Hello and welcome to the second instalment of Talking Theatre!
I’m Alex Donovan and I’m joined by Ashley Wright, director of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, the second show in the Studio Theatre 2016/17 season. You can read an excerpt of our interview here, or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
Why don’t we start with a bit of background information on you as an artist?
Well, I’m primarily an actor. I’ve worked pretty extensively across the country and around 1998, I had a bit of a career catharsis. I was actually going to go back to law school to become a lawyer. What ended up happening though, was I decided I would stay in theatre but I had to be more than simply an actor. I had to be creating as well. I started writing and directing. In 2004, I put that all on hold and moved to Toronto and tried my hand in the big market for a while and had some success. Then as I was approaching my 50s, I thought I needed a new challenge! And here I am today at the end of my Masters of Fine Arts in Directing.
What drew you to this particular play?
I think what drew me to it was the fact that I wasn’t a big fan of it! I’ve always thought that the union of Viola and Orsino and Sebastian and Olivia was never quite right. You can’t quite see them skipping off into wed-full bliss. This play had a lot of questions, so I feel like being in university and trying to challenge myself that I should pick the most difficult play to figure out.
What inspired you to take a Brechtian approach to the play?
It was sitting in class last year and having a presentation on Epic Theatre that it just dawned on me. Everything found its place; it was like oh! This is how to approach Twelfth Night. I took elements of Brecht’s theatre without fully realizing it, with the fact that the audience is always aware that they are watching a play. That is an aesthetic that I think works well with Twelfth Night. It excuses the anomalies that happen near the end of the play and we actually see all of the actors doing their costume changes onstage and making the sound effects. It’s multi-layered because the actors start out as themselves, become the 19th century troupe of actors, and then become the characters themselves. Then we rewind that process back to just actors.
Did the Brechtian take lead you to the 19th century travelling troupe concept?
A little bit. I was looking for a troupe of travelling actors, and in the 19th century before film, TV and radio, those troupes were quite prominent. A lot of companies from England came over to the United States and Canada doing big tours. I mean they were like the rock stars of today. They were greeted at the train station, lots of fans, and lots of people eager to see the show. I just thought that seemed to be an interesting way in but we don’t make a big deal of it or comment on it. It just is.
What’s the journey been like to get to this point?
It’s been lots of highs and lots of lows. I was in Vancouver this summer doing Shakespeare in the park so all of my design consultations was by Skype and phone. Our set designer, Reza, is from Tehran and so we were designing the show via Skype. I lost my costume designer quite a ways into it, so Stephanie Bahniuk, who I’ve collaborated with before, stepped in at the last minute. Robert Shannon is on lights. So lots of Skyping, I didn’t get back into town until October 1st so a lot of prep work went into that time before. I cut about 25% of the play which keeps it to an hour for each act, including many topical references that no one would ever understand. But it’s been a very good journey. It all came together quite nicely and according to plan.
So how are you feeling now that you’ve opened?
It’s weird because I still feel like a junior director and so I’m not quite sure. It’s a very strange feeling, I’ve spent 26 years as an actor knowing what to do when a show opens. You have to go to the theatre, warm-up, do a show, go the bar. But as a director I feel oddly displaced. I’ll be at home and I’ll know the show is starting and it’s such a strange feeling. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually.
Have there been any challenges or surprises you encountered in the process?
I think every day there were some challenges. I’m directing the 4th year BFA students who are all amazing, but they’re also young. I had to keep reinforcing some things. We’d make a breakthrough one day and then a week later we’d come back to it and it would have lost some of its grit. That wasn’t necessarily a challenge or a surprise but I did find myself doing a lot of teaching along the way. When I think about it some of my favourite directors felt like teachers. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either. Just also knowing what to say to each actor individually. One note for one person might not be the same for another person. So with nine actors with nine very different personalities, I had a different tactic for each actor.
If you want to learn more about the process, then take a listen to the podcast:
Check out talkingtheatre.podomatic.com.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Directed by MFA Candidate Ashley Wright
November 24 – December 3, 3016, at Timms Centre for the Arts