My Theatre

05 March 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Jon Lachlan Stewart

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’ll admit I saw Jon Lachlan Stewart’s funny physical Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth Muet entirely because it was playing at a convenient time between two other shows I was seeing at the Tarragon on the fourth day of Toronto Fringe, 2017. It didn’t sound like it was up my alley. I then proceeded to spend every single remaining day of the Fringe telling every single person I met that they had to see Macbeth Muet. Nominated for Outstanding Direction, Production & Lighting/Sound Design, this odd little two-hander from Montreal proved to be one of the great marriages of hilarity and heartbreak in all of 2017. I’ll never look at an oven mitt the same way again.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
When I was about 10 years old, I saw the most amazing thing in the world. There was a family talking about…something…and then their pet dog like STOOD UP SUDDENLY AND STARTED TALKING TO US.

I was at a play.

It was incredible.

How has the LeCoq philosophy and your physical theatre training influenced you as an artist?
I believe that when one looks at a scene in a production, they should be able to understand a story or relationship, regardless of their language or culture. Working bilingually in Montreal has focused me in this regard. So a lot of working physically is about continually asking questions about states of tension and energy in the body, that the body is in constant relationship with everything.

I look at theatre in the same way as people might create music or design a video game: many of my questions are about rhythm, pacing, stillnesses, and then on the conceptual, overall picture, mechanics, rules, and codes.

The lecoq training, which for me is about looking at the body from a pretty technical perspective (rhythm, tension and pacing), allows me to better access the pieces I create as living artistic objects.

When did you first start writing?
I started writing seriously when I was about fourteen, the day after I saw In On It by Daniel MacIvor.

You’re a multi-hyphenate. How do your roles as writer/director/designer/performer inform each other?
It’s back to looking at theatre and story telling like conceiving the rules to a game.

Just as Samuel Beckett will create strong bonds between his words and his very specific visuals, I use my skills in music, sound design, performance and direction to build a piece of theatre where all elements are working in synchronicity to an overall vision.

So with Macbeth Muet it was a lot of myself and the other creator Marie-Hélène [Bélanger] building physical sketches together, as performers, then me proposing sound designs before or after those creation sessions, then transferring these discoveries over to our actors. As a director I have a better language with them, seeing as I already have the performance in my own body.

You are the artistic director or co-artistic director of multiple companies. Tell us about them and their founding principles.
The company that produced Macbeth Muet is called La Fille Du Laitier, which means “The Milkman’s daughter.” This company is a Foodtruck theatre company in Montreal, that is, our principal venue is a foodtruck-sized truck that opens up to reveal a nomadic urban stage which presents plays in the streets of montreal for free or by donation. La Fille Du Laitier believes in democratizing art, bringing performances to those who would normally not head out to see them. La Fille Du Laitier also believes in a theatre of whimsy I’d say, taking on wild and fun subjects like Dadaist adaptations for children, a kind of existential comedy about two grocery cashiers, and this adaptation of Macbeth. But, like with Macbeth, all of our pieces are tied to a very strong central concept or vision.

My second company, Surreal SoReal theatre, is a bilingual company in Montreal that brings the French and English communities of Montreal and Canada in collaboration with one another. Surreal is all about creating pieces of theatre who’s content attempts to surpass language, through concepts that continue to experiment with form in theatre. For example, Big Shot plays with using the language of Cinema in the theatre. Our piece Jonathan Livingston Seagull melds actors living with physical disability in a dance piece using highly coded physical language. Our piece Trying to Listen While not Giving a Fuck puts the audience in headphones, with the ability to choose which actor to follow, giving varied experiences of the story.

How did you develop the concept for Macbeth Muet?
Macbeth Muet started as my callback piece for the National Theatre school, where I studied as a director. They asked us to do a 3-minute version of our favourite play. I used to have text in it.

During school I then explored it as a two-hander, still with text, and still pretty somber and serious.

At a certain point during the experimentation, I sat alone in a room with a doctor’s mask and a bunch of styrofoam cups filled with blood, I put on “Hungry like the wolf” by Duran Duran and I filmed myself “killing” the cups with various obscene oversized weapons. That was a big starting point.

Then at a certain point our company was asked to do 3 minutes of whatever we wanted in a grand guignol themed cabaret. I thought “hey what about that Macbeth piece?” Turns out that grand guignol, sex, and silent film is very close to some of what I was wrapping my head around so we dove in together, myself and Marie Hélène.

After the cabaret we kept expanding the piece, it went from 3 mins to 5 mins to 15 to 30, to the 50 minute version we have now.

It started as a kind of “we’re doing this hilarious kind of dumb and funny version of Macbeth” to genuinely diving into the heart of this amazing, funny, heart-breaking, disturbing, violent story. This is no longer my weird and fun adaptation of Macbeth, this is absolutely the best way I feel I can tell this story.

Tell us about the casting process and the two performers you chose.
I mean it’s kind of funny actually, we needed two actors and Marie just said “ben là y a Clara pis Jérémie…pourquoi pas? En plus, Jérémie est roux, y est full écossais.” [rough translation: “Well, there’s Clara and Jeremie … why not? Plus, Jeremie has red hair so he’s totally Scottish”].

I knew Jérémie before from an audition and I heard Clara can dance, so I just went for it.

But seriously on our first day, where we did some improvisation for 30 mins or so, my mind was just blown: these actors were and are perfect for the kind of work I do.

The story was heavily streamlined. How did you decide what could go and what had to stay?
I believe almost every scene in this play comes down to a clear physical action: there’s washing hands, there’s fighting, there’s making love, even the act of waiting becomes very playable physically.

When we just kept going from principle action to principle action, it became quite clear what to cut and what to keep, like, Macbeth spends an entire soliloquy thinking of whether to kill to king or not. In our production, he arrives, he sees the king, he sees us, he breathes out. That’s the soliloquy.

This can come across as funny, and as a bit rushed. Which is great. These characters feel rushed! Like fate is urging them onwards, pushing them to do the deed and get the goal.

Then, when there’s a real stillness, or a time where the movement or exploration of a scene is more lyrical, more drawn out and not just about being efficient, we really feel it and can be let into the pathos.

A lot of scenes were cut, only to be transposed and used as key mechanics in the game of our production. For instance, there’s a porter character who keeps saying “knock knock who’s there” as soldiers arrive to discover the dead king. This porter calls himself a kind of gatekeeper to hell. Well instead of doing this weird scene, we took the knocking as a mechanic that brings back EVIL in the story: whenever Macbeth or Lady M need to talk to the devil to make key decisions, they knock on the table, and a hand appears to affect the story: the hands of the marionettist / manipulator. Many moments or ideas were actually expanded, though: for instance, the fact that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have a baby was transformed into a prologue to the play, in which we show what we feel is behind that story. 

Walk us through the creation process of a particular scene. Was the whole piece created on its feet or was each sequence planned on paper then put on the actors?
I would create in different ways.

Way 1: Get the actors up on their feet to improvise. We’d probably read the scene both in French and English so that they understand all the subtlety of the English and what’s happening exactly, and then try to break it down to moments and action. Then the creation of music would come after.

Way 2: I’d have an idea for music and action, come in with the music and choreography figured out, and work through beat by beat with the actors. This was usually the most popular way to work, because really I was creating all the scenes with Marie-Hélène before we had the actors in.

Way 3: Storyboarding. I’d sit on my own with the play and churn through concepts, for instance, there’s a banquet scene in which Macbeth sees the ghost of his best friend. So if this scene were a type of game, what would it be? Is it a magic show? A horror show? A vaudeville? Well in this case I turned it into a kind of ubu roi smorgasbord idea of the couple at a table eating and eating and the ghost appearing in the food. But it was all to upbeat accordion music. I story-boarded the crap out of that scene ahead of time so the actors could understand the sequencing, just as a videographer has to understand the steps to a scene in a film. Working in a table-top object theatre piece with music, a lot of these scenes came down to positioning on the table, just like building shots in a camera frame.

You used lots of unexpected materials like eggs, oven mitts, and paper plates. How did you land on those items and what were some of the other ideas you played with?
At first, we were centering around a kind of banquet table theme, so cups for soldiers, plates for faces, candles for trees, knives for…well, knives…this all seemed to make sense. Floating dagger, right? You can find a dagger on a banquet table.

We were attached to using [paper] towel pretty early, because so much of the play is about these character’s cleaning up their tracks, and again, the white, pure aesthetic…

How did we get eggs? Oh yeah…it’s the KA-BILLIONS OF MENTIONS OF BIRDS IN THE PLAY!! Did you know that about Macbeth? It’s like the most time birds get mentioned in any play of all time, even Erin Shields’ If We Were Birds, I swear. It took Marie Hélène to see this…being Québécois she never studied Macbeth in school, didn’t have the same preconceptions of it that I did. So she was just like “what’s with all the birds?? We should have birds.” So…EGGS…which of course for me kind of became the central image and metaphor of our production: an empty, yokeless shell.

But it’s always surprising how the reason for the choices of objects sort of comes late. For me, in our production, WASTE is a big theme. We see the destruction of all this styrofoam over the 50 minutes. And this adds up to something. It shows how in life, there’s always this cycle where our kings always leave a bunch of trash behind for the next generation to take on.

Fun object fact: Macduff and Lady Macduff used to be metal strainers. We wanted Macduff to sort of look like an egg. Something wasn’t working. I sketched and drew and thought and thought and I landed on him being a hockey glove: both strong and kind of a faithful defender at the same time. Naturally, his partner had to be another kind of glove, and since their whole relationship sort of keeps Macduff out in the battlefield and Lady Macduff at home, our designer Cédric Lord proposed an oven mitt. Soft and homey. 

The production is also nominated for Outstanding Lighting and Sound Design. Tell us about the development of those elements and how they played into the piece as a whole.
Spoiler alert: my experience in lighting design is solely with my own pieces. I’m by no means a master. I’m just a dude who loves side light and footlight. Really, what I was going for with the lighting was simplicity, and those sexy footlights to get a grand guignol, melodrama feel. After that it’s simple, pretty broad looks, with really quick shifts and a lot of use of shadow and darkess. It ain’t subtle.

In terms of SOUND…I loved loved loved working on this.

I don’t know when this happened but Macbeth Muet became, sound-wise, basically a pandora’s box of all pop music from the beginning of time til now. The sound design, and our production, is a bit about EXCESS…it’s kind of a reflection on how disposible everything is, how poppy everything is. The sound reflects on that.

But more importantly, the sound was developed through the literal notion of what melodrama is: a story being told with music accompanying to guide our emotions. The musical track is both a guide for us the audience, showing us when we’re snapping from scene to scene, but this hyper-quick jumpthrough of the play is also like a character in the production; it is, indeed, fate, telling the actors when to move onto the next thing.

The idea of sound pushing the actors forward, and them kind of being aware of that, is taken right from Shakespeare’s text, where Macbeth refers to himself as a poor player.

These two characters are sort of re-enacting the silent film melodrama of their own empty shell of a life.

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
I have a few.

(okay for realsies spoiler alert)

Okay but really do I have to just pick one?

Uhh…

I mean seriously there’s so many lovely moments both in the actors’ performance and conceptually in certain imagery adding up to something but here are my two faves:

1: Macbeth is flipping out, twitching uncontrollably after killing the king. Lady M has calmed herself, but sees her partner still losing it, so she goes over to him and hugs him. But they can’t touch each other because their hands are covered in blood. This moment is very beautiful, and for me summarizes the deep deep love between these two. It’s also awesome in the show because up until then we’ve been seeing a lot of funny stuff, stuff we’re led to believe is not “serious.”

2: The ending. (Warning, real spoiler here)

The actors spend the entire play killing things and covering the set in fake blood. At the end of every act they remove blood-covered sheets and props, bringing the set back to white.

In an epilogue, after all the carnage, all of this garbage is brought back, plunked onto the table in a huge bloody mess.

To me it is giving perspective just how much waste there was, how much was destroyed for this petty goal. It’s also, for me, talking about what our kings leave behind for the next generation, and how this is all adding up. En fait ça fait quasiment une commentaire sur l’état de notre environnement [rough translation: “In fact it’s almost a comment on the state of our environment”]. In the final moment, a little paper crown is placed on the pile of bloody waste.

What are you working on now and what’s up next?
With Surreal SoReal:

I’m directing the first French translation of a solo show written by Elena Belyea where a teacher teaches her 3rd graders how to prepare for school shootings.

I’m performing in Cranbourne, the first English translation of this play by Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Fabien Cloutier.

I’m performing in my play Big Shot which is touring in a new bilingual production.

I’m writing and directing an adaptation of Jonathan Livingston Seagull featuring a mix of able-bodied performers and performers living with physical disability.

I’m writing and directing Trying to Listen While not Giving a Fuck, a headphone play where audiences can choose which character to follow.

With La Fille Du Laitier:

Macbeth Muet is going to Vancouver, Edmonton, Houston Texas, and Wakefield coming up

I’m directing and adapting a play called Tong, which is a play about culture shock and integration into new culture, adapted from a Dadaist poem from the 1930’s.

Freelance:

I’m directing an adaptation of The Little Prince by Richard Lam in Toronto.

I’m directing a couple of plays in Edmonton next season which I don’t think I’m allowed to announce.

I’m working on being an awesome father with my ex-partner, who also happens to be the co-creator of Macbeth Muet.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Another thing we from La Fille Du Laitier are “working on” is making connections with English Canada. So we’re just so happy there was so much positive response to the show, and we feel very honored to be in touch with you guys.

I loved looking through the long list of nominees for these awards. There’s some really cool theatre happening in Toronto, I hope to be a part of this gang more often down the road. Thanks a ton.

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