Frank Cox-O’Connell is a multi-hyphenate theatre artist who came up through the Soulpepper Academy and has gone on to help create some of the most interesting work in the last decade of Toronto theatre. He’s been nominated for multiple Critics’ Pick Awards for both acting and directing, including this year’s Outstanding Direction nod for Romeo & Juliet for Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park, a visceral 90-minute production that unlocked the best in the English language’s most famous play.
What have you been up to since we last checked in for the 2016 Nominee Interview Series?
Last time we talked I was just going into the studio to make Other Jesus, with Public Recordings and an awesome group of artists including my good friend Evan Webber. That was a special show. Since then I’ve been directing the Soulpepper Concert Series with Mike Ross – those shows are a lot of fun – and acting a bunch at Soulpepper. There have been big changes in the past year; things are feeling really good there. What else… I just got evicted from my great, cheap apartment, so I’ve been hunting in the Toronto rental market and getting humble: facing the realities of being a theatre artist in a town built for -I don’t know who its built for – but not theatre artists.
Tell us about the genesis of this production. What attracted you to Romeo & Juliet as a directing project?
I was asked to pitch a Shakespeare to the folks at Canadian Stage and I spent most of my time talking about a treatment for a different play, for a version of Richard III. Then right near the end I mentioned, I think pretty briefly, that R&J is also a good play. I really don’t think I said much. And of course that’s what they asked me to do.
When we talked to you about playing Hamlet, you brought up the danger of working with a really famous text and trying to avoid feeling like you’re in an Eagles cover band “just playing the hits”. Romeo and Juliet is arguably even more iconic than Hamlet. Both in your directorial interpretation and in discussions with your cast, what were some of the conscious choices you made to avoid that cover band feeling?
I had initially cut a fair amount of the more famous text (the “gallop apace” speech and a good chunk of the balcony scene). Bit by bit we put it back in as it became clear how important it was for the plot. But that process might have taken the curse off of it a bit- it made it clear to the team that whatever we were doing needed to be connected story. The speeches in R&J are a lot more directly connected to plot and action than in Hamlet. So it was fairly easy to say, “don’t try to be original, don’t try to be interesting, just try to real and convincing, play the action”. One thing that also helps in R&J is that the characters in this play sometimes know that they’re speaking in heightened romantic poetry; sometimes they even get self-conscious about it and say so. It means that you could actually use whatever you’re feeling as an actor when you have to say a line that the audience already knows.
Your production only ran about 90 minutes. How did you approach cutting the text and deciding what you could lose/what needed to stay?
I tried thinking of it as an additive process rather than a subtractive one. I plotted out the central events of the original and just pasted in the text that would be get us efficiently from one event to the next. In the end I used exactly half the text, with nothing else added, and all in the order that it originally appeared. But it felt like more a writing exercise than a cutting exercise.
Give us some insight into the casting process.
I was casting in rep with Midsummer Night’s Dream, so we needed to find a team that could carry two very different shows. Jenny Young as the Nurse was a real building block for me – I really cast out from her. As for the process itself, we held auditions. Which I don’t usually do and was a bit worried about – I find auditions tough. As an actor I’m not very good in auditions, so as a director I’m naturally skeptical that they can actually show what a performer can bring to a collaboration. But it was a great way to meet new folks. And I got to know the play better through the eyes of everyone who came in. We tried to make it useful and fun for both ourselves and those we were seeing. There were actors who we didn’t cast for the park but Tanja Jacobs cast right away in another show she was working on. It made me feel better about auditions in general.
Rachel Cairns is nominated for her fresh take on Juliet. What were some of the things you discussed when reimagining that role?
Rachel is a whip-smart actor – and she performs with a real writer’s eye. In rehearsal when she was feeling icky about something that I was pushing on her, it was usually because there was a problem with my storytelling, something I was missing that she just had an instinct for, even if she couldn’t articulate it. It’s fun working with performers like that, those you can trust to dramaturge from the inside. In terms of the role, I don’t think we were actively reimagining Juliet. I was encouraging us to look at what we know about the character from the text, and to forget the image that’s been foisted on us from previous productions. But we weren’t being new for the sake of being new: we were trying to unpack the girl that’s on the page. She’s fierce and smart and sturdy, and yes she’s inexperienced and compromised by the position she finds herself in. But all of that comes straight from the text, we never said, “what happens if we make Juliet a punk?”
One of the challenges of Romeo & Juliet is that you’re generally working with actors at least a full decade older than the characters. How did you approach bridging that divide?
Well the characters also mature tremendously during the evening. It’s a sort of morbid coming of age story: over the course of the 90 minute show, or the three days in which the story takes place, we watch the two leads grow many years. They start as these kids contending with the pressure their world is putting on them, pressure to be a man and to be a woman. And then they figure out how to actually be those things, but on their own terms, for better or worse. So I approached the problem by asking what do these people not know, and what have they not experienced in the early scenes –how does that newness affect the body or their prejudice when they say a particular word or witness a particular action. And then how does that knowledge and position change as the play moves forward.
Mac Fyfe’s Mercutio was memorably off-kilter. Tell us about striking the right balance of madness for Queen Mab.
It’s such a crazy speech. Mac was such an animal with that part that he blew his ankle out in our first preview and I had to go on for a few nights. It was really fun, but I also felt first hand how hard that scene is to do right, how schizophrenic the scene needs to be if you’re keeping connected to the plot, and not descending into a little sideshow. Mercutio is trying to get through to Romeo when he starts the speech – trying to get his friend back and to come to the party. He does this by mocking Romeo’s appreciation of dreams and imagination, but as the speech goes on, its something in Mercutio’s own facility with dreams and imagination that lets the speech get away from him. In the end the speech works, it sucks the boys in, Romeo agrees to go to the party and Mercutio’s charisma triumphs. But what Mercutio is doing moment to moment to Romeo and the group isn’t totally clear. He’s doing a few things at ones. I told Mac to scare David and Peter (Romeo and Benvolio) and to do that by tapping into something fucked up in Mercutio’s past. Mac took this and ran with it. It was pretty stunning. Sometimes watching I’d lose the thread on what was a tactic and what was the mania, but it still felt connected to the central action of the scene. Practically, it was also an impossible scene to light well because he’d never be in the same place twice.
The last time we interviewed you, we were talking about the rewards and challenges of performing in the High Park amphitheater. So now same question but from a director’s perspective.
Being outside keeps you honest with your storytelling. If you get indulgent or sloppy the crowd just checks out. You need to take them gently by the hand from event to event. But wow is it ever nice to sit out there and watch a play. You don’t really get to feel that as an actor. And the crowd is such an amazing cross-section of the city. It’s a pretty special thing we have.
The World Cup played a big role in the setting of your production. How did you land on soccer culture as your lens for the Capulet/Montague feud?
I’m a big sports fan, I’ve been in crowds and in bars when things have gotten get out of hand, and that was the energy that I pictured when I read the text of that first fight. It also really struck me that there’s no backstory to the rivalry between the families. It’s just taught from the previous generation men – we hate those guys. This reinforced the connection to club sports: the energy of a totally arbitrary and self-perpetuating rivalry. Especially soccer hooliganism. There are lots of examples of those rivalries being proxy battles for very real sectarian conflicts, but it can also just be a vehicle for an arbitrary expression of passion. The World Cup adds the nationalist angle. But I was okay with implying that there’s arbitrariness there too. The play pits this passion for an identity against a different kind of passion, a romantic love. Romantic love is kind of the acceptance of difference – seeing the world from the point of view of two and a kind of dissolving of identity.
Tell us about crafting the violence of the piece with Simon Fon; it was notably visceral.
I think that violence in the story is one way that we’re really given to access the body. So the violence also feeds a lot of what follows, the scenes that are driven by desire and sex. So making the fights visceral, making an audience aware of the performers’ bodies, maybe getting the crowd a bit scared, and caught in the realism, this was also about throwing focus to the moments of tenderness between the lovers.
Your production was the perfect antidote to the claim that Romeo & Juliet is sappy or silly. How did you approach honouring the romance without over-romanticizing?
I don’t find much in the text sappy or silly. It’s a story about love, but it’s a scary, bloody and real portrait of love. I was into the writing of Alan Badiou when we were working on it. He talks about love as a radical, political gesture that requires risk in part because it asks us to accept difference. I was into talking pretty openly about love in the process and to connect that to the darker, scary, more violent parts of the story.
Every review of your R&J talked about that final scene. Why did you decide to time it the way you did?
Yeah, I had Juliet wake up just as Romeo kisses her before he dies. It’s a re-write of the Shakespeare, but it’s certainly not mine. I took it straight from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film. That was my first experience of the story, I read the play in high school and remember thinking Juliet waking up to the Friar’s explanation was decidedly less interesting.
The show was filled with tiny, thoughtful details. Were all of those found in rehearsal or did you come into the room with any really specific plans?
We didn’t have a ton of time in rehearsal so I plotted a lot out ahead of time. There were a lot of things that I would propose in a more general way that the actors would find specific expression for in the room. Like, I wanted Mercutio to spray-paint a heart with an arrow through it in his first scene and then die at the tip of that arrow in his last. Mac figured out how to connect the first action to the specific lines; and then how to die in the right place to finish the image. There were also lots of happy accidents that we found together. Like one that I’m sure no one noticed, but I just loved so I’ll share it here: when the lovers die Juliet reaches for Romeo, in our tech time there were these weeds growing through the slats in the stage in the way of her hand. We kept them and added a few sprigs of Rosemary – Rome’s marriage herb – as the bit of nature getting in the way of their final embrace. That was a fun little Easter Egg that came totally out of being in a venue where weeds just grow through your stage.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I certainly liked the opening. Peter Fernandes getting the audience to chant under his first speech and then using their participation to drive the first fight. It was a nice way to draw the crowd and make them complicit in the problems of the world. That was one that we figured out on our feet with Andrew Penner the composer. It worked well.
What are you working on now/next?
I’m performing in Wedding At Aulis at Soulpepper and rehearsing Hand To God at Coal Mine. In the spring I’m taking Other Jesus to the FTA in Montreal and then directing Fool For Love at Soulpepper.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
It’s so great having My Entertainment World covering theatre in Toronto. And the awards, the event itself and these interviews are such an asset to our community. Thank you for all your work.