My Theatre

18 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Alec Toller

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Writer/director Alec Toller is directly or indirectly responsible for more MyTheatre Award nominations this year than any other single artist. He’s nominated for Outstanding Direction for Sex T-Rex’s hit Fringe show Wasteland and for Outstanding New Work for Slip, which he co-created and directed with his company Circlesnake Productions. Slip is also nominated for Outstanding Production and Outstanding Actress (Alex Paxton-Beesley) while Alec’s other 2016 project The Queen’s Conjuror scored an Outstanding Ensemble nod.

Catch us up on what you’ve been doing since we spoke to you for the 2014 Nominee Interview Series.
I did a bunch of Sex T-Rex stuff. We did Swordplay, which was a lot of fun, then we did a couple remounts and Wasteland so I’ve done a bunch of stuff with them. I did Slip. Then The Queen’s Conjuror, which is about wizards, because I’m an adult.

The biggest switch personally was I was working as an assistant editor in the Director’s Guild and I’m moving away from that. I’m in grad school now, for Psychology, to be a therapist, so that I can pay my theatre bills. 

When developing Slip, you started with the space. Why the Box?
[laughs] Availability? Is that fair? And it was affordable. We kind of decided to do it, not super last minute, but a little last minute. It was, I think August or something, and I was like “I need to do a play again”. Working with Sex T-Rex is different because I’m not writing it and they’re very different shows. The last [Circlesnake production] was Dark Matter in 2014 and I kind of went, “I need to do things.” So, we booked it and were like, “let’s just make a play happen in it, and do something”. So that was kind of cool. There was actually an issue with the booking stuff, so we had to move it to January. We were actually going to do it in November, but that worked beautifully because then we had four months to do it, rather than like two.

Slip was a collaborative creation – how did you pick the collaborators in question, and what did each of them bring to the table?
Oh man. So much. Actually, to be honest, that’s one of the hardest things when I’m starting a new show, figuring out casting. Of course that’s always a challenge for any director. I try to keep a mix of, generally, half people I’ve worked with and half people I haven’t worked with, so that I’m getting new voices.

Alex Paxton-Beesley & Daniel Pagett in Slip

Danny Pagett and I wanted to do a show together because we just hadn’t core-collaborated on a show for a while. We are two very silly boys and are always riffing with each other. We have a really good rapport. He, aside from being delightful and silly, which is useful, has really good improvising abilities and a really good mind for story. And he’s a really good actor. That’s helpful. That’s the thing that I find tricky- I’m trying to find someone who, bottom line, has to be a really good actor. That’s the start. And then, ideally from there, they also have, hopefully, some improv experience, hopefully can write, hopefully aren’t a jackass… so it narrows the field a little bit.

APB [Alex Paxton-Beesley]- I saw her in Festen, which was a play with The Company Theatre, I dunno like six years ago? Seven years ago? [Real answer: nine years ago]. I freakin’ loved that play. It was so damn good; a very powerful, haunting show. Very painful. I remember there were only two people on the streetcar, and hearing them talk about the play, I was like “I need to talk to someone about what I just saw”. It was so powerful, I went home and told my girlfriend “you have to see it – it closes tomorrow, you have to go see it.” She was like “I can’t afford it” and I was like, “here’s 20 bucks, go, just go see it.” Anyway, I saw [Alex] in that, and she was just phenomenal, so I had wanted to work with her for a while, and I think I just called her out of the blue, and said, “Do you want to do a play?” And she was like, “Sure!” She’s phenomenal. And her and Danny- we build the shows with the actors that we have- their rapport in person is very similar to the rapport onstage. We’re still doing fiction, so we’ll play with stuff- we don’t just want it to be, you know, your friends onstage- but, at the same time, you want to use their essence and who they are. They have a really fun, absurd rapport with each other. It’s like brother/sister – constant teasing. So many times, I would write a note and be about to give it to her, and she would be like, “I should have done it this way”. So, yeah, very easy to work with and just brings a lot.

Mikaela Dyke & Paloma Nuñez in Slip

Paloma [Nuñez] was my teacher at Second City so I knew her that way and I felt so intimidated to bring her on, because I was like “it’s my teacher!” Which is funny, because I think she was really nervous coming on; I don’t know if she had done straight theatre in a while; she does film and TV, and improv of course, but she was great. Just so easy to work with. She played the victim’s girlfriend as well as the detectives’ sergeant- sort of side roles that she just brought so much to, such a rich world. I don’t want to sell them short but the same for Anders [Yates] as well. There’s a point in the process where I felt bad that we had built all these characters, all this backstory work, and I was like “okay now there’s a two minute scene with this character”. Obviously you want to go for brevity and be concise, but there was a little bit of  “I’m sorry you built so much and we see it so little!”

Then Mikaela [Dyke] I’ve worked with on most of my shows, except for Queen’s Conjurer. She was in Special Constables, Dark Matter, and now Slip. She has a Masters in Dramaturgy, and it shows; really, really keen eye. She did a lot of writing for Constables and for Dark Matter. I find her very honest in her performance. She’s one of those actors who will start really small and in rehearsal, I’m like “Is she doing anything?”. Then I’ll wait and at another rehearsal, I’m like, “Oh yeah, there it is. Cool!” So it’s really really small, really honest, kinda grows from there. And I really like that. 

All of them – it’s kind of hard, to think “what do they all individually bring?” because, truly, I think that was the most collaborative show that we built. That’s a forty minute answer to your question. 

Tell us about your collaborative process. 
It started with “here’s our space. It starts with a dead body. We think there’s some memory issues. It’s kind of about identity and loss of that, and… stuff. What do we do now?” So we just chatted. And then it became what’s called a living room set, which is where you’re talking and then you’re like “okay let’s do it”, and it becomes a scene. So we did that style. And lots of journaling stuff, in character, just to build the world. In Slip, you come in, there’s a dead body, the play starts and there’s detectives trying to figure out what happened. We did most brainstorming on “what was this victim’s life?” and built that whole world. So we have a really elaborate backstory for everything that happened. Because we could only show tiny snippets of it that, when shown out of context, will tell a different story. That was, really, like “oh shit, why did I make this so complicated?!”

Did you draw on any specific references when working in such an established genre as mystery cop-drama?
Absolutely. We joked that it was Memento on stage but in reality we were channeling mostly The Killing. I watched it specifically for the play because, in that show, the first few seasons are all one case. I was really interested in that because we have a seventy-ish minute play and we had to figure out how to draw out the investigation process. In most procedurals, it’s a 45 minute episode; they go from crime to conviction so quickly. So we were just trying to find out that kind of stuff. There’s a leading red-headed female cop, with some personal issues – so there’s that crossover [with The Killing]. And obviously The Wire is the greatest thing of all time. Not that I think Slip is very Wire-ish, but it’s certainly what I’m thinking of when I’m thinking of anything in crime or police genre. 

Slip appears to be following one story about detectives investigating a death but then along the way you discover this second story that’s also happening and switch tracks a little bit. At what point in the process did you discover that?
Day one, actually. We were really specific on using the procedural genre to explore something other than what you usually explore in that genre. I mean, there’s often “cops with issues!” but this was more “issues that are had by cops”? [laughs] That’s going to be the new tagline- “issues that are had by cops”. But that was day one. The first kernel of that idea was about how intertwined memory and identity are. If you are the sum of all your experiences and you’re starting to not be sure about some of those things, then who are you? That was like the first thing.

And that was combined with The Box. It’s a great space, I was so happy to do my show there, but when I first went there for another show, I thought I was in the wrong space. It didn’t have lights at this point, and I genuinely walked in and was like, “oh, I’m going to get mugged. This is a muggy kind of place.” So we started with the dead body, and we started with the memory issues. And then we were like, “well, how could these intertwine?”. [Then we had] that idea of setting up the procedural genre and using the fact that everyone knows how it goes to surprise the audience and tell a different story.

Did you have a favorite moment in the production?
Yes, absolutely. It’s Alex’s last monologue, when she’s grappling with what’s going on and kind of still shifting realities a little bit. She’s such a fucking phenomenal performer that I genuinely cried every time. 

Tell us about the  upcoming remount.
I badgered [Tarragon Artistic Director] Richard Rose into coming, because he apparently used to live in the [Box] building. I guess, hiding dead bodies? [laughs]. I think that’s actually what got him to come. Actually, it was also your good review, which I sent him. I asked him afterwards, “why did you see my play?” and he was like, “well, I used to live there, and I saw that good review “- so thank you.

So we’re doing a remount at the Tarragon in their workspace upstairs, which is delightful. And, to be honest, there’s going to be some difficulties. We have some ideas, but there’s going to be some difficulties with transplanting this play because we built it for a space, and I feel like the creepy element of that location really helps. 

I always say The Box is the most indie space in the city, and the way you can tell is there’s a sign in the bathroom that says “Please don’t steal the toilet paper”. 
Oh we stole a lot, yeah [laughs]. Still have some. It’s good TP. 

So when’s the remount?
March 23rd is when it opens– ’til April 2nd. So a two week run. It’s cool. I haven’t done a remount of my own; I’ve done remounts with Sex T-Rex shows but I haven’t done a remount of my own shows. We are making some tweaks- mostly we want to explore a bit more of the backstory stuff that we had inq there, because I feel like there was a rich world that we didn’t fully get to tap into as much as I would have liked. 

You also co-wrote and directed The Queen’s Conjurer this year. Tell us about the genesis of that show.
I was on a date, and I used the word “thaumaturgy”. She was like, “what does that mean?” and I was like, “I think it means magic, or like miracle-working, or something like that”. So I looked it up on Wikipedia and I was like “yeah, yeah, magic, it’s an old-timey word for magic, basically”. In that entry, was this guy; it said “thaumaturgy, like John Dee”. So I read it out loud to her, because it was blowing my mind. This Wikipedia entry on this guy John Dee was so fascinating. He is the prototype of wizards- Gandalf and Dumbledore, those are all based on him- Prospero as well- a bearded guy with a stick running around in robes. Those robes were what academic people wore, and the cross-staffs were these weird stick-y things with a cross on it to measure where the stars were. They’d be running around at night doing that, so everyone thought they were wizards doing spooky things. So that was how it started, I just truly fell in love with this figure.

Quick summary: he was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, a scientist and magician-y kind of guy at a time when those were hard to tell apart. So it started with that, and then I read some biographies on him. His life was so full and so rich, because he lived to 80 at a time when people died at 35, which furthered accusations of necromancy, which was a real crime, at the time, to consort with the dead. It’s just amazing- Dungeons and Dragons existed! It was 1500s England and he did all kinds of weird, wacky things- he tried to use the stars to find buried treasure because he was always broke; he did a bit of psychotherapy for some people, and some forensic consulting kinda stuff. He funded expeditions, including the Frobisher one that did not go well, the whole Fool’s Gold expedition in the North. I think if the Francis Drake one went well, he was going to own all of the land north of the 50th parallel in North America. So he was basically going to be the Emperor of Canada! A totally rich life. That was really hard, with the show, figuring out “what do we put in, what is the story we’re trying to tell”, which I think is always difficult with a biography-based show.

How did you decide on what to put in?
There was a key relationship in it, which was with his scryer- someone who can look at a crystal and consort with spirits. This scryer was also a really interesting, tempestuous sort of guy. That was a core relationship that we found fascinating. The historical fact that blew our minds was this scryer said that the angels said that they should swap wives, and they did, and then they shortly thereafter sort of fell apart, this little group. This little group being John Dee and his wife Jane, and Edward Kelley and his wife Joanna. They lived together for like 10 years and traveled all around Europe, but we sort of squished that in. We thought, “if it’s this weird sex-ritual thing that would break them, what would the story be?”

My girlfriend is doing a PhD in Psych, and I was talking to her about it, and we noticed that a lot of patterns with Edward Kelley were sort of similar to someone who would have borderline personality disorder, which is often marked to an external observer by someone having trouble with intimacy, really tempestuous relationships and emotional reactivity. He was very hard to explain by clear motivations – he would just sort of disappear for a week and not tell them why, and tell John Dee that he fucking hated him, and wanted them dead, and the next day be like, “I love you, come back”; just all over the place. So that was the clearest map.

Then combining with stuff that I was interested in personally exploring, because I always want to have stuff that I’m trying to figure out when I’m writing. So, to me, it was about vulnerability, and having people be close to you and what that feels like and how challenging and how scary that is. That was something I was sort of figuring out myself. And that seemed to be the right fit for me. Looking back, I’m definitely going to rewrite it and change it and do all kinds of different stuff, but I think that’s still the core thing that [the play]’s about, which makes me super excited – to have a play about wizards that’s really about, “we should all have more feelings.” [laughs] I feel like that sums me up. Wizards, but we should have more feelings. 

The Queen’s Conjurer is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble. How did that cast come together? 
Josh [Browne] is now my Artistic Producer for Circlesnake so I got him on board. He was like, “Wizards, sweet!”. He was going to be Edward Kelley from the beginning. Then, honestly, it’s kind of the same story, where I’d seen some of these people act before and they were all really good at acting, and then I said “do you want to act in my play and be good at acting in it?” and they said “Yes”. I’ve worked with Tim [Walker] before, and he’s obviously phenomenal. Sochi Fried I actually went to high school with, although she’s a few years above me. I did a Director’s Lab thing, that was held at the Tarragon, and she was brought in as an actor that some of the directors worked with. I had seen her perform before and knew she was good, then saw this whole workshop and knew she was good to work with. And she was really helpful, [she asked] really good dramaturgical questions while writing it. Khadijah [Roberts-Abdullah] I had seen kick ass in a number of shows and I knew I wanted to work with her. We had her on as Queen Elizabeth relatively early on. John Fray I didn’t actually know super well, but I feel like I had seen him before in something that I genuinely don’t remember. Josh vouched for him very very seriously, and I knew him a bit, so I just took the chance and he turned out really well. 

Your individual nomination this year is for directing Sex T-Rex’s Wasteland at Toronto Fringe. How’d you get involved with that company?
My brother used to be a part of it. They’ve been around for like 10 years, and the first five of those years, roughly, they pretty much exclusively did improv, so I had seen them do sets when I was in film school. And then he left, and they did a workshop of Callaghan in 2010, or something like that, and I was brought in to help them just get it on stage. They did a lot of different development points for that, so I was kind of in and out. They brought me in partly because I knew them a bit, and I had some comedy background, I had theatre experience, and I was in film school- comedy, theatre, film trifecta- that was sort of the right fit. We all have a very similar sense of humour; we’re just trying to do Clone High again and again [laughs]. I guess that’s how I got involved. For Wildcat, they offered for me to come on more full time, and I’ve done that since.

Wasteland

Sex T-Rex shows are known for their cinematic effects and physical innovation. Walk us through the development of one of those blockbuster moments.
Seann [Murray] does most of the writing, like sit-down-writing writing, even though we’re all throwing way too many ideas at the poor man. He had written this really good monologue by the announcer describing what was going on. I can’t remember what his original idea was, but we were going to show it in shadow puppets or something like that. And the shadow puppets were really hard to work with, so we ended up reducing the number of those, and trying to find other fun things to do. This is kind of always what happens- we find a thing, and we just do that thing too many times. So, in this case, it was tubes. We originally were going to be using found objects like scrap but, at one point, Kaitlin [Morrow] was like “can we just play with the tubes?” and I was like “Yes. Yes, play with the tubes,” [laughs] “become one with the tubes”. So we were at Bad Dog [Theatre] and we just goofed around for a few hours, with tubes. We were like “What can the tubes be? What else can the tubes be?” And then I go “Okay, how do we make a car with tubes?”. And that’s how we built the whole thing. It’s usually starting with one little nugget then, in some sense, beating it to death and, in another sense, just constantly trying to find different things to do with it. That’s one of the things I find really fun in those shows, that we very often will set up a convention and then we have to break it at some point. Even though we’re totally committed to those physical bits, there’s still a part of the performance that’s kind of making fun of the fact that what we’re doing is very clearly us with tubes. Like, at the end of Wasteland *spoiler alert*, when you realize there’s a big twist, you realize that car-flipping moment makes absolutely no possible sense whatsoever, because two characters are actually one character, it’s just nonsense. So that, to me, is the real fun in those big cinematic moments- working it up slowly with one little nugget, and then later being able to completely un-write it. I love sending up conventions and writing the joke that un-writes itself. That’s the most fun.

What are the things you bring to those stage productions specifically from your film background?
I remember on Wildcat- they might correct me, I can’t remember if this was my idea or not- the idea of the zoom-ins, when their hands kind of a snap to their eyes. When we read it, we were trying to think “what’s the visual language in the film version of what we’d do, and then how do we make that go on a stage?” So, in that case, Westerns is lots of intense close-ups, really eye-driven, often really long beats of tension before sudden bursts of action. So that was something that we were trying to translate. I feel like all the members of Sex T-Rex are very good at that kind of thing. Seann, especially, knows his references, to an insane degree. To the point where we’ll be deep into some of our shows and he’ll explain some joke to me later, and I’ll be like “Oh, I had zero idea that that was a reference to that”. That’s the stuff I’m trying to look for. The main thing, and this is something Kaitlin does really well, is finding clarity. That’s the core thing- Is it clear? If it’s not clear, it’s not going to be very funny. If it’s clear, you can keep building on it.

What’s your favorite show you’ve ever done with Sex T-Rex?
I think I’m fondest of SwordPlay, because I’m a big fantasy nerd and I find the moment when the dragon shows up… the whole play we joke that “dragons don’t exist, dragons don’t exist” so, of course, the dragon has to show up, that’s the rule. Maybe it’s just the 10-year-old boy in me, but that combo of “this is hilarious” and “the spectacle is actually good”, those are the things that I’m proudest of.

What’s the cinematic genre you’d like to see the company tackle that they haven’t done yet?
We’re potentially doing some crime stuff soon, maybe some sports thing. I would be curious to see a less cinematic, less action-oriented one. I’m kind of curious what you would do with a rom com; how would you make that an action movie? I’m just not sure how that would work. That’s interesting because I’m like “that sounds hard”. 

Do you have any film projects in the back of your head that you want to get going?
Yes, I’m eyeing film again. I directed a feature that we shot in England about two years ago- that we just actually-for-realzies finished like two days ago- which is about competing boy scouts and girl scouts. It’s kind of Moonrise Kingdom-y, also very very silly.

But the thing that has been in the back of my mind for a while, that I do not have the rights to at all, is Ursula Le Guin. She’s a fantasy/sci-fi writer. She’s like 80 now; she’s been this kick-ass witchy woman forever. She wrote this series called A Wizard of Earth Sea, they’re young adult books but she’s a really good writer, which is very nice in the genre world of fantasy and sci-fi, and they are really cool stories. She builds really complex and interesting worlds; she’s not writing for “Oh my God, dragons are cool”, she’s very much looking at emotional realities. The first book in that series is basically “you have to confront the dark parts of yourself to move on from things”. It’s quite powerful. Their magic system is based on language so it’s a hard format for a film but it’s perfect for a book because the language itself is magical, which gives it a kind of meta quality that’s really good. I would love to adapt those. They have been adapted before and failed horribly but I feel like they could be done really well. She’s white but many of her characters she writes as black or dark-skinned and, whenever they adapt it, they make everybody white, which always bugged me; I would want to remedy that.

Then, otherwise, I would want to do my own fantasy movie. I would be so happy. I’m kind of brainstorming something for that, but I’d have to have a budget, which, like, “Ha ha ha”, but that would be very exciting.

Anyone who follows you on social media knows you’ve been reading all of the Harry Potter books and experiencing it for the first time. How’s that going? Where are you at this point?
I’m on Book Four. I mean, obviously I love it, what do you expect? I’m a freakin’ nerd, so… [laughs] It’s so fun. It’s such a fun little world. I had seen the first movie, so I knew the first book a little bit when I read it. The second book everyone said was garbage- not garbage but not the best one- but I actually really enjoyed it. I mean, once it gets going. Because it’s about 250 pages, and it starts to get interesting about 150 pages in, because that’s when the plot starts. I feel like the start of every book is 50 pages of recap, and 50 pages of just straight-up child abuse from the Dursleys. But yeah, it’s delightful. I get it now, I see why everyone was so excited about it.

*Ed. Note: this interview was recorded awhile back and Alec has since made it to Deathly Hallows. It seems to be going as well as can be expected in book 7:

What are you doing now/next?
There’s Slip [opening March 23 in the Tarragon Workspace]. Then I’ll be working with another company, Amy Kitz’s company Greenline, to be doing a Special Constables remount for the Fringe- it’s a very Sex T-Rex-esque show. That one’s very very silly, it’s all about TTC cops and we pretend that they’re, like, homicide police and they’re trying to crack the Metropass counterfeiting ring. That’s a very fun show; I think it would be an amazing animated series. Now that I’ve said that publicly, I hope that I do that.

And then there’s another show I’m looking to write with Josh and a few other people. I’m trying to slow down my process a little bit. I feel like I create things too quickly and I don’t have time to go back and correct things and improve it. We’re applying for grants to buy ourselves the time to write a show called Descent. It’s basically a Lovecraftian supernatural horror cult thingy. Because that’s another genre that I don’t think is onstage very much. I’m always trying to find new genres that aren’t onstage and I’m also trying to find ways to use those genres to tell different stories than the genre usually does. So this one’s sort of about family. .

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m doing my Masters in Psych, and I can already feel it’s making me a better director in my process. The way that a cognitive behavioural therapist will work with a client is really similar to the way a director can work with an actor. Not that you’re solving their emotional stuff but that you’re trying to elicit emotional change in somebody else without telling them what to do by helping them figure it out for themselves. It’s this cool mix of compassion and methodology or empiricism that’s really beautiful. I just feel like it’s helping me be more comfortable in the role of director, which is oftentimes really invisible and hands off- kind of like what a wizard does, not directly engage in stuff but sort of manipulate forces indirectly. Then also, of course, just being more comfortable in my own emotions I think makes me a more capable director. So that’s really cool. I’m really excited to see, once I’m practicing as a therapist, what that crossover will continue to be like.

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