Hello and welcome to Talking Theatre! I’m Alex Donovan and over the next year I will be conducting interviews with the Directors of the shows here at the University of Alberta.
These written segments will be highlights of each podcast interview, so you can get a sense of what we talked about here, but listen to the podcast to get the full experience!
I’m joined today by our first ever guest, Suzie Martin, who is the director of God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz, coming up this month as part of Studio Theatre’s 2016/17 season. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, Suzie?
I’m just finishing the MFA Directing program at the U of A. I was born in Ontario and spent the first half of my life there, my second half of my life in Winnipeg and now my third half of my life is here in Edmonton [laughs]. I came here two years ago to start school. As most people, I think, who come to the theatre, I started out thinking I wanted to be an actor and I did an undergrad in acting at the University of Winnipeg. They don’t have a directing stream there, they have one class which I took which made me suddenly realize “oh no! This changes everything!” [laughs] I spent some time trying to figure out what I wanted to focus on and had the good fortune of working in theatre after I graduated, working in admin, stage management, and the whole deal. Out of all of those things I tried, directing feels like where my talents and interests lie. These past two years have really solidified that for me.
What drew you to this work? Was it the absurdism of the show?
Language is almost always the way that I come to a piece. Since being here I’ve directed some Harold Pinter, Sarah Ruhl, and Oscar Wilde. Despite the stylistic differences of those pieces, language was always the way in for me. This one was no exception, it’s really beautiful on the page. She’s arranged the text as a kind of poetry so it already draws you into this “we’re not in realism, something else is happening here”. And then it’s surprisingly funny! There was also this feeling of recognition for me. I have dealt with some major grief in my life, my father passed away quite suddenly when I was 16. 14 years ago, in fact. But that recognition of “oh yeah, that’s the feeling,” the feeling of trying to stay okay on the surface while everything else is going on underneath. That strangeness, that absurdity felt right to me and I really appreciated how unsentimental the play is. So it was recognition and the stylistic challenge and delight of that for me that made it perfect.
How do you approach working with stylized language?
[laughs] That’s a good question. This play requires quite a meticulous line by line analysis. When you work with a text that’s poetic and heightened in some way there’s just a joy in the language itself. I come from an English lit background and so part of me just loves that and thinks “let’s just speak this poetry, and how beautiful!” But then to keep it active and specific. Why are they repeating this line over and over? There’s a rhythm to it and that’s pleasurable and it takes us somewhere. But tactically you need to keep that grounded. I always try to think of everything like Shakespeare because people are willing to do the work for Shakespeare. You need to think that there’s more to the language than meets the eye and consider the phrasing. What is the long tie of the phrase? How do they turn corners with it? So it’s a lot of meticulous work that way. With this one, the rhythm of speaking quickly and thinking on the line is something that Jenny Schwartz talks about in her introduction and that’s a challenge because there’s a lot going on underneath. In this process, we’re always thinking about what is going on underneath and finding all the bits and pieces.
It’s exciting to see contemporary work, what do you think are some of the benefits of seeing contemporary works on stage?
I haven’t given it a ton of thought in terms of a huge mandate around that, but I think for me what’s interesting is that everything now is building on what has gone before. So taking a play that’s now, well first off it broadens the gene pool, right? A Canadian premiere means we get to see a show no one has seen here before and keeps us in touch with what’s going on around the world. But we’re living now so doing work that touches on all these other movements that have gone before and remixes it into something that touches us where we are right now. I love to see theatre that is contemporary and isn’t afraid of doing something larger aesthetically. I don’t think it’s necessarily a novel thing, there’s lots of great theatre being done, but it’s lovely to see something that moves beyond realism in a way that isn’t just “sticking it to the old man of realism” but actually trying to tap into something else. A piece that’s trying to tell a story in a way theatre only can.
What’s the journey to this point been like? How have these past two years shaped you?
My supervisor on this project was also the first instructor I had here so there’s this nice circling back. We had a meeting last week and he said: “I haven’t seen you direct in two years!” [laughs] So that’s fun. So really everything has brought me here. My first full show was Pinter’s Betrayal and then Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which is a whole journey of styles. In a way, all those things have come to this. And I mentioned earlier language is always the way in for me and it’s always the thing that grabs me, I mean it’s the first thing you encounter on the page. But this play is very lovely because it’s also hugely spatial. Almost architectural. It feels like anything that isn’t rigorous text work in the rehearsals is about spacing and the relationship with objects in space. And that’s something we started to look at with Betrayal. We did it in the round but in a triangle and the actors never left the stage. The Importance of Being Earnest was in an alley. Again a different relationship to the audience and a very long space that actors could play long crosses. I felt this show was an opportunity to bring together my interest in sculpting the space and language.
You’ve been working with a production dramaturg as well, how is that process?
Yes! I’ve been working with Rohan Kulkarni who just finished his MA here last spring. We first collaborated on Betrayal last spring. I asked him into that process halfway through my prep because I didn’t know it was a thing. It was so great that I asked him on to this process right away. We met regularly all last winter and met for three hours a week all term and have been meeting over the summer. It was like we did table work for three months and that was even before we started talking with designers. Then when we were in the room with designers I already had a really strong understanding of the world of the play and structurally how it worked. That made the design process easy because we had a solid sense of what the play needed from the design. Then we were able to work with the designers to help make the design tell the story and not simply be a backdrop.
If you’d like to learn more about the show and the process of bringing God’s Ear to the stage, then please listen to the podcast. We delve deeper into the language of the play, absurdism and the rehearsal process itself! Check out talkingtheatre.podomatic.com
God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz
Directed by MFA candidate Suzanne Martin
October 13-22, 2016, at Timms Centre for the Arts
Ticket Information: https://www.ualberta.ca/drama/about-drama/studio-theatre/buy-tickets