We love the Shaw Festival. Pound for pound they have our favourite acting company in the country and they consistently introduce us to interesting texts we’ve never seen produced. But there are few directors at the company who really stir our imagination. The exception to that rule is the remarkable Eda Holmes whose sense of space and physical storytelling make her inventive and refreshing productions consistent highlights of any recent Shaw season (her production of Arcadia is the reigning Best Play My Theatre Award winner). This was never more evident than in her critically beloved 2014 production of The Sea by Edward Bond which earned her a Best Director nomination in this year’s awards.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
It was going to see a movie of the ballet Sleeping Beauty. I know that is not exactly theatre but I remember the experience of going into a dark room where something magical happened. I was particularly taken with the Puss in Boots Pas de Deux. I think that I was 4 years old.
What first drew you to the directing?
While I was working with the Frankfurt Ballet I saw an article in The Guardian about Robert LePage’s Dragon Trilogy in London. I decided to fly to London and see it. I was blown away by the inventive story-telling – especially the way the images he created were as important to telling the story as the words that the actors spoke. By that point, I was nearing 30 years old and beginning to think about what I would do when I had to retire from dance. I was really inspired by the idea of creating theatre that worked on so many different levels at once.
How do you pick your projects? Do you choose them with a specific vision in mind?
I am drawn to stories that articulate world-views that I feel are original and provocative. I look for plays that will challenge me, the actors and artists involved, and ultimately the audience to look more deeply at our experiences as human beings. I am not interested in being reassured by a play but I insist on being enlivened by it. I am also drawn to plays that force me to learn about things that I didn’t know about before – whether it be a part of history or a place or a kind of person I don’t normally encounter.
What do you think is the best thing you’ve ever directed?
That is a very hard question to answer! Floyd Collins (Shaw Festival 2004) was the first show that I directed where what I imagined and what we achieved in the theatre were close to the same thing. That show always made me cry at the end and the music is still so haunting to me.
You’ve directed quite a few great productions in the last few years (including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and 2012 My Theatre Award nominee Misalliance), tell us a bit about those experiences.
I have been absolutely blessed and spoiled by the ongoing opportunity to work with the actors of the Shaw Festival. I feel that both of those productions were only possible because of the amazing casts that I had to work with. That is what makes the Shaw such an amazing theatre to work for. Both productions required lots of really delicious research. In the case of Cat I did a pilgrimage to Clarksdale, Mississippi to get closer to the world the play was set in and to New Orleans to soak up the Tennessee Williams air down there. Misalliance was different in that I had seen the beautiful production that Neil Munro had done in 2003 and wanted to find a way to look at the play from a completely different angle in order to manage my anxiety about following in his footsteps. I opted to update the play to the eve of women’s liberation – the early 1960’s. I felt that was the moment that allowed the arguments in the play to resonate with our own times – especially since Mad Men had become such a phenomenon and had made the early 60’s so present for us. Also that is when I was born and when The Shaw was founded so it seemed to make the play feel particularly relevant to me.
Your production of Arcadia won our 2013 award for Best Play and went on to a Toronto run with Mirvish. What do you think it was about that show that really captured the audience’s imagination?
I think that it was the capacity of the actors to embody the passion of the brilliant characters that Stoppard created in that play. I said from the very first day that we had to connect to the things that made each character’s heart beat faster and I believe that is what made the piece feel so alive and exhilarating. No production tries to do less than that but I feel like that particular group of actors had the combination of verbal dexterity from time spent with Shaw text and a real fearlessness about trying to embody the kind of intelligence that every single character in that play has. I kept the production very simple in order to let the play speak for itself – so I guess the ultimate answer to your question is the play made the show good.
What was the biggest challenge in staging Tom Stoppard’s ambitious text?
Making sure that the story was as clear as possible within the time travelling structure that Stoppard created for the play. We rehearsed the eras separately and I worked hard to make sure that everyone was clear in the Present day about what they knew when. In the scenes in the Past we focused on what they wanted from each other and how that evolved. I had to be vigilant about making sure that each scene was absolutely clear in terms of those criteria. The other incredibly challenging thing was the math. I found myself in rehearsal explaining algebra that I believed I understood. I spent most of the rehearsal process operating outside the limits of my own intelligence. Thankfully Stoppard’s math is sound and we could depend on the text.
Where did you find your inspiration for your My Theatre Award-nominated production of The Sea?
In reading about the Edwardian period, which is when the play is set, I was interested to find that amateur theatre companies were very popular all over England – which is present in the play in the scene where Mrs. Rafi insists that they rehearse her production of Orpheus and Eurydice. Since the play is episodic, designer Camillia Koo and I started from the premise that we did not want to have scene changes where we have to watch people carry furniture around. I wanted to find a way that we could keep telling the story between the scenes as well as in them. So the inspiration came from Mrs. Rafi explaining how she would make the “river” for Cerberus to swim across from a cloth held up by two ladies in bathing attire. Camillia proposed a giant curtain that could cover the stage and become the sea. That was such an exciting idea to me and we immediately started working through the play figuring out how we could have the “sea” wash each scene in and out.
You have a dance background and that shows in a lot of your directing with The Sea making particularly interesting use of space (something of a rarity at the drawing-room-friendly Shaw Festival). How do you approach incorporating movement into your pieces?
I believe that my body is actually my brain so I often figure things out through movement. Often it isn’t movement in the sense of organized choreography but more the way a body in space can tell a story. When I read a play I often see it before I hear it. An image of the people and how they relate to one another will come up for me so I guess that is my dance background expressing itself. It can be tricky because I come from a very “outside in” art form. As ballet dancers we practiced in front of a mirror every day but actors are different. They work more organically –not just inside out, but from the very core of who they are so finding movement that makes sense for them is very different than creating dance per se. In the end I always go back to the story I am trying to tell and I often find that movement can unleash a layer of the story that might remain hidden without it.
Walk me through casting- was the play chosen with the actors in mind?
We had done a reading of the play 2 years before when Edward Bond was in Canada as part of Sheep No Wool Theatre’s celebration of his work. Many of the people from that original reading ended up in the production. I always wanted Peter Millard to play Evens and Ben Sanders to play Hollarcut and Wade Bogert-O’Brien to play Willie – and they were part of that earlier reading. I felt unbelievably lucky that I got to have Fiona Reid as Mrs. Rafi, Patrick Galligan as Hatch and Julia Corse as Rose. I was also very happy that the play crossed with the musical so that I could have people like Patty Jamieson and Jenny Wright and all the folks who I knew would not be afraid of playing with the fabric.
What’s your rehearsal process like?
My process is always designed around the specific needs of the play itself. I always do table work to start just to make sure that we are all working from the same set of established facts about the story. From there it depends on the piece how we get up on our feet. I do a lot of preparation on paper but I use it in different ways with different people and different plays. I operate from the belief that chance favors the prepared mind – a quote from Pierre Curie by way of John Cage.
What did you bring to the play that was unique to your production?
I have never seen another production of the play so I don’t really know. I suspect that there haven’t been a lot of productions that try to create the actual sea like we did with the fabric.
Do you have any specific actors that you work particularly well with?
I love actors so it is hard for me to say a specific actor that I work better with than another. I feel like working with the Shaw Festival acting ensemble makes me a better director and I am always happy when I get to work with the same actors on different projects.
You’re working on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures for the Shaw Festival right now. What can you tell us about that production?
We are deep in the design process right now and so it is tough to say a lot. I believe that this play is Tony Kushner’s homage to Arthur Miller. It is an interrogation of the American Dream and asks the question what is the value of a life in a capitalist society. It is populated with a family of fantastically smart and funny people who think and talk very fast. I am thrilled and slightly terrified to have the chance to work with Jim Mezon in the role of the patriarch of the family who is also a retired Dock Worker and member of the Communist Party of the USA.
Do you have a dream project you’ve always wanted to direct?
I long to do Chekov – doesn’t everyone? My dream is to do a site-specific Uncle Vanya starting with a group of people wandering across a field singing.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think I have already said more than you want to hear!