The Artistic Director of Soup Can Theatre makes her second appearance in the Nominee Interview Series (she was previously nominated for Best Director in 2013), this time for her commanding performance in Heretic.
Sarah both wrote and performed multiple roles in the one-woman Joan of Arc drama and produced it twice over the span of 2015, earning her an Outstanding Solo Performance nod this year.
We last interviewed you for the 2013 Nominee Interview Series. Catch us up on what you’ve been up to since then.
I produced Circle Jerk – a co-production with Soup Can, safeword, and Aim for the Tangent Theatre – in the fall of 2014, did lots of grant writing, saw lots of theatre, had some auditions, took classes, wrote a thing about that girl who did that thing that one time…. you know, the usual.
What inspired you to write your one-woman show?
I wanted to give myself a challenge as an artist. I was just tired of the waiting that comes hand in hand with the acting industry: waiting for notices from your agent that you booked an audition, waiting to hear if you booked a gig, etc. I wanted to be more in control of my career and individual journey as an artist, and try something new.
Why Joan of Arc?
The inspiration initially came from being so moved by one of her monologues in Shaw’s Saint Joan (a piece I’ve performed for auditions) that I felt compelled to explore this emotional connection further. I’m not religious, but I don’t think one needs to be to find her life fascinating. Joan is often presented and portrayed in this very holy and patriotic light: the courageous martyr who was burned at the stake. What I find doesn’t really feature in renditions of her is that she was a teenager, the daughter of farmers, illiterate and uneducated, and how extraordinary it was that she managed to challenge the patriarchic and clergy-dominated status quo of the time. What interested me was finding the vulnerable human beneath the saint. My goal was to create the private, personal moments that people wouldn’t have seen, moments that wouldn’t have been recorded in historical volumes. What was going through her mind when she picked up a sword and stepped onto the battlefield for the first time? Did her faith wane at all when she was put in prison and accused of heresy? If it did, how would that have affected her view of the world, of the church, of herself?
What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan or just start at page one and work through?
For this, it started out with reading and doing research, then plotting her chronology that we know through historical records, plotting out the important moments in her life. Then it was seeing who the important people were that she interacted with: her parents, the Dauphin, soldiers, priests, the pro-English bishop who initiated her trial, and figuring out who these people were as individual characters. What did they think of her? What did she think of them? From there, I wrote monologues from the perspectives of Joan and the other characters, and did some improvs with Joan interacting with these characters to figure out how those scenes and relationships could work. At that point, with all these discoveries and information, I just sat down and started writing. My approach is to just write, just vomit on the page, whatever comes to mind without censoring or second-guessing anything. Then come edits and dramaturgy.
How much research was involved?
A fair amount of research, but I certainly took a lot of artistic license as well. Not much of Joan is known before she joined the French army and started fighting in the 100 Years War. We know about the battles, the trial, and the execution, but not a whole lot is known about her life before that. The 100 Years War began in the 1330s, so she was born into a period of socio-political upheaval and violence, an environment that society was used to. How I interpreted the aspect of her hearing voices was her wanting so much to say to people “No, this is wrong. We’re being occupied, and there should be a French king on the throne. We must fight”. Her faith was the vessel through which she could say these things and take action.
In researching, it was very clear the she became a force to be reckoned with, and changed the tide of the war. She made the French care again and become passionate about their country and defending it. She firmly believed that she heard divine voices instructing her to drive out the English, and nothing could convince her otherwise. A lot of my research indicated how strongly devout and pious she was. Whether you believe she heard voices or not, you can’t deny that her drive, journey, and achievements weren’t extraordinary. Orleans had been under siege for seven months; under her leadership, it was won back in only four days. A seventeen year old girl, with no military training, accomplished in less than a week what an army of men could not in half a year.
Did you go through a lot of drafts? How did the play change through the development process?
I think between the workshop in April and the remount in November, there were about 4-5 or so drafts. Some scenes were re-written, some scenes were cut completely. In doing the remount, I thought that I could write some stuff better, and go into more depth in interpreting what she was thinking and feeling. There was more emotional depth and action.
Did the show change much in rehearsals?
Not a lot changed. In getting the show up on its feet, we naturally discovered things that worked on paper but not physically, and figured out some re-writes to lines and re-ordering of scenes.
How does the experience of performing your own material compare to working off an established script?
You have the freedom to re-write and make changes once you put the thing on its feet. Once you give it a physical life, you discover things that will work differently, and you have the luxury of being able to change your mind about how a line will be re-written or what direction a scene will go. You don’t really have such flexibility when you’re working with an established script that you’ve paid royalties to produce.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of being up there on your own?
Well there’s the sheer terror of forgetting something or messing up a line, because you don’t have another actor up there to help you if you lose your place. But then it happens: you mess something up, but you know the piece well enough that you can just keep going and shrug it off. That was the big reward for me: letting go of things beyond my control in performance, and just find a way to stay present and let whatever happens happen. If you’re relaxed and present, any impulse you feel is correct. I took the pressure off myself to do every performance perfectly. “Perfect” takes away from instinct, creativity, and the natural sense of play a performer needs.
At first, I found it tough to be on my own, to not have another actor up there to feed off of, to play with, so I found the rehearsal process a bit challenging at the start because of that. I tried to think of it as doing one long monologue to help me get over that feeling of “I’m alone and can’t feed off anyone else. Oh no, I’m fake and boring!” But that feeling disappeared once we were in the performance spaces, with the set and technical components, and that really grounded me and made me feel immersed in the world we created. That discomfort of being by myself went away.
Performing the show twice in one year, how did the remount compare to the original production?
We saw the April 2015 production as more of a workshop, since this is the first play I’ve written and we wanted to see how it could work on its feet – with all the production elements and an audience – with the goal of doing a remount in the future. The opportunity to mount it again presented itself in the fall of 2015, so we went for it. The remount had a bit more spit and polish, and just brought the piece to next level it needed to go. There was more maturity; it was ripe. Apart from this evolution, the script was pretty similar, and the production overall had the same style.
The set designs were different but came from the same concept: meeting Joan in this afterlife environment, resembling a medieval tomb, giving people the sense that they’re walking into a sacred space. Claire Hill did the design for the workshop, and she created this amazing black and white collage of medieval scenes and images that covered the whole space. Alyksandra Ackerman did the design for the remount, and did chalk drawings of stained glass window images (which looked fantastic against the upstage black brick wall of the Passe Muraille Backspace), and chalk drawings were something we utilized in the blocking, with me literally writing and drawing on the stage, as a way for Joan to finally tell her story from her own perspective: write and draw her history her way. Both designs were wonderful, and really helped me feel immersed in this sacred environment.
An addition to the piece in the remount was actual fight choreography for the Siege of Orleans scene. We knew we wanted to have some intense physical action, but naturally we asked ourselves “how the hell do we do a battle sequence with one person??” Fellow indie artist and fight choreographer Melanie Hrymak – who’s certainly no stranger to one-woman shows herself – came on board, and came up with some great stuff. That scene was so fun to do, because what actor doesn’t want to run around and climb up and down things, brandishing a sword, pretending they’re on some Game of Thrones-esque battlefield!
Another addition to the remount was using voice overs to play other characters. In the workshop, I played Joan plus everyone else (the Dauphin, the bishops, her father, etc.) and I played them all live, but I felt that we could do something more effective with that for the remount. So I played some characters live, and for others I pre-recorded voice overs, and those were used in scenes where I wanted the physical focus to remain on Joan while having the juxtaposition of the voice and perspective of a secondary character. It was another way to present the contrast between Joan’s opinion and state of mind and those of the patriarchy and clergy, who wanted her out of the way.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I think my favourite moment was doing the monologue from the perspective of Geoffroy Therage, the executioner. You wouldn’t think of a medieval executioner feeling remorse or fear for doing his job – that’s not the way they’re usually depicted. In my research, I learned that he actually feared damnation for being the one who lit the match, so I ran with that: writing this piece about what was the worst day of his life, describing what it was like to watch Joan in her final moments then watch her body get burned away, and living in fear for his soul for the rest of his life.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
Writing grant application and planning fundraising events for Soup Can in the spring. We of course do have ideas for future productions, but – as one does in indie theatre – we need to bring a bit of money in first before we can make the art.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you to the amazing artists who jumped on board the crazy train with me for both productions of Heretic: Alyksandra Ackerman, Matt Bernard, Scott Dermody, Jakob Ehman, Justin Haigh, Kathleen Hemsworth, Claire Hill, Melanie Hrymak, Karen Knox, Randy Lee, Julia Lewis, Wesley McKenzie, Rebecca Perry, and Leslie Thorpe-Dermody. Thank you to all the spaces we used for rehearsals and performances. Thank you to our supporters and audiences.
And thank you Kelly and everyone at My Theatre and My Entertainment World! Your support of the indie community is inspiring and wonderful!