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Theatre Professor Returns to the Stage for First Performance in Decades, Readies New Show


In conversation with Professor Judith Thompson

On a recent weekday afternoon I dropped by the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, home of the Soulpepper Theatre Company, in Toronto’s gorgeous Distillery District for a chat with Judith Thompson. Thompson is a professor in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies and an internationally renowned playwright, author of such contemporary Canadian classics as The Crackwalker, White Biting Dog, and Lion in the Streets. She had just finished the Toronto run of her latest play, Watching Glory Die, which she wrote in response to the tragedy of nineteen-year-old Ashley Smith, who died in solitary confinement after strangling herself as guards, instructed not to intervene, looked on. In addition to writing the play, Thompson also starred as all three characters in her first performance in thirty-five years. With Watching Glory Die behind her for the time being, Thompson was focused on Borne, a collective creation featuring nine performers who use wheelchairs which opened July 1 at the YCPA. Borne is a sequel of sorts to Rare, last year’s Fringe Festival smash for which Thompson shaped the testimony of nine performers with Down Syndrome into an electrifying piece of theatre and a powerful piece of activism. During a break from rehearsal, I spoke to Thompson about her return to the stage, her new show, and her upcoming work at the University of Guelph.

Will Wellington: Watching Glory Die, your first acting experience…
Judith Thomson: In thirty-five years, yes. I mean, I trained as an actress and everything and acted from like eleven to twenty-eight, all the time. And then I just wanted to go the writing route, I didn’t want to play the game and be in plays that I didn’t respect. You know, I think I ended my career—I was out a school a year or half a year and I was on the stage at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in an Alan Ayckbourn Christmas comedy and I walked offstage and said to someone, “I’m never doing this again. I can’t do this.” And that’s when my first play was beginning to snowball, and I did a lot of screenwriting and film writing for about ten years. I always had about eight projects on the go and then I had the opportunity to choose and I chose teaching because that way I can share what I do and you don’t have to compromise in the horrible way you do as a screenwriter. The compromises begin to erode your voice in a fairly serious way and you just see the dollar signs—“I’ve got to support my family”—but then it’s not worth the damage it does.

WW: You’ve been out of acting for a while, but you teach acting at the University.
JT: And it’s funny, when you teach it, it’s like you’re doing it, because you’re right inside the moment with them. Teaching Shakespeare, you’re not giving them line readings, but you’re inside the process. And I also have done a lot of readings where I throw myself into it and actors will tease me, “Hey, you can give everything. You can lie collapsed on the floor and lose your voice, because you don’t have to repeat it every damn night,” right? So I’ve always thrown myself into those. You never leave it. The only difference is the memorizing. That was very easy for me when I was young and I’d just roll my eyes when people ask the typical Q&A question, “How do you memorize all those lines?” because it just did itself in rehearsal and this time, (a), I had other things in my life, many, but also I was doing so much dramaturgy in the first part that speeches in Watching Glory Die that had been of a piece then this part would be taken and put into that part so the thoughts didn’t flow in the same way. So I had to actually memorize a lot by rote until I could then enter the thinking, my own thinking.

WW: And playing three characters—did that add to the difficulty of memorizing the lines at all?
JT: No, not at all. In fact, it was easy. I felt I knew the characters and that’s always, always sort of my specialty, in a way. I started with masks, doing character, away from myself. That was fine. What made that difficult were the transitions. [Director] Ken [Gass] would sometimes say, “Oh, you’re difficult,” because I push back a lot, because I’m used to directing, right? And I say, “Oh, that’s not what she’s thinking.” And he’d say, “Oh, I love you, but you’re difficult.” And I’d say, “You think I’m difficult now? If I was sitting out there with you as a playwright, you’d hate my guts,” because I would say, “I did not write in these transitions.” Writing, as you know, is very musical, writing for the stage. Very much about rhythm. That’s why we’re not writing novels—you know, the human voice. So, initially, because of the set—which was brilliant, wonderful set—there’s the cell, there’s the mother’s space, there’s the guard who goes around the ring, and I have to change my hair and get the shoes off. Especially what was clunky in the first run in Vancouver is that, I’d be there in the cell, I’d have to run around back, which initially took me seven seconds of time. And I was being a little slower on purpose to make a point. I’m fifty-nine—I shouldn’t have to jump over projectors. Within the last week it took me three seconds. Anyway, so there’s that and then you know getting on the platform and it was this high, so fifty-nine year old knees getting down and up that thing and getting a jacket on and thinking “hair shoes jacket hair shoes jacket hair” until I could relax enough. And there were all these transitions and so if there were big complaints in Vancouver it was always about the transitions being clunky.

WW: I’d read about the shoes. The shoes had been mentioned a couple times, but that wasn’t to help you at all? Or did it help?
JT: The shoes? No, I didn’t need them, but you know I don’t want “Starring Judith’s Feet.” Which it was anyway. So what was a wonderful luxury of the two weeks here is that Ken got really busy, and I said, ok, why don’t we put these two scenes together and these two scene. So we cut out four transitions. I put on the mother’s sweater only once. I cut out the shoes four times, so I only wore them twice instead of like six or more times. Because people would say “What have they done to you? They’re making you do all these crazy….” And Ken was a good director and a very good dramaturge, and he was trying to serve the technical end, which was very good, extremely effective—the projections were just beautiful—but sometimes I felt like a bit of a prop, like I had to go do all these things for the projections. But in the end it all worked beautifully here. The only reason I talk about that at length is I find it very interesting: as a playwright, I know I would not have allowed [those transitions]. I would have said, “I’m leaving,” but I was so into being an actress that I couldn’t see them.

WW: You said in an interview that you started to write this play, like you start to write a lot of plays, because there was this story that confused you and was very upsetting and disturbing and you were trying to work through it. You’ve come out of it now, and do you feel you’ve made any conclusions or figured it out?
JT: All I do is tunnel in. And it is presumptuous and bold, but I have been able to do it. I have the privilege of being able to tunnel inside the characters, whereas all the news and the documentaries are outside – in and I feel that art can give us inside – out—from my lens, of course. It’s just me channeling, as well as I can, each character. And, in fact, from people who’ve been in corrections work, worked as social workers, and people’s whose children, adult children are in the system, naked in a jail cell…. There is a crown prosecutor in Vancouver who was an actor. His adult son, who’s twenty-six, is naked in a jail cell in segregation in Quebec after robbing nine banks to sustain his heroin habit, which was medicating his bipolar. And the system is horrendous. You are caught like a bug in a spider-web and they were just so grateful that I had done this and that this is showing what it is like from the inside. So, transitions, smansitions. What I care about are the people who came, know the thing, and were just like yes, yes. It’s not just about telling the story, it’s about being inside the story.

WW: Were these responses you got after the fact or was this part of your research?
JT: No, no, after seeing the show. They’d come to the show. You know, a woman who was an addiction counsellor for five hundred inmates. People in the system who know. And people who are both in theatre and in the system, have done both, that was interesting too.

WW: And you met with Ashley Smith’s mother….
JT: No, I talked to her on the phone for a couple of hours, before, of course, during research. And she’s very much, very much in support of the project. And so was the lawyer, Julian Roy, who attained the verdict of homicide, which means neither suicide nor an accident, which is, you know, unprecedented. And he’s fantastic. He said, “I eviscerated them.” He came with his family opening night, absolutely loved it and embraced it. Yeah, she’s actually going to see it when it’s at Mulgrave Road in Nova Scotia. And I don’t know whether they’ll do it with one or three, they’re pondering it.

WW: Where are you in the process now, with Borne?
JT: Well, we’ve had two workshops. Spinal Cord Injury Ontario asked me to do it. And they got a grant, a Trillium grant, for us to pay all the performers and ASMs and such—set designer—which is wonderful. Two workshops: we had one in the fall, one in December. And we’re now heading toward opening July first, here.

WW: I imagine this is very different from the work you did with Rare.
JT: It’s a similar process, except these individuals have a lot more facility with verbal expressions. They’re not hindered by physiological difference and some developmental delay that some of the folks in Rare had. A lot of my two years of work on Rare was clarity, simple, to be understood, with lots of meetings. I did it voluntarily, where we would just meet weekends to get the phrase that was right. It had to come from them. I couldn’t impose it, but it had to be right. I could listen to a hundred before I go, “There we go, that’s it.” So, it’s the same with this. I’ll just say “Tell me about what you did. What are your triumphs, or where do you feel defeat, or what’s your sex life like? If you want to say that, if you don’t that’s cool.” It has to be absolutely their choice. It will have my … you know, I like tough things. I said, “Tell the audience what to do.” And they’ll say, “Well … if they can….” And I’ll say “No. What about boycotting every theatre that isn’t accessible, let’s start with that.” They don’t want to offend people. I said, “No, offend them. Tell them not to go into a shop if it has a step, but they’ve got to tell them why.” For instance, Watching Glory Die was inaccessible. And I said, “You should stair-bomb it,” because I didn’t know that. I assumed there was an elevator and I said to Ken, “There’s an elevator, right?” But no. And I would never have agreed to it. It was already too late. I would never have agreed to it. But now I know to ask earlier on. And what they do is “stair-bomb.” They put yellow tape across and then a sign saying “No, you can’t go across here. Inconvenient right? Think what it’s like for us.”

WW: How does this experience, working with people who use wheelchairs in real life, compare, how is it affected by your experience working on The Thrill, in which you had an able-bodied actor working in a wheelchair?
JT: That was unfortunate. And I actually asked their permission, in a way. The only reason that it was feasible was, (a), the play wouldn’t have been done if there hadn’t been a good part for Lucy Peacock and, (b), she has a sister with cerebral palsy and a brother with Down syndrome. So she took that, you know. But never again. Dan Harvey did a Masters and will be doing a PhD on Disability and entertainment and tv and one of his things is, “I want to kill that wheelchair kid on Glee” [laughter], that that is wrong. It’s like Othello played by a white person. It’s just bullshit. And it should never happen, but, of course, the complexity lies in that they can’t get into theatre schools, because almost all of them are inaccessible. Ryerson’s theatre school is totally inaccessible. At Guelph, [SETS Director] Alan Filewod and I fight for this almost every department meeting and they go, “Oh no. Oh no, that would cost ten million dollars to refit Massey [Hall],” and we go, “Umm, you know, [late SETS technical director] Paul Ord, when he was alive—or whoever—could build a ramp in an afternoon, frankly. And they so, “Oh no, but then you have to….” No, you don’t. If you wanted it, it would be there. They’ve taught me a huge amount. Like never use a disabled washroom. Have you done that? You have. We all have, and we say, “There’s nobody around.” [Cast member] Russell [Winkelaar] says, for you, it’s one in fifty times that a disabled person would come in. For them, it’s one in four. And they can’t hold it. We never think of that. They have no feeling. They’re on a catheter. So they piss their pants because we’re in changing our pantyhose or whatever. And you have permission to yell at people who do now.

WW: Isn’t the ideal maybe that you would not only have actors in wheelchairs playing characters in wheelchairs but also actors in wheelchairs playing character who aren’t in wheelchairs?
JT: Absolutely! Why aren’t they Romeo and Juliet? There are brilliant actors in my company. Not just storytellers and activists. And one young woman who did audition for Ryerson—and I worked with that Ryerson class that she auditioned for last year on my play Lion in the Streets. [She is] absolutely much better than many of them. No question. But stairs. Totally inaccessible. They wouldn’t say that, though. I remember when I said this in Rare when one of the cast members said, “I can’t get into theatre schools,” and he’s a very good actor, Dylan [Harman Livaja]. Some clarity issues, but he’s very good. Someone phoned from one of the schools, and said, “I hope you will not mention our school.” I said, “Well, if he wants to, he will.” Absolutely, why shouldn’t they?

WW: For the future of the R.A.R.E. Theatre Company, I understand that you might be planning another show in this vein, the collective creation model.
JT: We are. It’s a three year sort of contract or agreement [with the Young Centre for the Performing Arts]. What I want to do is kids graduating out of the foster system that have been abandoned by Children’s Aid Society and they’re eighteen, they’re kids, you know.

WW: Do you think there might be further possibilities beyond that, like maybe moving into producing plays written or directed by people with disabilities?
JT: We’d love to do that. Oh, we’d love to do that. Right now, we can only afford this because we get this rehearsal space for free and we get the stage for free and the ushers and the ticket things and all that. And we have no idea where the funding’s going to come for the next one. We are just by hook or by crook. And we all have other jobs, the three of us. It’s me, [Executive Producer Brenda Surminski], and [Assistant Director, Co-Producer, and Stage Manager Nick Hutcheson]. We haven’t even begun to raise money.

WW: The title Borne—where does that come from or what does it refer too?
JT: It comes from me asking them, one day, “What do you feel like today? How would you describe yourself in a little haiku of you?” And someone said, “I’m a moving train,” or I’m this or I’m that. [Cast member] Maayan [Ziv] uses this great wheelchair that elevates and she came right down and said “Borne.” And I thought, ah, that’s pretty cool, because you’re reborn after an accident. At the same time, you have borne inaccessibility and the burdens of being treated like an other. You’re also airborne. So there are three.

WW: I want to ask you now about the upcoming main-stage production.
JT: Elektra in Bosnia. It takes place in the war in the former Yugoslavia.

WW: What inspired that?
JT: Well, I was commissioned by a project called Women and War two years ago by Peggy Shannon who runs Ryerson’s dance and theatre department and she had a huge SSHRC grant. She got me, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Velina Houston from the States and we were all commissioned to write plays about women and war based on Greek classical tragedy. So I took Elektra, but really the whole Oresteia. I wanted to write Elektra from a feminist point of view. I was sick of Clytemnestra being labeled as some sort of cougar who really just wanted to have it off with her boyfriend. No, I’m a mother, I know. It’s about the fact that he sacrificed her daughter, their daughter. And that would never be forgiven. Anyway, I went on that. And Cynthia Ashperger, who was Clytemnestra, who also teaches at Ryerson, amazing actress—anyway, she’s Croatian, so she could translate all this research, including the horrific Youtube comments that are still there, like, “We’re going to kill you all,” “The UN’s not there to protect you now, you scum.” Like, just scary. Anyway, it could be anywhere, but I put it there because it turned out to be interesting. When we did it in Greece, we did it in Hydra, Athens, Delphi—which was amazing, but we had to use the Ryerson dance students, so we had twenty-seven furies. Then I kind of worked it down to three furies.

WW: For this version?
JT: Yeah. Well, no, actually I had anyway, just for myself. It was done again at Ryerson as a sort of workshoppy thing.

WW: So it’s been done twice already?
JT: Four times.

WW: So much of your work nowadays is so contemporary, straight from the headlines. And now you’re working this Greek tragedy. I get the sense though that they flow together really well.
JT: They really do. Nothing’s changed. I don’t like unnamed wars, plays with kind sort of thing. It irritates me. Let’s be specific, because there’s more universality in the specific, I think. And also the Bosnian War is tribe against tribe, brother against brother. Menelaus and Agamemnon were brothers against each other and Cynthia said, oh, it happened all the time. You could be a Serb working with the Yugoslavian army and then his brother could be a Serbian tarantula, one of the SS-type, secret, crazy guys.

While at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, I also spoke to several of the cast members of Borne, who were on their lunch break. First, I spoke with Joshua Dvorkin and Dan Harvey. Dvorkin possesses two undergraduate degrees, one in journalism and one in psychology. After the show, he intends to pursue psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. Dan Harvey is preparing to pursue a PhD in Media Studies in the fall of 2015. His research focuses on the representation of people with disabilities in a variety of media.

WW: How did you get involved with the show?
Joshua Dvorkin: Actually, I got approached by the executive director of Spinal Cord Injury Ontario and he told me that he thought it would be a great idea and that this would be something very suitable for me to take part in.

WW: How have you found the process so far? Do you enjoy it?
JD: I love the process. It’s pretty interesting. It’s almost like self-healing in a way, you know. You get to work through all the stuff you’ve been through and at the same time putting it together for other people to hear. It’s nice.

WW: You’re now working on a script that’s been curated, created by Judith. So what’s the work like now?
JD: So now we’re starting to block the play, just finishing touches on the script. We have lighting coming in now, working on projections and stuff like that. It’s starting to come together more.

WW: What can you tell me about what the show’s going to look like? Is it monologue driven?
JD: It’s monologue driven. There are some scenes in the play that we’ve worked into it, because Judith thought that we were good enough actors to put some scenes in the play, which is nice. It basically showcases everybody’s individual story and then we talk about adversities as a group and kind of want to educate the audience and teach them a few things at the same time, to engage them in the script.

WW: So what are you trying to tell the audience?
JD: What are we trying to tell the audience…. Yeah, Dan, hop in on this one.
Dan Harvey: I don’t know. We go about our everyday lives and we live in a world that is essentially not meant for us. We face stairs that should be ramps and doors that don’t have buttons. This is just the basics, this is the built-in requirement. But I think it’s more than that. We face ignorance everywhere. People assume that just because we use a wheelchair or we have a disability we aren’t capable of being doctors or lawyers or journalists or anything else. The main message here is just breaking down the enormous stereotypes and the general prejudices and overall terrible things that we see every single day, if that makes any sense.

WW: You’re hoping to go into a PhD program.
DH: Yeah. The plan was to do it this September, but I’m going to defer till next September. I did both my BA and my MA at Western, and they’re both in Media Studies. My main background has been in Disability Studies, so I’ve been looking at the representation of people with disabilities in television and film and the use of actors without disabilities to play characters with disabilities.

WW: And you’ve got a bit of a bone to pick with Artie on Glee.
DH: I do. I would love to get into a fight and beat the crap out of Artie on Glee, that would be wonderful.

WW: So he’s not wheelchair-bound.
DH: No, no. He’s a faker. And also, be careful of the word “wheelchair-bound.” That’s a bad word. I’ll beat you up for using that word too. So don’t put that in the article.
JD: I think one other important thing is that we try to leave the audience with the message that it’s not their fault, because they don’t really know where we’re coming from. So we try to let them know that we’re trying to educate them, and they have to act upon that education, but it’s not only for inclusivity of people with disabilities, it’s for inclusivity of everybody. So I think that’s important too.

WW: Are either of you guys actors or do you have any acting experience?
DH: I did a little bit of acting at Western. I did directing and Theatre Western stuff, but it’s really novice stuff. I acted in high school and did improv, but the majority of my life for the past ten or so years has been just academic stuff. So, no.

WW: And here you get to tell your own story.
DH: Yeah, so I think it’s a little bit different because we obviously have a good understanding of our own story and we’ve been telling it and been living it for the past however many years. So that’s the difference, I guess, with this situation.
Finally, I spoke to Nikoletta Erdélyi, another cast member, and assistant director Nick Hutcheson.

WW: How did you get involved in the show?
Nikoletta Erdélyi: I actually write as a hobby. I do some creative writing. And I used to work at a hospital with children, and I was working on some portfolios in the fall because I originally wanted to send them out to, you know, maybe get published or land some opportunities and a coworker actually knew about this project that was happening and she sent some of my work to Judit. And so she called me into the workshop and I met the whole cast, and I really liked the atmosphere and everybody involved. And now I’m here and it’s really exciting.

WW: So you’ve enjoyed the process so far?
NE: Yeah, absolutely. I’m one of the people who doesn’t have a spinal cord injury, so I’m learning so much about just everybody’s experiences. I was born with my condition. And what it is is that the joints in the limbs don’t bend as much as they should. It’s just interesting to compare the experiences of people who acquire an injury and the people who are born with it. It’s similar in a lot of ways, yet it’s also different. Because I mean you have the people who lose everything in one second and have to relearn everything, and then you have those that are born with it. So I think there’s two of us that are born with conditions and it’s just interesting. Because it’s like everything we can do is like a brand new experience, but to everybody who had a spinal cord injury it’s just gaining back something that they’ve lost.

WW: That’s very interesting because I came here today to talk to Judith and, coming up with my questions, I realized that I was writing a lot of questions like, “What is it like to work with people in wheelchairs?” But, of course, every person in a wheelchair would be a totally different person to work with, I imagine. And everybody’s disability would be a totally different disability and would affect them differently.
NE: Absolutely. Yeah, we’re all capable of very different things. There’s this phrase that we were playing with in the earlier workshops: they say “A para is a quad’s best friend.” Yeah, because, generally, they can do a little bit more.
Nick Hutcheson: Well, there was a part where paras were pushing quads or then people in people in power chairs were pulling people….
NE: Quads were pulling paras.
NH: And then we tried some physicality. But there’s such a range. Like, Josh and Dan are both fully … I don’t want to get this wrong … they’re mobility is the same, but Josh can feel temperature below his neck and Dan can’t. Like, there is such a wide range. So both can feel if you step on their toe, but only Josh can feel if it’s hot or not. But the range of ability and sensory impact with everybody is wild.

WW: And you’re all bringing very different things strengths and skills to the production. You’re a writer….
NE: Yes, I do write. I’m also a student. I’m at York University and I study something similar to what Dan studied. It’s communication studies but it’s a lot of media-based stuff. And I’m really interested in alternative media, so this was absolutely wild to me when I got into this and I got to meet everybody. But we have such a wide range of talent and experience. We have, you know, people who are lawyers. We have a photographer. We have so much experience and it’s a lot of fun.
Borne opened July 1 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and runs through July 19.