Back in April the Ottawa Theatre School put on a show called THE SUICIDE, at their home in the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama. It was a funny, subversive gem, written by forgotten Russian Playwright Nikolai Erdman, and directed by Ottawa Theatre legend Pierre Brault. I got an invite from stage manager supreme Hilary Nichol (thanks Hilary!) to sneak into the OSSD a week or so ago to chat with Pierre and some of the cast…present that day were Jonah Allingham, Victoria Luloff, Drew Moore, Mitchel Rose, Nick Fournier and Hannah Gibson-Fraser. Here’s what Pierre and the gang had to say about their show, about to be remounted in Cafe Alt for the Ottawa Fringe Festival:
Visitorium – What drew you to this piece in particular?
Pierre Brault – I first did this piece almost 30 years ago in Toronto, and it’s quite a popular piece that had been done at the Shaw festival, sort of rediscovered by a company in England and brought over. In fact, I believe it was Derek Jacobi’s first NY appearance in this play. Then it was adapted for the Shaw Festival which is the translation we’re using. I think what really attracted me to it was how funny it was. I always appreciate good satire when done well…I think things like that are cyclical and They can be effective at one point, but maybe 9 years later they seem stale, but then suddenly it comes back in again and I think this is the case with this kind of play. What drew me also were the characters and how richly drawn they were, and how a good satire can sort of…satire is not the same as comedy, it packs a punch. The laughter carries a message with it and that’s what I think is very obvious in this play.
V – You’re mostly known for your writing and performing, is this your first time directing?
PB – Not my VERY first time, but I’d say it’s certainly one of the first times, absolutely.
V – Was it an enjoyable challenge, doing the show with this gang?
PB – Absolutely. It’s been an incredible experience, and I think that the real enjoyment for me is to take all that I’ve learned from acting, from playwriting, from stand-up comedy and everything else that’s informed my career and be able to apply it to this kind of setting. Because when I started doing this it wasn’t simply as being a director, but to a certain extent being a mentor as well. So I’ve tried to give every opportunity to the students (who are no longer students but actually graduated actors), to give them the opportunity to use and abuse me and any sort of font of knowledge I claim to have. I have been in the business for a couple of decades and I certainly know it well, so it was challenging for me in that I had to put myself into a different mindset. As a performer I’ve done a lot of solo shows so I’ve directed myself a lot…to have a company to work with, that’s the most exciting part. And to see individuals blossom as it were, because I’ve seen these guys go from 1st year, 2nd year…I haven’t watched their entire trajectory but I can certainly can see the growth. And what’s exciting for me is asking myself what is gonna come next for them. So that’s kind of the excitement of being a director.
V – BLOOD ON THE MOON was your first Fringe show?
PB – It was my very first fringe show at the 1999 Ottawa Fringe festival…it was a solo show, so a very different show than this.
V – A fairly successful show, as Fringe shows go (note: this is an understatement)…is it fun being back in the Fringe, in this capacity?
PB – Yeah, I’m really excited to be back in the Fringe, and also excited to be back as a director as opposed to being a performer because as a performer I remember just how excited I was to be surrounded by so much theatre. And I think that’s one of the most amazing things about being in the Fringe festival is you get to go to the tent and talk to other performers who…you’ve just seen their show, they’ve just seen yours, and it’s a great petrie dish of creativity where it’s all sort of mixing together, and sometimes people talk to each other about their shows, and sometimes people complain about things. I have a real love for the Fringe Festival. I don’t always get to be in it, because I’m often doing other things but I certainly always try to see it and one of the things I’ve really enjoyed the last few years was being a judge at the Fringe festival. Because then I was assigned things to see that ordinarily I would never see. And some of them were absolute nuggets, beautiful diamonds in the rough that were surprising. And it’s great to bring this show in in its full run (because this is a 90 minute show, Fringe shows are usually an hour) and to be able to present it to the public, give it a second chance, give THESE guys a second chance to refine what they’ve learned. And not just do it in a studio presentation but to bring it out to the public as well…I think it’s a very good transformative point to them as actors.
V – Has anything changed since the original presentation of this play two months ago?
PB – Well, we have a couple of different cast members. (Note: Hannah Gibson-Fraser and Nick Fournier have taken over in the production for original cast members Jazmine Campanale and Adam Pierre, who have departed on other, cool-sounding projects of their own, and good luck to them!)…they have really responded very well to being plugged into the situation, so that has changed. Obviously where we’re going to present it has changed, we’re going from a small studio to a bigger venue. But I think the biggest advantage we have is that we can tap into a much larger audience
V – Are you going to continue working with the OTS?
PB – This is my 2nd year working with the school and I’ve had a real enjoyable experience, because when you teach or direct even it reminds you of why you’re in the business. Because As a young actor you’re starting out, you do one show, another show…sometimes you can become, dare I say it, jaded by the business. And so when you’re back with young actors, you remember how YOU felt about it. To watch them light up creatively is really a wonderful experience for you as a teacher. SO yes, come back as a teacher as a director, to come back instructing, it’s a great experience.
V – What excited you most about this play?
Drew Moore – The first time we looked at it was very dense and text heavy…scary, very fast and we knew we had to really, really bring it for that reason
PB – Certainly when I chose the play..I had seen the class had done mostly movement-based theatre, which is terrific but only a small component of what goes on in Theatre. So that was one of my decisions to bring in a fairly text-heavy show…not just text, but there’s no long monologues, it’s all one line right on top of another, which is the biggest challenge for the newcomers, to try and find that pattern that goes together almost like cogs.
Victoria Luloff – The new and exciting part for me was, because it is so text heavy and because of the way the lines fall into each other and the way it’s written as a farce, it’s really easy to see the characters’ archetypes. Pierre has been fantastic in helping us find the real depth that all of those characters really do have…none of them are just one-sided, there’s so much to them. But part of the challenge of a farce, because it’s so fast paced and so funny, is to find those little nuggets and gems and little bits and places where you have the opportunity to show a different side of your character, and pinpointing the right one has been an exciting challenge.
Nick Fournier – I personally am very excited to be working with a group of graduated actors, and it’s very interesting coming, as a new cast member, into a show that’s already been created and formed. It’s really interesting trying to find my place in an established show as a new gear in the machine
Jonah Allingham – I personally love the energy of this show. Because not only is it so fast-paced, but it’s all one-liners: joke-joke-joke-joke-joke-satire…it’s very snappy, and I really like that about the piece. I find that it’s got a very different energy about it than the other two shows we did this year (which were also wonderful shows) and it’s just a totally different breath of fresh air. It’s cool.
VL – I think it’s been nice to hear the audience laugh. They had a very different tone to them, the other two plays we did (note: IN THE EYES OF STONE DOGS and WE WANT LIFE), so it’s been nice to hear them laugh.
JA – Well, when we were working with Andy (Massingham) and we still didn’t know what our third project was gonna be, Andy said ‘Well, you’re doing two tragedies, so I really hope it’s a comedy for you guys’.
PB – One of the challenges with doing any kind of comedy is you have to be very serious about what you’re saying. That’s where the comedy results, it comes from that person believing what they’re saying. So even when you’re watching stand-up you’ll watch someone say a joke, and they’re not saying it AS a joke, they’re saying it as real as possible. And the more they believe it, the funnier it actually is.
DM – Pierre taught us that the line between comedy and drama is pretty much the same thing, and that’s when it became a lot clearer to me. When I thought, personally, I’m not going to look at it like a satire, I’m in a tragedy! It’s funny how I started getting more laughs when I turned that way more.
V – How do you think the themes in the play resonate today (if at all)?
VL – I don’t follow politics closely enough to make any huge observations on this, but I know there’s definitely some interesting political air going through Canada right now, and so I think so much comedy can be found in that. One of Semyon’s lines is ‘I don’t believe in factories, I believe in people’. Some of what’s going on right now is people aren’t being looked at by the government as people, they’re being shifted around to see where the money can be made. People are now unemployed, not at all unlike Semyon (Drew’s character in the show, and the protagonist of the play). It does resonate a little bit.
PB – I think there’s a great mirror in that Semyon is an unemployed, unemployable man and that resonance has really sparked in the just the last couple of weeks with changes to EI and demands of what you are supposed to do now. And I think really the marginalization of the unemployed. On that theme, on that level, it works. The fact that it is virtually unheard of to try and question the government, for fear, that is part of the basis of this play…our feelings about the present government in general. And Semyon does have some wonderful lines, for example he says ‘I don’t believe in a factory of slogans’ and that kind of is what we’ve become in many ways, even in our ‘Twitterverse’. Very often it’s a very quick slogan, a status update…these are our lives now. They don’t extend for a long period of time. That’s one of the beauties, and I think resonances of this play.
THE SUICIDE plays at Cafe Alt in the Ottawa Fringe Festival from June 14th to the 24th. Check the Festival Website for showtimes, map and prices. Then check back tomorrow for yet another Fringe Interview!