Before we announce the winners of the 2010 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Elenna Mosoff, a nominee for Best Director in a local or independent production for her work on Equus with Hart House Theatre.

Read on for our full interview.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?

I think probably the first thing I ever saw as a little kid was The Nutcracker. I loved it, I loved the theatricality, but somehow I knew I didn’t want to be a ballerina, which I think is really different than a lot of other girls, I just knew I wasn’t gonna dance. And my parents took me to really big musicals when I was a kid. And I acted, like most people, in musicals, as a kid. I saw The Phantom of the Opera when I was about seven and all I remember is my dad said “the chandelier’s gonna drop on your head” and when it happened I looked at it and said “fake, fake, fake, that wasn’t real”. I always questioned the believability of things, starting then.

What first drew you to the directing?

The first thing I directed was at camp when I was 15. It was a fashion show with like 60 people. I really liked coordinating.  I really liked the negotiating and then of course the artistic stamp you could put on it, that it can be more than what you expect. I went to an arts high school, and I was in the theatre stream. I directed a scene from No Exit

At U of T I was in a production of Bye Bye Birdie with The UC Follies. Every year the administrative body was voted in, so I put my idea to a vote and got voted in and held onto it for a number of years, directing the company. Then I started venturing into professional directing in Toronto then applied for grad school in the US. I just came back.

How do you pick your projects? Do you choose them with a specific vision in mind?

I think it depends on the venue and the company I’m working for. With the UC Follies I picked the projects, usually with the vision in mind to change an expectation of a long-standing project. At school you had to meet specific criteria and you had to think about casting a lot.

Equus was sort of half and half. I’ve always been intrigued by the play. Paul Templin, who’s the old theatre manager at Hart House, asked me what I thought of the play and if I’d be interested in doing it. It was a sort of backup choice for my Masters thesis, so it felt serendipitous. So when he asked, I went back and read it and started dreaming about it and what it could be like.

How did you get your foot in the door with Hart House?

The UC Follies used to rent Hart House theatre as a student company. The first show I directed was the first time in a number of year that the company had actually made money. So the theatre gave us back a cheque. The year after that they put my show as part of their season, as the student company. Then, when I was no longer able to direct the company because I wasn’t a student, they had already hired me to direct for their season. I directed Reefer Madness, before I left for grad school, for them. So I had a long-time relationship with them before Equus.

Who are some of your favourite people to work with? Do you always change it up or generally work with a similar production team?

That’s a hard question because I’ve been moving around a lot. In Toronto, Byron Laviolette is one of my favourite collaborators. He worked with me on Equus. He’s a dramaturgical mind; he challenges and supports the direction I take with the show. I do like working with at least a few actors I’ve worked with before because I feel like they understand the way I work and they become really supportive of the process and act as leaders for those who haven’t worked with me before. I’m really just getting my feet wet in Toronto again with meeting people and finding collaborators.

Sarah who designed Equus for me is a collaborator from school, who I’ve done 4 productions with. She lives in New York, but she’s definitely someone I’ll continue to work with. We have a really good dialogue and we really understand each others’ brains.

Do you try and go to the theatre often? Is it helpful to view the work of other directors? If so, what have been some of your favourite productions.

Definitely. I go to the theatre at least twice a week. This is my work, this is my industry, and I need to know what’s going on in it. So it is helpful to view a lot of other work. Recently being back in Toronto, I’m still contextualizing what’s happening in Toronto in the theatre scene. I was in Europe for 7 months then New York for 8 months so I’m really familiar with what’s happening outside the city. So it is really important. It also gives you an idea of how other people are working- what ideas work and what ideas don’t. And you have the ability to compare your own ideas and approaches with what other peoples’ are. 

Directors- I’ve always loved Daniel Brooks’ work in Toronto, but abroad- Emma Rice, Katie Mitchell, a lot of female directors with wild imaginations, thinking outside the box.

Walk me through the process of starting work on Equusup with?

I guess the first thing about it is that, other than its recent success on Broadway because of Daniel Radcliffe, it’s a very dated play. It is timeless in a lot of ways but there are a lot of things about it that date it. Particularly, the methods being deployed by Dr. Dysart to analyze Alan. 

When I read the script again, what struck me was how dictatorial Peter Shaffer was with how the stage directions were printed and I sort of saw that as a challenge to move away from what was being told to me to do. Oftentimes in a play script you’re getting a document that’s recording what was done in the original production, so it’s not necessarily what the playwright wrote. So I saw that as a challenge to do something a little bit different while still maintaining the integrity of the story. 

When I read a script I track images through the script and something that stuck out to me on my second read, my third read, my fourth read was the images of the chains. I was talking to Sarah, the designer, and she said “what if we do the same stage configuration that’s in the script but we put the benches, four benches, on chains so they’re like swings?” I said “I love it” and went back and thought about staging it and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to stage it with four. So I started doing research imagery and I found this image of an installation at an art gallery somewhere, it was 100 swings hanging in perfect rows. That image really struck a chord with me and I knew I could do something unique with it and that it would serve the story. Also, the one scene I couldn’t get over was the scene with the horseman. It’s written that he comes out on a pole with a horse head on it and I just couldn’t imagine staging an actor galloping on his own feet around the stage, something about that just didn’t feel right to me with a modern audience. So the swings offered a great opportunity for playfulness.

What about casting- were they easy decisions to make or did you struggle filling some roles?

I was very nervous. Casting those 2 leads. There’s a lot of pressure on a play that has a huge following and especially when you’ve had someone like Daniel Radcliffe having just played that role, it was important to me to find someone, for the role of Alan, who was willing to take that journey and jump in whole-heartedly and do anything, because it is a scary part. It was pretty obvious that it was Jesse [Nerenberg]’s part in the auditions. He just came in with a lot of focus and was extremely professional. He gave a lot to everyone he read with, I was relieved when we found him. 

With Peter Higginson for Dysart, the options were limited and the truth that he read with, there was no other option, it had to be him. And he’s worked at Hart House a lot, has a sort of following. And the 2 of them worked really well together. 

There are usually 6 horses. We had a really hard time casting those horses so at a certain point I just said “that’s it, we’re doing 5” and it ended up giving us a really nice level of symmetry, placing Nugget/Horseman [(John Flemming)] upstage centre, which is sort of like an altar space so it felt symbolically right as well, but there’s usually 6. It’s really hard to get people to work that hard for no money, in what they’d perceive as an ensemble role, though I think those guys had a great time.

What’s your rehearsal process like? How long have you been working on this piece?

Pre-production I started in June, myself. I read the play about 40 times, over and over again, making notes on things that stick out to me, tracking a different image or thread each time, doing my own work on characters and dynamics. 

Then auditions. 

Then a first readthrough was in September. We didn’t do a typical readthrough, I didn’t have everyone read their parts. We went around the table and everyone read one line. The goal of that was to accomplish getting through telling the story as a group without the pressure of feeling like you’re performing for all these new people.  

The rehearsal process was about 6 weeks, which is long for a professional production, which might normally be only 2 or 3. We rehearsed 5 nights a week Mon-Thurs and all day on Sundays. Something I learned in grad school was to stage the play by the end of the first week, give it a loose structure, it feels better knowing what the shape of it is, so that’s something I did this time. 

We went on a few field trips to the TO mounted police stables, met with the horses. I went with Alan [(Nerenberg)] and Jill [(Sonia Lindner)] to the porn movie theatre to see what that was like. 

I usually do a lot of emotional group work, but with the age tier of the cast it was a little more difficult this time, not everyone bought into some of the journey stuff I would normally do with the cast. It was only something I was able to do with some of the horses or Alan and Jill. 

And we rehearsed on chairs so once we got the swings it was this huge element to get in. And the horse heads too. They were really complicated and time-consuming to build so we didn’t get them until the first dress rehearsal. We had the swings 10 days before. We just moved into “fix it” mode and added architecture and movement that we didn’t know we needed until we had the swings there.We had swing practice, the same way you’d do fight call. We had to re-do that middle swing about 4 times, figuring out how to make it safe for everyone.

What are you working on now?

My day job is as the associate producer for Acting Up Stage and we have Parade right now at Berkeley St. 

My own sort of artistic creation work is a piece called Zed. It’s not going to start until January 2012, but it’s going to be 6 site-specific, participatory events that happen over the course of a full year, all based around the zombie war and the apocalypse. Were looking at how live action role playing can be linked with actors and site-specific theatricality. With a real-time narrative that are one-offs so it’s not like a theatrical run; if you don’t come that day, you miss it. It’s large, it’s ambitious, which is why it’s so far away.

If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?

Actually, I’ll be really honest and say that my MFA thesis was a disaster. And I think that that was amazing for me as an artist. It’s taken me months to have distance and realize how much I learned from having such a complete failure. I’d only ever experienced success before that. Working on a show that you put so much of yourself into but have failed so drastically on for so many reasons has made me a better artists, a better person. I think I’m a much better director having had such an epic failure. 

As artists you can’t expect everything to be perfect and amazing. There’s such a feat in putting a show up. Just putting a show on is such an epic amount of work, if it’s awesome and received well, good for you, but good for you also just for getting it up . That’s a big part of being professional, just putting yourself out there in the public realm and letting people critique your work. Even if it’s critiqued badly, you’re out there.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that I hope that I see more and more bold work in the city and that my work continues to be part of that space. I just want people to take risks, lots and lots of them.

Equus is also nominated for 2010 My Theatre Awards for Best Actor (Jesse Nerenberg) and Best Production in the local/independent bracket.

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