Daniela Vlaskalic and Beth Graham: Taking a Plunge

beth graham and daniela vlaskalic

On Tuesday I was extremely excited to be led through the winding labyrinth of Tarragon Theatre to the quaint Extra Space Green Room to talk to the incredible team of Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic about their play The Drowning Girls which opened last night October 14th and runs until November 15th, 2009 in the Tarragon Extra Space. The play is the recipient of four of Edmonton’s Sterling Awards and four of Calgary’s Betty Mitchell Awards and is based on the true story of an Edwardian serial killer George Joseph Smith who killed three of his wives in their bathtubs to inherit their insurance policies.

Amanda Campbell (AC): I usually begin by asking this question: Who are you, Where are you from and How did you get so talented?

Daniela Vlaskalic (DV): You want to go first?

Beth Graham (BG): No, I want you to go first. *grins really big*

DV: Okay, well, I’m Daniela. And I’m from- that’s a bit of a crazy question. It’s kind of a long story. Well, I’m from Vancouver, even though I was born in Thunder Bay and I’ve lived in Alberta. I’ve sort of lived all over. And now I live in Toronto. That’s the short version, anyway. And… what was the last question again?

AC: How did you get so talented?

DV: Oh God, I don’t know how to answer that. Um, I went to University and got a BFA and that’s where I met Beth and Charlie (Tomlinson), who is our director and our other collaborator on this project. So, I had done a College Theatre program and did theatre in High School. Then, after finishing University, I started acting and auditioning and stuff, and then started creating and writing with Charlie and Beth, and I sort of haven’t stopped since. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past ten or eleven years since we graduated.

BG: I’m Beth, and I will say that I’m from Cochrane, Alberta, which is a town outside of Calgary. I grew up there and I did not move very much. I’m basically the opposite of Daniela. My parents still live in the same house they did when I was growing up! *laughs* I went to Edmonton to do my BFA and met Daniela and I still pretty much continue to live and work in Edmonton today. Edmonton and its surrounding areas. *laughs*.

AC: So, I know you wrote this play for the Edmonton Fringe Festival after you graduated. Had you considered yourself to be “writers” prior to this point?

DV: We always wanted to create our own work. I don’t think we- I never considered myself to be a writer so much. We started this play ten years ago, that’s when we wrote its first inception, which is very different than the play that we’re performing here.

BG: We knew that we wanted to work together when we were in school, and when we met Charlie, he was like a kindred spirit for us too.

DV: And he had experience working in Creation-Based Theatre. I don’t know if that’s exactly what people call it, but he’d been doing that sort of theatre in Newfoundland and in other places as well and he really encouraged us to figure out what we wanted to say. We really found a good threesome with him. Collaboration is so difficult, I think, because more often than not, it doesn’t work. But we ended up having the right mixture of personalities and we really lucked out. So Beth and I continued to create plays together and Charlie went back to Newfoundland where he still works. So, after we did The Drowning Girls in the [Edmonton] Fringe Festival, we shelved it, knowing that we wanted to come back to it, but we wanted it to not be Fringe. We wanted there to be designers involved and to expand it. We wanted to see the play the way that we envisioned it in our heads. And that takes money. And it took us something like… two years… just working on getting the funding for it.

BG: Yeah.

DV: We were working on getting a support team to help us with the show’s development, but it takes a long time just to get to that point. I understand why people would rather just move on to something new because it is hard. But ultimately, I think, it’s so worthwhile.

AC: I know that in Edmonton people tend to create their own work. It seems to me to sort of be “the Edmonton Way.” Did you have any artists who you saw working in the Fringe Festival or while you were in school who inspired you and made you go: “I want to do THAT!”

BG: There was a bit of that, I think, definitely. There are people there who create their own theatre, and the people who create their own work are for sure an important part of the theatre community.

DV: It was the year when Catalyst Theatre started up and they were doing new and exciting things that we weren’t seeing in other places. But, I think there- I don’t know if it’s just an Edmonton thing, certainly you see a lot of people creating new work in Calgary and in Vancouver.

BG: I’m seeing a lot of it here too.

DV: Yeah, and here too. I think it’s more of a Canadian thing. There is this little pocket of people who are going about theatre in a non traditional way, rather than the sort of creation of a well-made play where you write a play and then find a director-

BG: Or find an already written play.

DV: Yeah, or find an already written play. Theatre Companies here allow for a different process, which is so essential and, I think, exciting. This version of The Drowning Girls couldn’t have existed without it. We had our original play, and then we rewrote it and workshopped that version and now we have this version. Even during the week here, there have been changes made to the play. So, we are constantly in development. You are never really done with it. It always evolves, and that is so exciting for us as artists, and I hope that it’s exciting for the audience too; to see something that has been in development for ten years. We’ve both grown and changed in that time, and the play has grown and changed and I hope that it will continue to do so.

BG: Hopefully.

DV: Also, here at the Tarragon, it has been so great to have a week of previews. The play has changed even since our first preview. It’s so great to be able to see the way the play works in front of an audience, and then to go back and have a five hour rehearsal and to be able to say “that still isn’t working,” “what if we tried this tonight?” “Why don’t we do this and see what happens.” That’s rare. I don’t know anywhere else where that sort of thing is possible.

BG: Catalyst. *laughs*. I’m sure there’s lots of places…

DV: But to have so many previews.

BG: Oh, I see what you mean. Yeah. That’s definitely true. It’s different when you are changing things in front of an audience.

DV: Yeah, I mean, there are lots of theatres where things change right up until the last minute, but in those places you usually only have one preview… maybe two. So having a whole week is just so great.

AC: Your play is based on the true story of George Joseph Smith, a British serial killer, how did you come upon this guy?

BG: We sort of stumbled across it. It’s based on the Scotland Yard case file of George Joseph Smith. Funnily enough, we had wanted to start the play with a girl in a bathtub before we even heard of the story. We were exploring the ideas of drowning and it being hard for us to breathe and how that connected to our own lives, when Daniela came across this case file and we sort of look at each other and went, “Yeah. This is the vehicle through which we can tell our story.”

DV: But for us it was more about the women- the wives- than it was about him. So we started to examine the lives of the women in their lifetime and to see how much has changed, and we looked at the idea of marriage then and now, and we thought about the fear that people had, and that ultimately I think people still have, of being alone. As we read and we researched, we started to ask the question, “were these women just naive?” I think it’s easy to say “How could they not see the type of man he [George Joseph Smith] was?”

BG: After reading the case I found myself wondering, “How could they have fallen for his lies?” But the more I read about it and thought about it, the more I started to wonder, maybe I could have fallen for it. This man was very convincing.

DV: He was giving these women exactly what they wanted.

BG: He was saying exactly what they wanted to hear. So, you sort of have to answer that question for yourself; how they could have become trapped by him.

DV: In our original version of the play we only had two of his wives, and when we expanded it we added in the third wife. We had talked about her in the first version, but she wasn’t a central character.

BG: Having all three wives, in a way, three is what makes him a multiple murderer. And I think it makes it more universal. Three is such a dynamic number onstage because, sometimes you can’t help choosing sides when you have two characters.

DV: And all three of the women are at different stages of their lives, they are different ages, and come from different circumstances and they all have a different perception of what he is… or what they think that he is saving them… “saving” them from. Having three wives just works much better, and that’s one of the things that you discover in time and that’s why it’s so great to be able to come back to the play and have a chance to incorporate everything that you’ve learned into it.

AC: Is the play heavily based on your research or has it mostly come from your imaginations?

BG: Both.

DV: We did a lot of research and then we got rid of a lot of research. I don’t know if that makes sense. We learned everything we could; and then we also made up a lot of our own stories. Most of the information that you can find is about him as well, because he was the murderer and there was a trial and a case file and all that stuff. There wasn’t as much information about the women, I mean, of course, there were their names, and where they were from and a little background information, but most of the stuff in our play is made up or imposed on them, usually stemming from a much smaller detail that we know, like how old someone was, for instance.

BG: Sometimes I feel like it gets further and further away from the historical fact every time we do it, and it becomes more and more about the women.

AC: You sort of touched on this a bit before, but when I was reading about this man and his wives on Wikipedia, I was thinking, it seemed very Edwardian and Victorian, for women to be so dependent on their husbands and so desperate to get married as an economic decision. You think of women who’s father died leaving them with nothing, and whose brothers won’t support them and you see how fragile their ability to have a livelihood is. But then I started to think about modern day tabloids and girls who go missing and it later comes out that their husbands killed them; and you start to think that maybe this story is far more relevant than it first appears.

BG: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the values and-

DV: The Status.

BG: Yeah, the status, and the myth of marriage and the status of marriage still exists. There is still so much pressure put on women from their families, I think. What do you think?

DV: I completely agree. We like to tell ourselves that we don’t believe or uphold those traditional ideals anymore. We tell ourselves that we’ve come so far, but it still feels like there’s still that desire to not be alone. I mean, being considered a spinster or an old maid, that doesn’t happen anymore at twenty-six, so it has moved somewhat, but there is still pressure there in the societal consciousness. I mean, look at the Internet and websites like Eharmony and Plenty of Fish.

BG: Oh yeah, George Joseph Smith would have loved those.

DV: We don’t want to be alone either.

BG: And Smith was really smart, this was the time when the world saw the introduction to Life Insurance Policies and it’s almost remarkable how he was on to that. He was a sneaky, sneaky dude.

DV: We keep exploring and questioning the nature of love. Does love make you so blind that you can’t see these sorts of schemes? How much do you forgive? Sometimes, you know, you step back later and you wonder how you could have fallen for this person, or why you acted the way you did. That is a common thing that you hear today, but still, I think that we want to be blinded by love. I don’t know if it can be objective to be in love. I don’t know if that’s possible. *Daniela and Beth both laugh heartily* Maybe some people can.

AC: So, you’re working in bathtubs onstage. What are some of the challenges in that as actors? Does it get really cold?

DV: The tubs are actually warm. The water is warm.

BG: Having the tub and having the water onstage is a huge part of the show. Like, there have been so many, “happy accidents” as Charlie calls them. Like, someone’s foot hanging out of the tub a certain way, and the water dripping off the stocking and the shadow that it makes on the floor… the water is really like another character in the play. Working with the water, rehearsing with the water, at times has been a bit like torture.

DV: But rehearsing with the water is one thing, and then rehearsing without the water is a different thing again and then performing- it’s hard to explain. The water has a personality of its own. And it really depends on the space how well it works. This space is great for the water because it is so intimate and it doesn’t get really cold. I don’t know, I think you get used to it.

BG: The water also has this ability to become other things within the world of the play. Like it contributes to the soundscape with the splashing. It’s really fun.

AC: Did you create the play mostly through Improvisation or did you tend to go away, write it and then come in and rehearse?

BG: Initially, we were a lot up on our feet. We would write the framework and then from there the play was constantly changing to accommodate what we had discovered as actors. And that still happens, to some extent. There’s a lot of stuff that is written on its feet, like I might say, “can you say something about this at this point?”

DV: Charlie is our outside eye, so it’s really important to have his vision and his input. And we’re inside it, so we’re able to say things like, “Okay, well, this feels weird.” “This seems overwritten” or “this feels underwritten.” Where as, Charlie is able to see the play as an audience would, so he can tell us when he doesn’t understand an aspect of it or to say, “I’m not connecting to this moment right here.” We really are a collaborative threesome. And also, Natascha, who plays the third wife, she’s contributed as well.

BG: Yeah, sometimes by asking questions she helps us to develop the text, and sometimes she says things like, “it feels more natural for me to do it this way.”

DV: It’s also a very visual piece, so the lighting designer’s input… the lighting is an enormous element. In a lot of ways, it’s the lighting and the water that tell the story. So, it really does feel like such a collaboration, I know all theatre is but….

AC: My last question is, you have four plays that you’ve collaborated on, are there any plans to revisit and to expand any of the others?

BG: Yeah, always.

DV: We are going to go back to another one of our plays.

BG: We have already gone back to one. It’s called Comrades and it’s about these two Italian anarchists who were imprisoned for a crime that we don’t they they committed. There are a lot of people who don’t believe they committed this crime. And we went back and developed that play together.

DV: It’s published in the same sort of anthology as The Drowning Girls.

AC: Can you get that at Theatre Books?

DV: Yes, you can. Although I think it was sold out there the last time I checked.

AC: Oh. Well, that’s good! They’ll have to get in some more copies.

DV: We are going to go back and develop one of our older plays, and we are also going to start a new one. That is the plan.

BG: Yeah. That’s the plan.

DV: It’s hard to do, because you would sort of like some support, like a theatre company to get behind you, but there are a lot of writers and a lot of new plays, so really, it usually comes down to us having to do it on our own.

BG: Or at least, we have to get it to a certain point.

DV: Yeah. And that can be good in a way.

AC: Yeah, because then you can write what you want to write.

DV: Yeah. And we have a website!

BG: A brand new website!

Utterly delightful and exceptionally talented, Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic have created a stunning play in The Drowning Girls and despite the fact that they spend a great deal of it underwater, it is the audience who is left with the Goosebumps.

The Drowning Girls plays at The Tarragon Theatre Extra Space (30 Bridgman Avenue) until November 15th, 2009. For more information and to purchase tickets please call 416.531.1827 or visit http://www.tarragontheatre.com/

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