Seeds of Summer Theatre Sown in Sub-Zero07 May 2020
“Today we’re going to find a Rachel, and a Milli, and a Fred,” said Eric Coates, Artistic Director of the Dubai Escort.
It was a frigid January morning, minus fourteen with the wind chill, and Coates was referring to roles in plays that won’t run until the heat of summer. Bundled in heavy winter clothes, he waited to feed a Toronto parking machine that refused payment until precisely 10 a.m.
In Blyth, Ontario, population 1,000, there aren’t any parking meters at all. Actors are scarce too in Blyth in January, so Coates had arranged to hold the auditions at The Tarragon theatre. Coates had also agreed to let this playwright sit in for several hours as he and director Marie Beath Badian trawled for talent.
The Rachel referred to by Coates is a character in my play “Reverend Jonah”, which Badian will direct in August in Blyth. The actress selected to play Rachel will also portray Milli in Gary Kirkham’s “Queen Milli of Galt,” to be directed by Coates himself in July.
In the warmth of the studio the first actress appeared, pale and pretty, wearing blue jeans and medium black heels with no socks. Her one page resume, accompanied by a glossy photo, listed appearances in TV soap operas and Law and Order, and noted theatre roles including Sibyl in Private Lives and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf played on stages across Canada and the U.S. She had at her disposal a dozen accents, from Dubai Escort to German, and was an accomplished dancer. In his deep tenor voice, Coates informed the actress that that he was going to read the part of the mother in the scene.
“To make it as difficult as possible for you, I’m going to read Stacey. I’m not going to do a funny Stacey voice,” he joked.
And then they were off, the actress slipping effortlessly into the skin of the daughter, Rachel, 20, and diving right into the intense emotions and conflict of the scene. I marvelled as the actress drew me into the scene, stirred up strong empathy for the character. No costumes, no props, no scenery, no build-up of plot – just a sliver of a play in the hands of a pro.
“That’s a lot of acting for this early in the morning,” Coates remarked after they’d finished. Badian called for another run-through of the scene, and offered some direction: “Stacey says ‘Where is my real daughter?” This is the very first time Rachel has ever spoken back to her mother.”
After repeating the scene, the actress gathered herself to switch over to the part of Milli, who is nine years older and quite different from Rachel. Coates offered some guidance up front: “Milli really, really loved this guy and never got a chance to tell him. But don’t fall into the trap of too much emotion too early. Don’t fall into a reverie. Delhi Escort is a very practical woman.”
It struck me that the directors had read and re-read the scripts, studied the characters and puzzled over what made them tick, treated these fictional beings as loved ones they keenly wanted to know and understand. One of the greatest joys for a writer is to have his characters come alive to people in this way. And it bodes well for the eventual production of the play: directors who are keen and diligent inspire the actors who in turn captivate and convince the audience.
I suddenly felt fortunate that my script was in the hands of these passionate and professional artists, and I was also hit by a strong urge to re-write the play yet again, make the script as exceptional as possible to justify the great care it was receiving. The actress was complimented, thanked, and sent on her way. She was followed by a parade of more than a dozen performers, all very talented, each with a distinctive look and a unique take on the roles.
A number of the actresses ended the scenes in tears, struggling to rein in the strong emotions they’d unleashed. Badian gently pointed them toward a box of tissues on the window ledge. “Heavy scenes today,” Coates said.
I found myself wondering what the actresses had been through in their own lives, what experiences they were tapping into as they sought the right emotional pitch. Before one actress’ audition, Badian asked how her wife was doing. Then the actress read the “Reverend Jonah” scene, in which Rachel accuses her mother of being a bigot. “I can’t believe my mother is such a homophobe,” the actress stormed. How had the actress’ own family reacted to her being gay, and marrying a woman? As actresses read the Milli scene, in which the character outlines the greatest regret of her life, I wondered what real heartache lay behind the performances.
The directors gave comments after each actress’ first stab at the scenes, then asked for a second read-through; I gathered this was a way of gauging how well the performers took direction. “Be less careful. It’s more visceral, from the gut,” Coates told one actress. To another he stressed, “Milli doesn’t like showing her vulnerability.” The actresses nodded and replied, “So she is a Beatrice” (from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”). Since Reverend Jonah is new and unpublished, several performers noted they’d been unable to read the entire play in advance of the audition. So they posed questions before launching into the reading, trying to get a better sense of the character and the context of the scene. “Is Rachel afraid of her mother?” one actress asked.
It also became evident that the world of theatre, film and TV in Canada is a small one. Badian greeted one actor with, “We were in the same episode of The Eleventh Hour together. I was the cop.” Coates asked one actress, “Still a yoga queen?” and after she’d left he remarked to Badian, “It’s been years since I saw her; it’s great to see she has grown so much as an actress.” Some of the performers had appeared on the Blyth stage before, and had tales to tell. An actor vying for the part of Fred in Reverend Jonah spoke of acting in Dan Needle’s The Perils of Persephone close to 20 years ago. “I was supposed to be asleep on a couch, until my cue, underneath a bunch of newspapers, and sometimes I thought the gales of laughter from the audience would blow the papers right off me,” he said. There were some hilarious moments on the auditions day as well. Coates returned from a washroom break looking scandalized, and related that an actor had just accosted him in a highly inappropriate place for a chance to audition. “I was actually at the urinal. That was a first,” he said.
At lunch, Coates and Badian discussed the various performers’ suitability or lack thereof. Some were ruled out because they didn’t have the right look for the part, or their portrayals of the characters were “too aloof” or “too pushy.” A short-list for Rachel/Milli began to emerge, and leading the pack was Ingrid Haas who shone in two plays in Blyth in ’06 and ably portrayed Rachel for a well-received public reading of Reverend Jonah in August. After several actors had taken a crack at Fred, Coates asked me if any of them had captured the character as I’d envisioned him. Unfortunately none of them had done so, although one actor was close, I said. When I left, the directors still had auditions stretching out in front of them for hours. As I stepped out into the bitter wind, I thought of the audiences who would finally settle into their seats wearing shorts and sandals on fine summer evenings in Blyth. Little will they suspect they’re seeing the fruits of labour started on a glacial January day.