news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Monday, 20 March 2017

Assistant director, Michela Sisti chats with the writer of Infinity, Hannah Moscovitch

Our lovely assistant director, Michela Sisti sat down to talk with the woman behind the words of Infinity, Hannah Moscovitch.

Infinity, like a number of your other plays, has asked you to do a lot of research outside of your existing sphere of knowledge.  How did you make the step from Lee Smolin’s book, Time Reborn, to the story we see on stage?  When, as a writer, do you know it’s time to stop researching and start forging your own path?

HM: I don’t have a system for how to write, such as how to work with research when writing a research-heavy play, etc. I can speak about projects after they’ve been produced, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I can’t articulate (and don’t know) what I m doing during the process. Or I know the shape of what I’m doing, but I don’t know the particulars. I don’t write from outlines. I don’t know how the play will end when I start drafting it. I only have a jumbled set of images in my head when I start. I know in the case of Infinity I sat there and flipped back and forwards from the research to the play, and that went on for months. 

How has Infinity – and your relationship to its characters and ideas – evolved from it’s earliest, pre-rehearsal room drafts to the version that has been extended at Tarragon this spring?

HM: At first our source material was a New Yorker article [Clash of the Time Lords] that Ross Manson sent me that compared astronomical to atomic. None of that work survives in the current project. Our first workshop was in studio doing dance improvisation. At that point, I was dancing in the show. So you see there were a number of iterations before we arrived at the current one.   

I recently came across something that the poet Glyn Maxwell wrote: “Whoever masters form masters time.”  That made me wonder, how did the structure you've chosen for Infinity help you to coax out the thematic material of your piece? 

HM: I like that quote because I don’t understand it. I wanted time to move both incredibly quickly and slowly in the piece. In Elliott and Carmen’s timeline, between one and eight years pass between each scene I show you, until we near the end. So that you get a sense of the totality of a romantic relationship between two people. But in Sarah Jean’s timeline, we are in real time, because she’s in the middle of an epiphany, and so time is 1:1 - you see her whole time line.  Because Lee Smolin’s theory is that time is real – and that past/present/future are separate (this is revolutionary in physics and refutes Einstein), I wanted the audience to experience the reality of time in two ways. That it passes quickly and life ends. And via a real time relationship to a character. 

In order to get to the bottom of her question of whether love is real, Infinty’s Sarah Jean has to search through a tangle of past sexual encounters that are rooted in her memory.  Has there been continuity between writing the character of Sarah Jean and writing the protagonist of your 2016 play, Bunny, by any chance?

HM: This question made me laugh. Yes. I’m writing a series of increasingly personal projects. Both Bunny/Sorre in Bunny and SJ in Infinity are versions of myself. I have a new project I’m developing with Theatre Centre in collaboration with the performer Maev Beaty and director Ann-Marie Kerr called Secret Life of a Mother. In it, Maev Beaty plays a person called “Hannah Moscovitch”, so I am now developing work that's no question confessional.  I’ve always adored confessional writing – Sheila Heti, Sylvia Plath – but never written it myself until now.  

What was the most valuable thing you learned through the process of writing Infinity?

HM: I learned how much I like working collaboratively over a long development period and with a stable set of creators – Ross Manson, Kate Alton, Njo Kong Kie, Lee Smolin, Andréa Tyniec, Paul Braunstein, Amy Rutherford, and Haley McGee developed the show with me over the course of a number of years. Infinity wouldn’t be the same project if the collaborators had been different people. And I learned how much I like collaborating with theoretical physicists.   

Friday, 17 February 2017

Part 2: The Infinity cast on getting into character and how this play has shaped their perspectives of time.

The conversation between assistant director Michela Sisti and the cast of Infinity continues....

Infinity is in many ways a very heavy play, emotionally. What sorts of things do you do as performers to first of all prepare yourself for your time in the room, and then how do you let go of it afterwards?

Paul Braunstein, Amy Rutherford & Vivien Endicott-Douglas

Paul:  I just try to keep some energy for the end of the day.  It’s emotional but there’s a certain satisfaction in that too.  I remember that from Goodness too – the other Volcano show I did with Amy.  It was so heavy, so messed up: holocausts and genocide. Yet, it’s such a good play that a kind of artistic completion happens that feels really good when it arrives.

Vivien:  I think that as much as it is heavy in this play, for me the release that Sarah Jean has at the end is a kind of a catharsis. For me it is a hopeful thing that she recognizes she can change and that we all can change. 

I don’t know whether or not that’s like crystal clear to the people in the audience, but hopefully it kind of permeates and they go away and call somebody that they love, or feel opened up, as opposed to hardened.  Definitely, it is hard and it is exhausting to do this journey every night but there is a connection that happens that opens me in a way that I am grateful for.

Amy: All of the people working on this show are invested and supportive and full of play and humour so that makes it easier.

I have to say I have a different experience with my character because Carmen doesn’t have that sort of epiphany moment. So I think it’s one of the most challenging plays that I have ever done. I do leave feeling like I have something that I have to shake.  So I’ve just been trying to rest and eat well and exercise.

Last question: Is time open or closed to you?

Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Sarah Jean Green)

Paul:  It’s open. I definitely feel that it’s open. I’m not quite totally sure what it is and I know that my physical being on this earth is finite. One day this chunk of meat is going to lay down and never get up again…

[Laughter from everyone!]

It might get up again with modern science! It could happen. Look out!

[More laughter.]

It’s open. I feel like it’s open.

Amy: Open. I was auditioning for another play about physics with a different idea about time than in this play and I couldn’t fully buy in. I do feel connected with the physics in this play. So open.

Open or closed, Vivien? Pick your side!

Vivien: It’s open. We all have the capacity to change.

Based on sold-out shows Infinity is back from March 22-April 2 for a limited time run at the Tarragon's Extraspace. Click here for tickets!

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

It's cast interview time! The cast of Infinity tells assistant director, Michela Sisti, what it's like to perform this raw and emotional play and how it has touched their lives.

Backstage at the Tarragon Extraspace. Thirty minutes before dance call.

I’m sitting knee-to-knee with Amy Rutherford (Carmen) and Paul Braunstein (Elliot) in a tiny dressing room. There’s a sound of shuffling and Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Sarah Jean) enters through the back door in her winter jacket: “Oh right we’re doing this today.” It’s cast-interview time.

It’s also my first time seeing everybody again since opening night and there’s a strange kind of swelling in my chest.  It’s good to be back.

Paul and Amy, when you first began working on Infinity with Ross in 2015, one of the things that you did was visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. What did you encounter there that maybe informed your approach to your characters?

Paul: Ok two things happened.  One: I went, “Man I’m never going to be able to get close to fully understanding the science that’s real in this play!” 

But what made me feel ok with that is that I saw that there is this huge institute devoted to people who are thinkers and dreamers and who have massive imaginations. They have the language of physics to help them realize those ideas on a chalkboard, in a book, or on a computer.  But basically I felt closer to them as an artist.  I realized my link to a theoretical physicist was as an artist, and as a thinker and as someone who has to be open to ideas.

That’s where I felt ok about the science part of Elliot’s character being a completely different language for my brain.

Amy:  We met all sorts of really inspiring people of all ages ranging from 14 to over 65. And they were all considered equals there. There is a belief that innovative great ideas can come from any source no matter what the age. They don’t need formal education necessarily to come up with unique groundbreaking ideas.

There was one boy there that was being mentored by Lee Smolin. We asked Lee, “How are you mentoring him? What are you teaching him?” And he said, “I’m not telling him anything. I’m trying to create an environment where we’re not interfering with his ideas.”

They share their projects as they’re in progress. It’s not like they hole up in a room and protect what they’re working on. They actually share.  In fact Lee talks about this: about the democratic world of theoretical physics and why it works. And there’s a lot to learn in that.  I think the most fulfilling and effective creative projects I have been in throughout my career have been ones where those involved are secure enough to be collaborative. They don’t have to hold onto hierarchy in order to feel valuable in the room. Where people are able to share ideas creatively through true collaboration.

Lee Smolin, Paul Braunstein & Amy Rutherford at The Perimeter Institute

Amy, your character, Carmen, has undergone some changes since Hannah has continued working with the script. I’m wondering whether you can talk a little about those changes and how you’ve adapted to them.

Amy: I was thrilled by the changes!  I think their greater impact was on the script as a whole, as opposed to it changing my character in any great way. So it feels like this time around the audience seems to understand the love between Carmen and Elliot better: that they’re not just simply a dysfunctional couple. It’s clearer now that Carmen is just as successful and that on some level and she understands Elliot. So I think the play has a different impact.

Vivien, you and Ross have been playing around with different ways into the character of Sarah Jean and the last few rehearsals I felt like there was a kind of shift that took place.

Vivien: I don’t know if it was so much as a shift but a building that happened.

Amy: In ten days!

Vivien: It took me a little while to get into the world of the play, and there was so much happening that I couldn’t necessarily prepare for, in terms of what’s happening to Sarah Jean in the transitions.  I think that rehearsing the transitions actually informed the monologues in a really helpful way. The more we ran the play and the more I got to do the scenes as the child with my parents, the more it informed looking where Sarah Jean’s at.

Because before that we had been doing a lot of work on [young Sarah Jean] separately. And I think that as much as [young] Sarah Jean is in a different time, there are psychic kind of links to where she’s at when she’s an adult and what’s going on underneath what she’s saying. I could only get that in my body through running the play.

Plays and movies about love and science seem to be cropping up more and more: Theory of Everything, Constellations

Vivien: The Imitation Game!

Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by that pairing! Why do you think people want to make art about this, or want to see art about this?

Paul:  I don’t know. I guess something as unquantifiable as love might be kind of exciting up against attempts at quantifying things, maybe.

Amy: Yeah, maybe there’s a hope that strong emotions such as love, anger, betrayal can be explained.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas in Infinity 

Paul:  Even in physics they have names for particles that they haven’t even actually seen.  You know, there’s all that talk about the ‘god particle’ – the unknown unseen thing, the force, the energy, that hasn’t yet been seen as an actually physical thing…

So you go, “Maybe, we’re trying to explain something that is so full of magic, the same way that love is and we don’t know how to say exactly what love is.”
We’re trying to describe things with words and make sense of things. The feeling of love – how can you properly describe it, either in words or through science? It’s impossible. Words and science don’t actually do a lot of things justice – the things that that are in our hearts and what we feel.

Amy:  And I think theatre also brings us closer to those existential questions. 

Vivien:  There’s something really interesting about watching people grasp for tangible answers or quantifiable things. And then the journey is asking people to realize that we have to be ok with the unknown. There’s a parallel among all of those stories. All of the people in those stories can’t fully grasp what they are reaching for.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview coming next week!

Based on sold-out shows Infinity is back from March 22-April 2 for a limited time run at the Tarragon's Extraspace. Click here for tickets!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Assistant director, Michela Sisti, interviews virtuoso violinist Andréa Tyniec who returns to the cast of Infinity as the mysterious figure in the white dress

Over the course of the play Andrea plays a suite of solo violin pieces, written by composer Njo Kong Kie, on her 1689 Baumgartner Stradivari (on loan by the Musical Instrument Bank of the Canada Council for the Arts).  I sat down with Andréa last week and spoke to her about her process of working with Kong Kie, her relationship to the music of the play, and her experience as a performer in live theatre.

Andréa, you’ve been working very closely with Kong Kie on the interpretation of the music he has written for Infinity. How has your approach to playing Kong Kie’s music differed from how you would approach the work of another composer?

Andréa: It’s really amazing to work with a composer in person.  One of the best things about playing contemporary music is that you have that chance and you can ask the composer questions.  But also just by getting to know them you can already sense or know what their their values are, what’s really important to them.

And also, you can see that what’s written on the page may not necessarily be what the composer means – through no fault of their own – but we’re just really restricted on the page.

There was a lot that Kong Kie could tell me when we were rehearsing. There was a certain aspect of rhythmical precision and dynamic precision and tempo, which is really interesting because tempo is very closely related to time. And Kong Kie’s very specific about tempo and how it feels.  So I think he was very well chosen for this.

Kong Kie also worked really closely with Ross so that the tempo really felt right. You know: how to take one scene and send it into the next one.

It was fun getting to know Kong Kie better because I met him in 2010 in Banff. And we were just friends and I played a few pieces of his back then.  I had no idea that I’d see him again or that I’d work with him.  It was a nice surprise when I began Infinity: that I already knew him and that we could take it from where we left off.

Kong Kie & Andréa during Infinity's reading at The Koffler Centre

From knowing Kong Kie’s work from Banff, does the music that he wrote for Infinity feel familiar to you in some way? Or do you feel there is something different at work in this suite?

Andréa: I think he writes with a lot of integrity, so there is an essence to Kong Kie that stays.

There’s a certain attraction to these repetitive motions with a certain – I don’t want to say off-beatness – but it’s a repetitive sequence that’s a little unpredictable.  That existed already in the beginning when I encountered his music in Banff.  And that stayed with the music of Infinity.  

But, at the same time, I think he was very flexible within that integrity to write for the play.  He was there from the start, thinking about the characters and about what the music should be doing and the mood that he should be setting. So I think, yes, he has that integrity but also that flexibility.

Do you have a favourite section?

Andréa: Yeah, I really like “Milk”.  That’s when Sarah Jean comes in with the violin case. I think it is the most beautifully written piece for that particular emotion where Carmen and Elliot just really love each other, but there’s so much underlying tension. And there is forwardness life, a relentless forwardness.  And knowing that you just cannot make up time. It’s just a great piece: beautifully and very intelligently written.  I like playing it every night.  I like playing everything every night, but that’s my thing!

And also the end!  If I allow myself it’s very brutal.  Because I think of parents – my parents, but also all parents – and the very real struggle to communicate that they love each other when they have children and they’re so busy and they have so many different struggles.  I think of all parents and those harmonics and the theme at the end are really haunting and beautiful.

Andréa performs in Infinity

Michela: At the beginning of the play Elliot says he likes musicians because they have a sense of what time is: that it doesn’t exist and that it slides. I’m wondering whether that resonates with you at all?

Andréa: It’s funny, I was a little bit like Carmen in the play. I was like,  “I don’t use time-keeping terminology!”  And I guess I do, but I think we just don’t realize if it’s more than other people. We’re not necessarily aware of it.  But we do have a sense of timing. I mean that’s where expression lives. The expression lives in the timing.

Final question! How does the experience of playing a concert compare to the experience of playing your violin in a piece of theatre?

Andréa: It’s so different! Because – and this is one of the things made me fall in love with the theatre – in theatre the audience is expected to be free in their reactions. And every night in the theatre you can feel the audience. The audience is composed of individuals, but it has a sort of unity to it – it’s almost like a person every night

You know, it’s like that also in concerts, but you don’t get to feel it to the extent that you feel it in theatre.  In concerts the audience is expected to be silent and still and quiet and that’s what we appreciate.

So playing in theatre was super because when I go to my concerts I realize it’s the same.  I bring that proximity to the audience – now that I know they’re there. And they stay closer to me now.  This is the gift of theatre actually.

Infinity closes on Jan 29th. Book your tickets now!