It could be argued that no single playwright had a bigger impact on the 2017 Toronto indie theatre season than Michael Ross Albert. He has two plays nominated for Outstanding Production and together they totalled 12 nominations. Michael joined the cast and crew of Unit 102 Actor’s Company’s production of his one-act Miss for their group podcast interview (which you can download here) so for this interview we focused on his Outstanding New Work-nominated epic Tough Jews, the Storefront Theatre production of which sold so well they were literally turning people away at the door.
Can you remember the first production you ever saw?
No. I started going to theatre when I was really young, and I remember seeing a few shows at Stratford when I was really little. I think that that’s my first memory.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
Well, I always wrote. The first play that I wrote was called Four Sons, and I did it in one of the early iterations of the Paprika Festival in the early 2000’s.
What inspired you to write Tough Jews?
I was in a masters program, an MFA program for playwriting. I was pretty young, and we were to write our full-length play throughout the second and third year of the programme, so I knew that it was going to be something that I was going to be working on for a while.
I wanted to write a history play, and I wanted to write something very American. I set out to write a play about the Purple Gang, which was a group of ruthless criminals in the 20’s based out of Detroit, and I started doing a lot of research. Slowly, I realized that I had no business writing a play about Detroit, and really, the fact that the city was becoming like a character in and of itself. So I started to look at Toronto, where I’m from, and where my grandparents grew up. Thinking specifically about Kensington Market, and what that experience would have been like, and perhaps how it’s informed the culture of the city today. So ultimately, when I began writing it, it was sort of a homesickness piece. That’s where the idea came from, to write a Prohibition-era Toronto story.
Stylistically, why did you want to write an American piece?
I went to the Actors’ Studio for grad school, so the plays that I was investigating – both as a writer and as an observer and participant in the acting classes – were these old-school golden age American plays, like Tennessee Williams, Cliff Odets, Arthur Miller. That work was so rich, and was so tied to the philosophy of the Actors’ Studio, and its history, and its method, that I really wanted to emulate the voices of those writers. I wanted to find a way to do it stylistically so that it made sense, so the form, in a way, mirrored the content. So I was writing a play set in this era that would kind of mimic the theatrical tropes of that era, stylistically or structurally.
How much research was involved in executing that?
A lot. A lot of history of the city, and of the crime surrounding it, in the greater American heyday of organized crime. I did a lot of research in that vein. A lot of research about Toronto, and slang. I would sit with slang dictionaries next to me, because the style of dialogue is very period slang mixed with Yiddish, mixed with swear words. I knew that I was creating a language for these characters that I didn’t really have a basis for, so I wanted to make it as authentic, or as close to the idea of authentic, as possible.
What were some of the most dramatic shifts in the play’s structure, and in the play itself, over the course of its development? What were some of the biggest changes you made?
There’s an entire subplot that was removed. The play was quite a bit longer when I first sat down to read the first draft with actors, it read four hours long [laughs]. So there’s quite a bit that was removed. There was a character, Rose’s boyfriend / husband Harry, [who] was onstage in the original draft, and now he’s entirely offstage.
The major beats of the story remained the same throughout its development process, but it was a matter of refining the actions so that it unfolded in real time, in a palatable way, and really served the story of this family.
Compared to something like Miss, a short three-hander, Tough Jews really sprawls- it’s got tons of characters and spans multiple years. Was it ever hard to keep track, to make sure that all the different elements and all the different characters were being served the whole time?
The play is structured so that the second act kind of mirrors the first. They’re both these two real-time acts that deal with these interpersonal relationships within the family. So I wanted to make sure that every character had their time together, but also that what they were doing was, in a way, parallel to what had happened four years ago, when the play begins.
In the first act, the character of the mother is manipulating her son to try and eat on Yom Kippur when he doesn’t want to. And that relationship in the second act – she is using similar tactics and similar methodology to force her son to do something much, much more extreme, and much worse. So it was really about focusing on how these relationships develop over the course of years, and how much we stay the same, and how much these characters change over the course of time.
Tell us a little bit about working with Ben Blais as a director. As we talked about in the Miss interview, you don’t like to be super involved through rehearsals, so what was it about him that made you feel that you can hand this over to him and have it be in good hands?
Honestly, when I moved back to Toronto – I think it was 2012 – I went to see the first thing that Ben directed at the Storefront. The production of Wait Until Dark. And I thought, “This guy can direct Tough Jews”.
It was really just an immediate, visceral reaction, and getting to know Ben over the years that followed, and the work that he does – he makes these tempests in teapots. And knowing that the play was going to be produced on an indie scale after a lengthy development process, I was so struck by the way he’s able to meticulously create mania onstage [laughs]. And this play has a lot of it- it starts with this elaborate choreographed fight scene. Ben had seen a reading of sections of the play. I didn’t really know how he felt about it, so I sent him the script and was talking about potentially producing it at the Storefront Theatre.
Again, like with Miss, you hope for collaborators that are as enthusiastic about your work as you are, and Ben was like a speeding bullet. He really took to the play, and was so enraptured in the world, so committed to bringing that vision onto the stage in a way that really aligned with my own idea of the play. So it was a no-brainer.
Talk to us a little bit about the casting process and finding that particular ensemble. What are some of the ways that the actors altered your original vision of the characters?
After Ben read the play, we went to talk about it, and I had kind of an ideal cast in mind. He went, “You know who should play Ziggy?” And I’m like, “I’m gonna stop you there, because I have a really specific idea. I don’t know if it aligns with you, but do you know the band – ” and Ben went, “Birds of Bellwoods?!” And we both realized that Stevie Joffe was really the only person who should be cast in that role. So we went to him first, I think, and just said, “We’ve got this script, you should do it.” And Stevie really took to it.
It was a mixture of offering roles to actors and auditions. Ben and Maaor [Ziv] had worked together in the past, and he knew she would be as wonderful in the show as she was. So we did a reading, and she was excellent, and perfect.
We offered the role of the mother to [Theresa] Tova.
We had a really lengthy audition process for Teddy, [who’s] kind of the fulcrum of the piece. And Blue [Bigwood-Mallin], who played Ben, we met in an audition for Teddy. He was brilliant, but too old. So we invited him back to join the production in that role. [G Kyle Shields], who ended up playing Teddy, was the first person to read in a two-day-long casting process, and we had video auditions from Montreal and Calgary as well. So Kyle came in at 10 in the morning on the first day of auditions, and was just perfect. Then we had days of looking at other outstanding actors, and it really complicated the process, really threw us for a loop. Because we thought, “it couldn’t possibly have been the first person that we see”. But we did give him the role, and he was outstanding in it.
We approached Luis [Fernandes, for the role of Joe], and we auditioned for the role of Marge [which went to Anne van Leeuwen].
I think that’s everyone. In building a family, so much goes into the casting process, in terms of look, in terms of dynamic. So it was important to have a few key roles cast. Until Teddy was cast, it was very difficult to create the rest of that family. But Ben pulled it off expertly.
In the Miss interview, you talked about working with Lindsay Dagger Junkin and Adam Belanger who did the costumes and set for both your shows this year. What were some of the details in the Tough Jews design that particularly stuck with you?
My favourite thing about the set design of Tough Jews is that, in previous drafts of the script, there were many references to this crooner of the time, Rudy Vallée, that got completely cut throughout the development process. I was telling this to Adam, and he put a picture of Rudy Vallée on the wall that covered the blood packet for when a character dies at the end of the first act. So he was literally killing off this joke every performance with a big blood splatter, and I loved that.
Lindsay’s design was just out of this world. The costumes were incredibly inexpensive, given what she was able to do with her very small budget. And everything got covered in blood, so there were doubles of things. There was this very elaborate system of buckets backstage, where the shirts from one performance would get distributed and then changed. Just navigating that throughout the process required an incredible level of detail.
We worked with a fantastic fight choreographer, Simon Fon, who worked with our blood designer, Angela McQueen, and they also worked in tandem with Adam in creating the set so there are packets of blood hidden around that space. I never really knew where they were, and I got to a point in the process where I was like, “I think I know where all of them are”. They’d say, “Well, where do you think [they are]?” “Well, one is over there on the thing of the barrel.” And they went, “There’s no blood there.” And I went, “Really?” and went and looked, and was like, “Then how did you get the blood?” And no one would tell me how it was hidden. So it was all a very well-oiled machine.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the production?
The play was produced at a time where this real surge of [right wing politics] was really starting to creep its way into mainstream news stories. It happened in a really freaky way. I think on our second day of rehearsal, there was a bomb threat at the Miles Nadal JCC, which is like a block away from where the Storefront’s rehearsal studio was.
I hadn’t really written the piece with any type of agenda but this was really becoming more and more a story about the times that we were living in. I always wanted audiences to question “Toronto the good”- knowing that we are the most multi-cultural city in the world, but achieving that level of diversity took many, many moments like the ones that happened in the play. Bloodshed, conflict, trauma, that was carried inter-generationally. Although we pride ourselves on being a very open-minded and welcoming city, ultimately, we are not as far away from where we’ve been as we may think we are.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
The [favourite] moments are the ones that surprised me. There was a line reading that was in no way how I had envisioned it. I wrote the first draft eight years before it was produced and I’d always heard this one line the same way in my head when they reveal that they’re going to be doing business with Al Capone. They didn’t change text. There was nothing different about it, but the direction was so not what I had expected, and yet was perfect for that moment. Things like that. Tova swearing in Yiddish up the stairs, a lot of the time she exited, was really wonderful. The fight choreography was amazing. I have a lot of favourite moments.
Did you have anything you wanted to add?
Tough Jews was a surreal gift. The community embraced the play in a way I could have never imagined, having gone through a development process as lengthy as this one, with professional theatre companies and thinking that maybe no one would ever do the play, that maybe this is just that big play that I’ve written, that is in a drawer for the rest of my life. Seeing the line-ups of people waiting for standing room, and the enthusiastic response, the way in which they embraced it, was one of the greatest joys of my life. It was incredible.
And thank you for doing all of this. This is really great. I really appreciate you coming to see things, and advocating for indie artists. It’s lovely. Thank you.