka talkback). One of the newer, and popular features of Alumnae’s season is the Sunday matinée talkback, held on the second Sunday of the run for each play – and the Q&A for Così happened yesterday. (Photo: Tina McCulloch, as Ruth, and Laura Vincent, as Julie, in a scene from the opera within the play – photo by Dahlia Katz: www.dahliakatz.com)
Moderated by co-producer Barbara Larose, the onstage Q&A featured the Così cast, director Jane Carnwath, assistant director Seema Lakhani, and designers Ed Rosing (set/lights), Margaret Spence (costumes) and Rick Jones (sound), as well as special guest Jennifer Chambers (Coordinator, CAMH Empowerment Council).
Carnwath and Lakhani toured CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) as part of their research for the play, wanting to go beyond what they could learn from reading to get a sense of the environment of a mental health facility: how people cope with being institutionalized, connect with folks who worked there – and go beyond the behaviours associated with the various mental health conditions to find out what that world looks like and how people navigate it. Sane or not, how are people motivated?
Chambers commented that, in the institutional setting, people tend to drop pretense – and seeing Così, it struck her that playwright Louis Nowra was familiar with life inside a mental hospital – and Carnwath mentioned that Così has an autobiographical trigger. And that mention of shedding pretense brought up the interesting question of the behaviours people exhibit to appear “normal” in their day-to-day lives. A point that came up several times during discussion was how real the situation in the play appeared to the audience, and how genuine the characters were – a testament to both playwright and actors for accurate and respectful portrayals of this world and the people who inhabit it.
A question from the audience came up for the actors regarding the challenges presented in playing these characters. PJ Hammond (who played Cherry) said that her initial impression was: “That’s fun!” but as she delved deeper into character, it became “That’s scary!” – and was challenged, and freed at the same time, to be outside the box every day and see how far she could push the character. Matt Brioux (who made his acting debut as pyromaniac Doug) admitted being new to the theatre scene, but dove into research about Doug’s condition to go beyond Doug’s actions to get to what/how he was thinking – the stress, the sexual tension underlying the condition. For Chris Kelk, Henry’s condition wasn’t specifically defined, so he focused on the character’s back-story and how that informed his illness. Mike Vitorovitch (the manic Roy) connected with his character through a “constant bubbling,” with Roy always being at the edge, and always having something to think about or do. An audience member later commented on how still Mike was during the talkback – and this was because playing Roy is pretty exhausting.
A question came up regarding the characters’ movements: did the actors come up with these themselves or were they coached? Carnwath described this portion of character development as organic. The actors came up with movements themselves, and these were honed and focused by movement coach Jen Johnson. Chambers pointed out that this was one of the period-related aspects of the play (set in the early 70s) – patients are more medicated now, so their movement and physical behaviours are less defined and less active than the characters in the play, with patients moving less or movement being triggered by their meds.
One audience member wondered if any mental institution patients had seen the play and what their response was – and also commented on how the play was about hope and inspiration, and how a creative activity can bring meaning. Chambers noted the CAMH work at Workman Theatre, where patients work with professional actors to produce theatre works – usually works about their lives – and cited Angels of 999 as an example of a patient-written play. There was a young woman in the audience who responded as well, from personal experience of being in an institution in her teens, and as a result of being exposed to theatre while she was there, subsequently went on to work in theatre. She also added to the discussion about the differences of time period: people were institutionalized in the 70s for things that they wouldn’t be committed for now (either there are other facilities or social mores have changed on issues like sexuality) – but applauded the play’s and the cast’s realistic and respectful portrayal of their characters.
A discussion of the political placement of the play came up – most audience didn’t know of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war and anti-war protests – and Carnwath pointed out that the graffiti was all authentic Australian graffiti writing of the period. A question came up with how the political views of the characters informed costume design. Spence mentioned that, for politically active characters like Nick, she needed to find clothing that was immediately identifiable (like his beret, Che t-shirt and army jacket), while for Lucy, whose activism was emerging, taking her from a more flower child, girly look to militant protester later in the play.
The opera costumes were the most fun, as they had to be constructed as if they were made by the occupational therapy patients – resulting in wigs made with toilet paper rolls and cotton balls, and the hooped skirts of the dresses done with hula hoops, etc. Set designer Rosing also pointed out that the divider screens used in the opera scene were created in much the same way – getting a few painters to add colour and images to the framework as if they were patients creating the set. This led to a discussion of the use of the bare stage as the set. The burnt-out theatre set of the play had to be cold, empty, deserted and unhappy – so the black walls were used and lighting was set away from the walls to create the illusion of a larger space, and both the lobby entrances were used, as well as one of the back row seats, to create the feel that the theatre the audience was sitting watching the play in was also the theatre in the world of the play. A bit mind-blowing, actually.
Sound design incorporated both music of the period and from the operas referenced in the play (mainly Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, but Don Giovanni is also mentioned at the end), the opera music playing not only during the performance of the opera within the play, but also during moments of Roy’s creative reverie, so the audience could hear what Roy has going on inside his head.
A final question for the cast came up: How easy was it to get into character and how quickly did they find their characters? Actor Laura Vincent joked, “I just did a lot of heroin.” Her main concern was being authentic. She didn’t know what it was like to be a heroin addict, and found it to be a very gradual process getting into Julie’s groove, solidifying on opening night and growing since then, especially regarding Julie’s relationship with the other characters (example: when she saw that Ruth was feeling frightened, she found she wanted to go hug her). Hammond agreed, that a lot of character stuff was found later in the process and Vitorovitch added that, as actors, they were so focused on getting inside their own characters – and getting it right – early on in the process, that as character was solidified internally, the actors were able to look outside themselves more and discover things through the eyes of the character later on.
This branched off into a discussion of how live theatre requires an audience in order to make a play fully come to life – the audience is a part of the performance in that magical back and forth that happens between them and the actors. Lynne Patterson, Alumnae’s subscriptions manager, had seen the play both before and after it had an audience – and commented that the play was transformed as a result of an audience presence.
Alumnae Theatre’s run of Così continues this week Wed – Sat on the main stage. For more info and reservations, check out their website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1112cosi.html
And for more info on the good folks at CAMH and the work they do there, please visit their site: http://www.camh.net/