My Theatre

07 April 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

By // Theatre (Toronto)

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

I had to talk Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster into doing an interview. Conscientious and thoughtful about pretty much everything, she’s the sort of person who really emphasizes listening over speaking. But I insisted that that’s exactly the sort of person I want to hear speak right now. One of last year’s winners for Outstanding Ensemble for her work in the Howland Company’s Casimir & Caroline, she’s nominated again in the same category for Incident at Vichy with Soulpepper. We unpacked the troubling timeliness of that play and looked forward towards a new year of listening and amplifying unheard voices.

We last interviewed you for the 2014 series. Catch us up on your life since then.
Well, let’s start most recently and then going backwards. I moved very recently from the West End to the East End, living in Riverdale now. I got married over the summer. And I started writing this series about parenting for Intermission, that’s been interesting. I’m still primarily at Soulpepper– I’m about halfway through my sixth year, I think, now. What else have I been up to? Doing a little bit of writing, and always on the hunt for other ways to diversify what I do. I’m also right now doing something that’s new for me – I’m involved with the Paprika Festival for the first time. I’m one of their training day facilitators, and then the associate producer on their Intersection conference. So yeah, that’s kind of what’s been going on.

Where did the idea for the parenting series come from? What attracted you specifically to that subject?
I have an interest in the really pragmatic side of being an artist. All of my friends will tell you that I talk too much about personal finances. And I’m also interested in work-life balance, I guess. And so it was around the same time that we were planning our wedding, getting married, and part of that is also discussing whether or not you want to have children. And we’re still pretty much on the page that we will probably, soon-ish, maybe. We’ll maybe possibly soon-ish possibly, maybe. But along with that, that had me thinking about – you know, I think in your mid-twenties the idea of kids is really kind of a nebulous – “Oh, it’ll all work out”, and then when you actually start thinking – “Oh, how? How actually will I make that work?” So the series came out of that. Intermission asked me what I wanted to write about, and I said “babies or money”. And I might write about money next, we’ll see what happens with that.

Who have been some of those interesting interviews you’ve done for them?
Well, I’ve only interviewed six people for five different articles, because there’s one article that has two different people in it. I can’t possibly pick one. They’ve all been great, and really a wide range of perspectives. If there’s anything that I wish I could get out, it’s that everybody is wonderful and polite and maybe a little bit cautious, maybe, and I don’t want to project on them, but I would be the same. I am being the same. But you’re talking with the industry that you work in, and you’re talking about your colleagues and the people that you work with, and so obviously, nobody wants to come out and say “These people treated me like crap when I had to have a baby”. And I don’t know that people have had that experience. I can’t guarantee that that’s out there, but what I expected is it is out there for someone, and I haven’t talked to that person, who has had a really bad experience of becoming a parent in this industry.

You’re one of the reigning Outstanding Ensemble winners for 2015 with Casimir & Caroline. What stands out in your memory about that production?
That production was an experiment. It was a script that Holger Syme worked with us on adapting from the original. The Ödön von Horváth. And a lot of it was created through improv in the room, and recordings, and so what stands out to me is a real working style. Getting up on your feet and just producing reams and reams and reams of improvised texts within a certain framework, and Holger doing the real labour of carrying that down and tidying it up and putting it all together. And the other thing that stands out for me is the talkbacks we had every night from that show, and the incredibly wide opinion – some people hated that show, which I think is great. Some people found it really, really misogynistic, and some people found it profoundly feminist, and isn’t that interesting? We still haven’t come to – we still don’t know what the next plan is for that show, but I think it will come back at some point in a fuller production, and maybe with some of the holes in it patched up a little bit. But it’s still an unfinished project.

How did you feel about that particular issue? Is it a misogynist play, is it a feminist play, is it something in the middle? 
The female characters in that show get treated pretty terribly, and sometimes also behave kind of terribly. And I guess I think that that happens, sometimes. It’s set in a workplace with these incredibly misogynistic bosses behaving in these wildly inappropriate ways towards their female employees, and I think that that does happen. And I know some people felt that this onslaught of women being mistreated was tiresome and painful to watch, but I think to not show that would be a disservice. That said, when I said that there were holes in the piece, all of the characters, I think, are not quite as fully fleshed-out as I think they need to be. It’s mostly the women, I think that fleshing out those characters more completely would make the women more three-dimensional and not victims. Because that’s how I feel about it right now. I haven’t thought about that play in a long time.

This year you’re nominated as part of another all-star Soulpepper ensemble. What stands out in your memory about Incident at Vichy?
I spent a lot of time sitting on a bench in Vichy. And I told Alan Dilworth that I don’t want to do any more bench plays, because my previous work with him had been in Eurydice, where I played a stone that also sat on a bench for a long time. But Vichy was a thrill because I got to watch these amazing actors. Particularly the back-and-forths between Stuart Hughes and Diego Matamoros. The other thing that really stands out in my memory is that we had a show I think the day after the Brexit vote and that suddenly the show just changed. became electric, in this whole other way. And that I also really broke character because I was quite maudlin about the results of the Brexit vote, and Diego had a long speech – it basically boils down to the things that divide us, and Brexit was just another example of that. It seems to me taking this kind of collective step away from community-building, global community-building, and putting up our borders, and creating barriers between people, and so Diego was talking about that, and I just started crying ever so slightly. Long before my character had any justification to shed a tear. But it was just my right eye, and so it was just this tear trickling down my cheek, and I was like “Okay, good. Just face upstage a little bit. Play it cool, Courtney. Stay in character.” Unprofessional.

You played a young boy. How did your character’s age influence or affect his view of the play that was different from other characters’?
Well, I don’t know. I’m not really in the minds of the other characters, but he certainly was a really attentive listener who was trying hard not to give anything away. I’m like that a bit too. Sometimes you’re just listening to the grown-ups, right, and you try not to give anything away, because you’re trying not to reveal your weakness, or your ignorance. And he also had the bravery of youth. He’s the one in the play who – even after all the adults talk about taking action – he’s the one who actually stands up and does try to escape. And that’s the beauty and open-heartedness, and bravery, and naiveté of being a kid in that kind of situation.

Something we associate with youth is often optimism and hope but one of the things that I think is really interesting about Vichy is that the adult characters’ optimism that everything will be okay actually leads to their tragedy. Could you talk a little bit about how that reflects contemporary protest culture, how the youth are the ones saying “It’s not going to be okay, we can’t just wait and see”?
Absolutely. I’ve been saying to people on recent days- I am privileged to even be able to say this- there are times in this past week, what with the executive orders that Trump has issued, that I almost want to let myself believe that the current state of affairs in the world is fiction. Like, it doesn’t seem real. And I have to remind myself “No, this is really, really going on, and this is affecting people’s lives. And people are losing their lives. And their futures.” And the way to remind yourself is to really engage, and to listen, and I was outside the US Consulate this morning as a large group of many, many different ages holding a protest against Trump’s ban of incoming refugees. I don’t know if it’s only the youth. I think there’s lots of different people of different ages who are fighting hard to shake the rest of us out of a comfortable, blasé mindset. And the funny thing about the kid in the play is that he both wants to believe – he really strongly wants to believe the adults, when they say everything’s gonna be fine. Because that’s what kids do, from the time that you’re a baby, you trust the grown-ups, right? At the same time, kids can believe in monsters in a way that adults can’t, so there’s really two sides of the coin: “Well, no, okay. The adults are probably right, but what if they’re not?” 

The play is a period piece about a group of European, mostly Jewish, men but the Soulpepper production included much more racial diversity and had a female cast member. Was that meant to be just inclusive casting, or is there a resonance that comes with including some minority voices into these persecuted voices from the past?
I think both. First of all, to the second point, it is a theatrical choice, and we spoke about that at length in the room. It’s a theatrical choice to have a very diverse cast onstage, and that comes up in the play. At one point – I think Stuart’s character says “that everyone has their Jew”. And that’s represented right off the bat in the show by having many of the Jewish men on the bench mocking the gypsy character, who’s sitting at the other end of the bench. And it’s our reminder that we are all biased. And should probably all operate from the assumption that we do have racist thoughts. And to constantly be interrogating ourselves because we all make assumptions about people, about groups of people. We’re all biased. So yes, it was absolutely a theatrical choice.

At the same time, I do think that it’s the kind of inclusive casting that we should just be doing in all of our theatres, all of the time, representing our city on our stages- it should just be a given. I also think that there could have been more women in the play. I think it was a great production, I think it was a great cast, but it’s funny how you need to train your audiences sometimes, and maybe twenty years ago, it would have really shaken audiences up to see a character being played by an actor who wasn’t the same ethnicity as the character. And I don’t think that that shakes people up anymore. I think people still get jolted when they see a character being played by someone who’s not of the same gender as the character. I don’t know why that seems to be a more challenging leap for audiences.

Soulpepper is making strides recently but it is not historically known for its diversity and you’ve often found yourself onstage as the only mixed race or minority performer, playing a role written for (and almost always played by) a white actor. How do you navigate that?
I’m in an interesting position with regards to that because as a half-Chinese woman, I tend to read as white. So I’ve had a few experiences with directors who make a point of bringing up race in the rehearsal hall, and it depends on what the project is sometimes. And I always really appreciate that – that recognition of my identity, I suppose. I guess the thing is, again, I feel like I have this privileged position in that I don’t need to think about it as much because I’m not as much of a visual minority. I always do think about it because it is part of my identity and I appreciate it when it comes up; I think that, especially when we’re dealing with older plays, classical plays, I think that we should always talk about race in a rehearsal hall. Especially if race comes up in any way in the text, which it almost certainly does, because it is such a huge part of our culture. Even though race is fabricated, it’s a massive part of the way that we identify ourselves, and the way that we catalogue people in our brains. I think it should always come up in the rehearsal hall, and it doesn’t always. Part of that is discomfort. And I’m not talking specifically about Soulpepper here – I think across the board, we all need to, including myself, get more comfortable with messy, challenging conversations. And to go back to the point I made with you earlier, also just listening. I think part of it comes from a certain… we’ve got the sort of pile-on culture happening right now, and so it is an anxiety about saying the wrong thing. And I think if you are open-hearted about it, and willing to profess your ignorance, sometimes it can be okay to say the wrong thing, so long as you are not being defensive about it, that you are opening yourself up to learn something.

With the bench blocking in Vichy, there were a lot of physical limitations placed on the cast. How does that affect how you approach the performance?
Well, it’s that wonderful thing that always happens, which is that rehearsal echoes the experiences of the characters. You are stuck. And rehearsals, of course, are way longer than the play, so sometimes you can sit on the bench for six or seven hours, which of course is not really a hardship, but it does give you this flavour of exhaustion, of waiting. Which all of those characters are going through. And then it’s interesting sitting closely together on a bench. It’s really uncomfortable. It’s just humanly uncomfortable in the sense that it’s not natural to be that close to other people. Our animal selves don’t like it, and all of that, again, contributes to the reality that those characters are living in. You can smell each other. Every little wiggle that person next to you affects you, so their tension affects you too. And then just purely technically – their eyeline became very important. When you’re in a room that has nothing in it, what do you do, just look at the ground all the time? And again, technically, the way we sat – sitting up on our sitsbones, the length of our spine was very important, and playing with that – yeah, and the feeling of relaxing when somebody – both horror, because someone’s gotten up off the bench and is gone, but there’s a little bit more space now, so you ooze out into that space. It was kind of a wonderful thing to play with. Acting – sometimes having lots of space to move around in is a terrifying freedom, right? So the bench was kind of a great safety net. It’s holding you, it’s got you.

You also gave a beautifully understated performance in Blood Wedding last spring. How do you find the right balance when you’re playing a character that is overlooked by the people around her, but you can’t be overlooked by the audience?
I had a lot of fun in Blood Wedding. You’re absolutely right in the analysis of that whole character’s situation and all I can think is that the longing – the character’s desire to be seen, I hope is sensed by the audience. I’m just gazing after my husband, who doesn’t love me, and willing him to turn, just turn, just turn, just turn, and look at me. “Oh my God. Turn and look at me”. And I hope that that active thought relays something to the audience watching. So that they know what I’m going through. But I don’t really think of the balance. You know, when the scene’s not about you, that’s what it is. But you’re always thinking something, and when the need is strong enough, I think people know. I’m fascinated by that- I should probably read some neuroscience or something, about all of that unspoken, unconscious stuff that happens in the space between the audience and the actor. 

Tell us a little bit about working with Leah Cherniak and what were some of the valuable things you picked up from working as her assistant director?
Leah’s awesome. I get along with Leah really well; I’m helping her with a project that she’s working on right now, again at Soulpepper. We’re at the very early creation stages with a bunch of people. So it’s been really neat, actually- to AD with her on Ernest and Ernestine, which is a production that she knows inside and out and that is older, and to also now be working with her on something brand new- to see her process at both ends. What I contributed to that process was I just brought in a lot of dirty jokes. That’s the first thing she would tell you, that I’m very filthy-minded, and what I had to offer her was “Oh, well, why don’t you try that sexual position?” And she’d be like “Oh my God, Court.” And what I learned from her is her incredible patience, just to watch the actors go at it and try, and try, and fail sometimes, and just try – because it had so many little clown-turns, so we’d just watch Raquel Duffy just play with her purse and Kleenex. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. Leah is incredibly precise, and she’ll just interrogate that moment, over and over and over again. “Oh, there’s something in that. Oh, that was really funny, but was it funny because it surprised us, because we’ve seen it a bunch of times, or was there genuinely a little kernel of truth in it?” That is really satisfying. Raquel getting impatient and smacking that purse around, in a way that nobody really would smack their purse around, but fundamentally, is there a truth in there that we’ve all experienced- “This object is failing me”, you know? “I can’t find…” – full of rage. So I really learned how to interrogate moments like that.

You’re also part of the second-generation cast of Soulpepper’s Alligator Pie. What was it like taking over from the creators of that show, and how much have you been able to make it your own?
It was a really, really fun show to do, but it was also really frustrating in some ways because learning it required trying to capture this almost indescribable relationship between those five people who made the show, and who really made it as a chance to revisit their childhoods, and also play with each other, because they are super-duper good friends. Not that the second-generation cast aren’t good friends. We are very good friends, but it’s a weird thing to try to put on not just the singing, the dancing and the moves, but also the state of mind they were in when they made it. It’s hard. We were absolutely able to make it our own – I took on mostly Ken MacKenzie’s track; we’re very, very different people – and I really wanted to investigate my character as a kind of tomboy. Absolutely as a girl who had a really, really wide understanding of what that could mean for herself, right? So she was always trying on different takes on her voice, or her moves. But we got a lot of notes about trying to capture that playful essence – and the seriousness, actually, was the biggest challenge. Because the characters in that show are really serious about playing. So they’re not being silly. At all. They’re like “Oh. Look at my bullwhackers. Look at my bubble wrap. I’m very serious about this.” And sometimes when you get lazy, you want to just let that slip and be like “Oh, look at the funny silly bubble wrap”. But no – very serious.

Do you have any fun kid interaction stories from that show?
Fun kid interaction stories from that show. When we were in Winnipeg, Hailey Gillis threw the paper airplane, and it nearly hit this kid in the front row. He was very alarmed for the rest of the show. I don’t think he was traumatized, but he was very alarmed. At one point in the show Qasim [Khan] plays the trombone very deliberately badly, and a kid in the audience once yelled “You’re just farting” at him, and it brought the house down. Again, in Winnipeg, I don’t know why – it had something to do with the acoustics of the particular theatre we were performing in – halfway through the show, there’s a wonderful little rhythmic number where we snap our fingers, and for some reason, because of the acoustics in that space – the kids would immediately translate that into stomping their feet on metal stadium-style seating, which made this astonishing thundering sound. Which was so satisfying to the kids that they would proceed to continue stomping throughout the rest of the show. And I think it was because they were genuinely having a good time, but for us, it felt a little bit like we were in a Colosseum. “Are you not entertained?” It was a bit intimidating, but I do think they were having a great time.

Did you adapt somehow, or did you just keep charging through, but it was a little bit louder?
Hailey would sometimes suggest “Hey, try snapping your fingers!” Try to challenge them to come back to snapping their fingers, because it would be at least a little bit quieter. But sometimes you just raise your voice and power through.

You’re about to tour to New York with Soulpepper. Is there anything else you’re up to now or next that you’d like to talk about?
I can’t really say too much about it right now, but maybe this is almost full-circle in a way – I’m hoping that I’m taking on a kind of new challenge at Soulpepper. I’m currently a resident artist there, and part of my resident artist duties this year are going to involve creating lots of opportunities to amplify other people’s voices, hopefully. And create opportunity for artists to meet other artists, to be seen and heard. And so I guess, to go back to that little conversation that we had about race earlier, I think that we all need to be braver about listening, and having messy conversations, and admitting our own ignorance. And then also, when we have the opportunity, amplify other people’s voices. So hopefully that’s what this year’s going to be about.

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