Julia Haist’s site-specific solo show at the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival transported the audience straight back to high school, complete with assignments I was unprepared for and photocopied handouts about a book I hadn’t read (sorry, Ms. Helcl). Elaborately weaving together a teacher’s personal heartbreak and the hands-on experience of an interactive classroom studying Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida, Julia stood out in a crowded Fringe and earned an Outstanding Solo Performance nomination for This Is Not She.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yeah. I don’t even know how old I was, actually. But it was my across-the-street neighbours, they had theatre tickets, and had to give them up. So we went to see A Christmas Carol at the Grand Theatre in London, and it was just totally magical. I had never seen anything like it. They did the full production, the kind of spectacle they do with the Christmas show.
What inspired you to write a one-woman show?
I had seen quite a few solo shows that I found completely incredible and inspiring, and there’s something so vulnerable about it. It’s one of those things where I think everybody has the idea of a really cringey solo show where it’s an hour of complaining about boyfriends, or things like that. But the ones that I had seen that were really, really good – it was such a cool challenge, I thought. Especially playing with the form and finding a way to justify having just me onstage, or just anybody onstage, and talk for a straight hour without anybody replying. How do you justify that? I found that, and once I had an idea what that could be, I was really excited by it.
How did you come up with the idea of playing a teacher?
Like I was saying, I was figuring out a way to justify having been the only person there. If I’m talking directly to the audience, then who are they? And if I’m really having a conversation with them, then why aren’t they responding?
My mom was an English teacher – she retired a couple of years ago, but she was an English teacher for over thirty years, and would always have interesting stories about her experience and seeing that first-hand was really fascinating. I was just thinking about solo work in general, and having a challenge for myself. That was the first thing that popped in my mind: “That’s a person who talks at the front of a room, and keeps going anyway”. So then it was just a matter of how to make that interesting.
Why Troilus & Cressida?
It was kind of a combination of things. I wanted to do Shakespeare, and I wanted to do a show that people weren’t super familiar with, so they wouldn’t just tune out because they already know the story, and bring their own memories to it. So I was like, “I want to pick something a little more obscure”. And I was trying to look through and think of “what plays do I know nothing about?” [laughs] That was one of them, and I was all “What’s this one all about? It’s got a weird, pretty name, and I know it’s about the Trojan War, and stuff like that.” Just the themes in it were so adjacent to the story that I was writing for my character. I wish I could take total credit for that kind of interweaving, but it was actually just total luck that I was all “Oh, awesome! That’s exactly what I needed. You know, it’s got all the themes that this person’s going through.”
So you had your story first and then fit the play into it?
Yeah, more or less. It was pretty early on that I was like “Okay, I want a teacher that’s going through some sort of personal crisis.” It had occurred to me fairly early on that I wanted it to be some sort of marital, personal life falling-apart. Like a relationship problem. It was fairly early on that I was looking for “What will she be teaching?” So it was pretty close together, but I think it was a personal story, and then the play.
What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan, or do you start at page one and see where it goes?
I think it was kind of a combination of both. I think there were a couple of times where I was like “I’m just going to sit down and write the rant that she’ll have”. There were some big paragraph-long rants where I just sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote, and slotted that in, and then I had to figure out what the actual arc of the story would be.
I also had a really great dramaturg, Taylor Marie Graham. She was actually very adamant. I kind of just mentioned in passing my idea for this play. She was like, “We should work together on something!” and I came to her with another play, and she was like “Yeah, that sounds okay”. And I was like “And I had this other idea,” and I told her about it, and she was like “Oh, do that one!” So she was kind of guiding me, and she is a teacher herself, so she was giving me deadlines like that, and basically being the teacher for the teacher play. Keeping me structured. She would come up with structures of what I should have, and we’d have conversations like “Where do you want this play to go?”, and “What are the stakes?”, and “Is that enough?” All that kind of stuff.
Once you had your script, did your play change very much once it was on its feet?
Yeah, there were some things. There’d be a thing where it’s like “Okay, now you’ve been talking for nine straight minutes, and maybe we should move things around so people don’t tune out”. There was an idea that I had, where at the end there’s people reading lines of poetry that they’ve written, and I was really adamant about having them all stand up at the front of the room and read them. I was like “Yeah, it’ll be great, because they’ll be on my side, and they’ll totally want to do it”. Both Taylor and Angela [Sweeting, the stage manager] were like “No, no one’s going to want to do that.” I was like “What? Come on!” because I’d never done an interactive thing, and so I was like “Oh, yeah, I’m sure they’ll be on board”. As soon as we started doing it up onstage, and especially after we did it with an audience for the first time, it was like “Oh, no, no, they’re not going to want to do that.” It became pretty apparent pretty early on.
Did you struggle with that hesitancy to get involved that most audience members have? Throughout the whole piece, you’d ask us to read out loud, and submit poetry, and that sort of thing, and a lot of audience members were like “Oh my God.”
It was both more and less of a problem than I thought it would be. I had contingency plans, like “If no one will do it, then here’s what I’ll do”. Because it was always a mix of people who were “Absolutely not, no”, and some people who were like “Heck yes!” and jumping up. But I figured that if it was in the play description, and as long as anybody didn’t walk in from the street and have no idea what they were sitting down to, then it wouldn’t be that big of a problem, because there’s at least that buffer of telling people ahead of time. And then that combined with the fact that pretty much everybody’s been in an English classroom before. So they’ll kind of know. There’s probably some worry of “If I volunteer for what I think is just a quick little thing, then she’s gonna bring me up to the front, and make me wear a hat, or something”. But it wasn’t a huge problem. And there were definitely some shows with smaller audiences. I don’t know if it was easier in that case. Because it was definitely like, if there weren’t the people that would automatically jump up, then that was a bit more difficult. But as the play went on, it was like “Well, there’s only the five of us here. We’re going to have to do it eventually. It’s just us.” It would get very intimate in those situations.
Did the people who were like “Hell yes,” ever get disruptive?
Yeah, there were some people. I had one audience member who had seen the movie Troy. With the Trojan War, there are so many different versions of the story, and so he was raising his hand and being like, “Actually, these two characters were brothers. They weren’t lovers”. And it’s like “No, there are different versions.” Luckily I’d thought of it ahead of time, like “I’d better study up a little bit”, with the mythology in general, because there were some people challenging me on stuff and getting very chatty, wanting to have an ongoing dialogue. Which I was really down with, except that it was for the Fringe, and you only have this much time, so I can’t have a ten-minute conversation with somebody. But it was never really a huge problem.
You weren’t just pretending to be an English teacher, you actually taught the class during the play. How much research went into pulling that off?
As I said, my mom was an English teacher. The director was also an English teacher. It was a combination of really thinking about English teachers I’d had, and talking to my director about her experiences. And then also, my goal is to teach this room full of people about this story, and make it clear. And so [I worked] with the director as to whether or not the plot was clear, whether or not I was being redundant, or glossing over things and making sure that nobody’s getting totally left behind. I didn’t do anything like incognito, like ‘go and teach an English class’ type of stuff.
How much does the experience of performing your own work differ from working on somebody else’s script?
You’re a lot more responsible, I think, for what people are seeing. If you’re an actor in a play, and people aren’t really that into the play, then at least you can sort of be like “oh well”. But when it’s written by you and performed by you, then it’s very ‘whatever you think of it’. It’s not autobiographical, but it is very personal, and I’ve put a ton of work into making it the exact thing that I wanted it to be, so the reception of it – there was nowhere to hide. And it also makes promoting a lot harder, because you can’t be like “Come and see these great actors”, and pass the buck a little bit. You have to be like “I’m great! Come see me, because I’m so good!” and that feels terrible.
What were some of the rewards and challenges of a site-specific Fringe run?
It’s really, really difficult in a situation like that to get yourself noticed. There were over one hundred and fifty plays in the Fringe this year, and so unless you either have tons and tons of connections, or tons and tons of money to put into promotion, or even just having a huge cast and crew of people that are willing to be out there all the time, promoting it. All of those things are very useful in getting the word out, but if you don’t have any of those, then it’s pretty difficult. I didn’t see forty plays, so it’s just difficult not to get lost in the mass of shows that are going on. And again, it gets more difficult to be really pushy in promoting a show that you wrote and you performed and produced, because there’s no one else to say, “They’re really good”. It’s all putting it on yourself.
Speaking of doing it by yourself, how challenging is it to get up and do it by yourself, not having any co-stars to lean on?
At first there were some days where you just walk in, and you feel like you’re not quite ready. Like, “I wish I’d taken ten more seconds to take a deep breath”, or something. It was tricky, but also kind of weirdly great in that way, like, “well, you’re doing it now”. It’s like being strapped into the rollercoaster, and you feel it start moving. And you’re like “Well, nothing I can do now. So I might as well go with whatever’s happening”. And there’s no room to doubt yourself, because you’ve always got the next line. Although I did have a couple little breaks. I’d give people work to do and just take a moment, and have a sip of water and stuff.
Did you have a favourite moment in production?
I really enjoyed reading the lines at the end. Just because it was such a different moment, each show. There’s a section of the show where each audience member would write a line of a poem, and then we’d smoosh it together and make it into one big poem. So it was a combination – I’d have this huge, cathartic, vulnerable, messy kind of awful moment of having a big screaming tantrum kind of thing in front of everybody, and then a minute later, being like “Okay, well, anyway, we’re going to do this thing together”. So right after I’ve had that moment, I’d have to come and just go up to everyone, and look them all individually in the eyes, and it was just a big connecting moment. Sometimes it was a really great reciprocal thing because I was asking people to write lines about love and war, and a lot of the lines that came out were really personal, and you could tell that people were really writing something. And almost without fail, every line was beautiful. It was so great, some of the lines that came out. And sometimes people wrote joke lines, and I’d be reading these depressing, depressing – heartbreak, war, love, et cetera, and then somebody would write a line about their dog, or something like that. And that would just provide this laugh for everybody. It was really great. And I still have a stack at home of all the lines that people wrote throughout the show. It was a great moment of feeling like you did something good, because you just have something to show for it – like, here are all the people that I made little connections with. Which is kind of what I just wanna do.
Do you remember a particularly memorable line someone wrote?
I can’t remember any of them right off the top of my head, but there was one where the whole audience and I laughed for like a straight minute because it was so, so sad. It was like, “love is pain and death and then you burn!”. [The previous line] was something like “her sweet hair in the wind loves my smile” or something, and then it was just like “death and burning and pain and God, kill me now”. And we just laughed for so long, and you could see the girl who wrote it just blushing and crying while her friends were like “Ahahahaha.” There were a few moments kind of like that, where it’s like, this is a very capsule moment where no one else who sees the show will have this moment. That was kind of what I was going for. To make that connection with the audience was my weird goal.
What are you doing now, or what’s your next project?
I just opened a show that I directed called Or Not To Be. It’s by Andrew Batten, and it’s up at the Red Sandcastle. We’re running Thursday to Sunday every week until the end of January, and it’s a play that I directed the shorter version of in the New Ideas Festival this past March, right before I got into This Is Not She. It’s about an actor who has a terminal disease, and his friend, who’s a director, wants him to play Hamlet. So it’s just about his experience taking on that role, and then his relationships with his wife and his friend. That’s been really cool.
And then the Second City Conservatory programme, at the moment –that’s pretty crazy, because I actually hadn’t done anything improv-y previous to this experience, or previous to Second City. So that’s been a whole new crazy, weird whirlwind. But now that [Or Not to Be] is up, and it’s going to be done soon, I don’t really have anything lined up. I applied for a bunch of stuff, and am just waiting to hear back on stuff.