Monday, October 7, 2013

The Question... Danielle Desormeaux, chorus director for If We Were Birds

I was terrified and so I had no other option but to say: “yes, I'll do it”
by Estelle Rosen

Born and raised in Northern Ontario, Danielle Desormeaux studied Music at Queen's University and graduated in 1984. She began her acting career in 1991 in Ottawa.  Film and television credits include: How the Gimquat Found Her Song (2007 Award of Excellence - Accolade Television Awards, 2008 Best Children's Program - Banff World Television Festival), the Oscar-winning Affliction (dir. Paul Schrader), Stardom (dir. Denis Arcand), The War of 1812, Big Sugar (dir. Brian McKenna).   Some of her favourite stage projects include: The Comedy of Errors (dir. Peter Hinton - NAC/Centaur), Umloüt, MöcShplat (dir. Alain Goulem - Clowns Gone Bad),  National Capital/e Nationale (dir. Robert Lepage – NAC), as well as her own bilingual adaptation of The Anger In Ernest and Ernestine (dir. Alain Goulem - Hudson Village Theatre).  Danielle has been a member of Platypus Theatre's touring company since 1998, performing theatre for young audiences with symphony orchestras across Canada, the U.S. and South-East Asia. 

CHARPO:  I understand If We Were Birds is an adaptation of Book 6 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, featuring a chorus of women, each a survivor of a 20th Century conflict. What's the most important aspect in general of being a chorus director, specifically in this play featuring only women in the chorus?

DESORMEAUX: When director Micheline Chevrier asked me in the Spring to work with the chorus,  I had to think long and hard about it.  This was new territory for me.  Could I actually do this?  Of course, I have always been musical.  Singing and playing instruments had always somehow found its way into my acting work in the past.  But this was a bit of a departure from the silly songs I'd written for the likes of Madame et Matante or learning to play the accordion and arranging songs for Umloüt or making kooky soundscapes with ukulele, xylophone and cardboard box.  This play is enormous in its theme and yet so deeply personal.  It describes the collective as well as the individual.  I was terrified and so I had no other option but to say: “yes, I'll do it”.

They don't steer the action per se but they give the characters a nudge toward the truth.

My job with the chorus defined itself gradually over the course of conversations with Micheline Chevrier which included my personal gut reactions to the piece as well as my research into traditional music from the countries whose specific conflicts were inspiration to Playwright Erin Shields when she conceived of If We Were Birds.  We decided that, in addition to me arranging what the chorus was speaking in the script, the chorus would also provide vocal underscoring during certain scenes or key events in the play.  Leslie Baker would provide physical coaching and I would provide vocal coaching.  And of course Micheline Chevrier would have the final say on all of it.  So I wouldn't describe myself as the Chorus Director.  I'm more of a Chorus Vocalization Conductor.  (Wonder how that would look on my CV?…).

Erin Shields provided us with a few special challenges in her play.  Her chorus does function as a traditional Greek chorus in that it is witness and commentator heightening the story and its emotional and moral aspects.  They are also birds.  Then the birds at times 'morph' into a group of slave women who interact directly with the characters in the play.  They don't steer the action per se but they give the characters a nudge toward the truth.  Lifting the veil to help bring the characters to a moment of discovery or of realization of what is actually transpiring around them.  Then the action takes place in, as Erin Shields describes it, “a purgatory of nature”.  This is not naturalism.  But we still have to believe it.

I didn't want the chorus to do foley but rather to provide an emotional soundscape, a sonic commentary.

So holding firmly onto all that and my bank of research in traditional music from Bangladesh, Rwanda, China, Bosnia and Germany, and my personal ideas about underscoring, I set to work. I spent evenings on Garage Band multi-tracking myself making sound beds of tongue clicking, sighing, screeching, gurgling, dingdonging, lip popping, smacking... virtually any sound I could think of making with my voice I experimented with. Suddenly I was writing music as well.  Then there were the questions.  Whose chorus is this?  When are they birds and when are they slave women?  And what does that sound like? Then everything went into the blender.

Then I presented these ideas to the chorus who bravely indulged my sometimes 'out there vocalization ideas, no matter how far fetched.  (Thank you Deena, Stefanie, Shiong-En, Warona, Clare!) Some ideas we kept, some we didn't, some we morphed.  What we ended up with is a vocabulary of sounds these incredibly open-minded women could recreate live and which were useful in heightening the action on stage or in giving you a glimpse into the emotional undercurrent.  The idea was to keep the chorus alive throughout the play without drawing focus when it shouldn't but being front and centre when it should.  Always present and engaged.  Ever vigilant.  I didn't want the chorus to do foley but rather to provide an emotional soundscape, a sonic commentary.   Ultimately it should support and move the story forward.  So what is the most important aspect of being a Chorus Vocalization Conductor? I can't think of just one because it's all this:  Say yes to the job.  Do your research. Bring many ideas to the table.  Be brave in your choices.  Be open to suggestions.  Toss what you don't need. Serve the story. 

With regards to the chorus being all women.  I don't think this play could have it any other way. The chorus members tell stories of women.  They are the same stories that millions of women from every part the world would tell us but are somehow prevented from doing so, either physically, emotionally or societally.  And this is happening today.  The chorus gives these women a voice so that they can continue to speak their stories.  Until they are finally heard. 

If We Were Birds runs from October 10-19 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.