Jane Maggs (Until June) interviews Claire Calnan and Jenny Young from:
Written and Directed by Claire Calnan
Presented by tiny bird theatre
Featuring Maja Ardal, Lisa Karen Cox , Lindsay McMahon, Pierre Simpson, Camille Stubel, Jenny Young
In a world where churches are changed into condos and convents to retirement homes Martha takes her son and returns to the order where she once served. A haunting choir of bird-like nuns threaten to shake her but Martha, faced with the fear of not knowing, has decided to know.
Tell me a little about your company’s history?
In 2002 I asked Claire to be in a little show that I wrote called Chaising Krinko’s as part of Mayhem Theatre’s “Saints, Sins and Clowns” we knew each other from school but had never worked together and after this project realized that we needed to do it again.
So in 2003 we applied and were accepted for SummerWorks with Chasing Krinko’s where we had our first successful and slightly bumpy festival. From there we started producing the yearly fundraising event called “The Amazing Chase” (which was a city wide scavenger hunt/race) and began planning the future shows.
In 2005 we produced Inanna, written and directed by Claire Calnan, and enjoyed a huge success at the Toronto Fringe Festival. It was staged as an outdoor piece at Royal St George’s College and rain or shine the house was packed!
In 2005 we enjoyed another big success with The Demimonde written and directed by myself and staged in Paupers Pub Piano bar, also site specific and also a sold out hit.
Later that summer we travelled out to Victoria B.C. where we co-produced Inanna with Theatre SKAM in a huge park next to the ocean. It was a fantastic experience for both companies and for the Victoria audiences.
Since that summer we have slowed down a bit with a remount of the Demimonde at the R.O.M a workshop of Raising Luke and a name change (we used to be called Donikers Daily) and now we are super excited to be back at a festival launching a new show!
What interests you as a company and what kind of stuff would you like to be doing in the future?
“Inspired by small moments of surprise, the conundrum of human existence and the possibilities in the space around us, tiny bird creates exciting, original theatre that soars.
Working from a multi-disciplinary pallet, we invite artists from different areas of expertise to join the creation process as we work to challenge our own ideas of what makes theatre theatre. We endeavor to employ artists from across the country and to champion local, emerging talent.
We play with space. Often staging pieces in non-traditional places, we seek to engage the modern audience in innovative ways. We are where you least expect us to be.
Infused with a sense of delight and play and demanding a high level of excellence, our theatre moves people.
We are a tiny bird with a big song.”
Ok, so you work on your mandate for days and as a small company don’t get to use it often, so that, what you just read, is our mandate. And I think it sums up nicely who we are and what we are trying to do.
The future? There are a few things that we would like to do, the ball is in my court as we trade off projects and I think what excites me most at the moment is creating a show on our feet together, as Claire and I have never actually acted together before and I think that might just be a small gold mine.
What inspired the play?
My mom was a nun for seven years. She left before taking her final vows, got married and had five kids. (a friend of mine once commented that my dad stole God’s girlfriend. This is not technically true, as my mom left before she met him…but, well, whatever. details!)
A number of years ago my parents attended a reunion at the convent where my mom had served. Previously very reserved about her past she was suddenly bursting with stories and memories and had connected with a bunch of old friends. At the time I was in my mid-twenties, the same age as my mom had been when she was in the convent. I really grappled with the difference between our lives and started asking a lot of questions. I built a solo show cased on the material but I knew I wanted to return to the subject matter to examine it more as I continued to investigate my own complicated and often troubling relationship to organized religion and my mother’s faith.
What drew you to the subject of the convent and the need to return to the simpler past? (if I’m understanding…?)
The play does deal with the past but I don’t believe that it is any simpler than the present day and though we must learn from it I wouldn’t advocate any sort of ‘return’ to it. The early 1960s, the time at which some of this play is set, was a complex period for the Roman Catholic Church and the religious orders. Vatican II involved a meeting of church officials with the pope to implement major changes to the organization to reflect the changing world. The mass was translated from Latin into English and the religious habits were modified and eventually, with some exceptions, discarded. I took a trip out to Antigonish to visit the Mother House where my mom had lived many years before. I interviewed a number of the women who still served there. Having grown up in a fairly conservative environment with parents who struggled to understand their liberal children I expected the nuns to be even more extreme. I was surprised. In fact, they totally blew my mind. The women there were extremely progressive, open-minded, educated, spiritual people. Also, very funny. And patient. There were religious scholars who had written about the history and philosophy of the church, community activists who headed social service organizations, and advocates for human rights who sat on councils for the UN. Many were openly critical about their church and seemed to struggle with the pace of its progress. But they could laugh easily too. They disarmed me. If I have an opportunity, I would love to go back there. Not to the past- but to that place and those people, in the present.
What is an interesting question or thought you are posing with this piece?
I have a lot of them but here are some big ones for me: Do we lose something in a modern, secular society by divorcing ourselves from spiritual practice and tradition? What leads people to embrace fundamentalist beliefs? How can one enjoy the beauty of churches, hymns and prayers when one is conflicted about the doctrines and political practices of the organizations that manage them? How much a part of our identity are our religious beliefs? How much a part of our national identity is tied to religion and does this breed fear and intolerance towards other nations based on their national identities?
Ok, maybe some of these are just questions I had while writing…but I hope that a few of them are asked in the playing of it.
And they may sound a little lofty but the play is not. It is accessible and, I hope, entertaining.
How does Tiny Bird approach a new piece?
Claire and I trade off projects artistically while the other supports as a producer. Our pattern thus far has been that one of us has a piece that they are writing and are also interested in directing as well.
As time often limits us we tend to hit the ground running with staging and producing re-writes on the fly etc. We do try to get as many reads as possible before we start rehearsals with the final cast. And a lot of the writing process is passing the script back and forth between the two of us to create deadlines and to give notes, etc…
How do you work in rehearsals?
Claire has a huge background in collaborative creation and most of the plays that I work on as an actor are new plays, so we are both very comfortable with creating in the room and with the actors to see how a scene, environment or relationship will play out. We somehow always have live music/singing and some form of movement or choreography in our pieces so there is a lot of emphasis put on theatricality rather than purely on text. We like big, bold, exciting, surprising choices so we encourage the people around us to make those choices and rehearsal will follow that lead, creating with each and every one of the artists in the room.
I love entering a room where there are people moving their bodies, composing songs, working on scenes and staging. It feels very rich for me. And fun. Which is also a big part of the way we work (though not at every moment…if only…)
In regards to Raising Luke, it is a very short time period to rehearse so we will be moving through things much faster than I would normally desire, which is against my basic theories about theatre practice but…one must make do. This will be our first kick at the can. And I hope we will get to go back for another at some point. (get her up on her feet and see if she has legs to stand on, right?)
Because the writer is also the director, is the script locked or does it change and evolve quite a bit as you work?
Oh, it is changing and evolving each day. I am interested in collaborations so I am grateful that I have intelligent and brave actors who can intuit whether they are telling their own stories effectively. I will do my best to help them do that. I will also be interested in having a few trusted theatre friends come in and take a look at what we have created to see if they can follow it…
Because it’s a new piece was it written with the SummerWorks criteria in mind at all (ie time, budget constraints, simple storable set, etc or do you fit it into the SummerWorks mold after the fact?
It was not created with Summerworks in mind but we see this as a valuable first step towards developing the piece. We are a small company and we don’t love producing but we have made a habit (habit? yes. haha) of creating ambitious shows with big casts and challenging staging. The festivals make it possible for us to produce a show like this because if we were doing it independently it would take us 12 years to raise the money.
We have had to cut the script significantly to allow it to fit into the allotted time. That was the biggest sacrifice but also a valuable exercise. And we enjoy working with simple sets and exploring the magic created by the actors in the space. Jenny and I started working together because we shared that love in our approach to theatre so we are not daunted by the lack of storage space. So that’s good!
And we are excited to be a part of SummerWorks and be among so many of Toronto’s most exciting and innovative artists.
What do you find most rewarding in this type of theatre: new piece, creating from the ground up, very collaborative?
The reward is that we get to tell the story we want in a way that we found together. It is an ownership thing I guess!
I completely agree. It is a bit of a hair-raising experience at time but THE MOST REWARDING in the end.
Is this how you prefer to work?’
Claire and Jenny:
In terms of our own company, yes, so far. Though we both work most often as contracted actors for other companies, sometimes in collaborative processes and sometimes not. We have found working in a variety of forms and processes to be very fruitful, each experience helping to feed the others. So we like this way, yes, but we’re not exclusive. We have an open relationship to theatre. We’ll do just about anything we find interesting or attractive, anything that may help us to grow.