Legere and Swift Talk Salvation and the Future of Halifax Theatre

stewart legere and katie swift
“When a violent event thrusts Edward and Mary together, the unlikely pair begin to sift through a past they didn’t know existed and soon find themselves in a place where everything that happens may have happened before. These self-proclaimed rescuers attempt to make sense of the beautiful, brutal, and mysterious world they have willfully entered into, and ultimately must decide if they can be rescued themselves. This highly physical and often hilarious glimpse into seemingly unconnected lives is a brutally honest portrait of what it is to be alive, what it is to be alone, and what it is to be saved.” This is the premise of A Rescue Demonstration, a new play created by East Coast actors Stewart Legere and Katie Swift that runs at Halifax’s newest venue, the gorgeous Plutonium Playhouse, May 20th-June 5th, 2010.
I sat down with Legere and Swift at the Plutonium Playhouse on Friday to chat about the development of this project.
Amanda Campbell (AC): Can you tell me how you first got involved and interested in the theatre?
Katie Swift (KS): I guess I really started theatre in Junior High and High School in Sussex, New Brunswick where I started doing musicals. My dad had always been involved in Community Theatre, he was a teacher and every year the teachers would do a spring musical. It was called Class Act, so I would be hanging out at the rehearsals, and then starting in Junior High, I would be in the musicals at school. Then I went to King’s College (in Halifax) for University and I became very, very involved with the Kings Theatrical Society and that’s when I really started wanting to do theatre all the time and not just as a hobby, because before that I had always thought of theatre as just being a hobby and in my Foundation Year at King’s I was thinking that I wanted to be an English teacher. Then I took a year off and went traveling and stuff and that’s when I realized that I really missed theatre and performing, because that was the first year since Junior High that I wasn’t doing a show. So then I decided to go back to school to study and to get training in theatre and I went to the Dal(housie) Theatre Program, and after I graduated I wanted some more training so I went to the National Theatre School of Canada.
Stewart Legere (SL): I’m from Halifax, I grew up in Dartmouth, and I come from a very performance-oriented family, my little sister is an actor and both my parents are very musical. I grew up in a home that was kind of like the McGarrigle’s, or at least the way I like to imagine their home being, with people singing together and music being around all the time. My dad played Captain Von Trapp in a Junior High version of The Sound of Music and I always knew that I wanted to be an actor. When I was a kid I kind of just wanted to be Zach Morris from Saved By the Bell, which I’m sure was just horrifying for my dad. But I remember distinctly going to him and telling him that I wanted to be a performer and saying, “I need your help” and he was really encouraging and told me, “Okay, okay, this is what you have to do.” So then I went to Dalhousie’s Theatre Program and as soon as I graduated I went immediately into the Irondale Ensemble Summer Program Training School and it blew my mind. It was a month long program and it was totally different than anything else that I had ever done and I worked with Stephen Cross, who became a huge mentor for me and who is just the most amazing director and I did that program for two years in a row and since then I have worked with the Irondale Ensemble every year. We also go to Maine every year to work with our sister company from New York in August and we train together and through that creative process we create a show together every summer. I love them. I love Irondale.
AC: How did you two decide that you wanted to work together?
KS: We both knew each other at Dal and the first show that we worked on together was Pride and Prejudice when Stewart was in fourth year and I was in third year and I played a maid, which meant that I carried vases on and off stage. So, we sort of got to know each other during that show. And then the year I graduated Richie Wilcox approached both of us to do a production of a play called Oh Dad Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad; an Arthur L. Kopit play, for Angels and Heroes Theatre Company.
SL: We were playing the main characters opposite one another.
KS: And then we sort of orbited one another, I went away to go to NTS and Stewart began to work with Zuppa Theatre. And I did a summer internship with Zuppa Theatre which also strengthened our connection because I knew that he had worked with them, and we suddenly had all these friends and collaborators in common and then we became good friends when we did a production of Our Town together with Two Planks and a Passion in 2008.
SL: And we lived together in Ross Creek in this old farmhouse.
KS: We played George and Emily and that is when we really got to know each other and become friends and when we started to get an idea of each other’s sensibilities and we began to get this hunch that we would work really well together and that we might be able to create our own piece of theatre.
SL: That experience of Our Town was fuckin beautiful. We were outside everyday in Ross Creek rehearsing in this gorgeous field and Katie and I started joking that we should make some sort of theatre on our own, that we should write a play together. And there would be all these moments, or lines or physical movements and pieces that would develop organically out of the rehearsals for Our Town and out of our friendship that we kept saying, “That’ll be in our play.” It was like serious joking.
KS: We also started sharing our writing with one another. We were both kind of writing during our off-time in the farmhouse and so we would start to read what we had written. I had always been interested in creating my own work, but I was waiting for the right moment to do it because I had gone directly from a four year program right into a three year program so I hadn’t had much time to actually create.
SL: And I was making original theatre creations, both with Zuppa Theatre and with Irondale and I loved both those companies and experiences, but I knew that I wanted to also do something outside of that, something independent, but not alone. So when Katie and I sort of collided at Ross Creek it ended up being perfect.
KS: Then as I approached graduation from NTS we started to talk seriously about the specifics of what sort of theatre we should create, we talked on the phone about all our ideas and did a lot of brainstorming.
SL: We also talked a lot about the logistics. When should we plan to begin the creation process-
KS: And which city should we do it in.
SL: And we chatted a lot about the ideas that interested us and so then I sort of thought, “I’m going to do this. We’re going to start this in earnest.” So I applied for an Individual Creation Grant and then Katie came to Halifax in September and we began the creation process.
KS: We knew that we didn’t want to produce a scripted piece, we knew that we wanted to create a piece of our own, something new. So we worked initially for seven weeks developing our ideas and then we knew that at the end of that we would have a better idea of what the next phase would be and that at the end of it we would have a production.
AC: How did you decide that you would develop the show here in Halifax?
SL: Probably because I live here and I work in this city and at that time Katie had just graduated and she wasn’t settled in Toronto yet, so things were more instable and influx for her, and Halifax was the place where we both had a degree of stability in our lives and the theatre. Also, we wanted to do it here because we knew that we wanted to work with Ann-Marie (Kerr) because she is this brilliant physical theatre director who we knew would work so well with us and help us develop our ideas and that she would just be a really good fit for the project. Also, Katie has a connection to Halifax because she went to school here and Halifax is a really great place to be and to start.
KS: We knew that the community would be supportive here and it is easier to stay on budget when you’re in Halifax and Stewart has all these connections here because he has worked in Halifax and in the theatre community so much. We knew that we would be able to find a space and we have a great one.
SL: I think essentially the answer is just that we’re from the East Coast, we live here and we want to work here, that is basically the reason.
KS: I always knew that I wanted to come back to Halifax and to work here.
AC: Can you talk a bit about the development of this play A Rescue Demonstration?
SL: Yes!
KS: So, in our phone conversations we had to figure out what the play that we were going to create was going to be about. So, we spoke a lot about what sorts of things we thought should be the prominent idea and that ended up being similar for both of us. I had done a short film at NTS centered on a traditional Catholic upbringing, which I related to as I sort of considered myself to be a “lapsed Catholic,” as I had been dealing with relationships and I felt like I was on the cusp of change and I was seeing reflections of myself in this film. There was a definite emphasis on this idea of guilt, which was something that I related to and that I understood. I had felt a lot of feelings of guilt myself growing up Catholic, without ever knowing that it was sort of a convention, the idea of the “Catholic Guilt.”
SL: And that resonated with me.
KS: Yeah. We were both dealing with being these two very modern and forward thinking individuals trying to reconcile with the fact that we had grown up having very strong Catholic values instilled in us.
SL: I don’t even think of myself as being a “lapsed Catholic.” I don’t consider myself to be Catholic any more, I don’t even consider myself to be Christian. I am agnostic. But, as a gay man, I still have all these thoughts and ideas rattling around in my brain that come from growing up in a religious household. I had seen this painting by an artist named Jamie Clarke, of this arresting image based on an Iranian news story of two Iranian teenagers who were hanged for being gay and the painting depicted the two boys hanging from this makeshift gallows, but they were being held up by this angel-like figure. This painting was inspiring a lot of the writing that I was doing that summer at Ross Creek, and actually I had originally thought that it may end up being a solo theatre piece for me. I was really interested in the idea of religious oppression and how as a gay man in Halifax with the freedom to live as I do, how to deal with this issue from afar. As I talked to Katie, I realized that we were in the same world with our ideas and that we had similar questions and curiosities and that was really exciting.
KS: We were more interested in exploring our reactions to the religious doctrine, and we were really wary about making judgements about people and their beliefs because once you decide that something is absolutely wrong, the discussion is over. How can you make a play about that? We were also really aware about our own ethnocentricism, I don’t know if that’s a real word… but you know what I mean. We were really interested in really mining our own reactions to what we ourselves would experience, especially within our own society.
SL: So, we really didn’t know where to start with all of this so we went and we interviewed a Priest and a Rabbi and an Imam and we asked them, “What is your experience as a religious person well within your faith?” And that allowed us to put ourselves more in world of these religions.
KS: Basically we were seeking a general knowledge of the three major religions in the world, to help get a better understanding of how these three people interacted with their beliefs and then how these religions were then portrayed in the media on a global scale and how they each have become demonized because of certain actions.
SL: Now the show is very different, our ideas all stemmed from these concepts, but the play isn’t actually about the Iranian boys and the influence of the interviews is no longer the core of the story Katie and I are telling.
KS: We started developing our story out of physical Improv with Ann-Marie and we were seeking what it was about these issues that interested us the most. All the interviews and the research we had done were just our raw materials. So, we started out with Ann-Marie and we developed both physical images and text. We used this to hone in on what we wanted to get at, and most of what we were doing was all physical theatre work. We were on our feet in a studio for seven weeks playing together and seeing what came from that.
SL: We had our title from the beginning. A Rescue Demonstration. And out of this seven weeks came two characters who were linked together and the idea of saving people and saving ourselves. So, then we came back together for three weeks and we started to actually write.
KS: Out of the Improv came a series of scenes and a lot of great images, but it still didn’t have a real narrative.
SL: And we have been working with Ann-Marie helping us to give shape to the story and to flesh out these characters and now we have this play and it is–
AC: Awesome.
SL: Yes! It is awesome! So, now in the play A Rescue Demonstration we have Edward and Mary and they meet at the scene of a tragedy. They are both rescuers by profession, he is a first responder and she is a nurse, so they are the archetypal heroic figures and they meet at the perfect time for both of them.
KS: We find out that they are both on the cusp of a personal crisis and they are battling with exhaustion and disillusionment and they are constantly trying to save each other.
SL: It is an unconventional love story.
KS: Yes, because it becomes clear that the other person is the only person who can save the other and there is sort of a magical aspect around how they meet. It is an unconventional love story, as Stewart says.
SL: They are perfect for each other, but not in the way that you would expect, because he is gay… and she’s a woman.
KS: Yes. So, ultimately, hopefully, the audience is left with the question, can we save ourselves and what is that impulse that we have to save others? We’ve been talking a lot recently about a string of Natural Disasters, and people rushing over to help people as Aid Workers, so this is an everyday global issue. What is that impulse? Why do we do it… and why don’t we?
SL: Should I, Stewart, get on the plane to Poland, or wherever, and help a disaster relief? What is that human desire to save someone else and ultimately are we looking to save ourselves?
KS: The leaders of Spirituality talk about pure goodness and helpfulness, how does that become so complicated and corrupted? We are examining both the physical, literal saving of someone and also the spiritual saving. There is a duality at work in this play.
AC: How has the creative process been for you here in Halifax so far?
SL: The mandate for the Plutonium Playhouse is to give a home for a Nova Scotian play’s first production. So, that’s really perfect for what we are doing here and really exciting and great for this city where so many people are developing their own work and so many artists that want to create theatre either as part of a company like Zuppa, or independently. It is a thrill to see where and how this play will grow. We want to take it across the country. I feel like we really have something that we want to share.
KS: Everyone here has been incredibly supportive.
SL: Everyone has been helping us along. We just have to mention- we don’t even have to ask- we just mention “oh, we’re going to have to eventually do this or that” and people will offer to go and do it for us. Leesa Hamilton, an amazing costume designer who worked with me on (Zuppa Theatre’s Production of) Poor Boy, went to Toronto on vacation and came back with her friend Morgan Phillips’ paramedic costume for me to wear. She just brought it back with her without being asked to. I feel like this community is like a whole family excited and waiting for the birth of a new baby. And Thom Fitzgerald and Lee-Anne Poole and everyone here at the Plutonium Playhouse have helped so much by giving our show a home… a nursery.
KS: A crib!
SL: Yeah! You want to be able to live where you want doing exactly what you want to do, and I feel lucky to be able to do that.
A Rescue Demonstration runs at the Plutonium Playhouse on 2315 Hunter Street in Halifax, May 20th-June 5th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.423-4653. Book early, as this show will likely sell-out quickly.  

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