In the lead-up to the world premiere performance of Anne-Marie Woods’, She Said/He Said, QDF staff sat down with co-stars Mariah Inger and Christian Paul to discuss the process of development and their hopes for the work. Here is what they had to say:

QDF: We understand that this production of She Said/He Said is a first run, World premiere production. As such, do you as actors approach the work differently than you would a play that has been widely produced?

Mariah: Well, actually, I’ve been working for the last 5 years on new works as well, so I have come to notice the difference. The biggest is that with new works, you get to have a greater sense of ownership over the work. Granted that Christian and I are not getting to work directly with Anne-Marie (Woods, Playwright), but she spent a lot of time working with BTW and Quincy (Armorer, Director) on it. So no, we did not have that direct link, but there is something about work where the words have never been spoken aloud before, or the action seen, or development of the people. Then we as actors get to relish in the little moments, to dissect all the elements, as opposed to just taking it from the page and remounting a show that has been seen before. We have to own it a bit more. We have to be okay to say I don’t understand this or I don’t like that.

Christian: It is like breaking in a new pair of shoes. Every other play that is out there is like a pair of shoes that has been worn. This is a new pair, and that breaking in has to happen as a part of the rehearsal process. It is that ownership that starts to sink in and we have taken a week to do that with this, and now it’s taking its form and we are making it our own.

Mariah: Yes, now (week 2) we are at that part where an actor normally starts that process. Where we can just look at the words and take them for what they are and know who the characters are and how they relate etcetera, etcetera. We spent the first week going, “What is this line?” and, “Why is there a comma here? Who is that? How does this sound?”

Christian: Yeah, it was all focused on very technical writing stuff.

QDF: What occurs to me as I hear you speak is that with established work the audience has expectations because they come in with some understanding of the work.

Christian: It is exactly that. With new work, I feel there is also an added pressure to make it a standard. I know that is not realistic because most won’t see a Broadway premiere, but there is a responsibility to set a standard.

Mariah: Well yes, this is the jumping off point, right? So you want to honour the text, the playwright, the company, because you’re closer to them. This wasn’t written 100 years ago, it hasn’t been done in five languages. One thing I have really fallen in love with about doing new works, is that the audience perspective is more generous. When you work on a classical piece, the audience has a more fixed idea of what it should be, and when you work on more modern work, it can crash and burn, but you don’t worry about inflicting harm on the playwright. With this, we are a little more insecure as actors:  “Are they going to like it? Will they understand it?” They have no context, no frame from which to examine it.

Christian: This production has ambitious conventions and it is breaking moulds.

Mariah: Yes, this is breaking moulds already which excites me on the level of there is no audience category to throw this at. I mean, yes, we are doing a BTW project, yes, it is written by a Black Playwright, but there is no precedent of this style of theatre to be able to say this is the crowd we will get. And we are at the beginning of that, so it is really exciting.

Christian: We are drawing from our theatre experience, drawing from spoken word, drawing from song. So there are different mediums being brought together. We are still trying to figure out what spoken work is and how it fits into this play, how the music and song blend.

Mariah: And also why does the character switch when they do; going from interaction between characters, to spoken word, to interaction with the audience. Understanding all these little transformations.

Christian: You have to take your actor brain out at times and put your musician one in. There are a lot of different brains that have to come into play.

QDF: You brought up spoken word, text, and song.  When working with a play like this that has these different elements, do you approach each element differently or do you apply the same process across the board?

Mariah: No, I don’t think you can apply the same process across the board. I mean, yes, at the beginning it will be the same, in term of dissection. But for me, I am never going to approach spoken word the same way I approach text or song. They are each so different entities. For us, it has been fine for our brains to do the split for each, but it is the integration of them all that poses the challenge.

Christian: And making it sound seamless, and developing and taking the audience into that world where that convention is possible, and being believable, and telling the story with emotion and making all those connections, and where there is not that connection, saying, hey we are taking on a trip here.

Mariah: The clearer we are and the more conviction we can bring to the the table, the easier I think it will be for any type of audience to just want to play and go for the ride.

Christian: What is nice, and what I think we are starting to get, is that there is a true dramatic connection that is happening, that is weaved in within the play. There is a true relationship between two people who are trying to work things out.  There is true conflict, true intentions, two people who want things. That is in there, just like in any traditional Chekov.

QDF: In terms of process, when it comes to inhabiting a character, there are some who once they start working on a character, the character stays with them, even offstage. What’s that like for you? How much of the character lives off the stage with you once you move into rehearsal and production.

Christian: When I did The Meeting a few years ago, playing Dr. King, that was something that was very present. I was literally going home and watching documentaries, and taking walks and being with him. For this, it is harder to do right now, at this level of the process, because there is so much of this character that for me is performance. It is Him in performance mode, and it is him within a relationship, so the dynamic of the relationship takes precedence over, for instance, what kind of shirt he would wear.  He becomes like almost a universal character, an archetype. So it is harder to impose that he has to behave like so.  It is starting to come together, but it is really much more who we really are, just us in performance mode or in a relationship mode. There is an everyman connection there for me.

Mariah: One of the differences between the He character and She character, is that it is kind of her story. It is her, for lack of a better word, weaknesses that are really on display. So as a woman approaching the role, and knowing that it was written by a woman, while I will not say that I am living in it and say, comparing my exes to Him, there is an honest truth that I have to find and sit in so that She does become real. Also, some of their story parts, for example, their exes or pains that they have gone through, can be universal but also can be on the borderline of stereotypical, just because it is a story of which little moments, the essence of which have been said before, and the way I go about not living there is to try to find her individual truths and to figure out who she is. So I focus less on, “What did He say?”, and more on,  “How did you feel in that?”.

Christian: For me, the most indicative part of his character is trying to work things out. It is like a therapy session a little bit, in that he is trying to get her to talk and open up. So that becomes something that defines him in this play.

QDF: In reading up about this production, one of the things that are mentioned is the importance of theatre as a way of building empathy. In your work with this play, what have you discovered about the other? So not She/He the characters, but you as a man about women, and vice versa?

Christian: It made me reflect on past relationships. It made me go back into my life and go, “Yeah, I remember going through those thought processes in this relationship and I remember those dynamics” That is the empathy. You see that we are all together in this and you have these extrapolations into a higher society, and explore how women are today and how they have changed over time. How have men changed in relation to these dynamics and created new ones. So I think that is where the empathy comes in; you relate to what they are going through.

Mariah: I think I definitely relate to some of the more universal aspects. Her personal stories are not mine, but I have a lot of connections about family that are similar. I think it is more that I recognise that we tend to give men a bad wrap sometimes, especially if we are the wounded female, and we tend to forget that men suffer a lot under the woman’s hand due to her pain. We tend to put a lot of emphasis on the woman’s pain, and in this play what She is discovering and what the audience is reminded of, is that men feel, too.  As a single mom raising a boy, I know how deeply a boy can feel, and there is a lot of that peppered throughout this piece. So for me, the more I live her truth, the more that his is allowed to be.

QDF: We often speak about the importance of inclusive representation in the theatre and storytelling. When it comes to this play, what speaks specifically to your experience as a Canadian man/woman of colour?

Christian: The play is centrally about the other’s perception of you, and that is a big part of the struggle. Finding your identity outside of that projected vision that other people have of you. That is what he is fighting against a lot. He is fighting comparison; he is fighting against what it means to be a strong Black man. In that, it rings true for me, because often you are checking yourself and your behaviour to see if it fits into something that other people will perceive as friendly or threatening, etc. I think he is doing that kind of checking all the time, and wanting to be himself without that being interpreted as being angry or threatening.

Mariah: It is funny, because there are a lot of references about how hard it is to connect with people in general. I moved from Montreal to Toronto, and I felt that right off the bat there. I met great people and had great relationships in Toronto, but there was this universal distance that was quite clear compared to what I experienced growing up in Montreal. So I understood the great parallels in that, and drew on the experience of getting the cold shoulder, interestingly enough, more so from women than men, which (Anne-Marie) also touches on as well in the play.

I think that if you are a visible minority, unless you are living in the islands, you are always going to find yourself in the situation where you are the only one in the room. I have grown up with that my whole life, and most of the time I did not let that affect me, mostly because of the friends I was with. I made good choices that way; I wasn’t always in an angry environment. The older I have gotten, I think there is a layer of frustration that is way more prominent in me. I think it is because I have a voice now. You don’t have as much of a voice when you’re a kid. Now, I do know about the killings, I do know what it is like to be the only Black woman in the room, and people are making comments that are irrelevant and unnecessary.

Christian: What I like about this specifically, is that he is trying to find a place in front of the Black woman. He is trying to find his identity and where he fits in. It is a twist on that where it is more specific.

Mariah: Yes, that is His story, but for her, She is struggling with that. She has the pride of being a Black woman, which I am sure he does too,  but it is her identity and she is not going to ignore that. She is not going to ignore  the reactions or the results of that, because it is fact. I think I have spent a large part of my adult life  not making it the point of the conversation all the time, not getting stressed out about it, but I call it out when I know it is a situation. Because it has been glazed over, there have been too many things now. This is a part of my identity and I don’t care if you don’t acknowledge it, because it is who I am.

Christian: You said something to me a few years ago about comparison that stuck with me, when we worked together in Toronto.  You said, “I am Black because that is what you say I am.”

Mariah: Yes, I am just who I am.

Christian:  And I’m just living it. Yeah, that is just where you go, “Hey, if that is the fact, then that is where I am going to live.” There is a poem, I believe it is Langston Hughes that is about this double perception.

Mariah: Anne-Marie also touches on this in the script. She touches on the stereotypical views that Black people are framed within: the angry Black man/woman, the gangster all that stuff. You know we are 2016 and that is still a reality. To me, that is not who I hang with, that is not my day-to-day, but yet it is still perceived that way. I would very much like to walk down the street and not have to announce, “I am a Black woman. Do you hear me? I am!” I would love to just ignore it completely, to be honest with you, because that is when racism will cease to exist. When we really are truly ok with just being us, and not having to deal with, “What are you? Where are you from?”

Christian: To be more philosophical about it, that macho representation that comes, mostly from the United States, is from a need for respect. I think it comes from a need to state: “Respect me. I am strong.” It comes from that mind that says: “I refuse to be vulnerable or a victim.” The He character is trying to find the other voice, to discover his little piece of humanity, and say: “No. Let’s open up.” He is past the macho thing and is asking, “Where do I fit in?”

QDF: In the study guide, Djanet Sears is quoted in relation to Blindspots. While she is speaking about theatre, I believe it can be extrapolated to relationships, in that we are attracted to people who act like us, think like us, etc. As a part of this work, have you discovered any blindspots in yourselves as it relates to love?

Christian: Yes. For example, in relationships I think there is an unconscious attraction to people who force you to work on the things you need to work on. So relationships force you to see your blindspots. In He’s case, he needs to work on his sense of identity and security, so he is going to be attracted to a woman that challenges that. So that is where that dynamic starts to come in.

Mariah: Yes, I do agree on those points. I also think it depends on what you have lived. I spent a good decade and a half dealing with a lot of broken men. My strength and biggest weakness was that I was going to fix them, to the point where there is nothing left for me, and I wind up the broken one. She goes though a lot of this stuff of being hurt and having men be mean to her. I don’t even need to think of the cheating or anything like tha.,When you deal with broken and try to fix it, you tend to lose a part of yourself every time, and I just got to the point that there was nothing left of me. So loving again was very similar to what She goes through in terms of, “I can’t trust it” and “It is not going to work.”

Christian: In the end, it is those blindspots that create that great dynamic energy in the play.

QDF: Is there anything else you want your audience to know about the play, or the process of development?

Mariah: I would like them to come in without feeling like they have to have all the answers before it starts. I’d like them to be open to joining the ride, which is our job as actors: to bring them on and make them want to join.

Christian: I want them to come into the play and be comfortable in their chair. I want them to not to feel like they are going into a (classical) play. I want them to feel like they are a part of us, sitting with us, and working through things with us.

Mariah: I want them to be part of the conversation, and be okay with the fact that it is not like anything they have seen before – to be okay in their discomfort.

Christian: That is our job, but once they sit down I want them to kick back.

Mariah: I also would like that once the audience gets on the ride, I would like them to open to seeing some of their own truths and being okay with that. I want, especially women, to be able to hear what is being said without jumping to the conclusion that this is obvious. I want them to realise that the oblivious in some of the story is there because it is what we do and what we are afraid of.

She Said/He Said runs from April 13th – May 1st at the MAI (3680 rue Jeanne-Mance). Tickets are available for purchase online from the BTW website or by phone: (514) 982-3386.

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