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Montreal Mirror

A reflection on the importance of fostering local community ownership and pride in directing culturally specific work such as Miss Orient(ed)

written by Sarah Stanley in June 2005

When Rahul Varma approached me to direct (Nina Aquino and Nadine Villasin’s) Miss Orient(ed), I did three things:
1. Silently wondered, “Who, me?”
2. Audibly sighed with relief (that there was still an appropriate amount of lead-in time–almost a year!).
3. Agreed to read the play. (Very funny. Throughout this third “action item,” I laughed a lot.)
I then came back to Rahul with an entirely provisional, “yes.” The yes depended on two preconditions (All else would be relegated to the non-communicable areas of good fortune and discovery):
1. The playwrights would have to allow us to change original Toronto references to Montreal–otherwise I felt the theatrical value of doing the show in Montreal would be undermined.
AND
2. We would have to find five kick-ass Philippine-Canadian performers — otherwise I felt that the show would be counterproductive.
These–for me–were utterly unusual demands (after all, I didn’t know anything about the Montreal-Philippine Theatre community), but I felt them to be necessary and presumptuous.
Cut to the run of the play:
1. Audiences howling with recognition when (par example) the “South Shore” was mentioned.
AND
2. Audiences leaping to their feet with utter glee at the incredible assembly of kick-ass Philippine Canadian acting talent!
It feels “needless to say,” and yet, had the two provisions not been met, this article would not be written. Moreover, I might have missed the opportunity to reflect. These writings are therefore an attempt to reflect (in brief) on the movements of the process–to pull out a compact mirror and have a look. The dramatic conflict of creating our production happened very early in the process. The two preconditions were met. Everything else was the simple (and joyous) work of preparing to share this delightful world with the audience. In terms, therefore, of critical analysis, the introduction, development, and climax of our process happened at the “yes” and the denouement has been continuing ever since! But I will do my very best to leave a bit of revelation to the last paragraph.
In the meanwhile, I will rewind. Ted Little suggested that I share some of my thoughts about what I chose to really focus on in terms of cultural clarity and what I decided to simply let play. I think–if I fully understand the question–the answer stems from the preconditions: local references (Montreal! Here! Now! A world the audience can taste and smell) coupled with great comic/performance talent.
The first precondition was unusual, to say the least. I think in some circumstances this might be perceived as an untowardly invasive request. Writers often feel that the universal is revealed through the specifics of the details. And this can be completely true. But for this piece, with its “cabaret/reality/ live/jive/fashion show feel,” I fully felt that to keep the references specific to Toronto would be to rob our Montreal audience of an immediate and heartfelt connection to the characters. And I am forever indebted to the writers for allowing us to make those changes. Not only did the changes work, they also provided an excellent forum for the company to come together on the same page, and subsequently gave us a unified energy with which to leap onto the same glorious stage! And I can also report that with regards to the very powerful and healthy Montreal Philippine community, the sense of ownership went a long way to making this production such a specific success: so much so that it was recently voted the best theatre production of the year by The Montreal Mirror.
I have worked on many different kinds of material but generally have found that during the earlier stages of the development of a specific cultural idea, the creators are–more often than not–the performers as well. (I think this is rarely ideal or by choice.)
This was, however, partly the case with the first production of Miss Orient(ed) in Toronto. Both writers were performers in the original production. This is not surprising since they are both wonderful performers. But it was possibly taxing: they might have preferred to have been “simply” writers, with an opportunity to witness and work their work.
So here was a script–both funny and moving–that needed local acting talent to match its strength. In “ideal” circumstances, all the assembled “talents” should obviously match one another. However, in my experience culturally diverse work is often dependent on a PRIME MOVER (or MOVERS as the case may be). These instigators guide a project from inception through to fruition. I have seen unparalleled eruptions of talent as a result of this phenomenon. And therein lies the rub! Because unparalleled and eruptions are two words that imply that “this can not be done again.” More often than not (if their work is going to be restaged), the writer is forced to remain the performer, who in turn is forced to remain the producer, who in turn becomes the director. It doesn’t take long before the artist, as well as the work, begins to suffer because the artist has no opportunity to breathe.
If the goal is to share stories imbued with meaning, then one has to presume that the stories might want to be retold. And for them to be retold, there needs to be a strong community of tellers. So my only real job was this: Find five women who could match the material.
And I did.
But I cheated. And I hope that Nadine Villasin (one of the co-writers) will forgive me! (But she was the best woman for the job.) Nadine’s performance did allow us to make some strong dramaturgical decisions regarding the character of Jennifer. These might not have been possible had she been in another city…!
I recently saw the film Au Soleil, Même la Nuit by Éric Darmon and Ariane Mnouchkine [Fr., 1996, 142 min], where I heard Mnouchkine of Théâtre du Soleil say (in French–so pardon the loose translation) to an actor, “Don’t invent, just discover.” That says it! How else do I explain what, in practice, turned out to be so compellingly clear? This play–and therefore this process, and therefore this production–asked that I dig into the city we were in, to look for all that was rather than invent what might or might not be.
So.
Here’s the thing.
What we ultimately uncovered was what was already known from the original Toronto production–the play worked. We didn’t have to invent anything; we just had to strip it bare so it could speak–unedited — to its audience. Get it to a place where it didn’t ask us–the audience–to think about how we might feel. Instead, it fully encouraged us to feel how we feel. (Fully, blissfully, and not without tremendous grief and loss.) In other words, we did not have to translate or filter our experience, we could simply experience our experience.
And in the main (and “on the main,” for those who know Montreal) it did this because we believed the characters, and further, we believed that the characters lived where we did. I love the story about the Muscovites who attended the original Three Sisters. These first audiences were reputed to have made many return visits to the show. When asked what their evening activities would be, they apparently said that they were “off to see the Prozorovs.” Something about the familial and the familiar, and something definitely about the connection, make this a story–apocryphal or not–that I love. Not at all unlike my feelings surrounding our production of Miss Orient(ed).
Perhaps that anecdote responds to my original “Who, me?” And the performance space on St. Laurent (transformed by the design team to reveal the epitome of “runway in your community centre chic”) was proof of having had the necessary lead time for the endeavour. And as for the funny? The very funny aspect of this play? Here’s what we did. We made sure that the play that was written spoke honestly to the audience. We did everything required to make the space between what was being said and what was being heard as clear as possible, and the rest took care of itself. And we made absolutely sure that it glimmered and shimmered-—not unlike a Montreal Mirror.

Sarah is a director, teacher, dramaturge, performer, theatre-type creature. Recently she developed the Magnetic Encounter Series for The Magnetic North Theatre Festival. Sarah just directed Jason Cadieux’s “17.5”, for the Summerworks Festival in Toronto, and is hard at work on Henry IV Part 1 with the Concordia Theatre Department.

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