At the helm of Severely Jazzed Productions’ take on Canadian cult classic Trout Stanley, Daniel Pagett reframed the larger-than-life play as a twisted fairy tale recounted by a snarky narrator, raised the absurdity, and focused on the poetry of the text.
The result was an indie hit nominated for five MyTheatre awards, including Best Production and Best Direction.
Do you remember your first formative experience with theatre?
I do! At the time I was in grade 11. I wanted to be a novelist. Another totally-financially-viable profession. I fell in love with Shakespeare at the time because of his story structure. I was chatting with a friend about it and they said I should audition for my highschool’s production of Twelfth Night that year. I was terrified, but like, ‘why not?’ I auditioned with the Queen Mab speech, holding the script in my hand, and had to restart about 4 times. Luckily, our school’s star female actor bore a striking resemblance to me. She was cast as Viola, and I got Sebastian based on that fact alone, I’m pretty sure.
When I was very young, reading fantasy novels, I was plagued by the thought that I could never be a wizard. Being on stage was the closest thing I’ve ever had to that. I thought I’d stick with it.
Who are some of the artists who’ve always inspired you?
Definitely almost every director who’s directed me. Kat Sandler, of course, who I’ve worked closely with since the beginnings of Theatre Brouhaha. She’s a machine. Knows what she wants and is ruthless about it. I learned a lot about story telling from her and Tom McGee, Brouhaha’s dramaturg, associate producer and co-founder. Pablo Felices-Luna, who I worked with at Carousel Players, really taught me a lot about making a script move, and working with actors without forcing them into the precise idea of what you want. Inviting actors to be collaborators, rather than just puppets. All of my family at the Storefront – particularly Ben Blais, Claire Burns, and Claire Armstrong – exemplify the kind of no-holds-barred theatre creation that I love and strive for. I’m also incredibly inspired by the folks at Bad Dog, who seem to be constantly looking for new ways to look at theatre through improv. They’re helping the art form grow. Honestly there’s too many hard working, brilliant theatre artists in this city that I’ve drawn from for me to name all of them. I kind of just want to give more shout outs to my super talented friends here. So…Colin Munch. Tim Walker. Alec Toller. Caitlin Driscoll. Aurora de Peña. Susanna Fournier. Jill Harper. Josh Brown. Khadijah Roberts Abdullah. Ok. I’ll stop. There’s more though. SO MANY MORE.
How did you get involved with Severely Jazzed Productions?
I can’t remember exactly but I think Steve Fisher recommended me to them. They were already ready with a lot of the pre-production, and just needed a director. I think Steve passed my name on, and also Colin [Munch, who played Trout] vouched for me. I had only directed one play up to that point, Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker a few months beforehand. A bit of a different piece than Trout, but they sent me the script, I read it, and I had ideas. I met with Tess [Degenstein, one of the show’s producers who also played Grace], chatted with her for a bit and said what I had in mind for the piece. We mostly just drank coffee and cracked wise, though. I was like, ‘I like this one.’ She was wearing a big furry hat. It was great.
What appealed to you about Claudia Dey’s script for Trout Stanley?
The first thing that stood out to me was Dey’s stage directions. They’re a play in themselves, normally shared as an inside joke for the cast and crew. Then there was the poetry. Now normally I’m not a big fan of leaning in to the poetry of a script. I want it to be active at all times. If people want to hear poetry read beautifully, they can go watch a guy in a beret and a black turtleneck with a bongo drum. But her poetry moves. It comes from the gut and punches the listener in theirs. It comes from desire and requires an active voice to be said properly. It does not allow itself to be simply ‘said’. Needless to say, I like it a bunch.
I had recently watched a reading of A Streetcar Named Desire, and was in a place where I didn’t want to see anymore classics. This was like an updated, kind of odd version of Streetcar. And funny. Very funny.
Tell us about your vision for the play. How did you develop the idea for the frame device?
I just wanted to let the audience in on the wonderful inside joke of the stage directions. It was one of my first impulses with the script. Originally I thought of putting them on the TV, and having it face the audience. I thought maybe the actors could say them, maybe project them on the whole set. There are jokes written in to the script where the punchline is literally the stage direction following a set of lines. I didn’t want the audience to miss that. Eventually I settled on a narrator character, as the play also reads very much like a modern fairy tale (it’s kind of Rapunzel). I sheepishly asked Dan Jeannotte if he’d do it. I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw him with Uncalled For. At the beginning, we weren’t sure how much he would be in it, what he would say or do, anything. It was a really loose idea. I remember at the first read through, he asked me ‘alright, a couple of questions: who am I and why am I saying this?’, and all I had at the time was ‘I…don’t…know…?’ He just said, ‘ok, great’ and started writing something on his script. Dan brought so much to that role and really helped shape my half-baked idea.
Beyond the frame, in what ways did you diverge from and expand on what Dey put on the page?
I definitely wanted to expand the sort of ‘fairy tale’ aspect of the play, hence the huge wig and stylized performances. But I thought the production was strongest when I was able to just let any of the 4 of those guys go into one of their stories. Every character in the play tells a story at a certain point, and all I had to do was gently guide and watch them lock into the rollercoaster tracks of Dey’s words. Sometimes I’d forget to write notes, because my actors were so goddamn good. And because I’m terribly unprofessional.
Walk us through the casting process and the experience of working with those actors (two of whom are nominated for MyTheatre Awards this year for their roles).
The play was cast when they came to me, but holy hell am I grateful for the cast I got. They’re all perfect for the part they played. Tess is an actual animal lady. Her playing a lion queen came naturally. She’s also very specific and willing to try literally anything. We did some really dumb stuff in rehearsal, and she always went 100%
Hannah [Spear, co-producer and Sugar] is like a Pixar character. You can’t look at her on stage and not feel feelings. She just glows with life and warmth. And if anyone’s reading this who didn’t see the play, you missed out on some of the greatest improvised dancing ever to be seen. She’s hard on herself, because she wants to get it right. I’d give her a note and she’d miss it once and be all like ‘I’m the worst’ and meanwhile the rest of us who’ve been watching her are lying in a puddle of weeping joy.
Colin is one of my very best friends and one of the most talented people I know. I loved having the opportunity to work with him. A lot of the time, my friends and I will joke that the greatest motivation to put on a show is so you can cast your friends in it and hang out every day. This was somewhat true with Trout. Colin brought such an interesting side to Trout that I think may be overlooked often: The little kid raised on Cop Shows who never grew up. He brought a sense of adventure and wonder and intense vulnerability, and believed every ridiculous claim Trout makes about his insane past.
I talked about Dan a bit already but, like I said, I approached him as a fan. I was nervous. He’s almost cartoonishly good. Super handsome, super nice, super talented. It’s all a bit daunting. There was one day where Dan came up to me with an impish smile on his face and said ‘I think I know who the narrator is!’ and then he told me. I said ‘amazing. Don’t tell anyone else.’, and he said ‘I won’t’, and we giggled. Then I melted to the floor. Dan’s a pro, and a wonderful collaborator.
How collaborative is your process? Was the finished product much like you had originally envisioned going into rehearsals?
A lot of the times I’ll have ‘ideas’. They’re usually bad. I think I’m the best as a director when I just see something brilliant that one of the actors does and say ‘yeah, that. Do that.’ This production was especially collaborative. All the actors in it are also improvisers. Not to mention good friends. And Kelsey [Rutledge], our amazing stage manager, was always in on the conversation, too. It made for an extremely comfortable, safe vibe in the room. We could try out some real weird, stupid garbage without judging or being judged. Some of the weird, stupid garbage made it in, and a lot of said garbage turned out to be some of my favourite parts of the play. I find that if you have too rigid of an idea of what a play is going to be when you start out, it shows in the end. There’s life in a play that has been allowed to grow throughout the rehearsal process.
Costume & set designer Hanna Puley is also nominated for her work on Trout Stanley. Tell us about working with her to develop the look of the piece.
Hanna came to me with the idea of a dollhouse sort of thing. I had already been treating the show like a pop up book, and the two ideas sort of fused. I think it helped that we both sort of had similar ideas going in to the show, because if something changed, we both pretty much knew when and why. Originally we were going to use projections on the white background, but I think that would’ve cluttered things. Hanna is a friggin whiz. She’s imaginative and amazingly resourceful. I would never have thought that set possible in the Storefront on the budget we had until Hannah was like, ‘oh, totally. We can do that.’
What were you hoping your audience would take away from the production?
Fun, mostly. It’s a fun show. I don’t really believe in enforced take-aways. I hope people enjoyed it, and recognized a little piece of themselves in at least one of the characters. I think that if people saw my show, and wanted these broken people to mend themselves, I did my job ok.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
I love all the Heart (the band. Also the heart). The dance number, all the transitions. I also like watching Dan pull out a sandwich and have a snack at intermission. That snail bit though…
I liked a lot of this production. I think I was too close to it.
Do you have any dream projects?
I started my directorial career with my dream project. I’m working on creating another. I think anything I’d consider a dream project is hard to define because it would have to be a new work. I love the classics, I respect the classics, but I want to see theatre move forward.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
I’m currently working on a show with last year’s best production winner, Circlesnake. Alec Toller, Mikaela Dyke, Alex-Paxton Beesley, Anders Yates, Paloma Nuñez and myself are putting up a show called Slip at The Box opening January 22nd. It’s a detective procedural that gets weird. I’m working with Sex T-Rex on the two shows they’re doing in rep at the Storefront in March, then I’m directing Jason Maghanoy’s Hangman at the Storefront Theatre in May. I’ve got a podcast radio play coming out with Brouhaha. It’s called How to Start a Fire. Also my webseries, The Village Green, should be out in Canada soon.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just that Daniel Maslany’s soundtrack to the show was the real star. I think everyone involved agrees. Also just another shout out to Kelsey Rutledge. She’s a rad stage manager and a wonderful person. And Alanna McConnell, our TD. She made that big ol’ house. She’s a gem and a half. And Melissa Joakim. Rocked those LED’s on that white house and gave us all that colour. There is nothing she can’t do. I work with superheroes, guys. It makes my job real easy.