Outstanding Direction nominee Victoria Fuller is one of the most clear-eyed and self-assured artists in the city, heading Echo Productions with a strong set of goals and ideals that are reflected without fail in the company’s output. Their latest Charlie: Son of Man was a perfectly timed new multidisciplinary drama about the most notorious man in modern American history.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
When I was five, I was in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the arts and culture centre in St John’s, Newfoundland. That was my first experience with theatre. I’ve never stopped since then. It was amazing.
Tell us a little bit about the genesis of Echo Productions, and the company’s mandate.
Echo Productions started six years ago. It actually is a really funny story. My husband Adrian [Yearwood] and I were in a show for the summer at the Electric Theatre, the old Bread & Circus in Kensington Market, with a company called Huge Picture Productions. We were doing this crazy techno progressive house musical, about alien abduction. It was crazy.
You know when you have those shows, and there’s a really magical group of people that get together? We all really bonded, and we wanted to keep working. So after spending the previous summer in Edinburgh, in the UK, I saw so many theatre companies really pushing the boundaries in so many different ways. That’s why I came back. I wanted to put some of that into the younger generation of Canadian theatre.
So with that drive, and that group of people, it just all came together from that one production. The mandate has obviously changed. It started out as being a home for extremely talented actors who were passionate about performing, and passionate about theatre, and the art form itself, but not so much about the industry. I think they’re two separate things.
We just started with [Echo Productions] being a home for those people, and now it’s sort of developed into theatre for the social media age. People between the ages of 20 and 30 who don’t attend the theatre very often. I think with our subject matter, everything that we do, the length of our work, the multi-genre style – it’s very much for people who don’t go to the theatre very often, who can come to one show and be affected.
Echo was nominated last year for Dog Sees God. What stands out in your memory about that production?
The one we were nominated for last year was actually the remount. I’ve done a couple of remounts now, and it’s such a strange experience because it’s almost like revisiting yourself from a couple of years ago, and trying to update it.
That was a really special one because there’s a lot of great people that came onboard for that particular remount, and they have become staples within the company. For me, it’s very much about the people that we work with, every single show. It’s the subject matter.
A lot of criticism that I got was that it was kind of dated, the subject matter for that particular piece. But I just didn’t really feel that it was, if you look beyond the direct issue they’re dealing with in that piece. It’s more just about acceptance and young people. So it was great. The cast was the most special thing about that production.
How long was Adrian writing Charlie: Son of Man? Was it always with the intention of producing it with Echo?
Yes. Adrian and I were very hand-in-hand. That’s the most unique thing about our company – that we make all of our original work in-house. It all just comes from [the fact that] we live together. So we’re constantly, constantly talking about ideas, and sometimes they come to be – like if we’re both equally inspired, he’ll just start writing, and it’ll just start his vehicle, and the show goes up, and we’re like, “I can’t believe that happened.” He was working on it for probably about two months, every night, before we auditioned. We planned, and then we write. That’s kind of the process, which is unique for sure.
How did you decide on Charlie Manson?
We often try to find a familiar story that will grab the everyday person of our age. Like Clockwork Orange, Frankenstein – all of these pieces we’ve done have had that commercial appeal to get people in the door. We do think about that.
But with Charles Manson, it’s one of those things that everybody knows about. My mom’s generation, and all of those people – Adrian and I were kind of feeling around, and they all got so upset, like, “Why would you want to tell that story? It’s so dark.” And we were like, “This story needs to be told because everyone gets so upset when you talk about it”.
I think the reason that we decided to go forward with it was because it’s so upsetting – it happened not that long ago. A lot of those people are still alive, and in prison, and it happened in North America, so close to our home. It’s easy to dismiss all of these things that happen. They happen in third-world countries, and we’re all concerned, but it’s so far removed. Having a group of young girls brainwashed, some of them under the age of 20, into murdering people, is a really uncomfortable thing that happened in our history. I think how those girls were led to be in that situation was the story that we wanted to tell, and how they were manipulated by this person. He may be dead, but people like that are still around.
On its surface, it’s a period piece, because you’re talking about real events. But instead of sex and drugs, you’ve adapted it by using social media and technology. How did that influence come into the story?
We started with these young girls. A lot of them came from broken homes, broken situations. They would leave their homes, and he’d say, “I’ll be your father. I’ll be there.” He’d fill the void in their lives. Make them comfortable and bring them in.
We were actually in rehearsal for two weeks, and I can remember Adrian and I having a Sunday afternoon. I was in the shower, and I was just like, “Social media culture! It has to be social media culture.” The 60’s was that time [of freedom], peace and love. People were in hippie communes, moving around. They were breaking free of the nuclear family, and there was just this unknown amount of freedom for the youth.
I also teach drama practically every day of the week that I’m not acting or directing, and I always think about those kids. Just having that same endless freedom in their hands. We don’t know what the outcome of that is yet, a generation that has that much freedom. And with the Manson story, that’s kind of where the hammer came down. That was the limit. Everyone in Hollywood was leaving their doors unlocked because it was free, peace, love, hippie time, and then when Manson broke in and all of that happened, they were locking their doors. Everything was shut down.
I feel that right now, we haven’t felt the full weight of the consequences that come with youth having that much freedom. So, to me, they kind of lined up well.
Tell us a little bit about finding your cast and assembling that ensemble to play those sort-of historical figures, but also completely new figures.
I think the great thing about our company is that we have actors who always want to come back. We work with a lot of the same people again, and we do really try to find new people who line up with what we do.
The auditions were – oh my gosh, there were so many great people that came out this time. It just kind of fell into place. You’d know the characters so well. You’d know their stereotype and what person would need to play against that to make a fully-fledged individual. James Karfilis, who plays Manson, was in our very first-ever production six years ago. And we hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. He came in to audition for this, and it was like, whatever happened since the last time I had worked with him – I just knew that he could do it, and he just spoke to it.
It’s also just a huge part of what Echo Productions is, to give people that platform that they would never get, and any other chance. And he just rose to it, and he was just phenomenal. So I’d say, it’s just a feeling, what people bring, and what they want.
At the end of the day, [we’re] working all day, and if you still have the passion and love for it, to rehearse until 11.30, then you’re great for us. So it was great.
Charles Manson happened to die two weeks before your opening night. How did his re-emergence in the news affect both the process of the play, and the effect that it had on the audience?
It definitely had an effect on the audience. We do try to do at least two to three Q&A’s every show, just because we have that mandate of connecting with people who don’t come to theatre often. But the question definitely came up a lot. But I think for us, it was great from a publicity standpoint.
Other than that, it was really important to me that people knew that we were not supporting the legacy and / or ideals of Charles Manson. We had a formal announcement before the show.
It really was about the girls, to me. And so his death didn’t really affect the piece very much for me. I was like, “He may be gone, but there’s still more of that type.” I didn’t want to lift him up. I wanted to just raise awareness around what one man could do. So it was more like an everyman, to me, and his death didn’t really affect me that much. It was kind of a sigh of relief for the world, let’s agree.
Tell us a little bit about the use of dance and its place in the storytelling.
I did a masters’ degree in musical theatre. I’m very connected to the musical theatre world, and [I’ve] always thought that acting, singing and dancing in their own separate disciplines – they really test the limits and move mountains.
I think we’re getting there with musical theatre, but I often think the work in previous years doesn’t have this same kind of weight as a classical piece of theatre, and contemporary dance, and all these sorts of things. I always want to think about keeping those three vehicles, and using them in specific places to really carry that moment. I mean, if you hid an individual with three different mediums – music, dance, a dramatic piece of text – you’re bound to connect with more people, because people relate to different mediums.
So I think the dance is just something that connects with me from my training, and the style I like. I feel that especially for violence and things that are hard to watch, choreographing a piece and putting it to music sort of removes it. For example, the Tate murder. Without choreography and music, that would be an extremely difficult, almost unstageable thing to do. But it almost creates a safe divide for the audience, as well.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yes. I think the interesting thing about the women was that they were tried for murder as adults. In their right mind. Like I said, a lot of them were early 20’s – younger than 20. I think they did over 300 hits of acid in their time on the ranch. When they committed those murders, and when they were tried, they were not of right mind. And they have so many interviews with them years later just saying they didn’t come down off of the high till two years after they were in prison.
They would loot all of these people’s houses, and bring all of this stuff back to Charlie. All of the girls are being young girls, playing with all of the stuff they collected. And there’s this moment where Courtney [Lamanna] puts on these red glasses, just playing librarian. And Charlie comes in and catches her in that moment. He says to her, “God made your eyes the way they are. Why would you ever wear glasses?” Just this manipulative male dominant thing that was going on with him and all those women. And there’s this beautiful moment where he just dismisses her, and looks at the loot, and she’s just left with the guilt and the shame of disappointing him. And she takes off the glasses and smashes them on the ground.
It was just such a nice representation of everything we wanted to say with the piece, in that moment. The conflict between what’s right and wrong. Pleasing him even though what he does isn’t – it was just a really beautiful, conflicted moment, acted beautifully [and] honestly.
What did you want audiences to take away from the production?
For me, it was just about whether it’s a mom, or a sister, or somebody who saw that piece, just thinking that even though things feel comfortable, and feeling normal, especially with media and screens and social media culture – you’re home safe in your bed, and there’s a distance between whoever you’re talking to. And you feel safe, and it feels normal, because it’s been launched into our everyday culture – I just think people second-guess that. We don’t really know the outcome of that yet, so it was just a little hint to think about.
What are you doing now, or what’s your next project?
I’m very much charged by all current issues. Obviously, there’s a lot going on right now. I’m from Newfoundland. We’re writing a piece right now about the Florizel, which was a shipwreck that happened off the coast of Newfoundland, 100 years ago. My great-grandmother was one of two female survivors of that shipwreck, so we’re writing a historical Newfoundland piece about that.
And also, because the company is named Echo after the Greek myth, Echo, I’ve always wanted to do some sort of re-doing of that story, and a female who’s lost her voice, and that whole feminine theme. I’m building it now, but that’s probably in the works.
Is there anything you want to add?
A shout-out to all the artists who bleed for us, and work with us.