Amelia Sargisson is the astounding solo performer behind My Name is Rachel Corrie, Hart House’s affecting true story taken from the diary of an American girl who died trying to change the world.
A 2012 My Theatre Award nominee for Best Actress in a Regional Production, the thoughtful actress took some time to answer our questions about the brave and dangerously political Rachel Corrie.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
The first production I remember seeing is Macbeth at the base of Basler’s ski hill in Morin Heights, Quebec. My parents took me to see the shows of Montreal’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park company, Repercussion Theatre, from before the time I could sit up straight unassisted, and while I only remember certain elements of their Macbeth, like billowing fog and the murder scene thrillingly enacted in shadow behind a screen washed in electric red light, it made a lasting impression. To this day I have my heart set on playing Lady M.
Where did you study/develop as an actress?
I studied at the Ryerson Theatre School, graduating in the same year that the venerable Perry Schneiderman retired as head of the school. But I began acting professionally in Montreal before attending theatre school, and I learned a lot from watching the seasoned actors with whom I had the privilege of working – especially the really strong women like Eleanor Noble, Alexandria Haber, Amanda Kellock, and Emily Shelton.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
That’s a tough call but I’m going to go with Caliban, the half-man, half-monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I was in a bilingual, touring, outdoor production of The Tempest, performing the role of Caliban in French and English on alternate nights, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had on stage. Finding the character’s voice and physicality was so challenging but at the same time a total joyride for my imagination. And then, connecting with my animus – my inner masculine energy – and giving unbridled expression to my wild side was truly freeing. Plus it was very cool that no one – not even my Mum and Da – recognized me in the role! The black wig and grey-and-black-striped body paint concealed any remaining evidence of ‘Amelia’ and I was totally lost to this lonely, wronged, reckless, beautiful, funny island-dwelling creature. My Stefano and Trinculo were two ridiculously talented and generous actors, Danielle Desormeaux and Antoine Yared (who’s at Stratford now), and playing with them under the stars every night was such a blast.
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
As I mentioned, Lady Macbeth. Also, Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s, and – since I’ve had such fun with gender-bending in the past – there are at least two male parts I’d love to play before I shuffle off my mortal coil: Richard III and Prospero. I played Queen Elizabeth in Richard III in my last year of theatre school, and I’d love to have another pass at that formidable part. Also Juliet if someone would give me the chance before I get too old! And Laura in Glass Menagerie and Blanche in Streetcar and Julie in Miss Julie: Freedom Summer.
Which directors and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?
Working with director Alain Goulem and the great actors Chip Chuipka, Leni Parker, and Bruce Dinsmore on the world premiere of Colleen Wagner’s down from heaven was definitely a formative experience for me. Al is probably best known for his work as an actor on such shows as The Tournament and 18 to Life; I grew up watching him on the stages of Montreal and frankly I think he’s a bit of a genius. He entrusted me with a very technically and emotionally demanding role before I’d even graduated from theatre school, and my craft developed light years working with him and such intelligent, detailed, and passionate actors as Chip, Leni, and Bruce. We moved through the script with a fine-toothed comb, and in this way, Al ensured we were all on the same page, telling the same story, every moment of the play. He entertained every idea I put forward and he brought forth those aspects of myself that were like the character and manipulated those aspects of myself that were unlike the character so deftly and so sensitively that in the end I feel we crafted together a very real Laurel. It really set the bar high for me very early in my career as to the level of detail with which you can imbue a character.
Had you ever worked with Hart House before? Tell us about landing the role of Rachel.
I’d never worked for Hart House before. My former acting teacher, Cynthia Ashperger, who’s actually the Head of Acting at Ryerson, was asked by Hart House to recommend some actresses for the role of Rachel, and she put my name forward. She contacted me to tell me that she’d done so, and encouraged me to submit for an audition if I was interested. I submitted and Mumbi [Tindyebwa Otu, the director] and Doug [Floyd], the General Manager of Hart House, brought me in for an audition. I got a call from Doug a week later offering me the part, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Had you heard about Rachel Corrie before working on the play?
Only vaguely, and only within the context of her tragic death.
Did you do much additional research into the real Rachel? How much of what you knew about the real person came into your interpretation of her as a character?
I read Rachel’s diary, Let Me Stand Alone, with an illuminating preface by Rachel’s father, Craig. Most of the material in the play is excerpted from Rachel’s diary, and the only way I was able to unlock the meaning of some of the highly personal and stream-of-consciousness passages in the play was to read them in their original context in the diary. It was an invaluable resource to me in trying to capture the spirit of this incredible person, and I’d like to think that what I learned from reading her ‘journal intime’ informed every choice I made in interpreting her character. My Name Is Rachel Corrie really only introduces us to Rachel the Activist, which is only one dimension of this multi-faceted woman of many eclectic interests. The audience meets Rachel in a very specific circumstance – that is, peacefully protesting the demolition of civilian homes in the Gaza strip – and while this was a very significant part of her life, it was also very short part of her life. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the 20 years of this person’s life previous to the action of the play, to try to get a grasp on what motivated her to do what she did, and to try to embody who she was outside of the very extreme situation which claimed her young life.
What are some of the challenges of carrying a one-person show like that?
Typically, I define my character’s objectives in relation to the other characters with whom my character interacts over the course of the play. So if I’m playing Helena, say, my objective is to make Demetrius love me; I employ all kinds of tactics to that end; and ultimately, I measure my success and efficacy based on his reactions to me. In doing a one-person show, there are no other characters in relation to whom you can define your objective and assess whether or not you are achieving your objective – so the huge question looms: What do I want? What am I after here and how do I go about getting it? I’d never done a one-person show before, so I was learning on the go that in this context, I had to re-articulate my character’s objectives in relation to the audience – what am I trying to get them to do? Or feel? Or say? Or realize? Or understand? And how could I know if I was accomplishing my mission when for weeks and weeks of rehearsal, there was no audience present but for Mumbi and the stage management team? Also, Rachel never set out to write a play, with theatrical conventions like ‘character objectives’ in mind – she just wrote, wrote and wrote and wrote about her fears and dreams and experiences and observations, and then other people turned her writing into a play. So another challenge inherent in this particular one-person show was making it a piece of theatre – i.e. a story with a quest, in which the character has an underlying need which drives the action – rather than a spoken memoir which was reflective but not really dramatic in nature.
Walk us through the process of rehearsing the show.
The rehearsal process was hugely collaborative. Our sound and projections designer David Mesiha was often in the rehearsal room, exploring and experimenting with ideas as Mumbi and I were excavating the text. Our first task was to explore the ‘pre-Palestine’ Rachel, to whom we’re introduced in the first third of the play. In Mumbi’s envisioning, this was a Rachel who’d come back to life to tell her story, and she was recalling what her life had been and reconstructing it from the rubble around her. Then, once we got to the remaining two-thirds of the play set in Palestine, Mumbi had me physically explore each day/journal entry, finding a gesture which best expressed Rachel’s state of being in that moment. Over the course of rehearsals, these extreme physical gestures – like balancing on a precipice, or trying to push over a cement wall – were minimized and refined, until they were imperceptible to the outside eye, but they served to connect me immediately to the tone and atmosphere of each separate day during Rachel’s time in Gaza.
What are some of your favourite moments from the production?
The bit about Colin was so much fun to do and I think so relatable for the people watching. Who hasn’t had that awkward encounter with their ex? It was so gratifying for me to see people realize in that moment that Rachel was a wickedly funny person and that she was also a lot like them. Also, doing the show for an audience for the first time was a transcendent experience. I’ve always known that theatre is a communion, that it can really only exist when the viewer is present to complete the exchange of thoughts and feelings and ideas, but I really felt that in the marrow of my bones on the opening night of My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The audience that I’d been pretending to talk to for over a month was suddenly present in the room with me, listening and reacting to Rachel’s words. The audience was impelling the story forward as much as I was, and suddenly it didn’t feel like such a herculean task to ‘carry’ the show; in fact it didn’t feel like I was carrying it at all. I was delightfully surprised. I got to the end of the show and was shocked at how fast it had flown by – on my end, anyway! It really felt like a moment of communion between actor and audience and I will never forget that for as long as I live!
My Name is Rachel Corrie’s politics can be controversial. Was the experience eye-opening in any way? What were some of the strongest reactions you got from the audience?
The experience was profoundly transformative. I researched the history and politics as best I could, meeting with a prof at my alma mater a month before rehearsals began to get a “crash course” in the Palestine-Israel conflict, and then building on that foundation with further reading and by watching a lot of documentary films. The films were really helpful to me in building up a rich bank of sounds and images to draw upon in rehearsals. Imaginatively voyaging to Palestine every day for a month and half of rehearsal, erecting that world for myself with as much detail as my research and imagination permitted, made me see the world differently. It forced me to reckon with the distasteful fact that a lot of people on this earth are forced to live in intolerable circumstances; the Gaza strip is not unique in that regard. In terms of audience reaction, it ranged the gamut from people shaking my hand, thanking me through tears for telling this story, to people vitriolically demanding to know what Hart House had hoped to achieve by programming a play that represented just one person’s opinion on perhaps one of the most loaded and complex issues of our time.
What was it like working with Mumbi Otu as a director?
Working with Mumbi was an uniquely intimate experience; we had the support of an amazing team of artists, but often it was just the two of us down in the trenches (as it were), trying to decipher the very challenging script, and grappling with the huge ideas therein. I couldn’t have hoped for a more sensitive, insightful, open, generous, and trusting leader on this expedition.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
This summer, I have the huge privilege of playing Beatrice in Shakespeare Bash’d’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Toronto Fringe. Then I’m co-producing as well as co-starring, along with Kyle Purcell, in the Canadian premiere of Tender Napalm, the international smash hit by Britain’s maverick playwright, Philip Ridley. It’s going to be a wild ride! In the Fall, I return to my hometown of Montreal to play Philomela in the Quebec premiere of If We Were Birds by Erin Shields, directed by Micheline Chevier.