Daniela Vlaskalic On Secret Salons

daniela vlaskalic
Ever since I first saw her perform in Doubt at Canadian Stage in 2009, Daniela Vlaskalic has become one of my (many) favourite people to see onstage. She also happens to be delightful and smart and a prolific and talented playwright, so it always brightens my day to have the opportunity to chat with her about her work. We met at Te Aro on Thursday to chat about her newest project, Le Salon Secret’s Boston Marriage, directed by Ted Dykstra in which she plays Claire to Rebecca Northan’s Anna and Julie Orton’s Catherine. Here’s what we talked about!
Amanda Campbell (AC): I know that Rebecca has been doing these salons for a little while now, how did you get involved with her Secret Salons?
Daniela Vlaskalic (DV): I’ve known Rebecca for… I don’t know, about twelve years, from the Alberta theatre community because I lived out there for awhile. But, we had never worked together! And that was odd in that we came from a small community where everyone seemed to get to work with everyone. So, we reconnected here and Rebecca did a staged reading of a project that I had been working on with my co-writer, Beth (Graham). Rebecca came to read one of the parts and we reconnected that way. Then, Rebecca mentioned that she had started doing these salons and that she wanted to do them more regularly in this particular space and so we started talking back in October and finally we said, “Well, let’s just do one!” So, we thought that we would plan to have the salon in January because usually things are a little quiet in January, but not this year! This year, apparently, there’s lots going on! I knew of the play (Boston Marriage by David Mamet) and thought that it must have been done here recently, but Rebecca wasn’t familiar with it, and so we read it, and we thought that it would be perfectly suited to this kind of salon because it doesn’t have a complex set and there are three great parts. That’s how it all ended up happening.
AC: Were you looking for an all-female play, or was that just a lucky coincidence?
DV: It was important because we both wanted to be in it, and it is hard to find a play with two strong female roles that hasn’t already been done a lot.
AC: Miss Julie.
DV: Exactly. And we wanted to find a play that had a third character, and I think that if the third one had been a guy’s role, that would have been fine. But, it was hard to find something that had roles that appealed to both of us. So, this was a really lucky find, and we were lucky to be able to get the rights to do it.
AC: What was your relationship to David Mamet before doing this play?
DV: I think we always liked Mamet. It’s funny because this play is sort of Mamet but not Mamet. I think that people often, in general, have a clear expectation about what they are going to see when they think about a David Mamet play, and this, while there are moments that you can definitely tell that it’s a Mamet play, it’s so different from his other plays, as far as I know. I’m not an expert. But, that makes it fun too, to have a well known playwright but to choose one of his plays that is a little more obscure. And then working with Ted (Dykstra), who has done Mamet and has so much insight into his work, he was able to take phrases or elements and say things like, “This is very Mamet” in the particular style or in the language and the way that he twists and turns the story as the characters descend down into the darker realms of their relationships. Mamet tries to heighten the language, but then he adds words like “fuck” and “ain’t” to poke fun at the era that he’s writing about and all the characters’ veneers.
AC: Yes. I found that so interesting too, because I feel like when the characters say “fuck”… I think people at that time would have said “fuck”… playwrights just generally didn’t capture that aspect of society, but “ain’t” is so American, you think, “there’s no way this character would say that!”
DV: We talked about it a lot because reading the script, that is very clear. We played around with different things; we tried breaking out of the accent, so that by the end we didn’t have accents at all. But it’s just written so clearly into the script.
AC: You had a fairly long rehearsal process, I heard, right?
DV: Yes. Well, it was sort of whenever we could make it work. With any Co-Op you just have to find the time. Although, December and January usually aren’t that busy for actors, so we were able to get together and to spend that time doing the work on the show.
AC: I was so struck by the fact that it seemed almost like there were two plays happening at the same time, the one on the surface and a whole different one made up just in the subtext. I thought it was all very clear, but I wondered if it was difficult to find the balance?
DV: It look us a long time to find that balance. We would go until we had taken it too far one way and then it would lose its heart and then we would go too far the other way and we would lose the comedy of it, for a lack of a better word. I think that it will probably take the whole run for us to really find the perfect balance of it. That’s when having an audience becomes so important, so we can find out where the story really lives without going too far in either direction. If you go too far in the style, then there is no pay off, it becomes too dark and it loses its humanity. All the jokes at the expense of the maid, for example, become cruel as opposed to being funny. Ted was really great in helping us with this because we talked about how really this was a marriage, and that ultimately the play was about Anna and Claire’s relationship. How they can be laughing one minute and then screaming at each other the next and how these two women can speak so honestly to one another, it is really a marriage like any marriage at all. These are two people who know each other so well that they can instantly go from hurting each other to forgiving each other and laughing about it. So, it really helped to focus less on the style and to really try to have that relationship.
AC: Yes, I definitely had this moment about midway through the play where it suddenly dawned on me, “Anna and Claire are MARRIED!” I mean, that’s sort of implied in the title, but you really get the sense that, beyond the fact that they’re both women, beyond the fact that it takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, that this is a marriage, familiar to us because it is so like any marriage.
DV: Yes! And that’s one thing about these women is that they wouldn’t have fit in in their time, and so it’s fun to play with that. It’s a strange time for Mamet to have set the play, but also it was a time when women really could see that change was coming. Women were no longer just mothers, wives and mistresses, they can sense that a big change is coming for them. It’s also fun that Mamet has set it up so that you don’t know what the relationship is between these two women right off the top of the play, you have to wait and you keep wondering “what’s the deal with these two?”
AC: I never ask this question because I think it’s mildly insulting, but I’m going to ask you, just because the language is so dense, it’s like Mamet thought of the most grandiloquent word he could find and then looked it up in the thesaurus to find a word that was even more obscure and pretentious, is that difficult to get into your brain?
DV: Yeah, we started early. There is definitely a rhythm to Mamet so we had to become familiar with the musicality of it. It was tricky, it took awhile. It’s really tough, I’m sure we will be doing line runs every chance we can. There is also the danger of going too fast too and having the audience not able to understand what we are saying. There is a lot to consider. Of course, there were also times when we had to sit down and just ask, “what does this section mean?” You realize that Mamet is incredibly smart… just the references that he makes-
AC: Yes! That part with the monkey! I was thinking, “How does he even know this? And how would Claire, even though she gets the definition wrong, how does she even know that the word exists? Especially without Wikipedia.”
DV: Yeah, the play premiered in 1999, so there were computers, but we weren’t relying on them like we are now. I think that if I had done this play in 1999 I would have been spending a lot of time in the library. I’m amazed that it hasn’t been done more. Although, apparently, it has been translated quite a bit, which is interesting. Maybe it’ll make a comeback!
AC: You said that you read the play first… how did you first come across it?
DV: I was involved in a study, a long time ago now, with a student director who was doing his MFA at the U of A, and he chose for a project to do this play, and I helped work with him on that. And then, of course, I forgot all about the play. That was a long time ago, but I always wanted to come back to it someday. It’s amazing when you look at the long list of the plays that David Mamet has written, there are so many. Often people just associate him with a few of the really successful ones-
AC- Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna.
DV: Right. Exactly. But he’s so prolific. I mean, they’re not all going to be brilliant. No writer can write that many plays and have them all be perfect… unless you’re Shakespeare or something.
AC: Or Stewart Lemoine.
DV: Yes. *grins knowingly* Or Stewart Lemoine.
AC: This is Mamet’s only all-female play; did that have any bearing on how you chose to present it?
DV: Like I said, it was really mostly about seeing the play in terms of a relationship and a marriage. But, one thing that is really interesting is the idea of age, the characters’ fears of getting older because for this time period, the women, who are nearing forty, are very old. They are at the end of their lives. So, that’s fun to explore. Although, even some days, when I’m talking to people who are twenty-five or twenty-six years old, I start to feel old too. *grins* And here we have a character who is trying to hang on desperately to her youth, versus one who is going more gracefully. And it’s interesting seeing that dynamic between two women. Claire is, if we’re using gender generalizations, written to be more of the traditional “man” role, in the play, which can manifest itself into all sorts of funny ways when it is played by a woman. Also, these women, who are close to forty, have chosen to live in this sort of “Boston Marriage” which has placed them on the outskirts of society and so they always have to sort of put on a persona because they can’t be who they want to be. And something that I’ve been fascinated with in my own writing is the idea of looking at women and their experiences through time and seeing how things have evolved and how they have changed, in that way, this play fits right into what I’m really interested in. Also, there are so many things, you realize, that aren’t different. I mean, now we don’t consider late thirties or early forties to be that old, except maybe in Hollywood, but getting older and how we deal with aging as women is still an issue, and that’s interesting.
AC: I found that I could see that on the one hand, that Mamet was showing how men and women can be so similar, but also, there’s a line that you have, where you say something that is a stereotype of something that a man “typically” would say, and it just sounded so absurd coming out of your mouth, so I also could see Mamet doing that to be ironic. And, you could make the argument that both of those readings could be either feminist or masochistic…. and I think Mamet is fully aware that both are in there.
DV: He is so brilliant at poking holes at everyone, and all their different veneers. Apparently he also directed the first production, I would have been curious to see that.
AC: How do you feel about the interaction with the audience as part of the salon ambiance?
DV: I really like it! I was a little nervous at first, about talking to the audience before the show, not after, but it’s really a fantastic atmosphere. I didn’t really know a lot of people who were there last night, but it was fun to watch different audience members get to know each other and talk to one another. And Rebecca is doing a great job of setting the tone of a salon. It makes the show even more intimate rather than having the bright lights in your eyes in the big black space where you don’t know who is in the audience. It makes it more of a community. It’s what I imagine the theatre used to be, it’s more of a social event where you get the chance to go see a play and also go hang out. It’s fun to be a part of as many different kinds of theatre experiences as possible. You can’t do theatre without the audience and so I think having this connection with them is really interesting.
AC: It’s interesting that at a time when producers seem to be trying to get the biggest theatres and cramming the most people into auditoriums that they can that someone would decide to do a show that is a bit of a secret and has a capacity of only thirty people.
DV: I don’t think necessarily that bigger is better.
AC: Me neither.
DV: If the huge production value show is what you are looking for, it’s easy to find a theatre where you can go sit in the dark with a group of people you don’t necessarily know, but I think that people do want something different. I think that they want to be able to make a connection somehow and I think that is largely the result of being in a big city. I’ve heard, and Rebecca has been told, that this idea is “very European” or “very New York” and that’s probably true. It’s nice to have a social element to going to the theatre; you can come and hang out, have some wine and talk to the actors and hang out after… I think there is room for both kinds of theatre.
AC: Are there any unique challenges to do theatre in this space?
DV: Well, the lighting… Rebecca has big theatre lights but they were just too much, it was too small a space for them. Obviously we can’t have fade ups, it’s pretty much lights up, lights down. But that’s fine, we don’t need fancy lighting. It was a challenge too to hang the fabric and to find the furniture, but we were lucky that the play just has one set, and there aren’t a lot of props or costumes. I mean, I guess if we had a huge budget we could have gotten more. But, I feel like if you want to see something with all sorts of huge special effects and lots of pizzazz, you can go somewhere else. That’s not really the point of the play, it’s about the story and the play and I feel like all the other little things, you’ll be forgiven for. Like, if someone’s face is in shadow for a moment, just wait, they’ll move eventually.
AC: I sat in a rocking chair! So, I’m pretty sure that salons win.
DV: Yeah! And people can move their seats around. The difficult thing is that finding space is so expensive. Everything else about mounting a show is pretty manageable, but it is finding a space to rehearse and perform in that makes it impossible. It’s not easy to create theatre here. You can’t just be like, “Oh! This theatre has an extra room!” …thousands and thousands of dollars later…
AC: I want to depart from the show for my last question and to ask you if you have any projects that you’ve written currently in the works?
DV: I’m working on a bunch of different things! *laughs* Two with my co-writer (Beth Graham). The first one is called Last Train, which we workshopped here over the summer with director Joey Tremblay. So, we’re basically in the process of trying to find someone, ideally, who would like to co-produce it with us. That play is pretty much ready to go. And then we have a new play in development, which is great. And I have a couple of writing projects of my own. I always have a lot of different things on the go! *laughs* So we’ll see what happens. Also, we’re taking Drowning Girls to Winnipeg, so it’ll be there at the MTC Warehouse in February and March.
Take the plunge, Toronto and Winnipeg! Here are the details:
Boston Marriage plays Thursday January 27th 2011 to Saturday January 29th 2011. Doors at 7:30pm SHARP. For more information- visit this top secret website. I would book early and fast because there are only thirty seats each night and they are going fast.
Drowing Girls plays February 24th until March 12th at the Manitoba Theatre Centre (175 Market Avenue) in Winnipeg. For more information please visit http://www.mtc.mb.ca/

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