A thought-provoking play that challenged perceptions of race, disability, and social class, Grey was a highlight of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival. Grey‘s minimal costumes and props and its stark set highlighted the considerable strengths of its superb five actor cast, all of whom created engaging, flawed characters. Speaking on behalf of the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast, Actress/Co-director Mandy Roveda and Playwright/Co-director Chantal Forde discussed the timeliness of the play and unpacked the influence of social factors and personal responsibility upon the characters of Grey.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Chantal Forde (CF): Yes, I was six and we went to see H.M.S. Pinafore at the Royal Alex Theatre with my mom. I was just saying this the other day because we were there, and we were in the balcony – the top balcony – and I was TERRIFIED of going down the stairs because they were so steep, and I could barely watch the show because I was so scared I was going to fall over the balcony. [laughs] And I didn’t actually remember it until we were there last week, or two weeks ago?
Mandy Roveda (MR): Yeah we saw The Lorax. And I had a similar story, I had seen Guys and Dolls in eighth grade, and similarly way up in the balcony, terrified, so I spent most of the show in the bathroom. Just a very deep-rooted fear of heights.
But you managed to overcome these traumatic experiences and get involved in the arts.
MR: Thank goodness, yeah.
So how did you actually get into writing and directing in your case Chantal, and acting and directing in your case Mandy?
CF: I started writing when I was seven. I wrote a poem at my grandmother’s place on floral paper, and I fell in love with it. As for theatre it actually started with dance. I started dancing when I was little and then eventually turned to theatre, in about grade seven? I guess, is when I first tried out for a play, it was an Agatha Christie mystery.
MR: Did you get in?
CF: Yeah, I had to do a cockney accent, it was terrible.
MR: Yeah, you did.
I bet at that age most of the cockney accents were pretty bad.
CF: And my little cousin was in the audience, and he was like, “I know who that is – it’s my cousin!” in the middle of the show.
MR: How’s your Cockney accent now?
CF: It’s terrible. [both laugh]
MR: Mine was, in Kindergarten I was asked to be Goldilocks in the play for that year, and I turned it down, and then the performance came and I very much regretted that decision because I was so jealous of the girl who actually got to play Goldilocks. So then I did a lot of speech competitions throughout elementary school, and when I got to high school, my high school had a really great theatre program, and a really fabulous teacher, and I had the opportunity to try again, and really get into it, and that kinda put me on that path.
When did the decision come to make a career out of being in the arts?
CF: I think it’s still happening. [laughs] No, mine was when I went into theatre school. I wasn’t going to go into theatre school at all, I was going to go into sciences, and my mother and I sat down and started talking about which school to pick, and she pointed out to me that I was basing my decision on which university had the best extracurricular theatre, and suggested that maybe I should think about auditioning for a theatre school. It was the opposite of what parents are supposed to do, and that’s what she did, and that’s what I did.
CF: Yeah, she knew. She knew.
MR: Your mom is awesome.
MR: I was going to go into music, which is another totally solid career path. And then at the end of grade twelve I decided to do OAC and to go into university and to do theatre instead, because that makes way more money than music. No, it’s just that was when I kind of clued in. I was struggling with the two and then chose theatre.
Both of you wear multiple hats, on this production and in the arts. Was there one that you gravitate towards more or that you find comes easier to you, or do they complement each other?
MR: That’s a good question. I think they complement each other. I think directing has made me a better actor, and vice versa. I leave the writing completely to Chantal. Actually I write for kids, but it’s totally different. But for me they complement. What about you?
CF: I trained in acting, so I guess that’s really what started all of the directing and writing. Writing for theatre anyway. I feel that acting gave me all of my insight into writing, because I was used to breaking down characters and understanding that, and I was always really curious and I loved writing, but I think it all started from an acting background. If I was forced to choose, I would probably choose writing over directing and acting though, just because it makes me the most fully satisfied.
Grey premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival last year. What is it about the Fringe Festival format that appeals to you?
MR: I’ve been away for a really long time actually, and away from the Fringe, and I was really happy to come back and be an audience member of the Fringe specifically, because man are there some amazing things happening, and I just think it’s a really great avenue for new work, and work that may not be able to be produced otherwise, and it really is a gift for a lot of artists, especially indie artists, so it was a perfect place to start for Grey.
CF: I love the energy of the Fringe. Whether I’m in it, or an audience member, I just love the support that happens, and all of the energy and excitement and spirit that’s there through every theatre. And for writing, it just feels like it’s the safest way to try something new. There’s so little financial investment, there’s a sort-of built in audience, I mean obviously you have to do your work, but you’re going to get some people out to see that are not just your friends and family, so it’s a really good place to try it out to see if there are legs for the future and not spend thousands and thousands of dollars trying to see if it works.
Chantal, where did the idea for Grey come from?
CF: It was a two-part idea. The first one ten years ago or so, I saw an article in a paper that was about a man whose son had been killed at a house party, and his wife had died four months previous. It was a tiny little article but it just stuck with me because I couldn’t begin to understand how much grief. How do you deal with that much loss in such a short period of time. He didn’t have any other children, so he lost everything in four months, and it just sort of haunted me for a decade. I knew that there was a play in there somewhere and some sort of way to explore that, I just didn’t know what it was. And speaking with a regular at the restaurant, he started talking about where I grew up and this idea of what it’s like for a black person to grow up in a mainly white neighbourhood, because he had been considering moving with his family and his children, so we started talking about what does it mean? Does it feel different? What are the different impacts it could have? And that sort of all of a sudden clicked. It was like that’s the other side of it. What happens when you move somewhere that you’re unsure of, and what are the consequences, if any at all, of being somewhere where you’re a bit of a fish out of water.
So you said you’d been hanging onto this idea for a while. Did it change over the course of the decade, other than you getting this lightbulb? And in which ways did it change?
CF: I went through about three different incarnations of what it could be about. So at one point it was dealing with the ghosts of your past and how you move forward from that. At one point it was about pharmaceuticals and antidepressants and when do we give those out, is it for grief or should it be solely for depression that’s not circumstance-based? At one point it was an examination of relationships between husbands and wives and their children and what the dynamic is. So lots of different ideas floated around and none of them really quite settled with me until the one that it became.
Did you conduct a lot of research into the social factors behind Grey, such as racism, poverty, and disability, while writing the script?
CF: Yes. There was a lot of research to do into the different eras, specifically in Toronto. Although we didn’t mention it, there are no geographic locations mentioned in the play because it’s meant to be really any city, I was looking at Toronto and basing it on the height of gang crime and gun crime in 2005/2006 and then earlier in about ’91 was a big growth spurt for gangs, so there was a lot of research into that and what causes criminal activity and different socioeconomic backgrounds. I did research in other cities as well to see if it paralleled, and different eras, to also see who is moving and when do these areas come into denser populations and how did that change crime rates. So yeah, there was quite a bit. And then also a ton of research into parole systems and judicial systems.
This is a particularly fraught time for racial tensions, with movements like Black Lives Matter rising up in the last few years. How does that atmosphere impact the play?
CF: I felt like it was really timely. Because when it comes down to it the play isn’t actually about race. That’s just part of what plays with the audience’s perceptions of who did what and why it happened. But the crime wasn’t to do with any sort of racism, the only thing it really has to do with race is moving outside a culture that is your own. Moving somewhere where you don’t identify with as many of the people and what impact that has. So it was interesting, because it feels like it’s about race even though it doesn’t have to be black and white at all. But in this climate it felt particularly worthy of being staged because it brings your own prejudices to the surface, where you automatically assume something and then you realise oh I didn’t even think about the fact that I assumed this because this person is black or this person is white, or this person has money or doesn’t.
Did you get that when talking to people who’d seen the play? Were there different reactions based on the backgrounds of the audience members?
CF: Yes, for sure.
MR: Definitely. You’d talk to someone who would say specifically to me, ‘oh I’ve been in your shoes and I totally understand how you feel,’ and they would be looking at the play through my character Laurie’s standpoint, versus someone who’s been in Richard’s shoes, they would be looking at the play through Richard’s standpoint, so that was really interesting to hear the different feedback depending on where the person had sat in their mind in the audience.
CF: Yeah, and you could HEAR it too depending on the audience. Some people’s reactions to certain lines, you’d just hear that intake of air through the teeth when they’re like ‘as if that just happened’ or you’d hear the gasp or someone be supportive of something. You could feel the different reactions coming from different cultures, different ages.
MR: It was something we were nervous and excited about, obviously having gone in without having any previews and not knowing what the reactions were going to be like and every show was different because it did depend on who was in the audience and their perceptions, so it made it very interesting for us, and also a little nerve-wracking, but after all was said and done, it was really cool to sit back and think about that.
Did you have any particularly memorable encounters of people’s feedback on the play?
CF: I think for me, that ones that meant the most were the couple of people who just said, ‘did you put cameras in our living room? These are the conversations we have with our sons, how did you know?’ So that meant to me that between the writing, directing, and the acting we got to a really honest place. That was a big compliment for me.
MR: I had quite a long conversation with a single mom after the show. So speaking on race, the mom I was speaking with was black, so she had felt my position as the single mom, regardless of race, and we had a really lovely conversation about that and that was a huge compliment, not being a single mom myself just portraying one, so that was really great.
CF: We had a negative response.
MR: By someone who didn’t, I think, really understand the point of the play.
CF: But I thought that one was very much based in race.
MR: Yes, and I would say that that person was racist, but anyway. Always interesting to have all kinds of feedback because everyone is an audience member so it’s important.
CF: It shook some people up for sure. There were some people outside afterwards, whether it was because of similar circumstances or there were a couple of women who came out who were so moved by the fact that the Richard character had whatever , whatever it was they determined he had, and related to that for their own children. They’d look at you and then tears would just come, and you’re like ‘oh no!’
MR: I think what was most important is that everyone left the play and continued to talk about it, and that was what was most important I think, that we started these conversations, and I think that is what we need to be doing these days is having these conversations, and sometimes they’re very tough conversations and sometimes you have them with yourself and they’re a little bit embarrassing to have, but the fact that we’re sparking them is great.
Mandy, how did you get involved in Grey?
MR: I work with Chantal outside of the theatre world as well, so I was just really lucky that she likes me.
MR: We were at work one day and she was talking about it, and I was just fanning over her and she asked me to be involved and of course I jumped at the offer.
You co-directed the play together. Can you talk about that collaborative process? And for you Mandy, what it’s like working with the playwright?
MR: Normally that wouldn’t be my first choice, to be honest. As a director, it’s not always easy having the playwright in the room, but Chantal gave me an ultimatum! [both laughing]
CF: Oh my God I’m such a jerk!
MR: No, she said that I could act in it and I’m happy for you to direct it as well, so you can do both or you can act in it. I was really wanting to direct as well, so she said if you do both we’ll do that together, and that sounded totally interesting, but I was a little trepidatious, as I think she was, and I think after the first rehearsal we were RELIEVED because we both work the same way, and we didn’t know that, we hadn’t discussed it, so it was awesome. And it just ended up being a really easy and super fun experience.
CF: Yeah, it was definitely that first one treading lightly. Do we work the same? How ‘bout you take a turn now? Can I say this?
MR: But what it ended up being was a really supportive environment, which was great and nice in a new work to have.
Talk to me about the casting process and the choice of the actors. What were you looking for when assembling this Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast?
CF: We did it together. We got it wrong what we thought would be the hardest to cast though. We had initially thought that the Jayden character would be the hardest one to cast, and it turned out that the Richard character was harder, in the sense that it was such a specific energy. We saw how many people?
MR: So many.
CF: I don’t remember how many specifically Richards, but I think in total we saw about 75.
MR: That we called in. We’re really lucky.
CF: Yeah, we were REALLY lucky for the awesome talent that came out.
MR: But for the Richard character, he needed to play different ages, such a wide range, and you needed to, well for all of the characters love them and hate them at certain points, just a real openness, a generous spirit.
CF: Had to be able to play somewhere on the autism spectrum without overdoing it, and also believing that this person would do such a bad thing, but also seeing that really sweet side. It was a hard one. And also knowing the economic background of the person, that they have definitely come from a lower income family, so also it was strange to look at somebody and go, ‘but you look like you have money’ or ‘you look too smart’, sometimes there’s just this bright intelligence in someone’s eyes – Not that Kenton [Blythe] is not smart!
MR: No, that’s terrible! Sorry Kenton!
CF: Edit, edit, edit!
MR: No, he’s just such a good actor that he could show us that, but we were feeling awful after the first audition having to go through people’s headshots and say, ‘I just don’t know’, because we saw so many great actors as well.
CF: AMAZING actors.
MR: But then ages had to match as well, which is a big thing. I am a very young looking mom. [laughs] So it had to make sense that I would have a child. So we also had to move headshots around and pair people and see if that all made sense as well.
CF: But we just did the first round and saw about 75 people. And then we did some call-backs with different sides. We didn’t do monologues did we? We just did sides.
MR: No, just sides. Chantal wrote a new scene, and that was what we saw for the callbacks, and I hadn’t read it yet, so the first person that went up I was in tears after because I was so moved by the scene she had written! I forget who the actor was, but hey were probably like ‘what’s going on? This weirdo lady behind the table is crying.’ [both laughing] It’s always fun to do auditions and see so much Toronto talent.
CF: Yeah it was amazing.
And how did the performers fit in with, or change, your original conceptions of the characters?
CF: I don’t know. I wasn’t sure when we went into the first rehearsals; I didn’t know how much of the writing would change. I was open to it shifting as we went through rehearsals because it was a brand new work, and it didn’t actually change very much.
MR: No, very little.
CF: There were definitely some shifts in the voices I heard in my head, but I don’t think it was anything different from any other play. It was really nice to see a different perspective, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to co-direct as well, because I wrote it and I had been sitting in it for months and then I direct it, and I needed some outside perspective to bring some new voices and new ideas to what’s been sitting inside my brain. So the actors did very much that. There were some scenes that were very different from what I envisioned. I don’t think any one character really changed all that much, but scenes that I had imagined in a different tone definitely changed when real humans were doing it.
MR: We spent a lot of time in the beginning of rehearsal doing table work; longer than normal because we were tackling so many issues and wanting the actors to really have a chance to bring as much of themselves and their opinions to it. It feels like it was theirs from day one because we talked so much.
CF: Weeks of delving into the backgrounds of the characters and the relationships, and all of the little traumas they’d endured going through it, because that’s really what brought them to the place where we see them in the show.
So the table work helped to build the chemistry between the characters?
MR: I think so, and I gave the chance for the actors to bring a lot of themselves and their past experiences to it. We learned so much about them, and it cemented them.
CF: I thought it was also really interesting the first read through that we had. When we sent out the scripts I only sent them their roles, which I’ve never done before, because I wanted them to only understand their experiences. So that they based all of their judgments solely on their own experiences and then when they came together for the first time it would be the first time they understood how they affected the other characters. I don’t actually know what that did; I just wanted them to come in with a very strong one-sided feeling, because that’s how an audience member would come in, of course, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. After that first read-through, it was a really interesting hour where everyone ended up sharing all their different experiences of whatever had touched them in the story. Whether it was growing up in inner-city areas, or experiencing racism in a certain neighbourhood, or making choices to be a jerk in high school, and all of the different things that contribute to it. That was the first read-through and it was a different sort of bonding than I would have expected or that I’ve ever experienced before.
The pacing of the play is very quick and it requires the actors to slide into multiple roles between the past and the present effortlessly. Was it difficult to get down the timing, as an actor especially?
MR: Yeah, it was definitely choreography that we all had to learn and remember. We would do runs specifically for where the folders would go to make sure they were getting to the right spots, because as you know the folders represented the parole hearing. And the football, and if the football would get to where it needed to be. But once it was there, it was there; It was like a dance and so they had their own rehearsals.
CF: Sometimes there would be Italians [high-speed runthroughs] just for movement. And the cue to cue basically for transitions to make sure that the pacing was right and people were turning the right way. ‘Was this an upstage one or a downstage one?’
Being on stage for the entire show must be an interesting experience.
MR: Yep, you can’t go to the bathroom. [laughs] Because Fringe is the way it is, you load in, you get an hour, we didn’t have time to do a run, so that opening is a little scary. For anyone who doesn’t know, you have a very strict time limit and if you go over it they will turn the lights off on you. We were skating around that time. Obviously I’m an actor in the show, but my little director brain doesn’t turn off all the time and in my head when I’m in the chair facing backwards, I’m just hoping we’re not reaching that fifty-minute point. But once we got those first few down, they just flew by.
How did the idea come about to use the key props, like the folders, like the football, but also additions and subtractions to the actors’ costumes, like the scarf, to indicate the passage of time.
MR: I think it was just the simplest way to convey who was who. I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed this but I assume, maybe I’ll just say it and then you can disagree, but the important thing here is the story, so we’re telling the story and we aren’t fluffing it up with anything. We also didn’t have a massive budget and it is also Fringe so you have to pack everything you have into three by three foot storage, so it started with that; We just physically can’t.
CF: Then in rehearsal, as we started talking with the actors about it, and discussing what will that thing be, because we didn’t know from the beginning that it would be a football. At one point it was going to be a jacket, but there was too much on and off and it was too quick and then
MR: -Because I think it was Kion [Flatts, who played Jayden] who chose the football.
CF: – That chose the football. And the scarf came up because Andrea [Carter, who played Tracey] was wearing the scarf one day and she was doing the scene while we were sitting and she was playing with it, and we went ‘hey, that’s really great’ and that shifted what we were going to do with the scarf to what ended up happening.
MR: I think we had originally gone in with the chairs.
CF: The chairs were there from the get-go.
MR: A lot of things came from the actors, and just through the rehearsal process.
I came away with the impression that although there are these societal factors that contribute to the killing and that share in the blame, ultimately we have to take the consequences of our actions. Can you talk about the importance of personal responsibility in the play?
CF: We talked about that a lot in rehearsal. And that really was the point and there was a lot of discovery about sometimes you blame yourself for things because you can’t see outside of that or you can’t see all of the sides, but way way way too often we shift the blame to other people, because it’s really hard to take responsibility for yourself and your actions and it’s really hard to see your own weaknesses and to accept them and to work on them. So with the character of Richard, he fully took responsibility for something really terrible that doesn’t make it go away, at all. But he knew that. A lot of the other characters didn’t necessarily understand what responsibilities they had to take, or maybe in my personal opinion what they should have taken, but we wanted to leave it like that because it’s really reflective and it’s easy to see from the outside, as in real life. It’s so easy to see from the outside when somebody should be doing something that they’re not, but it’s a lot harder to see yourself in that light. It’s sort of an ongoing conversation I find in my life. That idea of personal responsibility and owning up to everything and really owning your own emotions and knowing, ‘well, I’m choosing to hold that grudge. I can’t really get mad at that person, I’m deciding to hold it’ so there’s a lot of that even in the beginning of the writing process. When I was sitting down I broke down each character and evaluated what their values were and that automatically leads to what you’re willing to take responsibility for and what you’re not.
MR: What she said. [laughs]
Do you have a favourite moment or line in the production?
MR: Oh wow. I have many but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard the words.
CF: I think the end is probably my favourite moment. That was partly to do with the fabulous Christopher Pattenden and his lighting. That lighting coming down on Kenton, on the Richard character, as he’s trying to understand everything that just happened. That moment of ‘is it forgiveness?’ or how does he take that? And then just the football. That moment, the first time I saw it, I was blown away by Christopher’s genius. I think that was one of my favourite moments to watch.
MR: I have too many! One that’s just coming right now is when Jayden and his father are speaking about going to the grave and that fight that they have when Jayden finally explodes and lets out all this feelings and his father says ‘you don’t need a grave stone, she’s here’ and points to his temple, ‘and here’ and points to his heart. That always got me. That moment of the two struggling to reach eachother and not and both saying such important things and how heartbreaking it is. You see it all the time in the world of people needing eachother so badly and not being able to figure that out, and that really beautiful moment of him saying something nice.
CF: The other one that kills me is when Tracey and Jayden are standing when she’s really sick at the end and she says, “Doctor Jayden, wouldn’t that be something”, and you already know that he’s going to die in a year! Not the actual words but what you know as an audience member is just ahhhhh, it makes you want to puke.
MR: That’s awful, who would write that?
CF: I don’t know. [both laugh]
MR: Terrible. On a positive one, I really like the garden speech. He’s going to be a tomato in a garden full of cucumbers. That was a nice light one.
You got to revisit Grey for the One More Night Festival in October. Were there any changes, or anything that you learned from the Fringe Festival run and took into this encore?
CF: There were a few minimal changes. Mostly a few line changes, nothing crazy, just things that in hearing it over and over I didn’t like the ring that it had.
MR: What I think was most exciting about being able to do it at the One More Night Festival, and this isn’t totally your question but I’m changing it, is that we were able to do it in a smaller venue. At Fringe we were in a huge, huge space, which was so cool and to be able to walk on that stage was a total gift, but doing the play with the audience right up close feeling their breath, was also an amazing experience, and changed the whole feeling. We were really excited about seeing what that would feel like.
What were you hoping that audiences would take away from the production?
CF: Questions. We had set out to start conversations, and that was it. There was nothing more than we wanted people to go and sit, and talk about what they’d just seen, and who they agreed with and disagreed with, and what they’d just seen and where they saw themselves and really just look at themselves reflected in the stories they saw on stage.
Where would you like to see Grey go next, ideally?
CF: BROADWAY! [laughs] I don’t know, there was a bit of conversation about potentially schools, which was kind of interesting and kind of scary, because it seems that some parts are kind of too much for high school because I want to protect their little hearts. But at the same time, it takes place in high school so… I don’t know.
MR: We did talk about that if it was to be done in a high school we would change it. Like the language needs to be the way it is. There was also some talk of it being done in Rochester, Northern New York. I think we’re just hoping to get it out anywhere. Who will take us? Someone!
CF: Everybody out there! I’ve been submitting it whether it’s as a full production or as a script to be produced to various places in Canada and the States, just sending it out there seeing if anybody wants to pick it up, to share it in their community.
What are you doing now/what’s coming up next for you?
CF: The funnest thing ever! I’m doing this experimental collaboration, it’s called Inkubation, and it’s part of the Toronto Cold Reads Writers Group. So they chose four writers and four musicians, and the first meeting was on the fifth and the twelfth of January, and musicians came in and sang a song, and writers came in and pitched a story of two, and then we paired up. In a very limited amount of time. There are already pre-set dates for when the presentations are going to be, so they start on February fourth and run until March fourth, so mine is the last one. So we have from January twelfth until March fourth to create a musical or a play with music, and then there’s a staged reading of it. So I am working with Rachael Cardiello who’s a musician.She’s a professional viola player and also plays piano and guitar, so we are working together to write a new musical. The goal is to have the first act done, and we’re presenting it at the Social Capital Theatre on March 4th. Brand new play, so far it’s called, The Walk. And Mandy’s going to be directing.
MR: Super excited about that. That’s the closest thing in the future coming up.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
CF: Come to the Social Capital Theatre on March 4th to see The Walk!
MR: I’m working with a company called The Secret Sessions. So this is what’s coming up next for me after working with Chantal. They take movies and create the world around the movie and then present the movie with the film and live actors.
CF: In really cool spaces.
MR: In really cool spaces. So we’ve done Anchorman, and Casablanca, the last one we did at Halloween was Shawn of the Dead and we did that at the Monarch Tavern, they turned that into the Winchester, so you get to go and be part of the world, and then the movie screens and it’s interspersed with live action, so it’s really really great, but it’s a secret, as in The Secret Sessions, so you have to come to find out what the movie is.