Greetings from Rail Canada, where Cassie and I are currently speeding from Toronto to Montreal, the site of our second PACT-sponsored Critical Response workshop on the current trip. As the snow falls on the winter landscape outside, I’m reflecting on two recent encounters with Canadian theatre companies we’ve met through our work with PACT and how each highlights a distinctive application of the Critical Response Process.
A few months ago I was in Ottawa to work with the resident English-language theatre company at National Arts Centre. Artistic Director Jillian Kelley wanted to address a very particular issue she’s identified in the fast-moving process of play production: Productions really don’t “test” with an audience until opening night, at which point it may be too late to make significant changes in a staging that can aid an audience’s comprehension of action, motivation, or a production’s concept. She wanted to use CRP to intervene at just the point when these problems can be addressed, about a week before opening night, when the major blocking is set but there’s still time for fine-tuning. So at a daylong CRP immersion in Ottawa participants watched a full run of Jillian’s production of Moliere’s Tartuffe (in a pointed and hilarious adaptation, set in post-WWII Newfoundland). At the response session that followed, Jillian asked us to focus specifically on the clarity of what the staging conveyed and used her step two questions to probe into key points about which she had concerns. By the end of step four she had a concrete list of fixes and actor notes. NAC is continuing to work with CRP and make it part of their production cycle.
Yesterday in Toronto our CRP workshop was hosted by Roseneath Theatre, and we used the Process to focus on a work at an entirely different point in its development. Playwright Paul Dunn and three actors presented a full reading of Outside, a play in development that Roseneath will eventually tour to high schools. Now in its third draft and heading in a few weeks toward its first reading before its intended audience, Outside focuses on a teenager’s emerging gay identity and the bullying and harassment that lead him to a suicide attempt, the story told partly through the voices of two supportive classmates. Here the CRP dialogue focused on points of substance within a still-shaping script, including the voices of the young characters and the challenge to keep their language authentically current while conveying nuanced issues of identity; the question of where the characters are deriving their emergent sense of self and society; a playwright’s responsibility in relation to the depiction of suicide; and plot points both resolved and unresolved. Judging from Paul’s reflection after the session, the dialogue will help to guide him in his next draft of this absorbing play about an important topic.