news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

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!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Infinity's Assistant Director, Michela Sisti, talks about the challenges of staging the past & future on the same stage

How can you make the past and future exist at the same time on stage?  (And not confuse the life out of people!)

This is one of the most exciting staging challenges presented by Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity, a play that both interweaves and overlaps moments from the 1990s and 2017 in order to tell its story of love and loss in the lives of a family unit.

One way is to populate the stage of Infinity with objects that outlast the lives of the characters in the play and remain in the Green family household across a period of years.

The Director, Ross Manson, has chosen to work with the visual motif of cardboard boxes, which evokes ideas of storage and baggage. These boxes are personal time capsules that become both objects of mystery as well as burdens to the characters in the play.  Elliot uses boxes to store his bottomless stockpile of physics calculations.   Years later, these same boxes are being sorted and sifted through by his daughter, Sarah Jean who is burdened with the task of packing up her parents’ empty house. Ross has staged a subtle moment in which the Sarah Jean of 2017 drops a file into a box and Elliot scoops it up the instant after it makes contact with the floor of the box. Neither character sees the other. Elliot and Sarah Jean are ghosts to each other, trapped in different times. 

Elliot, played by Paul Braunstein, checking his physics notes

The company discovered in rehearsal that one way to avoid visual confusion during these moments of superimposed timelines is to juxtapose the energies of the characters that inhabit past and future.  So during the ‘Insomnia’ sequence Sarah Jean drifts through the kitchen like a sleepwalker and picks up her father’s old notes with the vagueness of a person lost in thought. In contrast, Elliot moves at a fast, urgent tempo as he storms from one box of files to another.  Normally, if there are two people inhabiting the same space the energy of one person in a space will influence the energy of the other. But in this staging, there is no cause and effect: it is clear these characters are occupying different worlds.

What’s exciting is that once the convention of past and future sharing one space is set up a director is then able to play with that convention.  In Ross’s staging, it slowly becomes apparent that the Carmen & Elliot scenes are, in fact, memories of the adult Sarah Jean of 2017. Ross accomplishes this in his staging by using the gaze of Sarah Jean.

During the transition from Acts 1 to Act 2, something strange happens on stage: the adult Sarah Jean suddenly turns around and watches her mother helping Elliot undress and get into his hospital bed in 1999.  Ross places Sarah Jean downstage centre, so when she turns around to look at her parents, we see her back: SJ has become an audience member like us, and a critical observer to the action in front of her. In order to strengthen the impression that this is a memory being observed, choreographer Kate Alton has SJ maintaining a clearly defined distance from Carmen and Elliot as she treads around the perimeter of the scene, her tempo once again different than the tempo of 1999.

The dance in Infinity, choreographed by Kate Alton

Something else the Volcano team has discovered in rehearsals is that the closer Sarah Jean gets to the crux of her “fucked-up-ness” about love, the deeper she travels into the memories of her parents, and the stranger the theatrical laws governing past and future become.   One convention this production relies heavily on is the ability of Vivien Endicott-Douglas (who plays SJ) to switch her body language from that of an eight-year old to that of a woman in her twenties as story toggles between past and future.   However, late in Act 2, as Carmen confides to young Sarah Jean that her biggest regret is not leaving Elliot, Sarah Jean retains the body language of her adult self. This creates the implication that the world-view Carmen implanted in her eight-year-old daughter is now deeply lodged in the adult Sarah Jean and is governing her life.

By pitting moments from these two different eras next to each other, Hannah Moscovitch endows us, the audience, with the role of critical observers. We are given the power to make comparisons between what we see playing out in front of us and witness how ideas are passed down from one generation to another

With this distance from our normal human experience of time – which we are so entirely submersed in – we are able to see that something that seems like a fixed law of the universe to one character, is in fact changeable, open to questions, and part of a much much larger story...

Infinity runs until Jan 29th at Tarragon Theatre. Tickets available here!

Monday, 9 January 2017

Infinity's Assistant Director, Michela Sisti, takes us behind the scenes of the play's remount and shares insights from working with the cast and crew throughout the rehearsal journey

Week 1

Winter is the perfect time of year to work on a play about love, death and time.
Bright landscapes of glittering snow banks unfold for you on your way to rehearsal. Dark evenings greet you when you step outside at the end of the day.

In one short week we’ve gone from initial table read of Hannah Moscovitch’s script to a full out run of the play. On the other end of those five days it now feels as if we’ve already lived through several lives.

Amy Rutherford (Carmen) and Paul Braunstein (Elliot), returning cast members who performed in the original production of Infinity in 2015, have had to wade back into the membranes of old ghosts.  They’ve been joined by new cast member Vivien Endicott-Douglas (Sarah Jean), whose presence is incidentally throwing a pretty awesome ‘alternate-universe’ factor into the story-world of the Infinity rehearsal room.

Amy Rutherford plays Carmen Green & Paul Braunstein plays Elliot Green

Director Ross Manson is approaching Hannah’s play with some new thoughts this time round and Hannah herself has done some rewriting. She has created more of a presence for the character of Carmen and her music in the play.  The epiphany Elliot has about his own life is now more closely linked with the way he perceives the role of time in the universe.  Music and physics are, for each of these characters, different ways of expressing the universe, and so for our purposes these things also become expressions of the characters themselves.

Ross started off the week with two sessions devoted to physical character work.  He offered the idea that a performer knows more about their character after a first reading of a play than they think they know, but they can’t get at this knowledge through table work; the knowledge is in the body.  The “corridor exercise”, which Ross and the cast began with, is durational work that is done in silence. Its purpose is to engage a performer’s intuitive knowledge.

The actor is given a narrow corridor of space to explore in.  They begin with a limited vocabulary to work with: start, stop and change levels. As time goes on, the facilitator of the exercise layers on more vocabulary in the form of verbs. For example: reach, balance, carve, stumble, dance.  The actor’s task is simply to explore these movements, completely free from the pressure to perform or to assume a character. There is no need to manufacture anything. Some of these movements may naturally begin to inform character physicality or create a shorthand vocabulary for the upcoming scene work.

Next, Ross guided the cast through the creation of three archetypal gestures for their respective characters. A gesture is a combination of a physical movement and something that is vocalized. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and its final picture is a motionless sculpture.  Once first versions of these gestures are created they can continue to be shaped and honed until they work for that particular character.

So, for instance, Ross asked Vivien to play with her gesture for Sarah Jean’s The Judge archetype (it involved pushing some invisible thing away and to the side, while speaking the word, ‘loser!’) by making the gesture larger, then by making it smaller and more naturalistic, then by taking away the text.  Kate Alton later integrated a version of Sarah Jean’s gesture into the choreographed dance that happens midway through Infinity.  This gesture was then changed almost entirely by Ross so that it became something that more closely resembled trying to resist a rising flood of water – the steady push quality of the movement remained in tact but the meaning it suggested had transformed.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas plays the role of Sarah Jean Green

Good gestural movements, Ross explained, work best when they are just out of the audience’s reach, but not too far that the audience feels alienated.  A good gesture can give us a visceral insight into the psychological and emotional world of a character while also creating the space for poetry to happen and all that which eludes us about other people. 

Gesture is also a very real part of human behaviour. Ross had once watched a documentary about two Canadian WW2 veterans who returned to the beaches of Normandy they for the first time since the end of the war.  With utter composure and an unnervingly easy conversational tone, these men gave the film crew a tour of the events that had transpired on the beach at D-Day.  So something like: We opened fire here. Tommy died over there. (Not a waver in the voice.) Then we lost Doug here. (No trace of any tear, not even that elusive glint in the eye that movies have trained us to look for, not a muscle twitch that could evoke a the voice of lone trumpet sounding somewhere in the distance.) If the filmmakers were looking for catharsis on this beach they wouldn’t find it here.

Later the documentary picks up with the veterans continuing their interview on the road. The old site of carnage is miles and miles behind them and the conversation is as light and easy as ever.  Then in mid-sentence one of the men suddenly freezes, his breath caught in his throat, his mouth trembling like a baby bird’s, one frail hand flapping wildly at his throat.  In one swift moment his body is overwhelmed by emotion, which has been released as if through a steam valve under immense pressure. This, said Ross, is real people dealing with emotion.

 Infinity is a play in which love does not go well and death does not go well, either.  As such, Ross is taking care to resist creating moments of tidiness or sentimentality within the scenes he is staging.  “Real people under emotional pressure react inappropriately,” has become something like a mantra by the end of our first week.  So, Sarah Jean, who is not an integrated human until the last beat of the play, minimizes and makes jokes out of moments of trauma in her life. The staging of the hospital scene, which we worked on this Friday, aims to tell a story of disconnect and - to use the vocabulary of the play – ‘fucked-up-ness’, rather than offering emotional catharsis and closure.  Gesture is an important tool actors can use to suppress, channel, contain or divert emotion that would otherwise spill out onto the surface of a character.

At the end of this Friday’s run, Paul looked up from some kind of trance said to the room at large, “I understand why I goof off so much in these rehearsals. When you are actually in the ride it’s a lot. 

 Infinity runs Jan 4-29 at Tarragon's Extraspace. For details and tickets click here.