Amidst the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated indie all-star cast of Holger Syme’s new adaptation of the 1932 Ödön von Horváth play Casimir & Caroline, Howland Company founding member Kristen Zaza stood out with an emotional turn as a woman trapped in a terrible relationship.
We asked the Outstanding Supporting Actress nominee to walk us through the production’s collaborative creation process and help us understand her character Liz’s complicated psychology.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I was very lucky as a child, in that my mother is an arts lover. She took me to every big show that came into town when I was little. Phantom, Beauty and the Beast, Cats, Les Mis, The Lion King, Tommy. I developed a love of theatre from as young as I can remember, and the arts were a vital part of my upbringing.
My first experience performing, however, was in kindergarten. We were putting on Beauty and the Beast. I was gunning for Belle, but the teacher played Belle. I was given the second female lead, however, as Mrs. Potts. I’m sure that created some lasting emotional effects in my life and career (though I’m not sure what those are)…
How did you develop your skills as an actor?
I went to an arts high school for drama, though it was more in my extra-curricular work that I developed my skills early on – I did a lot of directing, I performed in shows outside of school, and I learned that I was willing to exhaust myself in order to always have a production going on in my life. This was especially important going into theatre school, where you spend most of your time outside of class in rehearsal. I performed in our mandatory school shows, but I still worked on shows outside of those, too. The opportunity to hone your craft and spend time doing what you love as part of your post-secondary education was incredibly valuable to me.
After that, I received my Master of Arts degree in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. That was a year that was mostly academic for me – and that’s where I really learned where my passion lies. I got the chance to clarify how I think and feel about theatre, and the type of work that excites me.
What have been some of your favourite roles to date?
Liz! Liz (from Casimir and Caroline) is the first one that comes to mind. But I’ll say more about her soon, so I’ll move on for now.
I played a historical figure named Pauline Viardot in a Toronto Fringe show called Piecing Together Pauline. I’m a lover of classical music, and yet I had never heard of her: she was an opera singer, a composer, and quite a powerful figure in her day. She was known and loved by several famous figures, like de Musset, George Sand, Turgenev, Gounod, Berlioz, Chopin, Meyerbeer, Schumann and his wife, Brahms, among others. I grew to relate to her and admire her very deeply. And yet history forgot her. It broke my heart. She was simply too important to have been forgotten like that.
Do you have a dream role you’d like to play one day?
Greek Tragedy is something that I haven’t got the chance to dive into as deeply as I’d like, and I’d love to take on a character like Clytemnestra, Antigone, Agave…women who were written as powerful, strong-willed, independent (and, because this was Ancient Greece, also mad and doomed).
And then, I have a penchant for horror stories that we have seen countless versions of – and yet rarely one helmed by a woman. I would kill to play Dracula. Or Victor Frankenstein.
That being said, I’d also take on Mrs. Potts again.
You’re a founding member of The Howland Company. How did you get involved with that group of people and how did the company get started?
The Howland Company was an idea that originally came from three people: James Graham, Ruth Goodwin, and Paolo Santalucia. They brought in people who they wanted to work and create with. Paolo and I have known each other since we were fifteen, having gone to high school together and then actually going through theatre school together. He and I were very often involved in those same extra-curricular shows I mentioned. Through him, I was brought into Howland. Though now, we’re all extremely close, and I’m grateful every day that I have a group of colleagues who share my artistic tastes and my excitement for creating. We all have varying skill sets that we put to use in everything we do. It started with our Reading Group (where anyone can come and read a play with us), and has evolved into so much more now. I’m incredibly grateful to have these artists in my life.
In the company’s first big hit 52 Pick-Up, you played the traditionally female character opposite MyTheatre Award winner Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (then Llyandra Jones in the remount) in the traditionally male role. How do you feel the gender bent casting brought new life to the text?
It’s an interesting question, because I’ve never played the role opposite a man. As a performer, I’ve only yet experienced it as a romance between two women; I haven’t explored the play through any other lens. Technically speaking, we only had to make a few subtle changes to make the switch work. Which says a lot about the quality of the writing – it is so familiar and universal, yet specific and nuanced, that people easily see themselves in the play in either character, no matter their gender or sexual preference. I believe that the playwrights (TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi) did a wonderful job of fleshing out two very human, very relatable and believable characters, without ever resorting to a “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” trope, which makes the play so adaptable for any couple of actors.
Your nomination this year is for Casimir & Caroline, the new adaptation of which was created with the company through a series of workshops. Can you walk us through that process?
We started months and months ago, reading the original text as it was, and more than once; and then deciding what we needed to change in order to tell this story to a modern Toronto audience (as opposed to a 1932 German audience). Then, for some of the more problematic scenes and characters (as in, the ones that rang as a bit more dated), Holger had the actors in the room improvising the scenes, and recorded them. Liz was not really one of those characters – quite a lot of my text was somewhat close to the original, though there are some moments that came out through conversation with Holger (like breaking out into song repeatedly!). What I loved about the process was the fact that we had the time and the opportunity with the director to try whatever we wanted to. With very little exception, we were allowed to be flexible with the text and improvise around it, paraphrase, and “make it our own”, and that is how some of the most memorable moments of the show came to be.
Holger Syme is also nominated for a MyTheatre Award this year for adapting the script. What were some of the key conversations you had with him in developing the character of Liz?
I knew Holger very well before all of this as a former professor and, more significantly, as a friend. Talking with him about Liz was very easy, which is a big deal – playing a character who is so vulnerable and goes through so much abuse is difficult enough, I can’t imagine working on it with a director who I didn’t feel safe and comfortable with. I’m very grateful that he gave me a lot of room to explore every side of her on my own terms.
Our conversations, however, didn’t always revolve around the abuse in Liz’s life. What I found much more valuable were the things we discovered that make Liz strong. Things that are actually hinted at in the original text. Liz loves stargazing. She loves singing. She was deeply affected by the loss of her brother. She believes in the goodness of people, despite all of the mistreatment she’s shown. She stands up for what she thinks is right, even when it means putting herself in danger. Our time discussing these things are what made Liz one of my favourite roles I’ve ever played: she is an optimist who – despite her (justified) fears and anxieties – has several little moments of bravery and strength. I feel that that’s far more important than the negative situation she’s in. We never defined her by the abuse she endures in the play.
How did working with the writer as a director affect the rehearsal process? Was there ever a point when the script stopped changing?
Never, not even in performance. I don’t think any run of the show was ever the same, text-wise, as the last one. And I have to thank Holger for that. Unless he specifically said otherwise, he encouraged us to improvise around the lines whenever possible. He really embraced the ephemeral nature of theatre. I think the show was stronger for that.
Your character was trapped in a bad relationship. Tell us about working with MyTheatre Award winner Jesse Nerenberg to make that dynamic complex enough to shed some light on Liz’ inability to leave Frank.
The text definitely does not allow for much tenderness between Frank and Liz, which makes the question of “why are they together?” very difficult to solve. The answer for us was in finding moments where Frank and Liz connect. First, they’ve been with each other for a very long time, and there’s an emotional and physical familiarity there, no matter how unhealthy the relationship. Second, we found moments where they’re actually enjoying the party together; a lot of improvised singing, dancing, touching, and making each other laugh.
I don’t mean to say that we were at all making light of this abusive relationship: it’s simply that these characters are in such a bad place in their lives and with each other, that wherever we could find any reason for them to simply enjoy each other’s company, we had to go for it. Because ultimately, if these two people really do have an emotional dependence on each other, when he does hurt her (verbally or physically), it’s all the more difficult to watch. It certainly made it more painful from our side of things. Like most relationships, much less cut-and-dry.
One of the biggest issues discussed at the talkbacks that followed each performance was the treatment of women in the play, with Liz very much at the centre of the issue. How did you feel about the questionable politics of the script and the attempts to rectify some of the original play’s flaws through the modern adaptation?
Well, first I think I should identify the play’s politics, rather than the politics that the play is commenting on. Horvath, and to a much greater extent in this incarnation, Holger, are never advocating for the mistreatment of women. They are bringing it in the light for us to look at and examine. I would much rather that a play do that, then brush these issues under the carpet. Many people expressed discomfort with it. I certainly was not “comfortable” playing Liz. But I’m of the mind that theatre shouldn’t always be comfortable, especially if it’s to be used as a vehicle for change.
However, Liz and Frank were actually quite close to their original versions; sadly, a relationship like that is still as plausible now as it would have been in 1932. It’s in the characters of Ellie and Mary (Sophia Fabilli and Ruth Goodwin), and their wonderful improv-based dialogue, that the gender politics of the play were really dissected, and maybe even changed.
What were some of the other interesting revelations or discussions that came out of those talkbacks?
For me, it was the people who responded positively about our portrayal of the treatment of the women in Casimir and Caroline. They – and I – were able to recognize those situations as ones that are not that uncommon, even today, and were grateful to see it on stage. But also disheartened to see the similarities that still exist between our society and society during Horvath’s time.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I would have to say the ending. Casimir and Liz have a moment where maybe everything will be all right, maybe they’ll live happily ever after, maybe they’ll find comfort in each other, but probably not, because life’s hard. Who knows. And that, without intending to sound negative, is pretty close to how real life works. And then I got to look at the stars and sing, which are two things that make Liz (and me) genuinely happy.
We sang a Smiths’ song. I began, Alex (Crowther) joined me, and then the other actors joined in for a choral harmony. Since I was also the show’s Music Director and I arranged the final number, I suppose that moment was a culmination of a lot of hard work for all of us. Being able to let go of the tension and sadness that happens over the course of the play through music was an emotional experience.
What are you working on now or next?
Howland-wise, we’re very excited to be a part of Canadian Stage RBC’s Emerging Artist Program as this year’s Company in Residence. We’re working on a number of things there, including Susanna Fournier’s take rimbaud, and returning to examine Casimir and Caroline further.
Personally, I’m adapting and composing music for something that I’m very excited about. For now it’s a secret, but more to come about that!
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’m very humbled to have my work recognized alongside the other Outstanding Supporting Actress nominees, who are all incredibly talented and amazing people. I’m so proud to be a member of this community, and I’m genuinely excited to see the work we all come out with in the future. Thanks so much, Kelly, and everyone at MyEntertainmentWorld for this wonderful opportunity!