photo of St. Stella by Sly Feiticeira

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

Kay Brattan has worked as a stage manager, writer, and, since Lysistrata, a director. St. Stella is an established member the Toronto burlesque scene. Together they combined their talents and inspiration to bring us an adaptation of Lysistrata that brought together the classical text and the contemporary burlesque style, bringing levels of life and colour to the story that were both powerful and entertaining. It’s no wonder we’ve nominated them for Best Ensemble this year.

Where did you grow up, and can you tell us a bit about your first encounter with theatre?
Kay: I grew up in Kitchener. I was a really shy kid, it’s really funny that I got into theatre. We moved to Barrie when I was in grade six, and I started doing vocal lessons and just getting involved in theatre as kind of a way of coping – my parents were going through a divorce at the time. And it just felt right. From when I was a little kid, I did theatre productions in Barrie, I did the Kiwanis Festival and then I went to the Eastwood School for the Performing Arts in Kitchener for high school, and then everything kind of just fell into place from there. I went to York for their theatre program, and then I did the Humber Acting Conservatory.

St. Stella: I grew up in the suburbs outside of Toronto. I mostly grew up doing dance, particularly ballet. I was in all of the high-school theatre productions though, and was generally an art-y kid. I stopped doing ballet when I was around 14 and was essentially told I was too fat to be a ballerina so I may as well stop now…. I guess I didn’t really listen – I may have stopped formal ballet training but I never stopped dancing and performing.

Is there an early production you were involved in that stands out as important?
St. Stella: I remember playing Titania in a Midsummer Nights Dream in high school. We won a couple rounds of the ‘Sears Drama Festival’, so we got to travel around with the show a bit. It was pretty much the best thing ever at the time.

Kay: Yeah, it was for Kiwanis. I sang ‘Castle on a Cloud’ one year, this was in Barrie, and I got the Best Performance Award for the festival because I wore a little costume and I dirtied my face and I did the little cockney accent. I was ten or eleven years old. And apparently the adjudicator, he was the toughest adjudicator in Barrie, and he’d got to see shows, he was a reviewer or something in the city for the community theatre scene, and he had a reputation of getting up and leaving the theatre if he didn’t like it. And he liked me! And I got the first place, and I got the special award, and I remember it was a fifty dollar gift certificate that I used to go buy more sheet music.

Which at the time was not an insignificant amount of money!
Kay: For a ten or eleven year old!

Yeah, exactly! So Kay, you are a writer, director, and a producer. What’s the timeline or trajectory for those? You started out acting?
Kay: Yeah. So I started out acting, and then I ended up in the collaborator position in the Spur-of-the-Moment Shakespeare Collective. So that was like diving into the directing thing.

When was that?
Kay: This was, oh gosh, 2013-14 I’d say? Something like that. Then I took a little break from theatre, and then I got sick of not doing anything, and then I made a clown show that we did for the Fringe that year – that we did in the alleyway. It was this French restaurant, where there were four really bad French clowns: Chez Imbecile. It was a little pop-up thing. So yeah that was me being really really bored, I had a few drinks at my bar that night, and the applications came up and I was like, oh let’s just see what happens there. So we got in and enlisted a few friends of mine from the theatre scene, and we just made this dumb 60-minute clown skit. Which was pretty fun! And then I started stage managing, and did that for a while. And I finally went, I want to start directing! And that’s kind of how. Lysistrata is my directorial debut.

Exciting! Let’s talk about that. First do you want to say something about how.dare.collective, and how you got involved?
Kay: So this was kind of just one of those things with the Fringe: ‘what’s your company name?’ We had to make something. So we came up with that. And it’s – Stella and I – it’s our kind of … brainchild. So, we want to make more under it, it’s just that I’m going to school, so we have to wait. But part of what I’m going to do when I go over is workshop some ideas that I’ve had for us to maybe do when I come back, and see where that takes us.

St. Stella: Like Kay said, the idea for doing Lysistrata came before the idea of making a company – but the name itself for me comes from being defiant in your art creation. Like ‘How Dare you create art as women, How dare you show your body as a ‘fat’ person, how dare you start doing theatre in your (gasp) thirties!’. Oh we dare.

So, Kay, you’re going to school in England in the fall?
Kay: For directing. It’s East 15 Acting School. It’s the directing Masters which is pretty cool. They do an MA and an MFA, so I’m in the MA for a year, so it’s a full twelve months of studying theatre in London.

Exciting! So when you come back you plan to do more with how.dare.collective?
Kay: Yup.

Did you know Stella before you started working together on Lysistrata?
Kay: Yeah actually we met waitressing at Snakes and Lattes together. I didn’t know a lot about burlesque until I met Stella, and I just started going to her shows because I like supporting my friend, and I found out I really love burlesque! I don’t think I’d do it myself, but there is something just so celebratory about it, and empowering, because it’s taking ownership of themselves and their bodies and just going out there and giving it for everyone. It’s quite beautiful.

How.dare.collective is obviously very new. Does it have a particular mandate? Do you have a sense of where you want to take it, or do you want to wait until you return from England?
Kay: I think part of it is definitely giving a voice to people who feel like the underdogs. It’s so easy, especially in the entertainment industry, to feel like you’re stuck in a type all the time. So it’s breaking those types, and everybody can be anything, and every body is beautiful. But I think we still want to look at reimagining classics, especially that marriage between a physical theatre base for classical text, whether it be burlesque or something else. We had a mandate, it’s probably in our press release, but mainly it was about championing the underdog. Which Lysistrata was very much about.

St. Stella: Yes, I think we are very much on the same page about taking what’s expected, or a known quantity and messing with it, queering it, giving it a fresh life and new meaning in the wake of a more female led, more queer, more diverse world. I’m so excited to see what we can do with these ‘timeless’ stories to make them more alive now.

As I was watching Lysistrata, the burlesque element just seemed so appropriate. I almost thought, why hasn’t it always been done like this? Did it seem like that from the get-go? What was the birth of that idea?
Kay: This is actually cool! We used to do this script-reading thing at Snakes and Lattes, because the entire staff is made up of people from the theatre scene. So we just wanted to get together once a week, read a play, just do a cold read, you can play around, there’s no judgement, it’s not about performing it’s just about actually working on saying things out loud. And so we did Lysistrata and Stella came out to read that day, and I was like, you should read the lead part, I think it really suits you. And the whole time she was reading it and we were going through the scenes my brain just started firing off ‘oh this could be a burlesque play,’ but it wasn’t until the husband and wife scene – so I did a bit of adapting and a bit of tweaking with the play, because there were some issues with it especially since most of it was from public domain translations – but the husband and wife scene pretty much stayed as is. And so that’s Aristophanes writing, I think he’s around 400 BC, and it’s a burlesque scene basically: she’s taking things off, she’s leading him along, it just suited the genre so much. So I was like, we should do this for Fringe as a burlesque play. And so we finished the read and I approached Stella about that. So we’d been talking about it for at least six or seven months before the Fringe applications. And then we talked to The Painted Lady, because she has a relationship with them from doing burlesque there, and they said yes, and it was a go from there. It just kind of made sense, because by the end of the play, everybody is naked anyways.

St. Stella: Exactly – I always tell people that originally the word ‘burlesque’ meant to make fun, or to make a farce of something. It’s only later that the word took on the connotation of stripping and nudity. But with Lysistrata it was all of these things. In the original text play – the farce was “oh, wouldn’t it be just hilarious if women led a revolution”, but when we read it in the climate of the original women’s marches – we realized, it’s not so ‘hilarious’ anymore, women ARE leading the revolution. But well, that thousand-year-old story sure could still be funny, sexy and powerful.

So what was your collaboration like – bringing the burlesque side of things together with the theatre side?
St. Stella: I have always looked at burlesque as the intersection of striptease, theatre and performance art. I think I’m known as kind of the ‘arty’ burlesque performer in a lot of ways, having numbers as a pirette (clown), to a spoken word poetry number, a duet about art history etc. This play took all of those elements, plus this real beautiful way to talk about feminism and body autonomy, it all just seemed to fall into place really obviously.

Kay: Yeah, we really wanted the burlesque to serve the story, and not just be inserted as a gimmick. Stella’s been doing burlesque for around ten years, if not more, and she’s done the Burlesque Hall of Fame twice in Vegas as one of the … I believe it’s the ‘shakers and innovators.’ She would be able to tell you the exact name. But it’s a bunch of people in the industry who are doing something different from just the normal stuff. And she likes to play around with, they call it ‘neo-burlesque,’ it’s sort of the new wave that’s taking it away from the vaudevillian presentation. So working with her on that, we went through the script and we did several readings, and as we’re doing readings we’re marking in where it would work to do a scene. Definitely the husband and wife was just a given, but we started figuring out in the choral moments where it would serve it the best. So we played around with the actors with different burlesque tropes with the different characters that they do, because you have the vamp, who’s the sultry kind of powerful, confident one, there’s the coquettes who are more girlish and cheeky, and you get your clowns as well in there. And it’s great because it all fits into the world of clown, right? So once we had all of that started, and once we knew what we wanted to hit to tell the story, we would just do rehearsals where we’d just have the actors play around, or we would find our music and just jump into it from there. Most of the time we’d find our music first, and find the physicality after. Which was a lot of Beyonce!

Was the Beyonce in the production or something you used in rehearsal?
Kay: We did ‘Run the World’ for the last big scene of the first act, because it just made sense.

And it seemed so perfect, also, because you know, it was still the first six months of Trump’s presidency, and there was just this – and I think we’ve seen this subsequently in things like #MeToo – but there were just a lot of women being like ‘I’m DONE.’ And it just felt like it was a part of that. From my own perspective it was very refreshing to see that being performed!
Kay: Thank you! It’s really funny because the applications went in before all that went down, so it just kind of felt like it was meant to be!

St. Stella: Yes – we [the production team] actually went to the Women’s March together and used some of the audio we captured at the march in the production. We did a number of subtle nods to different women’s movements throughout time in the show as well.

So, going in, I think there was a certain amount of ambiguity about how things would progress. So what’s something about the process or the final production that surprised you?
Kay: Oh man. It was pretty cool seeing exactly the picture I wanted in my head, especially as a first-time director, actually be what was on the stage. So that was really neat. Because there was a bit of doubt, and a bit of ‘what am I doing?’. And a very good friend of mine told me that the best thing to admit, when you’re directing, is that it’s okay to say you don’t know what’s happening. But we did a lot of collaboration, especially with some of the choral scenes, and we had such a great group of actors who were so great as collaborators, and they brought so many great ideas to the table. And we would have these moments where all of a sudden we were all on the same page, and it was quite beautiful. And so, when we finally saw the production, saw everything tied together, you’re like, this is kind of all our baby! And everything that was in our head is out here, and that was awesome. It was really neat. And hearing everybody laugh, and everybody woot, and people just get on board with the whole experience. That meant a lot, and was something I’d never experienced, as a theatre maker before. Just because this was… something that actually came from me!

St. Stella: It really was such a beautiful process, and we truly were an ensemble. While Kay definitely led the way with an amazing directorial vision there was a lot of suggestions from the cast that she was open to and we were able to use. I really felt that everyone was ‘in it’, not just there to play a part and go home.

That sounds amazing – to just have it be what you wanted it to be. So, the other thing I wanted to ask is: is there anything you would have done differently if you were to remount the performance, or is there anything else you would want to add?
Kay: The thing I’d really want to do next time is to get more representation in casting in regards to the inclusion of transgendered and non-binary performers. I think that’s really important to be reflective of the world and community we live in by giving space for all people to be represented in the stories we are telling on stage. It’s fantastic that now we can and feel that we have the space to be the people we truly are rather than what our gender by birth has assigned us to be. In future productions of this Lysistrata, that is something I would really like to see.  Exploring the privileges and disadvantages associated with gender and how we can turn that around on itself and fight it is something I would very much want to tackle the next time we look at this play.

St. Stella: Agreed, it’s a huge mandate for me in the art I produce to strive for diversity. I’m new, and still learning about the best way to do this that both serves the community and the art – but I think it’s so beautiful and important to see every kind of race, ability, gender expression and body onstage playing the Queen, the King, the lover – anything and everything.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Kay: To be honest, this is the first interview I’ve really done! In The Green Room we did via email, so this was my first time doing this! So I was really nervous!

I think it went great!
Kay: Thanks, Lisa.