My Theatre

31 March 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Ash Knight

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

I hadn’t been to the theatre in awhile when I saw Outstanding Direction nominee Ash Knight’s Tragedie of Lear at the Palmerston Library. It was a bare-bones, low-budget production in an unlikely location but it hit me like a gigantic wave of pure theatre goodness. For me, coming out of a rare theatre dry spell, King Lear (my favourite play) cast well and directed with clarity and ambition was like water in the desert. I didn’t love every choice Ash made in his big-swing interpretation but I love that he made them- every single one thoughtfully considered and executed with great care. There was a lot of love in this production- love of the text that was mined for every ounce of meaning, love of the characters who were interpreted with maximum empathy, and plain old love of theatre in all its difficult imperfect glory. So, naturally, I loved it in return.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yes. The first time I would have seen live theatre was in Montreal. I believe it was at the Centaur Theatre. I believe the play was called Fire. That was the first time I saw live theatre.

My first experience with theatre would have been watching – in the 70’s, Peter Brook directed a play called The Mahabharata, and it was based on ancient epic, but he had actors from all over the world in it. I’d never seen the play, but what I did get to see was a recorded miniseries version of it. The original “play” was three plays, 9 hours each, I believe. So it went over three days. And then they turned that into a mini-series, and then they turned it into a five-hour movie. I watched the mini-series on PBS. That was the first time I would have seen any kind of theatre at all, but it wasn’t live.

When did you fall in love with Shakespeare?
Not till very late. I remember doing drama school in England and being like, “I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare.” In high school, I loved Shakespeare. And then when I got to drama school, I was like, “Ehh, it doesn’t speak to me.” But in the last ten years, I’ve been working on Shakespeare with the Stratford Festival, and essentially what I realized is the reason I had lost interest was because I’d felt that at the time, his work had become antiquated. And it wasn’t until I went, “Well, how does this apply to modern day?” that I went, “Oh, actually, this is connectable.” The first time I ever noticed Shakespeare was high school, where I was first exposed to it.

What inspired you to want to work on Tragedie of Lear?
Lear has been my favourite Shakespeare play for a very long time. I have a very clear image of being in England when I first went there, and having the play with me, because I was working on one of the monologues. And I just remember going, “This is a really good play,” and I loved the fact that it had so many different characters with fully-fledged storylines. It’s always been my favourite play.

What really brought this version of it alive for me was that we could explore something that had become more of a reality in my own life, and in the reality of lives of most of the people I’m around now, of a certain age, dealing with “Oh, what happens to our parents? Our parents aren’t young any more.” Most of us are older than our parents when they had us. So where does that put our parents, and how old are they now? So thinking about what does that mean? What is the responsibility, and what do we have to do? Brought to the forefront. In looking at the play, I was like, “This could really lend to asking those questions.” So that’s what made it interesting recently.

It’s one of those texts where there’s a lot of debate of Folio versus Quarto. How did you approach making your decisions of what to include and what to cut?
What I ultimately did was I almost always went with the Quarto version, because it’s older. Once in a while, I would use the Folio version. And it came up quite often in rehearsals, where an actor would be, “Yeah, but I found this in the Arden version, which is the one we all turn to, and it’s a little better than the version here.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know, but I bet if you look at the Arden notes, this is from the Quarto that I’ve got,” and they would look at the note and be like, “Yeah, you’re right”.

This happened like 15-20 times. Every time it would get to the point where someone would say “This is different from mine,” I’d say, “It’s the Quarto version,” without even looking at my notes. I would just say “this is the Quarto version”. And they’d look at their notes and go, “Yeah, that’s right.”

I liked the simplicity of the Quarto version, and at the same time, it’s a longer version. There’s entire scenes in the Quarto that don’t exist in the Folio. There’s lines that are in the Folio that don’t exist in the Quarto, but there’s a trial scene that doesn’t exist in the Folio. And it was one of the cruxes for telling the story the way we wanted to tell it, which involved mental health issues. In that version, Lear is seeing things in that scene. In no other scene in the actual play does he see things, but in that particular scene, he invents his daughters in front of him, and puts them on trial.

Since I was exploring Lewy Body Dementia, I wanted to explore hallucinations. It was a scene that I needed. And so from there, I was all, “Well, what else is more interesting from the Quarto?” Also, I felt that Quarto was older, and my hope is that it was more truthful to what Shakespeare probably would have written, because the Folio would have been from memory. And he was dead by then. I feel editors at that point make things cleaner and nicer for us, whereas the Quarto will have mistakes that I’m happy to live with. And also, the punctuation in the Quarto made more sense.

How so?
There was very little punctuation, so you were open to interpreting lines as you wanted, as opposed to every edition after where editors have said, “Well, we think this will be a comma. We think this should be a semicolon”. So it defines how you’re going to interpret the text through that editor, whereas where there’s less punctuation, it’s open to more things.

One of the things that I heard that was really interesting to me was that the opening line was something along the lines of, [“I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany”]- in the Folio, the next word is “than”, “than Cornwall”. So the context is that Lear preferred Albany over Cornwall. Which is fair. But in the Quarto version, it was “then”, so first and second. And I was like, “I prefer that”, so we kept with the “then”, even though it’s almost always corrected to “than”. It’s considered a typo. But I liked it. I was like, “I feel for a modern-day audience, that’s clearer.” So I went with that as often as I could.

Your cast is nominated for Outstanding Ensemble. Tell us a little bit about finding all those people, getting the chemistry right, and how they reshaped how you envisioned the characters.
The casting was a long-term project. We started this project in something like February of 2016. The initial plan was to do it in October of 2016. I had people in mind that I had approached, and they were all gonna go for it, and at that time, the casting was very different from what the final casting was. But we had to then postpone it, because in 2016, some key players were like “Oh, I can’t do it, I’ve got this, that or the other.” So I was like, “Okay, well, let’s push it off to about 2017 so everyone can be available”.

We started the earnest work between October 2016 and October 2017. Our first reading was October 2016, with a very different cast. Some of the players were still the same, but I remember looking at the casting throughout, because it changed so often. Ultimately, I think three or four of the actors remained the same from initial casting to the final show. And quite often, it was that we were doing an independent show, so someone got a higher-paying gig, or a paying gig [laughs]. They would take it, and I totally understood that. I knew that would happen, and I accepted it. I’ve been in that situation as an actor, where I’m doing a summer show, and I get an offer to do another theatre gig that is paying some hundred dollars a week. I have to consider that, and the pros and cons.

So I was okay with that. We all understood that could happen. And even before our first rehearsal, we lost cast members. It had nothing to do with anything, other than the fact that “Hey, I really wanna do this, but I just booked a film that’s shooting for four months out of town. What do we do?” and then in some situations we were like, “Since we have such an extended rehearsal period, no worries, go do that, when you come back, we’ll rehearse your scenes.”

So it changed quite often. We did auditions. We found actors from the auditions that were fantastic. Some actors I had in mind, and approached them directly. Most of the actors were a combination of those two factors. I saw their work and went, “Hey, this person would be a great so-and-so.” But the auditions gave us a lot of really good talent as well.

The shaping of the characters, because we were focused on the theme of mental health, a lot of it was predicated on that. So we knew Lear was going to have Lewy Body Dementia. I had this idea that we wanted to play with some mental health issues with various characters, so when I approached an actor, I approached them with that in mind. I said, “This is what I’m thinking for this world. How do you feel about that? Is that something you’re comfortable creating within?” And they were all up for it. I think quite often, what attracted the people wasn’t that we were doing Lear. It was the approach that we were taking to it. Then from there, it was pretty much like, “Do what you want.” But often I’d have an idea, and the actors would be riffing off of it. It was never a case of one person coming up with the idea. It was always their idea, but it was in the world that I was trying to create for the play.

I’d like to think I gave the actors a lot of freedom in terms of what they wanted to do, and for clarity things, I’d be more like, “One of the characters has to be in disguise, because they are banished. They go away and they have to come back.” We had to show that somehow, so it was clear to the audience. So there was an idea of like, “Well, what if you put on white makeup in your beard, so it looks like you’re older now, and subtly different, and you do something with your clothes that makes it look different.” Those were ideas that I threw out, but most of the characterization came from the actors themselves.

One of the main principles of the production was this idea that there were no heroes and villains. Everybody was just a person that relatively meant well. What were some of the rewards and challenges of seeing the text through that particularly empathetic viewpoint?
I like to think that Shakespeare was such a good playwright that that stuff was already there. I don’t think that Shakespeare wrote in black and white. This may go against a lot of Shakespeare tradition, but I think all of his characters in any of his plays are much more complex than that. That’s what makes it feel so interesting, that he was already exploring psychological cores of characters at a time where no one else was doing it.

But he had a lot of grey characters. So for me, there was no leap. None of the lines made the characters evil or good. They all had motivations that drove them to do things to protect themselves, or to make life easier for them. So that element of it for me was easy. The challenge was that everyone already has preconceived ideas of who these characters are. I know Edmund has always been seen as the villain of the piece, or one of the villains of the piece. So, people come into the play to watch with that expectation, but even actors can come to that expectation, because the lines are saying this this this this this. And I’d have to cry out and say, “Fair, the words are that, but how you say the words changes what it means”. 

Reagan has a lot of lines in particular where she’s saying to her dad, “Look, you’re old, and you should listen to our advice, and do what we say.” But you can say that as, “Look, you’re old, and you should listen to what we say”, or you can say that as, “Look Dad, you’re old, and you should maybe listen to what we say,” and that changes the perception of this character now. For me, the hardest part was convincing everyone else to see if they could go in that direction. The good thing is that most actors want to play complex characters, so it was an easy buy-in. It was like, “Oh, I never thought of that, but that’s amazing, I wanna do that!” The bigger challenge was when audiences came, sometimes they’d be like, “Well, isn’t that person supposed to be not good?” and then they’d go, “Oh, but this makes more sense.” But in terms of rehearsals, it was quite easy, because the moment I would introduce a concept that wasn’t as black and white, the actors jumped on it.

That was one of the first discussions I had, and I remember with Eli [Ham], who was playing Edmund – he auditioned, and we did a couple of rounds with him. Then I was like, “I don’t want this guy to be seen as the villain of the piece. I think he’s a sympathetic and empathetic character.” There are characters in the canon who don’t regret what they do. Iago, being one of them at the end, is like, “it is what it is”. Aaron the Moor does not have any regret, he’s like, “I want to do this more.” But Edmund does, at the end of the play. He feels really bad for what he’s done, and tries to change it. He tries to save the king. So that told me that this character had more complexity. He’s also a character in the canon who has a very good reason for what he’s doing, being the bastard child. And so the moment I said to him that I view him as a character with a lot of empathy, he was like, “I also believe that, and would love to play this character in that vein.”

That was easier than I would’ve thought, when I came to making the piece. The fear for me was, the audience will come in and be like, “Well, that’s not the character. That’s not the character at all. This is not what we’re used to.” I was hoping that people get out of that mindset. We’re trying to do a version of Lear that is not what you’re used to, that is also still cohesive, and makes sense.

As you’ve mentioned, your Lear has dementia, and that’s a very specific element of your production. How did that concept develop, and what kind of research went into its execution?
I knew going in that I wanted a Lear who was seeing things, who was hallucinating, because the idea I had with the fool – spoiler alert – was that the fool was a figment of his imagination. Then I was able to double-cast that with Cordelia, because that’s who he imagined the fool to be – his daughter, essentially. A version of her. So I knew I wanted to do that, but I was like, “I don’t know which seniors’ mental health issues would lend to that.” I knew of mental health issues that I could lend to that, but I only needed it to be specific towards seniors. So I worked with our neurologist, Suvendrini Lena, and I approached her and said, “This is what I’m looking for. This is what I think the story is, and the character is.”

She essentially sent me an e-mail with a list of different things that could lend to visual hallucinations. Turns out auditory hallucinations are much more common than visual and there wasn’t that many things that led to visual hallucinations. In those notes that she gave me, she highlighted Lewy Body Dementia specifically, saying, “This is most likely, but here are some other options as well.”

As I looked into Lewy Body Dementia, I was doing a show out in Prescott, and one of the people I met out there – her husband was suffering from Lewy Body Dementia. So it gave me an opportunity to see somebody who was actually suffering from it, and to talk with his family. And his wife had done this amazing thing. She had journals that she had kept, detailing what had happened and what he was seeing. And she had done a lot of research herself, when she had discovered that her husband was suffering from this. So when I saw that research, I talked to her, I was like “This is exactly what Lear is suffering from. The lines are already lending to it.” It was like, “This is perfect.” I looked at medical journals, I talked to Suvendrini a lot, we had discussions with Suvendrini, and [with] Walter Borden, who played Lear.

We tried to put in as much medical reality as we could. What are the physical elements of that ailment? That was very helpful to give our Lear very specific choices that he could make. He had a shake of his arms that is common in Lewy Body Dementia. Language skills deteriorate. People start the sentence quite clear, and understandable, and as they’re talking, [mumbles] it becomes less understandable. So we incorporated that at times into the script. She was a huge help – Sandra Lawn was her name- whose husband had suffered from this, and she could give me really good descriptions of what had happened with her husband. And then Suvendrini, giving us the medical knowledge.

The production was fairly bare-bones. How did that decision help to shape the world of the play and its contemporary resonance?
Initially, that was a restriction of budget, which is like, “How do we make this happen?” But I think it was George Lucas who once said that he felt that the first Star Wars was the best, because he had so many restrictions that he had to come up with creative solutions to make his vision come to life. So that challenge then became a really good needle in my back to find a creative way of doing things.

I think that the “aha” moment for me was, I was like, “I’m exploring mental health issues with characters who are sometimes seeing things, and dream states, and dealing – but not with reality, necessarily”. So from there, I went, “Well, what if I try to recreate a world where all the real stuff is non-existent? That it’s almost as if it’s in our mind, that it’s memories and ideas and images that we as the audience are seeing, that’s not necessarily real action?” So from there, it became, “Can we make this work?”

I remember I initially had this idea that everyone would be wearing suits, but then Suvendrini suggested, “Well, if you’re going with dreams, quite often in dreams, you don’t see what people are wearing. We don’t pay attention to that.” And I was like, “that’s totally true.” So then we went, “How much more obscure can we make it so that everything sort of blends in? So that everything is a momentary thought or idea, or dream that we’re seeing?” That lent really easily to this idea of having an all-black stage, with black clothing, and just using the lighting that would come up- you would see a scene, and as soon as that scene was over, another scene would start in another spot, and there were no transitions, because it wasn’t real. Just because our mind moves from thought to thought to thought to thought. The action of the play was moving from thought to thought to thought to thought.

Did you have a favourite moment in the play?
Yes, I did. Only because of the challenge of it. It was the big battle scene. [laughs] Which I know wasn’t really something you liked-

I just don’t like slow motion. 
I totally get it. I totally get that. And it was a huge debate. We debated that for a while, because in the play, it does say “battle scene”. And I was like, “But the next scene pretty much says who won and lost. I could cut it.” For the longest time, I was like “I may probably end up cutting this,” because I was like, “I don’t know how to do a battle scene, given the restrictions that we have.”

Again, I was out in Prescott doing a show, and in the show, we were doing Antony and Cleopatra, there was a lot of fight scenes in that. And one of the fight scenes, the fight choreographer, Jonathan Purvis, designed it almost like bullet time from the Matrix. So he had all fast-action then, every once in a while, the actors would slow down and continue their action, and then go back into speeding mode. But I saw that, and I went, “I like that, because it feels a little bit like a dream. When you’re in a dream, most people, you can’t run fast. It’s the weirdest thing – every dream I’ve had to run in, I’m always in my dream going “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I run? I know I can move faster than this.” So then I was like, “I want to inverse it, I wonder what’d happen if we slowed down most of the action, and every once in a while, we’d speed it up.”

So we played with it. We got the actors who we were working with in Prescott. We said, “Hey, are you guys okay to just play with some fight moves that we slowed down?” So we did that, and we recorded it, and I’m like, “Yeah, this could really work.” Then the challenge was that we had to choreograph thirteen actors doing this battle scene in this way.

Jonathan is a great fight choreographer, but he couldn’t be in Toronto, which is why he was a consultant and not the full choreographer. So then it was a case of, “Now we have to design individual fights for all these people”. Some of these people are more advanced in stage combat, some people are less, so the challenge of it made it one of my favourite scenes. Also, visually, it was one of the only moments of the play where you are flooded with emotion, because most of the play was thought, thought, thought, and individual small moments.

In terms of actual Shakespeare scenes, I think Edmund’s monologue “Wherefore Bastard” is probably my favourite, because it’s such an open and vulnerable monologue that I wanted to get the audiences buying into that character, there. So even when he does some really terrible things, the audience is sort of struggling. They’re like, “Oh, that’s not good, but we feel bad for this guy.” [laughs]

What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
Just questions. I had no answers for the questions that I had, in terms of what started all of this –like, what happens with our parents? What is the responsibility of taking care of them? I have no answers. And I don’t want to give any answers to this play. I just wanted questions to be asked. If people left the play being conflicted about the characters and their choices, going “I kind of understand why they did this” – even the daughters. If the audience can go, “Yeah, what the daughters did was not right, but I can understand where they come from. I can understand why it’d be frustrating to deal with someone who’s yelling at me all the time, and treating me poorly,” then I feel like we will have succeeded.

What are you working on now or next?
I just finished doing a play up in Barrie. Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer. Lovely, lovely, lovely play. Another one of those plays that I’ve always wanted to do, because again, it explores such a cruel internal struggle in people. For me, Amadeus is really about a person that loves what he’s doing, and then he’s confronted with someone who he clearly can see is a master above him. Who hasn’t got that? If you were ever into sports when you were a kid, and got to the point where you’d met someone who was just a bajillion times better than you, and it had nothing to do with anything but the fact that they just were – what does that do to your confidence, and your ability? How many people would’ve left the sport at that point? As an artist, we all would like to think that we have some level of talent, and then you meet someone – it just comes to them, and you’re like, “Man. I shouldn’t be doing this.” I love that idea.

So I just finished that. I’m currently working with Carlos Bulosan Theatre. We’re gonna be doing some dramaturgical workshops. I do a lot of work with developing new plays. That’s been my bread and butter for over a decade. And then auditions, and whatever comes along.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’d love to thank My Entertainment World for the nomination. I was really, really surprised. I remember reading your review of the show, in October, and I was super impressed, because it was like an essay on the play. It was so good! Because it wasn’t just whether you liked it or not. It was an actual in-depth review of the play. And I was like, “We need more reviewers like this.”

So I was really impressed by that, and when we got the nomination, I was like, “Oh, this is amazing,” and then I also noticed that we were in the medium-sized theatre category. And I was really honoured by that, because this is really a tiny, tiny production in terms of budget, and how much we could do with it, but to be nominated against Philip Akin, and shows of that size, I was really touched by that. So I want to thank My Entertainment World and you for that.

There’s a story which a friend once told me. He was from South Africa, so he said, “You should be able to do it in the middle of the desert in Africa with no lights, no special effects, nothing. And if you can do it like that, and your story still carries, that’s theatre. The moment you insert thousands of dollars worth of set, and costumes, and lighting, and all that stuff to tell the story, what you’re then presenting is spectacle.” That has always stayed with me, that if we want to focus on the story, just tell the story as simply as you can. Get rid of as much as you can, and what you’ll be left with is the crux of the story.

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