Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In a Word... Stephen Heatley (Cocktails at Pam's, Staircase Theatre Equity Collective)

Lemoine's Controlled Chaos
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Stephen Heatley has worked in professional theatre for over 40 years. During his 12-year stint as Artistic Director of Theatre Network in Edmonton, he directed over 30 world premieres.  He also directed outdoor productions of Shakespeare for the Free Will Players from 1991-1995 and has directed for theatres as diverse as the Blyth Festival and La Boit a Popicos Theatre pour enfants.  Before arriving as a faculty member at the University of British Columbia in 1999, he spent five years as Associate Artistic Director of the Citadel Theatre where he ran the Theatre School and directed in each of the theatre’s performance spaces. Mr. Heatley is the 2013 recipient of UBC’s Dorothy Somerset Award for Development in the Performing Arts and recently directed Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle for Theatre at UBC.

CHARPO:  This first question may seem odd, now that you are in BC, but it is germane, I promise: tell us about the theatre scene in Edmonton.

HEATLEY: I would tell you about the scene in Edmonton but it would be entirely historic as I haven't lived there since 1999.  I do get back there from time to time but my knowledge of the evolution of the theatre community is limited to little bits of information, hearsay and gossip.  I know that the Fringe continues to evolve – I took a show there in the summer of 2012 and was overwhelmed by the scale of the event (which was always huge, now it is even more so).  I know that the Citadel is still the main player.  What were the smaller companies back in the 80s have either established themselves as regular mid-sized companies or have found their own particular niche (Northern Light Theatre, Catalyst Theatre, Theatre Network, Workshop West Theatre).  Stewart Lemoine's company has passed on to a new Artistic Director in Jeff Haslam, but the same aesthetic holds.  Sorry I can't be more specific than that.

CHARPO: People who have been around theatre in Canada certainly know the name Stewart Lemoine and many of us know his works as well. Mr. Lemoine is practically a brand-name in Edmonton. So why does it feel like a rare thing that his work is being done outside of Edmonton?

HEATLEY: Only a guess.  Stewart has found a group of artists in Edmonton that he likes to work with and who have an affinity for his style of play and presentation.  His work has evolved with that group and he writes with those artists in mind (this cadre of actors has expanded over the years, mind you).  I have never sensed that he was all that interested in selling his material beyond the productions which he does with Teatro la Quindicina in Edmonton.  Some of his plays have been published and Staircase XI (the folks who are producing Cocktails at Pam's) had success a few years ago with Evelyn Strange.  I know that one of the reasons for doing Evelyn Strange is that the director of that production is originally from Edmonton and introduced the play and the playwright to her friends in Vancouver.  Interestingly enough, there is a production of Cocktails at Pam's beyond Calgary this fall.

CHARPO: Tell us about his plays and, specifically, this play and what draws you to them.

HEATLEY: Stewart's plays are witty and usually have something mysterious going on in them.  He loves language and has a vast knowledge of theatre, opera, music, society and literature and his plays often have references to interesting bits of "arcanery".  I am drawn to Cocktails at Pam's because the characters are so boldly drawn and it has a big challenge for actors and director – how to play the scale of the drama as laid out by Pam (this is the most important cocktail party ever!) without commenting on the play and sending the characters up.  At this stage of my career, I am interested in things that I read and can't immediately get a handle on how to deal with. This will definitely keep me interested for the month that we work on it in rehearsal.  And, in the case of this production, I was interested in working with the two producers who are also going to be performing, because I like them as people and as performers and they are former students of mine at UBC.

Some directors believe that you are always teaching in rehearsal.  I think that is a bit arrogant. 

CHARPO: As a teacher of some experience, how do pedagogy and directing work together for you, or are the approaches separate and very different?

HEATLEY: Some directors believe that you are always teaching in rehearsal.  I think that is a bit arrogant.  (It assumes that I know and the actor doesn't)  But then I think that a truly engaging teacher is encouraging (challenging?) students to test the limits of what they know and can do, and what they believe.  A good director does the same things.  I like to think I am always testing my understanding of a scene against their understanding to make sure that the most interesting ideas ultimately prevail and that the story gets told clearly, dramatically, with intelligence and a sense of fun in the most interesting way possible.  So, I guess I am saying  that I don't know the answer.  I always want to challenge the first idea that I have AND the first idea that the actor has so that we can go deeper (or farther or faster).

CHARPO: What is it like to get to work with that rare thing: a large cast?

HEATLEY: I teach at a university and that is where I do a lot of my directing these days.  The smallest show I have done at UBC was with five people, and I recently did The Caucasian Chalk Circle with a cast of 13.  So, I am not daunted by a cast of 11.  In fact, the fun just amplifies exponentially.  The challenge will be to negotiate 11 bodies in a fairly small space at Studio 1398 in Vancouver.  I like these kinds of challenges.  As this is an artists' collective, it is tricky to organize a rehearsal plan around everyone's schedule, but that is a small issue when you come up to the challenge of how the characters who don't speak are affected by those who do and vice-versa. 

CHARPO:  Now the two things together: the cast and the peculiar Lemoine tone - how does a director keep order or is it more a question of creating a joyful, invisibly controlled chaos?

HEATLEY: I am figuring controlled chaos.  The play moves from order to chaos, so the order (Pam's rules) need to be established so that chaos can eventually erupt.  So, a bit of both, I guess.  I know that for anything surprising to happen, chaos needs to be allowed in the rehearsal hall.  I often say to my directing students that you have to let it be a mess first.  After that you can begin to figure out how much order is needed or required.  So, I will do my best to take my own advice.

Cocktails at Pam's runs from November 13-30 

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