Soup Can Theatre was one of the very first companies to come on our radar when My Theatre first started up in 2010. Their Best of Fringe hit Love is a Poverty You Can Sell launched them as a standout indie company and, over the years, they’ve proven their worth over and over with conscientious and clever productions.
Founder and Artistic Director Sarah Thorpe was also the director of one of our favourite Soup Can productions to date- Sartre’s No Exit. Sarah joins the Nominee Interview Series to talk about getting the company up on its feet and the production that scored her a 2013 Best Director nom.
To hear more from Sarah, visit her website at sarahthorpe.net.
Can you remember the first production you saw that made you want to work in theatre?
It wasn’t just the first show I saw; rather it was several productions that I saw, probably between the ages of 8 and 12. Two notable examples are Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera that ran downtown in the 1990s, as well as several productions at the Stratford Festival around the same time. The spectacle of these productions, and the talent and passion of the performers just dazzled me. Something just clicked in my head, as if to say ‘yes, this is it, this is what I want to do’. I was mesmerized by theatre, whether it was a musical, Shakespeare, drama – I loved it all.
How did Soup Can Theatre come about?
My idea for even starting a theatre company began percolating when I was in my final years in the theatre program at York University. We were often told that if we did not see the kind of work that we were interested in being produced, then to produce it ourselves. Easier said than done of course, but it certainly did get me thinking that starting a company would not be as daunting a task as I had previously thought, especially with all the training I was getting in theatre creation, production, etc. I’ve always been drawn to productions of older works that are given some sort of contemporary framework, showing how the piece is still relevant decades or even centuries later, and I still am interested in doing work in that vein. I think that an older piece that can still speak volumes in the twenty-first century is a testament to the power of theatre, and how it can teach us so much about ourselves and the world around us.
At York, I had the opportunity through class exercises to write production proposals with that idea in mind, and explain how contemporary frameworks would work with older texts. One was for a production of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (which I had discovered and fell in love with after seeing Stratford’s and Soulpepper’s productions) combined with elements of post modernism. That’s actually where the name Soup Can Theatre came from, taking inspiration from Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings, and Warhol being arguably the most popular figure of the post modern movement. Another proposal was for a production of Oedipus Rex done in present day Toronto against the backdrop of downtown condo culture. I always kept these ideas in mind, but after graduation I put them on the back burner to focus on pursuing a career as an actor.
I spent the next year auditioning everywhere I could, and doing any acting and theatre work I could get. The idea to start a company was still on my mind, and I finally decided to do something about it. If I didn’t have any acting work, I thought I should be spending my time dedicated to my other passion – directing and creating theatre. I teamed up with Scott Dermody to get things started, and then gradually more people came on board – Pratik Gandhi, Justin Haigh, Gabriel Nylund, Katherine Sandomirsky, and Leslie Thorpe-Dermody. We created the core Soup Can team, and the rest is, as they say, history.
What were some of the biggest challenges in getting it set up?
The biggest challenge was, of course, money (big surprise). Obviously none of us could afford to put our own money in to get the company started, so we applied for grant funding and held fundraising events so that we could start from somewhere. Our first idea was to do a production of The Threepenny Opera, the rights of which are pretty pricey. We didn’t get the grants we applied for so there was no way we could afford the rights, but with the money we made from our fundraisers, we decided to create our own show, something in a similar vein to the Brecht/Weill style. That’s how Love is a Poverty You Can Sell was born.
The other challenge was – and like funding, still is – time management. Running a theatre company and creating work is a full time job, but like pretty much every other artist in town, we work at other jobs to pay the bills. When we have a project on the go, we’re working on that in the free moments we have away from our bill-paying jobs, and it’s exhausting. But for me, when everything is going well with the project and clicking into place, and you’re truly excited about the work you’re doing, it’s completely worth the exhaustion.
Do you have a dream production you’d still like to direct down the road?
Edward Bond’s Lear and Tom Waits/Robert Wilson/William S. Burroughs’ The Black Rider are definitely on my wish list. I’ve always been drawn to darker pieces, ones that show people in the darkest moments of their lives. How they deal with and try to get out of that darkness is what’s interesting to me. I’m fascinated with how characters can change when faced with extraordinary obstacles. I read Lear in university, and it’s a piece that’s always stuck with me, it’s just so brutal and raw. I saw November Theatre/Tarragon Theatre’s production of The Black Rider in 2008. I’m a big Waits fan, and Wilson is such an exemplary theatre maker. The production was outstanding, and it’s something I’d love to tackle in the future.
Which directors and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?
There hasn’t been one actor or director that’s majorly influenced me. I try to see as much theatre as I can, and I find that what influences me the most are just really well done works – good writing, direction, acting, design, etc. A really good piece of theatre inspires me to keep working and to keep getting better at what I do.
What’s your favourite production you’ve ever worked on?
This is a very tough question to answer! I’m so proud of every production Soup Can has done, and I love each of them for different reasons. I love the Love is Poverty shows because of the chance we had to create some original material and characters (Justin Haigh’s script and the emcees Hans and Jodel, plus the individual characters that the ensemble created), and combining that with a decadent era and style of music. I love Marat/Sade because it was the first time we had produced an existing work, it’s such a beast of a piece, and the final result was exactly what I had envisioned. I love the social commentary and the physical work Scott Dermody did with Antigone. I love A Hand of Bridge, our first venture into the opera world, and the beautiful work Pratik Gandhi did as director/musical director. I love No Exit because it was the first non-musical I had directed, and I loved the challenge of working on such a dense and complex piece. We have such a great team at Soup Can, and we’ve worked with so many amazing artists over the years. Working with all these great people has made each piece we’ve done a favourite of mine for different reasons. We’ve come so far since we started, and I couldn’t be more proud of our body of work.
Do you program the full Soup Can season or work off of director’s pitches?
It’s a bit of a combination of both. If there are specific pieces that members of the team are interested in doing, we figure out the best time to produce said pieces, and program the season from that.
What attracted you to the combination of A Hand of Bridge with No Exit?
Well there are the obvious similarities – both pieces are four handers, short, and each are set in one location. But what also interested us in combining the two was that they both deal with people stuck in a room with other people in what they consider to be a hellish environment, both metaphorically and literally. Sartre’s famous line “hell is other people” related to both pieces for sure.
How did you approach casting? Was it all open call or did you have any actors in place when you chose the show?
We did an open call – one very long day of auditions, and we saw some remarkable people. The cast ended up being mostly actors we hadn’t worked with before, but whose work and talents we were very familiar with – Carolyn Hall, Daniel Pagett, and Tennille Read (as Estelle, Garcin, and Inez). Ryan Anning came on board as the Valet, and he was of course already a great friend of Soup Can’s, having played Hans in the Love is a Poverty shows. Some casting decisions were extremely difficult to make, and we saw so many talented people, but I’m so thrilled with the decisions we made in the end.
Soup Can productions usually have some sort of contemporary social message. No Exit began with projections of the twitter hashtag #hell. How did you carry that concept through the rest of the piece?
I had discussions with the cast and crew on our personal ideas of hell. We wondered what we would find if we did a search on twitter of #hell, so we did and found some really interesting tweets about what individual people consider to be hell. We decided to project those tweets for the audience to read, as everyone has a different and personal idea of hell as a place or a situation. Also, the characters of Garcin and Estelle are so concerned with their reputations and how they’re perceived by others. That made us think of social media culture and how people are concerned with how they’re seen by others through their profiles and pages. We thought that incorporating twitter into the production would help make that connection. Another idea that came to mind, while researching different religions’ views on hell, is the similarity between the endlessness of hell (as a state of mind and state of being, as some belief systems dictate) and the endlessness of social media, in that it’s never turned off and we’re always connected to it with our computers, phones, and what not.
What were some of the other things you brought to the production that were unique?
While I was reading No Exit over and over in the months leading up to rehearsals, I got the idea that staging both that and Bridge in the round would be the best stage configuration. Both pieces deal with people in a room together, and I wanted to create the sense that the audience is peering in on these rooms and into these people’s lives. Huis Clos is the original French title of No Exit, and it’s also the equivalent of the legal term ‘in camera’, referring to a private discussion behind closed doors, so staging both pieces in the round helped to create that effect.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
It’s hard to pick a favourite moment. The cast and production team were just so tremendous and brought the piece to life beautifully, for me every moment was a treat. Having said that, I did particularly enjoy the scenes where the characters have these little flashbacks and glimpses into what the people in their lives are now doing. It humanized the characters, grounded them, and we caught a glimpse of how vulnerable they really are.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
We’re currently on a hiatus, taking time off to work on individual projects. We will hopefully do something later on in the year, so just keep your eye on our website, Facebook, and Twitter for updates.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you Kelly and My Entertainment World for supporting Soup Can Theatre and all the indie theatre companies in Toronto!