A rare nominee being celebrated for multiple productions, Melanie Hrymak features in the opposite categories of Solo Performance and Best Ensemble. The captivating work she did at the Fringe Festival in her Best Solo Performance-nominated show Licking Knives, alone onstage with just her own words to lean on, was made all the more remarkable by the teamwork that followed, bringing a completely fresh take on Tybalt to the Best Production-nominated Romeo & (her) Juliet, which she also co-produced.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
The first professional production I remember seeing was Treasure Island at Theatre Aquarius in my hometown, Hamilton. I don’t remember too much of it, but I remember one actor singing “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest” from offstage with a reverb mike, and it chilled me to the bone. I loved it.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
Probably Sonia in Hannah Moscovitch’s The Russian Play . I bought her collection at random from Theatre Books, devoured it on my way home from the store, and decided by the time I got there that I had to play that part. I just felt like I understood it completely, inside and out, before I even started “working” on it. I think she’s such an honest character, in every good and bad way.
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
Absolutely. Ophelia in Hamlet . She’s always been my dream role. I typically play strong female characters (whatever that means), and I would love to play a bold, confident Ophelia who battles her desire to please her family against her desire to break free of them. She’s often played so docile and meek, and I don’t buy it for one second. She is brave and strong, and unfortunately in love with the wrong guy.
Tell us about Headstrong Collective and its mission statement.
My creative partner Leslie McBay and I created Headstrong in February of 2014. Honestly, it came out of the frustration we both felt at the options that were available to us as young, femaleidentified actors. We decided to make the kind of theatre we wished we were auditioning for, theatre that was inclusive and accessible. We wanted to create work that created opportunities for female and femaleidentified, LGBTQ, and culturally diverse artists and audiences. We produce work that is financially accessible, as well as physically accessible. We constantly ask ourselves what we can offer the artists we work with and the audiences that come to our shows.
What inspired you to write your one-woman show?
Many, many things. Initially, I was just looking for a challenge. I used to write quite a lot, and over time I stopped. I always wanted to write a play, but I was afraid of it. I find it very vulnerable, much more vulnerable than being an actor. And then I decided to write about my family and the experiences of Ukrainians during WWII, and that really opened a floodgate for me. I really feel like we have neglected so many stories from that time, particularly those that reflect a female or Eastern point of view. There are so many lives and events that will be forgotten very soon because no one bothered to ask or to tell. I grew up as part of a very strong Ukrainian community in Hamilton, I even went to a Ukrainian elementary school, so a lot of events (like the Holodomor or the OstArbeiter program) were common knowledge to us. Then I grew up and realized nobody else knew anything about them.
What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan or just start at page 1 and work through?
I started at the beginning, then wrote the end, then the middle. I have no idea why. I had no plan really, I just started writing one day. I used certain events from history or from my family’s personal history as guideposts, and then I just imagined everything that happened in between. It was utterly terrifying and quite emotionally draining. It was a horrific time in human history, and to be surrounded by those accounts and those images for months on end was very difficult.
How much research was involved?
Months and months. I researched for about 4 months before I even began writing, and continued to research during my 4 month writing process. And then I needed to do some actor research, once I began rehearsals. Now that the script is being published this spring, there is still more research that needs to be done as I work on the manuscript. Actually, I found the research to be the most difficult part of the process. To be immersed, for months on end, in events like the Holodomor and the concentration camps of WWII…there were days where I would just have to stop because the work was so emotionally draining.
Did you go through a lot of drafts? How did the play change through the development process?
Not as many as I expected, about 4. Being a playwright and actor is tough, because I could have just kept rewriting and editing until opening night, but eventually it was really important for me to stop focussing on the writing and to really
look at the piece as an actor. My sound designer Tessa Springate was also instrumental as a sounding board, occasional dramaturg, and cheerleader throughout the process.
Did the show change much in rehearsals?
I don’t think so, but my stage manager Sarah Niedoba might disagree. I really tried to take off my writer’s hat at a certain point, and I told her that I was not allowed to make any more changes, no matter what. She held me to that, thankfully.
How does the experience of performing your own material compare to working off an established script?
Well, it certainly streamlined the rehearsal process for me. I already knew my character intimately, so my work as an actor was focussed more on how I connected to the material, rather than having to spend a lot of time analyzing the script. I feel very, very vulnerable as a writer and somewhat competent as an actor, so it sort of balanced my ego out.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of being up there on your own?
It is incredibly rewarding to perform your own work. This play was my baby for nine months; it was almost all I thought about, all the time. When it finally comes to fruition and you perform for an audience who respond the way you hoped and dreamed they would, it feels better than anything I have ever felt before. It feels like telling someone you love them for the first time, and they say it back. That’s the closest thing. And the greatest challenge is not giving up. No one is making you do this, no one has hired you. There is no contract. You keep going purely based on your own willpower. That’s really hard.
The script for Licking Knives is about to be published. Where will we be able to find it?
We’ll be throwing a launch party in late May or early June in Toronto where you can see the show and get your copy. It will always be available through my publisher, Meat Locker Editions, and hopefully at some independent bookstores throughout Toronto. I am heartbroken that Theatre Books is closed; it was one of my dreams to see my play on their shelves.
Do you have any plans for another run of the show or a new play in the works?
I’ll be performing Licking Knives at the Springworks Festival in Stratford in May, and hopefully I’ll have a few advance copies of the script available as well. I may have a new idea for a script… it’s still very much the beginning of an idea. I would like to continue to look at the experiences of women during WWII. I hate that their lives have been depicted only as nursing, bombmaking, and scrap metal collecting, when in reality they were fighter pilots, spies, you name it. I hate that women have been written out of history, so I’m trying to write us back in.
You co-produced one of our most-nominated productions of the year Romeo & (her) Juliet. How did the concept develop?
Leslie and I first conceived Romeo and (her) Juliet before we even dreamed of Headstrong. We both love classical theatre, but the roles for women are somewhat limited, both in number and in scale. Of course, there are some amazing roles, don’t get me wrong. But one day we were talking about Romeo and Juliet and one of us said, hey, you could do that with two women and not have to change a thing. We started working on our adaptation shortly after. I am so proud of what we accomplished with Romeo and (her) Juliet . Our blood, sweat, and many tears went into that production.
You also played Tybalt in that Best Ensemble-nominated cast. What is it about the character that appealed to you?
In the past, I’ve often seen Tybalt presented as this young hothead who’s pissed off at everyone for what seems to be no reason. Personally, I think Tybalt has an excellent reason to be pissed off. S/he is completely left out, bullied, and humiliated by both the Montagues and his/her own family. Also, I think we sometimes forget how young these characters are. It’s easy to forget, when Mercutio and Tybalt are being played by 40 year old men in tights. To me, Tybalt is angry in the way you can only be angry when you’re really young. The world isn’t fair, and s/he is going to make sure everyone knows it. Tybalt is punk to me, basically, and I love punk.
Despite being one of English language theatre’s most famous roles, Tybalt actually doesn’t have that many lines so, when you wipe out all the self-perpetuating assumptions that come from the character’s production history (as played by men), there’s something of a carte blanche. Where did you start building the character from there?
We started building Tybalt from her relationship with Juliet. They are two female cousins around the same age who seem to have grown up in the same house. They’re like sisters, with all the good and bad that can come from that type of close relationship. And then with a male Mercutio, it became clear to us that there was a history there. They antagonize each other in such nasty, deliberate ways, it seemed very personal to us. So we built the ex-boyfriend/girlfriend dynamic. Add some gender politics to the mix, some of my own experiences, and Voila!
In your interpretation, Tybalt was much closer to Juliet, the Nurse and Paris than originally written. How did those relationships develop?
In the text, after Tybalt’s death, the Nurse calls him/her “the best friend I ever had”. This, of course, is ludicrous with traditional casting. But for us, we took the line seriously. What if the Nurse was actually close to Tybalt? What if these people weren’t complete strangers? What if Tybalt knew Paris? Why not? They are about the same age, from the same kind of family. We asked ourselves how can we implicate everyone in the play. Why does Paris have to be played as this nice guy (I always picture Paul Rudd in the Baz Lurhmann version) when he is working really hard to marry a girl he barely knows, who just happens to be from a super wealthy and powerful family? Not so nice. We really wanted our characters to make sense in a contemporary setting, so it made sense to connect these dots. No one is good and no one is bad, it’s just life.
Rather than playing the traditionally alpha-male role as a tomboy or hyper-aggressive vixen, your Tybalt was as feminine and emotional as she was tough and volatile (mirroring Juliet in a way). How important was that to you in developing your concept of the character?
It happened very naturally for me. I specifically wanted to play Tybalt as a woman, what’s the point of making a character female if you’re just going to pretend she’s not? Actually, the relationship reminded me a lot of Kate and Bianca from Taming of the Shrew . Bianca and Juliet are perfect and everybody falls over themselves to give them everything, and Kate and Tybalt are left out. I always wondered, is Kate a Shrew because someone told her she was one? I also took inspiration from some of the girls I went to high school with. My high school was famous for having one of the best rowing teams in the country and the top basketball team in Ontario, but that didn’t mean those athletes weren’t excited to dress up for prom.
Scott Moyle is also nominated this year for directing Romeo & (her) Juliet. What would you say is the most important conversation you two had in developing your interpretation of the story and Tybalt specifically?
I’m not sure there’s one conversation in particular. Together in rehearsals, we noticed how often Tybalt was shut down or shut out. We talked about who her parents are, why they aren’t around. About how it feels, as a young woman, to be ignored and treated as lesser than her perfect cousin Juliet. It built this great love/hate dynamic for Tybalt; a great desire to be loved and a deep rage that burned.
Tell us a bit about working with some of the other actors.
I felt so disgustingly lucky to walk in to rehearsal every day with that company. Our casting process was quite intense. We wanted actors who wanted more than just a job, we wanted actors who cared about the project and what it stood for. We were so, so lucky to find such passionate, generous, smart, talented actors. It was theatre magic. For many of us, it was a chance to branch out from our usual casting hit or type, which is extremely liberating. I don’t even want to start naming names, because then I will have to write whole essays about everyone and how amazing they are and it will all get rather out of hand.
Are there other male characters in Shakespeare’s canon (or any canon, really) whom you think could be particularly interesting played as women?
Absolutely. Any of them. All of them. I think sometimes we think gender is much more important to a character than it really is. Scott and I have a joke about Macbeth; it is hilarious to me that in a play with ghosts, apparitions, and a maybe invisible dagger, a female Malcolm is too crazy for some people. Really? A female heir to a throne who is clever, skilled in combat, and an excellent general is completely beyond believability, but witches, sure, no problem?!
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
When Benvolio (Clare Blackwood) tells Romeo (Leslie McBay) that Juliet is dead. Leslie’s face. I couldn’t watch the scene, it broke my heart every single time. I was a mess.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
Right now, I am prepping Licking Knives for publication and working on producing Headstrong’s next show, Boston Marriage at the Campbell House Museum (April 7-26). Other than that, I am trying to refocus on being an actor for a little while. It’s my first love, and compared to producing, it’s like a walk on the beach in Mexico (and acting is really difficult, so that should tell you more about producing than acting).
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you, Kelly! Thank you for supporting the Arts Community in Toronto through these awards and for recognizing so many worthy productions. And thank you to everyone who has supported the Arts in Toronto over the last year by attending performances, donating to their favourite theatre company, and creating their own work. I am truly honoured to be a theatre artist in Toronto. I can’t wait to attend the awards ceremony and celebrate the past year with all of you.
DISCLAIMER: Melanie Hrymak is a Contributing Author at My Entertainment World. Because she was involved in 2014 productions under awards consideration, she was excluded from all nomination discussions and will not receive a vote to determine the winners.