Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Tennessee Project: A Memoir

Although long overdue, I think it's time to share some memories from my experience working on Stella Artois Presents: The Tennessee Project. Although we performed from May 1st - 7th, this tale actually begins in either January or February of this year (so much happened after that...it's hard to keep dates straight!). Becca and I met to start deciding what our next show was going to be. We threw around a few ideas and Becca mentioned she had been told about a theatre festival that was going to do all Tennessee Williams one-act plays. They were looking for some volunteers to help find venues - something she excels at. A short time later she called me at work - which is a rarity, so I knew something was up. At that moment I had a feeling they were going to offer us a spot in the festival but I quickly brushed that off and warned myself not to get my hopes up. But, I was right! We met with Daiva, one of the organizers, soon thereafter and were officially part of the project.

Naturally, one of the first things we did was start to find a play to do. This proved to be pretty difficult considering the fact that Tennessee has a massive catalogue of stellar work. We met a couple of times at the reference library and read through many plays in many anthologies. The last day we were there, Becca passed me one of the books and told me to read The Unsatisfactory Supper.  As I got to the end, I literally felt a shot of adrenaline rush through my body like a lightning bolt! I looked at up at her and said "Wait, does Aunt Rose commit suicide via twister?". Pretty much, yep! A few days later, after much deliberation and consideration, we chose The Unsatisfactory Supper as our play for the festival. I was cast as Aunt Rose - the very lady whose demise occurs at the end of the play via twister (although I made the choice that she was not intentionally committing suicide, rather she was being taken by her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ).

After the rest of the actors were cast, Sarah Grange as Baby Doll and Neil Brown as Archie Lee - both having performed in The Story of Mrs. Winchester, and Melissa Wright returning as stage manager extraordinaire -the next challenge was set. The play was set on a front porch and Becca wanted to have a porch! The tricky part was we would be moving this set around the city to a new venue every night. In walked Courtney Mulligan, the most amazing set/light designer/builder. She turned Becca's vision into reality and I'm still in awe every time I think about it. Katie Munden, having costumed DANFORTH, returned and took a new spin on Mississippi in the 40s by popping the costumes with bright colours. We also had the oh-so talented Zach Vanasse do our music and sound effects. I remember the night we went over to Zach's and heard it all for the first time. I just sat with my eyes closed and absorbed it all. I don't know how he did it, but he somehow conveyed the entire play through a few songs. He just got it. BTW dude, when can I get a copy of the soundtrack??

One aspect of this festival that I didn't think too much about was the fact that we were also crew. It was up to us actors, director and stage manager to lug around the set, put it up and tear it down. During tech week and during the performances our routine was such: load the set into the truck from it's storage spot (aka Becca's garage), load it into the performance space, set it up, take it down, load it back into the truck and reload it into Becca's garage. I got exhausted just typing all of that! During the last performance we noted that the assembly and dis-assembly of the set ran longer than our 15 minute play. Despite how long it all took, how exhausting it was and despite the fact that my cast and crew-mates cringed every time I carried the heavy beams and eventually stopped letting me carry them all together - at the end of the day I felt so strong and blown away by what we all accomplished.

Playing Aunt Rose came at interesting time for me because my grandparents had been experiencing some health problems. As a result I spent a lot of time thinking about getting old, mortality in general and what it must be like when your body begins to expire but your mind does not. Aunt Rose desperately needed a place to live and Archie Lee and Baby Doll were her absolute last resort. But what do you do when you need to rely on someone for the most basic living necessities and there is no one? It also resulted in me stalking old people to see how they moved and walked. It was very important for me to get into her body. I remember one exercise we did in rehearsal where the three of us had to walk around a baseball diamond. Archie Lee and Baby Doll sped ahead of me as I slowy walked through what suddenly seemed like the longest distance ever. I felt horrible. I felt embarrassed that I couldn't keep up, worried that they were mad at me for taking so long (we had to get on with rehearsal after all) and I felt abandoned (why couldn't they just slow down and wait for me?). Another issue arose when I decided she would pray as the twister was coming for her...and then I realized I did not know how to pray!

We performed in 7 different neighbourhoods; The Annex, North York, Roncesvales, St. Clair West, the Danforth, Leslieville and Cabbagetown. It was pretty eye opening visiting all these neigbourhoods in a city I've lived in for my whole life but I had never actually been in. Did you know Cabbagetown has it's own flag AND annual parade? I definitely didn't. The day we had our tech at our Cabbagetown venue, the Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club, I noticed this large apartment building across the street and felt a strong connection to it. I mentioned this to Becca and even told her that I wanted to live there! Later, my father was asking about our venues and when I told him about Kiwanis, he explained that his aunts had lived in the apartments right across the street - the very building I had daydreamed about! This news filled me with eerie excitement. This was definitely a good omen.

We had a very successful run and the festival itself was a great success. It was really exciting coming home every night to more media coverage and reviews. Daiva, Alex and Suz - thank you so much for your hard work. You gals are such inspirations! We can't wait until next year.


p.s. Don't forget you can follow us @BlackTeaTheatre and you can follow me @erin_lion

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