12 February 2018
There’s a magic to indie theatre that the big houses just don’t have, a sense of possibility, the ever-present promise that you might make a new discovery. Seeing Olivia Croft as Sappho in Filament Incubator’s production of The Tenth Muse by Julie Foster was one such rare indie experience. I don’t remember the last time an actor made such a huge impression the very first time I saw them onstage but I know I won’t forget Olivia’s Outstanding Actress-nominated debut anytime soon.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yes. I grew up in Stratford, Ontario. I moved there when I was 6. My mom moved us there, and I remember I did my first Stratford production when I was 8- I did The King and I. I had a very vivid memory of doing the show and it being so fun. It was 10 other kids, and I didn’t quite understand the calibre of the entire situation. But I remember specifically being 8, and at the end of the show, Anna and the king are dancing in a circle doing “Shall We Dance?” I was watching it in the wings, and I was like, “I wanna do this forever! I love this, I’m doing this forever!” That was the first time I was like, “This is kind of where I belong. I need to be in this theatre space, and I need to be here.” It was that.
I was always a dramatic kid. I was always watching Disney, and making my mom act it out with me. I wanted to be Esmeralda since I was 5, so I was always “Sanctuary!” and made my mom hoist me above her shoulders so I could be Esmeralda. So I guess it was kind of just in my blood a little bit.
How did you get involved with The Tenth Muse?
I’d previously worked with Claren Grosz on Thirteen Hands, at Alumnae. We did that show, and it went great, and when it closed, she was doing her auditions for her theatre company, Pencil Kit Productions, and she brought me in to read for The Hungriest Woman in the World. Then they just gave me this other script in that audition, and it was like, “Could you read this randomly, see how this goes?” So I cold-read one of the Tenth Muse speeches, and then [Claren] was like “I didn’t give you Hungriest Woman, but I’m giving you Sappho. Are you okay with that?” And I was like, “Of course I’m okay with that!” So that’s kind of how I got the show. I got the script very, very quickly, and I read it entirely in one night. I lay in bed till 3 in the morning because it was such a good script, and I was like, “I have to play this character!”, so I took it on.
What appealed to you about the character and the script?
Her desire for life. Her desire to be so clear on her needs as a woman, and it read timelessly to me. It was like a struggle that you’re always tackling- “Why am I not allowed to be what I actually am, or who I want to be?” and “I refuse to accept anything below who I am”. So that really immediately read off the page for me. And just her strength with her own sexuality. It was not difficult at all to bring her to life because it was already written so beautifully.
You were playing a character who exists mostly in legend. How did you approach humanizing her, making her human-sized?
I took all the pieces apart. I separated the fact that they call her the Tenth Muse and she was a legend, this goddess, or this ethereal being. There was the very real thing that Julie [Foster, the playwright] just extracted from her – that she didn’t accept anything less than what she was. She wanted to be a poet, and she wanted to create her own work and perform her own work, which was kind of unheard of. Men would play female roles, and she wanted to do her own work. I couldn’t imagine now not being able to do those things. It’s such a blessing now, but you strip all that off, just for a second, and it’s kind of overwhelming how crushing that would be to realize, that you weren’t able to.
What were some of the interesting conversations you had with Claren when developing your interpretation of Sappho?
Claren really wanted me to decide who she was. She really didn’t want to influence me. We went through the speeches, at the beginning and the end- they’re very mirrored, they’re almost identical, there’s very few tweaks- and it being about “They don’t understand me”, to at the end being like “they don’t understand us”. She wanted me to find the links on my own time, of how Sappho is everyone, and how Sappho can also just be me. So I didn’t really touch a lot of my own speeches until I developed my character relationships with Cleïs. Kelsey Dann, who also plays my mother- who’s also rumoured to be named Cleïs- and her friend and her brother, and all these other characters that influence this shell of protection she has. And how her heart and her soul kind of comes out of that place of needing, and wanting to change so badly.
Speaking of the other cast members, they all played multiple roles. Specifically, as you mentioned, one actress is playing your daughter, your mother, and your lover. How did you differentiate those chemistries?
Well, we first developed the physicality of each. How they would be in this scene together. I didn’t have to so much, because I was kind of the centre of it, but Kelsey had to develop a level of intimacy with Sappho that differentiated those different parts of her life, because it wasn’t only just those three characters and one part of her life. It was over the span. So it was her daughter when she was 20, versus when she was at the beginning pregnant with her daughter, and how the time went on, and that affected their relationship.
Claren did an intimacy workshop where she really allowed us to be very vocal about what we’re comfortable with, and what makes intimacy with your child, versus a lover versus your mother and how you view them. And a lot of improv games to figure out where that comes from. When you’re a kid, it’s all neck and shoulders, where it’s your stomach, and your uterus, and just all of these things. But with your lover, it’s more of an easy, sensual place. It just took a lot of gaming, and a lot of playing, a lot of workshopping.
What was your experience like working with Filament Incubator?
It was great. They were all extremely supportive, and they all did a really great job of coming up with a bomb team to work with. I didn’t really get to meet them until we started tech-ing and running, as that usually goes. Andrew [Markowiak] has been really, really great. They just really supported the show. The costume designer [Electa Porado] was amazing, and lighting [Logan Cracknell]– right at the end, we were like, stress stress stress stress, because we wanted to do the show, and it was a smaller space, and we weren’t quite sure about how to pull off something so large in such a small environment. Everyone specifically developed their own kind of vision, which really helped the actor to inform them on environment and the world they live in, so it was really great to work with them. I would do it again, for sure.
Starting in Stratford at such a young age, do you find working in indie space with indie budgets challenging?
No way, no. I went to Humber Theatre Performance, and it’s a devised theatre programme, so a lot of it is kind of developing things from the ground up. It’s never really about the grandeur of the production, it’s about how large can we make this space with all of us wearing black, simply using our words and developing our own environments with our voices, or with our bodies. So I’m never really afraid to take those risks, or afraid to assure myself that me being so committed to this piece is enough. And collaborating with other people to make it a vision beyond my own, so I can somewhat leave my own body, and leave it in the hands of other people to interpret, and kind of mold, is really exciting for me. So I’m never afraid of it, no. I’m very comfortable with my career, it’s very exciting.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the production?
I wanted them to feel it in a human way. I didn’t want it to be about her legend. Her legacy is very important, but I wanted her to be a woman that everybody recognized, [someone who] wasn’t so far beyond going through an experience of being gay and not knowing what to do about that, and all the spectrums of being queer, and all the unsure-ness that come along with trying to establish yourself as a working strong woman, and establish yourself in your career, and establish yourself in how you feel about yourself, and how that manifests to the people around you. I could have placed it in my mind, on the Island of Lesbos, or in my friend’s bedroom, or in a club bathroom and all of those core elements would still exist.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I did. I really loved the telling-off-ish-ness that Sappho had. She had a very sharp edge; Julie wrote her with such an edge, and you could very clearly hear it in the writing. The speech where she’s telling the Greek chorus and her judges after she was caught with her female partner that “I will not change, no one will change me – I could have a husband, I could have children”, and she did, but when she was finally able to declare that “I will not change, you can throw me to the ground, you can kill me, you can murder me, but I will stand up and I will continue to do my own work. And if you have a problem with that, then throw me from the cliff, but I will not change”. That really spoke powerfully to me, and came from a very real place that I think that, at this point in my life, I really wanted to say, too – “I’m going to go into this inferno full glory, just throw myself into it and hope that it will go the way that I envision it”.
Your dad Michael Blake is also nominated this year (Outstanding Supporting Actor for Coal Mine’s Superior Donuts). Who’s more likely to rub it in if they win and the other person doesn’t?
Oh, me. 100%. He’s not very showmanship-py. He doesn’t brag at all, and he’s very quiet and reserved, whereas I’m freaking out. And he’s so much more experienced than me, so it’s a huge honour to be in the same categories. It’s just so bizarre to me, because I never would have expected it to happen. But my dad is so talented and so cool.
So what are you doing now? What’s your next project?
I’m currently working with Patrick Parson of Ballet Creole. It’s an Afro-Caribbean dance company, so I’m doing that part-time to develop some of the ballets that he’s creating, and we’re doing some tours of some middle schools, and high schools in the GTA for Black History Month.
And then I’m working with Shakespeare Bash’d for their spring production of Measure for Measure. That’s very exciting. I’m playing the Duke Escalus. The Duke of Justice that comes down with the rule of law and allows nobody to sway from the rules. So it’s another very powerhouse role, but it’s exciting. I love Shakespeare, and I love the classics. I love Shaw. Reminds me of home, a little bit.
And do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to add that it’s a huge honour to be here, and meet you, and this was so nice. The show was really incredibly done. Thank you Claren and Julie and Kelsey and Jovan and Jack and Danielle, and everybody that worked so hard to make this show what it was, and Filament Incubator, and I hope to work with them again for sure and continue the good work.