A performer in both theatre and film, Tennille Read is well-established on Toronto stages in works from writers such as Hilary McCormack and Kat Sandler. Along with Hilary Carroll, Michelle Langile, and Lesley Robertson, she co-founded Theatre Inamorata, a company whose mandate is to perform new or adapted works that focus on the experiences of women. In their 2017 production of Gray, an updated, female-centric adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by Kristofer Van Soelen and directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Read gave a compelling performance as the title character that ranged astutely between comic naivety and ruthless, ultimately self-destructive manipulation, earning her her second Outstanding Actress nomination. We talked about developing female-centric stories, wearing the darker aspects of your character while trying to bike through the city, and onstage representation for the town of Caledon, amongst other things.
Tell us about a play you did when you were young that really cemented for you the idea that this was something you wanted to do.
I think in Grade Five – I mean there were lots of little things that came my way that planted the seeds – but the one that stands out right now was in grade five I had a teacher, who – I think he was really bored with math and all the other things so whenever he had the chance he’d be like, “It’s story time.” And so he would always give us the option to write a report or dramatize your report or create a skit around this subject. So I started writing little sketches for my friends in class and writing stories and then dramatizing them.
Kind of being the director?
Yes! And the writer, and the producer. [laughs]
So were you doing school plays around there?
There were a few school plays – you know, it was elementary school, so Christmas plays I think.
Where did you grow up?
In Newmarket. Very small-town at the time, though it’s blown up now.
Did you feel like you had to come to Toronto?
I did, and I didn’t. Like it kind of just organically happened that it was Toronto. I’m so lucky that my family is super close to me. And for Canada, it’s quite a bustling place for theatre and film. I think just because of the proximity I landed here, because of my family – the fact that it has so much to offer was the biggest bonus I could have received.
Can you talk about the genesis of Theatre Inamorata?
So Michelle approached Lesley, Hilary, and I. The three of us went to George Brown Theatre School together. We had just graduated, and Michelle was nearing the end of her program. And so she got us all together and started talking about her plans for graduation and what that what might look like. Creating theatre was on her list, and female-centric stories was on all of our lists, in terms of theatre – incubating and nurturing that kind of work. So it started with us meeting every couple of weeks reading plays. There were a few classics that we just wanted to see if we could transform into something relevant to today, or even perform as is. John Dryden’s All for Love was one of them – it follows Antony and Cleopatra at like the eleventh hour. It’s a beautifully written play. I’d done it in theatre school, in second-year period study. But what didn’t totally please us at that time with that play was that it wasn’t following her business mind enough. It was the love story – which is why I love it as well, but at the time we were really hungry for how, if we’re going to do a Cleopatra story, we want to talk about how she spoke however many languages, and she was the first ruler in Egypt to speak the language of the slaves, she could communicate directly with them. She was so good with math, all these things. And on top of that she used her sex appeal and charisma, which is what most stories about her follow, but there’s so much to more to that story. Anyways, we didn’t feel up to writing a completely different play, so we shelved that idea. But it did start us on gathering ideas for what we wanted to do. We started writing a play of our own about our experiences working in restaurants as servers, and the weird dynamics that go on there between men and women – hostess stuff, kitchen staff – and what we know we can do to increase our tips, what we’re rightfully aware of – it’s a weird, complicated, grey area.
In the short term it’s like, OK, I’ll make money . . .
Yeah, but long-term it’s like, “Wait a second, why am I flirting with a stranger I’m not interested in?” Because we’re told to make sure that everyone has a good time. It’s weird!
And it’s an implicit part of your labour.
That too. It’s just there. Your manager doesn’t really sit you down and say, “These are our no. 1 regulars, so if you could just . . .” So weird. All of us had serving jobs at some point. The play got a first draft and then it was over two years I think that we were working on it, and we needed some space from it, so it’s on a shelf for now. We will return to it hopefully. Michelle started writing stuff on her own, so there’s a few things that she’s concentrating on.
And then Kris came to us. He wanted to use our brains, our talents, to workshop some of the writing that he’s started on already. It was a very different version of Gray. It was the first draft of something. He didn’t even know what it was. He had originally created the play by taking text from all of Oscar Wilde’s plays, novels, poetry and essays. So when we read it, it was like a very cut-and-paste kind of script. It was a place to launch where he ended up, for sure. I think it was really necessary for him to immerse himself in everything Oscar Wilde, and get behind this man’s writings and thoughts and ideas. And for us, because he came to us, we provided our input of what we wanted to see on stage, which was we wanted to explore the themes of hedonism and addiction, and beauty and vanity. We all wanted the characters to be kind of ugly, we didn’t want to follow the usual perfect ending. We liked that many of the themes that were in Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray could be transferred to female characters and still make sense. And so that project was over a couple of years of back-and-forth. He’d send a new draft and we’d read it in a roundtable setting, and then Kris would go off, and – like, Kris is a carpenter now. He graduated theatre school a year ahead of me, and then he moved home to Newmarket (oddly enough, I didn’t know him at the time when we both lived there), and he became a carpenter, and he writes on the side. And so it took so long partly because he was living this other life doing a full-time job. Which is also pretty cool because it really gave him time to process.
And so he got to stand outside of the world of the play a little bit.
He literally got to stand back and look at it from an outside perspective.
Was some of the stuff he wrote surprising to you?
Yeah. Some things that didn’t make it into the final draft, but something that referred to the female body, but it would be a female character saying it, something about a period or something like that. And that struck me, and I wasn’t sure if that was something that even I would write myself – but Kris wanted to see how far he could go with throwing out what he knew. Because he’s perfectly aware that he’s a man writing this, and he wanted to see what could go in and what couldn’t. And that’s where our feedback was valuable.
It was pretty cool, and it was also very daunting, because like any creative process, script after script, you have to really trust that it can get somewhere that is playable enough to mount in a full production. Michelle was great at being the ringleader of keeping it going. I think it was only in May of last year that I read a script that I was like, “Oh. Oh! This makes sense. Now she has an arc. Now everyone else have smaller arcs going on that also make sense.” It’s amazing, I couldn’t see it before, none of us could. It had to just play out. That’s the neat thing about time and trust.
Were you always going to be Dorian?
Yeah. Michelle put it out to us who we wanted to play, and who we thought everyone else should play. And so we all had a say into that. My picks were Dorian or Jane, the artist [played by Ximena Huizi], because I thought that she was such an interesting character.
They’re kind of flip-sides of the same persona. Jane is so committed to her work.
Sure, to her work. And the heart of it. And Dorian’s very much about everything else, on the outside, the consuming of it.
And so you saw yourself there?
[laughs] No, I didn’t see myself there. I thought it would be a good challenge to take on. It’s definitely a role I haven’t played before. And it was ugly. It was a dark role to play. There were times after rehearsal where we had to kind of scatter and debrief on our own because – – Dorian was doing really gross stuff to people. And to rehearse that over and over again over a couple of hours – – it’s gross! That’s another thing. I was very aware of the residue of rehearsal. I remember biking home sometimes, from Ossington and Dupont to Ossington and Queen, all downhill, and I’d just be so negative. Like, everyone cutting through me was at fault, like, “I deserve to be home right now! How dare you pull over!” [laughs] A weird residue. But I’m glad I’m aware enough to know what that was.
What I found interesting about the adaptation especially as it goes on was that the emotional violence of the piece really replaces all the actual violence of the original work – death, murder, etc. Was that as an adaptation choice made early on?
That was definitely a conscious choice, and it came early on. Because in the book, the relationship with Sybil [played in the production by Sydney Violet-Bristow] happens early in the book, the first 2/5ths of the novel, and a death or murder onstage is like a climax. And there’s so many other things that happen after that. So, we eliminated it partly for that reason, partly because it seemed implausible to get away with a murder like that. Too out there. And then we also didn’t want Sybil’s character to be killed off.
I can understand what. It would be a terrible cliché.
Exactly. And that was another wonderful thing about working with the writer so closely. We wanted Sybil’s character, because she was a transgender character, to finish on a high. We didn’t want to use that character to carry on a plot, or be destroyed. There’s a lot of things we were trying to do with that play and this was one of the things we were not compromising on.
Can you talk about how Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster came on as the director?
We approached her . . . I think we sent her a script around May if not a little bit earlier and just probed her interest and availability because she was working at Soulpepper as well. And she was very interested, and I think it was like in June that she had her schedule for Soulpepper and she could commit, which was great.
And so did she and Kris have their own kind of relationship in terms of developing it or were you all in it as apart of the same process?
I think maybe further into the rehearsals she and Kris had more contact. Because sometimes if she had questions about the script she could immediately ask him for clarification. From what I saw, there was more interaction between the two then. He would come to rehearsals as well.
And would he have new ideas based on what he saw in the rehearsal process?
No, he just let it be. He’s such a gracious man – he was so over the moon in seeing it come to life. I think it surprised him, having spent so much time writing on a computer, to see it and hear people say his words.
What I found curious about both your performance and the overall tone of the play was that, while the play does get very dark, in the first half, the social satire and comedy is much more emphasized, and your character seems almost like an innocent, and then this transition happens. Do you think she was always this ambitious person, was she made this way by the art world – what’s the line there?
We talked about that. I didn’t want Dorian to be a puppet to Opal [played by Langile] at any time. I wanted her to be influenced by Opal of course, but ultimately I wanted her to make her own choices, and it came from a place of innocence at first, like she’s from Caledon, she’s so protected.
That was the first play I’ve seen where someone was from Caledon.
[laughs] I know lovely people there. I don’t know why it was chosen.
Glad it was chosen. Great to see some representation for Caledon.
Kris to thank. Yeah, I think it was a mix of Opal obviously, but also Dorian’s desire to please, and her desire to just experience, because she had lived in such a protected and sheltered world up until that point. I think a hunger for more was lit when she moved to Toronto. And I think she has one of those addictive personalities where more is never enough. And so because she could have more, she kept going for more, and then ultimately that does destroy her by the end.
Did you find aspects of the production changing as you kept performing it for more people?
Yeah, definitely. I think everyone got stronger in their performances for sure, which always happens. I think the flow found its currents a bit better. I would say that every audience was so different and would laugh at different times, sometimes in discomfort at different times that I think my awareness of the audience got better throughout. Because we didn’t know, you hardly ever get to know unless you’re in Stratford, where you get weeks and weeks of previews to feel it out.
Were there particular things that you noticed that things got a different response?
Hmm. Sometimes with the statute and the unveiling of it. Sometimes my approaching the statue, when I had a monologue with it. It was such a weird statue, like we had to become friends with the statue. [laughs] We didn’t want it to doing anything bad to us. I think also what changed was the emotional connection with the character, for me. I can only speak for myself, but definitely dropping into that kind of devastation that happens when you’re so empty – that hit home more and more with each performance.
Mamito Kukwikila was nominated for her performance as Laura, the wife of Opal. She was very natural, very grounded, very centring to the show. I was wondering what working with her was like. Did she audition?
She auditioned – and got it! I don’t think any of us knew her from before, which was kind of nice. She’s from England. Working with her was great. She reads so strong and vulnerable at the same time, and I think that’s just who she is, that’s what she brings as a person. She has a very calming energy about her that, in the room, is very easy to work with. She’s very open to direction and questioning things, she’s really curious about stuff. She came in with lots of questions, I remember.
Did those questions change the play?
I think they just clarified the play more for us. We didn’t change the script too much once we got into rehearsal. There were a few things that did shift that Kris either cut out or added for clarification. Like any rehearsal period, when you hear other people questioning something, it immediately effects you. You tap into like, well is it something I’m not making clear? Or is the answer going to help me do something else or be with that person in that moment – it’s so informative on every level, so it’s nice to have someone who asks all the questions like that.
One last question about the play, about Dorian – it’s an almost entirely female cast, a world of women, but a world where women are shown turning against each other to some extent. Was there a specific angle you were going for in terms of how people can turn against each other or how institutions fail women, or was that again just how the story developed?
I think we did look at how they would turn each other against each other, but we didn’t want it to get catty. We wanted it to be rooted in truth and in what we believe, and pain and rejection. This isn’t totally answering your question, but it’s making me think about the fact that it was so female-centric, and Courtney as well, was such a great person to work with because of her sensitivity to the violence. I mean some of it was physical, like the scene where I shove Jane towards the statue – Courtney was always very sensitive about how we would rehearse that, and what was comfortable for Ximena, and how we could get the impact across without traumatizing everybody, or bringing up any of the experiences we might have had in the past. And the same with the flip-side, for the love scenes, Courtney was always like “O.K. guys, there’s no contact today, you don’t have to do that.” I don’t think I kissed Edward [Charette, who played multiple roles] until tech week! All of that stuff I’m reading about more and more now in certain rehearsals, I really appreciate that she was just so, “That’s now what this rehearsal is all about!” It was a very safe environment.
So what’s next for Theatre Inamorata?
Michelle has written Lady Capulet. It follows Juliet’s mother’s storyline. I know Michelle was working with Nightwood, one of their programs, to workshop it. That was just in the fall so I imagine she’s heading back to it soon. And she’s heading out east, and I think she’s going to use the Inamorata umbrella for a couple of productions out there.
And for you, what’s happening next?
I’ll be playing Portia in an adaptation called Portia’s Julius Caesar (working title) for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Ruff production. Kaitlyn Riordan has re-written Julius Caesar – told through the perspective of the women, exploring their relationships with each other in the events that happen in the original play. It’s the kind of Shakespeare I can get behind in this day and age as a woman.
Finally – and this is probably such a broad question – obviously this is a discussion you guys have been having forever, but given the climate right now, in the theatre world and everywhere else [in terms of more open discussions of sexual harassment] – – is that something everyone at Theatre Inamorata talk about in terms of your work going forward, or is it a conversation you have outside of those lines?
I think our conversations – because we’re all friends so we would all hang out anyways – out conversations were always, you know, our own personal stories about what happens, and then we’d analyze it, try to pick it apart, figure out what could be changed with it. When we go see shows together, or debrief about shows we’ve seen apart from each other, a lot of the time our conversations would be around the female characters, what we liked about their arc, what we were surprised by, what was different about that portrayal that we hadn’t seen before. And then when it comes to choosing projects – you know I think it feels so innate, that it’s not a discussion. We’re drawn to this stuff. It’s just sort of there.