My favourite phrase to describe the incredible Nicole Wilson is “clear-eyed”- she’s remarkably insightful, relentlessly honest and, more than pretty much any other artist I can think of, she knows exactly who she is and what she likes and what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. Or, if not, at least she pretends really really well. Good Old Neon’s Blue Remembered Hills was her baby and its six nominations (including Outstanding Production, Direction, and Set & Costume Design) are the direct result of her unique artistic vision. She thought I hated the show because I called it “dark, unpleasant, [and] uncompromisingly strange” in my review. It was all those things. But I loved it. Because, like Nicole Wilson, it was clear-eyed when so few things are these days.
We last interviewed you for the 2014 series. If your memory can reach that far back, catch us up a little bit on anything about Nicole Wilson that you feel like sharing.
I would say my taste has slightly changed, but not really that much. It’s gone from a wide lens to a medium. I feel much more certain about direction, in terms of where I want to go with work. I’m not super interested in narrative, obviously. [laughs] I think Potosi was probably the most real fake show I ever did. However, I loved it.
I got married, to Alexander [Offord], who is also my theatre partner, which is kind of why we’re married.
I became a vegan. You may have seen my horrible Facebook posts. I’ve been trying to pull back on that. I don’t actually want to freak people out. But yet I sort of do. It’s weird. That’s what’s dominating my life right now, because I was vegetarian forever, and then I went to a Cow Save vigil. Toronto Cow Save/Pig Save. They’ll go to slaughterhouses and sort of protest. It used to be more protest-y, and then it got ugly, and they stopped doing that. They do vigils, which means they have this really bizarre arrangement with truck drivers to stop before they load the animals into the slaughterhouse. They take photos with them, and just spend a moment with them. So I went to that. I’ve wanted to go for like eight years, and I went with my sister, for a school project. And then I left, and I was like “Well, I’m no longer vegetarian. I am now a vegan.” It changed me completely. So that’s been dominating my mind. I’ve wanted to do a show about slaughterhouse workers for a long time, and now I’m like, “Okay, Nicole, it’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen.”
Is it in the works, are you actually doing it?
I’ve tried doing it twice, and it’s fallen apart, both times. But I don’t really necessarily want to work with actors. I want to work with some activists, and also just humans who are interested in the world, just because I think actors aren’t super into it.
We’re looking at it not being just a show in isolation. We’re trying to modify our model right now, to have a book that accompanies the show, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s a little bit bigger. I feel like it’s not super appealing to actors who are like, “I wanna do a show. I wanna do another show.” Which I understand, but that’s sort of where my head’s at right now.
What attracted you to Blue Remembered Hills?
Literally, I was at U of T rehearsing for this show I did in the UK. They had a book sale, and I went in, and I had acted in a Dennis Potter show like four years ago. Then I saw this book of Dennis Potter plays, and I read it that day, and I was like, “I wanna do this”. But the thing is, the plays are not that good. I don’t think it’s that great.
But [it’s the] same with The Two-Character Play, which I also chose. I think I like plays that are open, that don’t necessarily have clean objectives, because I feel like I can almost see that world more clearly. If there’s already a clean objective and a world defined, then I’m like, “Oh, then what am I doing? Fucking with it for the sake of it? That’s lame.” Whereas with this one, I’m like “This needs this world to make sense.”
That makes sense- if it’s a little bit broken, you have space directorially to play around and change it to make it better and suit your artistic ideas. It’s written as adult actors playing children but what you did was adult actors playing adults claiming to be children, is that right?
Yeah, we kept talking about this, because everyone was like “Yeah, but they’re kids, right?” Because there’s references to [things like] Grade 3. I was like, “We can’t play kids, though. We’ll just die.” It’ll just not serve the purpose. I think it would have undercut it a little bit. But it was a weird thing, because a couple of the actors were like, “But we’re kids.” It was like, “Yeah, but no”. [laughs] There were a lot of question marks. It certainly wasn’t well-defined at the beginning of the rehearsal process.
From a thematic point of view, what effect did that choice have on the text?
For me, what the play’s about is pain. The pain that we inflict on each other, both consciously and subconsciously. And I think [with] kids, we’re willing to let them off the hook for that a little bit more, because you’re going, “Oh, well, they’re just learning. They’re figuring it out.” Whereas they looked like adults- Michael-David [Blostein] with his frickin’ tight tank top [laughs] Beautiful images!- I think it just sort of prevented people from going, “Oh, well, those fucked up things that they’re doing to each other, well, that’s just because they’re kids. Because kids do that, right guys?” So for me, that’s one of the huge things. We still have the text countering that, and having this kid interaction, which I thought was great, because we did sort of try to put Trump-isms and things in there, obviously. So it was kind of like, well, adults are kids in some of the worst ways. And unfortunately not in some of the best ways.
Walk us through your casting process, and how you put the Outstanding Ensemble-nominated group together.
Oh, man. I’m obsessed with them. Casting was bizarro. We did monologues, even though it’s kind of a weird show to do monologues for. And then I basically would redirect them with something really strange.
Jeff Dingle didn’t come to initial auditions, because I went to theatre school with him, so it’d be really weird. Alexander auditioned. [laughs]
But there were a number of people who were new to me. And we did two group callbacks. Most of the people in the cast were in one group, because I was like, “I think that’s the right thing, but maybe this is.”
And we did a lot of physical stuff. I would just give them a 5-second choreographed thing, and be like, “Do this. Now do it sharper. Now do it sharper,” like a crazy person. And just a lot of reading. “Chemistry” reads. Interestingly enough- Vince [Deiulis], someone else was originally playing his part. The first day, we did some physical stuff, and the guy who was supposed to be playing that part walked out.
Did he say anything or just turn around and leave?
He told the stage manager that he was going to the washroom [laughs], it was so fucked. But it was fine. His agent later was like, “He’s been doing film and TV for a long time, and being onstage freaked him out. And when he was in the rehearsal room, he was like, ‘I can’t do this’”. Which was probably for the better, for this show. [laughs] And a pretty weird return to stage for him.
Hayden [Finkelshtain] was such an obvious choice for Donald, for me. Originally, when I spoke with Alexander, he had imagined someone more Michael David-y playing that part, before we even cast. Physically, I mean. Or short and tiny. It was really interesting, because the second Hayden came in, I didn’t even need to see him read. It was an obvious choice. It was just like, okay.
MD did not wanna play Peter. He was so not into it. And I was like [inhales] So we didn’t even cast him until the first read-through. [laughs] He wanted to play Donald. Not surprising. Or Raymond, who has the stutter and barely speaks. I think he was seeing Peter as really one-dimensional, which was something I was like “No, no, no, no, no- Peter’s the one who has the biggest change of all of them”. So that was like a negotiation. And after they did the read, I was like “Sorry, man. You just have to be Peter. There’s really no other option.” It was hilarious.
Was music a part of the audition process, or did you just happen to find a cast who could all sing incredibly well?
I had them sing a little, but it didn’t really matter, because we weren’t going for pretty. And yet it was, right?! [laughs] They filled that space. They were so annoyed by that intro, because we obviously rehearsed that a lot. I was obsessed with it, and they were just like, “When are we going to do the play?” [laughs] They just all happened to be able to sing.
How did that idea for the musical elements develop?
That’s a great question. I call them the outbursts. They were throughout the play, where all of a sudden the whole cast in unison would be like “No!” or something like that, and shout at the audience, or do something in unison. And for me, I felt that they’re like these people who are trying to hold their shit together, and then it bursts out. Then they’re like, “No, we’re good, we’re good,” and all the fucking hate and misery of their lives pops out of them. It actually came from that. It wasn’t there at the beginning.
And as those came out, I was like “Oh, we actually need something at the beginning to see what’s going on with these people”. Otherwise, we just start with Jeff playing a pilot. We don’t get the sense of where we’re at in the show. So for me, that was all the undercurrent of what’s actually happening in these people that isn’t a tangible thing, and doesn’t have words. The “song” was that. Essentially just them living in that moment for a while, before trying to cover it.
Tell us a little bit about some of the other hats you wore beyond director- you’re nominated for your set and costume design.
It was so lovely, because it was a lot of work. The set and costume thing was funny, because we’ve always worked with other people before, and they’ve always done great jobs. But for this one, it was like a combination of me being like “I know what I want! I already know what I want for this”, and also timing, because it’s just hard to get people. But the truth is, we’d never actually even asked anyone.
Alexander and I fought about it a lot, which is funny. It sounds like we fight all the time, but only about theatre. [laughs] He was like, “I don’t think we should do it, because we’re paying for rights”. It was a fairly expensive show. And I was like “Yeah. It’s interesting that you don’t think we should get help when I’m the one directing, but when you’re the one directing, we have teams of five.” So in the end, he was right. Both of us do everything, obviously, but it was cool to do the set and the design.
I really felt for the first time that I could actually make the show exactly what I saw. Because it’s really weird when you have an idea, and it’s totally in contrast to the set and the design. So directing that, and then managing the emotions of the cast. That’s draining. [laughs] No, they were actually really great. Alexander had a struggle, because he hadn’t been onstage for a long time.
And then what else did I do? A little bit of everything. Solved last-minute lighting issues. We did the sound.
Give us a little bit of insight into the aesthetic of that set and costumes. The white costumes and makeup.
It’s really funny because I didn’t initially envision being all white. And then we had the room, and I was like “Ohhh. This is the world. So we can either try to fight against that space, which is impossible” – it’s truly impossible, I think, because it’s pure white! So we could try to shove some other things in there, or we go with. So I was like “Yes, check. Go with”.
It also had weird racial tones going on with that that I thought were really interesting, especially because we had an all-white cast, unfortunately. I was like “well, let’s look at: Does this connect to the alt-right in some way? Let’s go there.”
The pure white with the slow introduction of mud was a visual representation of what we look like on the inside if we assume that we begin with purity/goodness and how that becomes muddied when we interact with one another. There were lots of little things, it wasn’t one particular reason.
In terms of the makeup, it just looks cool. [laughs] But also, I think it was giving them archetypes, in their faces. Dingle was like, playful silly guy. Peter had the big black eyes. They all were sort of archetype face painting things, I guess. It was really just trial and error. I was like “try doing a circle here. No” That’s just the truth. A lot of it was just on instinct. I definitely don’t go here first [points at brain]. I don’t start with brain. I start with gut, for sure. [laughs] It drives Alexander crazy.
What were you hoping the audiences would take away from the production?
I wanted the audience to feel a little bit horrible because they would see themselves. That’s basically it. I think that’s a big reason why I was obsessed with the outbursts. Originally I wanted there to be way more, and I was like “Ah, that’s too much”. Because it was kind of like a “no, fuck you, wake the fuck up. Oh, I’m sorry, are you watching the play? No, no you’re not.” That was thing #1.
The other thing I was really interested in – this is tangentially related – were the fight scenes. The fight scenes that were between Michael-David and Alexander and with Vince, I was like, “Okay. If we go stage combat-y with those, that’s really interesting”. I never buy stage combat. I always think it’s really cheesy. And then I was like, “Let’s try the real thing- the death- to be the most stylized”, because I actually buy stylization way more. So I’m like, “Listen. He’s dying from a fire from burning alive. How are we gonna do that? Let’s try to contrast that in that sense so we can go ‘Ohh’”. Actually, stylized stuff can hit harder than we think. It doesn’t have to distance us. It can actually bring us closer. I don’t know if you picked up on that, but that was something I was interested in.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
I loved a lot of moments, but I loved the scene between Hayden and MD. That scene was the one that I basically directed the least, because I couldn’t, because it needed to not be directed. And we got to see that relationship, and we got to see the complexity of Peter’s character and Hayden’s character. And I feel like it’s what made the rest of the play work. It was beautiful.
What are you doing now, or what are you working on next?
Fringe. We might do our first ever devised piece. Maybe. [laughs]
Is it going to be about slaughterhouses?
No. Because we only have an hour, and that show needs more time. It might be about society’s need to pathologize everyone’s anxiety. That’s kind of what we’re leaning on right now. It’s just something we talk about a lot.
We were like, “Should we do a social media show? What does it look like?”, because Facebook drives me crazy. I actually feel pain. When the #MeToo campaign was going on, somebody actually messaged me because I didn’t post, and I was like, “That’s really fucked up.” So we were constantly ranting at each other about things. That was why that came up as a potential thing.
But it’s also really tricky, because the whole point would be to say, “What’s this show about? Hey guys, what’s causing your anxiety is the fact that the world is fucked up. That’s why you’re anxious. You’re anxious because the world is terrible. I get you. You are anxious, because the world is terrible. But maybe you just shouldn’t try to take medication and call it your personal special anxiety, and acknowledge the fact that it’s because of the world, and then actually maybe do something to change the world”. But it’s tricky to do that without guilting people. It’s also not about being, like, “You’re not an anxious person,” because I think most people are. But what’s the source of that? Anyway, that’s what we’re toying with right now. Real tricky.