My Theatre

31 March 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Jeannette Lambermont-Morey

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Described as “deeply intelligent, meticulous, and passionate”, “a powerhouse”, and “the only person I’ve ever worked with where I definitely leave a better actor than I was when I went in to the project” by the cast of Haus of Casati’s Outstanding Production-nominated My Child, Jeannette Lambermont-Morey is a beloved figure in Toronto theatre, known for nurturing talent and assembling all-star teams. She’s also now an Outstanding Direction MyTheatre Award nominee because her work on Mike Bartlett’s startling one-act was swift, stellar, and unforgettable.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I was not quite three years old yet. My birthday is New Year’s Eve. It was the Christmas before my birthday so a couple of weeks to my birthday. I was in a church, it was a Christmas story, and it changed my life because I remember it clearly and of course that’s got to be one of my first memories ever.

But I remember clearly because I remember the magic of it. I began to get suspicious because the actress playing Mary has this robe and her arm tipped up and I thought ‘I don’t know if there’s a baby in there or not’, right? So when she came up the aisle in the middle of it, I stood up in my pew to peek over to see if there was a baby in her arms and she tipped her arm up. When she tipped her elbow up, I knew that there was no baby, and I was thrilled because to me that was theatre magic. She created it for me, because she confirmed that there was no baby. Had there been a baby, she would have let me see it. I knew that, even as a child. The fact that she didn’t mean she was saying “No, no this is magic, this is theatre, we’re going to pretend”. Oh my God, I loved it.

But the first real professional theatre was Stratford for me. I was twelve and it was Midsummer Night’s Dream with Martha Henry and that crew. It changed my life too. 

When did you know you wanted to work in theatre?
I don’t remember ever not knowing. There’s no theatre in my family, so I don’t know where it came from, but I was doing what my mom called “basement theatre” when I was in grade school. I was writing plays and directing in them and acting in them and forcing all my friends and relations. It’s always been with me, I can’t explain it. 

Do you remember the first thing you ever directed?
Yeah. Again, basement theatre, because I directed all those things. It was my own version of Cinderella, which I adapted, and then Rapunzel. I remember Rapunzel because I had to make the long wig. My dad worked for Lady Galt Textiles and he was able to get cheap wool. I realized it was too heavy to actually make a wig on someone’s head, so we made a short wig and then I attached the rest of it to the balcony. So it looked like someone could actually climb it. 

You’re also an educator. How does that perspective affect the work that you put on the stage?
Most profoundly, it has introduced me to a pool of artists, oddly, who are folks that I’ve been teaching over the years who then go out into the business and start making theatre and include me, which is a great honour. It probably does affect how I direct but I’m not conscious of it. 

What’s been some of the work that’s been created by your students after they’ve graduated that you’re particularly proud of?
Oh gosh, there’s such a long list. I’ve just done The Libertine with, Jakob Ehman. I’m proud of that because it’s a really difficult obscure play. I did it with Jakob in period study and he had such a good experience that he’s always wanted to play that part again. So, when he was given the opportunity to suggest a play to Talk is Free he suggested The Libertine, and we had a good talk about it because it’s obscure and weird and hard and you wouldn’t choose that play if you could choose any play on earth, right? So it was great to have to say “why would we do it in 2017? Like what is it about this play that makes it stage-worthy now?” The whole team approached it in a way that we wouldn’t have done otherwise.

What exactly is ‘period study’?
It is an annual event in the second year at George Brown Theatre School- other theatre schools have period studies as well, it’s not unique to George Brown. For a concentrated period of time, the students focus on a particular period in history in depth, soaked in study of the work of that time. It could be Jacobean, it could be Restoration. What I’m doing right now is Georgian. Restoration is what we were doing when we found The Libertine; most people know Restoration comedy, but this is a Restoration tragedy. It’s a seven week intensive, what I call a “festival of theatre” because we have an eight to ten hour performance at the end. It’s big. It’s fun. It’s good.

How did you get involved with Haus of Casati and My Child?
Gabriella Colavecchio and Scott Farley are both former students. I’ve worked with Gabriella a lot. I was Artistic Director at New World Theatre Project in Newfoundland for a number of years and I brought her out there and she did a couple of shows with me, so we’ve been very close since she graduated. I actually was looking for a play for her. That’s why I brought My Child to them in the first place. I’m a big fan of Mike Bartlett. I did his Contractions at Storefront three of four years ago now. I also taught a master class in Bartlett’s work at Grenfell College in Newfoundland last year. So I was really on top of his work, and I thought this was a great part for her and also a great part for Adam [Cunningham]. So it just felt like the right chemical mix. Also, it being a one act meant we weren’t undertaking something huge and expensive. 

Haus of Casati’s slogan is “Made in Toronto, Made for Toronto” but My Child is a British play. What is it about that play that you felt resonated with 2016 Toronto and why the decision to keep it in its original setting with the accents?
That’s such a great question. We tried to get it set in Toronto. We negotiated with [Bartlett]. He wouldn’t let us. Or his agent wouldn’t let us. And I thought he would because, when I did Contractions we needed a line changed- at the time we needed a city changed, just because politically things were going on that would have meant something different today- and he agreed to that. So I thought “Oh this is a cool playwright. He’s going to agree. It’ll be great”. So I just listed all the things that would have to change. It wasn’t much, it was maybe 10 things, and we sent them to his agent. But they said no. We felt that it could very easily take place in Toronto. 

It’s a universal story.
Totally universal and, by changing the name of the toy store and saying “the subway” instead of “the tube” and things like that, it could immediately have been Toronto. But when we weren’t allowed to [make the changes], we thought “ok then, fine, we’ll set it in London. It’s still a great play. It’s still about what we want it to be about, that hasn’t changed”. But it’s great that you asked that, because we tried.

You mentioned that you picked the show partly for the actors that you wanted to work with. Walk us through the rest of the casting process and how that ensemble came together.
Christina Gordon I had just worked with on Faust in Barrie. That was the first time we had worked together, it was a very happy experience, and I had a feeling she’d be great for this. It’s also kind of a departure for her so I felt she might want to do this because it expands her resume, so that was really great that she was able to.

Pricilla Taylor, who played the woman on the street selling the DVD’s, she’s also a former student. Again, one of my very favourites. She was in Faust as well, she played Gretchen.

Julia Vescio, another former student- she did two of the smaller parts plus she staged managed for us. We were trying to keep the ensemble as tight as possible so that we weren’t spread so thin with too many people. Scott Farley who was producing, he also played a role.

And Mike Dufays- again, he had been in Faust with me so I had just worked him and I knew that he was a marvelous fight guy. A) he was great casting for the role and B) he could handle the choreography because he could put the fight on himself. And Adam is also a terrific fighter so together they were a great match, so I thought we were blessed and lucky that Mike was able to do it.

And of course Kaitlin Morrow. I adore her so much, I worship the ground she walks on. We originally were going to cast a child; Mike Bartlett has written it to be played by a child. But I rapidly discovered that, in order to cast a child young enough to really be right for that play, we would be in territory where you’d say “uh, is this healthy for a young child to be inside this work?” I couldn’t imagine us rehearsing. And the kid’s in so many scenes. We did approach one child and their parents said no, so it started this whole question for us. Then immediately I thought “well then it’s gotta be a puppet because I don’t want an adult to play the child”. Kaitlin in a former student and I knew she was brilliant puppeteer. All of us were so happy that she could do it, and I thought she brought so much to it. I really loved her work

How did having a puppet in that role affect the storytelling?
It’s interesting, it heightened it profoundly. I think we were so aware of the child, whose name is Steven in the play, we were so hyper-aware of Steven in a way that we might not have been if it had been a child actor. If it had been a child actor, we would have been more conscious of the child himself, and worried about him. But, because we didn’t have to worry, we could go deeply into the being that was Steven. And very quickly, that puppet became a real entity in the room and he was separate from Kaitlin. It was a magical weird fabulous thing that happened. Everyone fell in love with him. It was powerful, really powerful. 

The decision to have people like the stage manager, producer and yourself participate in two-line/three-line roles, was that a choice to keep the focus on those four main characters?
Well, the writing keeps the focus on the four characters pretty much, because it keeps circling back to them. It’s interesting, Bartlett says in the front of the script that he doesn’t want any doubling. And I go “Thanks, Bartlett. That’s easy for you to say; we’ll end up with an enormous cast”. We only ended up with two doubles; [whispers] don’t tell him.

The intention is that they are peripheral characters and they sort of speak from outside. I know myself, playing Adam’s mother, she’s only just reaching him from afar; she’s in heaven, or whatever that is. There’s the main action, and I’m just on the outside of it. It actually worked well. And of course we were all part of the ensemble. We were all part of the creation of the world, so it kept it a tight unit.

Your direction had everything moving really quickly and everyone was in constant motion. How did you land on that sort of visual aesthetic?
The script demanded it I thought. That’s one of the things I love about Bartlett. I’m very attracted to the physical structure on the page, because it immediately demands something visceral and vital and real and tangible. So I quickly started to see the physical world and that it intersected. On the page, a first read can be confusing; it’s hard to tell what’s going on. But once you can lift out the different layers and see that they’re actually intersecting, it’s very exciting, theatrically. I just felt it had to keep going. He would have put pauses, he would have broken the scenes if he’d wanted it to be separated. He clearly didn’t, so I just thought “this is like a train”, once it goes- boom!- one thing rolls into the next into the next into the next. Also, being in the café, we had no tech. We couldn’t change with lights, we couldn’t change with sound (except for our little Japanese block); it had to be through our physical shifts. The physical body shifts to say we’re now in a new scene.

How important to you was the public space and how did you choose that particular cafe?
Bartlett says at the front of the script that he wants it to be “inappropriately public”. So I thought “it has to be somewhere that you wouldn’t expect theatre” and I thought of a café because it’s somewhere where you can sit down. This play is a little bit too much to be somewhere that people are passing through, so it had to be somewhere where we could contain people a bit. Then we thought we could buy coffee. There’s several scenes that take place in a coffee shop, they talk about Starbucks, there seemed to be several reasons why a coffee shop would be good. Gabriella and I went out and looked at a number of places and Liz Saunders recommended The Hub. She lives around the corner. So we went there and immediately thought “This is it. This is the place.” Cause there’s a lot of space in there- high ceilings, there’s a lot of floor space. And they were very willing. They have a dance studio as part of their business there so they’re in the arts, and they were up for it. They were great partners. So I we never looked back The only thing of course was we never rehearsed there. The stage manager and I went into The Hub and sort of took measurements while people were drinking coffee, lots of pictures, then went to our various rehearsal spaces, which was mostly people’s living rooms, and said “ok, so this is the bar. This is where the door is” and staged it in pieces. But it worked really well, I thought.

You didn’t start in the cafe until opening? Was there an adjustment period at all for the new space?
Well, I suppose there was to some degree but, because we rehearsed in so many different places to begin with, we were already a vagabond company. We were already a troupe of, y’know, hobos going from one place to another so, we were just in another place. Another place that worked better than anywhere else we’d been. We did have a run through [in the cafe] the day before we opened, as sort of a tech day. We had to put the fight in there; that was one thing we couldn’t do on the fly. So we had about two hours in there but then, the next day, we just hit the floor running, pedal down to the floor and off we went. 

That fight was one of the most brutal I’ve ever seen staged. Talk to us a little about its inception and how you worked character development into how those specific two men fought.
It came very much from the actors, because the script does not identify exactly what is happening. It does say that he hits him- the idea that he keeps saying “get up” and hits him again, “get up” and hits him again- but Bartlett doesn’t specify what kind of hit. He doesn’t describe the fight any further than that, so it was up to Mike and Adam to create it. The one thing Bartlett asks for in the fight is that when Adam’s character starts to go crazy, he destroys the place, and that was one thing we couldn’t do. But I thought he found that within himself; he sort of destroyed himself on the floor. But it was driven by the understanding that Mike had for his character, and that Adam had for his character and how those two would act in that situation. It was born out of that and it came together quite quickly, actually. They just understood it, profoundly. Mike’s really good at what he does, so he could bring out some really ugly stuff. I saw it a lot of times, dozens of times that fight, and every time it made me sick to my stomach. Every time.

What were some of the other interpretational concepts that you brought to the production that might not be in another version of My Child?
That’s a good question. I think that we had to make some decisions about where we were at times because literally Bartlett has no instructions of that sort. It doesn’t say “Meanwhile in Scotland”, you sort of have to deduce stuff. So we made some choices that came out of being in the café- being at the bar, being at the counter, sitting on a bench- that helped locate things in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of if it were just in a regular theatre. Being able to use the space, because we had audience around us 360. I think the rest of it was all born out of the storytelling that the play demands. I wasn’t trying to be really clever. I was just trying to tell the story with those actors. 

What were you hoping audiences would take away from the production?
I was really hoping that they would take away some real thought about the various points of view in a situation like this- that nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong; the one person who’s victimized is the child. Both parents are moving through this with their own set of understandings and their own backgrounds and they’re bringing their own garbage to the scene. They’re also bringing their own love and their own support and it’s very complicated and life is complicated and life is a mess. I think that’s what Bartlett does so well, he shows us that. Everyone is coming from a place of wanting the best, but one person’s best is another person’s horror, right? So it’s a tragedy. The whole thing is a big tragedy. It disturbed me very much when I first read it, and I thought “That’s what we want”.

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Oh my God. There are so many but, what shoots to my mind now when you ask me that, is the moment when Steven, the puppet, fights back against his dad, he just kicks back. There’s something about the reality of that puppet really becoming a child in that moment that jumps to my memory. But there are many [moments]. I loved it. 

You only ran for six performances. What are the chances we’ll see a remount?
Well, there’s a chance. Thanks to [the award nominations], we actually considered it now. We’re all going “Maybe we should have a remount. We never talked about it before. Maybe we should.” I think we may. We may just have to put those wheels in motion.

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