The Independent Aunties are Talking to Chris Dupuis!

The Independent Aunties (Evalyn Parry, Anna Chatterton, and Karin Randoja) along with guest director Brendan Healy, are presenting their new show Breakfast at the Theatre Centre until June 1st.

Check it out. You'll never think of self-help tapes the same way again.

I caught up with the Aunties in the Theatre Centre dressing room to talk about creating collectively, flying fists, and why Louise L. Hay is evil.

The Independent Aunties have been one of the resident companies at the Theatre Centre for the last three years while developing this project. Did the process start with them offering you the residency or did you approach them with this specific project?

Karin--It was a combination of both. We had this project in mind and the Theatre Centre was interested in offering us space. Brendan Healy, who’s our director, was also looking for a residency and we knew we wanted to work with him. Before this project, I had directed every show our company had done, and we felt like switching things up a bit by getting an outside director. We had a 10 minute idea for Breakfast--a short piece about a family having breakfast and Brendan was really interested in investigating space.

Evalyn--Brendan had been doing a lot of Anne Bogart training, looking at compositions and space. Mixing the idea of breakfast with an investigation of space brought us to the idea of kitchens as a space, women's relationship to kitchens, family relationships, etc. We really connected with the idea of breakfast being a new day, a fresh start. We spent a long time at the beginning figuring out the questions we wanted to ask in this project and it kept coming back to family, legacy, and the idea of making a fresh start.

Karin--We were also interested in the idea of "authentic self"; Can you truly be an authentic person? Is that possible? What is "authentic"?

You mentioned family a couple of times. Was there a point where there were more characters?

Karin--At one point Anna played my little sister who was coming home after being away for a long time. She was a sort of free spirit and I was this repressed older woman. When we first started the process, we just played with space and composition so we were working in every nook and cranny of the Theatre Centre.

Evalyn--The idea originally was to find story and character through exploring space, as opposed to bringing a story to the space. Those compositions became very abstract. We made tonnes of material and little bits of it have remained though the process.

Karin--After our first work period we’d made a sort of an ├╝bercomposition for the piece and it seemed like there were relationships but we weren't clear about what they were. For the second stage of the process we wanted to look at character and story. So we made this dressing room into my kitchen and we spent two weeks locked in here working.

Evalyn--It was very healthy! (laughs) At that point it became more about intimacy, which was something we had touched on before, but it became more about audience intimacy. At one point we thought we were going to do the show in an actual kitchen. We spent a few weeks working at Equity Showcase Theatre in that upstairs kitchen they have.

Anna--We did a showing there and thought about doing the final version there as well, but then realized that we could only fit ten people in the room and we couldn't afford to have an audience that small.

Evalyn--That was the point where we swung from something really abstract; the big ├╝bercomposition as we're calling it was made up of many images, songs, and small bits of text, and moved towards something more solid.

I'm curious to know more about your writing process, which is something I’ve always wondered about with your company. Do you create improvisationally? Do you go off and write on your own and bring the material into rehearsal? Or do you next to each other at the computer writing together?

Evalyn--All of the above actually, though it's been different with every process. With Clean Irene and Dirty Maxine Anna and I were working at the computer side by side.

Anna--Although some times we'd go off and write on our own and then smash the two scripts together.

Evalyn--And then we took that script to Karin who became the dramaturge and helped us develop it. With Frances, Matilda, and Tea we really worked on our feet most of the time, creating improvisationally and then writing bits down and piecing things together. And then Mysterious Shorts was definitely more on its feet since it was more image-based.

Karin--With this show we spent part of the process creating a new piece each day. Brendan would give us a series of tasks and five hours to work. At the beginning he left us alone a lot and then later he would come in and help us as we were shaping it. David Skelton, who was the resident at the designer at the Theatre Centre at the time, was around helping us as well to create the new designs for the show day by day.

Evalyn--We'd present the piece at the end of each day and then the next morning we would come in and spend the first hour of rehearsal doing writing based on what we created the night before.

Anna--So we had all this writing that the three of us had done.

Karin--And that didn't work!

Anna--So then it was decided that Evalyn and I would take the writing reins as we normally do. But that still took forever. We wrote probably wrote twenty different endings.

It's interesting that it after all that work and exploration you ended up coming back to the same process that you've been using all along.

Karin—That what Brendan said--Go back to what works.

That happens a lot as an artist; you have your first impulse but you still need to explore all the other possibilities. Most of the time though, you end up coming back to your original idea.

Evalyn--That's true, but at the same time we would never have been able to write this piece, even using the methods we had in the past, without having those two years of exploration. None of us could have ever imagined what this show would be at the beginning.

Karin--I think this has been the most collectively created project we've ever made.

Anna--For a while we were writing because that’s what came easily to us. But we finally got to a point last December when we decided we just couldn't write any more and we had to get into the studio and start working on our feet.

I want to step back from this show for a moment and talk a bit about the idea of being a creator/performer. Hearing you talk about this process and how it's taken you three years to get this show ready for its first run makes me think about the fact that most theatres aren’t interested in artists who work like this. They want one person to go away and write a script, then hand it over to a director, who casts it, and builds the show over three 48-hour work weeks. I'm excited that there has been a bit of a revolution in Toronto over the last few years and Artistic Directors at established companies have recognized that there are a lot of artists who don't work this way.

Anna--This project would absolutely not exist without this residency. It was such an incredible gift that the Theatre Centre gave us this space and time because space is so hard to find and expensive to rent in Toronto. Also, the open-hearted total belief in what we were doing from Cathy and Franco was so essential to us being able to do this.

Evalyn--When we started this process we didn't even have a script and they still agreed to produce the show without having anything on paper.

It’s unfortunate that Brendan’s not here to talk, because when I got the press release for the show, one of the things that immediately stood out to me was that there was now a man in the room.

Anna—Having Brendan around definitely changed the atmosphere. Because the three of us work together so much we have developed our own way of working that’s specific to us. Brendan is more of a disciplinarian, which brought a different force to the room. We all struggled with at first it for sure, though now we all recognize the strength that it has provided, especially over this last period of working prior to opening.

Evalyn—It’s funny rereading the grants we wrote ages ago about how we were a female centred company, creating work by women and about women, and then we bring on this male director. It brought a very interesting creative tension to the project. None of us could have predicted how challenging it could be. It’s not only about gender though. It’s also about having a new person in the room, having different ways of approaching things and different perspectives. Claire Calnan said something really interesting at the opening. It was specifically in reference to visual art but really made sense in our process. She said that it takes more than one position to bring perspective.

I know exactly what she was talking about. To render a proper perspective drawing, you need to look at the object from multiple positions in order to make it three-dimensional. If you only look at it from one position it becomes a flat composition.

Karin—We did that very consciously because we were all feeling like we needed a new perspective, since all of our work has been Anna and Evalyn on stage and me directing. Brendan was able to add something that the three of us could not have manufactured on our own.

I also think Brendan was a really interesting choice. He’s certainly done more experimental work, but he’s still very much a “director”.

Anna—He’s a director but he’s so interested pushing boundaries. What was different for him about this process is that he’s used to having a script to work from.

Karin—We have strong personalities and a strong group energy and I think he wanted to try to let us be for the first little while. Later in the process he came to a point where he said that he couldn’t direct something that wasn’t his vision. He had watched us play and experiment, but at a certain point in order to direct we had to allow him to have his vision of what the show was going to be. When we started this final rehearsal process we all agreed that we would let him take charge.

We should probably stop talking about Brendan since he’s not here. While we’re on the subject of directing though, I’m curious to hear more from you Karin about how you see the director’s role in devised work.

Karin—It’s like being a sort of mystery anthropologist or something, looking for secrets, clues, and other hidden things. During the processes, you’re watching and extracting, finding ways to bring it all together, and using your instinct as director to create the world of the show as well as a good place for play and exploration.

In terms of what Brendan was saying about the group needing to “submit”, for lack of a better word, to the director’s vision; have you as director in the past had a similar experience?

Karin—Sometimes, definitely. I don’t really believe in “collective” collectives. I think the collective part is about choosing a leader. Ultimately we have to get things done and we can’t discuss forever and sit constantly in disagreement. It’s about giving the power to one specific person because you trust them.

In my first year of theatre school, we had to create a collective project with our entire class. I think it was about thirty people. They said that part of the reason why they made us do that show was because in order to work as theatre artists, we needed to learn how to get along with people. I walked away from that process thinking that being in a collective was about everyone coming to an agreement about everything. Then when I got out of school and started working with bluemouth inc. my ideas about collective work changed dramatically. Working in a collective isn’t about everyone coming to an agreement. It’s about everyone agreeing to disagree.

Evalyn—That was very true about this process in particular. There has been strong disagreement and differing instincts.

Anna—It’s difficult when you have opposing instincts to decide who’s instinct to trust.

How do you reconcile that? Maybe a better way to phrase the question would be “What’s a fight like for the Independent Aunties?” Are there fists flying?

Karin—There are sometimes tears.

Evalyn—And occasional storming out of the room.

Karin—There’s been some storming. But I think if we had continued to work the way we had been working, more collectively, this show just wouldn’t have happened. At some point you just have to move forward.

Radix, the company based in Vancouver that bluemouth inc. was born from, had this thing called “The Bathtub Clause”. It came originally from a show where one of the members of the company decided he had to have this 400-pound claw-foot bathtub in the show. It was expensive and heavy and impossible to deal with but he was extremely insistent about having it. The Bathtub Clause became this rule in their process, where everyone gets one instance per show where they can insist on something being a certain way, and everyone else has to defer. Because you only get to do that once per process, it forces you to be very careful about what you chose to fight over. Do you have anything like that in the Independent Aunties?

Evalyn—We don’t actually have very many rules in our process. For this show, having Brendan around has certainly made us think more about what our process is than we’ve had to before. Prior to this it was just kind of organic and evolved over time.

Anna—It’s a weird thing to say, but a process with four people is incredibly different than a process with three. Definitely there’s a rule for us as writers to fight for what you want and whoever is the most convincing wins.

Evalyn—Being able to throw out ideas is really important. We say to each other all the time “I hate that. Throw it out.”

Anna—For someone who’s new to the process that can be really insulting. But because we’ve worked together so much we know how to talk to each other.

Karin—We’ve always had as our centre the fact that everyone has the best intentions and wants what’s best for the show. When you have that basis it’s actually kind of easy to let things go.

Anna—There’s also that aspect of passion; how we all care so desperately about wanting it to be “right”.

Even though there are occasional disagreements about how to make it right.

Anna—There were a lot of disagreements! There were many points along the way we almost stopped the process entirely.

One of the rules that Theatre Smith-Gilmour has in their process is that any idea that you bring to the table, you are required to fight for until the end of the day. The next day you can come back in and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong” and no one else is allowed to say, “I told you so”.

Anna—This entire process has been about people screaming back and forth “This has to be the way!”

Karin—Brendan is so passionate and intense in his direction. There have been many moments where he insists that something has to be a certain way. It gets kind of confusing, because later there’ll be a note that’s the opposite. When you question it, he says the previous note was just an exploration and he’s decided it doesn’t work. As a performer, I’m really used to having my own inner world, but at the same time, doing exactly what I’ve been told. So this has been such a huge lesson because I’ve had to give that up.

I want to talk a bit about self-help, which is an over-riding theme in the piece. I’m particularly interested, because I’ve been working on a video piece in the last year using text from self-help books, in particular Louise L. Hay’s work.

Anna—She was a major source of inspiration in this process.

Evalyn—She’s the grandmother of self-help!

Can you talk a bit about what you think of what she does?

Karin—I think what she does can be dangerous. I remember being in my teens and someone giving me a copy of her book You Can Heal Your Life. Self-help always initially turns me on and makes me feel empowered to change my life, but what inevitably happens is that things don’t work as easily as they do in the book. It’s more complicated and mysterious than she let’s on.

Evalyn—There’s this weird thing about self-help where it blames the person who is suffering from the illness for what’s wrong with them. It empowers you to heal yourself, but at the same time, it reminds you that it’s your fault for getting sick in the first place.

Anna—At one point we were actually using the book in the play. It was given to me by my dad who’s a total new age guy.

Karin—Cathy Gordon saw a run that we did when we were working at Equity Showcase and one of the comments she made was that it’s really easy to make fun of self-help. And as much as we’re kind of twisting it, we have to be careful, because it is something that actually helps a lot of people.

Evalyn—We ended up going in a bit of a different direction after that. It did make us think about what we really wanted to say. We aren’t making a show that’s about making fun of Louise L. Hay. It’s actually something much deeper than that. There was also a lot of talk about The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and the commercial capitalism that is implicit in the world of self-help.

It’s a 6 billion dollar a year industry. The notion of self-help being really easy to make fun of is something I’ve been wrestling with in the project I’m working on as well. There’s part of me that wonders if self-help is a really easy thing for artists to make fun of because we’re blessed with a kind of self-awareness that the general public doesn’t have as a result of what we do. More specifically, we go through a lot of those things that people are asked to do for themselves in self-help books because we have to in order to be able to make our art. You’re all nodding, so I’m assuming you agree.

Karin—I remember when everyone was talking about The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron a few years ago. At one point I was reading the book, and I started to realize that the life the book was trying to get me to have was already the life that I was living. I think everyone wants those things and those books can be helpful if you have no clue how to do that for yourself.

Since you’ve decided you’re not making fun of self-help, can you tell me what you’re saying about it?

Evalyn—Well, we're still sort of are making fun of it.

Karin—The show is about transformation and self-help is about transforming yourself, although we wanted to look at it in a deeper way. It starts with self-help…

Evalyn—But it just gets much more absurd.

Anna—There are no simple answers in life, even though self-help sometimes makes it seem that way. In the play we contrast that view with a more realistic one about what it takes to change yourself.

Last question: Can you tell me one at a time what you want the audience to walk away with?

Anna—A visceral experience. That is how we created the piece. Rather than being in their heads, trying to figure things out, I want them to walk away having felt a bunch of different emotions.

Evalyn—I want them to feel like they’ve woken up from a really powerful dream that unsettles them and they have to figure out what it means.

Karin—I want them to realize that theatre can be incredibly powerful and it can change you, not just while you’re watching the show, but also after you leave.


Brendan Healy said...

Thanks for this Chris. It's great to have a space in the city for this kind of chatter. The concept of collectivity is a complicated one for me. I worry about losing clarity in the articulation of an artistic statement when confronted with the will of a "collective". (It is rather male of me, I know.) However, I also believe that a lot of theatre is deadened by a process that does not allow for the natural tension that exists when a work embraces a multiplicity of "perspectives" as you say. I think of the way that we created this particular show not as "collective" but as "collaborative" - meaning that we settle into definite roles (and their implied hierarchy) in the creative process but that the overall effort was way more cooperative and open than perhaps one would find in a more traditional process. However, I have to confess to feeling somewhat stuck with a particular way of working that I am always looking to challenge but inevitably repeat every time... Perhaps the difficulties that we faced in this process forced us to resort to more familiar ways of dealing with problems. I wonder how other companies who create collectively deal with the challenges that we faced? I love the "bathtub clause" - that's a good one. I know of a feminist collective called the Toxic Titties that have a "drama cam" - whenever they hit a roadblock they fight it out on camera. After sleeping on it, they watch the debate together and are always able to objectively deal with the issue.

MK Piatkowski said...

I wrote a long response and Rogers chose that moment to not connect to the net and I lost everything. I'm not feeling inclined to repeat it all, sadly. So I'm just going to touch on a few quick things.

I was surprised to see the Aunties being so down on Louise Hay's work when I found the play to have actually understood it and illuminated it in a wonderful way.

It empowers you to heal yourself, but at the same time, it reminds you that it’s your fault for getting sick in the first place.

I really don't feel that blame is the aim. Self-knowledge is. My personal experience has been that every time I've gotten sick, it's been a way for me to slow down and figure out what's actually going on. When I do, I get better. She's just more precise on cause.

There was also a lot of talk about The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and the commercial capitalism that is implicit in the world of self-help.

The reason it's implicit is because we've built a society that has made money the ultimate tool for accomplishment. We make judgments about people based on how much money they have or don't have. Subsequently we all have issues with wealth. We artists are far from immune but for us it's the reverse. I've had to work for years on ridding myself of the idea that having money meant sacrificing my soul.

Yet every book, every speaker I've heard talks about gratitude, love, compassion and service as the way to break out of self-imposed restrictions. They recommend meditation to get to know yourself and the world you live in in a deeper and more profound way. They talk about getting rich because everyone wants to be able to live without restriction and in our society money is the key to doing that.

I'm interested to see where you're going with all of this. Obviously I don't think Louise Hay is evil and I really hope you're not taking that approach.