Joella Crichton is a ray of sunshine… who is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress for gouging out someone’s eyes. Tasked with humanizing one of Shakespeare’s great female villains- Regan in King Lear (or “Tragedie of Lear” as this production was called)- Joella embraced the “no villains” mandate of director Ash Knight’s passion project and completely redefined Lear’s middle daughter with empathy and vivacity that stood out in a barebones production alongside an all-star cast.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
That’s a tricky question. I have to think back on this. It was years ago. I went to a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I might have been in Grade 3. And I want to say it was at the Harbourfront, but don’t quote me on that, I was a child – and I was sitting there, and I was just dying of laughter. I was laughing, laughing, laughing the whole time, and I was like, “This is what I like. This is what I want to do.”
What is it that draws you to Shakespeare? You’ve done a lot of Shakespeare in your career.
I know. And you know what? I’ve had an on-off relationship with Mr. William, because at times I feel like I’ve been told I don’t fit into that genre.
I don’t know if it’s because I like to push against the iambic pentameter a little bit, and I like to find the other ways to think about rhythm and the language. But recently I’ve just fallen so much in love with theatre. And his body of work is undeniable. It’s the best. I can’t find anything that’s as extensive as his, and I often get cast in Shakespeare, so I’m like, “Okay, well, I’m good at it, and I like it, and this is where I want to be.” I hope to do more, and I hope to work with some directors that can see the way I see that type of work.
How do you see it?
I guess it’s more modern. I read some Shakespeare when I was in high school, but it wasn’t really in my home that much. My parents are immigrants. They do Shakespeare in the Caribbean, but like the classic Romeo and Juliet they might read. But it wasn’t something that was read aloud or talked about, necessarily. So it was something I was forced to do that I never really liked that much when I was a high school student. It wasn’t till I got into acting school that I was like, “Wait, I really love this.”
How did you get involved with the Tragedie of Lear?
I had never worked with Ash [Knight, director / producer] before, but I had worked with Deb Drakeford, I did Measure for Measure with her. And [Ash] was at that production, and saw it. At first, I wasn’t cast in the show, and somebody got another contract and had to leave. And he asked me, “Hey, I’m auditioning some people for this particular role. Would you care to audition and come and read for me?” And I’m like “Sure, I would love to.” And I did, and I got the part, and was just blown away by the cast and the people in the show. So I was very blessed to have that opportunity.
One of Ash’s main principles in approaching the text was that there were no heroes, and no villains. Everybody was really humanized and saw things from their point of view. How did that affect Regan in her arc, especially going into Act 3, Scene 7, which is the big eye-gouging scene, it’s hard to come back from that.
It was really hard. I’m not going to say it was easy. It was a big, big challenge for me, especially because it’s a text that I’ve heard so much and read so much, and dabbled in before at school. I kept feeling like this version of Regan is so not who I am naturally that I knew I was going to be pushed. But as I began to think about the play, and the love that I was feeling, and the way we set up the relationships, it’s different than what I have ever heard of in Lear before. It made it possible for myself to go in that direction, when it comes to that scene. And I didn’t even think that that scene was the hardest scene. I felt that the scenes with Lear were the hardest scenes to do. I was heartbroken doing those scenes, because I really loved my father, and I loved the situation, and it wasn’t easy to come to figuring out how I was gonna do it, or how it was gonna work. But once we started playing with it, it felt okay.
Walter Borden played your father, specifically through the lens of having dementia. Tell us a little bit about developing that relationship with him, which was quite different from what we usually see.
Well, it just so happened that my grandmother actually passed away with Alzheimer’s this time last year. Actually, the anniversary of her death is tomorrow. So it was very fresh, that concept of the caregiver. And when we started talking about dementia, and that sort of mental disorder that happens in the elderly, you can’t help but be tender, or feel worried for that person. I think some of the choices that those people make, like the choices my grandmother made at the end of her life, were erratic, and they were not the person that I grew up knowing. The way that she treated people, the language she used… her anger, how loud she was, and crude, and even the type of language she used to use. It was like a completely different human, and so it was so similar. Just some of the choices that Lear makes off the top of the play.
Ultimately, I think that we start off that show where some people knew and some characters don’t really know. And I think that that’s how we felt in my family. I felt like I knew she was sick, but then other people were in denial of that. I really loved that concept within, and I felt Walter was absolutely brilliant. So brilliant. But for me, it was so fresh.
In working with [Walter], he really, really, really dove into that world, and we had a psychologist come in. Actually, I had to miss that rehearsal, but she came in and really gave a lot of context for him about the kind of physicality, how these people react. I think, in finding that, it was easy for me to go back into that world with my own family and my own grandmother’s passing. I just love Walter, by the way. He’s just the best. So it brought the play from being something that was just so classical and out of this reach of divvying up these lands, and that sort of thing, and for us, the players in it, it really brought it into a modern context.
Tell us a little bit about working with the rest of the ensemble, because Regan interacts with almost everyone in the play.
I often get to work with so many different people. And I find human beings so interesting, but what I loved about this cast is that everybody is so talented, and so brilliant. And a lot of times, to be honest, I felt like “Oh, I’m the person who has the least experience or knows the least”. In those scenarios, I don’t often feel sorry for myself. I’m like “Whoa, this is amazing” – like I can grasp so much information.
But the thing about working with people like that is that they’re so open, and they’re always prepared. They ask such great questions, and when you’re onstage with them, as a performer, you look somebody in the eye, and you feel safe, like you’re ready to go with them. I don’t know if it’s because they’re all so seasoned, they’re all so talented, they’re all so great – but it felt like family. I loved every single person that I was working with there. We all support each other through the process, and I think that’s what made the show ultimately so fun to do, even though it was challenging emotionally, but I found it like “Wow, I have these people at my back at all times. All times.”
Tell us a little bit about working with Ash as a director and some of the interesting conversations you had developing Regan together.
I don’t want to say the classic way- because there’s no trained classic way of playing Regan- but I find that, because of the way that the text is, she can be bitter and cold, and seem like she follows her elder sister a lot. And we talked on end about not following in that path. That’s one thing that I like about Shakespeare– he’ll guide you, so he gives you somewhere to go, he gives you an idea of what he’s asking for from you. But this was completely against that. So we used to have to talk about it a lot, because I like to fight for the writer. I’m like, “This is what they wrote! Why do we need to change it? It’s so beautiful already the way it is. Why do we have to fight against it?” So ultimately, my instincts were to go in that natural direction. To make Regan a little bit nasty, a little thoughtless about her father, a little careless about who he was. So I had to push Ash a little, being like “It’s this way, it’s this way!” and he’s like, “No, it’s not, you’re going to get it this way!”
I remember one day he said, “I just want it to be good, and I’m going to push you. So just know that I’m going to push you. I’m not going to let it slide.” There’s that big massive scene in the middle. I think we worked on that scene a ton because every time we did it, I could feel [myself] wanting to go into the classic way of playing that character, so I had to push against that. Even physically, I had to try multiple ways, like, “Okay, if you’re being a little baby, how would you treat it? Would you change your voice, would you lower your body, would you make more eye contact?” I had to try all these things just to get comfortable playing it in that way, because I did feel like I was going against the text a lot.
Ultimately, someone’s gonna have a vision, and as a performer, I think one part is to fulfil that vision, but in a way where you know how to fulfil it. And so I knew he had a vision for Regan, and I was struggling to find it. And when I did, I appreciated it because I found something in me that I hadn’t really played with before. So even when people have a vision and you’re like, “This is a challenge,” or “This is really different than what I’m used to in this”, sometimes that person might be a step ahead of you, and you’ll get there if you keep playing with it. You’ll get there.
The production was really barebones- no real set and everyone was in contemporary black clothing. How did that affect your process, was it freeing or limiting?
Well, you know the scene where I die, and I drink whatever? We had so many conversations about that because some people aren’t gonna be able to understand what happened. Because technically what we decided to do is pretend that I drank whatever offstage, so I’m coming in, almost at the pre-poison. But even the way this scene is written – at first, she doesn’t realize she’s poisoned, and because of the edits, there’s only one real line that points to that Goneril did it. So if you miss that, you miss the poisoning. Now I’m a huge believer in people’s intelligence. They can follow it. If they miss that line, hopefully they can tell I’m dying, right?
I think sometimes you have to find a way to tell a story with the finances you have. It’s ultimately, “Are you gonna do it, or are you not gonna do it?” I think I prefer people to try and do it the best way they can, and I think we came up with that option in order to save money. But also, in order to eliminate deciding what was important and what was not. Because if you give me the glass, then I feel like somebody else might need a thing that we already cut for them, or somebody else. We tried our best to go beyond that, and although I think it works, at times it can feel like “Man, it would be fun to play with the glass, wouldn’t it?” Just to drink that thing.
But I had this woman who came. I didn’t know her. She just came to the show. And she’s a set designer, and she was like “I am floored, because all I do is think about curtains and tables and chairs, and how to make them all work together, and this had nothing, and it was just as effective.” I think that Shakespeare’s text can hold up in any environment – the most elaborate, and the most bare.
Did you have a favourite part of the production?
I always like the silly parts like, off the top, when it’s the big fun scene, and I come out with Cornwall, and he spins me around. It took us forever to decide how we were gonna represent ourselves as a couple, just because part of it was about having a bit of an age gap between my character and Cornwall. And we came up with this spin. I don’t even know that it’s my favourite part, but I think the process of figuring out that that’s what it was gonna be, that it was just gonna be this loud hurrah made it quite fun for me.
I liked the fight scene. That was really fun. I had a really good time doing it.
Oh, you know my scene! The scene that I had with Vijay [Mehta] – Oswald. That scene was always really fun for me. We went on a journey with that scene because it was quite sexual when we first started doing it. We played with multiple versions, but he is just such a fun person to play with, and so open, and so giving. And every time we would exit, and go backstage, we would always just bust out in laughter, because it was like “You did this this time!” and “You did this this time!” He’s one of those actors that is going to surprise you, and I always enjoyed going into it because I knew exactly what was coming. I was like “He’s going to try something, he’s going to do something a little bit different”, or sometimes he would change- I had to grab the pencil from the pocket, and he would change the way the pencil was, just to surprise me, and little things like that.
But I liked that scene because there’s so many switches, and I think it’s fun to play with in your own mind, just as a human, how fast you can go from this idea to this idea to this idea. And sometimes it wasn’t always there. Sometimes it’s not the fastest, sometimes it’s slow, and it’s like, “Oh, how come that happened to me today?” But when you really get to know a text, and you have time, because we were working on the production for quite some time, and when you really have time to get into a text and play with it, you’re able to hear yourself saying it, but find other ways to emote that, or to find space in between. Working with actors who are willing to do that with you makes it very exciting, so that would definitely be one of my favourite scenes.
What are you up to now or next?
That’s a great question. Technically, I am just auditioning right now. I just signed a contract to do a documentary. I compete in the Queen of the Caribana, and if I win this year, it’ll be my tenth win. So I have a company that’s going to document this process of my costume-making, and my life, in the Caribbean community, in my culture. So that’s up next.
Would I love to do more Shakespeare? Absolutely. Somebody hire me [laughs]. But I always say to people, as an artist you just have to live in the moment and enjoy those things, because they come and they go. And when they’re gone, especially something like Lear where I was working with such amazing humans, you just have to be so grateful, and really soak up those moments, because they really do end. And then you’re back in the bucket with the rest of the people, which isn’t a bad place to be, but you just don’t know where you’re gonna go, so you have to really take up that time when you’re performing, and it feels really regular. Just really enjoy it, and find yourself in there, and have tons of fun, and kick off your boots every night and just be like “Wow, so great!” Because that’s exactly where I’m not right now, I’m at home going, “Okay, well, what’s my process, what am I gonna do?” So we’ll see.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
When I found out that I was nominated, I think sometimes people don’t understand how much that fills your heart. And how much it helps you go, “Okay, I’m doing the right thing.” Honestly, I feel sometimes that a lot of people don’t know how to be proud about it, because you wanna be humble, which I am. But it’s also something that makes me go, “Okay, maybe I am doing the right thing, and maybe the work that I do does mean something to somebody, even if it’s only ten people in the audience, the one night”. Because this work is emotional, and you give so much time. I know you do that with your writing- so much effort, and you hope that it reaches somebody. And when you finally get that recognition – this is the first time I’ve been recognized for something, I was nominated for Broadway World, and then for this- So, after all those years, finally just a tiny bit of recognition to tell me that it did matter, and we hope you do more stuff like that.
I always tell myself it doesn’t really affect me, who it’s with, or what I’m doing, as long as I’m happy to be there, and the story matters. And the story doesn’t hurt people. Then I’m all for it. So as an independent artist, this is a big hurrah for me. I called my mom- I was actually on vacation, so I didn’t see right away, because I’ve been travelling in the Caribbean and someone posted on my Facebook “oh, congratulations on your My Entertainment World award”, and I was like, “… I’m going to look into this.” And then I saw the thing, and I was like “How? How come me?” Because I do sometimes feel this small, but now I feel this much bigger, and I’m going to keep going. I really appreciate that, and I thank you for that, a lot.