Recent LAMDA graduate Andrea Creighton earned herself a nomination for Outstanding Actress in this year’s Toronto MyTheatre Awards for the way she brought the character of revolutionary political activist Anna Mendelssohn to life in Elevated State’s The Angry Brigade. Her performance had a depth and sincerity that did justice to the historical character who was so disarming and seductive that she was almost single-handedly responsible for drawing out their trial to one of the longest in British recorded history.
What was your first experience with theatre?
The first one I can remember, even though I had more experiences before this- in sixth grade, we had this outdoor amphitheatre thing where we put on a performance at my school and for some reason we did a dramatic interpretation of The Cremation of Sam Magee – that old school Canadian poem. I cannot remember what I did in it but I can still recite most of the poem so it must have been something big! I remember someone being pulled on a sleigh, that’s about it.
That’s a creepy poem, right?
It totally is! And we were a bunch of fourth to sixth graders re-enacting it. It was really strange. I don’t know why.
What got you interested in theatre?
Well, I’m lucky that my Dad has always been a really big fan of Stratford. So when I got to high school he started taking me and my siblings to see shows there every year. That’s also why I’ve always liked Shakespeare. We didn’t see that many shows in Toronto but we did see a lot of things in Stratford, so that’s what got me excited about theatre in the first place, and what made me want to perform.
Did you have any favourite Shakespeare plays?
I used to really really love Twelfth Night. I remember I was in love with Malvolio the first time I saw it. I was, I don’t know, maybe twelve years old, freaking out in the audience and the guy who played him saw me and winked at me and it was the best moment of my life! But yeah I loved Twelfth Night back then. I think some of the other Shakespeares might have gone over my head at that point.
You just graduated from The London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Arts. Why did you choose that school in particular?
I used to work in design before this, and I’d always been kind of scared to fully dedicate myself to doing acting without having proper training. When I was in high school, I’d done a bit of film and TV stuff but the idea of doing theatre completely terrified me because I was like ‘I don’t have the skill set. I don’t know how to project to an audience. What am I doing?’
So I wanted to get a classic foundation, and part of it was that, if you look at different courses around the world, a lot of them are so long, like three or four years, and by this point I was already twenty-five, twenty-six, and I was like ‘I’d like to do a really concise, really intensive program’, and when I saw that LAMDA had their one-year, classical acting program, I was like, ‘ah that seems perfect’. So I didn’t audition for that many schools, and I’m so glad that I got into LAMDA. Because you know when you do auditions you can feel the different vibes of each school? And you’re like, ‘oh, I don’t know if I’d fit in there’. LAMDA was the one where I felt good in that audition, I liked everyone in that room. So it all worked out.
What was your experience like at LAMDA?
Very intense. Really challenging but it was amazing. We got to work with some insane people; for some reason the Masters class got to do three hours every week of Laban work with James Kemp, who is the ultimate person you could ever study that with. So we had this amazing movement and character-building study tool that we got from him.
Is there anything else you want to say about your time there, and what that was like?
Well it was quite intense, because it was a lot of text-heavy work, because it was all Shakespeare and his contemporaries. And the thing that I probably liked best was exploring it from different angles. I’ve always thought I was good with text but I felt I was getting a bit bogged down by focusing too much on the text. And so it was really fun, as we got later in the year, we started doing more movement-based projects, and getting into lighter, more comedic things, like Restoration comedy, and that was when things started to come together and click was when you got past the fear of the text, or that absolute focus on it, I guess. But it was very, very intensive, and it got you places by the end. I was in a totally different place at the end than when I started.
So how did you get involved with The Angry Brigade?
The theatre company Elevated State is me, Lauren Saunders, and Matt Dawson. And the reason we formed it is because all three of us trained in the UK, actually not in the same schools at the same time. I met Lauren here in Canada, and she had met Matt just as she was leaving Bristol Old Vic, and he was just starting. But we found that Toronto’s theatre scene is kind of insular. If you come to it, and you haven’t lived here in a while- I hadn’t lived here in eight years, I don’t think Lauren had lived here in four- it feels hard to get a handle on. Especially with some of the smaller theatre groups, it’s who they know from school, they tend to cast who they know. So we [thought] it would be awesome if we could create a theatre company that helps out people who maybe don’t have that network here in Toronto.
It just started as a play reading group between the three of us, and then we were like, ‘you know what? These plays are good. We should put these on’. We were initially looking at The Effect by Lucy Prebble [but] we had a bit of trouble obtaining rights. The Angry Brigade is a tricky one, because it’s hyper-British. We acknowledged that, doing this one, we were like ‘it has to be set in Britain, it has to be what it is, and we’ve just got to do it, really bring that to the forefront because we can’t deny that fact’.
It’s something that I’d seen when I was in London, and I was so excited because- it’s so rare, first of all, to find a play for four young actors that’s that well written and that allows you to play with such range. The two halves are two completely different worlds, plus it’s just painfully relevant when you have young people who aren’t agreeing with what’s happening in the politics in their country and around the world but aren’t sure how to be heard. It’s interesting too because it’s about homegrown terrorist bombers, but in our research we discovered they were never intending to hurt anyone. They were political statements and they were just trying to, you know, as they would say, ‘wake people up,’ and try to get people more active, so we felt it was relevant.
So the play was based on historical events?
This actually happened, and that’s what blew my mind when I saw the show is that I didn’t realize this was based on actual events. I’m not sure that it would have been taught outside of the UK but even there it seems to be mostly forgotten. But it’s incredible. We actually added in, after the first five shows, a little sort of wrap up at the end, which we tacked in to the final second. A few shows in, we were like ‘oh my gosh, we never added the little thing at the end which says that it was the longest running criminal trial in English history and that the four of them went to prison for ten years’. It’s this crazy thing when hits you that it’s real, because the play is strangely comedic at times, there’s a lot of political rants and it can be kind of silly so when it hits you, the reality of it, it is a bit disarming. So that [ending] was actually added later in the run of our show.
I left thinking, ‘what am I supposed to think about this?’
That’s kind of what we liked too, because there’s no definitive answer. What we loved is that we connected to the characters in both acts and everyone has these rational reasons for doing the things they do. I don’t like super moralistic plays, which is funny because I come from classical theatre and they often are [moralistic], but it’s nice with modern works to feel it’s open-ended.
What drew you to the character of Anna?
When I originally saw it at the Bush Theatre, I was just bawling by the end. I fell in love with her character so, when I proposed this play, I was like ‘guys, I’d really love to play Anna’, which is so terrible of me.
What struck me, then, reading it, was how she has this intense desire to connect with people, and throughout the play there’s just more and more doors being slammed in her face in terms of trying to connect. Kate Lynch directed the second half, and she was incredible because she was very quick at picking up on things like, if I was having all these people shut me out, I might get a bit worried, I might get a bit anxious, I might have these reactions, but the more we looked at it, and actually looked at the real Anna Mendelssohn, the more we realized that everything is kind of an offer and she’s always really open and really giving and even when people are being totally cruel to her she’s still trying to move forward and help them in a way. So it was actually really incredible reading about the real Anna Mendelssohn – part of the reason their trial was so long is because she was so incredible at swaying the jury. She represented herself and it’s just incredible reading these accounts of how she would be saying ‘no, but we were doing it to create a better world’, and was so just open and genuine that that’s why it took so, so long for them to get convicted. That was something fun to play with- when you have all these obstacles against you, how do you still manage to be really warm and open and giving?
In a way, Anna bridges the two worlds in the show because, despite the fact that this police officer is hunting her down, she still can’t help but reach out to him.
Exactly, yeah, it’s so fascinating! It’s like ‘well, I’m stuck in a world with three other people whom I can no longer connect with’, she needs to connect with something. We were debating that- does she want them to get caught? I didn’t think that she did; she almost wants Smith to recognize ‘we’re just like you, we’re attempting to get results in a different way than you but we’re human and we care’. It’s nice seeing the way that I think she kind of sways Smith a bit; that was really fun to play with.
Was there a particular moment or scene in Angry Brigade that was your favourite?
I mean, it was one of the silliest scenes, but I loved that orgy scene. We did the second act first- that one took a long time, because there’s next to no stage directions, and there was a lot of experimenting. And there’s so many moments in that act that I love. But the one that just made the whole cast have such a good laugh was when we finally got to the end of the first act, into that crazy orgy scene, and we were having so much fun! It’s so meticulously planned out in the text too, if you read it, it goes through so specifically what everyone is doing. So we did like, a dramatic reading of it and then enacted it; it was great!
But of course, the final scene of Act Two is … [shudders] … that’s the one that stuck with me from the first time I saw it, so that one too.
What is one of your favourite productions that you’ve ever been involved with, besides this one?
You know, this is one of my first shows actually. After theatre school, I’ve only done this and one other production. So, so far this has been the most exciting because we really had time to develop the characters. Besides this one, when I was in school, we did an all female Julius Caesar. And that was really awesome.
Tell us about that production.
It’s interesting because there’s kind of a trend right now in doing all-female Shakespeare productions, especially in the UK where the Donmar has this trilogy right now of all-female Shakespeares. So, it was really fascinating seeing how our audience was very quickly able to accept the fact that all the characters were women. There was no problem with it. It was set in this institutionalized world where you would accept, okay, it’s only women here. But it also made it really challenging, because one of the characters I was playing was Portia, and there’s the whole speech about being a woman, and that was one of those things where I was like, ‘how do I do this when everyone else is a woman?’ It was an interesting struggle there. But it was really exciting, and just, really, really nice to see all these other really talented women able to get really meaty Shakespearian text, which is so rare. Yeah, that one was really great, it made me very excited.
What are some of the biggest contrasts for you between the London theatre scene and the Toronto theatre scene?
I think the biggest thing is that in London, everyone sees theatre. It’s a very theatre-centric culture; it doesn’t matter what your occupation is, everyone there seems to love theatre and support it. Here, I wish it was more like that … I do think that theatre companies are trying to get more people involved and interested but it is just kind of like this weird cultural shift. I mean there are so many fantastic theatres in London and they’re all always busy. And getting tickets to things that you know are good shows is next to impossible. I’ve lined up at 4am to get tickets for shows there because you know it’s gonna be sold out.
And I guess the other thing, not just in terms of theatre but in terms of acting in general, is that in the UK you’re trained to do theatre, and film, and voiceovers, and you want to branch out and do everything. Whereas coming back to Toronto, you know, even just wanting to take some film classes to get comfortable with being on film again, there was kind of the reaction of like, ‘but, do you want to do theatre OR film?’ So that’s also a bit of a divide.
Were you tempted to stay in London?
It was tempting. That being said, the head of our course, Penny Cherns, she was like, ‘you know, you can stay in London, but even if you work on your phonetics, and get your accents amazing, you will be cast as the token American in any play’. Now, there are exceptions to this rule. Lauren who’s in our company, who also helped with dialect work, she’s worked extensively in the UK because she would just go in, in the accent for the character, act as if it was her accent, and once she’d gotten the part she’d reveal that she was Canadian. But it’s kind of crazy because you’ve got to be so secretive about it until you get your foot in the door. I got where Penny was coming from, absolutely, you’ve gotta be super on your accent game to make it other than as the token American/Canadian in a show, but I was tempted to stay. There was also the financial thing, though – the UK is pretty expensive.
So what’s your next project?
That’s what we’re trying to figure out tonight! We’re having a meeting, looking at when grants applications are due because, our first show, we funded that out of our own savings and with some help from friends, and we were like, ‘this time we need to do it right, we need to get some grants, we need to have a proper road map for what we want to do’. So, I dunno, there’s a few ideas on the table.
Is there a particular theoretical or political direction you want to take the company in?
See, this is the tricky thing, we were originally looking at things that were UK or European writing that hadn’t really come to Canada yet. But we want to open that up a bit. I’ve been looking at a show that’s been written by an author from Quebec, but they recently translated it and performed it in London. It’s a very quirky show, so I haven’t [been through it] with the team yet, we’re gonna do that tonight. We just want to find something that feels exciting and do it well. So, we’ll see.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for having me; I’m super excited!