Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In a Word... Director Lib Spry on Letters To My Grandma

(photo by Wendy Philpott)

Working in a Pool of Knowledge
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Lib Spry has worked in theatre for 50 years as director, playwright, teacher, performer and translator mainly in physical, popular and site-specific theatre and theatre for young audiences. She has worked in Canada, the USA, the UK and France. She is founder of Straight Stitching Productions, Passionate Balance and Theatre Agile. Recent work: writing and performing her solo Trance For Matron at the 2013 Montreal Fringe, devising We Are Old! We Are Wonderful! with Montreal seniors’ group RECAA, directing Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes for Teesri Duniya Theatre and co-creating Luna Allison’s Falling Open as director/dramaturge. After directing Letters to My Grandma  for Teesri Duniya she will be co-creating Ambigüité with Ottawa performer Guy Marsan and remounting Trance For Matron. 

CHARPO:  You and I have been at this for a long time. I have made some serious adaptations in terms of my work and my approach to it, have you and if so, what have they been?

SPRY: Adaptations to me implies that something is constant and set, and one of the reasons that I love working in theatre is things are always changing and starting anew with every production, so that maintaining flexibility is part of the work. I now obsess less about how I am going to do something before we actually step in to the rehearsal room and I see/ feel what this particular group's energy, collectively and individually, is like. I build more with what is in the moment. I read the play more often. I finally trust myself and my process and don't feel I have to prove anything to anyone. On a more superficial level I rarely go to bars, hang out at the Fringe tent, shmooze.  I haven't had that stamina for a long time, and would rather have down time with myself, and those I love. I still go and see as much theatre as I can, although I am pickier than I used to be.

So now huge numbers of eager young, and not so young, theatre artists are graduating, but where can they all go?

CHARPO: Both in discussing this play and others, what do you think of the new generation of artists?

SPRY: I think there is the usual mix - those who want to work for the main-stage theatres and those who want to be more cutting edge; those that want a career and those who want to create exciting theatre. Sometimes they are both. The thing that fascinates me right now is that when Canadian theatre really got going in the 60s, there was summer rep and Stratford, and not much else. Most of the theatres and theatre artists that are well established now were producing and creating stuff on little or nothing and out of that grew what is now the Canadian theatre business. And not just theatre, but film and television as well, which allowed people then, and the next few generations, to stay here and earn a living. Plus the whole huge infrastructure of university and college theatre education and conservatory training came into being. So now huge numbers of eager young, and not so young, theatre artists are graduating, but where can they all go? Parallel with the whole infrastructure of theatre companies who own buildings, sell subscriptions and are members of P.A.C.T. and hire Equity members, there are all these theatre people who do not have any work to go to and who are back creating and presenting stuff under very similar conditions as the late 60s and early 70s. Of course the existence of the Fringe circuit reinforces this and provides another sort of infrastructure. Some of these people I notice are choosing to work as technicians or in the offices of the mainstream theatre while creating the work they believe in on the side. Others have regular jobs, or partners with regular jobs, again so they can create work they believe in. Some would like more work in the mainstream, others just want to create.

One of the things I hear from the younger generation is that they only see fellow theatre people at the main stages, and this worries them for the future. Why is theatre here not more attractive to the young?

CHARPO:  As this is a work about generational relationships - does this figure in your approach to directing it? (For instance: Young directors can't always get into an older person's head, but veterans can still remember being young.)

SPRY: The text is always what guides my approach to any play I am directing, so this definitely figures in our work on the play. I am in my 60s and the actor Sehar Bhojani, a very talented, newly minted graduate of NTS is 21, a touch younger than the age of Malobee, the central character of the play, so we bring different experiences and knowledge to it. I may have more knowledge of what being old is all about, but she has the knowledge of being a Canadian of South-Asian background. In rehearsals we pool what we know and let it grow.

This play is really interesting because it is not a traditional inter-generational drama. While we start and end the play with Malobee at 22, the rest of it is a mixture of her memories of her own and her grandmother's very different lives. We get to see Malobee grow from a teenager to an adult whose life is just opening out and her grandmother, over the same period of time, is slowing and closing down. But we also see Grandmother as a young woman. Plus there are two other characters who we see over the five years who also change as their lives change, all played by one actor. It is a challenging and demanding piece of work, and we are enjoying ourselves working our way through it.

CHARPO:  Have you been dealing with Anusree Roy directly and if not, what is your assessment of her oeuvre and what themes and idiosyncrasies that are specific to her are you bringing to this piece.

SPRY: Yes, both Sehar and I separately spent time with Anusree in Toronto and discussed the play. I don't really know her oeuvre, as this is my first introduction to her work. What I can say, as someone who has co-created, directed, and/or performed several one- person shows,  those that a performer has created for his or her self are very specific and the pleasure is to explore and dig out what are the writer's givens. I love the passion behind this work, and the clarity of the characters and the power of their emotional journeys. Each one is clearly delineated with great economy and our challenge has been to find all those individual arcs and show them in one person. It is also fascinating to explore the different histories of these two women and what has changed in the 50 + years that is the time spread of the play.

We hoped Anusree could come for some of the rehearsals, but she is too busy, she will be there for opening night. It will be fascinating to hear what her reaction is to the discoveries and choices we have made.

I am on record as announcing theatre was what I wanted to do at the age of four when I was taken to see Peter Pan.

CHARPO: The India partition - a core of the work and not a pretty part of history - is not immediately known to younger audience members. Besides the text itself, are you or the company making this period current to spectators in terms of documentation or even staging?

SPRY: We are not trying to stage the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent into India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). We are bringing some visual references into the play, and there will probably be a short explanation of what the play is dealing with in the program or posted in the theatre. The text brilliantly makes us see what that moment of chaos and hate was like, and its long term effects on people, and how an act of survival can haunt someone for their whole lives.

Rahul Varma, Teesri Duniya's artistic director, is helping us with his knowledge and experience of the issues.

CHARPO:  Now this may sound like a boob-ish question, but I think young readers need to hear an answer: what keeps you going in such a diabolically difficult art?

SPRY: I am on record as announcing theatre was what I wanted to do at the age of four when I was taken to see Peter Pan. I can still describe the twins' costumes from a production of Twelfth Night I saw at the age of five. I think I am one of those lucky people who found a passion that made sense at an early age, had parents who supported me, lived somewhere (London, England) as a child where I was surrounded by the art I loved. As a member of the 60s generation it became very important for me to create theatre that said something, and as someone who discovered the joys of physical theatre, play and the body have allowed me to explore and discover theatre in many forms. Like others I have chosen to do different things within this art form: direct, write, produce, act, teach, in both the professional and the community spheres. I work in as many less traditional ways that I can find. I love working on my own productions and with smaller theatre companies like Teesri Duniya and Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa. The restrictions of small budgets challenge me to work theatrically, intelligently and creatively. How can we make a show a rich experience with many less resources? I love teaching - it keeps me honest, and I have friends from many generations because of it. I love learning. I have taken theatre workshops of one kind and another all my life, and they always make me think about what I am doing. Twice in my life I have had the good fortune to work with great teachers over longer periods of time: the first time as an apprentice of Augusto Boal in my 40s and with physical theatre master teacher Philippe Gaulier in my 60s. Both those experiences changed how I think about what theatre is and how it can be done, so that I have been able to renew my approach to the art I love at times when I and my work began to feel stagnant. Shake yourselves up from time to time, take a leap into the dark, explore another way of working, work in another language, risk.

Letters to My Grandma is on from September 27 to October 13 

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