The inventive and thoughtful director behind Wolf Manor Theatre Collective’s dark and brutal take on the Scottish Play, Claren Grosz mined countless surprising moments from a text we weren’t sure could surprise us anymore.
The Outstanding Direction nominee walks us through her process and points out some of the details we might have missed in her intense 90-minute production.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I’ve been going to summer drama camps and participating in children’s theatre for as long as I can remember. Probably the first big moment for me was my first audition. I was auditioning for a production of Stuart Little with Calgary Young People’s Theatre, and I was about 12 years old. This was a very big deal for me. I searched the books I owned for a monologue and found something from Anne of Green Gables. My Dad watched me audition through the window of the studio, I remember. It was a pretty scary and exciting thing, but I got into the play! And I got the role of Stuart Little!
Do you have any dream projects?
Ever since participating in a devised theatre production in high school, I’ve been pretty set on someday being in the director’s chair for a project like that. The amazing thing is that this dream is coming true, as I’m leading a collectively created reimagining of Persephone for the Toronto Fringe Festival this year. Other dream scripts I would love to work with include East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.
Which directors, writers and actors have had a major influence on you throughout your career?
The theatre artist that has had the most impact on me for sure is Caitlin Gallichan-Lowe, who was my drama teacher in high school. She was the first person to really make me see theatre in a serious, profound way and the one who encouraged me to pursue theatre as a career. She directs high school plays with the same artistic standards of any professional production. As an artist she is deeply imaginative and motivated and as a teacher she really knew how to light a fire in all her students. Through her I was also introduced to the work of Eric Rose, her husband and the Artistic Director of Ghost River Theatre. In particular, I found his production of One by Jason Carnew particularly memorable, and still reflect on it to this day. I think it’s one of the productions that really shaped my taste for theatre. Most of the other artists who’ve influenced my art are the phenomenal professors and directors I worked with through Ryerson.
What’s your favourite production you’ve ever worked on?
Macbeth! For sure. Negating Macbeth, probably Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey with director David Jansen. I played the role of Mrs. Gogan, which was a wildly fun time. It was a part that required a lot chewing, in that it was one of the most substantial and challenging roles I’ve ever played (and in that there was a major accent to wrap my tongue around). Jansen was also a pleasure to work with.
How did you get involved with Wolf Manor? Did you choose Macbeth or were you hired with the text already in place?
Dylan Brenton, the artistic director of the collective, was a colleague in University and approached me with the invitation to direct Macbeth. He is the kind of person who opens doors for so many people and I’m very grateful for the opportunity he provided me with. Surprisingly, Shakespeare isn’t really the kind of world I’m drawn to— I opt for a more contemporary theatre scene myself.
Your production was only 90 minutes long. Did you cut the text yourself? How did you decide what could be condensed or discarded and what absolutely needed to stay?
I did cut the text myself. Most of the trimming happened off the end of the play when a lot of new characters are introduced that the audience (or maybe just I) wasn’t invested in. I cut any characters that were peripheral, and condensed all the lords into one Ross. I had to sacrifice a lot of the historical accuracy by limiting the story to one Siward, but my general rule when editing was this: If the story can be told without this moment, cut it. I was pretty ruthless. The only characters who were spared any cuts were Lady Macbeth and the witches, whom from the beginning had a tight grip on my heart and I did favour their stories.
You double cast many of the performers; how did you decide which characters to link by having them played by the same actor?
I wish I could have a very impressive, very creative answer— the truth was that the mathematics meant there was very little room for choice. I knew I wanted Macbeth and Lady M to not play anything else, and that I wanted the witches to take all the small roles as shape shifters. I had four actors left over to play everything else, and it just worked itself out based on who was available for what.
Walk us through your casting process. Were there any roles you struggled to fill? Did anyone walk in to audition and do the part exactly as you’d envisioned?
I was lucky, I was presented with a very talented pool of actors, and the hardest part of casting was not being able to pick more people. As a director casting a show, I tend to stay away from forming concrete ideas of who my characters should be. I like for actors to come in and surprise me with what they have to offer and see what I’m drawn to. Then I shape my idea of the character with and around this actor, as opposed to trying to shape the actor into the vision I have of the character.
The only character I had a very strong, uncompromisable vision for was Lady Macbeth. I wanted her to have a hardness. I wanted her power to be separate from her ability to wield her femininity. Nicole Hrgetic came in a blew everyone in the audition room away. We all clapped when she was finished. Nicole and I talked later talked and she said she felt self-conscious because she could hear us all laugh when she left the room. I told her it was that we were all shocked and delighted to have found the perfect Lady M.
Your interpretation of the text included a lot of interesting details like constant handwashing and the ghosts returning. What were some of your favourite innovations? What was something we might have missed if we only saw the show once?
There was a lot of detailed work being done by the witches— who, for the record, are all champions— Marc-Andre Blanchard, Laura Hayes, Sarah Marchand. They cut a thread in the weave of life every time someone died on stage, mimicked and laughed at some of the characters as they did their scenes, and made a lot of eye contact with audience members (admittedly through a heavy black veil). One of my favourite witch moments was when Banquo’s son Fleance was playing with rocks and one of the witches joins in his game. For the most part Fleance is surprised that the rocks keep magically disappearing, but in the last moments of being pulled off stage by dad, a witch passes him the stones and he makes eye contact with it. I loved this detail of children being able to sense and see the witches in ways adults could not.
Did you have any big ideas that you threw out during the rehearsal process or something that came in at the last minute?
Nothing major. The last thing to come into place were the apparitions, which were really difficult to make effective. We tried for a long time to make the shape of a skull out of the witches’ bodies, but it ended up looking too much like an orgy. In the end, we still came up with some pretty strange stuff but we decided to commit to it and hope for the best! Kennedy’s lights really helped us out on that front.
They say that great artists steal their ideas and Macbeth has been produced countless times. Did you draw inspiration from any previous productions or film versions that you’d seen or did you purposefully try to run in a different direction?
I have seen only one production of Macbeth and that was Shakespeare in High Park. I stayed away from anything else that might influence me. I like to pretend my ideas are original and find out later someone else has already done them!
The Alumnae studio theatre is a pretty unique space. How did its assets and limitations affect your staging?
The biggest asset the space had to offer was it’s gorgeous architecture— the high, pointed ceiling; the wooden beams; the beautiful windows. We did our best to incorporate these things were we could, for example the witches closing the blinds to start the play or lighting the ceiling up in red whenever someone died.
The space presented us with two big issues: 1. There was no crossover and 2. We found out late in the game that we couldn’t drum on the infrastructure without it carrying to the show below us.
Tell us about working with your design team to develop the look of the show.
My design team only consisted of one person, lighting designer Kennedy Brooks, who was spectacular. I let her take the reigns and do as she pleased. I was lucky she had such a solid vision.
The set and costumes were all designed and constructed by myself and my goddess of a stage manager, Kate Stenson. We were particularly proud of the witches’ capes (pattern by Stenson), and the weave. Many hours went into these things while watching Gilmore Girls at 1am.
The weave was really the centre piece of the production. It was the material realization of the witches’ overarching power and the fatalist inevitability of the play. I had a really clear idea of how I wanted this weave— textured, messy… neutral with pops of rich red and purple. This also became the colour scheme for the entire show.
Your leading man Dylan Brenton is nominated for Outstanding Actor. What were some of the important conversations you two had while developing your interpretation of the title character?
Macbeth acts almost entirely out of fear, which is in great contrast to Lady Macbeth who acts mostly out of desire. We spent a lot of time discussing this fear, how it manifested itself, where it was rooted and what that physically felt like. How this fear motivated his behaviour and how he navigated this fear. In our first rehearsal, Dylan, Nicole and I sat down and figured out the complex nature of their partnership, and the disparity between them.
Ian McKellen has famously said that the Doctor is one of his favourite roles in Macbeth. Whom else among the often overlooked characters do you think is more interesting than they’re usually given credit for?
I’m a big fan of Lady Macduff, who we only see once but provides us with an image of Macduff that we would otherwise never see. Macduff, generally praised hero, turns out to be a pretty lousy husband and father. Lady Macduff is also the only other female character in the play (discounting the witches) and is so different from her counterpart— she embraces the role of mother, wife, caretaker, and is quite a bit crasser and unpolished than Lady Macbeth. I always felt there was a lot going on for Lady Macduff, a whole untapped story there that we only get a small window into… but that’s part of her injustice. She doesn’t get to have her story told.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I added in a scene for Lady M’s suicide, which was important because it gives Lady M a complete arc. She comes on stage, consuming herself with guilt, and the witches present her with the— I feel— compassionate option to finish it there by pulling her life line from the weave and presenting it to her along with their scissors. It ends up being a big moment of relief for Lady Macbeth. She was always more in touch with the supernatural world than her own, where there was no place for a woman who craved power and freedom. I personally was always very moved by the relationship the witches built with her throughout the play and for them to share a cognizant moment was very special. I’m also a big fan of metaphor.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
As I mentioned earlier, I have a 90 minute Fringe Slot this summer. I’ll be working with a really talented group of artists to reimagine the story of Persephone. The show will be very imagistic and physical. We’re focusing on how Persephone, a young woman, finds her autonomy in a story about two people— Demeter and Hades— fighting for possession over her.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
These were great questions, and covered it all! I’d like to thank Kelly and everyone else behind MyEntertainmentWorld. I’m so flattered and excited to have received this nomination.