Amanda Campbell (AC): Last year when you were the Artistic Director of the Canadian Stage Company, I was really struck by the fact that so many plays in your season were violent in nature, or provocative or political in some way. How important do you think it is for regional theatres, and theatres with subscription audiences, to produce this type of work?
David Storch (DS): I think that theatre with a subscription audience that really relies on them to keep the boat afloat, do face a challenge that certain smaller companies don’t. But, I think that regional theatres- I’ll go with that term- have a responsibility to provide a varied theatrical experience, not just to their subscribers, but also to the people who come to the theatre time and again. And every now and again you find plays on point with the issues of today. I mean, the classics can also be relevant to current issues, but last season, in particular plays like December Man, and Palace of the End, they were really topical plays. And when these sorts of plays are available and you are able to do them, I personally find that the most exciting. It encourages people to talk about their lives, and the lives of these characters, and the world in general after the play is over. And I think, especially in the case of those two plays, that’s exactly what happened. It was difficult to do otherwise.
AC: When I walked out of The Palace of the End last year I remember being so proud. I had never been so proud of a theatre company than I was of Canstage for producing that show.
DS: Thank you. It’s really nice to hear that.
AC: Judith Thompson has written The Palace of the End in a series of three monologues. So the depiction of violence is not seen onstage, but described by the characters. What challenges does that present to the director?
DS: Um, you know there are certain rules of thumb in the theatre, and one of these rules is that what is not seen is usually the most powerful. And that is because the imagination paints a much richer- more beautiful or more disturbing- picture than what we can depict for you. Palace of the End was exclusively spoken word. We had Lynndie England banging some files… and David Kelly, violence had been done to him, but you didn’t see any of it. Early on, we had a design meeting where we had tossed around the idea of having a blood effect where a pool of blood would seep out from around David throughout that scene. But in the end we found that it was distracting, and gratuitous, and that it wasn’t a good idea. *laughs*. The writing is just so beautiful. I was personally haunted by it- during rehearsals and in my own dream world at night. It was always in my brain, and for that reason I found that I could go deeper into the world in a way that I wouldn’t have ordinarily thought I could, and I had thoughts that wouldn’t have come to me in the usual run of a day. There are such haunting images in that play- that child!
AC: Oh, I know.
DS: Let alone what happened to the [Iraqi] woman! And Judith has this beautiful way of capturing the sense of history repeating itself. And the cycle of child abuse. She doesn’t come out and tell you anything implicitly, but there’s that part where Lynndie is speaking about that girl in the clubhouse and Judith gives good indication that her [Lynndie’s] life has had terrible things in it. There’s that quote, and I may misquote it because it’s been a year since we did the production, but there’s that part where Lynndie says, “I’ll tell you I didn’t do nothing to them Iraqis that hadn’t been done to me many times at the clubhouse. And them was my friends!” It’s beautiful writing. And it’s so disturbing for someone to say that. If I heard that quote on the news or in an article or something, I would be so, so, disturbed. But that’s Judith, and what I love so much about her plays, she has gone into the dark and ugly world. It’s like you said before, about being proud, that’s kind of how I feel about Judith for how brave she is. I’m always thinking, “oh my God, Judith, you are so brave”… to cut a trail into the ugly wilderness and to delve so deep into the character psychology. Usually an actor takes a script and has to work his way through that, but with these plays, it’s like Judith offers you the script saying, “if you’re up for it *laughs*, retrace my steps.”
AC: I didn’t get the chance to see Misery, but I heard that there were moments of violence and gore depicted onstage. What practical challenges does that present for you?
DS: The violence in Misery was about as explicit as we could make it. And the challenge was HUGE because of the expectation of the audience who have become accustomed to things like Pulp Fiction where the violence can be graphically realized on film. We faced overwhelming challenges. There was one part where Annie chops off the foot of the writer. And early in the preparation for the show we had long meetings with fight choreographers and the props department wondering how we were going to do that. It’s basically a matter of taste. You couldn’t get two more different productions than Misery and Palace of the End. Misery was like Pulp Fiction. In that show the violence was supposed to be enjoyable. A thrill of “okay, now, how are they going to do this?” *laughs* It was like the Martin McDonagh stuff. Like Lieutenant (of Inishmore) and Beauty Queen (of Leenane). For the foot being cut off, I wanted the blood to spurt out and then for the foot to go into a tin pail. And that was really hard. But when it worked, it was a thing of beauty. We did it eight times a week, and every time the foot hit the bucket.
AC: I know that you love Shakespeare, and it can be argued that Shakespearean audiences were more conditioned to violence than we are, even if we are watching Pulp Fiction, since they were witnessing brutal public executions and things of that sort. Do you keep the audience and their squeamishness in mind when staging a show like King Lear or Titus Andronicus?
DS: Um, yeah. I think it depends on the project and the audience. I suppose… let me see if I agree with the statement I’m about to say… if you knew that your production of King Lear was only going to be seen by young audiences, you might keep that in mind. But the violence inflicted on that old man is something that you want to be as disturbing as possible. He put that in there- Shakespeare put those things in his plays to show how cruel people can be. And as a director, you have to ask yourself, what is going to be most disturbing for my audience? Is it squishing a grape and squirting the blood, or is it having a realistic enactment of a 60-year-old actor grabbing his head and screaming? Personally, I think it’s smart to avoid using stage blood, not just because of the big clean-up factor, but also because it’s more distracting. It’s the idea- the idea of someone gauging out someone’s eyes with a spoon- that is more awful. In Misery you wanted your audience to be really squeamish. It would have been really cool if we could have been in a more intimate space than the Bluma. There was this part when Annie makes Paul drink this… in the script it was called “rinse water”- it was basically the water in her bucket after she had cleaned the floor. And so we made this concoction- which was actually really tasty- but that looked absolutely disgusting. I tasted several glassfuls of it before I gave it to the actor, and it was actually really yummy *laughs*. There were floating particles and it was a little bubbly, it looked like it was this grey, dirty water with hair in it. Actually, the first time I drank it, I was almost gagging even just holding it up to my lips just from the expectation. From that visual, that’s what you want your audience to feel. You want them to feel revulsion and be like, “Ohh! Nooo!!” In that case, it’s my job to upset and offend their sensibilities.
AC: Going back to The Palace of the End for a second, we’ve been having debates in one of my classes about questions of “authenticity” and who has the “authority” to tell whose story, and I was wondering how much research you do before staging a show like The Palace of the End?
DS: Personally, I do a huge amount of research as an actor and as a director, on any project that I’m working on. So, in that case, my answer is fairly predictable. But in the case of The Palace of the End, we all did as much research as we could. We looked at all Judith’s resources. It was a part of feeling that we were capable of telling this story and that we weren’t going to go out there and do a disservice to the victims of this war in particular, or any war in general. We figured out which parts Judith had imagined and what was historically accurate. … Maev (Beaty) looked at all the articles, and everything that had been written on her character that she could find, and also as much as she could find on Abu Ghraib. We researched until we felt that we were doing a good job of speaking on behalf of this event.
AC: Have there been any violent or gruesome theatrical moments that you’ve witnessed as an audience member that have had a profound effect on you?
DS: Yeah, sure. But I think going back to what I said early this afternoon about Palace of the End it is often more disturbing to me when I see the images in my head from having things described. Being a fight choreographer myself, if I see something, I’m more often than not thinking, “Oh! This would be good to use!” Sadly, I think that’s true of all stagecraft for theatre practitioners. Especially if something is really good, you suddenly stop watching as an audience member and you respond to it as a practitioner.
AC: I had never thought about that, but that makes perfect sense. This is a little off topic, but still, basically on topic… I think that good actors and good directors are so smart, and I have so much respect for them and their knowledge about the theatre, and I know you go and teach at National Theatre School and George Brown, but I feel like there is such a disconnect between the practical stream, and the academic stream of theatre. And since you’re coming to the Graduate Centre of Drama’s Festival of Original Theatre tomorrow night as part of our Keynote Panel, which I am *so* excited about, I was wondering if you think that it is beneficial for us to attempt to bridge the gap between the practical and academic theatre worlds?
DS: Yeah absolutely. There is a disconnect, and it’s regrettable because although we’re coming at it from different perspectives, our relationship to the theatre is basically the same. We’re there because we love it. And no one in the academic world writes a paper wanting it to be useless to theatre practitioners or the practical community, and at the same time no one in the practical community is trying to be smart, or dumb, at the expense of the work. So, yes, with a desire to create a larger community, I think it is more beneficial to strive toward a greater connect than a greater disconnect.
AC: Thanks David, so much for your time!
DS: Thank you for your kind words, and I’ll see you tomorrow, no doubt.
AC: Yes, you will!
I hope to see you there too. Friday, January 30th, 2009. 7:30pm. The Robert Gill Theatre. 3rd Floor of the Koffler Building at the University of Toronto. 214 College Street. Free Admission.