The surefooted creativity of Mallory Fisher’s classical directorial work has been one of the great discoveries in the Toronto indie scene in the last couple years. Her work with Wolf Manor Theatre Collective is forward-thinking, thought-provoking, and clever with a real focus on text and humanity. Three Sisters was her best to date, an Outstanding Production (it’s nominated in that category but I also just mean that it was an outstanding production) that racked up six total nominations, including Outstanding Direction for Mallory.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I got into theatre through music. I was really into piano, and then singing, and guitar, and I play a bunch of other instruments now as well, but my first experience with theatre would be musical theatre of some kind. But I don’t know if I can remember, exactly. I can remember my first experience doing music- singing competition type of situations.
I got into theatre through music, and then dance, and then ultimately my voice teacher and my dance teacher were like, “She should do this”, because I was very energetic and into it. I only started doing musical theatre in high school, and from then I became more interested in the performance aspect of theatre than music, and I kind of let that go a little bit. But it’s been a huge influence on me now as a theatre practitioner because I’m very auditory. The sound is very important to me, and I think that’s actually partially why I got so enamoured with text work, and classical text work, and then directing as well, because good scripts like Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen feel like musical scores to me a lot of the time. So I have this habit of watching a dress rehearsal like this [demonstrates], with my hands over my eyes and listening to it, and I panic my actors a little bit, because they’re like, “She hates it.” [laughs] I’m like, “No, I’m listening!”
How did you get involved with Wolf Manor?
Dylan [Brenton] and I are both from Newfoundland, so that’s kind of how it started. Seven or eight years ago, when we were in between our years at university, we were both involved in a season of Shakespeare by the Sea in St. John’s. So we knew each other and connected through that a little bit. After that, we just stayed in touch. I was doing my undergrad in Boston, and he was going to Ryerson. So we knew each other, and stayed in touch.
When I was at the Boston Conservatory, I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t actually want to be a musical theatre performer, that I wanted to direct classical theatre. The thing that was so beautiful and lovely about the Boston Conservatory is that they have a bunch of emphases that you can take. So in your third year, you can start gearing towards basically taking a minor. You can focus. I wasn’t really interested in doing musical theatre performance anymore, so I took songwriting and classical acting.
My classical acting teacher was a really good mentor to me, and knew that I wanted to be a director, so I started directing while I was there. I was directing, and Dylan was following what I was doing. When we were back in Newfoundland, we would be talking about it, and he would talk to me about Wolf Manor. I was directing Twelfth Night, and he was doing Macbeth. We just kept in touch that way. So when I moved to Toronto after I graduated, he was like, “I want you to direct something. Let’s work something!”
We hadn’t actually worked together. We’d just been around each other’s theatre for a while, and we’re friends. So he was like, “Let’s see if it works.” I directed Richard III for them a couple of years ago, and we fell artistically in love with each other, and then we just kept that partnership going.
What drew you to Three Sisters?
So many things. I love Chekhov. Actually, my dream Chekhov play to direct is Uncle Vanya. But I wasn’t ready for it yet. I think I have a little bit of a glow around it, and I feel a little bit precious about it. And I didn’t want it to be my first experience with Chekhov.
Dylan wanted me to direct another Shakespeare, and then one day I was like, “I don’t want to.” [laughs] And he was like, “Okay, what do you wanna do?” What I’m really interested in in classical theatre, especially in the classical theatre canon, is making more space for women-identified performers, and queer, non-binary performers. That’s really super important to me. So Three Sisters felt like a really good opportunity to do a Chekhov play that could focus on a lot of women.
And it also feels very pertinent to me, that play. Something that was resonating with me a lot with that play is this idea of being stuck in this infinite, unbearable present, where you can’t go back to what it was before, and you don’t know what’s coming, and you can’t get there, either. It’s so important that they never get to Moscow. They spend so much time reminiscing about where they have come from, and that, to me, feels really relevant as a young person right now, feeling very helpless and not necessarily in control of your own life, and feeling like you’re on the edge of something that you can’t imagine. There’s a lot of things about it that drew me to it, I guess.
You changed the gender of two characters, Vershinin and Natasha. Talk a little bit about those decisions and the effect that it had on the themes of the play.
Certainly. I was really specific about which characters I wanted to gender-bend, or gender-swap. I wanted to change Vershinin primarily because I thought it brought a lot of depth to the relationship between Masha and Vershinin, in that it wasn’t just that Masha was married, and it was taboo why they couldn’t be together. There was this extra layer that nobody else approved of their relationship. Maybe because of that, because it was these two women. I wanted to explore that, and to make that clear. It was important that the rest of the love interest characters remained male, so I kept those as male characters.
Natasha was a really easy choice for me because [Niki Nikita] was the perfect person, and what Natasha represents to me is the intrusion of the play. If Natasha doesn’t show up, these characters would’ve just kept going forever in this way that they were going. Natasha is the oncoming force that radically changes everything for this family. She challenges them, and I think she scares them, but excites them. She was like the next phase of their life that was coming or not. And Niki is a dream. I need a thesaurus to find the right amount of adjectives to describe how wonderful and perfect it is to work with Niki. The amount of trust that we have as director and actor is something that I will spend the rest of my life trying to cultivate in my rehearsal rooms. I know that it gives us a really beautiful freedom to try everything, and I often work in a surrealist way. Niki is the first person to come on board with that, which I love. It was a combination of Natasha being this future that is coming at you full force, and Niki being this gender-binary-rejecting human, and also, Niki just being the perfect actor for the part, in my mind. So both of those things kind of influenced that decision.
Tell us about the rest of the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated cast, three of whom are nominated for their own solo awards.
A mentor once used to tell me that directing is 90% casting, and I agree. [laughs] My audition and my callback process is a little bit intense, because I really spend a lot and shed a lot of tears over casting. This group couldn’t have been more perfect. They were diligent and curious, and receptive to exploring this text in a way that was a little bit – romantic, I guess, is the best way to describe it.
I gave them a lot of homework. A lot, a lot, a lot of homework. Another reason why I love directing is because I’m a bit of a nerd, so I get really down rabbit holes really hard. I kind of crave people that will go there with me in that way, and I was just really lucky. Their chemistry together was just beautiful, and a little bit magic. I was really, really lucky.
Your directing style often has these big choices, big innovations. What were some of the ideas that you had to cut at the last minute, or was there anything you really wanted to try that just wasn’t going to work?
The space was covered in paper, and my initial thought was that I wanted the whole world to be paper. There’s something really fragile about the world, and a little bit discarded about this world that they’ve created. I wanted to explore that. Also, there’s a big fire in the play, and the whole street burns down. We talked a lot about how they would be living in the military quarters of the town, and so it’s likely that the houses would’ve been built out of stone. So for everything to just burn down so quickly just felt very strange for me. And I’m like, “Oh, it’s because the whole street is made out of paper.” [laughs] This is kind of how my brain works, I guess. So that was interesting.
Dylan and I had a lot of conversations about “Are we going to try to make all the set pieces paper? Are we going to try and make the props paper?” Ultimately, I was like, “No, we’re going to just make the environment paper, and then the rest of it will be a little bit more malleable.” So that’s also where we went. The dinner table was a little bit of a compromise on that part, because I was like, “I want this to feel like it can disappear at any moment. I want everything to feel like it can disappear at any moment.”
That space [Kensington Hall] presents a lot of challenges, especially with lighting. It’s a challenging space. But it also is perfect for that show, I felt, because it has this feeling of being trapped. There’s no windows, it’s a little bit dungeon-y, which maybe is not a nice thing to say. but it was perfect. It was the perfect space for that show.
I think that if I were to describe my style of directing, it would be magic realism. There’s definitely something romantic about it. I don’t know why that word. I’m very interested in theatre that doesn’t necessarily reflect society, but kind of redefines what it can be – so, theatre [is] this tool to imagine reality in anticipation of it. Theatre feels very freeing for me in that way. I think that’s why I’m drawn to classic so much. I’m not interested in bringing them to the present, I’m interested in bringing them to the future. Like what can they be in the future.
The play was written in 1900 and, even if you set it in period, it can’t help but be affected by the 117 years that have passed. What are some of the ways in which you feel that Three Sisters has been re-contextualized by understanding the history that followed its writing?
I wouldn’t necessarily even say that we set it in period, because my understanding wasn’t that we were setting it in period, but it was like a dream version of the period. So it was definitely influenced by the period, but also something else.
I’m also really married to the idea that Chekhov is intended to be comedic, so I’m really invested in that, in not being reverential about it, and treating it like a bit of a comedy. So it feels very 2018, a 2017 idea of an older generation that thinks that the good times are gone, and a younger generation that is frustrated with the older generation, and the ennui of the younger generation, and the resentment they have for the older- very baby boomer millennial, to me. I think the beauty of that piece is that the relationships are so strong, and clear, and resonant that it adapts very well to any kind of world where there are an older generation and a younger generation. It comes with it.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
I don’t know. I don’t think I have one specific answer to that. What I take from the show is a sense that even if Moscow stays at arms’ length, it’s still something that is worth reaching for, whatever that is for anyone. What their Moscow is. A feeling of perseverance is what I take from it, and what I hope other people would take from it.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
That’s really hard. It’s like Sophie’s Choice. There was a lot of really, really beautiful acting moments. Watching Arinea [Hermans as Masha] at the end was definitely a highlight. I think it was just watching the ensemble work. I was very inspired by them.
What are you doing now, or what’s your next project?
Right now I’m doing my MFA in performance creation at York University. I’m almost a year into that now, and it’s the best. It’s really the best. There’s five of us in my program, and we all work in very different ways. One of us is a traditional playwright, and there’s one who’s a physical solo performer, and another one does what she calls collage art, moving paintings, she directs them. It’s a fascinating, diverse group of people.
I’m writing a solo show right now, for myself, which is not what I anticipated doing, because I have definitely stepped away from performing. So I’m writing a 45-minute show, for my thesis, that will actually run a week-long festival in the Incubator space, in April 2019 at the Theatre Centre with my other Performance Creators. It’s basically an inquiry into isolation, and queerness, and Sylvia Plath poetry. And mediocrity, I guess.